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The Man Who Gave us Iqbal

It is an unfortunate fact that while we love to recite Iqbal’s poetry and admire his political, philosophical and religious views, we hardly ever remember his affectionate teacher, friend, guide and benefactor Thomas Arnold

It is one of the most interesting ironies of human history that it is full of towering figures of heroic proportion, whose laudable services to mankind are appreciated and magnificent achievements are celebrated through the regular observance of their anniversaries, but no tribute is ever paid to those who played the key role in discovering and polishing the hidden faculties of such persons, enabling them to leave indelible marks on world history as epoch-making heroes. One such heroic figure is Dr. Iqbal, whose inspirational poetry will forever continue to reinvigorate our morbid hearts and rejuvenate our dormant souls. His birth anniversary is always commemorated with due reverence and solemnity, but there is hardly anyone who knows the man, on whose insistence and advice, Iqbal continued his poetry, otherwise, the world could never have benefited from his unique poetic genius. In 1908, while he was about to return from Europe after the completion of his studies, Iqbal found himself standing at a cross roads in his poetic career. He told his old friend Sheikh Abdul Qadir that he had sworn never to write poetry again, because he believed that the time he was spending in writing poetry should be devoted to some other more constructive work for the service and welfare of the nation. Sheikh Abdul Qadir proposed going to another man and let him decide whether he should continue his poetry or abandon it. Iqbal agreed and discussed the matter with that man, who was already aware of his exceptional creative genius. He, therefore, emphatically and strongly recommended that Iqbal must continue writing poetry, because, by doing so, he would be rendering a great service to the nation and to the whole world. It is quite obvious that if that man had given some other advice to Iqbal at that critical moment, he would have remained unknown to the world and perhaps, even his name would have been forgotten by now. That man who gave us the gift of Iqbal was Sir Thomas Arnold. Some of us might have heard his name, but how many of us know about the real worth of his character and strength of his personality?

Thomas Arnold was born in 1864, in the English town of Davenport, a place known for its fascinating natural scenery. As a student of the City of London School, he developed a keen interest in learning Oriental languages like Persian and Arabic. Later, he moved to Cambridge, where under the guidance of Professor Robertson, he began studying Islam and soon, wrote a comprehensive research thesis in which he presented Islam in its true spirit and attempted to prove that Islam was not as bad as the Christian missionaries were describing it at that time all over the world. By dint of his God-gifted ability to master various languages, he learnt Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese and Russian within a very short span of time and began reading and writing in them. But his real interest was the study of oriental languages and Islam and at a very young age, he began to be regarded as an authority on such subjects.

As his fame spread far and wide, in 1888, at Sir Sayyed’s request, he was sent as a professor to M.A.O. College Aligarh, due to his excellent command of oriental as well as occidental studies. In Aligarh, he stayed for the next ten years during which he developed close personal ties with all the eminent Muslim leaders and intellectuals of that time, including Sir Sayyed, his son Sayyed Mahmood, Mohsinul-Mulk, Waqarul-Mulk, Munshi Zakaullah, Deputy Nazir Ahmad and above all, Shibli Nomani, with whom he had intimate and friendly ties, because Shibli used to teach him Arabic while he taught him French. Shibli who was greatly impressed by Arnold’s intellectual mind, literary and scholarly taste, broad vision and strength of character, has narrated in his books numerous incidents revealing his enviable personality. Daily, at six o’ clock in the morning, Arnold used to go to Shibli for learning Arabic and teaching French. One morning, when he was late in coming by just five minutes, he stood before Shibli with folded hands and said most humbly and apologetically, ‘Maulvi Sahib, I am your criminal. You may punish me in whatever way you like.’

In 1892, when Arnold went to England, Shibli accompanied him in the same ship up to Port Saeed, after which Arnold went to Europe while Shibli went to Egypt. One day, during that trip, the engine of the ship broke and there was a real danger of its sinking, causing panic and alarm in the passengers. In this confusion and commotion, when Shibli went to Arnold’s cabin, he found him reading a book, in a calm and tranquil mood. ‘Do you know that the ship may sink at any moment?’ asked Shibli.

I know that, replied Arnold and added, ‘If we are destined to be drowned, we must make the best use of the few remaining moments of our life and there can’t be a better utilization of this time than reading a good book.

Luckily, the engine was repaired in time and the ship resumed its journey, but Shibli could never forget the courage and love for books displayed by Arnold on that occasion.

Those were the days when Christian missionaries had launched a vigorous propaganda campaign to suggest that Islam was spread in the world by the sword. Even the educated Muslims, who had no real knowledge of Muslim history, were beginning to believe that their religion was spread by force, threat, aggression and intimidation. While Arnold was still in Aligarh, in collaboration with Shibli, he wrote an outstanding book ‘Preaching of Islam’, which still must be read by all those who aspire to preach Islam among the non-Muslims. In the twelve chapters of this most spectacular book, after describing the Holy Prophet’s way of preaching, he has mentioned one after the other, all Muslim regions of the world and proved with the help of reliable facts and authentic sources that people everywhere embraced Islam willingly and not under the shadow of some sword. This marvelous book gave a shattering blow to the vicious propaganda of Christians and gave a new courage and confidence to the Muslims.

From 1898 to 1904, Arnold taught Philosophy at Government College Lahore and it was during this period that he discovered the creative genius and poetic faculties of Iqbal and urged him to widen his study of philosophy. Arnold’s return to England in 1904 came as a shock for Shibli, Iqbal and all others who had profoundly benefited from his company and they wrote poems expressing their grief at his departure. On reaching London, he was made in charge of the section of Persian and Arabic books kept in the India Office Library and he held that post for the next several years. In 1920, the then British Prime Minister Lloyd George invited him for consultation and guidance, when a delegation of Indian Muslims had arrived in London for discussing the future of Caliphate with the British authorities.

During the same year, he left his job at the India Office Library and devoted himself wholeheartedly to studies and writing. In the next few years, he contributed several scholarly and research oriented articles on Islam to the books and journals written by the leading German, French and Italian religious writers of that time. In 1924, he wrote a brief but comprehensive history of all the Muslim caliphs from Caliph Abu Bakr, to the last Ottoman Caliph. As his study of Islam widened, he began delivering lectures at various international forums about the real teachings of Islam and its contribution to the development of modern civilization. Another field of his special interest was painting and he wrote two separate books about Mughal painters and the development of painting as an art in Iran. In 1928, he wrote a marvelous book describing the role, status and concept of pictures and paintings in Islam in various Muslim countries, from the beginning to the present moment. Those who have read this book in detail, cannot deny the fact that many of the writers who wrote on this subject afterwards, mainly used the material and conclusions given in this book. This illustrious scholar who equally influenced East and West, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1930, while he was sitting in his easy chair, reading a book.

It is an unfortunate fact that while we love to recite Iqbal’s poetry and admire his political, philosophical and religious views, we hardly ever remember his affectionate teacher, friend, guide and benefactor Thomas Arnold. If today, we know Iqbal as a poet, it is because Arnold urged him to continue his poetry. It is, therefore, of utmost importance that while paying rich tributes to Iqbal, we should also not forget Arnold.

By: Professor Abdul Rauf

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