Three Poems By Iqbal: Introduction

A Psychological Interpretation

 By Dr. Ali Hashmi

‘Everywhere I go, I find that a poet has been there before me’ Sigmund Freud

One of Iqbal’s translators, the Scotsman Victor Kiernan wrote ‘Mohammad Iqbal, the ‘Poet of the East’, lived a life of which outwardly there is little to be said and inwardly, of which little is known.’ Works on Iqbal by scholars and academicians would fill up a small library, particularly in Pakistan, where he is revered as one of the country’s founding fathers. He was one of the early proponents of the idea of a separate state for the Muslims of British India, a fantastically improbable idea at the time. His eventual whole hearted support for the idea of Pakistan was surprising considering that one of his early poems ‘Tarana-e-Hindi’ (‘Song of India’), first published in 1904, is still sung and revered widely in India. Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Iqbal that he sang it hundreds of times during his many prison terms for sedition and political activity against the British Raj. Iqbal did not live to see his dream of a separate homeland for India’s Muslims brought to fruition and would, surely, have ‘recoiled in horror’, as Kiernan wrote, had he witnessed the communal blood bath that accompanied the birth of his vision. There are still no accurate estimates of the number of people that perished on both sides of the newly created border but half a million people killed and twelve million made homeless is one estimate. All this came much later though. Before all this was the poetry, page after page of lyrical, melodious poems reflecting on themes as simple as mountains, animals and insects and as exalted as God, Heaven, Angels and everything in between.

The three poems chosen for this essay reflect three different styles of Iqbal’s poetry. ‘Maa ka Khwaab’ (A Mother’s Dream) is from Iqbal’s first published collection of Urdu poems, ‘Bang-i-Dara’ or ‘The Caravan Bell’ written before 1905 (he was born in 1877). This includes many poems written specifically for children in a simple style including ‘Himalaya’, ‘A Child’s Prayer’, ‘The Cow and the Goat’ etc. While all of his ‘children’s poems’ talk about simple themes they all have subtexts rich with meaning. For example, one of Iqbal’s most enduring children’s poems, ‘A Child’s Prayer’, still sung by children in schools today, is a prayer by a child to ‘shine like a beacon and light up the darkness in the world’. At another point, the child sings ‘let me be the voice of the poor, a lover of the old and infirm and those in pain’.

The first poem in this essay, while on the surface a simple description of a mother’s dream fearing for her child’s safety, is a profound explanation of a core concept in child development, that of ‘Separation-Individuation’, the process by which a child grows psychologically and develops the capacity for tolerating prolonged periods of separation from its mother (or other parental figure) on its way to becoming an adult.

‘Khizr-e-Rah’ or ‘Khizr the Guide’ is from a different era and showcases Iqbal’s full poetic talent. It was written in the aftermath of the First World War with the once magnificent Muslim Ottoman Empire which had ruled over large parts of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa for more than 600 years in terminal decline and soon to be abolished by Turkish Nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal ‘Ata-Turk’. On April 13, 1919 came the trauma of the infamous Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar when over 1500 innocent men, women and children celebrating the Punjabi New Year were massacred in cold blood by British Indian Army troops under the command of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. It was a time of near universal despondency amongst the Muslims of India. The poem describes Iqbal’s dialogue with the mythical ‘Khizr’, revered as a spiritual guide in many belief systems, including Islam. One could think of all manner of things one could ask such a figure but Iqbal concentrates on matters that weigh heavily on his heart. This includes the meaning of life, governance or kingship, the struggle between ‘labor and capital’ and the reason for Khizr’s wandering ways. Since this poem was composed sometime after 1919, at least one of the questions was surely inspired by the recent example of the first worker’s government in history, the Bolshevik October Revolution of 1917 which abolished the monarchy in Russia and gave birth to the first socialist government in history led by Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik Party. Iqbal devotes more of his energy to this subject in later works as well including a poem entitled ‘Lenin in the presence of God’. Due to its length and the breadth of its subject matter, this essay will focus on Khizr’s explanation of the meaning of life.

The third poem illustrates Iqbal’s love of Persian, a language more ancient than Iqbal’s native Urdu and thus richer in poetic similes and metaphors. In fact, of Iqbal’s 12000 verses, 7000 are in Persian including his masterpiece, ‘Javid Nama’ or ‘Book of Eternity’ inspired by Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. The poem, ‘Muhawara ma bain Khuda-o-Insaan’ or ‘Dialogue between God and Man’ also demonstrates one of Iqbal’s favorite themes, conversations between celestial and earthly figures, in this case between God and Man (representing all of humanity). This style is also present in one of Iqbal’s famous Urdu poems ‘Shikwah’ or ‘Reproach’, in which Man addresses God with a long list of complaints specifically about God’s treatment of Muslims. That poem created quite a stir when first presented in public and would still be considered politically incorrect, if not outright blasphemous, in many Islamic societies today. In fact, some time later, Iqbal felt compelled to write ‘Jawab-e-Shikwah’ or ‘Reply to Reproach’ whereby God rebukes Muslims for daring to complain about their condition in light of their own less than stellar conduct in the past.

To be continued

First Published by The Friday Times, Lahore.

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