From grandfather to grandson: The legacy of Mohammed Iqbal

Eldest grandson and only descendant of Pakistani poet-philosopher Mohammed Iqbal (1877-1938) blessed with the gift of writing poetry.

July 31, 2013
From grandfather to grandson: The legacy of Mohammed Iqbal
From grandfather to grandson: The legacy of Mohammed Iqbal

Roberta Fedele


Roberta Fedele

Saudi Gazette



JEDDAH — Eldest grandson and only descendant of Pakistani poet-philosopher Mohammed Iqbal (1877-1938) blessed with the gift of writing poetry, Azad Iqbal is today a 67 year-old legal counsel, poet, singer and father of two who lives in Jeddah with his wife Farida and dedicates most of his time to playing and composing Eastern classical music, writing poetry and breathing new life into the poems of his illustrious grandfather through musical adaptations of his works. 

In this interview with Saudi Gazette, Azad revealed more about his walk of life, his passion for jazz and blues, his practice of Eastern classical music, his fruitful musical cooperation with Tabla Maestro Ahmed Khan and, obviously, his grandfather.

Western influences

Equipped with a natural talent for poetry and music inherited from both sides of his family, Azad was brought up in Karachi in an artistically and intellectually stimulating environment that together with his studying experience in London played a determinant role in shaping his artistic talent at a later stage of his life.

“My mother Rashida Begum (1925 – 2005) belonged to a family of poets and music lovers and was herself a great singer,” said Azad.

“My early childhood memories are related to hearing her beautiful voice resounding all over the house.

“I also remember lots of poets and intellectuals regularly visiting our home, reading poetry and discussing with my father Aftab Iqbal (1898 – 1979) who was the eldest son of Mohammed Iqbal and, like him, a philosopher and barrister.    

“At that time I wasn’t a musician or poet nor had a real understanding of Eastern classical music but poetry and music have always been there, affecting me unconsciously,” he added.

Born in Lahore in 1946, Azad received his primary education at the British Karachi Grammar School and was influenced since an early age by both Eastern and Western music and culture.

“I adopted a Western lifestyle first. I spoke and wrote English better than my own language. I dressed in Western clothes, became fond of rock bands and started playing guitar much to my father's anger,” he said.

In 1964, Azad went off to England for 10 years. He got a degree in law at the University of London and followed the footsteps of his father and grandfather becoming a barrister from Lincoln’s Inn.

“For some reasons, the legal profession seems to be the favorite profession of the Iqbal family,” said Azad.

“During the period of my studies in London,” he added, “I was mainly focused on my university and social life but I continued to listen to Western music and went through all the phases of pop, rock, funk and soul music.

“Later in life, as my musical tastes became more refined, I discovered the charm of genres like blues and jazz. I became particularly fond of soft fusion experiments between jazz and other genres like R&B, soul, funk and rock.”

Today Azad plays piano and guitar, has a 3,000 CDs collection of traditional and contemporary jazz and blues, knows several jazz clubs all over the world and never misses the opportunity to discover new ones whenever he travels abroad.

Eastern Classical music and “Ghazals”

In 1974, enriched by a wealth of experiences and diverse Western musical influences, Azad went back to Pakistan entering the world of Eastern classical music and Urdu poetry.

“In this period, I was in my 30s and had no knowledge about Eastern classical music in terms of notes, scales and harmonic compositions,” said Azad.

“However I became so curious about it that I purchased a secondhand harmonium and started to take lessons from a noted musicologist in Karachi, the late Baba Inayatullah.

“I used to spend nights practicing the notes. It was frustrating and enjoyable at the same time,” he added.

Azad, whose passion for Eastern music has been inherited by his 28-years-old daughter Jini, discovered later in life that also his grandfather took music lessons in Sialkot in his younger days and loved singing and listening to Eastern classical music.

Gradually, Azad was also introduced to the art of writing and performing “Ghazals,” a centuries-old popular form of poem and song in Iran, Pakistan and India.

“At the beginning it was just an interest on the poems’ structure and how the rhyming took place but slowly my curiosity grew deeper and deeper.”

During the years, he gave birth to an important collection of Urdu and English poems that he would like to publish one day.

His very first Urdu poem “Amad-ey-Jihad (The Arrival Of Jihad)” was written on May 17, 1983, the day his son, Jihad Iqbal, was born.

Saudi Arabia and a discipline of daily vocal practice

In 1984, the time came for Azad to move to Saudi Arabia where he was offered a very good position as a legal counsel in Al-Khobar and later Jeddah.

“Everyone thought I would abandon Eastern classical music. In fact, at the beginning I just couldn’t find time to practice. I was new, young and wanted to work hard to make a career. At the same time, I didn’t want music to disappear from my life.

“I still loved Western music and kept jealously all my jazz records but Eastern music was really affecting me deep. I just couldn’t leave it.”

Since 1984, Azad wakes up every day at 5.30 am exercising for two hours and a half before going to work to keep his throat vibrating and preserve his lungs’ power.

“Gradually I got addicted to my breathing and singing exercises. They turned into a sort of pleasant meditation, an injection of energy every morning and the best moment of my day,” he said.

After 10 years of hard practice, Azad got to a point in which he started composing music and turning his attention to the philosophical works of his grandfather. 

“I had experimented with all sorts of ragas and notes and was hungry for more. Music is a very strange field, no matter to which tradition it is associated. There is no end to it. The more you learn, the more you feel you don’t know.

“Not only I started to compose music to my collection of Urdu and English poems but also asked my uncle to seriously introduce me to my grandfather’s philosophy and poetry.”

“Today, although I have no personal memories of my grandfather who passed away when I was not yet born, I can say that I know him through his poetry and that no one else had such a deep influence on me.”

Azad is proud to have composed music to over forty of his grandfather’s works including selected verses from his famous epic works in Urdu “Shikwa” and “Jawab-ey-Shikwa” (Complaint and Answer to the Complaint).”

These verses, translated in Arabic by Farida’s father and titled “Hadeeth Al Rouh (Utterances of the Soul),” were sung in 1967 by the most distinguished singing diva of Egypt, Um Kulthoum.

Fusion experiments

Azad’s stay in Saudi Arabia was also marked by an admirable effort to write down six volumes of Eastern classical music and find a synthesis between the Eastern and Western musical traditions, the two passions that stayed with him since his childhood.

“Unlike Western music, Eastern music is not written and has been transmitted orally from father to son and master to disciple throughout the ages. Being a very systematic person, I did all my best to record it and write it down.

“Generally speaking, what jazz, blues and Indian ragas have in common is that they all require intense instrumental and musical mastery. They are characterized by a basic structure of notes that can be combined in infinite ways and around which musicians are free to improvise for hours.”

Azad experimented a lot trying to blend these worlds and is always available to fusion experiments with foreign musicians.

However, he still believes that Eastern and Western music give their best when standing alone.

“Hybrid experiments are beautiful and interesting but do not penetrate the inner chambers of my heart,” he said.

When asked about his favorite musical tradition, he answered: “There is no better or worst. It all depends on how your soul accepts these melodies.

What makes Indian music intensely special to me is its spiritual dimension. I can seat for hours in meditation listening to it.”

The Iqbal-Khan duo

A part from writing poetry and composing music, Azad also gives a number of private concerts and appeared publicly on various occasions accompanied at the tabla by his longtime music partner Ustad Ahmed Khan with whom he plays in perfect synch following a secret language capable of hypnotizing the audience.

“Khan has been my music companion for the past 23 years. We are perfectly blended together and I feel blessed to have known him. This cooperation has helped both of us to keep our music alive,” said Azad.

Well-known musician in India boasting 40-year experience as a percussionist, Khan was born in Hyderabad and held his first public performance at the age of 14. Drummer of incredible skills, he has also enthralled audiences in Europe and Canada receiving many recognitions, including the Indira Gandhi Academy Award.

The Iqbal-Khan duo took part, amongst others, in three “Allama Iqbal Tribute Concerts” in Pakistan, in an “Indo-Pakistani Friendship Concert” at the Indian Consulate General in Jeddah (2004) and was invited to perform in Oman by the Indian Ambassador.

My Grandfather Mohammed Iqbal

Mohammed Iqbal is internationally renowned for having explored with a critical approach the political, scientific and philosophical heritage of the West and having answered through classical Islamic philosophy to questions raised by the Western speculative tradition.

These queries include the meaning of the religious experience, the connections between science and religion, the nature of God and the relation between the spiritual and material side of human life.

Talking about his grandfather’s poet-philosopher’s personality, Azad said: “People know my grandfather as the Eastern poet-philosopher who studied in Europe, who knew Goethe, Byron and Shelley and who was equally familiar with Zarathustra as he was with Jalaluddin Rumi and the Qur'an, incarnating a sort of symbolic bridge between the East and the West in the realm of thought.”

He added: “Europe had opened its eyes to the great possibilities that lay before the human mind but people’s frustration in Europe and the strong competition between European nations didn’t offer him in the end a model of perfection. 

“That’s why he directed all his efforts to shape a philosophy combining the best qualities of both worlds he had known: the dynamic activism of the West with the spiritual values of the East.

“At a time in which the British were ruling India, his poetry and philosophy represented for Muslims an incentive to abandon their listlessness, wake up and fight for their freedom.

“I’m sure that today, if he could, he would convey to Pakistani and Indian nationals a message of peace and harmony. In the end, both people belong to branches of the same old tree sharing traditions that date back to centuries.”

The books “Asrar-i-Khudi (Secrets of the Self)” and “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” are the documents that best synthesize Iqbal’s thought and represent an invitation for Muslim intellectuals to open themselves to a confrontation with Western thought without losing their cultural and religious heritage.

A part from being an intellectual whose philosophical works have been translated into major languages of the world, Iqbal was also a human being with qualities and weaknesses that Azad came to know through the stories of his father.

“My father used to talk about my grandfather as a person with two distinct personalities,” said Azad.

“On one hand he represented the brilliant intellectual and public figure I have just talked about. On the other hand, he was a normal human being with a great sense of humor who loved his parents, got married and had children, hobbies and an intense social life.

“Few people for instance know about his passion for wrestling, gems, stones, falcons and pigeons. He was great in the art of breeding his domestic pigeons and knew all the differences between Turkish, Iranian, Pakistani and Indian species.

“My father who experienced closely all aspects of his personality, also used to say that people from all walks of life were eager to visit him every evening.

“He was a multifaceted persona whose sensitive and fertile mind easily conquered everyone. 

“In Iran people affectionately call him “Iqbal Lahori (Iqbal from Lahore),” as he wrote his most beautiful philosophical poems in Farsi (Persian), a language offering a much richer vocabulary compared with Urdu.”

“And in Turkey, Germany, Saudi Arabia and probably other countries there are roads named after him,” added Azad.


Listen to some of Azad Iqbal's melodious compositions:


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