Three Poems By Iqbal III: Khizr The Guide

By Dr. Ali Hashmi

Khizr-e-Rah (Khizr the Guide)

Al-Khizr (Arabic: “the Green One”) is an enigmatic figure in Islam. He is best known for his appearance in the Qur’an in Sura al-Kahf. Although not mentioned by name, he is assumed to be the figure that Musa (Moses) accompanies and whose seemingly violent and destructive actions so disturb Moses that he violates his oath not to ask questions.

Islamic tradition sometimes describes him as Mu’allim al-anbiya (Tutor of the Prophets), for the spiritual guidance he has shown every prophet who has appeared throughout history. In Sufi tradition, Khizr has come to be known as one of those who receive illumination direct from God without human mediation. He is the hidden initiator of those who walk the mystical path and also figures into the Alexander Romance as a servant of Alexander the Great. Al-Khizr and Alexander cross the Land of Darkness to find the Water of Life. Alexander gets lost looking for the spring, but Khizr finds it and gains eternal life.

The poem, first read in a session of the Anjuman Himayat-e-Islam (‘Association for the Service of Islam’) in 1921 was written against the backdrop of widespread pessimism and gloom in British Indian society. The aftermath of the destruction of World War I, the abolition and dismantling of the last ‘Muslim Caliphate’ the Ottoman Empire, the massacre of hundreds of innocents at the hands of British Indian soldiers at the infamous Jallianwala Bagh (1) and other repressive acts by the ruling British had created a somber mood across the land. This, combined with the ongoing economic depression, had created almost universal despondency, particularly in Indian Muslims. Interestingly, the poem also alludes to the dawn of a new age, where workers will no longer fall for the ‘tricks of the money-men’ inspired, no doubt, by the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 and the establishment of the first worker’s government in history:

‘Uth kay ab bazm-jahan kaa aur hee andaaz hai

Mashriq-o-Maghrib may tere daur kaa aaghaaz hai’

‘Rise, for a new age dawns

Your era begins in East and West’

Iqbal begins the poem by first setting the scene in some detail. Like most poets and artists, he had a keen eye for nature’s beauty and wrote many poems extolling the same. As with many of his best poems, this one, too, is in the form of a dialogue. The poet goes first, describing the peaceful scene around him:

“Saahil-e-daryaa pay main ek raat tha mehway nazar

Gosha-e-dil main chupaay ek jahan-e-iztiraab

Shab sakoot afzaa, hawa asooda, darya narm sair

Thee nazar hairan kay yeh darya hai ya tasveer-e-aab”

“Sunken in thought was I, one night on the river-bank

My anguish buried deep in my heart

Still was the night, quiet, calm the river

Amazed was I at this picture of serenity”

Warming up a little, after painting a picture of nature in all its tranquility, the poet then plumbs a little deeper into his imagination.

“Raat kay afsoon say taair aashianon main aseer

Anjum-e-kam zau giraftar-e-talism-e-mahtaab”

“Songbirds caged by night’s magic

Dimly lit stars imprisoned by the moon’s sorcery”

As the poet paints the scene, he comes face to face with the object of his search, the elusive Khizr.

“Dekhtaa kya hoon kay woh paik-e-jahan paimaa Khizr

Jis kee peeree main hai maanind-e-seher rang-shabaab”

“Who do I see but that wanderer, Khizr

Young like the early morn”

Khizr then addresses our poet and issues him a challenge:

“Keh raha hai mujh say ae joya-e-asrar-e-azal

Chasm dil waa hoe toe hai taqdeer-e-aalam be-hijab”

“Said he, O seeker of the secrets of eternity

The Universe’ fate is clear only to the ‘seeing eye’”

In his poetry, Iqbal often explores metaphysical ideas relating to life, death, birth, heaven and hell. In fact, his doctoral dissertation submitted in 1908 at the University of Munich was titled “The Development of Metaphysics in Persia” and this remained an abiding interest throughout his life.

What does Khizr mean by ‘the seeing eye’? Ancient Esoterics and Mystics believed that there exists some special force inside humans which could perceive the essence of reality independent of intellect or reason. This was named Intuition which is usually taken to mean the ability to sense or know immediately without reasoning. It has been, variously, called ‘Gnosis’ in ancient Greek philosophy or ‘Irfan’ in the Sufi tradition. What the poet is implying is simply that the ‘secrets of eternity’ are invisible to the average person. They cannot be found by seeing, hearing, touching or any of the senses that humans ordinarily use to make sense of the world around them. One needs something more, willingness and a desire to look beyond the surface of things to try to get to their essence, something that requires effort, dedication, desire and love of learning and knowledge.

That other great mystic, Mirza Ghalib expressed it thus:

‘Bay-khudi besabab nahin Ghalib

Kuch toe hai jis kee pardaa daari hai’

‘This intoxication is not meaningless, Ghalib

Something remains hidden from view’

In fact, this is a constant subject in mystical literature and poetry and countless volumes have been written on it through the ages.

Moving on, Iqbal gets to the questions he wants to ask Khizr. He starts out with an easy one:

‘Chor kar aabaadian rehtaa hai tu sehraa naward

Zindagi teri hai be-roz-o-shab-o-fardaa-o-dosh’

Why is Khizr forever ‘wandering the deserts?’ living a life ‘without yesterday or tomorrow?’ He then gets to the questions that make up the subject of the rest of the poem:

‘Zindagi kaa raaz kya hai, saltanat kya cheez hai

Aur yeh sarmaya-o-mehnat main hai kaisa kharosh?

‘What is the secret of life, what is monarchy (or government?)

Why this antagonism between labor and wealth?’

Khizr, in the first section of his response titled ‘Sehra Nawardi (Desert Wandering)’ answers the first question by another one:

‘Kyun ta’ajub hai meri sehraa nawardi par tujhe

Yeh taga poe-e-dama-dam zindagi kee hai daleel’

‘Why this surprise at my wandering ways?

This eternal struggle is the very proof of life’

Thus Iqbal illustrates a profound concept of life, its ever changing, dynamic, never still nature. Henri-Louis Bergson (1859 –1941) a French philosopher widely popular during his lifetime concluded that time eluded mathematics and science. To him, the ordinary, rational mode of understanding divides time into static intervals of seconds, minutes, days, weeks etc which prevents one from accessing the ‘ultimate reality’ of things.

And, in fact, humans, by virtue of our limited understanding of the universe, can only measure time this way. To us, there is always a time that has passed, a time that is to come and very briefly, the time that is now. It is a cruel irony that also by virtue of our human nature, most of us dwell either in sorrow of our past or in fear of a future that is inherently uncertain. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, in his haunting poem ‘Hum Log’ (‘Us’) expressed it thus:

‘Dil kay aiwanon main liyay gul shuda shamon kee qataar

Noor-e-Khurshid say sehmay huay uktaay huay

Muzmahil saaet-e-imroz kee bayrangi say

Yaad-e-Maazee say ghameen, dehshat-e-fardaa say nidhaal’

‘Carrying a line of extinguished candles in the depths of our hearts

Exhausted and frightened of the sunshine

Enervated by the colorlessness of our days

Sorrowful at the past and terrified of the future’

Khizr, on the other hand, is presenting the opposite message. The change that time brings and the struggle that it implies, whether we like it or not, is proof of life and is what grants life meaning. The struggle is life in the most profound sense of the term. Cessation of movement, of change, of struggle means death, and though that is peaceful, it is no longer life.

Khizr underlines this point in the last verse of this section:

‘Zindaa tar hai gardish-e-paiham say jaam-e-zindagi

Hai yehi ae bekhabar raaz-e-dawam-zindagi’

‘Robust is life’s wine cup because of this eternal movement

This, O unknowing one, is the secret of eternal life’

The next section of the poem titled ‘Zindagi (Life)’ is where Khizr explains to the poet the meaning of life. He begins:

‘Bartar-az andesha-e-sood-o-ziyaan hai zindagi

Hai kabhi jaan aur kabhi tasleem-e-jaan hai zindagi’

“Life transcends profit and loss

It is living your life and giving it up (for something)”

Khizr illustrates to our protagonist that everything is recognized by its opposite. This is a simple enough concept. What is day? The absence of night. What is night? The absence of the day. Is it possible to have day without night? Is it possible to have white without black? Is it possible to have life without death? The one thing defines and in fact creates the other. Without the one, there would no longer be the other. Just so, Khizr tells the poet that posing the question in such a narrow way is meaningless and in fact, the meaning of life and its meaninglessness are one and the same. If one person asks the meaning of their life, the answer could very well be ‘nothing’(or whatever that person chooses it to be) but the question changes if one asks the meaning of Life with a capital ‘L’ i.e. Life itself, all life.

Khizr goes on:

‘Tu issay paimana-e-imroz-o-fardaa say na naap

Javidaan, paiham dawan, har dam jawan hai zindagi’

“Measure it not by this day or that

Eternal, dynamic, ever young is Life”

Here again, Khizr gently chides our poet for his narrow point of view. While any one person is always a prisoner of ‘today and tomorrow’, Life itself has no such constraints. It emerges, blooms, flowers, withers, dies and then starts anew.

Khizr then goes on to teach the real lessons to our poet:

“Apni duniya aap paida kar agar zindon main hai

Sirr-e-Aadam hai, zameer-e-kun-fikaan hai zindagi’

“Create your own world if you count yourself among the living

The Secret of Adam, the essence of (divine) creation is life”

Here Iqbal demonstrates one of the central contradictions of his poetry and his life philosophy, the struggle to resolve its material and the metaphysical aspects. While Iqbal grew up in a deeply religious household he traveled and read widely. He was well familiar with the ideas of both the idealist and materialist Western philosophers i.e. those espousing Idealism, the proposition that ideas exist independent of matter (in its more extreme forms it may involve the denial of the existence of the external world) and those advocating Materialism, the philosophical theory that regards matter and its motions as constituting the universe, and all phenomena, including those of mind, as due to material agencies. While his poetry has some wonderful exhortations to action, it is also deeply imbued with Idealistic themes and in many instances, the calls to action flounder on the shores of appealing to the heavens for help.

This is the case in his “Lenin in the presence of God” from his collection ‘Baal-e-Jibreel (The Wing of Gabriel)’: 

‘Mashriq kay khudawand safedaan-e-firangi

Maghrib kay khudawand darakhshanda-e-falzaat’ 

The leader of the Russian Revolution rails against ‘the rulers of the East, the White gods’ and ‘the rulers of the West, gold and silver’.  

‘Hai dil kay liyay maut machinon kee hukumat

Ehsaas-e-murawwat ko kuchal daytay hain aalaaat’ 

He goes on to say ‘the rule of machines kills the soul; tools and machines destroy fraternity and brotherhood’. In the end, though, Iqbal cannot rise above his metaphysical solution, calling upon God to change things rather than placing his faith in Man. 

In the next verse though, Khizr clarifies his explanation: 

‘Zindagaani kee haqeeqat kohkan kay dil say pooch

Juu-e-sheer-o-tesha-o-sang-giraan hai zindagi’ 

‘Ask the mountain cutter the meaning of life

It is the stream of milk, the stone cutting tool and the heavy boulder’ 

This refers to a story in the fabled Shahnama, an enormous poetic opus written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi around 1000 AD .The Shahnama, considered the national epic of Iran, tells of the mythical and historical past of Iran from the creation of the world up until the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century.

This verse recounts the story of the love of the Sassanian King, Khosrow II towards his Christian princess, Shirin and the vanquishing of his love-rival, Farhad by sending him on an exile to Behistun Mountain with the impossible task of carving a ‘stream of milk’ through a stone mountain if he wants to win the hand of Shirin. This story (and particularly the carving of the stream as a metaphor for accomplishing something close to impossible) finds reflection in the poetry of many poets of the region through the ages.

Iqbal’s ‘spiritual mentor’, Mirza Ghalib used it this way in a verse: 

Kav kave sakht jani hai tanhai naa pooch

Subh karna shaam kaa laana hai ju-e-sheer kaa’ 

‘Inquire not of my forbearance to the incessant hammering in the loneliness

Just to spend the day from morning to night is like carving the milk stream’ 

Or, elsewhere: 

‘Teshe baghair mar naa sakaa kohkan,Asad

Gum-gushtaa-e-khumaar-e-rasoom-o-qayood tha’ 

‘Without the chisel, the mountain digger could not kill himself

He was too intoxicated with traditions’ 

Khizr continues: 

‘Bandagi main ghat kay reh jaatee hai ek juay kam aab

Aur aazadi main behr-e-be-karaan hai zindagi’

‘In bondage, Life is but an exhausted stream

Free, it is a fiery, interminable ocean’ 

Iqbal is, no doubt, exhorting his country men, enslaved economically and politically by the British for over a hundred years with no end on sight. 

‘Aashkaara hai yeh apni quwat-e-taskheer say

Warnaa ek mitti kay paikar main nihaan hai zindagi’ 

‘Familiar is he with his power to conquer

Though Life is hidden in this lump of clay’ 

Again, we see the interesting contradiction of Iqbal’s style. He refers to Man as a ‘lump of clay’, a completely Materialist point of view. Humans arise from the world they live in, they subsist on the world they inhabit, they die and rejoin their ‘Mother Earth’ who receives all back in her embrace. If we arise from this Earth and then rejoin her after we die, where does the world of angels, heavens, purgatory and the like fit in? Khizr (and Iqbal) chooses to remain silent. 

“Qulzam-e-hasti say tu ubhraa hai manind-e-hubaab

Iss ziyaan kahanay main tera imtihan hai zindagi” 

“Risen are you like a bubble on the ocean of life

Life is your test in this world of everlasting loss” 

Here Iqbal points out another profound truth. Everything fades and disappears. Things arise and fall and arise again and the cycle continues. Clutching at this or that, trying to preserve it, prolong it, fearing its loss, mourning its passing is meaningless. If change is constant and nothing is eternal, then there is no point in trying to hold on to things. A much better way, what might be called the Zen way in the Buddhist tradition, is embodied in a verse by Aatish Lucknavi: 

‘Naa phero iss say munh Aatish, jo kuch darpaish aa jaaey

Dikhaata hai jo aankhon ko muqaddar, daikhtay jaao’ 

‘Do not look away, O Aatish, from what appears before you

Whatever your fate shows you, serenely observe it’  

This view makes it much easier to see beyond the surface of things, inside the turmoil that often marks the surface of so much of life. 

Then, another call for action:

‘Khaam hai jab tak kay hai mitti ka ek anbaar tu

Pukhtaa ho jaaey toe hai shamsheer-e-bay-zanhaar tu

Ho sadaqat kay liyay jis dil main marnay kee tadap

Pehlay apnay paikar-e-khakee main jaan paida karey

Phoonk daalay yeh zameen-o-aasman-e-musta’ar

Aur khakastar say phir apna jahan paida karey’ 

‘Imperfect are you, if still a lump of clay

And if hardened, a mortal sword

The heart that desires martyrdom for the Truth

Let him first strengthen his earthly form

Let him destroy this borrowed Earth and Heaven

And from the ashes, fashion a new world’ 

It is easy to see, even from this imperfect translation, the electrifying effect this kind of poetry could have on a crowd, particularly in a people suffering from centuries of bondage and humiliation. Of course, Iqbal does not elaborate on what ‘Truth’ he is referring to leaving it up to each reader to discover that truth for him or herself. There is, of course, a danger in this. Quoting Kiernan again, Iqbal had “talked of the importance of a peaceful understanding between Muslims and Hindus; he had also, in his time, indulged in unguarded rhetoric about holy wars and the sword of Islam and extolled action as if that were an end in itself. Doubtless many other on both sides said the same things but few with his authority and none with his eloquence. The holy war he would have seen if he had lived another decade and most certainly would have recoiled from in horror was the gigantic massacre of 1947, one of the most frightful catastrophes of the twentieth century in which Hindus and Muslims of the Punjab perished by the hundreds of thousands. Years before, thinking of the Great War (the First World War), he had written: ‘That is not the rosy dawn of a new age on the horizon of the West, but a torrent of blood.’ The same might have been written now of his own horizon of the East”. 

Khizr ends this section by issuing a challenge to the poet (and the poet to us): 

“Yeh ghari mehshar kee hai, tu arsaaey mehshar main hai

Pesh kar ghafil amal, gar koi daftar main hai’ 

“This is the day of reckoning and here you are

If you have something to present, this is the time’ 

Iqbal closes this section with a profound tribute to the idea of the ‘present moment’. There is no yesterday, it is only a memory of time gone by, it never will be again. There is no tomorrow, we may never see it. All of us, at any time, only have the present moment in which we live. We plan for and worry about the future, we remember and mourn the past and in between, we so often choose to neglect the only time that we ever have, here and now. This is what Khizr is telling Iqbal (and us). If you have something to do, something to show, something to accomplish, begin it now, don’t wait, don’t put it off, you will never have this moment again and you may never see tomorrow. 

To be continued


(1) Jallianwala Bagh: The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, alternatively known as the Amritsar Massacre, is named after the Jallianwala Bagh (Garden) in the northern Indian city of Amritsar. On April 13, 1919, British Indian Army soldiers under the command of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on a peaceful, unarmed gathering of men, women and children celebrating the Punjabi New Year. The firing lasted about 10 minutes and official British Raj sources placed the fatalities at 379. According to private sources there were over 1000 deaths, with more than 2000 wounded. The British Civil Surgeon indicated that there were 1,526 casualties.

First Published In The Friday Times, Lahore.


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