Friday, July 13, 2012

Nine Questions

Cover of a new
English translation of
Shabistri's book
In 1317 AD, a travelling Sufi posed seventeen questions to the masters in Tabriz, the city where Rumi's mentor Shams was supposed to have wandered around almost a century earlier. The questions were answered by a leading Sufi poet of the times, Mahmood Shabistri, in the 9000-line long poem which became a classic and a definitive text on Sufi doctrines: Gulshan-i-Raz, or The Garden of Mystery.

Allama Iqbal believed that this work went a long way into helping the Muslim world revive from the destruction it had faced at the hands of Mongol invaders not long before the publication. He compared the situation of the Muslim world in his own times to be not very different: European colonialism had once again played havoc. So, 610 years after Shabistri, Iqbal published 'Gulshan-i-Raz Jadeed', or The New Garden of Mysteries (or, as some may prefer to call it today: Garden of Mysteries Reloaded). It formed a part of Iqbal's fourth book of poetry, Zuboor-i-Ajam (1927), or Persian Psalms.

Iqbal's version clusters some of the original questions together while omitting some. The result is a compact set of nine questions with succinct answers, usually less than three pages each. I understand that Iqbal intended these to serve as a summary of his thought. Perhaps he also gave these as a key to unlock some of the "secrets and mysteries" which he claimed to be hidden in his work. In any case what he stated openly in that book was that these nine questions and his answers were meant to be the guiding light for wisdom in modern times.

There is something very interesting about these questions which I have found in the course of my investigations. I have found that this set of nine becomes interestingly compatible with some other sets of nine: such as the nine books of Iqbal's poetry, the nine symphonies of Beethoven and so on.

Iqbal wrote nine books of poetry and died while writing the last of those. In my online course Introduction to Iqbal Studies, I ask the participants to see if each of these books seems relevant for answering the corresponding question. The feedback given by the participants is mostly in the affirmative.

I do not mean to mystify the reader. In my opinion this has got less to do with supernatural and more to do with the possibility that in rearranging his questions, Iqbal could have arrived upon some natural order of the cognitive process of the human mind. In other words, he may have succeeded in representing some kind of a genetic code of the human thinking process through his nine questions.

It is often presumed that Iqbal did not present his philosophy in a systematic manner. I also used to believe it once but then I realized that this could be true only up to the extent that the "system" of Iqbal's thought was presented in a manner not similar to many Western thinkers. Othewrise, there have always been those who believed that Iqbal had a well-developed system of thought - his constant companion of the last days Syed Nazeer Niazi and the first director of Iqbal Academy Pakistan Dr. Muhammad Rafiuddin, to name just two. I am now of the opinion that the nine questions and answers comprising 'The New Garden of Mystery' (گلشنِ راز جدید) in Persian Psalms (زبورِ عجم) can be treated as a succint description of Iqbal's philosophy.

Those questions are being presented here (based on a translation by B. A. Dar) along with a brief summary of Iqbal's answers in my words. The original Persian text of 'The New Garden of Mystery' is also available online while the link to a complete translation of each answer in English is being provided with the summaries (courtesy: Iqbal Academy Pakistan).

Q. First of all I am intrigued about my thought – what is it which we call thinking? What kind of thought is needed on the path, why is it sometimes a virtue and sometimes a sin?
Answer. According to Iqbal, our thinking has two dimensions: spiritual and material. Neglecting one at the cost of the other is harmful but neglecting both is sometimes a necessary phase in self-development.

A simpler answer could be that thinking is one of the functions through which the ego strives for perfection. Since the life of an ego is defined by ideals (and the collective ideals tend to be greater than an individual’s), thinking is helpful when it leads us to discovering and creating greater ideals and becomes an impediment when it prevents us from pursuing ideals, as Iqbal says in Urdu:
سمجھتا ہے تُو راز ہے زندگی
فقط ذوقِ پرواز ہے زندگی

Q. What is this ocean whose shore is knowledge? What is that pearl which is found in its depth?
Answer. Life is the ocean and the pearl to be found in its depth is selfhood (خودی). Knowledge is just the shore, as Iqbal says in his Urdu verses:
دمادم رواں ہے یمِ زندگی
ہر اک شے سے پیدا رم زندگی
خودی جلوہ بدمست و خلوت پسند
سمندر ہے اِک بوند پانی میں بند
Q. What is the union of the contingent and the necessary? What are near and far, more and less?
Answer. The universe may be constantly expanding and therefore boundless. It still has boundary, which lies within because at the centre of the universe is the Reality which never changes. Therefore, anyone who gets connected with the Ultimate Reality, i.e. God, can also grasp the entire universe including parts that are yet to be born – as Iqbal says in his Urdu verses:
خودی سے اِس طلسمِ رنگ و بُو کو توڑ سکتے ہیں
یہی توحید تھی جس کو نہ تُو سمجھا نہ میں سمجھا
نِگہ پیدا کر اے غافل تجلی عینِ فطرت ہے
کہ اپنی موج سے بیگانہ رہ سکتا نہیں دریا

Q. How did the temporal and eternal separate so that one became the world, and the other God? If the knower and the known are one pure essence, what are the aspirations of this handful of earth?
Answer. Since God is the Ultimate Ego, He creates more egos which are the human beings. An ego cannot dissolve into its source, and hence the human beings cannot “annihilate” themselves in God (فنا) but they can witness their true splendour by connecting with the Creator, as Iqbal says in his Urdu verses:
یہ وحدت ہے کثرت میں ہر دم اسیر
مگر ہر کہیں بے چگوں، بے نظیر
پسند اس کو تکرار کی خُو نہیں
کہ تُو میں نہیں اور میں تُو نہیں

Q. What am I? Tell me what ‘I’ means. What is the meaning of ‘travel into yourself’?
Answer. “I” identifies an ego: you are an ego if you can say “I”. These egos are like sparks shedding from a great fire, which is Life. You travel into yourself by conquering the material and spiritual dimensions of the worlds, and when you return from a meeting with God in such a manner that you have Him in your heart and are holding His world in your hands, as Iqbal says in Urdu:
خودی کا نشیمن ترے دل میں ہے
فلک جس طرح آنکھ کے تِل میں ہے
بڑھے جا یہ کوہِ گراں توڑ کر
طلسمِ زمان و مکاں توڑ کر
خودی شیرِ مولا جہاں اس کا صید
زمیں اس کی صید، آسماں اس کا صید

Q. What is that part which is greater than its whole? What is the way to find that part?
Answer. Ego is a part of the apparent world but is also greater than it. We reach it through the inner dimension of Life. In more practical terms, we reach the ego by submitting our individual self before the collective ego, as Iqbal says in his Urdu verses:
خودی کیا ہے؟ رازِ درون حیات
خودی کیا ہے؟ بیداریء کائنات
ازل اس کے پیچھے، ابد سامنے
نہ حد اس کے پیچھے نہ حد سامنے

Q. Of what sort is this traveler who is the wayfarer? Of whom shall I say that this person has attained completion?
Answer. Our journey is from ourselves to ourselves: there is no end to it because our goal is to see the signs of God, and the eyes cannot get tired of visions – there will always be more for us to seek and behold. Therefore, the “perfected one” (کامل) is a person who has witnessed the signs of God and is therefore aware of the destiny of nations (the same concept was presented in the Allahabad Address as, “By leaders I mean men who, by Divine gift or experience, possess a keen perception of the spirit and destiny of Islam, along with an equally keen perception of the trend of modern history.”), as he also stated in his Urdu verses:
زندہ دل سے نہیں پوشیدہ ضمیرِ تقدیر
خواب میں دیکھتا ہے عالم نَو کی تصویر
اور جب بانگِ اذاں کرتی ہے بیدار اُسے
کرتا ہے خواب میں دیکھی ہوئی دنیا تعمیر
بدن اس تازہ جہاں کا ہے اُسی کی کفِ خاک
رُوح اس تازہ جہاں کی ہے اُسی کی تقدیر

Q. What point does the claim, ‘I am the Creative Truth’ imply? Do you think that this mystery was mere nonsense?
Answer. For centuries, Eastern heart and intellect were getting trained to perceive the world as illusion. What Hallaj said was just the kind of thing needed for awakening such a society. Iqbal elaborated this point further in his next book Javid Nama, where the spirit of Hallaj was presented as saying, “I saw a people who were turning away from life, so I decided to wake them up. They said they believed in God and yet they didn’t believe in themselves. How can you have faith in the Almighty without having faith in yourself?” It would be interesting to note that Iqbal saw his own mission as somewhat similar to that of Hallaj, as he says in his Urdu verses:
فردوس میں رومی سے یہ کہتا تھا سَنائی
مشرق میں ابھی تک ہے وہی کاسہ، وہی آش
حلاج سے لیکن یہ روایت ہے کہ آخر
اِک مردِ قلندر نے کیا رازِ خودی فاش

Q. Who was it that at last became familiar with the secret of Oneness? Who is the wise one that has true awareness?
Answer. Complete awareness is to know that everything declines and dies in the temporal world but the ego can attain immortality through God, as Iqbal says in his Urdu verses:
ہوا جب اُسے سامنے موت کا
کٹھن تھا بڑا تھامنا موت کا
اُتر کر جہانِ مکافات میں

رہی زندگی موت کی گھات میں
سمجھتے ہیں ناداں اسے بے ثبات
اُبھرتا ہے مِٹ مِٹ کے نقشِ حیات

Read translation of complete answer in English
Further reading: see my book The Republic of Rumi: A Novel of Reality (2007) for a demonstration of how the "Nine Questions" contribute to the internal coherence in the poetical works of Iqbal. An updated online version is also available for free.


  1. Greetings,

    Thank you for this most interesting post.

    Iqbal seems (to me) to be unique. He is not merely a poet, nor merely a political thinker, nor merely a philosopher. He seems (to me) to be none of those, and all of those, but yet so much more than any of them.

    Perhaps he was destined for a unique, purposeful mission which included, as part of its consequences, having an ill understood message. Sometimes not being understood (e.g., by some, or in some eras) can be like a guardian of a threshold.

    As it's quite difficult to wrap some things in words, his philosophy can easily elude being straitjacketed. His philosophy simply may not fit most known intellectual molds.

    Indeed, I cannot explain how I sense him except to say that his philosophy is not, for me, simply new information (to be collected and shelved like data), but rather a wholly new healing change of context.

    Thank you again for this post.

    All good wishes,


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  3. I didn't have the time but made the time to go look for more at the RR blogsites after seeing some of Robert's earlier comments and quotes. I'm so glad I came here for a bit and now see this post with comments.

    Here is one of the comments that got me started this night:

    As Iqbal has said...why should I worry about asking the philosophers or rationalists, what my origins are, since I am obsessed by a desire to understand what my ultimate destiny is (the best that I can be). Translated from Urdu. (This may be Noor's?)

    And then, I love this comment by Robert here:
    Sometimes not being understood (e.g., by some, or in some eras) can be like a guardian of a threshold.

    The entire post (including Rehan's intriquing poem) requires much more of me than I can accomplish right now yet gives me a little key to hide in my soul for just the right time in the near future, I am supposing.

    (first friday of Ramzan 2012)