“My ancestors were Brahmins. They spent their lives in search of god. I am spending my life in search of man.” – Muhammad Iqbal
The following is a transcript of an address Muhammad Iqbal gave on January 1st, 1938 to mark the beginning of the new year, and it was broadcast over the All India Radio. He passed away four months later on April 21st. The power of this speech is in its timeless relevance because it touches on something innate to the human condition. In pursuit of ephemeral material and territorial gains, we allow the expression of our potentiality to oppress and subjugate fellow human beings and can go as far as to shed blood. But before we can do this, we must first negate our own humanity or we risk seeing ourselves in the mirror that is the other. We mistakenly conflate technological progress with moral progress. However, it can be argued that technological progress has allowed us the means to explore how further we can morally regress.
Iqbal characterized his writings as a dialogue between tradition and modernity, and his poetry as a commentary on the Quran. That is why although Iqbal gave this address nearly 80 years ago, reading it now feels as if it was given 8 days ago.
The modern age prides itself on its progress in knowledge and its matchless scientific developments. No doubt, the pride is justified. Today space and time are being annihilated and man is achieving amazing successes in unveiling the secrets of nature and harnessing its forces to his own service. But in spite of all these developments, the tyranny of imperialism struts abroad, covering its face in the masks of democracy, nationalism, communism, fascism, and heaven knows what else besides. Under these masks, in every corner of the earth, the spirit of freedom and the dignity of man are being trampled underfoot in a way of which not even the darkest period of human history presents a parallel. The so-called statesmen to whom government had entrusted leadership have proved demons of bloodshed, tyranny, and oppression. The rulers whose duty it was to protect higher humanity, to prevent man’s oppression of man and to elevate the moral and intellectual level of mankind, have in their hunger for dominion and imperial possessions, shed the blood of millions and reduced millions to servitude simply in order to pander to the greed and avarice of their own particular groups. After subjugating and establishing their dominion over weaker peoples, they have robbed them of their possessions, of their religions, their morals, of their cultural traditions and their literatures. Then they sowed divisions among them that they should shed one another’s blood and go to sleep under the opiate of serfdom so that the leech of imperialism might go on sucking their blood without interruption.
As I look back on the year that has passed and as I look at the world in the midst of the New Year’s rejoicings, it may be Abyssinia or Palestine, Spain or China, the same misery prevails in every corner of man’s earthly home and hundreds of thousands of men are being butchered mercilessly. Engines of destruction operated by science are wiping out the great landmarks of man’s cultural achievements. The governments which are not themselves engaged in this drama of fire and blood are sucking the blood of the weaker peoples economically. It is as if the day of doom had come upon the earth, in which each man looks after the safety of his own skin, and in which no voice of human sympathy or fellowship is audible.
The world’s thinkers are stricken dumb. Is this going to be the end of all this progress and evolution of civilization, they ask, that men should destroy one another in mutual hatred and make human habitation impossible on this earth? Remember, man can be maintained on this earth only by honouring mankind, and this world will remain a battleground of ferocious beasts of prey unless and until the educational forces of the whole world are directed to inculcating in man respect for mankind. Do you not see that the people of Spain, though they have the same common bond of one race, one nationality, one language and one religion, are cutting one another’s throats and destroying their culture and civilization by their own hands owing to a difference in their economic creed? This one event shows clearly that national unity too is not a very durable force. Only one unity is dependable and that unity is the brotherhood of man, which is above race, nationality, colour or language. So long as this so-called democracy, this accursed nationalism, and this degraded imperialism are not shattered, so long as men do not demonstrate by their actions that they believe that the whole world is the family of God, so long as distinctions of race, colour, and geographical nationalities are not wiped out completely, they will never be able to lead a happy and contented life, and the beautiful ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity will never materialize.
Let us, therefore, begin the New Year with the prayer that God Almighty may grant humanity to those who are in places of power and government and teach them to cherish mankind.
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