People & Society Review essay

The lost verse: Why is Iqbal going out of fashion?

Updated 10 Nov, 2017 03:55am
Allama Iqbal (centre, bottom row) with his students and colleagues at Government College, Lahore in 1910 | *Iqbal in Pictures*
Allama Iqbal (centre, bottom row) with his students and colleagues at Government College, Lahore in 1910 | Iqbal in Pictures

Once upon a time, once upon a recent time in fact, young Urdu poets frequently used to talk about Iqbal’s poetry in both formal and social settings — Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet whose birth anniversary just went by on November 9. And not only poets but South Asian intellectuals in general, among them even diehard ideologues standing tenaciously on the left side of the aisle, such groups too used to invoke this monumental literary personage all the time.

I recall sitting in London with the well-known contemporary poet Iftikhar Arif who would recite Iqbal and explicate his poetic virtuosity for hours on end — and he would do so with an inner glow and passion, passion that seemed to arise out of the depths of an articulate voice and a fine literary sensibility. Then, there were the BBC veterans with whom I socialised as a young broadcaster: I remember Taqi Ahmad Syed, Rashid Ashraf, Rashidul Ghafoor, Muhammad Ghayur, Hasan Zaki Kazimi, Raza Ali Abidi, Tahir Mirza who subsequently became daily Dawn’s editor, and several others, all of them at times virtually drenched in Iqbal’s verse, and this despite the fact that many of them had a leftist orientation.

In these poetic reminiscences, there were occasions when Faiz Ahmad Faiz too would join in. People forget that Faiz had translated into Urdu many of Iqbal’s poems from his Payām-e Mashriq (Message of the East) — this verse translation is now available in an audio rendition by Adeel Hashmi. Indeed, in one of his own poems in his first collection Naqsh-e Faryādī (Complaining Image) – a poem called Iqbal written in honour of the named – Faiz affectionately called him a khush-navā faqīr (mendicant/fakir with a beautiful or pleasing voice):

I recall Saqi Faruqi as well, an uncompromising follower in the footsteps of Noon Meem Rashid – Rashid, who marks a daring new departure in Urdu poetry with an ambivalent and sometimes dismissive attitude to Iqbal – and in this case too we see the embodiment of an irony. This now senior poet Saqi living in London used to speak to me every now and then about Iqbal. He often referred to what he described as the majesty and grandeur (the Arabic/Persian/Urdu word he chose was ihtishām) of Iqbal’s words and poetic diction. I found the verbal noun ‘ihtishām’ so very appropriate for the sonorous voice that radiated forth from the Bāñg-e Darā (Call of the Bell) and Bāl-e Jibra’īl (Gabriel’s Wing), the two works of Iqbal I loved most at the time.

In Pakistan, and generally in all of the South Asian Urdu world, things were the same — only the scale was higher. Here, in my early youth, numerous senior scholars of Iqbal’s poetry flourished — Salim Ahmad was one of the glowing ones in this cluster, and among his own seniors were indefatigable critics and writers like Syed Abid Ali Abid. But what is most significant and ironic is that Pakistan’s leftist groups in their private moments appeared to be utterly enamoured of Iqbal’s verse, listening to it practically as a clandestine treasonable activity. They indulged in this activity despite their formal and vocal ideological rejection of Iqbal’s ‘philosophy’, whatever that is.

These days, when we are well into the new century, young literary circles hardly talk about Iqbal’s verse.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s religious scholars would cite and chant Iqbal’s poetry in their sermons and especially in Muharram assemblies (majālis). His poems would be set to music routinely by state electronic media. One heard his verses being declaimed all around with cultivated intonations, informed pauses, sound punctuations, stainless enunciations and with standard pronunciations.

High premium was placed on those who held Iqbal’s poems in their active memory. I cannot forget my liberal-left elders asking me to recite Saqināma (To the Cupbearer) or Masjid-e Qurtuba (Mosque of Cordoba) from the collection Bāl-e Jibra’īl that I could recall readily. A child as I was, I would earn much praise and enthusiastic patronising pats on my shoulders, and sometimes this came with delightful rewards too, a bar of chocolate or some ice cream …

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It seems to me that one of the greatest fiction writers of our times, Qurratulain Hyder, had a fascination for Iqbal. As for her philosophical orientation, no matter how we describe her, by no stretch of imagination can she be called a conservative or, to use a Christian theological term that has gained global currency, an ‘orthodox’ Muslim. In her rich world of imagination, Iqbal served as an inspiration, an effulgent source of creative signposts from whose oeuvre she could draw just a few words to sum up an entire protracted socio-cosmic narrative.

“Most of my titles [yes, she did say “most”] come from the poetry of Iqbal and Faiz,” Hyder declared in an interview in 2006. Indeed, she called her debut novel, completed in 1948, Mērē Bhi Sanam Khānē (My Idol-Houses Too) — this resounding title happens to be a quarter-verse from a ghazalesque poem of Iqbal in Bāl-e Jibra’īl, a poem written in a broken metre where every half-verse (misra‘) is made up of two further half-verses, often with an internal rhyme:

Then, many decades later, we saw Kār-e Jahañ Darāz Hai (Much to Be Done in this World); this title of this mature work being another quarter verse from another broken-metre poem from the same Bāl-e Jibra’īl.

So until fairly recently Iqbal-the-poet transcended ideological leanings, and this was so because there did exist around us a poet called Iqbal who wrote majestic poetry. Here let us carve a creative principle on our literary consciousness — namely, that poetry of a higher order, even though it must come to pass from within this real and moving world of ours, arises in manifestation in a framework that is cosmic, not contingent upon accidents of history, or upon ideological positions, or riding on the shoulders of changing political winds; as Iqbal himself said, “it sprouts forth from ‘Me-and-Thee,’ but cleanses itself of ‘Me-and-Thee’ …”

But, then, things have changed now: These days, when we are well into the new century, young literary circles hardly talk about Iqbal’s verse, and those very few individuals who dare invoke his poetry have to apologise in case they are accused of being obscurantists, backward-moving, ‘orthodox’; at best, being revisionists. Now in the self-professed liberal chambers, Iqbal has effectively become a dark force in its fullness, an embarrassing event in the intellectual vicissitudes of our world. Yes, Iqbal does seem to be going out of fashion. But how does one explain this obliteration of a corpus of what one would recognise as poetry of a high order, nay, glorious poetry? What is the explanation of this darkening of Iqbal-the-poet from the literary horizons of South Asian Urdu societies?

What is most significant and ironic is that Pakistan’s leftist groups in their private moments appeared to be utterly enamoured of Iqbal’s verse.

To begin with, one would mourn the loss of languages in these societies, more particularly in Pakistan. Let alone source languages such as Arabic or Persian or Sanskrit, the national language Urdu too has all but gone. There, of course, do exist numerous Urdu electronic media channels, and then there are these Urdu print media publications, and we do also see these days an emerging Pakistani film industry using Urdu as its underlying carrier — but they are all lost in a linguistic anarchy, suffering a total lack of philological standardisations. Is the word vaqfa (break) feminine or masculine? Do you announce the time of iftār (fast breaking) or aftār? Do you express felicitations by offering mubārak or by offering mubārik? Or is it, rather, offering mubārakbād? Or offering mubārikbād? What is it? Do you seek aman (peace) in Karachi or is the word amn? Is the Urdu word for recruitment ta‘īnāt or ‘ta‘ayyunāt’? Do I suffer from a marz (illness) or from a maraz?

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We hear all kinds of variations on these common media utterances — variations in gender, in vowel placements, in vowel arrangements, and in vocalisations. We also see a free market of non-standard idioms whose countless examples abound in the media, but here I have restricted myself to morphological issues, overlooking the injuries inflicted upon standard syntax and usage. Now the listener, especially the very young listener, is confused. When the process lingers, as it does, one of two things happens very soon — the youngster either abandons making sense of Urdu or this victim actually begins to bask in confusion, thus being made to suffer a permanent intellectual impairment. But equally serious, let us remember a lesson from history — when standardisation goes, eventually language goes.

Given this ethos, it is small wonder that a typical college student in Pakistan cannot even read the title pages of Iqbal’s poetic collections. The disappointments extend far: When on a larger scale we try to gather this soil’s entire intellectual harvest reaped over the past nearly three generations, our gathering bags remain virtually empty. As the local intelligentsia shrinks, the causal agency of the state remains ruthless — the state does not recognise education to be a process of nourishing human thought, imagination, and creativity. Rather, education officially means vocational training — training that is considered to promise a corporate job. The specific case of languages is particularly worrisome. Languages are hardly cultivated in schools and colleges, and this has rendered some three generations practically without any articulate tongue and, to hold Faiz’s hand in this moment of agony, we join him in his lament:

While this disability, this language vacuum, this linguistic blackout, has blocked access to Iqbal’s poetry, it has also dethroned a literate culture – a reading culture – into a non-reading, non-literate aural culture. This is another element in the explanation of why Iqbal is going out of fashion.

Iqbal’s poetry is not mushā‘ara poetry; it is not for declamation in a performance assembly to display the poet’s virtuosity. In fact, nearly all of what we call modern Urdu poetry is poetry for reading: Noon Meem Rashid is very strictly not for mushā‘aras, nor is Meeraji’s verse, and the same applies to much of Faiz. This explains why, along with Iqbal, we have also thrown into yawning obscurity a bulk of modern Urdu poetry; the disappearance of Rashid is particularly conspicuous in these extinctions. We credit Rashid for raising Urdu poetry finally from the realm of hearing and performance and crowd-pleasing into the literate realm of reading and reflecting and solitude — and this historic elevation seems now to have been reversed in a process of cultural retrogression.

In fact, what we have ended up with seems worse than just a reversal. If in the Mughal period Urdu poetry was largely a verbal firework sport of performances before royal patrons and cheering or heckling public gatherings, it was modulated and controlled by a well-read milieu. That milieu has been extinguished. And as I see it, this death of a cultural milieu is the reason why these days we hear around us daringly incorrect recitations of Iqbal’s poetry, if it is recited at all.

High premium was placed on those who held Iqbal’s poems in their active memory.

I must emphasise that this judgment of “incorrectness” is not a subjective matter of opinion, for here I speak in strict terms of numerical accuracy, literally. Urdu poetry, almost always, expresses itself in metrical arrangements that are determined quantitatively, unlike, say, English poetry; in other words, a given metre of an Urdu verse is made up of a fixed number of short and long enunciations. You add to or subtract from this fixed number — Lo! You have destroyed the metre. So, there certainly is an objectively correct way of reciting Urdu poetry, a judgment that is, so to speak, scientific.

A fascinating fact is that, until this day, recognised Urdu poetry is the best source of learning vocalisation of words. While a standard Urdu verse, such as that of Ghalib or Iqbal or Rashid, does not indicate which of the three vowels — a (zabar), i (zēr), u (pēsh) — you place between two consonants of a word that occurs in it, it does compel you to place one of these three vowels where a vocal motion (harakat) is needed; and it compels you to read two consonants without a vowel when they must remain quiescent; and it compels you to geminate a consonant where gemination is a phonetic requirement. I say “compel” because the running metre of a verse is the determining principle that sets its rhythmic balance (vazn); you misread a word and you kill the metre. Yes, the metre serves as bridles that fully control the reader-reciter.

Allama Iqbal (far right) in London for the Second Round Table Conference in 1931 | Iqbal in Pictures
Allama Iqbal (far right) in London for the Second Round Table Conference in 1931 | Iqbal in Pictures

Now that the reading culture has been demoted to a non-literate culture merely of hearing, and now that one hears all sorts of mispronunciations in the air, everyday Urdu poetry declamations of the popular kind have in general become slaughterhouses of metre — and this means slaughterhouses of all Urdu poetry as we know it. The consequences are even more drastic in fact: Since there do exist Urdu alphabetical characters that have identical sounds (such as the four characters that are all pronounced z, or the two characters that are enunciated as h), therefore just by hearing them one cannot make orthographic identifications in writing them down — and so words carrying these sounds are now misspelt as a routine matter. To be sure, these misspellings appear in the otherwise most respectable of television channels and newspapers.

Likewise, two or more words may be phonetically identical, but orthographically distinct — if our scribes/typists/writers have not read these words intensively and have only heard them, they will spell them identically, or whimsically, and so in fact they do. But when this kind of treatment is meted out on the monumental poetry of Iqbal whom Pakistan holds as its national poet, the cut is deeper.

The loss of languages, together with the retrograde motion of what was rising as a reading culture of Urdu poetry beyond sheer hearing — these two historical accidents go a long way in explaining why Iqbal-the-poet is receding into darkness from the skies of contemporary cultural vogue. But, then, there is a third causal agency that figures in this explanation, perhaps the most important one. This third agency is that of surrender and abandonment. Iqbal has been given over, almost totally, to the mercy of a noisy bazaar of ideological vendors; abandoned and surrendered to the commotion of these vendors who trade in all styles and modes and colours. They all talk about Iqbal’s ‘message’, his ‘philosophy’, to the exclusion of his poetry.

Everyday Urdu poetry declamations of the popular kind have in general become slaughterhouses of metre.

For some of the ideologues, for example, Iqbal’s message is an elaboration of the doctrines of Islam. He envisions the Muslim community to control and lead the global world politically and economically, if only the community were to inculcate sound principles of Sharī‘a. For others, he has unmistakable leanings towards Karl Marx, whose voice he recreated in beautiful verses in the Zarb-e Kalīm (The Hit of Moses), and whom he even called “a Jesus sans the Cross” in the Armughān-e Hijāz (The Gift of Hijāz). But there are those vendors too in this ideological bazaar who, for instance, say that Iqbal preaches violence and bloodshed, and that he holds the world of nature in abject contempt, given his vicious symbolism of the eagle and the hawk and the ego.

And yet, some ideologues have it that Iqbal is a great ‘philosopher’ whose Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is a synthesis that bestows upon him a status higher than that of, say, Bergson, or Whitehead; only to be contradicted by an opposition declaring the Reconstruction to be a basketful of contradictions. In the thick dust of this melee, Iqbal’s poetry is lost.

Little surprise, then, that today’s sparingly organised seminars and conferences on Iqbal typically sideline his poetry to the periphery of the discourse. On the other hand, in colleges and universities whole courses on Iqbal are being taught — but typically by those who in their meek recitations kill Iqbal’s verse metrically, thus depriving it of its rhythmic dignity; in other words, these high-sounding courses are taught generally by those who are untouched by and unschooled in Iqbal’s poetic creations.

Allama Iqbal (centre, bottom row) with members of the Circle of Islamic Studies in Lahore, 1933 | *Iqbal in Pictures*
Allama Iqbal (centre, bottom row) with members of the Circle of Islamic Studies in Lahore, 1933 | Iqbal in Pictures

I have attended many an international conference on Iqbal, held with much fanfare and lavish funding; these turned out to be events during which not even a single half-verse of our poet is quoted in a full day’s proceedings. Then, academic and journalistic material on Iqbal continues to be produced but almost none on his poetics, on his metaphors, his symbolism, diction, rhythms and imagery. By far, most of what appears in print has to do with Iqbal’s thought, his ‘philosophy’, his political ideas, his pan-Islamism, his dream of Pakistan, and his ‘message’.

It ought to be admitted that Iqbal has many abodes — the abodes of philosophy, politics and economy, international relations and community affairs of his times. Yes, he is found contemplating in the world of metaphysical thought and speculations; and as an active participant in the realm of Muslim movements in India; and developing doctrinal grounds for Quaid-e-Azam and the Muslim League; and writing even on economics; and practicing law; and being honoured as a Knight of the British Empire. And yet it ought be declared forcefully that whatever else Iqbal happens to be, his primary abode, the loftiest of all, is the abode of poetry. It is Iqbal-the-poet who rules over our hearts — the Iqbal of Bāñg-e Darā and Bāl-e Jibra’īl and Payām-e Mashriq. You take this poetry away and you take away Iqbal.

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Poetry has its own grammar and logic, its own beat and rhythms. Sometimes, reality has to be distorted for poetic service, a distortion we call ‘fiction’. At times, there are creative moments in the poet’s being when contradictions of the ordinary kind are admitted as aesthetic blushes. Still, there come other moments when the poet’s metaphor is tangled in reality and reality in metaphor. Given this, all kinds of ‘messages’ can be drawn out of Iqbal, and these ‘messages’ can even clash with one another. So, those vendors who stand on the extreme right in the ideological bazaar can cite their genuine evidence from Iqbal; those on the far left can cite their own genuine ones too. The point is Iqbal’s poetry, glorious poetry; all else lies beneath it. As Iqbal’s eagle said:

This article was originally published in the Herald's December 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is professor and advisor of the social sciences and liberal arts programme at the IBA, Karachi. He also holds a visiting faculty appointment in near eastern languages and civilisations at the University of Pennsylvania.