The Veiled Voice: Can a Reading of Muhammad Iqbal's Poetical Response to his Political Moment in Relation to B. B. Yeats, Illuminate and Rethink our Understanding of the Self and its Relationship to the Nation State?

Saaleh Patel


Most Western literary critics will be aware of South Asian writers such as Rabindranath Tagore but may not have necessarily been exposed to the poetry of Muhammad Allama Iqbal (1877-1938), who arguably goes further in his critique of British colonialism. Iqbal occupies a unique moment; born in Sialkot (British India), studied at Cambridge and was a minority Muslim in a majority Hindu nation. His perspective allows him to address issues around nationhood, self-determination of Muslims, British imperialism and fanatical nationalism. His primary concern is awakening the Muslim spirit, shaking off political apathy, encouraging social change and cultivation of human potential through his poetry. This is where I want to contrast Iqbal's genius with that of W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), whose poetry was also profoundly concerned with national identity, religion and emancipation from the British empire. In many ways, Iqbal and Yeats share similar concerns: they both works against the attitudes of the writers of their time and in this sense refuse to be categorized into specific literary movements. They are both occupied in anti-colonial agitation and later in life even embark upon political careers. Strangely, they even seem to share paradoxes, both advocating and rejecting forms of nationalism. Yet both writers are strikingly dissimilar too. Formally they could not be more different, Iqbal follows an Urdu and Persian model and its various traditional structures whilst Yeats inherits the English tradition of poetry but deconstructs and refashions it to his unique usage. Iqbal is intensely direct and daringly vocal in his reclamation of the language for his people and unwaveringly critiques national identity and Empire. Yeats, in a modernist sense, can be cautious and sometimes evasive. Yeats’ romanticizing of a foreign landscape such as India or China, lands us into dangerous territory, for it slips into Orientalist discourse as extensively proliferated by Edward Said. In contrast, Iqbal’s aestheticization of his Indian landscape as well as the Hijaz (birthplace of Islam) is a way of reflecting nostalgically on past and then envisioning a new, fresh and hopeful future. Can Iqbal then offer a new way of thinking about the political issues that are so prevalent in our own time – nationalism, racism, and a Muslim identity crisis?


Postcolonialism; nationalism; selfhood; aesthetics; Orientalism

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Journal of South Asian Studies
ISSN: 2307-4000 (Online), 2308-7846 (Print)
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