All is a Constant Mobility: Muhammad Iqbal’s Geography of the Middle East

By John M. Willis
Submitted to Session P5750 (Globalizing Islam, 2019 Annual Meeting
Indian Ocean Region;
South Asian Studies;
The Indian-Muslim poet Muhammad Iqbal is often considered a philosopher and poet of temporality, of the dynamic and vital processes of time over space. This is no surprise in light of his obvious indebtedness to the thought of Henri Bergson and, in particular, his argument that the creative process of infinite change could only be accounted for in pure duration (durée) rather than the static spatialization of time as sequence. For Iqbal, pure duration explained time as a form of infinite becoming, of multiplicity, and evolution, which in religious terms, constituted Islam’s “principle of movement.” However, if geographers have more recently demonstrated the immanent compatibility between Bergson’s concept of duration and the critical evaluation of space, then it behooves us to reconsider Iqbal in the same light.
This paper is reconsideration of the spatiality of Iqbal’s thought as it emerged in the context of his own travels through the Middle East. Drawing on the field of critical mobilities, my contention is that Iqbal’s concept of the “Islamic World” and especially his understanding of its possibility for dynamic change was shaped by three exemplary encounters with the Arab Middle East. The first was his initial journey to London in 1908 during which he spent time in Aden and Port Suez. The second was his participation in the 1931 World Islamic Congress in Jerusalem. The third was his meeting with the al-Azhar mission to India in 1937, which he had encouraged for several years. Drawing on sources in Urdu and Arabic, my goal to is to show the inseparability of his idealist formation that “all is a constant mobility” and the material conditions of travel, movement, and associational politics in the interwar period.