From Iqbal to Faiz: Essence and Love in Urdu Poetry -1
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
Two great poets, one idolized by his people, the other imprisoned by the same people; two lovers, one whose love was tethered to the throne of God and the world of man, the other whose love was floating unfettered; two great minds, one for whom the destination was known, the other who left it undefined; two reformers, one who stayed within the envelope of his tradition and sought to renew it, the other who broke away from it and looked for solutions outside of the envelope; two revolutionaries, one who sought to transform individuals and societies through a transformation of the Self, the other who sought such transformation on the basis of love alone; two philosophers, one who sought the principle of movement of a civilization in the discovery and application of divine commands, the other who sought it in the material dialectic of the oppressor and the oppressed . The contrast between Iqbal and Faiz can be as illuminating as a contrast between Plato and Aristotle.
What is astonishing is that these two great minds had their origin in the same social milieu of Sialkot and Lahore. At the beginning of the twentieth century Northern Punjab was a nursery for nationalist and patriotic fervor against the entrenched British. Iqbal and Faiz received similar training in their childhood which included the Qur’an, the languages, namely Urdu, Farsi and Arabic, Tasawwuf and Ethics or Akhlaq. They had the same teacher, Maulvi Syed Meer Hasan, known in the region for his learning and his discipline.
But here the analogy ceases. Like two great rivers emerging from a single lake, they take off in entirely different directions, irrigating the vast human landscape and creating fertile gardens bearing different fruit. A full generation separates the two literary giants.
After finishing up his studies in Lahore, Iqbal studied in Cambridge and the University of Munich, Germany, writing his thesis on The Development of Metaphysics in Persia. These were his formative years and Iqbal came into contact with the European master-philosophers of the age, Schopenhauer, Bergson, Goethe and most importantly, Nietzsche. It was also the period when he dived deep into Tasawwuf, studied Rumi and adopted him as his spiritual master and guide.
Iqbal showed his metal even as a student, composing Taran e Hind, which is sung by school children in India to this day. Taran e Milli belongs to the same period and shows the transformation of the young Iqbal from a nationalist poet focused on India to a universal poet with horizons embracing the global Islamic community.
World War I was unleashed just as Iqbal’s poetry was coming of age. The utter devastation of the war convinced Iqbal of the emptiness of Western civilization. His incisive intellect, already brimming with Islamic fervor, sifted through the philosophical underpinnings of the West and came back with a conviction that it was Islam in its positive and universal ethos that held the key to man’s emancipation. Iqbal was witness to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the enslavement of the Islamic Middle East and the dissolution of the Khilafat. These events profoundly influenced him and firmed up his resolve to unearth the reasons for Muslim decadence and chart out a course for a renewal of Islamic civilization.
It is with the publication of Israr e Khudi that we see the full flowering of Iqbal’s poetry. It is here that we first find his exposition of the idea of Khudi. Indeed, the concept of Khudi runs as a central theme throughout the life and works of Iqbal. It is impossible to understand the genius of this great man without understanding his concept of Khudi. The idea is quoted and misquoted by students and scholars alike and is more often than not misunderstood.
Khudi is not the Ego, as some European scholars have misunderstood it to be. The Ego is that aspect of the Nafs that bestows the “I” on the human personality, referred to in Arabic as “Anayah” from the word “Ana” meaning I. The essence of tasawwuf is to conquer the ego, cleanse the nafs and achieve surrender of the Self without the ego. Iqbal, a self-declared student of Rumi, is certainty aware of this central doctrine of tazkiyat un nafs.
Khudi is not the free will of man. Some scholars have misunderstood Iqbal while comparing him with Nietzsche, the nineteenth century German philosopher of doom. There are profound and fundamental differences between Iqbal and Nietzsche. In Nietzsche, the free will of man is bereft of the grace of God and dangles unfettered between heaven and earth. In Iqbal, the free will of man is a divine gift that is to be used with justice and balance.
Khudi is not the autonomy of man, independent of God’s grace. Indeed, such an idea would be unacceptable from an Islamic perspective, as the Qur’an specifically rejects it in the very first revelation; “Thinketh man that he is autonomous? Nay! We will drag him, drag him by his forelock”. Iqbal would not countenance a thought bereft of divine grace.
Khudi is sometimes translated as Self. But the Self is a composite term used for the Nafs and all of its attributes, the desirable as well as the undesirable. Thus the Self is disposed towards God but it is also susceptible to the whisperings of evil.
The most appropriate term that describes Khudi is Essence. Man was separated from God and the Essence of man is to find the Divine. As the Qur’an declares it:
“O humankind! Thou art ceaselessly toiling towards God and thou shall find Him.”
Iqbal embarks on this quest, as a mendicant seeking guidance each step of the way. In the process he explores, reaches heights few poets have attained, shares what he can through the eloquence of his poetry:
Khudi ka sirr e nihan La ilaha il Allah
(The hidden secret of Khudi is La ilaha il Allah).
And when language fails him, Iqbal falls back on a prayer:
Dekha hai jo kuch mai ne, awron ko bhi dikhla de
(O Lord ! Let everyone witness all that I have witnessed!)
The eagle and the lotus are the favorite symbols used by Iqbal to capture the reach as well as the sublime beauty of Khudi. He invites us on a journey in search of human Essence, a journey that takes him to the very gates of Arsh, the divine throne. There he submits his quest as Shikwa and is rewarded with Jawab e Shikwa. In Bal e Jibrael, he dares to ask to “see” the divine:
Wahi len tarani suna chahta hun.
Meri saadgi dekh mai kya chahta hun.
(I desire to hear the (divine) voice, “thou cannot see!”
Look! How humble is my desire!”
Like Moses, Iqbal desires to see God. But Iqbal knows the answer from the Qur’an: “You cannot see Me!” Moses, the great Prophet, insists, is rewarded with a glimpse of divine light which shatters the mountain and Moses swoons. Iqbal asks, and as a mere mortal, is rewarded with an approach to the gates of Arsh, the throne of God, there to seek his own Essence and is rewarded with Jawab e Shikwa. This is a journey that only the Awliyah and the Saleheen take. They search for the essence of man in the first Sirr (the first secret) which leads them to the second Sirr (the second secret), the secret of Adam. The chosen few are taken further and are shown the third Sirr (the third secret), which is Sirr e Khafi, the secret of the Light of Muhammed, the Light of Existence. There are oceans unknown beyond this station, in Sirr e Akhfa, the unknowable, transcendent secret. Iqbal has discovered the essence of man in the secret of Adam, hence he explores the creation of Adam and asks if the experiment in the creation of Adam was a success or a failure.
The greatness of Iqbal has dragged him into the age-old disputes of Qida and Qadr, of free will versus predestination. It is a dispute as old as historical Islam. Iqbal’s idea of Khudi has landed him, unjustifiably, in the camp of Qadr. It is the genius of Iqbal that he rides both streams of thought, of Qida and Qadr, and in a transcendent way, reconciles the two:
Khudi ko kar baland itna kay her taqdeer se pahle
Khuda bande se khud puche bâta tayree raza kya hai
Elevate your Essence so high that before every fate
The Lord Himself asks you, “What is thy will?”
Observe how subtly Iqbal has woven together the concepts of Qida and Qadr on the canvas of man’s Essence. The existential essence of man is to discover his own fate. The transcendence of man is in the process of discovery through an exercise of his own will. But Iqbal does not violate the supreme power of God. Man is asked by a loving and merciful God but man does not decide. Man plans but God is the ultimate planner. It is God’s will that is done, not man’s.
Never in Islamic history has a thinker weaved together so subtly the power and the destiny of man. The Essence of man exists in the vast oceans of divine contemplation. This Essence, the khudi, is time independent, and is to be found in the timeless oceans of ad dahr.
Man’s will is a tool which he uses to discover that Essence in the passage of time that is al Asr. To quote a great Awliya, Grand Shaikh Abdullah Daghestani, “Man’s free will is like a fish in the oceans of divine contemplation”. This observation at once reconciles autonomy and fate, and clarifies the notions of relative time and timeless time. Man is autonomous only to the extent of his predestination. Looked at from another angle, man is autonomous only to the extent of his Essence. Iqbal, the great thinker, intuitively understood it. He sits as a hakam, a judge on the extraordinary caravan of historical personages who have argued the issue of qida and qadr, often ending up in violent disputes.
Here Iqbal is a man of reconciliation. He is not a rebel, nor is he a humanist, but a believer in search of his Essence in the limitless oceans of heavenly consciousness. If only Al Ghazzali and Ibn Rushd could hear Iqbal! If they did, there would have been no need for Al Ghazzali’s Tahaffuz al Falasafa, nor for the Tahaffuz al Tahaffuz of Ibn Rushd. That is the genius of Iqbal! That is the genius of his concept of Khudi! (To be continued)