Three Poems by Allama Iqbal

Three Poems by Allama Iqbal:

A Psychological Interpretation of ‘A Mother’s Dream’, ‘Khizr the Guide’ and ‘Dialogue between God and Man’


 ‘Everywhere I go, I find that a poet has been there before me’

Sigmund Freud

One of Iqbal’s translators, the Scotsman Victor Kiernan wrote ‘Mohammad Iqbal, the ‘Poet of the East’, lived a life of which outwardly there is little to be said and inwardly, of which little is known.’ Works on Iqbal by scholars and academicians would fill up a small library, particularly inPakistan, where he is revered as one of the country’s founding fathers. He was one of the early proponents of the idea of a separate state for the Muslims of British India, a fantastically improbable idea at the time. His eventual whole hearted support for the idea ofPakistanwas surprising considering that one of his early poems ‘Tarana-e-Hindi’ (‘Song of India’), first published in 1904, is still sung and revered widely inIndia. Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Iqbal that he sang it hundreds of times during his many prison terms for sedition and political activity against the British Raj. Iqbal did not live to see his dream of a separate homeland for India’s Muslims brought to fruition and would, surely, have ‘recoiled in horror’, as Kiernan wrote, had he witnessed the communal blood bath that accompanied the birth of his vision. There are still no accurate estimates of the number of people that perished on both sides of the newly created border but half a million people killed and twelve million made homeless is one estimate. All this came much later though. Before all this was the poetry, page after page of lyrical, melodious poems reflecting on themes as simple as mountains, animals and insects and as exalted as God, Heaven, Angels and everything in between.

The three poems chosen for this essay reflect three different styles of Iqbal’s poetry. ‘Maa ka Khwaab’ (A Mother’s Dream) is from Iqbal’s first published collection of Urdu poems, ‘Bang-i-Dara’ or ‘The Caravan Bell’ written before 1905 (he was born in 1877). This includes many poems written specifically for children in a simple style including ‘Himalaya’, ‘A Child’s Prayer’, ‘The Cow and the Goat’ etc. While all of his ‘children’s poems’ talk about simple themes they all have subtexts rich with meaning. For example, one of Iqbal’s most enduring children’s poems, ‘A Child’s Prayer’, still sung by children in schools today, is a prayer by a child to ‘shine like a beacon and light up the darkness in the world’. At another point, the child sings ‘let me be the voice of the poor, a lover of the old and infirm and those in pain’.

The first poem in this essay, while on the surface a simple description of a mother’s dream fearing for her child’s safety, is a profound explanation of a core concept in child development, that of ‘Separation-Individuation’, the process by which a child grows psychologically and develops the capacity for tolerating prolonged periods of separation from its mother (or other parental figure) on its way to becoming an adult.

‘Khizr-e-Rah’ or ‘Khizr the Guide’ is from a different era and showcases Iqbal’s full poetic talent. It was written in the aftermath of the First World War with the once magnificent Muslim Ottoman Empire which had ruled over large parts of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia andNorth Africafor more than 600 years in terminal decline and soon to be abolished by Turkish Nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal ‘Ata-Turk’. On April 13, 1919 came the trauma of the infamous Jallianwala Bagh inAmritsarwhen over 1500 innocent men, women and children celebrating the Punjabi New Year were massacred in cold blood by British Indian Army troops under the command of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. It was a time of near universal despondency amongst the Muslims of India. The poem describes Iqbal’s dialogue with the mythical ‘Khizr’, revered as a spiritual guide in many belief systems, including Islam. One could think of all manner of things one could ask such a figure but Iqbal concentrates on matters that weigh heavily on his heart. This includes the meaning of life, governance or kingship, the struggle between ‘labor and capital’ and the reason for Khizr’s wandering ways. Since this poem was composed sometime after 1919, at least one of the questions was surely inspired by the recent example of the first worker’s government in history, the Bolshevik October Revolution of 1917 which abolished the monarchy inRussiaand gave birth to the first socialist government in history led by Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik Party. Iqbal devotes more of his energy to this subject in later works as well including a poem entitled ‘Lenin in the presence of God’. Due to its length and the breadth of its subject matter, this essay will focus on Khizr’s explanation of the meaning of life.

The third poem illustrates Iqbal’s love of Persian, a language more ancient than Iqbal’s native Urdu and thus richer in poetic similes and metaphors. In fact, of Iqbal’s 12000 verses, 7000 are in Persian including his masterpiece, ‘Javid Nama’ or ‘Book of Eternity’ inspired by Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. The poem, ‘Muhawara ma bain Khuda-o-Insaan’ or ‘Dialogue between God and Man’ also demonstrates one of Iqbal’s favorite themes, conversations between celestial and earthly figures, in this case between God and Man (representing all of humanity). This style is also present in one of Iqbal’s famous Urdu poems ‘Shikwah’ or ‘Reproach’, in which Man addresses God with a long list of complaints specifically about God’s treatment of Muslims. That poem created quite a stir when first presented in public and would still be considered politically incorrect, if not outright blasphemous, in many Islamic societies today. In fact, some time later, Iqbal felt compelled to write ‘Jawab-e-Shikwah’ or ‘Reply to Reproach’ whereby God rebukes Muslims for daring to complain about their condition in light of their own less than stellar conduct in the past.

Maa ka Khwaab (A Mother’s Dream):

On the surface this poem is simply a description of a mother’s dream about her young son who is lost somewhere. Some commentators have described it as a lament by a mother whose child has died. However, there is a more life affirming explanation which makes more sense psychologically.

The poem starts out simply enough. It is in the first person with a mother describing her dream:

‘Main soey jo ik shab toe dekha yeh khwaab

Badha aur jis say meraa iztiraab

Yeh dekha kay main jaa rahi hoon kahin

Andhera hai aur raah milti nahin

Larazta tha darr say mera baal baal

Qadam kaa tha dehshat say uthnaa muhaal’

‘As I slept one night I dreamt

A dream that heightened my discontent

I saw myself going somewhere

Unable to find my way in the gloom

Trembling, drowning in my terror’

It should be noted that simply being conversant in a language does not mean that one is able to appreciate its poetry. Iqbal’s poetry with its dense metaphysical and philosophical themes is even more of a challenge for the casual reader. This poem, however, is written in a simpler style.

The poet continues:

‘Jo kuch hauslaa paa kay agay badhi

Toe dekha qataar aik larkon kee thi

Zamurrad see poshaak pehnay huay

Diyay unkay haathon main jaltay huay

Woh chup chaap thay aagay peechay rawaan

Khuda jaanay jaana tha unko kahan’

‘As I kept on I saw

Boys walking in line

Wearing emerald hued coats, carrying lamps,

Silently they walked

God knows where to’

The use of the color ‘emerald’ or green is interesting. Why green? This might be one key to unlocking the life affirming message of the poem. In many cultures, green symbolizes hope and growth. The most common associations, however, are found in its ties to nature. For example, Islam venerates the color, as it expects paradise to be full of lush greenery. In many folklores and literatures, green has traditionally been used to symbolize nature and its embodied attributes, namely those of life, fertility, and rebirth. Green was symbolic of resurrection and immortality in Ancient Egypt; the god Osiris was depicted as green-skinned. It is often used to describe foliage and the sea, and has become a symbol of environmentalism. In short, the use of the emerald or green color seems to represent life and vibrancy.

The poet continues:

‘Issi soch mai thi kay mera pisar

Mujhe uss jamaat main aaya nazar

Woh peechay tha aur taiz chaltaa naa tha

Diya uske haathon main jaltaa naa tha’

‘As I stood lost in thought

There I saw, my son

Walking forlornly in the back

Carrying an extinguished lamp’

Here is a glimpse of the central theme of the poem, a lamp, used to light up one’s way, dark and useless, unable to show its bearer the way forward.

‘Kaha main nay pehchan kar meri jaan

Mujhe chor kar aa gaye tum kahan?

Judaai main rehti hoon main beqaraar

Parotee hoon har roz ashkon kay haar

Na parwaa hamari zara tum nay kee

Gaye chor acchee wafa tum nay kee’

‘Recognizing him, I cried, ‘my love’

Why have you forsaken me?

I pine for you; and everyday weave a necklace of tears

Not once did you think of me

Alone and abandoned’

Even though the translation does not do justice to the power of Iqbal’s words, it is hard not to be moved by the setting of the poem; darkness, a dream world, figures with emerald coats and a mother, lost and tearful.

‘Jo bachay nay dekha mera pech-o-taab

Diya uss nay munh phair kar yun jawaab

Rulaati hai tujh ko judaai meri

Nahin iss main kuch bhi bhalaai meri

Yeh keh kar who kuch dair tak chup raha

Diya phir dikha kay yeh kehnay laga

Samajhti hai tu hoegayakya issay?

Tere aansoo-on nay bujhaaya issay’

‘The child seeing my agony derisively replied

Your tears do me no favors;

Silent then for a moment

He showed me the lamp

‘Do you wonder what happened to it?’

Your tears put it out’

Here we come to the central message of the poem, a mother’s grief and agony at letting go of her child as it grows, matures and becomes more independent, inevitably, in the process moving away from her. Iqbal arrives at a profound psychological insight, perhaps from his own experience with his mother, perhaps through his observations as a sensitive artist. As a child grows, the mother, who has learnt to cater to its every need and whim, must now teach herself to allow a child to stumble out of her grasp, perhaps to fall, make mistakes and get hurt. She must accept that those hurts are an inevitable part of growing and changing into an adult. Interestingly, the poet makes no mention of a father anywhere in the dream, a figure that can help moderate the intensity of the emotions involved.

Also, this pattern of intense attachment to the child by the mother and the child’s resultant feeling of  perhaps being smothered would be quite typical in a feudal, non-industrial culture like British India where Iqbal was born, raised and lived most of his life.

In the end, Iqbal is pleading both sides of the case. The mother describes her suffering to the child (and to us) and it is proof of her love. The child does not reject it but points out to her the consequence of excessive attachment, his difficulty finding his way, in the dream (and presumably in life) because of the effect of his mother’s tears and grief.

Khizr-e-Rah (Khizr the Guide)

Al-Khizr (Arabic: “the Green One”) is an enigmatic figure in Islam. He is best known for his appearance in the Qur’an in Sura al-Kahf. Although not mentioned by name, he is assumed to be the figure that Musa (Moses) accompanies and whose seemingly violent and destructive actions so disturb Moses that he violates his oath not to ask questions.

Islamic tradition sometimes describes him as Mu’allim al-anbiya (Tutor of the Prophets), for the spiritual guidance he has shown every prophet who has appeared throughout history. In Sufi tradition, Khizr has come to be known as one of those who receive illumination direct from God without human mediation. He is the hidden initiator of those who walk the mystical path and also figures into the Alexander Romance as a servant of Alexander the Great. Al-Khizr and Alexander cross theLand ofDarkness to find the Water of Life. Alexander gets lost looking for the spring, but Khizr finds it and gains eternal life.

The poem, first read in a session of the Anjuman Himayat-e-Islam (‘Association for the Service of Islam’) in 1921 was written against the backdrop of widespread pessimism and gloom in British Indian society. The aftermath of the destruction of World War I, the abolition and dismantling of the last ‘Muslim Caliphate’ the Ottoman Empire, the massacre of hundreds of innocents at the hands of British Indian soldiers at the infamous Jallianwala Bagh (1) and other repressive acts by the ruling British had created a somber mood across the land. This, combined with the ongoing economic depression, had created almost universal despondency, particularly in Indian Muslims. Interestingly, the poem also alludes to the dawn of a new age, where workers will no longer fall for the ‘tricks of the money-men’ inspired, no doubt, by the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 and the establishment of the first worker’s government in history:

‘Uth kay ab bazm-jahan kaa aur hee andaaz hai

Mashriq-o-Maghrib may tere daur kaa aaghaaz hai’

‘Rise, for a new age dawns

Your era begins in East and West’

Iqbal begins the poem by first setting the scene in some detail. Like most poets and artists, he had a keen eye for nature’s beauty and wrote many poems extolling the same. As with many of his best poems, this one, too, is in the form of a dialogue. The poet goes first, describing the peaceful scene around him:

“Saahil-e-daryaa pay main ek raat tha mehway nazar

Gosha-e-dil main chupaay ek jahan-e-iztiraab

Shab sakoot afzaa, hawa asooda, darya narm sair

Thee nazar hairan kay yeh darya hai ya tasveer-e-aab”

“Sunken in thought was I, one night on the river-bank

My anguish buried deep in my heart

Still was the night, quiet, calm the river

Amazed was I at this picture of serenity”

Warming up a little, after painting a picture of nature in all its tranquility, the poet then plumbs a little deeper into his imagination.

“Raat kay afsoon say taair aashianon main aseer

Anjum-e-kam zau giraftar-e-talism-e-mahtaab”

“Songbirds caged by night’s magic

Dimly lit stars imprisoned by the moon’s sorcery”

As the poet paints the scene, he comes face to face with the object of his search, the elusive Khizr.

“Dekhtaa kya hoon kay woh paik-e-jahan paimaa Khizr

Jis kee peeree main hai maanind-e-seher rang-shabaab”

“Who do I see but that wanderer, Khizr

Young like the early morn”

Khizr then addresses our poet and issues him a challenge:

“Keh raha hai mujh say ae joya-e-asrar-e-azal

Chasm dil waa hoe toe hai taqdeer-e-aalam be-hijab”

“Said he, O seeker of the secrets of eternity

The Universe’ fate is clear only to the ‘seeing eye’”

In his poetry, Iqbal often explores metaphysical ideas relating to life, death, birth, heaven and hell. In fact, his doctoral dissertation submitted in 1908 at theUniversityofMunichwas titled “The Development of Metaphysics inPersia” and this remained an abiding interest throughout his life.

What does Khizr mean by ‘the seeing eye’? Ancient Esoterics and Mystics believed that there exists some special force inside humans which could perceive the essence of reality independent of intellect or reason. This was named Intuition which is usually taken to mean the ability to sense or know immediately without reasoning. It has been, variously, called ‘Gnosis’ in ancient Greek philosophy or ‘Irfan’ in the Sufi tradition. What the poet is implying is simply that the ‘secrets of eternity’ are invisible to the average person. They cannot be found by seeing, hearing, touching or any of the senses that humans ordinarily use to make sense of the world around them. One needs something more, willingness and a desire to look beyond the surface of things to try to get to their essence, something that requires effort, dedication, desire and love of learning and knowledge.

That other great mystic, Mirza Ghalib expressed it thus:

‘Bay-khudi besabab nahin Ghalib

Kuch toe hai jis kee pardaa daari hai’

‘This intoxication is not meaningless, Ghalib

Something remains hidden from view’

In fact, this is a constant subject in mystical literature and poetry and countless volumes have been written on it through the ages.

Moving on, Iqbal gets to the questions he wants to ask Khizr. He starts out with an easy one:

‘Chor kar aabaadian rehtaa hai tu sehraa naward

Zindagi teri hai be-roz-o-shab-o-fardaa-o-dosh’

Why is Khizr forever ‘wandering the deserts?’ living a life ‘without yesterday or tomorrow?’ He then gets to the questions that make up the subject of the rest of the poem:

‘Zindagi kaa raaz kya hai, saltanat kya cheez hai

Aur yeh sarmaya-o-mehnat main hai kaisa kharosh?

‘What is the secret of life, what is monarchy (or government?)

Why this antagonism between labor and wealth?’

Khizr, in the first section of his response titled ‘Sehra Nawardi (Desert Wandering)’ answers the first question by another one:

‘Kyun ta’ajub hai meri sehraa nawardi par tujhe

Yeh taga poe-e-dama-dam zindagi kee hai daleel’

‘Why this surprise at my wandering ways?

This eternal struggle is the very proof of life’

Thus Iqbal illustrates a profound concept of life, its ever changing, dynamic, never still nature. Henri-Louis Bergson (1859 –1941) a French philosopher widely popular during his lifetime concluded that time eluded mathematics and science. To him, the ordinary, rational mode of understanding divides time into static intervals of seconds, minutes, days, weeks etc which prevents one from accessing the ‘ultimate reality’ of things.

And, in fact, humans, by virtue of our limited understanding of the universe, can only measure time this way. To us, there is always a time that has passed, a time that is to come and very briefly, the time that is now. It is a cruel irony that also by virtue of our human nature, most of us dwell either in sorrow of our past or in fear of a future that is inherently uncertain. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, in his haunting poem ‘Hum Log’ (‘Us’) expressed it thus:

‘Dil kay aiwanon main liyay gul shuda shamon kee qataar

Noor-e-Khurshid say sehmay huay uktaay huay

Muzmahil saaet-e-imroz kee bayrangi say

Yaad-e-Maazee say ghameen, dehshat-e-fardaa say nidhaal’

‘Carrying a line of extinguished candles in the depths of our hearts

Exhausted and frightened of the sunshine

Enervated by the colorlessness of our days

Sorrowful at the past and terrified of the future’

Khizr, on the other hand, is presenting the opposite message. The change that time brings and the struggle that it implies, whether we like it or not, is proof of life and is what grants life meaning. The struggle is life in the most profound sense of the term. Cessation of movement, of change, of struggle means death, and though that is peaceful, it is no longer life.

Khizr underlines this point in the last verse of this section:

‘Zindaa tar hai gardish-e-paiham say jaam-e-zindagi

Hai yehi ae bekhabar raaz-e-dawam-zindagi’

‘Robust is life’s wine cup because of this eternal movement

This, O unknowing one, is the secret of eternal life’

The next section of the poem titled ‘Zindagi (Life)’ is where Khizr explains to the poet the meaning of life. He begins:

‘Bartar-az andesha-e-sood-o-ziyaan hai zindagi

Hai kabhi jaan aur kabhi tasleem-e-jaan hai zindagi’

“Life transcends profit and loss

It is living your life and giving it up (for something)”

Khizr illustrates to our protagonist that everything is recognized by its opposite. This is a simple enough concept. What is day? The absence of night. What is night? The absence of the day. Is it possible to have day without night? Is it possible to have white without black? Is it possible to have life without death? The one thing defines and in fact creates the other. Without the one, there would no longer be the other. Just so, Khizr tells the poet that posing the question in such a narrow way is meaningless and in fact, the meaning of life and its meaninglessness are one and the same. If one person asks the meaning of their life, the answer could very well be ‘nothing’(or whatever that person chooses it to be) but the question changes if one asks the meaning of Life with a capital ‘L’ i.e. Life itself, all life.

Khizr goes on:

‘Tu issay paimana-e-imroz-o-fardaa say na naap

Javidaan, paiham dawan, har dam jawan hai zindagi’

“Measure it not by this day or that

Eternal, dynamic, ever young is Life”

Here again, Khizr gently chides our poet for his narrow point of view. While any one person is always a prisoner of ‘today and tomorrow’, Life itself has no such constraints. It emerges, blooms, flowers, withers, dies and then starts anew.

Khizr then goes on to teach the real lessons to our poet:

“Apni duniya aap paida kar agar zindon main hai

Sirr-e-Aadam hai, zameer-e-kun-fikaan hai zindagi’

“Create your own world if you count yourself among the living

The Secret of Adam, the essence of (divine) creation is life”

Here Iqbal demonstrates one of the central contradictions of his poetry and his life philosophy, the struggle to resolve its material and the metaphysical aspects. While Iqbal grew up in a deeply religious household he traveled and read widely. He was well familiar with the ideas of both the idealist and materialist Western philosophers i.e. those espousing Idealism, the proposition that ideas exist independent of matter (in its more extreme forms it may involve the denial of the existence of the external world) and those advocating Materialism, the philosophical theory that regards matter and its motions as constituting the universe, and all phenomena, including those of mind, as due to material agencies. While his poetry has some wonderful exhortations to action, it is also deeply imbued with Idealistic themes and in many instances, the calls to action flounder on the shores of appealing to the heavens for help.

This is the case in his “Lenin in the presence of God” from his collection ‘Baal-e-Jibreel (The Wing of Gabriel)’:

‘Mashriq kay khudawand safedaan-e-firangi

Maghrib kay khudawand darakhshanda-e-falzaat’

The leader of the Russian Revolution rails against ‘the rulers of the East, the White gods’ and ‘the rulers of the West, gold and silver’.

‘Hai dil kay liyay maut machinon kee hukumat

Ehsaas-e-murawwat ko kuchal daytay hain aalaaat’

He goes on to say ‘the rule of machines kills the soul; tools and machines destroy fraternity and brotherhood’. In the end, though, Iqbal cannot rise above his metaphysical solution, calling upon God to change things rather than placing his faith inMan.

In the next verse though, Khizr clarifies his explanation:

‘Zindagaani kee haqeeqat kohkan kay dil say pooch

Juu-e-sheer-o-tesha-o-sang-giraan hai zindagi’

‘Ask the mountain cutter the meaning of life

It is the stream of milk, the stone cutting tool and the heavy boulder’

This refers to a story in the fabled Shahnama, an enormous poetic opus written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi around 1000 AD .The Shahnama, considered the national epic of Iran, tells of the mythical and historical past of Iran from the creation of the world up until the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century.

This verse recounts the story of the love of the Sassanian King, Khosrow II towards his Christian princess, Shirin and the vanquishing of his love-rival, Farhad by sending him on an exile to Behistun Mountain with the impossible task of carving a ‘stream of milk’ through a stone mountain if he wants to win the hand of Shirin. This story (and particularly the carving of the stream as a metaphor for accomplishing something close to impossible) finds reflection in the poetry of many poets of the region through the ages.

Iqbal’s ‘spiritual mentor’, Mirza Ghalib used it this way in a verse:

Kav kave sakht jani hai tanhai naa pooch

Subh karna shaam kaa laana hai ju-e-sheer kaa’

‘Inquire not of my forbearance to the incessant hammering in the loneliness

Just to spend the day from morning to night is like carving the milk stream’

Or, elsewhere:

‘Teshe baghair mar naa sakaa kohkan,Asad

Gum-gushtaa-e-khumaar-e-rasoom-o-qayood tha’

‘Without the chisel, the mountain digger could not kill himself

He was too intoxicated with traditions’

Khizr continues:

‘Bandagi main ghat kay reh jaatee hai ek juay kam aab

Aur aazadi main behr-e-be-karaan hai zindagi’

‘In bondage, Life is but an exhausted stream

Free, it is a fiery, interminable ocean’

Iqbal is, no doubt, exhorting his country men, enslaved economically and politically by the British for over a hundred years with no end on sight.

‘Aashkaara hai yeh apni quwat-e-taskheer say

Warnaa ek mitti kay paikar main nihaan hai zindagi’

‘Familiar is he with his power to conquer

Though Life is hidden in this lump of clay’

Again, we see the interesting contradiction of Iqbal’s style. He refers to Man as a ‘lump of clay’, a completely Materialist point of view. Humans arise from the world they live in, they subsist on the world they inhabit, they die and rejoin their ‘Mother Earth’ who receives all back in her embrace. If we arise from this Earth and then rejoin her after we die, where does the world of angels, heavens, purgatory and the like fit in? Khizr (and Iqbal) chooses to remain silent.

“Qulzam-e-hasti say tu ubhraa hai manind-e-hubaab

Iss ziyaan kahanay main tera imtihan hai zindagi”

“Risen are you like a bubble on the ocean of life

Life is your test in this world of everlasting loss”

Here Iqbal points out another profound truth. Everything fades and disappears. Things arise and fall and arise again and the cycle continues. Clutching at this or that, trying to preserve it, prolong it, fearing its loss, mourning its passing is meaningless. If change is constant and nothing is eternal, then there is no point in trying to hold on to things. A much better way, what might be called the Zen way in the Buddhist tradition, is embodied in a verse by Aatish Lucknavi:

‘Naa phero iss say munh Aatish, jo kuch darpaish aa jaaey

Dikhaata hai jo aankhon ko muqaddar, daikhtay jaao’

‘Do not look away, O Aatish, from what appears before you

Whatever your fate shows you, serenely observe it’

This view makes it much easier to see beyond the surface of things, inside the turmoil that often marks the surface of so much of life.

Then, another call for action:

‘Khaam hai jab tak kay hai mitti ka ek anbaar tu

Pukhtaa ho jaaey toe hai shamsheer-e-bay-zanhaar tu

Ho sadaqat kay liyay jis dil main marnay kee tadap

Pehlay apnay paikar-e-khakee main jaan paida karey

Phoonk daalay yeh zameen-o-aasman-e-musta’ar

Aur khakastar say phir apna jahan paida karey’

‘Imperfect are you, if still a lump of clay

And if hardened, a mortal sword

The heart that desires martyrdom for the Truth

Let him first strengthen his earthly form

Let him destroy this borrowed Earth and Heaven

And from the ashes, fashion a new world’

It is easy to see, even from this imperfect translation, the electrifying effect this kind of poetry could have on a crowd, particularly in a people suffering from centuries of bondage and humiliation. Of course, Iqbal does not elaborate on what ‘Truth’ he is referring to leaving it up to each reader to discover that truth for him or herself. There is, of course, a danger in this. Quoting Kiernan again, Iqbal had “talked of the importance of a peaceful understanding between Muslims and Hindus; he had also, in his time, indulged in unguarded rhetoric about holy wars and the sword of Islam and extolled action as if that were an end in itself. Doubtless many other on both sides said the same things but few with his authority and none with his eloquence. The holy war he would have seen if he had lived another decade and most certainly would have recoiled from in horror was the gigantic massacre of 1947, one of the most frightful catastrophes of the twentieth century in which Hindus and Muslims of the Punjab perished by the hundreds of thousands. Years before, thinking of the Great War (the First World War), he had written: ‘That is not the rosy dawn of a new age on the horizon of the West, but a torrent of blood.’ The same might have been written now of his own horizon of the East”.

Khizr ends this section by issuing a challenge to the poet (and the poet to us):

“Yeh ghari mehshar kee hai, tu arsaaey mehshar main hai

Pesh kar ghafil amal, gar koi daftar main hai’

“This is the day of reckoning and here you are

If you have something to present, this is the time’

Iqbal closes this section with a profound tribute to the idea of the ‘present moment’. There is no yesterday, it is only a memory of time gone by, it never will be again. There is no tomorrow, we may never see it. All of us, at any time, only have the present moment in which we live. We plan for and worry about the future, we remember and mourn the past and in between, we so often choose to neglect the only time that we ever have, here and now. This is what Khizr is telling Iqbal (and us). If you have something to do, something to show, something to accomplish, begin it now, don’t wait, don’t put it off, you will never have this moment again and you may never see tomorrow.


Muhawaraa Maa Bain Khuda-o-Insan (Dialogue between God and Man):


The third poem in this selection, ‘Muhawaraa maa bain Khuda-o-Insaan’ features one of Iqbal’s favorite styles, a dialogue or interplay between earthly and celestial figures. It also employs one of Iqbal’s favored poetical styles, the Socratic Method (or Socratic Debate), named after the Classical Greek philosopher Socrates, a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate rational thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against the defense of another. One of the most famous examples of this genre is Iqbal’s lengthy poem ‘Shikwah’ or ‘Reproach’ in which Man(representing the Muslim faith) complains to God about the shabby treatment meted out to Muslims by God inspite of the sacrifices that Muslims have made on God’s behalf. The poem, which caused quite a stir when first read by Iqbal in public, is a bold criticism of God’s indifference to a people who feel they deserve better:

‘Ae Khuda, shikwah-e-arbaab-e-wafa bhi sun lay

Khoogar-e-hamd say thoda saa gilaa bhi sun lay’

‘O God, listen to this remonstrance from your faithful

Listen to the lament of those who forever praise you’

Many people were scandalized in those conservative days of the British Raj when Iqbal dared to address God in so brazen a manner and eventually, Iqbal ended up writing a ‘Jawab-e-Shikwah’ or ‘Reply to Reproach’ in which God takes Man (Muslims) to task for daring to complain while failing miserably in all manner of things practical.

‘Dialogue’ is just such a poem. It is brief, a mere six verses, three each allowed to God and Man with, tellingly, the last word byMan.It is in Persian, Iqbal’s favored language and flows in his typical style.

God starts first, remarking to man:

‘Jahan raaz yak aab-o-gil aafridum

Tu Iran-o-tataar-o-zang aafridi

Man az khaak polaad naab aafridum

Tu shamsheer-o-teer-o-tafang aafridi

Tabar aafridi nihal-e-chaman ra

Qafas sakhtee tair-e-naghma zan ra’

‘I created this world from the same water and earth

You createdIran, Tartaria andNubia

I forged from dust, iron’s pristine ore

You fashioned the sword, arrow and gun

To fell the garden tree, you made the axe

You fashioned the cage to imprison the singing bird’

Man replies:

‘Tu shab aafridi, chiragh aafridum

Safaal aafridi, ayaagh aafridum

Bayabaan-o-kohsaar-o-raagh aafridi

Khayabaan-o-gulzar-o-bagh aafridum

Man aanam kay az sang aaina saazum

Man aanam kay az zehr noshinaa sazum’

‘You created night, I the lamp

You created clay, and I the cup

You-desert, mountain peak and valley

I-flower bed, park and orchard

It is I who grind a mirror out of stone

And brew elixir from poison’

The striking thing about this exchange, other than its lyrical flow (lost in translation somewhat) is the insolent nature of Man’s response. It is all the more surprising considering that Iqbal is revered throughout Pakistan as a champion of the Muslims and a staunch defender, till his last days of the somewhat problematic concept of ‘Pan-Islamism’, the notion that all Muslims, all over the world are one ‘Ummah’ or brotherhood. This has been a rallying cry of poets, writers, reformers and leaders through the ages although there has never been an effective political event that came close to realizing the dream. This would seem to demonstrate the idea’s inherent weakness i.e. the difficulty that any new faith has always had taking strong root in a new land unless it adapts and incorporates local traditions, customs and beliefs. In spite of exhortations to the contrary, the banner of faith has never been able to unite disparate nationalities, ethnicities and languages simply because loyalties to family, community, ethnicity and nation (in the broadest sense of the word) predate religion by thousands of years.

Man’s response in the poem is also a good example of one of Iqbal’s central poetical themes, that of ‘Khudi’ or ‘self hood’, the ‘sense of evolution and history through advance and struggle, of the development of a dynamic individual personality developed through practical activity in the world as against the lingering Sufi ideal of passive contemplation and mystic absorption’ according to Kiernan.

The poem’s chief strength appears to be Man’s declaration of supreme confidence in his abilities to face any challenge, rise to overcome any obstacle, even one thrown up by the Almighty. It also points to another important psychological turning point, particularly in a man’s life: the struggle, beginning according to Freud at a young age, and continuing throughout life to overcome and surpass the legacy of a dominant father. Freud termed this the ‘Oedipus complex’ after the mythical Greek king, Oedipus, who, unknowingly, kills his father and marries his mother, an act which is expressly forbidden in all major religions on pain of eternal damnation.  In this poem, Man, the defiant son, challenges his heavenly Father and proudly defends his accomplishments while God benevolently (and perhaps ironically) looks on and chooses to allow Man to have the last word.

This belief in struggle and the resulting development of self-hood is a favorite theme in Iqbal’s work. Kiernan pointed out that Iqbal could never reconcile the Materialist and Metaphysical aspects of his personality and this is evident in his poetry.

There is no evidence that Iqbal ever wanted to reconcile his two opposing natures, his poetry seems to lean now one way, now the other, and, as with all great poets, everyone can find in it what they are looking for. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Iqbal’s ‘spiritual successor’, whose progressive, anti-Imperialist poetry remains widely popular on both sides of the Indo-Pak divide, deeply admired Iqbal’s poetry (while remaining sceptical of Pan-Islamism). It is often thought that Faiz, being a socialist and humanist, did not care much for Iqbal’s poetry. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only was Faiz an admirer of Iqbal’s poetry, Faiz’s father and Iqbal were contemporaries and friends from their days atCambridgeLawSchool. Iqbal presented Faiz with one of his first awards for winning a poetry competition when Faiz was still a teenager and later wrote a letter of recommendation for Faiz’ admission to Government College, Lahore. Upon Iqbal’s death, a sorrowful Faiz wrote a moving elegy titled ‘Iqbal’:

‘Aaya hamare des main ek khush nawa faqeer

Aaya aur apni dhun main ghazal khwaan guzargaya

Sunsaan rahen khalq say aabad ho gayin

Veeraan maikadon kaa naseeba sanwargaya

Ab door jaa chuka hai woh shah-e-gadaa numa

Aur phir say apnay des kee rahen udaas hain

Par uss kaa geet sab kay dilon main muqeem hai

Aur uss kee ley say sainkaron lazzat shanaas hain

Yeh geet misle-shola-e-jawwala tundo-o-tez

Iss kee lapak say baad-e-fana kaa jigar gudaaz

Jaise chiragh wehshat-e-sar sar say bekhabar

Ya shama bazme-subh kee aamad say bekhabar’

‘A sweet singing saint arrived in our land

Sang his songs and moved on

Desolate pathways and deserted taverns came alive

Far away is he now, that regal beggar

And forlorn once again are the streets of our land

His song remains in our hearts

And enlivens countless souls with its sweetness

The song, like a fiery flame

Dispels even the wind of Death

Like the lamp, fearless of the blowing gale

Or the candle-flame, unaware of the coming morn’

Of Iqbal’s place inPakistan, Kiernan wrote ‘In the new State that now had to find its place in the world, Iqbal was canonized as a founding father. That dead poets should molder in government shrines while living poets molder in government jails is a not unfamiliar irony of history. (However) A poet’s influence is Protean. Among those numerous Hindus and Muslims who in the nightmare days of 1947 saved the lives of members of the other community at the risk to their own, there must have been many who had breathed Iqbal’s verses with their native air. It was, after all, his lifelong teaching that the spirit is more than the letter, that religion must always be on guard against the dogmatist and the charlatan and that a people must go forward or die’.

At its best, Iqbal’s poetry is a magnificent call to action against all forms of injustice, tyranny and oppression, a call that is as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago.

The author is a Psychiatrist practicing inArkansas,USA. He can be reached at


(1) Jallianwala Bagh: The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, alternatively known as the Amritsar Massacre, is named after the Jallianwala Bagh (Garden) in the northern Indian city ofAmritsar. On April 13, 1919, British Indian Army soldiers under the command of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on a peaceful, unarmed gathering of men, women and children celebrating the Punjabi New Year. The firing lasted about 10 minutes and official British Raj sources placed the fatalities at 379. According to private sources there were over 1000 deaths, with more than 2000 wounded. The British Civil Surgeon indicated that there were 1,526 casualties.


1. Kiernan, V.G. Poems from Iqbal; Translated by V.G.Kiernan.OxfordUniversityPress, 2004.

2. (Aasan) Kulliyaat-i-Iqbal,Urdu. Alhamra Publishing,Islamabad, 2004.

3. Kanda K.C. Allama Iqbal Selected Poetry; New Dawn Press, 2006

4. Vassilyeva, Ludmilla. Parvarish-e-Lauh-o-Qalam; Translated by Osama Farooqui and    Ludmilla Vassilyeva.OxfordUniversityPress, 2004.

5. A Desertful of Roses. The Urdu Ghazals of Mirza Asadullah Khan “Ghalib”; available at

First published in three parts in October 2009 in the Friday Times, Lahore. Also published in three parts November/December, 2009 on Also published in the Annual of Urdu Studies Volume 25, 2010


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