Allama Iqbal’s message to teachers and educators


Sheikh-e-maktab hai ik emarat gar!

Allama Iqbal is undoubtedly the most well-read poet of Pakistan. What distinguishes him from other poets and philosophers is the element of positivity and hope in his works. Throughout his poetry, he elucidates the problems and criticizes those responsible for the state of affairs, yet he remains optimistic and suggests remedies to heal the deep inflicted wounds of the nation. He considers teachers (religious & secular) as one of the most influential groups of people, whom he holds accountable and delegates the responsibility for the reformation and revival of society.


Allama Iqbal uses several words to denote teachers including sheikh, hakeem, saqi, peer-e-haram and has dedicated an entire section titled, Taleem o Tarbiyat in Zarb-e- Kalim to this topic. He mostly refers to educational institutions as madrissa, maktab, haram, maikhana, and khankah.


For Allama Iqbal, the youth is like the eaglets and it is the responsibility of the teachers and the educational system to give them the strong wings to soar high. The following verse is a sharp illustration of Allama’s anguish at the prevalent education system (which sadly still exists). He says sorely,

Shikayat hai mujhe ya Rab! khudawand-e-maktab se,
Sabaq shaheen bachon ko de rahe hain khaak bazi ka! (Bal-e-Jibril)

(Meaning: O Lord, I have complaint against teachers for they are teaching the eaglets to grovel in the dust). He sees teachers as craftsmen whose role is to create the best out of the raw material provided to them, so he says:

Sheikh-e-maktab hai ik emarat gar,
Jiss ki sana’t hai ruh-e-insani! (Zarb-e-Kalim)

(Meaning: A teacher is like a builder whose industry is to build and develop the soul of a human). It is clearly evident from these two verses why he holds teachers accountable and also his expectations of them.


Before immersing into Allama’s Iqbal’s poetry on this topic, it is pertinent to understand the meaning of the word Ilm, which is more often used as a product of or as an end result of acquiring education. The Arabic word for Ilm (عِلم) is a derivative of عَلَم (م-ل-ع) which literally means standard or flag. In Arabic Ilm (عِلم) is the term used for knowledge. In broader sense Ilm means raising the standard (flag) which distinguishes the individual from others. Ilm is not education as it is generally taken to imply. Unfortunately, there is no true equivalent of the word Ilm in English. For better understanding we can say, Ilm denotes a combination of education, training, knowledge and wisdom and this includes religious, spiritual and material knowledge. On the contrary, the word education is limited to the degrees taught in educational institutions and does not include training which is seen as separate from education in the present educational system. Allama Iqbal strongly believes that education without training is useless.


The present educational system is producing successful professionals like doctors, professors, engineers, accountants etc. but are these educational institutions imparting “Ilm” in the true meaning of the word? The answer is probably, no! This is mainly because the quest for knowledge has been replaced by quest for education, which is determined by market demand. That is, students want to acquire a degree with better job prospects. Therefore, today we have education but not Ilm. In Allama Iqbal’s view:

Woh ilm, kam basri jiss main hum kinar nahi,

Tajjaliat-e-Kaleem o mushahidat-e-hakeem! (Ilm aurDeen, Zarb-e-Kaleem)

(Meaning: Such knowledge is short sighted/ limited which does not illuminate the seeker and the surroundings like Musa (AS) and does not include deep philosophical observations.


Ilm transforms thinking and behavior. It distinguishes one from others in conduct and practice. Hence, linguistically it is completely incorrect to apply word Ilm to modern day education. Furthermore, Ilm enlightens the mind and broadens vision. It creates foresight and understanding. It is like a candle that illuminates its surroundings and shows the way and is not merely a means of living.


Allama Iqbal asserts that the purpose of educational institutions should be to deliver Ilm and not just an educational degree. He says:

Ilm mein doulat bhi hai, qudrat bhi hai, lazzat bhi hai,
Aik mushkil hai ke hath ata nahin apna suragh! (Tarbiyat, Zarb-e- Kalim).

(Meaning: Modern day Ilm brings wealth, joy, and power but the problem is that it does not develop ‘self’ awareness). This verse shows that he views contemporary education as completely superficial, worthless and a waste of time. Nonetheless, Allama Iqbal was not against modern education. In his view however, education should be for materialistic gains (to secure a job, status and a means for living) as well as for enhancing knowledge and for spiritual development (understanding the true meaning of life and developing the Selfhood of students). He does not separate material/ secular education from spiritual and religious education. In his opinion, both streams of education can flow concurrently in harmony with each other.


 According to Allama Iqbal, a society cannot progress if it does not have progressive and enlightened teachers. He sees teachers as role models who have the responsibility of bringing out the best in their students – not only academically but also at all levels of personal development. For this, he expects teachers to come to the level of the students, understand their needs and inculcate in them ethics and values necessary for the reformation of a society.

He asserts that educators / teachers need to be open to fresh ideas, be ready to experiment new ways of teaching and acquiring knowledge, and give up fixation with old school of thought. He thus calls for the enlightenment of the teachers and their own constant personal development and believes that the pursuit of knowledge must never stop. In his view, a teacher who is still struggling with his/her own personal development cannot be a role model for the students. He says:

Ahl-e-danish aam hain, kamyaab hain ahl-e-nazar,
Kya ta’ajjub hai ke khali reh gya tera ayagh! (Tarbiyat, Zarb-e- Kalim)

(Meaning: There is no dearth of lettered men but people of vision are scarce. No wonder that your bowl is still empty. No wonder the students are not achieving their true potentials).


Arguing against the usual mode of instruction and delivery of content, he asks teachers as well as students to go beyond the conventional teaching methods and says:

Madrissa nay teri ankhon say chupaya jin ko,
Khilwat-e-koh o baya ban main woh asrar hain fash! (Madrissa, Zarb-e-Kalim)

(Meaning: The mysteries which schools hid from you; Try to find them in the solitude of hills and desserts. Go out and observe. Do not restrict your knowledge to books). Allama Iqbal stresses that a role of a teacher is not only to complete the curriculum but to instill the ethical values which are essential for a healthy and progressive society. He says:

Keeya hai tujh ko kitabon nay kor zauq itna,
Saba say bhee na mila tujh ko boo-e- gul ka suragh! (Ghazal, Zarb-e-Kalim)

(Meaning: The books have marred your taste and zest to such a great extent that morning breeze has failed to give you the clue of rose and its scent! Your pursuit is limited to books so much so that you are unable to understand the meaning of life and needs of time). 


Moreover, he asserts that it is important for teachers and educators to understand the needs of the society and foresee the future demands and trends. According to him, a teacher with a narrow or limited vision cannot deliver and so he says,

Sheikh-e-maktab ke tareeqon se kushaad-e-dil kahan,
Kis tarah kibriat se roshan ho bijli ka charagh! (Tarbiyat,Zarb-e- Kalim)

(Meaning: The conventional teaching does not expand the heart. How can a matchstick light an electric lamp?)


Allama Iqbal views the development of khudi (Self) as the overarching goal of all education and training. But how can a teacher teach a subject unknown to him/ her? Hence it is pertinent for teachers to develop their Khudi (Self), so they are capable of helping students to realize their faculties and develop their potentialities. Thus creating self-awareness which in turn leads to self-development and self-actualization. He says:

Ye zikr-e-neem shabi, ye maraqbay, ye saroor,

Teri khudi kay nigheban nahi to kuch bhe nahi! (Tasawuf, Zarb-Kalim).

(Meaning: Your various acts of worship at the midst of night are useless if they do not guard and protect your ‘Self’).



All these demands upon teachers may seem too overwhelming but we cannot deny the influence of teachers on students. Indeed character building of a nation is a cycle that initiates with the character building of its teachers who are the role models for their students, who go into the society to assume different roles and be mentors to those around them. Hence a ripple effect is created transforming the entire system.


Allama Iqbal asserts more responsibility on the teachers because they play the most central role in the whole equation. Of course, teachers alone cannot accomplish this goal if they are not supported and the overall educational system remains rigidly focused on superficial education. Like every other system, it is fundamental that all elements of the educational system (institutions, scholars, teachers, students and educationists) are aligned and function in harmony with each other towards a common objective. That is, uplift of the society as a whole. This necessitates change at a large scale which needs to initiate at a grass root level - a change not within the system but also in the basic ideology of acquiring knowledge. To sum up, I conclude with this plea from his poem Ae peer-e- Haram:

Ae Peer-e-Haram! Rasm-o-reh-e-khanqahi chor,

Maqsood samajh meri nawa-e-sahari ka,

Allah rakhe tere jawanon ko salamat!

De inko sabaq khud shikani, khud nigri ka,

Dil torh gyi in ka do sadiyon ki ghulami,

Daru koi soch in ki preeshan nazari ka!

(Meaning: O Shaykh, discard these reclusive ways of yours and grasp what my morning songs denote and understand my message. May God preserve the youth you guide, teach them how to break away from the constraints and teach them to guard their ‘Self’. They are heartbroken because of centuries of subjugation. Think of some cure for their distraught sight – their development).

By: Dr Umneea Ahmad Khan
University of Western Australia
Member Iqbal Academy Scandinavia

The Column was published in


13 Nov 2015

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