Recalling Our Pioneers: Dr Afzal Iqbal
Weekly Pulse
November 14-20, 2008
“Some 14 years ago, on the 14th of November 1994, Pakistan lost a great person, Dr Afzal Iqbal, a diplomat, a writer, a critic, a poet, a philosopher, and a broadcaster. Hardly anyone in Pakistan’s history can parallel his scholarly versatility. Dr Azfal Iqbal used to write a column weekly for The Muslim, where I worked in early 90’s. That is how I came to know him, which is indeed a privilege. I still remember him as a polite, extremely witty person, with an innocent smile and a great sense of humor. We either met in the office of my editor Ghani Jafar or at diplomatic receptions, which I used to cover after joining The Nation in late 1993.

Pakistan stands at a critical juncture today. Forces of fanaticism are hell bent upon shaking its progressive foundations. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? Yes, there is. For we are blessed with legendary souls like Dr Afzal Iqbal and his friends like Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ahmed Faraz, who may have left this world, but their ideas have not. For these great people, there was always a ray of hope even amid the darkest of hours. Even while being disillusioned in final years of his life, Dr Afzal Iqbal, much like Ahmed Faraz, kept this spirit of hope alive. By remembering these great souls, we can overcome the tumultuous challenges we face today.

I commemorate the 14th death anniversary of Dr Afzal Iqbal with a summary of his life and work, and some excerpts from his book Diary of a Diplomat that gives us an insight on his diplomatic service to Pakistan for quarter of a century. An updated version of this article will be published in the Bulletin of the Council of Social Sciences in Pakistan as part of CSSP series titled ‘Recalling our Pioneers.’

Dr Azfal Iqbal graduated from Government College Lahore in 1939 with honours. He did his Masters in English and History, and Ph. D. in Philosophy from the Punjab University. Starting his career from the radio, he served with the All India Radio and Radio Pakistan from 1942 to 1949.

In 1952, he joined the Foreign Service. After that, for nearly three decades, he served as Pakistan’s envoy to various countries. He was twice posted to the Great Britain. He served in India, Switzerland, Spain, Brazil, Syria, Thailand and Iran. In 1979, he retired as Pakistan’s ambassador to Canada.

In recognition of his ambassadorial services, Dr Afzal Iqbal won several national and international honours and awards. He received decorations from the Holy Sea, Brazil, Iran and Syria. He also taught at some of the world’s best universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.

To his credit, Dr Afzal Iqbal has over twenty books and book chapters, published in Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, and India. He has written on various subjects, including poetry, diplomacy, philosophy and religion. He was an authority on Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi. His books on the subject include The Life and Work of Jalalaluddin Rumi (1956), The Impact of Maulana Jalalaluddin Rumi on Islamic Culture (1974), and Maulana Rumi: Hayat-o-Afkar (1979).

Dr Afzal Iqbal also wrote widely on Islam. His books on the subject include Diplomacy in Islam (961), Culture of Islam (1967), The Prophet’s Diplomacy (1975), Islamisation of Pakistan (1984), and Contemporary Muslim World (1985). Some of his other works are: My Life: A Fragment (1942), Select Writings and Speeches of Maulana Mohammed Ali, 2 vols. (1942), Life and Times of Mohammed Ali (1974), Tributes to Iqbal (1977, co-author), Ajnabi, Urdu Translation of L, Etranger by Alben Camus (1979), Jerusalem: The Key to World Peace (1980, co-author), Kitab (1985), and Diary of a Diplomat (1986).

In recognition of his scholarly accomplishments, the government of Pakistan awarded Dr Afzal Iqbal with Sitara-e-Imtiaz. He was a person with an extraordinary personal zeal, always trying to make a difference in an otherwise quite a deteriorating national reality. Even after retiring from the Foreign Service in 1979, he continued to publish. Apart from authoring some fine books during this time, he contributed weekly columns to national newspapers.

Rabindranath Tagore, Prof Arnold Toynbee, Dr Zakir Hussain, Olof Palme, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Faiz Ahmad Faiz—all great figures that the twentieth century produced. In his Diary of a Diplomat, Dr Afzal Iqbal casually narrates his personal experiences with them, and many others. As editor of The Ravi, Government College Lahore, he participated in a debate contest in Calcutta, where Tagore was also present. Dr Afzal narrates his 'tete-a-tete’ with Tagore in the following words:

“(Tagore asks him) ‘Are you from Lahore?’

‘Yes, sir, but how did you know?’

‘I could see that from your clothes and your accent’.

‘But what is wrong with these clothes, sir?’

There was an air of offended pride in my response which Tagore certainly noted for he proceeded to assuage my feelings by saying.

‘Nothing at all. We in Bengal were the first to wear English, speak English and eat English. The charm wore off after some time. The English culture came later to the Punjab and the charm will in time wear off in that region also…’

Having earlier identified that I was from Lahore, he asked me whether I also wrote in Punjabi. While answering in the negative I foolishly added that Punjabi was not a language but a dialect. Tagore did not let the remark pass. He responded that Italian was also a dialect but became a language when Virgil wrote in it. ‘We in Bengal were also led to believe that Bengali was a dialect, but now we know that it is a rich language which has produced literature comparable to any in the world.”

About Prof Arnold Toynbee, the great world historian, Dr Afzal Iqbal writes, “Toynbee never talked from a high pedestal. His approach was essentially one of sympathy and understanding. He had the humility of a great scholar who was always willing to learn. And he was not patronizing at all. He put one completely at ease and listened with rapt attention when you had really something to say on a subject which was not his. He did not feel in the least embarrassed in admitting his ignorance. There were too many books in the world, he often said, and even if one wanted to, one's lifetime was not enough to read them all…”

Olof Palme, the late Prime Minister of Sweden, was known for his simply lifestyle, which eventually cost him his life. Dr Afzal Iqbal served in Sweden as Pakistan’s ambassador, and here is I how he confirms Palme’s simple living: “He was serious, sophisticated, aristocratic, almost arrogant, yet he baffled me with his simplicity, utter lack of ostentation and a total disregard of hackneyed notions of power and prestige when I first met him in 1974. One had expected to be driven to a palatial building t~ meet the Prime Minister of the richest country in Europe With the highest living standard in the world. But the car stopped short of .the office for there was no porch, nor parking place…”

Dr Afzal Iqbal describes Palme as “a man after my heart - a dynamic, progressive and forward-looking thinker whose eyes were set on the entire globe. What he could not see, however, was the possible role of Islam in a world in which both capitalism and communism had failed.”

Dr Afzal Iqbal had a lot of appreciation for Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, whom he met on several occasions. He describes Bhutto as “a strange mélange of the democrat and the autocrat. He really cared for the common man, the poor, the sick, the indigent. He spoke with feeling of the milling poverty in the country and the urgent need to alleviate the lot of the deprived majority. But his own living style was absolutely regal. His tastes were expensive the best cigars, the best wines, the best ties, and an expensive wardrobe. And yet he craved for popular applause, the approval of the mass, the clapping of the crowd. He had a flair for the spectacular and the dramatic. His mind was restless, innovative - all the time creating, destroying, building, demolishing and yet in the flights of his thought he forgot sometime to see the obvious, the ordinary, the basic facts. He was a hard task master, very exacting and demanding, a perfectionist who tolerated no nonsense. His marginal notes on files had to be seen to be believed. They were candid, caustic, almost cruel. Files he disposed off with lightning speed; he worked until the small hours of the morning and did not leave a scrap of paper on his desk.”

And, finally, here is what Dr Afzal Iqbal writes about Faiz Ahmad Faiz in the concluding chapter of Diary of a Diplomat: “Winner of the Lenin Prize, Faiz was known all over the world as a great poet of subtle sensitivity and deep sympathy for the common man, but he was ignored at home by rulers of his own country. The people loved him, though. He was their idol, their hero, a poet who articulated their deep, dormant thoughts in words which were simple, sincere and sensuous, and which came directly from the heart. He has sung songs of joy and grief, love and separation, of hope and endeavor, of suffering and sacrifice. His songs will continue to inspire and comfort our troubled souls. He has charted a course for us, for he was no ordinary poet. He was a man possessed, a man with a mission, a man with a message couched in beautiful, moving, sublime language. Faiz will live in our hearts for ever.”

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