Essence and Love in Urdu Poetry (From Iqbal to Faiz)

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

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 Quran, 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 Quran 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 Quran 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 Quran: “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!

Iqbal, a keen student of Quranic teachings, knows that Khudi applied not just to individuals, it applied to spiritual communities (ummah) as well. The Quran declares, “We have fastened your fate (O humankind!) around your own neck.” Each individual has an Essence. That is the individuality of men and women. Similarly, every community, and every nation, has its Essence. It is in the concept of Khudi that one has to find his political views that so dominated the last third of his life. A people must have the freedom to find their Khudi, their Essence and to express it on the stage of human history, just as an individual must have the freedom to find his Essence and express it in the matrix of human affairs.

Iqbal the poet cannot be separated from Iqbal, the politician and statesmen. Iqbal was deeply concerned about the condition of his own Muslim community in a milieu where they were a numerical minority. Through a careful and thorough analysis of the dynamics of Islam, documented thoroughly in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, he concluded that ijtihad was the moving principle of Islam. He agreed with the Turkish poet Zia that an elected legislature representing the masses, as opposed to an individual, was in the best position to exercise ijtihad in modern times. Then he came to the momentous and fateful conclusion: “In India, however, difficulties are likely to arise for it is doubtful whether a non-Muslim legislative assembly can exercise the power of Ijtihad”. This led him to propose the idea of a separate state for the Muslims of the northwestern states in British India, an idea that was the precursor for Pakistan. The demand for an independent state in northwestern British India was not an expression of separatism but a positive statement of the Khudi of a people. Iqbal envisaged legislative autonomy so that the people of the Punjab, Sindh, Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan might discover their essence and participate in the majestic march of human civilization.

The important lesson here is that Iqbal was not just a poet, a thinker and a dreamer; he was a man of action. He was willing to take the risk of injecting himself into the process of history knowing full well that great ideas are compromised and often despoiled when they are implemented in the matrix of human affairs. Whether a Pakistan that came into being lived up to or did not live up to Iqbal’s ideals is no reflection on his ideals.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz stands in contrast to Allama Iqbal both in style and substance. As a young man, he studied and was influenced by the material dialetic of Marx and Engel. The exploitation of the masses in British India convinced him that only a revolution could restore the balance of justice. As a young officer in the British Indian army, Faiz was witness to the corruption and rapacity of the money lenders, hoarders and landlords in the great famine of 1943. The ruling Unionist party in his home state of Punjab, a motley conglomerate of sajjada nishins of zawiyas, gurus of temples and gurdwaras and a rapacious merchant class did nothing for the poor peasants and the toiling masses. Faiz was witness to the holocaust that accompanied partition when hatred engulfed the vast plains of the Punjab and human bestiality found a free expression rarely witnessed by humankind. These were the formative years for Faiz, and they reinforced his conviction that justice and love were the only antidotes for the der angst felt by humankind in its march through history. Faiz thus became the poet of justice and love just as Iqbal was the poet of essence and destiny.

It was through the publication of Daste Saba and Zindan Nama, both written in prison from 1951 to 1955 that the world came to know of Faiz. It was in the dungeons of Punjab that Faiz found his voice. While his feet were shackled, he wrote from his soul,

Mata e looh wa qalam chin gayee tho kya ghem hai
Ke Khoon e Dil mein Dubo dee hain unglian mein ne.

(Grieve not that the Pen and the Tablet are denied thee,
I have dipped my fingers in the love of my heart.

Notice that Looh wa Qalam (the Tablet and the Pen) serve different functions for Iqbal and Faiz. Iqbal said:

Yeh Jehan cheese hai kya looh wa qalam tere hain

(This world? What is its worth?
To you belong the Tablet and the Pen).

The pen and the tablet are tools in the hands of Iqbal to discover human Essence and human destiny. For Faiz, they are inconsequential; he writes his destiny with the love of his heart. I have deliberately translated Qoon as love in the tradition of Imam Razi, the 10th century savant for whom blood meant the essence of the heart through which God distributes his mercy to all parts of the body, mind and the soul. If you take the literal translation of qoon as blood, you see the revolutionary zeal of the poet, in that history will be written in the blood of the martyrs.

Iqbal reaches yet another height when he declares in Bal e Jibrael:

Looh bhi tu, Qalam bhi tu, tera wajud al kitab

(You are the Tablet, you are the Pen, your existential Essence is the Book)

Here Iqbal reaches the station of Ibn al Arabi. This line of thought must stop here because it is beyond the scope of this brief paper.

The creative genius of Faiz Ahmed Faiz was to integrate in his poetry his vision of justice and love. The agony of humankind, oppressed as it is with the burden of time, is highlighted, but it is done not with hatred but against a background of the sweet music of love. The heart of Faiz bleeds with sorrow, but what it sheds is tears of love.

It takes enormous compassion, forgiveness and charity to love the hand of the oppressor. While the tongue of Faiz is the tongue of the oppressed, the heart of Faiz is the heart of the lover. In this he stands in the same league as Hafiz who witnessed the destructions of the Timurid invasion of Asia towards the end of the fourteenth century, yet sang of the sublime love that transcends hate and oppression.

Dono Jehan Teri Muhabbat me haar ke
Woh ja rha hai koyi shab e gham guzaar ke

(There goes one, having spent the night of sorrow,
For your love, he lost the here, and he lost the hereafter).

The search of Faiz led him to the conclusion that love alone was the solution to man’s condition. But he left the idea of love dangling between heaven and earth. That is why you find in his poetry an unceasing longing (Ishtiaq), a burning desire for the beloved.

Iqbal’s poetry leaves you satisfied and spurs you to action. It is a like a laser beam trained to perform surgery; Faiz’s poetry, like unrequited love, leaves you longing for more. It is like uncontained fire that burns. Iqbal and Faiz are like two travelers in the desert, the one is guided by a distant star, the other abandons his quest to the love of his heart and is content to cry out in the desert. Both reached heights of imagination attained only by a few. “I offered the trust to the heavens and the earth,” declares the Divine Word, “they declined, being afraid thereof. But man accepted it. He was indeed ignorant.” Why did man accept the trust? Rumi answers it by saying that man was drunk with love and he did not know what he was doing. That love was infused into the Ruh of man when divine love breathed it into the spec of dust that was Adam. Iqbal and Faiz were both drunk with love, and like Adam, they were on earth searching their own way back to God. Iqbal searched, concluded, took a chance and formulated a solution. Faiz sailed through the same oceans, reasserted the love that animates man’s search but he left it at that, satisfying himself with a direction dictated by the material dialectic of man.

Iqbal tries to decipher the will of God and finds it reflected in the will of man. Faiz tries to decipher the will of God and finds it in the love of man. The suspension between heaven and earth gives his poetry an ethereal quality that leaves one longing for more. Iqbal’s work has the ethereal quality but it is firmly tethered to the throne of God and the world of man.

Faiz’s poetry presents a paradox. He is the poet of justice and love but seeks its fulfillment in a material dialectic. This dichotomy requires a deeper understanding of Faiz and the essence of his poetry. Love is a bourgeois feeling; indeed, it is the core of religious experience. How could one be both a Marxist and a lover? One possible explanation is that Faiz, despite his Marxist orientation, remains deeply attached to his Quranic roots. Zulm and its redress run as a continuous thread in the Quran. One of the 99 divine names is al Haq, meaning Justice. Faiz’s poetry searches for Haq. God will hide all sins on the Day of Judgment, says the Quran, except Zulm. It will speak up and the Zalim will be punished. When Zulm does speak up on the Day of Reckoning, I am convinced one of the voices that will speak up for the Mazloom masses will be the voice of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Uthe ga Anal Haq ka naara,
Jo mai bhi hoon aur tum bhi ho;
Aur raj kareg khalq e khuda,
Jo mai bhi hoon aur tum bhi ho.

(The cry « here is justice » shall resound,
I shall be there, so will you,
And the servants of God (the people) shall rule,
I shall be there, so will you.

In accepting the Lenin Prize in Moscow in 1962, Faiz said: “Every foundation you see is defective, except the foundation of love, which is faultless.” It takes moral courage to love even when you see the ugly face of tyranny, and have felt its heavy hand on your personal self. Faiz demonstrates that moral courage. It is in this moral courage as well as the enduring value of love that one has to look for the greatness of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

However, Faiz was no social reformer. As a poet, he was the universal voice of the oppressed. He sought the redress for injustice in a material dialectic which has since been discredited. His poetry, with its universal appeal to justice and love, transcends his culture and is accessible to all humankind cutting across religion, race, nationality and time. By contrast, Iqbal was a poet, a thinker, a social and political reformer who stayed within his tradition and sought to expand its envelope to include all humankind. He was a risk taker who injected himself into the process of history and was willing to face the failures and disappointments that are all too characteristic of human effort. Iqbal was a man of action and it was through action that he sought to discover the Essence of man. Faiz was a mirror which showed the contorted face of zulm. It was an ugly face but even while he looked at the ugly face, he saw the beauty behind it and fell in love with it.

In conclusion, Iqbal was the exponent of human Essence, the voice of human longing to find God through history. Faiz was the poet of human love, the voice of der angst, the human agony in its separation from God. Two great men, two great souls, two poets without whom Urdu poetry would not be the same, two stars illuminating the canvas of human history with their light, a light reflected through Noor e Muhammadi, the Light of Existence.