Is Iqbal an overrated figure in Pakistan's history as opposed to someone like Sir Syed, who is relatively obscure to the average Pakistani?
It is impossible to compare apples to oranges. These are two individuals who were knighted for their respective contributions and services to the community.
To start off, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan is more underrated than how much Sir Allama Muhammad Iqbal appears to be overrated. The problem is that Iqbal, in spite of his priceless contributions to the movement of Pakistan and with all due respect, is being accredited for more than he should be. There are three main reasons for that:
Who is who?
There are two different titles (if it is appropriate to call them that) to address in the context of these two:
Spiritual Father of Pakistan
Ideological Father of Pakistan
Iqbal is most commonly and rightly referred to as the ‘Spiritual Father of Pakistan’. While Iqbal didn’t live long enough to witness the creation of Pakistan, it was him who conceptualised the state of Pakistan, aside from being one of the most pivotal and influencial figures in the All-India Muslim League during his lifetime. So it is only fair to state that Iqbal is deserving of this.
However, when a common person is asked about the ‘Ideological Father of Pakistan’, they are most likely to reply with Iqbal again. This is the problem. Pakistan was founded on the ideology of the two-nation theory, which was popularised, if not introduced, by Sir Syed, not Iqbal. Iqbal channelised the idea that was put forward by Sir Syed, but is often accredited for both due to his role in materialising it. Sir Syed is indisputably the ‘Ideological Father of Pakistan’, and this needs to be made to be the prevalent view among the masses, without having to undermine Iqbal’s contributions.
Non-political influence and views of the public
From the Urdu books starting from first grade, to all the way up to the national anthem of Pakistan, children are made to be familiar with Iqbal’s poetry as soon as they start attending school and inevitably stay in close relation to it till their death. His philosophical views often pique the interest of enthusiasts, but they’re secondary to his poetic influence in Pakistan when speaking of reasons behind his popularity.
Sir Syed’s added his share of literature as well, but none of it is remotely hinted about during primary schooling. In fact, the first mention of Sir Syed himself comes close to the years of high school. Aside from this, Sir Syed’s modernist approach to Islam saw him being labelled as a heretic and even a non-Muslim by a few clerics, making him unpopular in many conservative circles. On the topic of heresy, the fact that Sir Syed endorsed certain Ahmadiyya beliefs and held their founder in high regard also drew criticism.
The different times during which they lived
Sir Syed and Iqbal did not live too far apart in history, but their lives and times were radically different.
During the life of Sir Syed, the Hindi-Urdu controversy was observed, as the Hindu-Muslim hostilities sowed by the British were starting to ripe. Taking note of the two occurrences, Sir Syed became the first to popularise the concept of the ‘Two-Nation Theory’. His modernist Islamic views inclined him to lean towards science and work for improving the economic, educational and political standing of the Muslims of the subcontinent. In fact, his advocacy for Muslim political activism was one of the main catalysts involved later in the formation of the All-India Muslim League.
The time at which Iqbal lived allowed him to utilise the platform provided to him by the All-India Muslim League. Most importantly, this allowed him to play a defining role in the creation of Pakistan itself. While some historical accounts try to laughably dispute Iqbal’s vision by suggesting that he referred to a federation of Muslim-majority states in western India during his famous Allahabad address, it is not a logical conclusion to reach given Iqbal’s allegiances, views and writings. Iqbal was opposed to the Indian National Congress and even persuaded Jinnah, the man himself, to come out of political exile. With everything aside, someone living later down the timeline is more likely to held in high regard for a longer time. Pair that with clearly defining the end-goal and invoking the masses to rise through his poetic genius, and one quickly realises why Iqbal’s fame in Pakistan has no parallels.
To put it shortly, the easier accessibility to Iqbal’s works, the times during which he lived, and on a socio-religious level, Sir Syed’s heresy, have made the former appear to be overshadowing the latter.