Extrolling the legacy of Islam, its civilizing role in history, and confronting the dilemmas of Islam in modern times, Shikwa (1909) and Jawab-i-Shikwa (1913) are two of Iqbal’s most controversial and remarkable poems in Urdu. While Shikwa is in the form of a complaint to Allah for having let his followers down, Jawab-i-Shikwa is Allah’s reply to the poet’s complaint. Using traditional Sufi imagery, the poems represent a poignant effort to reconcile Islam and the West, and transcend religious and ethnic barriers to achieve a pan-Indian voice. This translation, with an introduction and explanatory notes, by Khushwant Singh makes Iqbal come alive. The book also includes a foreword by Rafiq Zakaria.
Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) was a Muslim poet, philosopher and politician born in Sialkot, British India (now in Pakistan), whose poetry in Urdu and Persian is considered to be among the greatest of the modern era. While his primary reputation is that of a poet, Iqbal is also regarded as a pre-eminent Muslim philosophical thinker.
Iqbal defies translation. His poems, whether in Urdu or Persian, have both historical and spiritual overtones. His expressions are steeped in Islamic lore. It is almost impossible to understand them without a proper knowledge of the Muslim heritage. That has been both the weakness and strength of his poetry; its weakness lies in its appeal being confined mainly to the followers of the Prophet Muhammad; its strength, on the other hand, consists in the hypnotic spell that it has cast on Muslims.
Many have tried to translate Iqbal's poetry into English; most of them have failed. Nicholson's translation of Asrar-i-khudi ('Secrets of the Self’) is, no doubt, a commendable effort; but he could grapple with the meanings of Iqbal's verses because he was not only a Persian scholar but was also Iqbal's teacher. There have been others, notably Victor Kieman and A.J. Arberry, whose English renderings of some of lqbal's Persian poems are of a high order. While Kiernan managed to convey the beauty of some of Iqbal's earlier Urdu poems, Arberry's translation, of the Urdu poems, Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa, was a disaster. Arberry did not know a word of Urdu, and rendered these poems into English on the basis of their English translation by an Urdu-knowing friend. No greater injustice to these poems, full of Islamic history and religious fervour, could have been done by a scholar.
I was so unhappy with Arberry's translation of these poems, that I requested my friend, Sardar Khushwant Singh, to undo the wrong which Arberry, unknowingly and with the best intentions, had been made to do by some well-meaning admirers of Iqbal. The idea appealed to Mr Singh. He had read these poems many times, and was aware of the appeal they had for Muslims. Having become a champion of their cause by presenting the Muslim case boldly and frankly in the pages of The Illustrated Weekly of India, which he so admirably edited for almost ten years, Mr Singh was familiar with their aspirations. Soon he realized that while Iqbal sounded musical to the car, his expressions were often so complicated that they were not easy to understand. To translate them into English called for great courage, and Mr Singh has been equal to the task. Every lover of Iqbal will remain grateful to him for this feat.
Despite the fact that Iqbal's greatness both as a poet and philosopher is increasingly acknowledged, most of his poems are still unavailable in the West. This is unfortunate because Iqbal's poetry was as much influenced by the West as by Islam. As he himself admitted, 'Most of my life has been spent in the study of European philosophy, and that viewpoint has become my second nature. Consciously, or unconsciously I study the realities and truths of Islam from the same point of view. I have experienced this many a time, that while talking in Urdu, I cannot express all that I want to say in that language.' Like his great contemporary, Jawaharlal Nehru who, according to Maulana Azad, spoke in English even in his dreams, Iqbal too was more precise in expressing his philosophical ideas in English rather than Urdu. This is obvious from a reading of Iqbal's English lectures, published under the title, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, which gives a much fuller account of his religious outlook than most of his poems. But despite this affinity with the West, Iqbal could never come nearer to it, unlike his other great contemporary Rabindranath Tagore, whose book of poems Gitanjali, translated into English, earned him the Nobel Prize for literature. Even today, the West's ignorance of Iqbal, as the eminent English novelist, E.M. Forster, has said, is 'extraordinary'. In a broadcast on the Home Service of the B.B.C. in 1946, Forster presented Iqbal as 'an orthodox Muslim' and 'anti-humanitarian in his outlook' . I wrote to Forster, explaining how wrong he was in his assessment of the poet on both these counts. Foster's reply is worth quoting:
Thank you for your most interesting letter. I am very glad indeed that you wrote, for I had of course no wish to be unfair to Iqbal, only to do him honour, and my best chance of correcting any of my mistakes about him is through the friendly criticism of people like yourself. My talk will be published in the Listener and it will there be fuller than on the air. For instance, I wrote Iqbal was an 'orthodox Mohammedan but not a conventional one', which brings my point of view nearer to your own. I also wrote 'in a sense anti-humanitarian'. Here again we may agree more than you at first realized. Humanitarian has two senses: (i) development of human powers and (ii) compassion and responsibility felt by the strong for the weak's failures. Iqbal (as far as I can gather from Vahid's book and it is almost my only authority) was humanitarian in sense (i) but not in sense (ii). My talk was written for English people who know even less about Iqbal than I do myself, and I don't think it is very well suited for the better informed Indians ... believe me.
I have no pretensions to being a scholar of Urdu or of Iqbal. In fact, I had almost forgotten the little Urdu I knew till I began to re-learn it when I took over the editorship of The Illustrated Weekly of India in 1969. Amongst the many innovations I introduced in the journal was to provide Indian Muslims a forum to express their point of view on national problems. Since their complaints included discrimination against Urdu, I decided to return to the language. The chief reason why I chose to re-start with Iqbal was that he not only handled the language with exquisite skill but also made it a medium for expressing the hopes and aspirations of Indian Muslims of my generation. And of his voluminous writings I chose two of the most controversial poems to render into English. I must also admit that when I set out on my voyage of rediscovery of Urdu it was the fiery music of some of the lines of these two poems that rekindled my almost dead love for the language and kept the flame of my interest alive. I have translated these two poems as part-payment of the debt of gratitude I felt I owed to Iqbal for once again offering me the priceless gems of the Urdu language. Reading and re-reading Iqbal has been the most exhilarating experience of the later years of my life.
I subscribe to the view that it is impossible to translate good poetry of one language into another. This is even more true when it comes to translating Oriental verse into a European language. While every language has words and concepts which have no counterparts in others, the Oriental poets often go further in investing words with meanings not recorded in dictionaries. Two examples will suffice. Amongst the commonest currency in Hindi-Urdu love poetry are joban (yauvan in Hindi) and angdaee The closest that English offers for joban is youthfulness. The Hindi-Urdu joban is not only youthfulness but specifically the youthfulness of a young girl with burgeoning bosoms. So also angdaee. It means no more than the stretching of limbs as is done by a tired person. But in Hindi-Urdu poetry that stretching of limbs becomes a distinctly amorous gesture.
Besides finding exact English equivalents, when it comes to Urdu, a translator has to content with the institutionalized concepts which the language has borrowed from Persian and Arabic and are liberally used by poets. Thus we have zahid (from zuhd, pure, for a religious mentor), vaiz (from vaz, admonishment, for a preacher), naseh (adviser) and qasid (message bearer, for one who acts as a go-between between lovers). Although dictionaries assign distinct functions to them, in actual usage they often extend their roles. Another character who plays a very prominent part in Urdu poetry is the saqi (wine-server). A saqi, who can be either male or female, is often also the sweetheart in both the hetero- and homosexual sense. The bulbul which in real life only emits an unmusical chirp and shows no preference in its choice of flowers is made into a nightingale (which incidentally sings away all hours of the day as well as night) in order to endow it with a melodious voice and also assumed to address its love-lorn lament to the unresponsive rose. The moth (parvana) becomes the exemplar of the ultimate in love because in its passion for the flame (sham 'a) it happily immolates itself in the fire. Iqbal employed these concepts with abandon. And much more. Since Islam was the dominant theme of much of his poetry there are many allusions to events in the life of the Prophet Muhammad, his companions, the Caliphs and Islamic history. These compel the translator to append explanations in footnotes. The two poems translated here are entirely devoted to contrasting Islam's glorious past with the disintegration of the Islamic empires and the sorry state of Muslim society of later days. I have done my best to avoid footnotes and, where this has not been possible, to make them as brief as possible.
My interest in Shikwa was roused when I heard my friend Rafiq Zakaria and his wife Fatma recite passages from the poem to their children. The more the recitations moved me the more inadequate I felt in my capacity to render them in English. It was only after reading the translations of A.J. Arberry and Altaf Hussain that I picked up enough courage to try my hand at the poems. I felt that Arberry's translation had failed to capture the musical resonance of Iqbal's words. And Altaf Husain had taken more liberties with the original than is legitimate for a translator. I tried to overcome my shortcomings with Urdu vocabulary by consulting dictionaries and badgering anyone I met who knew Urdu with torrents of questions. So it was at dinner and cocktail parties, casual meetings and even on the tennis court as much as in the seclusion of my study that I worked on this translation. It took me over a year to get it in readable shape.
If I were to put down the names of all the people I consulted, it would make a formidable list. I am constrained to name a few whom I troubled with my problems more than others: Satindra Singh of The Tribune, Hafeez Noorani and Nasira Sharrna for checking the exact meaning of the words; Mujahid Husain of the Embassy of Pakistan for going over every line of my Shikwa translation, K. N. Sud, Dr Masud Husain of the Aligarh Muslim University and Dr Aley Ahmed Suroor, Iqbal Professor at the University of Kashmir, for the final revision. For the translation of jawab-i-Shikwa I consulted the poet Ali Sardar Jafri and had it examined for accuracy by Begum Sajida Zaidi of the Aligarh Muslim University before submitting it to Sr Suroor for a second scrutiny. Dr Asad Ali provided the Hindi transliteration. To all these friends I record my gratitude. But it is to Fatma and Rafiq Zakaria that I am most beholden for constantly nagging and prodding me to get on with the job till it was completed.
Iqbal wrote on a variety of subjects and his views changed with the times. It is not therefore wise to try to attach labels to him. To the Indian nationalist he appears a fervent nationalist who wrote, 'Of all the countries in the world, the best is our Hindustan' (Sarey jahan se accha Hindustan hamara), exhorted Hindus and Muslims to come together, build new shrines where they could worship together and who regarded every speck of dust of his country as divine. At the same time he considered Indian Muslims to be a people apart from other Indians. And while proclaiming that Islam did not recognize national boundaries, he supported the demand for a separate state for Indian Muslims. At one time Iqbal exhorted the peasantry to rise against its oppressors, uproot the mansions of the rich and set fire to crops which did not provide sustenance for them. At another time he wrote qaseedas (eulogies) in praise of kings and princes from whom he received patronage. It could be said that Iqbal sang in many voices: he was a nationalist as well as an internationalist, a Marxist revolutionary as well as a supporter of traditional Muslim values and a pan-Islamist. Iqbal was oblivious of these contradictions. If he was consistent in anything, it was in the quality of his compositions. Whatever he wrote was born of passion and executed with the skill of a master craftsman. Few poets of the world have been able to cram so much erudition and philosophy in verse; and fewer still use words both as colours on an artist's palette to paint pictures as well as deploy them as notes of a lute to create music. He was fired by a creative zeal which could only be explained as divinely inspired. It is no wonder that although a devout Muslim, Iqbal could not resist the temptation to bandy words with God. The poems here translated are only two examples of man the creator questioning the ordinances of the Creator of mankind and the universe.
It would not be correct to explain the various facets of Iqbal's writing and his inconsistencies as the process of development of his personality. It is best to take what comes as it comes and if it appears to be at variance with something he had said before to shrug one's shoulders, relax and enjoy the poetry. Scholars talk of Iqbal's philosophy as if it were logically developed scheme of values. It is not. His earlier poems breathe a sense of disbelief in the world; like the Hindus he regarded it as an illusion (maya) and like them he spoke of the futility of striving. Three years in Europe (1905-1908) brought about a complete reversal in his beliefs. The world became real; life had a purpose to serve; latent in every man was a superman who could be roused to his full height by ceaseless striving to create a better world. This post-European phase has been designed as Iqbal's philosophy of khudi. It is yet another word that eludes exact translation. Khud, is self; khudi could be selfhood. Khud could be the ego; khudi, the super-ego. As used by Iqbal what comes closest to khudi is assertive will-power imbued with moral values. This is apparent from these oft-quoted lines:
Khudi ko kar baland itna
Keh har taqdeer sey pehley
Khuda bandey sey khud poocchey
Bata, 'Teri raza kya hai?'
Endow your will with such power
That at every turn of fate it so be
That God Himself asks of His slave
'What is it that pleases thee?'
What exactly did Iqbal want human beings to strive for? Obviously towards some kind of perfection. But he does not care to spell it out in any detail. It would appear that for man ceaseless striving was not to be for material gains in this world or with an eye on rewards in life hereafter. It was to be utterly selfless and motivated by love for mankind. The word lqbal uses for this kind of striving is faqr from which the word faqir is derived. For Iqbal it does not mean beggary but quite the opposite: it means pride in the little that comes from righteous endeavour (kasb-i-halal). Thus to Iqbal a man who inherits wealth without having striven for it is worse than a beggar, while a poor man who works for the good of humanity is truly rich. Iqbal's combination of khudi and faqr comes close to the Hindu concept of nishkama karma (action without expectation of reward) lauded in the Gita. Iqbal writes:
Yaqeen muhkam, amal paiham,
Hain yeh mardon kee shamsheeren
In man's crusade oflife these weapons has he:
Conviction that his cause is just;
Resolution to strive till eternity;
Compassion that embraces all humanity.
However, Iqbal did not accept the Hindu belief in predestination and assured man that he could be the master of his fate and make the world what he wanted it to be:
Amal sey zindagi banti hai
Jannat bhi jahannum bhi;
Yeh khaki, apni fitrat men
Na noori hai na nari hai.
'Tis how we act that makes our lives;
We can make it heaven, we can make it hell.
In the clay of which we are made
Neither light nor darkness (of evil) dwells.
Iqbal exhorted people to exploit their latent powers by carefully nurturing them:
Agar khudi ki hifazat karen to ain hayat;
Na karen to sarapa afsoon afsana.
If we nurture our will, life will have purpose;
If we fail to do so, it will be a tale of frustration
from the beginning to the end.
Iqbal would have had little patience with the current obsession with meditation (transcendental or otherwise) to induce peace of mind, because he believed that anything worthwhile only came out of a ceaselessly agitated mind:
Khuda tujhey kisee toofan se ashna kar dey
Keh terey bahar ki maujon me iztirab nahin.
May God bring a storm in your life;
The sea of your life is placid, its waves devoid of tumult.
In the introduction to his Persian work. Asrar-i-khudi ('Secrets of the Self), Iqbal writes: 'Personality is a state of tension and can continue only if the state is maintained. If the state of tension is not maintained relaxation will ensue. Since personality or the state of tension is the must valuable achievement of man, he should see that he does not revert to a state of relaxation. That which tends to maintain the state of tension, tends to make us immortal. '
What was true of the individual Iqbal believed to be equally true of races and communities. According to him the real sign of vitality in races is that their fortunes change everyday:
Nishan yahee hai zamaney men zinda Qaumon ka
Keh subah-o-sham badaltee hain ink; taqdeeren.
In every age this alone marks a vibrant race
That every morn and eve its fortunes change.
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