Western Themes in Iqbal’s Poetry
By Dr   Zafar  M.  Iqbal
TCCI,  Chicago, IL


By “Western themes,” I mean quite liberally the works of poets, philosophers of the West,   the major movements there and general way of the Western life and attitudes, so different from the East  that Iqbal chose to versify his comment.

Most of these ‘themes’ wouldn’t have been familiar to the Urdu readership in general, and Iqbal started this import early in the 20 th century, before he went to England (1905) and later to Germany for higher studies.  Not only did he manage to give Urdu readership a peek into a world much beyond their horizon, he also brought in Western thought and emotion across the impermeable linguistic and cultural barriers, with his inimitably versified comments.  In poetry and other matters of heart and mind, such barriers do not keep mutually unfamiliar cultures apart or distant for long. Common emotions, thoughts and feelings seep through, and he demonstrated this through his own poems, as examples.

In “Baang-e-dara” (1924) particularly in Part 1 (poems he wrote before 1905),   he has poems for children, extracted (‘maakhooz’) from several English poets, both British and American, for  instance:  Aik Pahaar aur Gilhairy and Rukhsuth aye Bazm-e-Jahaan  (Ralph Emerson, US),   Humdardi and Maa ka Khwaab (William Cowper, UK); Payam-e-Subha (Longfellow, US);  and Ishq aur Mohabbuth (Tennyson, UK).   

In addition, there are other poems for children, with the source of ‘extraction’ Iqbal did not identify. Of these, I think, perhaps Aik Mukhra aur Makhi  is by Mary Howitt (1799-1888;  The Spider and the Fly)  and   Buchchay  ki duaa by Matilda Edwards ( 1836 –1919; A Child’s Prayer),  both poets British, but I still cannot identify the source of Aik Ga-yey aur Bukri.

Iqbal also wrote “Nala-e-Firaaq (Arnold ki Yaad main)” in ‘memory’ of his mentor, Sir Thomas  W. Arnold (1864- 1930) -- actually, after his tenure at Government College, Lahore, Arnold returned to England in 1904  to join the University of London as a Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies and then an Educational Advisor to Indian students till his death in 1930.   So, this poem is actually about missing Arnold left Lahore.

Iqbal had also dedicated his doctoral thesis entitled, “The Development of Metaphysics in Persia: A Contribution to the History of Muslim Philosophy,”  (Munich, 1908), in these words as “the first fruit of that literary and philosophical training, which I have been receiving from you for the last ten years, and as an expression of gratitude,  I beg to dedicate it to your name. You have always judged me liberally; I hope you will judge these pages in the same spirit. Your affectionate  pupil,  Muhammad Iqbal.”

  Grief over  Sparation  (Thinking of Anold)   [1]  

(Nala-e-Firaq ;  Arnold ki  Yaad Main)

The person who lived in this house went

  back to the West,  didn’t like the East.

I realized this today:  the day of separation

is  no less  dark than  the night.

“As the scab of his departure is scratched,

 light in my eyes  is an extinguished candle.”


I like to be left alone,  hate the crowds

 I leave the city in intense rage.

I torture myself with memories of the past,

I run to you for peace and comfort.

My eyes know your place well,

strange how slow I’m running toward you.


Every bit of my heart aching to be lit,

a  glass waiting to see the world, is now cracked.

My wishes,  like a plant,  waiting to blossom,

oh,  no one knows what I was to become.

“Clouds  of mercy rose from my garden  and  left

sprinkling a few drops  on my buds.”

Where are you, Moses to a sand grain  in the Sinai of learning?

You are the one who by stoked the flame of  learning.

Where’s  that leader who stirred in us the thirst of  knowledge?

 You instilled in us the love of  knowledge and learning, 

“Where is that spark that Laila lit in Majnoon

and blew his dust  toward  the Sahara again?”[2]


These wild hands will wrench open  Fate’s secrets;

breaking  Punjab’s chains, I will come,  see you.

Though my searching eyes can  see your picture

but how can I be content just  seeing you , not talking  to you ?

“A picture has no voice,

Silence is really the voice of a picture.”

[1]  Sir Thomas Walker Arnold  (1864-1930),  an eminent orientalist and scholar in Islamic historian who was on the faculty of different colleges (MAO, Aligarh, and Government College, Lahore)  in British India., and taught Iqbal and some other  literary figures.  Iqbal  became close to him, and regarded him as a mentor. Arnold provided Iqbal a bridge between the Eastern and Western thought.  In 1904, Arnold returned to England to join India Office as a librarian and then to the School of Oriental Studies, University of London, where he continued to work till his death in 1930. In 1905, Iqbal went to England and then to Germany for higher studies.

[2]  Laila and Majnoon,  an  Eastern fable of  young  tragic unfulfilled  love. Here, Iqbal  implies selfless affection between two caring,  grateful friends.

Another instance of Iqbal’s interest in making East-West comparisons is his poem,  ‘Mirza     Ghalib’, whom Iqbal adored  (Baang-e-dara, Part 1, poems written before 1905).  There is a line in this poem, in which Iqbal refers to his two poet-philosopher idols, Ghalib and Goethe (German poet-philosopher, buried in Weimar) this way:  “Ah, tu ujri howee Dilli main araam-day hai / gulshan-e-Weimar main thera hum-nawa khabeeda hai.” ( My translation:  Alas, while you lie in the ruins of Delhi/your soul-mate  rests in a  garden of Weimar).  Goethe spent most of his life in Weimar, Germany,  and is buried there.   Goethe wrote his famous ‘ West-östlicher Diwan , or ‘West-East Diwan’,  in memory of the great sufi  poet Hafez.   It was in response to this that Iqbal wrote  Payam-e-Mushriq in Persian.  About Goethe and his epic poem, ‘Faust’, Iqbal also had this to say in ‘ Stray Reflection  (1910)’:  

"Our soul discovers itself when we come into contact with a great mind. It is not until I had realized the infinitude of Goethe's imagination that I discovered the narrow breadth of my own."  In an equally reverential manner, Iqbal has this to say about Ghalib: “Fikr-e-insaan per theri husthi say yeh raushan ho-wa/hai per murgh-e-thakhayul ki rasaa-I tha kuja.”   (My translation:  To human intellect you revealed / how far and high it can fly).

In Part III of Baang-a dara (poetry from 1908),  he wrote a nice tribute to Shakespeare, the most admired British poet,  which I quoted in full in my last  article, 2/22/13: http://pakistanlink.org/Opinion/2013/Feb13/22/05.HTM .

  In  Baal-e-Jibrail ( 1935)  Iqbal took up more Western ‘themes’, such asLenin (Allah kay Huzoor Main); Napoleon ki Mazaar per;  Mussolini.   Then,  nearly a dozen more appeared in Zarb-e-Kaleem (1936), namely Unfrung zada’; Mecca aur Geneva;  Ishauht-e-islam;  furingistan main ;  Muqsood (dialog:  Spinoza-Plato); Mughruabi Thahezeeb;  Hakeem Nietzsche; Murd-e-farun;  Paris ki Musjid;  Karl Marx ki Awaz;  Europe aur Yahood;  Bolshevik Russia; and Mussolini.

  If this were not enough to show the diversity of his interest, his Payam-e-Mashriq (1923) in Persian, being in response to Goethe’s East-West Diwan,  has nearly 40 more poems on various Western ‘themes’.  This is part of my forthcoming book on Iqbal’s selected poetry (translated) and philosophy. 



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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