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Iqbal’s Concept of Love

Iqbal’s Concept of Love
Preliminary Observations
Muhammad Suheyl Umar

Tracing the notion of Ka’s al-Kir«m1 in one of our earlier papers we had remarked: “The question remains to be asked as to why did Iqbal designate love (‘Ishq) as Ka’s al-Kir«m (cup of the generous). This is a complex issue and does not lend itself to a simple or neat solution. We are required to form a fairly accurate idea of Iqbal’s concept of love with reference to the entire corpus of his prose and poetry before we attempt a response to the question posed in the foregoing lines. Moreover, it would be indispensable to look at this concept of love with reference to the general background of Arabic poetry and, more specifically, in the perspective of mystical/wisdom tradition of Persian poetry that started with AÁmad Ghaz«lâ2. Any formulation about Iqbal’s concept of love that fails to take these aspects into consideration would remain inadequate and lacking in essentials.” 3

Later on, having taken up the study, we realised that it was an understatement. The quest did not end there. It had to continue; and as it happened, it crossed the frontiers of Persian poetry and led us into the terrain of Islamic philosophy and pointed towards a “beyond” that is still to be explored. 4

Moreover, the sources that had to be tapped for the purpose of our inquiry and the survey of the existing literature on the subject5 awakened us to another rude fact. Barring some brilliant exceptions, that are few and far between, scholarship on Iqbal, in most of the cases, offers us paraphrases and pious platitudes. The reader gains little insight into the real issue, that is, Iqbal’s concept of love.

The reason for this seems to be twofold. Most of the writers blind themselves and, consequently, the readership to the fact that Iqbal’s concept of love, like so many other concepts, is subject to the principle of the multiple states or gradations which is, in the first place, metaphysical, existential and psychological but it grosso modoapplies to the domain of art and literature. They work on cross sections of Iqbal’s works and, as a result, views that emanate from these works suffer from the shortcomings that we termed as paraphrasing and pious platitudes.

The other shortcoming that has become a besetting error to the Iqbal Studies is that, in most of the cases, Iqbal is seen in isolation and no effort is made to search for the worldview, the vision that informs his works and which Iqbal shared with the highpoints of the Islamic intellectual tradition. What is more important and which has a direct bearing on our subject is the fact that within the over all worldview of Islam there have always existed different perspectives. Qur’«n is the basic source of Islam. In a very deep sense Islam is the Qur’«n and Qur’«n is Islam. The basic interpretation of the Qur’«n has been provided by the Prophet himself. Following in his wake, numerous great figures ? sages, saints, theologians, philosophers, jurists? have elucidated and interpreted the nature of the original vision in keeping with the needs of the times. Iqbal Studies stops short at isolated studies or at best, comparative studies that scratch the surface only. Seldom does it try to pry open the doors of the Iqbalian universe and to look for the affinity, similarity or difference of Iqbal’s perspective with the major perspectives in the intellectual history of Islam.

An other misfortune that often occurs is that Iqbal is evaluated from within those dominant perspectives of modern scholarship that make various contemporary modes of self-understanding the basis for judging Iqbal’s ideas. In some cases Iqbal’s concepts are approached with mental reservations or preconceived ideas.

Let us illustrate these points through a few representative samples. The question of “paraphrasing and pious platitudes” first.

Commenting on the key paragraphs of “The Mosque of Cordoba” (Masjid-i-QurÇubah)6 an outstanding authority on Islam and Iqbal Studies has remarked:

“Love is the essence of life. It is deathless. The march of time is irresistible. It rolls on like a torrent, carrying violently away everything that impedes its onward movement. But love stands up to it; it stems all opposing waves for it, too, is not different from a flood tide, a deluge.

Love transcends time and space and its wondrous possibilities are beyond human comprehension. There are states and stages of love that are not known to anyone. The effulgence of love is common to all Divine Apostleships and sacred teachings.

Colour and radiance, joy and fragrance of all the universe is from love. It is the purifying draught (from the Fountain of Paradise) that sends saints and poets into ecstasy. It reveals itself sometimes, in the form of a preacher from the pulpit, and, sometimes, as a philosopher and conqueror. Love has a thousand facets. It is a many-splendoured thing. It is an eternal wayfarer, a perpetual traveller. It is always on the move, restless, mercurial.

Love is the flute of life from which melodies pour forth and enrapture the world. Light and heat, activity and movement, ardour and enthusiasm are all from it.”7

According to the ‘wont’ of Iqbal Studies these remarks are followed by a long quotation of 16 verses from the poem8. Is this treatment any more than a neat paraphrase! Does it leave us any wiser than what we would have been in case of having only read the verses in translation?

Writing in a similar vein the same authority remarked, ” In Iqbal’s view, love (‘ishq) is completely elevated from matter and does not have the slightest traces of passional desire. It is all faith (âm«n) longing (shawq)and pious sentiments.”9

Keeping in view the whole sweep of Iqbal’s poetic works, its multi-layered richness and variety of meaning, its multiple levels of symbolism and last but not least, its evolution through the years can we safely make such a statement? To our mind it is a representative sample of turning a blind eye to the principle of “the multiple states or gradations” mentioned earlier.

To elucidate our point of view further we have no one better than ‘Abd al- RaÁm«n J«mâ. In many of his works J«mâ has discussed the theory of love but in his Law«mi’ he offers a long discussion10 of the different kinds of love and lovers11. In considerable detail J«mâ divides love into love of the Divine Essence (maÁabbat-i-dh«tâ), love of the Divine Names (maÁabbat-i-asm«’â ), love of the Divine Attributes (maÁabbat-i-Äif«tâ) and love of the Divine Traces (maÁabbat-i-«th«râ) or love of the Divine Acts (maÁabbat-i-af’«lâ). “The last is impassioned attachment to the beauty of God’s “traces” (Vestigio Dei) in the world, and stems from the manifestation of the Mystery of Unity in the form and shape of the multiplicity of the universe. Lovers of God’s traces are then in turn divided into four classes, ranging from those who contemplate only the Face of God in the things of the world, to those who are still in the clutches of their lower soul (nafs-i-amm«rah) and dominated by bodily passions. These last have completely forgotten the true Beloved and “have taken into their arms false beloveds (or “metaphorical beloved”,maÁbëb«n-i-maj«zâ ). They are at ease with the passions of their natural constitution and call the capricious desires of their lower soul ‘love’. How far from the mark!”12

While studying Iqbal’s concept of love or for that matter any of his key concepts we should never lose sight of this principle.

Let us now turn to the questions of Iqbal’s perspective vis á vis the major perspectives in our intellectual history and an uninhibited approach towards Iqbal’s view even if it led in a direction that runs contrary to one’s cherished contemporary modes of self-understanding.

A couple of years ago a series of translations appeared in English by the pen of a very learned and seasoned scholar who was an expert in a multitude of disciplines. While acknowledging all the merits13 of these undertakings we, nevertheless, see both the trends at work here. On the one hand he glides silently over the question of the worldview, the vision that informs the works of Iqbal and, on the other, perhaps due to his aversion to philosophy and intellectual Sufism, side steps the issue by situating the interpretation in one of the alien but contemporary modes of self-understanding instead of situating it in the universe of discourse that informed Iqbal’s thinking.14

Among other poems his translations included “Solitude”15. Introducing the poem the translator remarked:

“Possession of a feeling heart distinguishes man from and sets him above the rest of creation. This secret was, however, hidden from man not with a view to keeping him ignorant of his distinction but in order to motivate him to discover it through his own effort. Discovery of the secret earns man praise from God: he has risen to his Creator’s expectations, and the Creator smiles in appreciation.”

The translation of a few verses of the poem is given in the following lines:


Leaving the moon and the sun behind,
I reached the presence of God, and said,
“Not a single atom in Your world
Is an intimate of mine
The world has no heart, but I,
A handful of dust, am all heart.
It’s a nice* garden, but not worthy of my song!”**

A smile appeared on His lips?
He said not a word.”

[*The world or universe.
** "Not worthy of my song," because Iqbal's song
arises from his heart and a heart is needed to appreciate it, whereas the universe has no heart. Translators notes]

The variety and richness of Iqbal’s overall intellectual perspective allows us to add a few comments here by way of further elucidating the multifaceted and many tiered concept of heart in Iqbal’s poetical works. The word heart is a highly nuanced term used in different interconnected shades and meanings during the various phases of Iqbal’s poetic career, ranging from ‘heart’ as a seat of emotions and feelings to the Sufi idea of ‘heart’ as the centre of human interiority and the deepest seat of consciousness. In his mature works, to which category this poem belongs, he mostly employs the term ‘heart’ in its mystico-philosophic meaning and, for an adequate explanation, one inevitably has to turn towards the perspective of intellectual Sufism which provided the underpinning to Iqbal’s verses and which, consequently, is the only legitimate paradigm that may reveal the beauty and intellectual profundity of his thought in its full splendour.

One is also reminded of the fact that in Islamic texts in general and Sufi works in particular; the heart is a locus of knowledge and intelligence rather than sentiments or feelings. Equating the heart to ‘emotions’ and ‘feelings’ is a typically modern phenomenon. The Qur’«n employs the term about 130 times and often attributes understanding and intelligence to the healthy heart. Hadâth literature also carries abundant references to it. Based on these primary sources a vast body of literature came into existence in various schools of Islamic thought which worked out its implications according to their respective points of view. Iqbal places himself squarely in the perspective of intellectual Sufism when he, for example, says: “No less than the Exalted Throne is the breast of Adam”16. In short, it may be concluded that the term ‘heart’, at least in the majority of Iqbal’s mature works, represent, before every thing else, the following ideas:

  • The deepest seat of consciousness;
  • Locus of intelligence;
  • Centre of interiority or inwardness;
  • Secret of God;
  • The point where the Divine intersects the human realm thus projecting itself onto the mental plane in a rational mode and into the intermediate domain of human psyche as will, sentiments and emotions.

Thus, in our view, to gain a comprehensive view of Iqbal’s key concepts, it is hardly possible to glide silently over the question of their proper perspective and intellectual background. No interpretation would yield results to the required degree of satisfaction unless an unrestricted approach is adopted to read his works; an approach which is unhampered by mental reservations and preconceived notions.

Another poem, translated in the same series is “The Houri and the Poet”17. Introducing the poem the translator remarked:

“In the poem “The Houri and the Poet”, the houri asks the poet why he is uninterested in the pleasures of paradise. The poet replies that paradise, which represents perfection, cannot satisfy him because he is always in search of something more perfect, and this possibility is excluded in paradise. Paradise is all happiness and joy, and there is no room in it for sorrow and pain. Iqbal is not advocating masochism. It is the pain and sorrow of love? that is the pain and sorrow due to the realisation that one’s lofty ideals will be forever unattainable. (One is reminded of John Keats’ poem “On Grecian Urn” which speaks of both the excitement and the pain of an unfulfilled wish.) 18

Translation of the poem is given in the following lines:



You are not drawn to wine,
And you do not cast your eyes on me:
It is surprising that you are so unsociable!
It is but a tune of quest, a flame of desire—
The breath you draw, the song you sing.*
With your song you have created
Such a lovely world
That paradise itself, it seems to me,
Is but a work of magic.**


You steal the traveller’s hearts
With pointed talk,***
Except that in the pleasure it gives
It does not compare with the pointed thorn.
What can I do, for by nature I feel
Ill at ease at a stopping-place!
I have an impatient heart,
Like the zephyr in a garden of tulips.
As soon as my eyes are set on a pretty face,
My heart begins to yearn for one prettier still.
From the spark I seek a star, from the star a sun:
I do not long for a destination,
For if I stop I die.
When I arise, having quaffed
A cup of wine brewed by one spring breeze,
I begin to sing another song,
To the breeze of another spring.
I seek the end of that which has no end—
With a restless eye, but with a hopeful heart.
An eternal paradise is death to the lover’s heart—
In it no cry of a soul in affliction,
No sorrow, and no friend to share the sorrow!****

[*It is….. you sing: The houri notes that the poet, although he had reached paradise, supposedly the highest goal of a mortal, is still in search of something else.

**That paradise…..magic: That is, even paradise appears to lack reality and substance in comparison with the beautiful world created by the poet's imagination.

***You steal….pointed talk: A possible allusion to the sirens of Greek mythology.

****In it… sorrow: The pangs of love a lover feels give him joy. Paradise, while a perfect place in every other way, does not afford this special type of pleasure. In an eternal paradise, therefore, the lover's heart will wither and die.Translators Notes]

Here, as in the earlier example that we cited in connection with the poem ‘Solitude’, it is possible to situate Iqbal’s ideas in a different perspective which, in our view, yields a more satisfactory interpretation. The primary sources of Islam contain seminal references to the state that Iqbal has portrayed in these poems. When the Qur’«n speaks of the hereafter as ‘greater in levels and greater in hierarchical excellences”19 or of the “two paradises”20 and when the Qur’«n and the traditions inform us about beatitude (riîw«n) being above the pleasures21 of paradise (Hadâth of ‘dunes’ is also relevant here22) they imply that, for certain souls at least, the possibility of “pain and sorrows of love” due to the “unattainable lofty ideals” would exist. These ‘ideals’ in our view, are not ‘created by the poet’s imagination’ (see note ** to “The Houri and the Poet”) but reflect an objective possibility to be actualised for some of the blessed souls. This predilection, evident from the poet’s attitude, is the same which is expressed in the earlier poetic expressions of his predecessors in preferring the ‘Gardener over the garden’ or, in theological terms, by the distinction between the ‘seekers of salvation (naj«t)’ and the ‘seekers of the Self or sanctification (taqarrub)’. Therefore, this ‘special type of pleasure’ is neither peculiar to the poet’s soul or absent from paradise. Iqbal has in fact placed himself squarely in the tradition which admits of a hierarchical arrangement of human souls corresponding to the degrees of achievements in paradise and which, as a consequence, speaks of the aspiration which Iqbal has translated into his own idiom and manner of expression.23

Reference, in parenthesis, to John Keats to our mind is an ‘insult’ to Iqbal. We sincerely believe that Iqbal needs, and even compels us that his verses, and his ideas, should be interpreted against the stable backdrop of Islamic poetic-Intellectual tradition. The few comments that we have offered may help to catch a glimpse of the difference, almost unbridgeable, that separates Iqbal’s intellectual/gnostic perspective and the extremely limited mental horizon of Keats, ridden by individualism and permeated by the ethos of romanticism as it was!

These considerations lead us to certain conclusions that are not only pertinent to the question of Iqbal’s concept of love but, I believe, could be applied as a methodological apparatus for a systematic study of all the key concepts, symbols and motifs that we find in Iqbal’s works. This method of investigation could be summarised in the form of a syllogism:

  • Identify the key concept/theme/subject from Iqbal’s works.
  • Apply the twin principles of gradation and historical development. The former works vertically and the latter proceeds horizontally in chronological succession.
  • Go to the intellectual tradition of Islam in general and the Sufi tradition in particular as it is found embodied in Persian wisdom poetry.
  • Look for antecedents and parallels.
  • Mark and work out variations/nuances that are specifically Iqbalian.
  • Determine the perspective that proves to be the closest to that of Iqbal; Islamic Philosophy-Theology (Kal«m authorities)-Jurisprudence- Sufism- Persian Wisdom Poetry.
  • Try to reach for an interpretation that squares best with the givens of our methodology.

In the following section Iqbal’s concept of love shall be analysed with the help of the method that we have chalked out.



1. See Iqbal’s famous poem “Masjid-i-QurÇubah”, Kulliy«t-i-Iqb«l, Iqb«l Academy Pakistan, Lahore, 1994, p. 421.

2. More specifically his Saw«niÁ. It was first brought to light by H. Ritter, Istanbul, 1942 and decades later re-edited and published by N. Pourjaw«dâ. See AÁmad Ghazz«lâ, Saw«niÁ, (ed.) Nasrollah Pourjaw«dâ, Tehran, 1359 A.H.S. Also see, Saw«niÁ, Inspirations from the World of Pure Spirits, (tr.) Nasrollah Pourjaw«dâ, KPI, 1986.

3. See Iqb«liy«t, Vol. 36, No. 2, January 1995, pp 81-97.

4. What we have in mind here is, at least, an adequately extensive survey of Arabic love/wine/mystical poetry, Arabic love theory, medieval love theory and poetry, classical literature and, above all, the development of the theme through the medium of Arabic-Persian-Urdu mystical poetry as embodied in the poetic/mystic/intellectual tradition of Islam.

5. Even the initial version of the bibliography consisted of a baffling variety of works the number of which runs into hundreds.

6. ‘Masjid-i-QurÇubah’, in B«l-i-JibrâlKulliyy«t i Iqb«l, Urdu, Iqbal Academy Pakistan, 1994, p. 422.

7. A. A. Nadawâ, Glory of Iqbal, (Translated from Urdu by ÿÄif Kidw«’I) Progressive Books, Lahore, 1977, pp. 139. For the Urdu original, which is no better in this respect, see A. A. Nadawâ, Nuqësh-i-Iqb«l, op. cit., pp. 171.

8. For the sake of reference we add the translation of the verses in question. (By Victor Kiernan, Poems from Iqbal, J. Murray, London, 1955, pp. 37).

“Day succeeding to night-moulder of all time’s works!
Day succeeding to night-fountain of life and of death!
Chain of the days and nights-two-coloured thread of silk
Woven by Him that is, into His being’s robe!
Chain of the days and nights-sigh of eternity’s harp,
Height and depth of all things possible, God-revealed.
You are brought to their test; I am brought to their test-
Day revolving with night, touchstone of all this world;
Weighed in their scales you and I, weighed and found wanting, shall both
Find in death our reward, find in extinction our wage;
What other sense have your nights, what have your days, but one
Long blank current of time empty of sunset or dawn?
All Art’s wonders arise only to vanish once more;
All things built on this earth sink as if built on sand!
Inward and outward things, first things and last, must die;
Things from of old or new-born find their last goal in death.
Yet, in this frame of things, gleams of immortal life
Show where some servant of God wrought into some high shape
Work whose perfection is still bright with the splendour of Love
Love the wellspring of life; Love, on which death has no claim.
Swiftly its tyrannous flood time’s long current may roll:
Love itself is a tide, stemming all opposite waves.
Other ages in Love’s calendar are set down,
Ages as yet unnamed, far from this now-flowing hour;
Love is Gabriel’s breath, Love is Muhammad’s strong heart,
Love is the envoy of God, Love the utterance of God.
Even our mortal clay, touched by Love’s ecstasy, glows;
Love is a new pressed wine, Love is the goblet of kings,
Love the priest of the shrine, Love the commander of hosts,
Love the son of the road, counting a thousand homes.
Love’s is the plectrum that draws music from life’s taut strings—
Love’s is the warmth of life; Love’s is the radiance of life.
Shrine of Cordoba! From Love all your existence is sprung,
Love that can know no end, stranger to Then-and-Now.”

9. A. A. Nadawâ, Nuqësh-i-Iqb«l, (Urdu), Karachi, 1993, pp. 171. Examples could be multiplied almost endlessly.

10. “The reality of love which J«mâ is discussing is the absolute and unconditioned reality of the Divine Essence Itself. As J«mâ points out, Love is God’s very nature, for, according to the Hadâth, “God is beautiful and He loves beauty.” If Love appears in many different forms, it is precisely because, not being conditioned by any form in particular, It can assume all forms. If Love – the Divine Essence – were delimited by any attribute whatsoever to the exclusion of others, It could never appear in another form. If God were transcendent only, and not immanent, He would not be the “coincidence of opposites” (j«mi’-i- aîd«d). Thus Love appears in numerous forms because in Itself, it is formless. Sometimes It appears in the form of love for the Essence or for the Attributes, and at other times It displays Itself as love for women or for wealth. The reality is one reality, for there is no other reality. To posit two loves different in essence would amount to introducing a duality into the very nature of existence. But the One Reality assumes all forms and shapes. These in turn follow the receptivities (q«biliyy«t) and preparednesses (isti’d«d«t) of the lovers. Certain lovers have the capacity to love God in His Essence, others only to love the Paradise of His Proximity, others only to love the dark-eyed beauties of the Garden, and still others only to love dark-eyed beauties here below. As the Sufi saying goes, “The colour of the water depends on the colour of its container.”

It will be noticed that this discussion of Love corresponds closely to the more philosophical and metaphysical discussions of how the Absolute Being of God (wujëd-i Áaqq-i muÇlaq), undetermined by any delimitation whatsoever, manifests Itself in the levels of existence or the “Five Divine Presence” (Áaîar«t-i-khams). At each level of manifestation and theophany the One Reality assumes attributes and characteristics determined by the ability of that level to receive and display the infinite possibilities of Sheer Being. The further we descend in the Great Chain of Being, the less the attributes of God can be manifested in their purity.” W. C. Chittick, “J«mâ on Divine Love and the Image of Wine”, Studies in Mystical Literature, Vol. 1, No.3, Spring, 1981, pp. 193-209.

11. It is based, at least partly, on Fargh«nâ’s introduction to his own commentary on the Poem of the Way of Ibn al-F«riî.

12. This is a résumé of his elaborate discussion for which we are indebted to Dr William Chittick. See his “J«mâ on Divine Love and the Image of Wine”, Studies in Mystical Literature, Vol. 1, No.3, Spring, 1981, pp. 193-209. For the Persian original see J«mâ, Law«mi’, in Seh Ris«lah dar TaÄawwuf, Tehran, 1360, pp. 110-118.

13. Appreciating his efforts we had commented, “He has undertaken a series of remarkable English translations of selection from Iqbal’s Urdu and Persian poetical works. He is an expert in several oriental and occidental languages and their literatures as well as an outstanding scholar of Islamic Studies. With this series of translations his study of Iqbal, spanning more than two decades, is brought to fruition. His consummate skill, based on his long years of training and research, has produced for us here translations of extraordinary literary excellence.”

14. We are reminded here of Dr Chittick who remarked about the interpretations of many contemporary Muslims “who would like to discard their intellectual heritage and replace it with truly “scientific” endeavours, such as sociology…. Those who ignore the interpretations of the past are forced to interpret their text in light of the prevailing world view of the present.” See S. Murata & W. C. Chittick, The Vision of Islam, Suhail Academy, Lahore, 1998, pp. XI.

15. Pay«m-i-Mashriq, in Kulliyy«t i Iqb«l, Persian, Iqbal Academy Pakistan, 1990, p. 272-273.

16. ‘Masjid-i-QurÇubah’, in B«l-i-JibrâlKulliyy«t i Iqb«l, Urdu, Iqbal Academy Pakistan, 1994, p. 422. This is an explicit reference to the Hadith Qudsâ that is frequently cited in the Sufi texts, as well as by al-Ghaz«lâ in his IÁy«’ ‘Ulëm al-Dân.

17. Pay«m-i-Mashriq, in Kulliyy«t i Iqb«l, Persian, Iqbal Academy Pakistan, 1990, p. 279-280.

18. IRK&HS Research and Information Bulletin, International Islamic University, KL, Malaysia, Vol. 2, No. 2, September, 1994, pp. 7-8.

19. See Qur’«n, XVII: 21.

20. See Qur’«n, LV: 62.

21. See Qur’«n, IX: 72. There are many references to the same Qur’«nic theme in the Hadith literature as well. For an elucidation of the sense in which the idea permeates Iqbal’s thinking see Martin Lings, What is Sufism, Suhail Academy, Lahore, 1985, pp.40-44.

22. This particular Hadâth, quoting Abë Hurayrah’s account of his conversation with the Prophet, is recorded in essentially the same version by al-Tirmidhâ (Äif«t al-jannah, 15, 25; birr, 54) and Ibn M«jah (zuhd, 39) from which the quotations are taken here, as well as by al-D«rimâ (riq«q, 116) and in a number of places by AÁmad ibn Àanbal; see the full references in Wenisinck, Concordance, V, 542-3). This Hadâth comes at the very end of Ibn M«jah’s entire Hadâth collection, and is therefore clearly understood there to concern the ultimate ends and finality of human actions.

23. J«mâ is talking about the same hierarchical excellences, in his own terminology and poetic prose of course, when he establishes a distinction between “wuqëf ma’a ‘l-Àaq“, “wuqëf ma’a ‘l-Áaï minhë” and “wuqëf ma’a ‘l-Áaï min «l«’ihâ wa na’m«’ihâ “. See his Law«mi’, in Seh Ris«lah dar TaÄawwuf, Tehran, 1360, pp. 113-114.


Volume: 39 Number: 3

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