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Taking Issue and Allah's Answer
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 Taking Issue And Allahs Answer
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Muhammad Iqbal
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Hai ajab majmooa-e-izdaad, Ai lqbal tu Raunaq-e-hangaama-e-mehfil bhi hai, tanhaa bhi hai

0 Iqbal, you really are something else! You can be the life of the party, yet be alone all the while.

‘Aashiq-e-Harjaai’ (The Philanderer)


It is a hundred years since Muhammad Iqbal first recited Shikwa (Taking Issue) at a gathering of the Anjuman-e-Himayat-e-Islam in Lahore in 1909. Through the tumultuous century that succeeded this event, the poem and its response, Jawaab-e-Shikwa (Allah’s Answer, 1913), have assumed a strange afterlife in the subcontinent.

Although his poetry is appreciated on both sides of the border, in India and in Pakistan, Iqbal is viewed through different lenses. In Pakistan, Iqbal is immortalized as a founding father. In veneration, his titles precede his name. Iqbal’s legacy is more interesting in India. His poem of 1904, ‘Taraanaa-e-Hindi’ (Song of India), is an anthem to this day.

His early poems still inspire patriotic nationalism and communal amity. However, his subsequent inclination beyond Indian nationhood to a pan-Islamic global identification has been seen as problematic for its divisiveness.

Shikwa marks the shift that reaffirms Iqbal’s Muslim identity and asserts his affiliation to the ummat, or the Islamic community of the world, and for that very reason remains a deeply conflicted text that emphasizes a fraternity through difference. Ever since their first unveiling, Shikwa and Jawaab have been appropriated to forward various agendas through recitation, repetition and selective quotation. Those who claim Iqbal as their

own, both in India and in Pakistan, have found different ways of defining their contemporary relevance.


For Indians today, Iqbal is best known as the composer of ‘Saare jahaan se acchha’ (from ‘Taraanaa-e-Hindi’), which extols wataniyat, or love for the homeland, where all its denizens are bulbulein, or songbirds, in this garden/country. His early poems ‘made him the darling of the Indian people’.1 Iqbal wrote of freedom from all distinctions and oppressions: religion, caste and class. His words evoked the syncretic impulses that remain at the heart of India’s diversity. ‘Bacche Ki Dua’ (A Child’s Prayer) was ubiquitous in classrooms in India even in his time:2

Ho mere dum se yunhi mere watan ki zeenat Jis tarah phool se hoti hai chaman ke zeenat

Let me bring glory to my land with every breath, like blossoms that are the glory of the meadow.

Being Indian, and of India, inspired several of Iqbal’s poems. He wrote of the land and its geography in poems like ‘Himalaya’ and ‘Taraanaa-e- Hindi’; its great seers and deities in ‘Nanak’ and ‘Ram’ (whom he called lmam-e-Hind, or Prophet of India); and its poets in ‘Mirza Ghalib’ and ‘Dagh’. Iqbal even translated the Gayatri mantra from the Sanskrit into Urdu verse as ‘Aaftaab’ (The Sun). In ‘Nayaa Shivala’ (New Temple), Iqbal deifies his homeland. Using a vocabulary more Hindi than Persian, his views are syncretic of Hindu and Muslim thought:

Patthar ki mooraton mein samjha hai tu Khudaa hai Khaak-e-watan ka mujhko har zarra devataa hai

You assume God exists only in icons of stone, every speck of earth that is my land

is Divinity itself.

His poems found easy acceptability with their images of reconciliation and mutual respect. National leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore praised his verse.3 Then, in 1905, Iqbal left for Europe for a three-year sojourn.

Between 1905 and 1908, Iqbal travelled extensively and studied philosophy, law and metaphysics in different parts of Europe. His years outside India brought about a profound change in his perception of territorial nationalism. He was closer to the world-changing events of his time; he observed the rising influence of Western materialism and the corrosion of Islamic power bases. He visited the former sites of Islamic dominance in Europe and felt a great nostalgia for this loss. Iqbal’s writings changed: his gaze stretched beyond nationhood to a larger universe of the fraternal Islam of the ummat and the millat (the community of the faithful). This internationalism was quite removed from the earlier intensity, fervour and patriotism of being an Indian. Iqbal now assumed the mantle of an alienated Muslim for whom, in the words of Mohammed Ali, Muslims for ‘the past thirteen centuries had been “a nation without a country”’.4 Upon returning to India, Iqbal wrote Shikwa and, later, Jawaab-e-Shikwa. In the rift between Iqbal’s years as a poet of India and his later Islamist leanings, lie these poems. For Indians, then, Iqbal is a poet with a past.


In Pakistan, Shikwa is the avant-garde to a brave new world of Muslim self- determination. It is a blueprint on which the future state—not even articulated when these poems were written— could base both its actions and abstractions. Muhammad Iqbal himself is invoked variously, the most common being the appellation of Allama, or scholar. He is also Sir Muhammad Iqbal—he received a knighthood from the British government in 1922 in recognition of his poetry. He is Shayar-e-Mashriq (Poet of the 0rient), Hakeem-ul-Ummat (Doctor of the Community)5 and Mufakhir-e- Pakistan, or Philosopher of Pakistan, on the basis of his writings and speeches from 1909 onward until his death in 1938.

Iqbal is regarded as a pillar of the new state of Pakistan that came into being in 1947. His life and work have been analysed and scrutinized constantly by literary critics and religious ideologues alike, in print, in talk shows, on Internet forums and on blogs, where determined attempts are made to cull certainties and universalities from his writings. Shikwa and Jawaab are no longer mere poems but manifestos, and the abstractions inherent in his poetic turn of phrase are heightened to the point of dogma. For Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal is the voice of the future—his poems its harbinger:

Astr-e-nau raat hai, dhundlaa sa sitaaraa tu hai

Tomorrow is still in darkness, and you are the faint new star.


It would be worthwhile, then, to place these poems in the context in which they were written, and be conscious not to attribute meanings in the light of later events. I have kept this in mind as the guiding spirit of this translation.6

What are fundamentally paeans of alienation have been aestheticized through the years, through incanted recitation, or tarannum, which shifts the emphasis from the content to the musicality of the words and the rhyme.

The politics that drive the mussaddas7 get subsumed in the presentation of the poems as a musical performance: for example, by the Brothers Sabri, by Egypt’s diva Umm Kulthum (in Arabic, as ‘Hadeeth-al-Rouh’), and especially in the interpretation by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s qawwali, set in the Hindustani classical tradition. In most performances, the lengthy poems are restricted to certain ‘greatest hits’; the couplets chosen often reflect the political affiliations of the performer. There is little doubt that the popularity of these poems is primarily due to Iqbal’s skills as a wordsmith. The misras,

or couplets, are resonant and mellifluous, the turn of phrase sometimes spectacular; but these are primarily outpourings of anguish at the loss of an established world order, keenly felt by a subject population at the peak of Western imperial colonization. The use of the poems today as objects of beauty tends to obscure this.

The aestheticizing impulse is evident in some translations too, as rhyme and metre are stressed upon to match the Urdu format of the mussaddas, to maintain the form of the couplets, as it were. What Iqbal is saying, his anger and frustration,8 becomes secondary to the manner in which he says it; the spirit is overwhelmed by the sophistication. Iqbal too must have been aware of this for in a couplet in ‘Parinde Ki Fariyaad’ (The Bird’s Lament), he admonishes his audience:

Gaana ise samajhkar khush na ho sunnewaale Dukhe hue dilon ki fariyaad yeh sadaa hai

0 listener, this is no song

to be regaled by, this is the wail of wounded hearts, all

crying out to be heard.

To prevent Iqbal’s angry rant from becoming ornamental, this translation does not follow the rhyme-and-metre scheme of the original Urdu, nor does it enjamb the misras as couplets. Accepting the obvious, that English is neither Urdu nor Persian, there is also a paring down of language and vocabulary, following Strunk and White’s immortal dictum: ‘0mit unnecessary words.’


Shikwa and Jawaab are poems of their time, inspired by events and circumstances in the first and second decades of the twentieth century, and a response to them. These were traumatic times for most Muslims, for, in the space of one generation, they were witness to the decline and eclipse of the three most significant sites of Muslim domination, faith and memory. Most

of these erstwhile historic, political and cultural strongholds of Islamic power had come under Western colonial administrations.

In the subcontinent, the dominion of the British empire was at its strongest. After the events of 1857, the Queen of England, now calling herself Kaiser-i-Hind, had fashioned India into the first bauble of the empire. The Uprising had been put down with a heavy hand by the British, who had exiled the last Mughal emperor from his capital in Delhi; with his expulsion went the entire subculture of courtly Muslims. The extinguishing of the Mughals had come with violent and humiliating reprisals. The raw memories of the forced removal of all Muslims from Delhi continued to reverberate through the retelling by its survivors. The sense of victimhood would have been at its strongest, especially in northern India. Iqbal was born but one generation away from this turbulence.9

By the time Iqbal returned to Lahore and recited Shikwa in 1909, the 0ttoman empire was at its nadir, facing external threat from the Balkans. After five hundred years of supremacy, it was nearing collapse. Iraq and Egypt were controlled by the British. The British had also supported the Arab uprising that would bring the Saudis to power and give them control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In India and worldwide, Muslims felt an estrangement from the very fonts of culture that had nurtured them. The state of the Islamic world and that of Islam in India, in that first decade, would reduce Iqbal to tears:

Rulaataa hai tera nazaaraa, Ai Hindustan mujhko Ki ibratkhez hai tera fasaanaa sub fasaanon mein

Witnessing your plight I weep, 0 Hindustan! 0f all the tales told

yours is the most chastening.

—’Tasveer-e-Dard’ (A Picture of Pain)

Iqbal was in Europe when war clouds were at their blackest. The precipitate Balkan Wars and the imminent fall of the Caliphate would be the

inspiration for Jawaab-e-Shikwa, his second mussaddas. If Shikwa is prophetic in the light of later events, Jawaab is its fulfilment. Iqbal’s anguish is for Muslims both within India and around the world. Where else could a poet vent his feelings than at the feet of his Maker?10 Iqbal invokes Allah with vehemence in Shikwa and takes ‘the normative Muslim belief in the absence of any intermediaries between the individual and God to an extreme’.11 He recounts the early successes of Islam, both in faith and in territory, to prove the credentials of the community of Islam to Allah. These are referenced almost as a list, from battles enjoined in the lifetime of the Prophet to the later Muslim dominance and the unification under Islam of large parts of Asia and Europe. Now all that was gone, the Garden of Allah was barren and forlorn, and Iqbal remained the only bulbul clamouring for better times.


Consternation and outrage followed Iqbal in the wake of his first recitation of Shikwa in 1909. The poem enraged Hindus and Muslims alike. By isolating individual phrases or couplets, Iqbal has been criticized as divisive of his fellow countrymen. This couplet, separated from the rest of the poem, could give umbrage:

Jins-naayaab muhabbat ko phir arzaan kar de Hind ke dair-nasheenon ko Musalmaan kar de

Make Your once uncommon love abundant again,

bring back the Muslims

from the idolatrous ways of Hind.

However, once placed in the larger context of the poem, it becomes clear that the dialogue Iqbal carried out was internal to the Muslim community in India. Iqbal was both referring to and invoking his own people, in praise and in disapproval, especially the latter. As in a later poem:

Apne bhi khafaa mujhse hain, begaane bhi naakhush

Main zehr-e-halahal ko kabhi keh na sakaa qand.

My friends are angry with me, I irritate strangers alike—

I have never been able to call a bitter pill a sweet fruit.

Baal-e-Jibreel (Gabriel’s Feather)

The disquiet he caused within his own community was more understandable, not so much because he was blasphemous—it was his eloquence that made him sound so. Shikwa begins with the poet raising his head and his voice, at his God, more out of frustration than anything else. He speaks on behalf of his community; he speaks with impertinence ‘for he has no choice’. He is aware of this audacity and knows the consequences of taking issue with Allah directly: ‘my mouth fills with mud’. Despite this,

Chup reh na sakaa hazrat-e-Yazdan mein bhi lqbal Kartaa koi is bandaa-e-gustaakh ka munh band.

Iqbal could not keep his peace, even in the presence of Allah.

0, for someone to shut the mouth of this impudent servant of God.

Baal-e-Jibreel Muslims in India too came under Iqbal’s stern gaze. According to

Shikwa, the reason Muslims lost their dominance of many centuries was

because they had moved away from the Islam Iqbal considered pristine, the Islam of the time of Prophet Muhammad. Indian Muslims had adopted the mores of India to the extent that their faith had almost been subsumed in it. How could the Muslims of India feel for their brethren in other parts of the world, if the affinity for an Islamic brotherhood was itself diluted? Iqbal questioned their indolence and their internal differences, and rued that their ways presaged imminent ruin.

Watan ki fikr kar naadaan! Museebat aane waali hai Teri barbaadiyon ke mashwarein hain aasmaanon mein

Worry about your homeland,

for trouble’s a-coming, naïve one!

The portents of your ruin

are writ large upon the skies.


In both Shikwa and Jawaab, Iqbal was particularly harsh on the Sufis, whose mystical practices he deemed otherworldly.12 Iqbal opposed Sufism ‘because too many Sufis had forgotten the circumference—the Shariah— where they had, or should have stood; they were too busy advancing on their radius towards God—the Centre. They encouraged the belief that all religions were the same.’13 Their obsession over the tombs of saints particularly incensed him. In both poems he berated their tendencies for ‘commercializing’ reverence and for ‘trading in tombs’. Iqbal disapproved of this ‘shrine worship’ and such rituals as the kissing of graves and covering them with offerings of flowers and chadors. Such practices were, to Iqbal, far removed from the fundamental tenets of Islam, almost turning into idolatry.

Ho niko-naam jo qabron ki tijaarat karke

Kya na bechoge jo mil jaayein sanam patthar ke?

With fame and wealth

that comes from the trade of tombs, what can prevent you cashing in

on gods made of stone?

The Muslims in India needed to return to the Qur’an, the Shariah and the love for Prophet Muhammad as first practices. His role models were Bilal and 0wais, the loyal followers of the Prophet. Iqbal’s ideological aspirations are clearly Salafist, as is his disdain for rituals and practices that evolved later and became entrenched, like the veneration of shrines.


Interestingly, both Shikwa and Jawaab centre on a Sufi metaphor: that of a songbird singing in a barren garden/meadow. The nightingale sings of longing and wants to be heard by the Beloved. The garden is an allusion to paradise, or a paradise lost. There is an entire tradition of Sufi metaphors that evoke the absent lover and the travails that lead to the final union. Iqbal describes the madness of the legendary lover Quais for his absent beloved Laila. The Beloved is the godhead, although in many poems it may refer to Prophet Muhammad. The Sufi sings of his eternal devotion and undying love for the Prophet and, like 0wais Karani, expresses this devotion even in the knowledge that they shall never meet.

Iqbal’s poems develop on many tropes of Sufi allusion. His hurt is like the wounded heart of the poppy (lala). Life itself is fleeting, as fragile as a haystack (khirman) that can be burnt to a cinder by a single bolt of lightning (barq). In the short time that he has, the poet tries to catch the attention of the wine bearer (saaqi) who carries the ewer (khum) filled with wine (jaam): a metaphor for seeking an audience with Allah.

Given Iqbal’s ambivalence towards Sufi practices, could the appropriation of the very vocabulary associated with the Sufis be an unselfconscious act? After all, these tropes are some of the commonest, used extensively in Persian and Urdu poetry,14 in ghazal, qasida, naat and mussaddas. Such metaphors are suffused in day-to-day usage, in the parole, as it were, of the language itself. Does Iqbal not contradict himself in writing both Shikwa and Jawaab so filled with Sufi imagery? A deeper reading of both poems reveals that this is not quite so—Iqbal uses these tropes with awareness and strategy, and he makes these metaphors his own. Iqbal the poet is the lone bulbul himself, bewailing the sorry state of the garden, threadbare and untended, that is the former Islamic world, now emptied of the ummat and occupied by strangers.

Tujhe kyon fikr hai, Ai gul, dil-e-sad, chaak-e-bulbul ki Tu apne pairahan ke chaak to pehle rafoo kar le

Why are you concerned, 0 Bloom, with the wounded lament of the bulbul? Repair your own torn raiment first.

—’Phool’ (Blossom)

Iqbal bemoans the state of his community that has fallen into stasis like an abandoned haystack, unaware that disaster could strike any time. He rues the state of Indian Muslims, who remain benumbed despite the warning signs that abound. The poet carries a wound in his heart from the pain of exile, not an earthly one but from the good graces of Allah. He seeks the attention of Allah for redressal and is impudent enough to call to Him directly. In this act of madness, Iqbal seeks to wake his fraternity, his ummat, from the slumber of apathy. Iqbal’s allusions are deeply political: he represents himself as a lone voice of warning, reason and exhortation to his fellow Muslims in India to shake themselves out of their waywardness and once again aspire to be like the Muslims of the Hijaz, who succeeded in consolidating and spreading the faith so far and wide in so short a time.


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