Looking Back to Look Ahead

By Sobia Abdin 2021-03-12

تجھے کتاب سے ممکن نہیں فراغ کہ تو

کتاب خواں ہے مگر صاحب کتاب نہیں

علامہ اقبال-

tujhe kitāb se mumkin nahīñ farāġh ki tū 

kitāb-ḳhvāñ hai magar sāhib-e-kitāb nahīñ 

-Allama Iqbal

You won’t gain the freedom you seek from knowledge,

You desire the book and not the knowledge within it.


In a perfect world, I would have hand-curved my laam (the thirtieth alphabet in the Urdu script) as a perfect crescent. But in our less-than-perfect world, I suffice with my English-to-Urdu keyboard. I recall our scholars, who too harness the magic of technology to educate and enlighten the path to tomorrow—a tomorrow free and wise.

Athenians recognize the trove of wisdom that is history, aware of humankind’s responsibility to reflect upon this history, this tale that must be recounted—across geographies, across languages. 

This historical perspective is a friend, a companion, a humsafar in the odyssey of life. Iqbal ruminated on tomorrow as he penned in pride, “Sare Jahan Se Accha Hindustan Humara.” A 1904 ghazal aspiring for a free country, forty-three years before India’s midnight tryst with destiny. Athena’s scholars would do well to study these musings, this distinctly South Asian perspective on this distinctly human question, absorbing ideas of identity and destiny, applying them to their own pursuit of self-knowledge.

Some millennia ago, the first Athenians also thought of tomorrow. Aristotle, Plato, and Homer passed their days amid balmy Mediterranean’s olive trees, writing Poetics, The Republic, The Iliad. These literary oeuvres birthed the disciplines our scholars study today as nebulae birth stars, sprouting literature and the arts, mathematics, and rhetoric. 

The sub-continent had its own classical period, and untold revelations can be garnered through a dialogue between Indic thinkers and their Greek counterparts. Our ancestors viewed their ghazals, shers, and upanyas as means to reclaim their desi identity, affirming a culture partly diminished by imperial influence. Iqbal, while educated in English and honored with a knighthood, wrote proclamations of resistance in Urdu and Persian—his unique rebellion to occidental domination, an avenue of returning to his roots, of coming home. 


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Our scholars, we hope, will find harmony between these two perspectives. Throughout their education, we encourage them, like Iqbal, to immerse themselves in their own heritage, to be unafraid, unabashed, to soak up the teachings of their forebears and tailoring them to the contemporary challenges of the tumultuous 21st century.

Scholars! As you venture forth in opening your heart to admissions officers, be not ashamed to reveal and revel in the flavors of your own background, conjuring essays that only you can write. May you embrace your culture, while remaining a global citizen, capable of celebrating a multiplicity of oral, visual, and written intellectual traditions—originating from East to West. 

Upon closer inspection, the eruditions of learned men and women from distant corners of the globe are perhaps not as disparate as we may assume. While Iqbal wrote, “There are many universes beyond the stars, there are trials to take for love,” thousands of miles away, Robert Frost echoed, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” While we so often perceive East and West as irreconcilable, they inevitably meet in glorious union, for what unites us all is our shared humanity, our collective desire to return home.