If we wish to understand Iqbal and the significance of his message, it is necessary for us to know the conditions of the Subcontinent during Iqbal's lifetime‑an epoch that culminated in Iqbal. Without this study we cannot understand the real meaning of Iqbal's message, the melody of his tone and the inner fire that kept him restless. The Subcontinent went through the hardest phase of its history during Iqbal's lifetime. Iqbal was born in 1877, that is, twenty years after the quelling of the Muslims' revolt against the English in 1857, when they inflicted a final blow upon the Islamic rule in the Subcontinent. A great revolutionary upsurge overtook the whole country and continued for several years, but four months (the middle of 1857) marked its culmination. The British used this opportunity for making an assault on Islam, which they were contemplating to make for the last seventy or eighty years, and they imagined to have uprooted Islam from the Indian soil.
They put an end to the Muslim rule that was breathing its last breaths. The only obstacle in their way of the total colonialization of the Indian subcontinent was the existence of the same rule, which they had succeeded in weakening during the course of time They liquidated its chief fighters and eminent personages in order to eradicate the deep‑rooted Islamic civilization and to completely uproot this corpulent and old tree which was shorn of any power of resistance at that time, and to make India a part of the British empire. The year 1857 was the year of absolute victory for the British in India. After having officially annexed India to Britain and named their country as the Empire of Britain and India, the colonizing of India did not pose any problem, for India was treated henceforward as one of the provinces of the Great Britain. After that they took all possible precautions to crush every revivalist, nationalist br religious movement in that country. Their aim was to wipe‑ out completely the Muslim population, as they knew it well that it were the Muslims who resisted them in India. They already had tested this. The Muslims fought with the English and their mercenaries, the Sikhs, who were serving them since ‑ the early nineteenth century. This was known to the‑English very well and to those who were acquainted with the Indian affairs, who used to tell them that the Muslims were their real enemies in India and that they were to be eliminated. From the year 1857, which was the year of their victory, an extremely oppressive and tyrannical plan was chalked out to suppress the Muslims. If we go into its detail it will take a long time. Many books were written on this subject. The Muslims were subjected to economic pressures as well as to cultural and social discriminations. Collectively, they were subjected to the worst kind of humiliations. As regard to the conditions of employment their declared policy was to recruit non‑Muslims only.
The awqaf (endowments) that ran Islamic institutions and mosques were in large number and they were taken away. The Hindu merchants were motivated to lend money to the Muslims in order to seize their property in return for their debts. It was resolved that their relationship with the land be cut off and their sense of belonging to the land be uprooted.
This process continued for a long time. The Muslims were killed without reason and arrested for no fault of theirs. All such people who were suspected of carrying on any activities against the English were suppressed and eliminated ruthlessly. These conditions prevailed for several years. After one or two decades of this repression, which has no parallel anywhere in the world‑not in any of the colonized countries were the people suppressed so severely as the Indian Muslims ‑ultimately some people began to think about the possible remedy for this situation; but of course the angry resistance against the English was not given up. India should never be forgetful of the fact that the Indian Muslims played the most vital part in the battle against the English. In fact it will be an act of thanklessness on the part of India to forget her indebtedness to the Muslims of India. The Muslims did never sit idle during the freedom struggle as well as during the great revolution that was brought about there.
During the years after the incident of 1857, when there was peace and calm everywhere, the militant Muslim elements were active in every nook and cranny. There were two courses of action open to them, that is, either the politico‑cultural movement, or a purely cultural movement to meet the challenge threatening the position of the Muslims. One of the movements was led by the `ulama' and the other was initiated under the leadership of Sayyid Ahmad Khan. These two movements represented two cross‑currents opposing each other, and this is not the occasion to go into detail concerning them.
The `ulama' believed in waging war against the English. They resolved to boycott the English and their educational institutions and not to accept any grant from them.' The course followed by Sayyid Ahmad Khan was in opposite direction. He believed in having good relations with the Englishmen, benefiting from their institutions and making a compromise with them. Unfortunately both of the two movements, though opposed to each other, ended in disastrous consequences for the Muslims. The first one that was led by the eminent Indian `ulama', many among whom were distinguished historical figures. Their struggle was rightly guided and their ideology was also based on right thinking, but they tried to keep away the Indian Muslim community from acquiring the first and foremost thing they required and which could enable them to master modern developments in science and technology; for example, they did not include teaching of the English language in their school syllabi. Perhaps they were justified in doing so at that time, as the English language was to replace the Persian language, which had been the favourite language of the Muslims for centuries as well as the official language of the Subcontinent. They viewed English as an intruder. Anyhow, their opposition to the English language and their lack of interest in modern civilization, which at any rate had to govern the modes of the life of the people, kept the Muslim Ummah out of modern sciences along with their benefits and advantages, which were ultimately essential for the development of a society.
Sayyid Ahmad Khan's movement was more dangerous, and here I would like to express my considered opinion about him. (It is possible that some of the brothers may not agree with me.) Sayyid Ahmad Khan did not do anything positive for Islam and Indian Muslims. In my view, the movement initiated by Iqbal was a protest against the movement whose standard‑bearer was Sayyid Ahmad Khan in India. Sayyid Ahmad Khan based his movement on friendly relations with the Englishmen under the pretext that after all the young generation of the Muslims had to be acquainted with the modern culture and that they could not afford to keep them alienated from and ignorant of the new currents. In his view it was essential to reconcile with the Englishmen so that the Muslims might not be mistreated by them and the Muslim men, women and children might not suffer due to this antagonism. He was very naive to believe that he could win the sympathy of the English and could soften the hearts of those seasoned and villainous politicians by being friendly and humble towards them.
As a consequence, the English spared Sayyid Ahmad Khan himself, his associates and the intellectuals around him whereas the Muslims in general remained exposed to all sorts of victimization till India won independence. Therefore, this policy of pleasing the Englishmen on the part of Sayyid Ahmad Khan proved to be harmful for the Muslims and brought disgrace and humiliation to them.