Heroism in the Poetry of Iqbal

thi to maujood azal se hi teri zaat-e-qadim
phool tha zaib-e-chaman, par na pareshan thi shamim
shart insaaf hai, ae saahib-e-altaaf-e-amin
boo-e-gul phailti kis tarah jo hoti na nasim?

from the beginnings of time, Your Timeless Self had been
the rose adorned the garden, but none knew of its scent
all we call for is justice, O Lord, from whom all favours flow
whence would the fragrance be known, had the gentle breeze not been?

Hence Muhammad Iqbal begins his poem Shikwa (‘The Complaint’, 1909). The garden is the universe and the rose is the presence of God. The scent is the knowledge of this presence and the breeze is mankind, or rather, a certain section of mankind, who were chosen to spread this knowledge.

In Iqbal’s complaint, that section of mankind turns to God, and tells Him that the existence of the rose is incomplete until the breeze scatters its fragrance in the garden. God is incomplete without man to know him. Further, God is incomplete without a select elite to take the knowledge of God to the rest of mankind.

Later in the Shikwa, man says to God:

hum to jeete hain ki duniya mein tera naam rahe
kahin mumkin hai ki saaqi na rahe, jaam rahe?
 
we live, so that the your name lives in this world
would the wine exist, if the wine-server did not?

Once again, man’s significance for God is alluded to. God is challenged. What would He be without man? Who would know him? Would the creation that flows out of him be complete?

One of the most foundational dimensions of Iqbal’s poetry is the significance of the human being for God. It is man who knows God, and it is man who transforms the world in accordance with that knowledge. It is in this second dimension of transforming the world that man becomes an active being, and in Islam the prototype for all humanity is not the silent, all-knowing mystic, as may be the case in certain branches of the Hindu tradition, or the self-sacrificing, serving messiah, as in the Christian tradition. The prototype is the hero who makes the impossible possible through sheer courage, which arises from his knowledge of God and the destiny marked out for him.

Hence, Iqbal writes of the consequences of his ‘complaint’ resounding through the universe,

thi farishton ko bhi hairat ki ye aavaaz hai kya?
arsh waalon pe bhi khulta nahi ye raaz hai kya?
ta sar-e-arsh bhi insaan ki tagh-o-taaz hai kya?
aa gayi khaak ki chutki ko bhi parvaaz hai kya?
 
even the angels stood surprised, “what be this voice?”
what secret this is, even those dwellers of the heavens know not
“have man’s eyes set their gaze upon these heavens?”
“has that speck of dust learnt to fly?”
 
pir-e-gardun ne kahaan sun ke, kahin hai koi!
bole sayyaare, sar-e-arsh-e-barin hai koi!
chaand kehta tha, nahi, ahl-e-zameen hai koi
kehkashaan kehti thi, posheeda yaheen hai koi
 
kuch jo samjha mere shikve ko to Rizwaan samjha
mujhe jannat se nikaala hua insaan samjha
 
“there is someone here”, exclaimed the saint of the skies
“there is someone on the highest spheres”, spoke the whirling planets
“no, it is someone from the earth”, said the moon
“it is someone concealed within”, told the galaxy
 
the lone one to understand my plaint was Rizwaan, the guard of Eden
and he knew me to be man, who was once exiled from heaven
 

A speck of dust, as man was, has learnt to fly.

Having said this, Iqbal takes up a topic that is controversial – the spread of Islamic rule through war. The Quran was revealed in 610 AD to a moderately successful merchant in Mecca, an oasis in the Arabian desert. Muhammad, as the merchant was called, founded a religious state in Medina in 622 AD. By 750 AD – less than one and a half centuries – what had started as a small group of devout religious men in a tiny tribal society that had almost nothing in the name of science, technology, or wealth, became an empire that stretched from Morocco at the coast of the Atlantic Ocean to India in the east. Iqbal writes,

dasht to dasht hain, dariya bhi na chhode humne
behr-e-zulmaat mein dauda diya ghode humne
 
deserts are mere deserts, we spared not even the seas
and ran our horses into the vastness of the dark Atlantic

Why did they do it? The answers here are many. Some say their purpose was to forcibly convert to Islam the people of the lands they overran. Others, in my opinion those with more discernment, have a different understanding. The Muslim forces defeated the political rulers of the time, and established more just, equitable laws among their new subjects. Then, they set up camp in cantonments outside the cities, confined themselves to each other, and let the civilizations they had just won political power over be. Thus, in 750 AD, only about 10 % of the Islamic empire was Muslim. The purpose of the conquests was twofold – a) to establish what they considered a just government and b) to enable the spread of Islamic culture, through its Sufis and its theologians, who, these historians believe, were primarily responsible for impressing upon the local populations the value of the Islamic message, and hence, led the peaceful conversions. However, one may even ask if this intention was a noble one or not.

A well documented incident stands testament to the latter interpretation. In 637 AD, Muslim forces defeated the Byzantine empire’s forces in Jerusalem, and took hold of the city. The Caliph Umar travelled personally to receive the submission of the city from its Christian Patriarch, Sophronius. The Christian priests, clad in ornate robes, were surprised to see the ruler of the armies who had just overrun their land arriving a donkey, wearing tattered clothes – a picture of the harsh simplicity of the desert nomad. Sophronius invited Umar to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but Umar declined, fearing that his acceptance may endanger the status of the structure as a Church, and rather prayed outside it, on its steps, out of reverence to the Christian tradition.

Whatever the motivation of the Muslims was – forced conversion or otherwise, Iqbal is far more concerned about spirituality than politics. It is not the spirituality of the meditating monk, it is the spirituality of the man empassioned. Hence, Iqbal writes,

tal na sakte the agar jung mein ad jaate the
paaon sheron ke bhi maidaan se ukhad jaate the
 
tujhse sarkash hua koi to bigad jaate the
tegh kya cheez hai? hum top se bhi lad jaate the
 
we wouldn’t turn back, once having entered the battle
even lions couldn’t hold their ground, such was our power
 
those rebelling against you, we wouldn’t spare
what’s a mere sword? we would take on canons without fear
 
di azaanein kabhi europe ke kalisaon mein
kabhi afriqa ke tapte hue sehraaon mein
shaan aankhon pe na janchti thi jahaandaaron ki
kalma padhte the hum chaaon mein talvaaron ki
 
we called to you, at times from the churches of europe
and at times, from the sweltering deserts of Africa
no pride would ever settle in our eyes
we bore witness to your greatness, in the shadow of swords

Iqbal speaks of a heroism that knows no bounds, of a courage that speaks in spite of all silencing fears. Inherent in the knowledge of the divine is the imperative to act. To act and to transform the world, and to die but also to live on immortally in the effects of one’s work in the world.

It is this passion that Iqbal finds missing in modern man. The inspiration for all action, for Iqbal, is the divine, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged. An intense connection with the divine leads to intense action. It ignites a spark in the heart that gives one the courage to move mountains. Iqbal understood his own purpose as providing a little fuel for that spark, in a way that would inspire his readers to break through their fears and live a life of glory. Only an inspiration from God could ignite the spark finally, but Iqbal could set the conditions, put the fuel together.

 
muztarib baagh ke har gunche mein hai bu-e-niyaaz
tu zara chhed to de, tishna-e-mizraab hai saaz
 
naghme betaab hain taaron se nikalne ke liya
toor muztarib hai usi aag mein jalne ke liye
 
the fragrance hidden in each blossom in the garden quivers
for Your livening touch, thirsts the lute
 
melodies yearn to break out of the prison of strings
and Sinai longs to burn once again, in Your fire
 
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~ by tdcatss on August 3, 2012.

2 Responses to “Heroism in the Poetry of Iqbal”

  1. Thank you for always bringing us something to learn from and to think on! :)

  2. thanks :)

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