Sunday, December 20, 2009


In his Persian poem 'Mysteries of Selflessness' (1918), Iqbal stated that fraternity, equality and liberty were the aims of the mission of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He illustrated the last of these through the example of the sacrifice offered by the Prophet's grandson Imam Husain in Kerbala in Muharram, 61 A.H. (680 AD). The following is translation by famous British Orientalist A.J. Arberry published in 1953; it is inaccurate in parts where he misunderstands Persian words, but is a classic in its own right due to his legendary stature.
Whoever maketh compact with the One
That is, hath been delivered from the yoke
Of every idol. Unto love belongs
The true believer, and Love unto him;
Love maketh all things possible to us.
Reason is ruthless; Love is even more,
Purer, and nimbler, and more unafraid.
Lost in the maze of cause and of effect
Is Reason; Love strikes boldly in the field
Of Action. Crafty Reason sets a snare;
Love overthrows the prey with strong right arm.
Reason is rich in fear and doubt; but Love
Has firm resolve, faith indissoluble.
Reason constructs, to make a wilderness;
Love lays wide waste, to build all up anew.
Reason is cheap, and plentiful as air;
Love is most scarce to find, and of great price.
Reason stands firm upon phenomena,
But Love is naked of material robes.
Reason says, “Thrust thyself into the fore;”
Love answers, “Try thy heart, and prove thyself.”
Reason by acquisition is informed
Of other; Love is born of inward grace
And makes account with self. Reason declares,
“Be happy and be prosperous”; Love replies,
“Become a servant, that thou mayest be free.”
Freedom brings full contentment to Love’s soul,
Freedom, the driver of Love’s riding-beast.
Hast thou not heard what things in time of war
Love wrought with lustful Reason? I would speak
Of that great leader of all men who love
Truly the Lord, that upright cypress-tree
Of the Apostle’s garden, Ali’s son,
Whose father led the sacrificial feast
That he might prove a mighty offering;
And for that prince of the best race of men
The Last of the Apostles gave his back
To ride upon, a camel passing fair.
Crimsoned his blood the cheek of jealous Love
(Which theme adorns my verse in beauty bold)
Who is sublime in our community

As Say, the Lord is God exalts the Book.
Moses and Pharaoh, Shabbir and Yazid –
From Life spring these conflicting potencies;
Truth lives in Shabbir’s strength; Untruth is that
Fierce, final anguish of regretful death.
And when the Caliphate first snapped its thread
From the Quran, in Freedom’s throat was poured
A fatal poison, like a rain-charged cloud
The effulgence of the best of peoples rose
Out of the West, to spill on Kerbala,
And in that soil, that desert was before,
Sowed, as he died, a field of tulip-blood.
There, till the Resurrection, tyranny
Was evermore cut off; a garden fair
Immortalizes where his lifeblood surged.
For Truth alone his blood dripped to the dust,
Wherefore he has become the edifice
Of faith in God’s pure Unity. Indeed
Had his ambition been for earthly rule,
Not so provisioned would he have set forth
On his last journey, having enemies
Innumerable as the desert sands,
Equal his friends in number to God’s Name.
The mystery that was epitomized
In Abraham and Ishmael through his life
And death stood forth at last in full revealed.
Firm as a mountain-chain was his resolve,
Impetuous, unwavering to its goal
The Sword is for the glory of the Faith
And is unsheathed but to defend the Law.
The Muslim, servant unto God alone
Before no Pharaoh casteth down his head.
His blood interpreted these mysteries,
And waked our slumbering community.
He drew the sword There is none other god
And shed the blood of them that served the lie;
Inscribing in the wilderness save God
He wrote for all to read the exordium
Of our salvation. From Husain we learned
The riddle of the Book, and at his flame
Kindled our torches. Vanished now from ken
Damascus might, the splendour of Baghdad,
Granada’s majesty, all lost to mind;
Yet still the strings he smote within our soul
Vibrate, still ever new our faith abides
In his Allahu Akbar, Gentle breeze,
Thou messenger of them that are afar,
Bear these my tears to lave his holy dust.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

No more crusades?

Some time ago, Mauj Collective organized an event where dancers from Lyari (a neighborhood in Karachi) were going to offer Pakistani folk dance on Western tunes being broadcast live from North America through the Internet. I was quite amused to notice that actually such a thing had been envisaged by the Urdu fiction writer Ibne Safi (1928-1980) in the early 1970s. In Bamboo Castle, Ali Imran danced a Pakistani folk dance on Western pop music in an Italian disco.

As I revisited that novel, I was struck by another detail whose symbolism had escaped me earlier. Imran's host in Italy is his friend from the Oxford days, an Italian count who is now a police commissioner threatened by a local drug overlord. As part of a plan to help his friend, Imran borrows the sword with which the friend's ancestor had fought against Saladin during the Crusades. "By the will of God, I shall slay your enemy with this same sword," says Imran to his Italian friend.

I interpret this symbolism at two levels. Firstly, the work of Imran itself is symbolically about a world which is moving on from hostilities of the past, and joining hands on fighting common enemies, such as crime and drugs in this instance. As a foriegner, Imran has no business fighting Italian mafia in their homeland, and hence his using the sword of an Italian crusader becomes an act of courtesy to the host country, giving him legitimacy in a deeper sense.

Secondly, just as Imran is helping his Italian friend to get rid of local mafia, so Ibne Safi can lend a helping hand to foreigner readers in warding off those yarns of literature which glorify crime. Very interestingly, his novel came out just when Mario Puzo's Godfather had started a new cult.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Democracy Vs. Democracy

A few days ago, I conducted a workshop with some teacher educators on the subject of history. One of the activities included a comparison between two models of democracy. The analysis offered by participants was an eye-opener for me, and I learnt something new. I am offering the same activity here. What differences do you find between these two models according to the highlights given here? Please post your answers as comments below.

Democracy Model A
  • We… admire those who fight for their convictions… But in the older democracies we have learned that sometimes we bow to the will of the majority. In doing that, we do not give up our convictions. We continue sometimes to persuade, and eventually we may be successful. But we know that we have to work together and we have to progress. So, we believe that when we have made a good fight, and the majority is against us, it is perhaps better tactics to try to cooperate.
  • Come back to break my heart again, if you are still upset. Come, come back to leave me again later.
  • The minds of the masses become used to what you offer them, and it produces a certain kind of conditioning which in return leads to a corresponding reaction.
  • Well, in my view, political activists make demands not because they think it's plausible to meet in the near future or in current situation, but mainly because they are making a statement.
Democracy Model B
  • “I’m the spirit of all human beings,” said the bride. “Therefore, whoever would desire to win me, should strive for the common good of all human beings, and especially for the good of his nation.”
  • The purpose of these gatherings will be to learn about each other, and from each other, so that whatever errors might be there in the opinions of some may get corrected through others, and the course of action which seems pleasing to everyone should be adopted.
  • Why cannot you who, as a people, can well claim to be the first practical exponent of this superb conception of humanity, live and move and have your being as a single individual?
  • Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.
  • Every human being knows at least one thing which I don’t know. By this estimate, I know very little.
  • The making and breaking of relationships is in the hand of God. Our desires don’t count.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Syed: the Birth of a Nation

On October 16, 1863, Syed Ahmad Khan addressed notable Muslims of Calcutta in Persian language. There he described his concept of nation. "Love exists at countless levels," he explained:
  1. Firstly, there is love for the whole creation, so that one feels pain even if a leaf or a stone is hurt in the universe. This highest degree of love is a gift of God and cannot be acquired on demand.
  2. Secondly, there is love for all living things.
  3. Thirdly, there is love for the entire humanity.
  4. Fourthly, there is love for one's own nation.
This was the theory of nationhood to which not only Syed but also Iqbal, Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Quaid-i-Azam and Liquat Ali Khan subscribed afterwards, and which is still alive in the hearts of the unschooled masses of Pakistan but seems to have slipped the grasp of the intelligentsia, somehow, since 1953.

In that same Calcutta Address, Syed also pointed out that the enemy of Islam was not Christianity but modern philosophy, and therefore we needed to consolidate our efforts on that front. It may be noted that he expressed this view only four years after the publication of Darwin's book, and long before Nietzsche even appeared on the scene.

For expressing these views, he was declared kafir by the conservatives, who left no stone unturned in opposing the college which he wanted to found at Aligarh for introducing quality education in the country. Returning hatred with love, Syed stayed out of the curriculum-design committee and invited Maulana Qasim Nanotvi, his foremost opponent and the founder of the Deoband seminary, to be part of it instead. Maulana took offence because Shia scholars would also be there although designing a separate syllabus for Shia students. Not bothering to reply himself, Maulana asked his deputy to write back that Syed should feel ashamed for suggesting that the Maulana or his representatives should sit in a room with Shias!

Conservative scholars were not the only enemies of Syed (and Islam). The British recognized him as the most potent threat for the Empire, at least in the long-term. On the pretext of writing sympathetic studies, Western scholars began to present him as a Westernized Muslim. The same line was towed by Indian National Congress, who was upset because Syed's concept of a nation based on love for all creation was opposed to the Western model of territorial identity which Congress tried to introduce in India twenty-two year after Syed's Calcutta Address.

Beyond his lifetime, Syed's most ardent defenders have been Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar and Iqbal. "It may be pointed out here that Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Jamal-ud-Din Afghani and hundreds of the latter’s disciples in Muslim countries were not Westernised Muslims," Iqbal wrote in an open letter to Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1935. "It is only the superficial observer of the modern world of Islam who thinks that the present crisis in the world of Islam is wholly due to the working of alien forces."

In the light of these views expressed by Iqbal, let's look into our conscience and see if we all have not been superficial observers?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Faiz: do the masses matter?

I do not think that Faiz Ahmed Faiz was an athiest. He was a simple Muslim, as I may say from what I know of his biography. He used Sufi and classical imagery in his poems more abundantly than some other contemporaries but in many ways, if not all, he opposed the basic Sufi value, Love. This makes it very difficult to bracket him with Sufi poets (and this much has also been pointed out by some other critics).

My strongest disagreement with Faiz is on his disfranchizing of the masses. Stated explicitly in some speeches and essays which most of his readers have not read, but also implied throughout his poetry, the masses are not entitled to choose their literature or to think for themselves. In his opinion, they always get "conditioned" and he advises governments to indoctrinate the people.

Hence, while Faiz speaks for the people, he does not believe in seeking mandate from them. Nor does he believe that when you claim to be speaking for others, then you are obliged to present their case, otherwise you should just say that you are speaking for yourself and exercise your freedom of expression. Instead, he imposes himself in a position where he knows what is good for others, and therefore they do not have the right to question his legitimacy as their spokesperson. The fundamental right which is denied here is "consent".

It seems to me that these ideals did not arise from any dictatorial streak in his personal makeup. Quite the contrary. It seems to me that he was rather too gentle to revolt against these dominant trends of the school of thought with whom he got associated somehow. In my opinion, an impartial study will reveal an immense worth of his poetry for the study of a very interesting mind.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Neda Agha Soltan Scholarship

Arash Hejazi is an Iranian doctor studying at Oxford University. He arrived in Iran on June 18. Two days later he was with the 27-year-old Neda Agha Soltan when she received fatal bullet shots during street protests against election results. The incident was filmed and released on the Internet, sparking outrage against the Iranian Government. The next day, the man from Oxford went back.

Conspicuous? That’s what the Iranian government says. It also says that Neda was shot on an isolated street far from protesters. The regime is investigating, and emphasizes the possibility that this could have been a set-up: those who filmed Neda and her companions for twenty minutes on that isolated street could be the ones who also shot her.

Next episode: Queen’s College announces Neda Agha Soltan Graduate Scholarship for philosophy. The college is part of the same Oxford University. While the Iranian embassy in London has voiced protest against the University's “involvement in a politically motivated campaign,” an impartial reader of this news may face a moral dilemma of another sort. Only someone who doesn’t know history would dismiss the Iranian suspicions of a Western conspiracy as baseless, but should this also mean resentment for the politically motivated scholarship?

If Neda was shot down in order to create a false flag, this doesn’t make her any less of a victim. The question is whether her own government fired the rifle, or was it someone whose identity shall be declassified in London or New York thirty years from now? Today, redefining Neda as a martyr to foreign conspiracy is difficult, but it isn’t impossible. In that case, the flamboyantly announced scholarship can end up as an on-campus reminder of Iran’s case against Britain.

Iranians are the original inventors of statecraft (Cyrus the Great was the first emperor to replace the Pharaoh’s whip with win-win diplomacy). Using the wit and ingenuity of their ancient ancestor Zulqarnayn, Iranians might be able to build a new wall against the present-day Gog and Magog. Wit and ingenuity are needed for that, and those traits usually go together with sensitivity and positive thinking. Fortunately, there is enough of all these in classical Persian literature.

Read news from Associated Press

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Time to Mourn

I regret that I didn't see this post on One Heart for Peace early enough to make a timely reference here. However, it's still worth a look to check it out, and post your comment on that blog itself (not here, since this is just a notice, and visitors won't be able to see the content as well as comment together).

It is about sharing universal feelings for peace and the unity of humankind: "A Time to Mourn".

Saturday, November 7, 2009

My appearances on Iqbal Day

I am making several appearances, electronic and live, this Iqbal Day (Monday, November 9, 2009) in Pakistan. Here is the program:

  • 8:30 am to 9:00 am: Breakfast with Dawn, on Dawn News Channel – live interview
  • 10:00 am to 12:00 am: FM 105, Radio channel in Karachi – live interview
  • 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm: Adamjee Institute, Karachi – lecture and presentation
  • 7:00 pm: Arts Council, Karachi – Launching Ceremony of my book, Iqbal: Tashkeeli Daur, 1905-1913. Ceremony will be presided over by Dr. Sahar Ansari and several distinguished speakers will include Dr. Ahmad Safi, with whom many of you must already be familiar
  • 7:00 pm: Aaj TV - special program on Iqbal Day, hosted by Rahat Kazmi. Other participants include Arshad Mahmood and Zaid Hamid (it was recorded last Wednesday).
You are most welcome to come to the ceremony at Arts Council if you live in Karachi. Just send me an email in advance, so that I may leave your passes at the entrance.

Iqbal, the first telefilm about the life of Allama Iqbal written by me, directed by Faisal Rehman and produced by Iqbal Academy Pakistan, will also be aired that day from PTV at 11 am.

Friday, October 30, 2009


Consensus. It seems to have a magic of its own, but even if we don't discuss that right now, the minimum that humanity needs today, especially Pakistan for its survival, is that everyone should be willing to modify their views in order to accomodate others'.

We might be amazed to see that none of the so-called progressive ideologies and so-called perfect democracies have this on their agenda. They have created myths of "commitment", "conviction", etc, all nice words to hide the fact that no political party, ideology or "ism" today is willing to say, "I may be wrong as well, and I will know this from your response."

This is what we need to change. What do u think?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Presidential Award for my book

News: my book Iqbal: an Illustrated Biography (2006) has won the Presidential Iqbal Award. Some details about the book can be found on my website.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Who's afraid of Charlotte Bronte?

My interest in Jane Eyre revived when I realized that it could be incorporated into the system of symbols which Iqbal had used to interpret the world literature in order to decipher the ambitions which societies nurture in their hearts often without knowing it themselves. Hence I do not claim that the interpretation which I am offering was also known to Charlotte Bronte when she published her book in 1847 (although I have a few interesting observations on that matter as well).

I see Jane Eyre as the spirit of Christianity (which makes her the same as "the spirit of all human beings" described by Syed Ahmad Khan quite independently in his short story 'Time Bygone' in 1873). In that case, Rochester becomes the embodiment of Western civilization and the body politics of Europe. Its dark secret is the fruits of colonialism which it is trying to hide in the attic because that is a bargain that went wrong: the marriage with the mad woman took place in Jamaica (a colony), and it has only brought anguish.

However, Jane is a moral phantom like destiny itself, who cannot be diverted. Her principles do not bend any more than a force of Nature. Hence she leaves Rochester (the spirit of Christianity leaves the body politics of Europe). She does not find solace in the company of puritans either (just as Christianity is no more content with monasticism and is yearning to become a guiding force for civilization again).

The mad woman does not represent the colonized nations. She represents no individual. She is an epitome of that moral weakness in Rochester himself which led him to seek fortune abroad. It is that same moral weakness, now personified in the shape of this woman, which brings doom to his estate: she puts fire in which she burns herself as well as the estate of Rochester, and he loses his eyesight temporarily.

Uncanny, that this is exactly how Iqbal prophecied the end of colonialism in his seminal poem 'March 1907': "Your civilization will commit suicide with its own dagger." I do not mean to suggest that Iqbal was deliberating over the matrimonial problems of a 19th Century governess when he wrote this climactic poem about destinies of nations, yet it is extremely interesting to note that a particular interpretation of Jane Eyre brings out an embedded message completely identical to that of Iqbal.

Is it my personal interpretation? Well, I belong to a tradition where every writer since Nezami Ganjavi in the 12th Century (and including Rumi, Jami, Bhittai, Sir Syed and Iqbal) has used the metaphor of the beloved to mean the spirit of a society, identical to "the spirit of all human beings." It is only natural for me to interpret Jane Eyre in this manner.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Jane Eyre (1847)

“Reader, I married him.” Who is the reader, and who married whom? Of course, the prudish Jane Eyre married the single-again Rochester and this has to be the first line of the last chapter of the famous novel by Charlotte Bronte.

At least this is how “reader” has been understanding it since 1847, and “reader” could be anyone from billions of people who, in every region of the world, have become familiar with this story in original or through abridgement, translation or adaptation. Its popularity across cultures is mind-boggling: the video here shows Zeba as Jane Eyre rescuing Waheed Murad as Rochester in the partially inspired Armaan (1966), while another famous song “Abhi dhoondh hi rahi thhi, tumhien yeh nazar hamari” comes from yet another version, and there was at least one more.

Of course, the most enduring loan from Jane Eyre has been the wonderful announcement in Chapter 26: “The marriage cannot go on.” It has been repeated countless times on Indian and Pakistani screen in its Urdu variation, “Yeh shadi nahi ho sakti.” You didn't know that this quotable quote was from English literature?).

Apart from popular culture, Jane Eyre has never ceased to be taught in schools, colleges and universities. Such global adoration is usually reserved for some scriptures, Rumi and Shakespeare. How did a nineteenth century forerunner of Mills & Boons conquer an empire that was bigger than Queen Victoria’s, and more lasting?

I had posted this far when I received the comment (see below), "Talking about Bronte, I think she always wrote for pleasure or love. I didnt find any purpose or a desire to change the world in her novels yet I have the widest collection..." Precisely, that's how I used to think when I started building my personal collection of works by and about the Bronte sisters.

Until I realized that probably Charlotte Bronte is one of the few who can change the world. TODAY.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Iqbal and Cowper

If we compare Cowper and Iqbal, we find that almost the entire work of the English poet is paralleled by the Poet of the East, but invariably the latter seeks to draw out a stronger basis for certainty. Consider the following proverbially famous passage from ‘Lines Shining Out of Darkness’ in the Olney Hymns (1799):
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

It is unlikely that Iqbal never pondered over this hymn before writing his famous Persian poem in Zuboor-i-Ajam (1927), opening with lines that can be translated as:

We are separated from God, and He is looking for us;
Like us, He is in love and is yearning with desire.
At times writing His message on the petal of a flower;
Lamenting inside the breasts of singing birds at times.

Here, Iqbal draw us into an intimacy with the very nature of the Divine while Cowper was content with just pointing at it. The Western critic relegated the English poet to the back row after the First World War, but in the East where Iqbal is venerated as one of the greatest of all times, Cowper is bound to be rediscovered once his close affinity with the works of Iqbal becomes known. This is the second implication of the glowworm illuminating the dark night of the nightingale: Iqbal has salvaged the work of Cowper from those dungeons of oblivion into which it has been thrown by current literary trends in the West.

There is also a third implication. In Cowper’s poem ‘The Nightingale and the Glowworm’, the bird is about to eat the worm when the latter gives a message of love and unity. Hence, when Iqbal’s glowworm offers to illuminate the night, it is a victim offering help to predator and letting bygones be bygones. This is relevant because Cowper’s nation had enslaved the country of Iqbal – “flying around and feeding” is how the nightingale spent his day, but what did he feed on? Glowworms! This “flying around and feeding” is that very act of colonization which led the Western civilization astray from the message of Jesus. Hence “darkness has descended on everything.”

Cowper’s fear of damnation may not have been strictly personal. Unconsciously, the mystical poet may have trembled at what was to come out of the various activities of his civilization, be they territorial conquests or evangelical conversions of weaker nations. In his poem ‘The Nightingale and the Glowworm,’ where a glowworm preaches love and unity to the predator, Cowper concludes by drawing the following moral:

Hence jarring sectaries may learn
Their real interest to discern;
That brother should not war with brother,
And worry and devour each other;
But sing and shine by sweet consent,
Till life’s poor transient night is spent,
Respecting in each other’s case
The gifts of nature and of grace.
Those Christians best deserve the name
Who studiously make peace their aim;
Peace both the duty and the prize
Of him that creeps and him that flies.

Cowper and Rumi

It was suggested in the previous post that Iqbal’s poem ‘Hamdardi’ (‘Sympathy’) is not adapted from William Cowper’s poem but is the story of his life. "Cowper suffered from severe manic depression,” says Wikipedia entry about the poet. “And although he found refuge in a fervent evangelical Christianity, the inspiration behind his much-loved hymns, he often experienced doubt and feared that he was doomed to eternal damnation.” This is reminiscent of the nightingale as described in the opening lines of ‘Sympathy’ (but not in Cowper’s own poem):

Alone on the branch of a tree
Was a nightingale perched in sadness.
He was saying, “The night has drawn near
I passed the day in flying around and feeding
How can I reach up to the nest?
Darkness has descended on everything!”

Regardless of what Iqbal had in mind, the setting is a perfect analogy for the dark night of a soul. The nightingale’s fear that he may never reach “the nest” represents the harrowing thoughts which troubled Cowper all his life.

Who is the glowworm? Iqbal's Persian anthology Payam-i-Mashriq (1923) contains a poem ‘Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’ comprising entirely of a fable about a bird pricked by thorn and cursing the garden, and another bird removing the thorn. If this is Iqbal’s way of demonstrating the relationship between the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, then can we not understand the relationship between him and Cowper through a similar parable? If Cowper is the nightingale calling for help, then Iqbal is the glowworm responding to that call in more ways than one.

Firstly, whenever Iqbal picks up an idea from Cowper, he reworks it to show a deeper message of faith, certainty and hope embedded in the original but inaccessible there due to the English poet's personal gloom and sadness. The finest example is ‘Parinday ki Faryad’ adapted from Cowper’s ‘On a Goldfinch Starved in his Cage’. Unlike Cowper, Iqbal’s bird is alive and calling for help. Moreover, the last stanza introduces translations from Rumi and the entire poem ends on a moral drawn from a parable of Rumi to the effect that our physical existence is like a cage to our soul.

Hence Iqbal leads Cowper to the threshold of Rumi. This is one of the ways in which the glowworm illuminates the dark night of the nightingale: thanks to Iqbal, the messages of Cowper and Rumi have become inseparable in the collective consciousness of the Urdu-speaking world.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The return of William Cowper

‘Hamdardi’ (Sympathy) is one of the most well-known of the seven poems which Iqbal wrote for children. In eight couplets, it is a parable about a nightingale worrying about reaching its nest after dark and a glowworm offering its light to show the way.

In his anthology Baang-i-Dara (1924), Iqbal captioned the poem as “Makhooz az William Cowper” (adapted from William Cowper), and that is the problem. Scholars have not found anything in the work of Cowper to be identified as source. The closest is ‘The Nightingale and the Glowworm’ but there the nightingale is about to eat the glowworm when the worm asks the bird to remember that the garden needs both of them.

It is safe to presume that Iqbal captioned his own poem as “adapted from William Cowper” because characters were similar even if he had altered the story. As soon as we presume this, as some scholars have, we face another problem. Iqbal’s anthology contains a separate and more faithful translation of Cowper’s poem by the title ‘Aik Parinda aur Jugno’ (literally ‘A Nightingale and A Glowworm’), where characters as well as the story are exactly the same as Cowper’s, but that poem is not marked as an adaptation at all (although it was sub-titled “az Angrayzi,” i.e. "from English" when first printed in a magazine several years before the anthology).

How come that Iqbal is willing to attribute his more original poem to Cowper but seems to be stingy about giving him acknowledgement where it is due? This brings us to the third problem: Iqbal’s poem ‘Parinday ki Faryad’ (The Lament of a Bird) is the only one of his seven poems for children which is not marked as an adaptation, and again, it turns out to be adapted from a poem by Cowper, ‘On a Goldfinch Starved to Death in His Cage’!

This is a bit too complicated to pass either as mere carelessness or plagiarism. Throughout his works, Iqbal is careful to indicate when something is an adaptation. Why would he make the borrowings from Cowper to be the only exceptions? If so, why name Cowper as the source poet of ‘Sympathy', a piece which could genuinely be treated as an original?

One possible solution to this riddle sounds wild and outlandish but it is also the most satisfactory. Indeed, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall in place if we only suppose that ‘Sympathy’ is not adapted from a poem by William Cowper but from the story of his life. The nightingale of Iqbal’s poem is none other than Cowper himself.

To be continued.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Iqbal: a new perspective on the West

The six poets covered in the recent posts are those from whom Iqbal took seven poems captioned “for children” in his anthology Baang-i-Dara (1924). He has clearly marked six of these as “abridged” but unfortunately our educators drop that significant detail when they include the poems in textbooks. Hence, while the poems are known to almost everyone in Pakistan and the Urdu speaking world, very few people know that these are adaptations from foreign literature.

Thus we ignore a bridge between civilizations. We also fail to realize that practically all Pakistanis who have gone to school, and some who haven’t, have become familiar with such an amazing range of foreign writers through adaptations in our own language. From the birth of William Cowper in 1731 to the death of Matilda Betham-Edwards in 1919, these poets cover the two best centuries of the West when the Western civilization was moving forward.

Why did Iqbal choose these six poets, dropping some others (such as William Blake, whose “Tiger, tiger, burning bright” could have been such a good candidate)? We cannot answer this question without facing a mystery about a strange connection between Iqbal and one of these poets – someone who was long dead by the time Iqbal was born, but it seems that death was not the end of all in this case.

Next: The return of William Cowper

Friday, October 16, 2009

Matilda Betham-Edwards (1836-1919)

Matilda Betham-Edwards (1836-1919), English poet, novelist and Francophile is being rediscovered through such works as a recent biography by Joan Rees, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Birmingham. 'A Child's Hymn' by her, which begins, "God make my life a little light" is enormously popular in the West (its traditional melody is offered at Cyberhymnal), and it happens to be equally popular, perhaps more, in Pakistan where its Urdu adaptation by Iqbal has been the most popular recital at schools for four generations: "Lab pay aati hai dua bun kay tamanna meri."

A Child’s Hymn

God make my life a little light,
within the world to glow,
A little flame that burneth bright,
wherever I may go.

God make my life a little flower
that giveth joy to all,
Content to bloom in native bower,
although the place be small.

God make my life a little song,
that comforteth the sad,
That helpeth others to be strong,
and maketh the singer glad.

God make my life a little staff,
whereon the weak may rest,
That so what health and strength I have,
may serve my neighbours best.

God make my life a little hymn
of tenderness and praise,
Of faith that never waneth dim,
in all his wondrous ways.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American essayist, poet and philosopher needs no introduction (complete works available online). In Pakistan, the poem ‘Fable,’ included in his anthology Poems, stands out as the best known work of Emerson due to its Urdu adaptation 'Aik Pahar Aur Gulehri' by Iqbal.


The mountain and the squirrel
Had a quarrel,
And the former called the latter 'Little Prig;'
Bun replied,
'You are doubtless very big;
But all sorts of things and weather
Must be taken in together,
To make up a year
And a sphere.
And I think it no disgrace
To occupy my place.
If I'm not so large as you,
You are not so small as I,
And not half so spry.
I'll not deny you make
A very pretty squirrel track;
Talents differ; all is well and wisely put;
If I cannot carry forests on my back,
Neither can you crack a nut.'

William Barnes (1801-1886)

William Barnes, British writer, poet, cleric and philologist is best remembered for his poems in Dorset dialect. In Pakistan, of course, his best-known work is 'A Mother's Dream' in Urdu adaptation by Iqbal.

The Mother’s Dream

I’d a dream to-night
As I fell asleep,
Oh! the touching sight
Makes me still to weep;
Of my little lad,
Gone to leave me sad,
Aye, the child I had,
But was not to keep.
As in heaven high,
I my child did seek,
There, in train, came by
Children fair and meek.
Each in lily white,
With a lamp alight;
Each was clear to sight,
But they did not speak.
Then, a little sad,
Came my child in turn,
But the lamp he had,
Oh! it did not burn;
He, to clear my doubt,
Said, half-burned about,
“Your tears put it out;
Mother, never mourn.”

Picture of Barnes' grave in Dorset, UK, is from Poets' Graves

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mary Howitt (1799-1888)

Mary Howitt (1799-1888), an eminent English poet is best known for her book The Spider and the Fly (Wikipedia page on the poet shows former first lady of US, Laura Bush, reading from it). The title poem of the book is equally (or perhaps more) well-known in Pakistan and the Urdu speaking world through translation by Iqbal as 'Aik Makra Aur Makhi'.

The Spider and the Fly

"Will you walk into my parlor?" said the spider to the fly; "'Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you may spy.
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to show when you are there."
"Oh no, no," said the little fly; "to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne'er come down again."

"I'm sure you must be weary, dear, with soaring up so high.
Will you rest upon my little bed?" said the spider to the fly.
"There are pretty curtains drawn around; the sheets are fine and thin,
And if you like to rest a while, I'll snugly tuck you in!"
"Oh no, no," said the little fly, "for I've often heard it said,
They never, never wake again who sleep upon your bed!"

Said the cunning spider to the fly: "Dear friend, what can I do
To prove the warm affection I've always felt for you?
I have within my pantry good store of all that's nice;
I'm sure you're very welcome - will you please to take a slice?"
"Oh no, no," said the little fly; "kind sir, that cannot be:
I've heard what's in your pantry, and I do not wish to see!"

"Sweet creature!" said the spider, "you're witty and you're wise;
How handsome are your gauzy wings; how brilliant are your eyes!
I have a little looking-glass upon my parlor shelf;
If you'd step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself."
"I thank you, gentle sir," she said, "for what you're pleased to say,
And, bidding you good morning now, I'll call another day."

The spider turned him round about, and went into his den,
For well he knew the silly fly would soon come back again:
So he wove a subtle web in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready to dine upon the fly;
Then came out to his door again and merrily did sing:
"Come hither, hither, pretty fly, with pearl and silver wing;
Your robes are green and purple; there's a crest upon your head;
Your eyes are like diamond bright, but mine are dull as lead!"

Alas, alas! how very soon this silly little fly,
Hearing his wily, flattering words, came slowly flitting by;
With buzzing wings she hung aloft, then near and nearer grew,
Thinking only of her brilliant eyes and green and purple hue,
Thinking only of her crested head. Poor, foolish thing! at last
Up jumped the cunning spider, and fiercely held her fast;
He dragged her up his winding stair, into the dismal den –
Within his little parlor - but she ne'er came out again!

And now, dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly flattering words I pray you ne'er give heed;
Unto an evil counselor close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale of the spider and the fly.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Jane Taylor (1783-1824)

Jane Taylor, English poet and novelist whose most famous poem has turned out to be “Twinkle, twinkle, little star" also wrote 'The Cow and the Ass' which was adapted in Urdu by Iqbal as 'Aik Gaye Aur Bakri' (thus converting the ass into a goat). Hence, to many in Pakistan and India, the last lines of Taylor's poem, "I'm determined I'll benefit by 't/ For I really believe the fellow is right" have been familiar through their famous Urdu version, "Yun tuo chhoti hai zaat bakri ki/ Dil ko lagti hai baat bakri ki".

The Cow and the Ass

Hard by a green meadow a stream used to flow,
So clear, one might see the white pebbles below;
To this cooling stream the warm cattle would stray,
To stand in the shade on a hot summer's day.

A cow, quite oppressed with the heat of the sun,
Come here to refresh, as she often had done;
And standing stock still, leaning over the stream,
Was musing, perhaps, or perhaps she might dream.

But soon a brown ass, of respectable look
Came trotting up also to taste of the brook,
And to nibble a few of the daisies and grass;
"How d' ye do?" said the cow; "How d' ye do?" said the ass.

"Take a seat," cried the cow, gently waving her hand;
"By no means, dear madam," said he, "while you stand;"
Then stooping to drink, with a complaisant bow,
"Ma'am, your health," said the ass; "thank you, sir," said the cow.

When a few of these compliments more had been past,
They laid themselves down on the herbage at last;
And, waiting politely, as gentlemen must,
The ass held his tongue, that the cow might speak first.

Then with a deep sigh, she directly began,
"Don't you think, Mr. Ass, we're injured by man?
'Tis a subject that lays with a weight on my mind:
We certainly are much oppressed by mankind.

"Now what is the reason (I see none at all)
That I always must go when Suke chooses to call;
Whatever I'm doing ('t is certainly hard)
At once I must go to be milked in the yard.

"I've no will of my own, but must do as they please,
And give them my milk to make butter and cheese:
I've often a vast mind to knock down the pail.
Or give Suke a box on the ear with my tail."

"But, ma'am," said the ass, "not presuming to teach—
Oh dear, I beg pardon—pray finish your speech;
I thought you had done, ma'am, indeed," said the swain,
"Go on, and I'll not interrupt you again."

"Why, sir, I was only a going to observe,
I'm resolved that these tyrants no longer I'll serve:
But leave them forever to do as they please,
And look somewhere else for their butter and cheese."

Ass waited a moment, to see if she'd done,
And then, "not presuming to teach," he began;
"With submission, dear madam, to your better wit,
I own I am not quite convinced of it yet.

"That you're of great service to them is quite true,
But surely they are of some service to you;
'T is their nice green pasture in which you regale,
They feed you in winter when grass and weeds fail.

'T is under their shelter you snugly repose,
When without it, dear ma'am, you perhaps might be froze.
For my part, I know, I receive much from man,
And for him, in return, I do all that I can."

The cow upon this cast her eye on the grass,
Not pleased at thus being reproved by an ass;
Yet, thought she, "I'm determined I'll benefit by 't,
For I really believe the fellow is right."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

William Cowper (1731-1800)

William Cowper (1731-1800), the renowned English poet whom Romantics like Coleridge and Wordsworth liked for his spiritual poetry, is now best known in the West for such famous quotes as "God made the country, and man made the town" and "I am monarch of all I survey." An average Pakistani, even if one cannot read or write, is familiar with at least one line from Cowper, and that is "Time was when I was free as air." Of course, they know it in translation from Iqbal: "Aata hai yad mujko guzra hua zamana..."

On a Golfinch Starved to Death in His Cage

Time was when I was free as air,
The thistle’s downy seed my fare,
My drink the morning dew;
I perch’d at will on every spray,
My form genteel, my plumage gay,
My strains for ever new.

But gaudy plumage, sprightly strain,
And form genteel were all in vain,
And of a transient date;
For, caught and caged, and starved to death,
In dying sighs my little breath
Soon pass’d the wiry grate.

Thanks, gentle swain, for all my woes,
And thanks for this effectual close
And cure of every ill!
More cruelty could none express;
And I, if you had shown me less,
Had been your prisoner still.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rumi: the Beginning (1)

The famous town of Balkh in the present-day Afghanistan was part of the Iranian Kingdom of Khwarazm in 1207 AD. Rumi was born there that year.

1. Nostalgia

Of course, he wasn’t called Rumi then. His name was Jalaluddin. His father, Bahauddin Walad, was a renowned religious scholar and brought up his son accordingly but the young boy may have had extra-curricular activities, such as reading a story written by Sheikh Fariduddin Attar about birds in search of Simorgh. Guessing from his later work, he must also have enjoyed jokes and funny stories.

The young boy may have walked amid these green fields (the picture is from Balkh.Com) but some suggest that he was born further north. Still, growing up anywhere in this region, known to the ancients as Bactria, was to breathe nostalgia about more than one civilization. It was the birthplace of Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism had also thrived here once. How to integrate the legacy of many cultures with Islam was something on which this boy would leave more than a few notes when he grew up.

These were the times of change. A year before Jalal’s birth, Mongol barbarians from Gobi Desert had unified under their leader Temujin whom they called “the Great Commander,” i.e. Genghis Khan (or Changez Khan, as Persians would later remember him painfully). Soon, Mongols took over the Chinese Empire.

Jalal was still a boy when the governor of another city in Khwarazm executed some merchants on suspicion of spying. They were under the protection of Genghis, who now asked the king of Khwarazm to hand over the governor. The king executed the envoys too. Killing an ambassador was seen as an atrocity even in those days and the news was received at the Chinese court as something like a 9/11 of the thirteenth century. Genghis decided to overrun the Muslim world.

To be continued

Friday, September 18, 2009

Ramazan 27

Tonight was the 27th of Ramazan, which is traditionally associated with Shab-i-Qadr – variously translated as the Night of Power, the Night of Predestination, the Grand Night – about which the Quran asks its readers: “And what will explain to you what the Night of Power is?”

Personally, what can explain to me is the coincidence that Rumi wrote a Masnavi as “the Quran in Persian”, his disciple Iqbal claimed about his own poetry that it contained nothing but the essence of the Quran; out of this literature a sovereign state was conceived but the British Viceroy didn’t agree with Muslims about when it should be born and for his very own reasons he thrust upon them a moment several months ahead of their preference, and, that very moment turned out be Ramazan 27.

For many spiritually inclined Pakistanis, one of the most special things about their country is that its date of birth – the midnight of August 14 and 15, 1947 – coincided with Shab-i-Qadr:

    1. Indeed We revealed this on the Night of Power:
    2. And what will explain to you what the Night of Power is?
    3. The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.
    4. Therein come down the angels and the Spirit by their Lord's permission, on every errand:
    5. Peace it is till the rising of the dawn.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Moving on from Partition

I was in Delhi in December 2007, attending a seminar at one of the leading academies of Urdu literature in India. The chief guest was a Muslim socialist leader who found it utterly necessary to look in the direction of Pakistani delegates and proclaim, “We the Muslims of India think that partition was a mistake. South Asia would have been better off without it and therefore Pakistan should not have come into being.”

Of course the right answer to that is, “Go get a life.” Unfortunately getting a life is not always easy, and the book of Jaswant Singh has given cue to the same hypocritical chest-thumping again: “Events of 1947 haunt everyone in South Asia…” In that case I must be an exceptionally lucky guy since they don’t haunt me. Maybe I should give a helping hand to others in moving on too!

In the previous post I presented excerpt from a speech delivered by Nawab Ismail Khan at Aligarh University soon after partition. It may never have been published anywhere before (except possibly in some newspapers in 1947). I got it from Mr. Asad Ismail, the grandson of Nawab Ismail Khan.

The speech is important because it shows us that according to the vision of the creators of Pakistan (one of whom was Nawab Ismail), there was going to be continuity in the history of Muslims in India: Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had shown how they could be loyal to alien rulers and still develop their national identity to the extent where it gave birth to a sovereign state. The same loyalty could be transferred to the independent state of India once it came into being.

This also shows that when Muslims of the Sub-Continent demanded Pakistan they fully realized that many of them would stay behind in India as minority. Since Pakistan was a democratic demand affirmed through fair and free election, they had the right to expect that it shouldn’t be held against them.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Nawab Ismail Khan (1884-1958)

Nawab Ismail Khan (1884-1958), one of the most prominent leaders of Muslim League and a close companion of Quaid-i-Azam, chose to stay behind in India after independence. He was soon asked to become the Vice Chancellor of Aligarh University, the institution founded by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and the birthplace of Pakistan Movement.

The following passage of his inaugural speech delivered in October 1947 is worth-reading as it tackles the complex issue of explaining how Muslims of India could reconcile with the new regime without breaking away from their recent past:

With the partition of the country, the Musalmans who regarded themselves as one have also become divided. Each dominion naturally demands from its nationals unswerving loyalty and this, it must be averred, is the unquestionable inherent right of the Governments of these dominions.

When this institution was founded some seventy years ago, the illustrious founder of the blessed memory laid down in unmistakable terms that loyalty to the Government was to be the key note of its policy. And this policy has been faithfully and scrupulously followed by his distinguished colleagues and successors.

There is, however, one fundamental difference in the conditions that obtained then and the present day conditions. At that time a foreign Government held sway on this land but today happily we have a national Government democratic and secular, headed by that fine patriot Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru who possesses breadth of vision and integrity of purpose in a remarkable degree.

I, therefore, on the assumption of this office re-affirm that policy and declare that we shall be loyal to the State and its constitution with all the implications and consequences which the word allegiance to a State involves, but let me say at the same time that it shall be the loyalty of self-respecting and free citizens.

Abul Kalam Azad

Former president of Indian National Congress and a renowned religious scholar Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) spoke to multitudes of devastated Muslims in the grand mosque of Delhi on October 23, 1947.

Unlike Nawab Ismail Khan (see Aligarh Address), Maulana Azad made no reference to recent history. He put his listeners to shame for having voted against his political party - almost declaring communal violence to be justifiable revenge of a powerful majority. Traumas can erase memory, and such messages from rulers at that time may have contributed to a sudden loss of pride among Indian Muslims in co-creating the largest Muslim state.

Do you remember? I hailed you, you cut off my tongue; I picked my pen, you severed my hand; I wanted to move forward, you broke off my legs; I tried to run, and you injured my back…

Think for one moment. What course did you adopt? Where have you reached, and where do you stand now? Haven’t your senses become torpid? Aren’t you living in a constant state of fear? This fear is your own creation, a fruit of your own deeds.

It was not long ago when I warned you that the two-nation theory was death-knell to a meaningful, dignified life; forsake it. I told you that the pillars upon which you were leaning would inevitably crumble. To all this you turned a deaf ear. You did not realize that, my brothers! I have always attempted to keep politics apart from personalities, thus avoiding those thorny valleys. That is why some of my messages are often couched in allusions. The partition of India was a fundamental mistake.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Who created Pakistan?

In the elections of 1945-46, Muslims voted almost unanimously for ‘Quaid-i-Azam’. Jinnah won all the seats reserved for Muslims in the central assembly of India. Majority of these Muslims lived in areas which were not going to be included in Pakistan.

One question which has occupied my mind for quite some time now is why and how Muslims in present day India have come to stop taking pride in the unique achievement of their ancestors who created a sovereign state, outside the borders of their own country, with the sheer power of vote?

Nor was it just any state. It was the largest Muslim state at the time of birth. To me it is the greatest tribute to the moral strength of humanity that a cart-driver in the colonial Delhi could feel that by using nothing except his right to choose, he could create a sovereign state many times bigger than Great Britain.

Therefore the question: Who has robbed the hearts of Muslims, especially the present-day Indian Muslims, from taking a just pride in the unparalleled achievement of their ancestors?
See also:
  1. Nawab Ismail Khan
  2. Moving on from Partition
  3. Abul Kalam Azad

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Maheen A. Rashdi

Maheen A. Rashdi is renowned journalist whose regular column features in the Sunday Magazine of Dawn. The following was meant for tomorrow, but since religion is not among the subjects covered in that section, it has been passed on to me. I must say that I am very much grateful for some of the things stated about me here - Khurram Ali Shafique

Becoming Holy

By Maheen A. Rashdi

The past three weeks of Ramazan have induced me to take stock of the twists that the holy month brings into the lives of us Muslims each year. While it requires us to show our better sides, it inevitably turns us into short-tempered, work shirking, lethargic individuals. While at the one hand divine proclamation intends to promote abstinence and restraint in all matters of worldly things during Ramazan, we end up fully unleashing our gluttonous desires and zero tolerance for fellow beings.

And for some, it is almost a swapped existence. I have seen confirmed alcoholics kick the bottle for precisely these thirty days, shed their tailored suits for the white, starched, shalwar kameez (not forgetting the topi on top) and frequent the mosque five times a day as opposed to their daily late-night binges in non-Ramazan days. Well, whatever makes people tick, who am I to comment on personal choices.

When a dear friend posted a beautiful commentary on the Surah Yusuf from the Quraan last week on his blogspot to ‘honour the holy month of Ramazan,’ I was surprised that the Ramazan season had had that effect on him too. For I had always stereotyped him – for no logical reason at all -- as someone who was far removed from all things pertaining to religion. And here I pride myself on being non-judgemental.

Anyway, I discovered that Khurram Shafique is not only a historian/scholar/philosopher and the only one I personally know who may be qualified to be called a genius with indefatigable mental energies, but he is also as well-versed in Quranic text and sub text.

In his commentary, Khurram captures the description of the Surah which is about Hazrat Yusuf (Joseph), his dream, his brothers’ deceit and his revelation besides the all too famous story of Zuleikha (wife of Potiphar) and her seductive overtures towards Yusuf. Retelling a tale about one of the most detailed stories from the Quraan, Khurram Shafique has structured his analysis along Aristotle’s six ‘elements of drama’.

When I marveled at his work, he confessed that he would not have expostulated on Quraanic verses as these have a magic of their own which should not be polluted by mere human descriptive, but that he was compelled to do so.

Why? “Because there’s a danger lurking on the ‘intellectual horizons’ which promotes literature that debases the human soul and runs down literature of dignity,” he explained. He feels that an esoteric school of thought now dominates the frontier of Islamic Studies and Comparative Religion which is bent on defiling all credible voices on religion.

I however, do not feel that any such threat has the power of taking over established values or eradicating worthy literature. And as far as the Quraanic words are concerned, these are the most accepted religious writings by scholars of all faiths besides Islam. No amount of loose talk from naysayers has the power to dull or negate its magic.

Allama Yousuf Ali explains in one of his many commentaries that Islam is a non-racial, non-ethnic, non-biased code of life. It simply requires undisputable faith in the Almighty; a determination to live right and to see that justice and truth prevails. It requires us to stay away from wrongdoings, to fight injustice and to stay clear of deceit. And as I see it that is the main code by which all decent humanity abides and all religions have preached just that. So where is the dispute amongst religions? Don’t they all speak the same language?

But alas, being also the most potent tool for power, religion has been twisted to become the cause for every war as well. That is also why it has been complicated and high-jacked by clerics, dogmatic preachers and political players.

It took a lot of will power for me to pick up the Quraan’s translation the first time and find out for myself what exactly are God’s words which have filtered to us in many versions – sometimes even distorted for fearful effect. And because my grade two teacher’s words of how Quraan describes the details of hell had stuck in my mind, my fear was quite tangible. She of course failed to convey the overwhelming kindness of the Almighty contained therein perhaps to maintain a perverse fear factor and her own authority. Before starting, I never knew that I would actually be reading a story book with multiple components – history, jurisprudence, health guidelines, biology, geography and rules for decent civilized living.

Islam is neither complicated, nor terrifying nor unbending and unmindful of human vulnerability, and that is my last word for my believing, practicing, non-practicing and non-believing readers and friends.

Forgive me if I have been too dogmatic, for I too have been swept by the season.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The grapes of democracy

September 11 marks two sad anniversaries. One is the death of Quaid-i-Azam who passed away in 1948, just a year after creating Pakistan with the support of the masses of Muslim India. The other is the death of those who died in the terrorist attacks on America in 2001. This post may be connected with something common to both revered memories: the sacredness of democracy.

Four men who could not understand each other’s languages were fighting over the choice of fruit they should buy with the coin they had found together. Rumi says that if there were someone who understood all languages, he or she could have realized that they were pursuing the same choice but naming it in different languages.

That should be the role of a true intellectual. Consensus exists in every society and perhaps in the entire humanity, just as there was complete consensus among those four strangers. Yet, this consensus is seldom visible, just as it wasn’t visible in that story.

A true intellectual is someone who can decipher the desires of everyone in a society and then find something which could satisfy everyone. In the words of Rumi, such a man would say, “I can fulfill the need of all of you, with one and the same piece of money. If you honestly give me your trust, your one coin will become as four; and four at odds will become as one united.”

This is what Jinnah did for us. Thanks to him, “four at odds” became “as one united.”

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How to 'extinguish' the ego

The individual ego becomes real by extinguishing itself in the collective ego or the spirit of the nation but how does one do that?

The first step is to love the common culture of our society. The last step is to allow the consensus of our society to overrule our individual judgment - and hence "courtesy is the beginning of religion and love is its end."

Today there is no dearth of people who claim to be denying the ego or even negating it, but:
  • How many of them would be willing to concede that the opinion of a purely unschooled person about the future course of society should carry the same weight as their own?
  • How many would be willing to accept that the consensus of their society can reflect Divine wisdom more than their own well-informed opinion?

True selflessness comes from seeking and respecting consensus - this is the common message of Rumi, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Iqbal.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Mysteries of selflessness

There are three kinds of egos (selves or souls) according to Iqbal:
  1. Ultimate
  2. collective
  3. individual
Ultimate ego is God. Collective ego is a mystery which reveals itself as destiny. Rumi has explained it at length in the opening passages of Volume 2 of Masnavi: “only animals have separate souls, the soul of all human beings is just one.” Saadi later stated it more bluntly as “children of Adam are limbs to one another.”

According to Iqbal, this collective ego of humanity is real. Individual ego is virtual. Hence individuals need to extinguish their egos, or selves, in the collective ego in order to become real.
A nation which adopts the Unity of God as its basic principle becomes the collective ego on earth.

Islam is one such nation, and hence for a Muslim the way to realize his or her self is by extinguishing their individual self in the collective ego of the nation. This has been explained in ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’ (1915) also but in more detail in ‘Rumooz-i-Bekhudi’ (1918) (both parts together form Asrar-o-Rumooz, the first published book of Iqbal’s poetry).

Monday, September 7, 2009

"Dare and Live": a new motto from the Quaid

The following message was issued by Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah on the occasion of celebration of Iqbal Day in Lahore on March 20, 1943. It was published in The Dawn the next day:

"Dare and Live" is Iqbal's message. Optimism, industry, faith, self-confidence and courage are the principles on which Iqbal bases his philosophy and which he believes are the essential factors for the purification of human soul and for the elevation of human character. The obstacles and setbacks in life, according to him, make the life worth living. The sacrifices and losses, made and incurred in the service of a right cause and for noble principles elevate a nation and make life more glorious and worth living.

Iqbal never believed in failure. He believed in the superiority of mankind over all the rest that God created. In fact he was convinced that man is a collection of all that is best in God's universe. Only man does not know himself. Man has but to utilize his great potentialities and to use them in the right direction for the realization of that "self" which finds itself so near to God; and Islam is the code which has prescribed easy ways and means for that realization.

Iqbal was not only a philosopher but also a practical politician. He was one of the first to conceive of the feasibility of the division of India on national lines as the only solution of India's political problem. He was one of the most powerful though tacit precursors and heralds of the modern political evolution of Muslim India.

Iqbal, therefore, rises above the average philosopher, as the essence of his teachings is a beautiful blend of thought and action. He combines in himself the idealism of a poet and the realism of a man who took practical view of things. In Iqbal this compromise is essentially Islamic. In fact it is nothing but Islam. His ideal therefore is life according to the teachings of Islam with a motto "Dare and Live."

I wholeheartedly associate myself with the efforts of the Iqbal Day Committee in celebrating the Poet's Day on his birthday and I hope and pray that every one of us may be able to live up to the ideals Iqbal preached by his beautiful national poems and which have now embedded the doctrine of Pakistan into the heart and soul of Muslim India which is now burning very brightly, never to be extinguished.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Javidnama: an introduction

Javidnama (1932) is an epic poem which Iqbal wrote in Persian from 1927 to 1932. He described it as his “life’s work”:
  • Prayer: Iqbal prays to God that this book may become easy for the youth, who are its primary audience, since Iqbal is fed up with the elder generation
  • Prologue Heavenly: a parable about heaven and earth on the day of Creation, in which a bright future for humanity is guaranteed
  • Prologue Earthly: the spirit of Rumi takes Iqbal on a journey in search of immortality after the appearance of Zurvan, the angel of Time and Space
  1. Moon (Inquiry): Rumi introduces Iqbal to (a) Vishvamitra meditating in a cave of Moon, (b) the music of Sarosh and his poetry, and (d) Yarghamid or the Valley of Prophets where tablets of Buddha, Zarathustra, Christ and Prophet Muhammad can be seen
  2. Mercury (Discovery): Rumi and Iqbal offer prayers after Jamaluddin Afghani, together with Said Halim Pasha, listening to recitation of Surah Najam, after which Rumi introduces Iqbal as “Zindah Rud” and Afghani reveals four principles of Quran through which “new worlds” may be discovered
  3. Venus (Transcendence): Rumi prevents revival of false idols by reciting a ghazal from Iqbal’s Persian Psalms, and then they witness Pharaoh and Lord Kitchener confounded in a dark and lifeless ocean where the spirit of Mahdi of Sudan sings a marching song about journey to Madinah
  4. Mars (Freedom): Rumi introduces Iqbal to an inside-out race which has attained complete liberty, equality and brotherhood after rejecting secularism
  5. Jupiter (Action): Rumi introduces Iqbal to the spirits of Hallaj, Quratul Ain Tahira and Mirza Ghalib, who were offered paradise but they refused it; a dialogue with Devil follows
  6. Saturn (Expansion): the spirit of India laments over the plight of its people as Rumi shows Iqbal two traitors, Mir Jafar and Mir Sadiq, doomed to a worse agony after being refused by hell
  7. Beyond the Spheres (Creation): passing over Nietzsche on the outskirts of the physical universe, Rumi takes Iqbal through the palaces of heaven and introduces him to noble spirits and houris, until Iqbal yearns to move on alone to meet the Creator and discuss immortality, nationhood and destiny
  • Address to Javid – a Word with the New Generation: Iqbal concludes his book with a one on one talk with you, as he prays for you from inside his tomb

The seven main chapters describe seven stations which seem to be metaphors of stages through which a soul must pass in order to attain its goal. In the end, Iqbal meets God alone. He witnesses a present moment in which past and future are merged together. The course of history is discussed with the Creator, and Iqbal gets to see a vision of Destiny. He faints, but in the ‘Address to Javid’, he tells his son (and through him he tells us) that he is still praying for us in his grave. Does this mean that Iqbal finally attained that immortality which he was seeking? Every reader gets to answer this question on their own.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New discoveries about the 'Reconstruction'

Long ago, when The Republic of Rumi Newsletter did not have many subscribers, I narrated some of my unusual observations about the works of Iqbal in a series of weekly posts:

"It was an October morning in 2006. I was staying at a friend's place in Lahore, and finishing my breakfast before going to the office of Iqbal Academy Pakistan with whom I work as research consultant. Suddenly, an idea flashed across my mind: I don't know how or why. It struck me that there were seven lectures in the Reconstruction, Iqbal's philosophical work in English prose. Incidentally, there were seven stations through which Iqbal passed in his journey across the spiritual universe in Javidnama, his greatest poetical masterpiece. Do the two sets match?"

My findings were recently presented in a paper in Iqbal Review, available on the official website of Iqbal Academy Pakistan and now also included with some illustrations on my homepage. For those who may be interested, here is an excerpt:

The outlook we adopted five years after the birth of Pakistan was not consistent with the collective ego achieved by our ancestors who had created this great country. Some of us misunderstood that the proposition of the Western modernists that “the modern times are permanent but bad but must be rejected” was a confession that the West was evil. As a free nation of the East it should concern us less whether the West is evil or not. What should concern us more is what role can we play in the future of humanity? This is where Iqbal comes in with the fundamental premise of a Romantic: “the modern times are passing but good and must be accepted.”

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"What has Pakistan given..."

There is an official fan page of the great Urdu writer Ibne Safi (1928-1980) on Facebook. Responding to the Independence Day greetings, an Indian Muslim commented on its wall, “What positive change has been engineered by Pakistan in the Muslim world after its creation, except for providing cheap labor to the Gulf?” I was cool with saying that Pakistan has given Imran Series (Jasoosi Duniya was started while Ibne Safi was still in India), but that was not all according to Sabahat Ashraf, Pakistani analyst living in America and well-known in the blogosphere as IFaqeer ( see picture above and check his blog after this post).

He posted five comments (one was not enough), which are must-read. “I went a little overboard,” he admits. “But we need to have some of these discussions frankly, if we are going to heal the wounds of the ‘batwara’ and move ahead as an Ummah.” Given below are his comments compiled into a single text.

“You really want a list? Here's a start:

  • When Muslim countries – and the wider international community – have needed soldiers and manpower, Pakistan has stepped up; just a few: Jordan (Black September might have been evil, but it was done as a favor), Somalia (the first 24 UN casualties there were not US, but Pakistani – and they did a real peacekeeping job), you name it.
  • Several new countries – Muslims and non-Muslim – from the Gulf to Zimbabwe have had their armed forces organized and trained by Pakistanis till politicsand racism kicked in.
  • Pakistani economic experts have helped everyone – including, for example South Korea (Mahboobul Haque).
  • The Algerian delegation was literally smuggled onto the floor of the UN General Assembly to declare their independence. Especially in our earlier, less-problem-ridden days, Pakistan did a lot of things like this.
  • Hosting and helping form and lead the OIC. Yes, it has taken it's lead from the Saudis and Gen. Zia was a part of that process, but leadership started with Bhutto (despite all his faults).
  • From the Indian Muslim point of view, have you heard of the Liaquat-Nehru Pact?
  • From the Indian point of view, a lot of the burdens Pakistan has carried – border dispute with Afghanistan, the unresolved issue of FATA, the fanaticism fanned by the Afghan resistance to the Russian Empire's expansion, unresolved political issues in Balochistan, just for example would – if Pakistan had not come into existence – be issues India would have to deal with.

“And what has Pakistan gotten in return from the rest of the Muslim World:

  • Racism, and exploitation of our people for cheap labor?
  • Use of our society for experimentation with fanatic projects?
  • And ask an Indian Muslim: What have Indian Muslims given us? Condemnation? Spite? Condescension? Calling us illegitimate?

“Yes, we’re in a bad place right now, but are we getting any sympathy from other Muslims? Any help with dealing with the demons we’re wrestling? Take your reaction. You ask what we’ve given, and demand what we’re going to do about it. If you consider us part of a Muslim Ummah you are talking about, shouldn't your attitude be one of sympathy and trying to figure out how to help us in our difficult time?

“Funny thing is, Pakistanis always have a sympathetic attitude to the plight of Indian Muslims and try to think about how to help solve their problems and make life better for them. Ask yourself honestly: is that the attitude of Indian Muslims towards us? And I mean that individually, because I know some Indian Muslims are coming around.

“One last point: one of the demons we are wrestling with is that of religious fanaticism, and Indian Muslims often talk down to us on that issue – “Look what they’ve done to our beautiful religion…” Our societies – Pakistani and Indian Muslim – are not very different and my personal opinion is that you are just a generation behind us on that score but are in denial. The sooner you get off your high horse and deal with the issue, the better it will be for all of us.

Because funny thing is, Indian Muslims are one of the largest and, if you ask me, one of the most important communities in the world in this regard. You have it in you to help find a solution for this issue and make the world a better place for all of us: after all, it is Muslim India that gave us Iqbal and Azad and Jauhar – and, yes, Jinnah.”

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Joseph: diction, recitation and "embellishment"

The surah begins as God’s address to the reader:

  1. A. L. R. These are the verses of the perspicuous Book.
  2. We have sent it down as an Arabic Quran, in order that you may learn wisdom.
  3. We do relate to you the most beautiful of stories, in that We reveal to you this Quran: before this, you too were among those who knew it not.
One possible implication of being “the best of the stories” can be that each generation should be able to see this surah as the finest model of any genre best-known to them. We are just coming out of an age where screenplay was the dominant form of literature, and are probably entering an era when blog, website and interactive workshop may become accepted as forms of literatures. As such, we are likely to appreciate this surah by such analogies – just as our ancestors may have decoded it as the celestial prototype of epic poem, dastan and history.

Like them, we must also remember that despite being so many different things to so many different people, it essentially remains what it really is: a surah of “an Arabic Quran.” Neither poetry, nor fiction, it is a sign of God, which begins with three cryptic letters whose meaning is known only to God – just like those dreams and visions which Joseph encounters in the story.

A dignity befitting this relationship between the Divine narrator and a most special listener is retained despite all twists and turns. The narrative does not become fragmented into different “voices”. Only within a well-guarded unity of theme and plot is each character allowed the opportunity to speak out his or her mind. Hence Potiphar says, “Behold! It is a snare of you women! Truly, mighty is your snare,” and we get the impression of an honest but busy bureaucrat who is given to generalization for the sake of reaching quick decisions and preserving order at the cost of original thinking.

Hence, the surah has a form of its own which may not be completely paralleled anywhere else in the world – and hence the famous claim of the Quran, “And if you are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a surah like thereunto, and call your witnesses or helpers besides Allah, if yours are true” (Chapter 2, ‘The Cow’, Verse 23).

The originality of this Quranic form may not be fully appreciated until we listen to the original text (even without knowing Arabic), and imbibe its resonation not with the critical left brain but the more holistic right brain. It could be a singularly enriching experience to encounter the powerful musical element in the diction of this surah, for instance in a “creative” recitation by someone like Mishary Rashid (highly recommended: you can listen to him in the Quran Explorer or on his personal website).

Moving across such spectacular locations as stars and moon, deserts and oases, caravans, the Nile Rive Valley, and markets and palaces of ancient Egypt, this narrative is singularly lacking in that vivid imagery which characterizes some other passages in the Quran. The reason is obvious: the power of this surah can be felt apart from “representation and appearances” and its most important embellishment comes from the soul of its real protagonist, the reader.

As mentioned before, the “framing action” of the surah is dialogue between God and the reader, with which the surah begins. The subsequent story of Joseph, however interesting it may be, is just a kind of mise en abyme – a design within design – in this, and the “framing action” is resumed as soon as the subplot of Joseph finishes. “Such is one of the stories of what happened unseen, which We reveal by inspiration to you,” says God in Verse 102, and ends His epilogue on a spectacularly high note, nine verses later, declaring the surah to be “a detailed exposition of all things, and a guide and a mercy to any such as believe.”

A detailed exposition of “all things” in only a hundred and eleven verses may also be an acknowledgement of the inexhaustible depth of the reader’s own soul. Theme, action, characters, diction, music and embellishment became an indivisible unity in this narrative so that the reader could write on her or his soul the greater Unity of God, which was the key with which Joseph decoded mysteries and foretold destinies of individuals and nations. For that, the readers have to recollect their own energies – the Josephs of their souls must also outwit the scheming stepbrothers of fear, desire and flawed reasoning in order to become one unified whole. To quote from Iqbal: “What is the nation, you who declare ‘No god but God’? With thousands of eyes, to be one in vision! …Do not look slightingly on oneness of vision; this is a true epiphany of the Unity…Are you dead? Become living through oneness of vision; cease to be centre-less, become stable. Create unity of thought and action, that you may possess authority in the world” (‘Beyond the Spheres’ in Javidnama).

For this reason, no Sufi poet may ever have mentioned Joseph without insisting that the reader, too, is a Joseph. In The Conference of the Birds, Attar goes to the extent of introducing a fictitious anecdote which cannot be fitted into the Quranic version of this story but which drives home the analogy between Joseph and the readers of Attar’s book at the end of their journeys.