Address by Anwar Ibrahim, Acting Prime Minister of Malaysia, at the International Conference on Muhammad Iqbal and the Asian Renaissance, Pan Pacific Glenmarie, Shah Alam, 3 June 1997

At this century’s beginning, as all the Orient didst lie, Like strewn dust the roadway by, a voice arose to rouse the continent from its laden sleep: "Revolt, I cry. Revolt and defy. Revolt or die".

Dr. Muhammad Iqbal’s cry reverberated from his native India to creation of Pakistan blending with similar voices in a sweep across the continent to Southeast Asia and furthest East. It was a protest against European imperialism, but it was also a lament over the decadence of Asia. This decadence had been dissected with great sensitivity a few decades earlier by a young Malay Filipino student wandering in Europe in search of knowledge and of his true self. Dr. Jose Rizal grieved for his beloved homeland, which he saw as suffering from "social cancer.. so malignant that the least touch irritates it and awakens such agonising pains".

Fate did not allow Iqbal and Rizal to cross paths, but had these two great minds met, they would have no difficulty emphatizing with each other’s causes, for despite differences in cultural orientation and philosophical outlook, they were both overwhelmed by the suffering of the masses. Iqbal and Rizal – and also Rabindranath Tagore – represent the archetypal new Asian whose principal task, in Iqbal’s words, is to "design a new temper, create a new born spirit; in this body grown too old".

Rizal, the hero of the Malay race, was brutally cut down by the Spanish at the turn of the century and his death at thirty-three robbed the continent of a most fecund mind and prevented the development of his thought to its fullest maturity. His wanderings had imbued in him the dynamism and humanism of the West. However, he had yet to take the return journey, the inward voyage to the heart of his cultural homeland, to where the straying elites of Asia could be brought home.

On the other hand, Iqbal and Tagore both lived to a ripe old age. Both had travelled to the confluence of the two great rivers of civilisation – Eastern and Western – and in their lifetime were looked upon by their countrymen as well as the rest of the world as embodiments of the Asian spirits. Thus Iqbal prescribed for himself the role of a champion:

That I may lead home the wanderer

An imbue the idle looker-on with restless impatience

And advance hotly on a new quest

And become known as the champion of a new spirit

Asia would not be what it is today had it not moved by that restless impatience. But our economic vigour, our new found confidence, is only a phase in the progressive materialisation of the new spirit of which Iqbal speaks. In the current renewal, we are still building. Much energy is yet to be expanded and more courage needed before we can see Asia blossom.

The message of Rizal, Iqbal and Tagore will be drowned by a chorus of adulation unless we hold on to their vision and ideals. This is particularly true in the case of Iqbal. While his name is often mentioned in the most glowing terms, his ideas are everywhere being betrayed. As a reformist, his views were lucid, frank and, at times, even brutally blunt, yet he has also been invoked to justify every form of obscurantism. He was undoubtedly a universalist, yet his pronouncements have been used in support of parochial and chauvinistic arguments. Asia for the last decade or so has indeed "advanced hotly on a new quest" but we are not known yet as the champion of a new spirit. This is because, despite the apparent dynamism, Asian societies have yet to put together the building blocks that would make for a great civilisation. Although prosperity, material comforts and economic security are prerequisites, they alone do not make a civilisation great. Rather, they are only the foundation upon which to construct such a civilisation. That which gives shape and substance to a civilisation are the ideas, ideals, vision and creativity of human beings. These must be nurtured and nourished constantly. It was Tagore who indicted Western man for losing the "completeness of his humanity, with no margin left around him beyond his bare utility". He warned us against pursuing material success at the expense of the creative ideals of civilisation. "When our faith in the infinite reality of Perfection, that one creative force in our civilisation, wakens not, then our faith in money, in material power, takes its place; it fights and destroys, and in brilliant fireworks of star-mimicry suddenly exhaust itself and dies in ashes and smoke." This warning came at a time when material success was nowhere within Asia’s sight. It was thus prophetic and assumes greater relevance today. It is not that we should be averse to material success, but wealth ought to be treated as a vehicle towards higher ideals, not celebrates for its own sake. Our quest for prosperity need to be guided by the principles of social justice. This is not possible unless we cultivate within ourselves moral uprightness as well as the love of knowledge.

If we can nurture these creative ideas of civilisation, the present great awakening of Asia is full of hope – for Asians themselves and for the whole world. Our celebration of Iqbal is motivated by a desire to reinforce these universal ideals. For despite globalisation and intermingling of cultures, there is still too much narrow-mindedness and tribalism in Asia. And the West, the birthplace of the Enlightenment, which sought to exterminate irrationality and prejudice through the light of reason, is now fast becoming the breeder of new prejudices and cultural jingoism. To this world of cultural strife and economic conflict, Iqbal comes to us as the poet of multi-culturality and global harmony. The man of the new century must become the "rider of destiny" awaited by Iqbal.

Appear, O rider of destiny

Silence the noise of the nations

Imparadise our ears with thy music

Arise and tune the harp of brotherhood

Give us back the cup of the wine of love

Bring once more days of peace to the world

Give the message of peace to them that seek battle

The burning issue in Asia today is the struggle to establish civil society. Unfortunately, the debates and discourses have largely been circumscribed in the language of confirmation and contest, a confrontation between the individual and society and contest between secularism and the authority of religion. While Asians must have the courage to accept what is universal from the West, they must not be star-struck by everything Western. In fact, the growth of civil society in Asian will be stunted if cast in the Western mould. Iqbal warned against this blind imitation: "The light of others is not worth having. Demean not the personality by limitation". However, this must not be seen as total rejection. Iqbal once confessed that it was the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth who saved him from atheism in his schooldays.

We must promote participatory democracy, the rule of law the freedom of expression , diversity of opinions and respect and tolerance of each other’s beliefs. But it will certainly be betrayal of our Asian character if the civil society that was aspired to is predicated upon the promotion of unbridled individualism, moral licentiousness and rabid secularism. In this regard, I venture to say that Iqbal’s Rumuz-I Bekhudi is a great, perhaps even the greatest, poem of civil in our time. Although it is laden with the symbolism of his religion and his culture, being addressed to fellow Muslims, nonetheless its significance becomes universal once we lift its metaphorical veil and see its true meaning. Iqbal drank deep from the cup of Western civilisation and tasted both the bitter and the sweet. He learned to differentiate between good and bad, between what was invigorating and what was debiliating, what was medicine and what was poison. According to Iqbal, the starting point of civil society was the cultivation of the self. The entire world is the effect of the self. For Muslims, who place community above the individual, Iqbal’s celebration of selfhood was indeed shocking although this reaction was quite unfounded. This is because Iqbal’s notion of the self is in no way identical to the Promethean individualism of the West, which in our days has degenerated into giving vent to unbridled desired and lurid passion. Essentially, the Western view pits society against the individual and the two are diametrically opposed. The true is an outcast of the society. Yet for Iqbal,

The link that binds the Individual

To the Society a Mercy is

His truest Self in the Community

Alone achieves fulfilment

The Individual a Mirror holds

To the Community, and they to him.

Even as he articulates a Muslim’s sentiment, Iqbal echoes a Confucian precept: "A noble man is not a utensil," a mere utensil to serve society, but "a sacrificial vase of jade" with sacred dignity. But Confucius goes on : "Virtue does not exist in isolation; there must be neighbours. "Society consists of men treating others as men (jen) according to the obligations and privileges of rite (li), out of love (ai) and loyalty (chung) and respect (shu).

For civil society to thrive, Asia free itself from the impediment of rigid conservatism or, as Iqbal puts it, the "tendency to over-organisation by a false reverence of the past". No society can renew itself unless it has regained its intellectual vigour. Iqbal’s campaign for ijtihad stemmed from the belief that intellectual sterility was one of the fundamental causes of Muslim decline. His arguments in support of ijtihad have rendered the idea of the closing of the doors of ijtihad as mere fiction. Be that as it may, while the importance of ijtihad is no longer in issue it should be remembered that it cannot take place in a vacuum. It presupposes the existence of an energetic intellectual life, a climate of free exchanges and open debates. The sine qua non for such intellectual creativity is the democratisation where neither the lack of wealth nor gender serves to exclude or marginalise anyone. More importantly, ijtihad must result in a general transformation of society, from one shackled by moribund nationalism and oppressive feudalism, to one that is alive to every basic economic and cultural need of its members. It also requires society to re-order its priorities by focusing on the enhancement of the quality of life through economic and social development. Participating in a budget debate in 1930, Iqbal condemned the injustices of the economic system of his day which he said begot "ugly daughters" – budget deficits, communal bickering, starving multitudes, debt and unemployment. Alas, although the colonial masters are long gone, the ugly children they sired remain. Iqbal was acutely aware of the importance of economic resilience and the need to invest in human capital. When he declined Mahatma Gandhi’s offer of the vice-chancellorship of a new university for Muslim in Aligarh, he stressed that the principal requirement of his community was " technical education, which would make them economically independent" and which "they should for the present focus all their energies".

As Asia’s economic strength grows, Asians will be called upon to participate in global leadership. To be effective in this role, Asia must have a firm moral base to stand on, and this can be constructed only by reaffirming our humanitarian ideal and moral vision. A renaissance means there is a flowering of creativity in the arts, culture, sciences and technology. But it will be a lopsided achievement unless we also direct our energies towards battling social evils, moral decay, corruption and political perversion in our midst. We must underscore not in submission to pressure from outside but because this is what our tradition demand eloquently articulated by our renaissance men.

Some 80 years ago, at four in the morning, Iqbal saw "that glorious visitor of our hemisphere known as Halley’s comet," which he described as "this superb swimmer of infinite space". Mediating upon the grandeur of creation and the shortness of human life, he said: "It is with the eye of my grandsons that I shall see it again". It has been six decades since Iqbal left us, but his vision remains. After all, it was he who said: " Individual and nations die; but their children, i.e. ideas, never die".

I am convinces that Iqbal’s ideas will continue to be debated and he will continue to inspire us as enter the new millenium and actively participate in reconstructing our civilisation. This we may do only by synthesising the various expression of man’s quest for perfection.

| Main || About IKD || Conferences/Events || Southeast Asia 2000 Project || Press Releases || IKD Links |

| Anwar Ibrahim || Inquiries |