The century from 1857-1947 was not a good one for India’s Muslims. After ruling Hindustan (roughly, the territory between Afghanistan and Bengal and the Himalayas to the Deccan Plateau) for the better part of 600 years, Muslims found themselves politically and economically marginalised by a hostile British colonial administration and a resurgent Hindu population. Educational and employment opportunities were difficult to come by; the vast majority of Indian Muslims remained poor and undereducated, especially in ‘modern’ or Western subjects. And for the first time the Muslim elite had had to confront the challenge of making Islamic law and custom fit into a political system which they did not control. Communal self-esteem swung, very quickly and violently, from supremely confident to self-doubting and impotent.
Allama Sir Mohammad Iqbal was the towering intellect of contemporary Islam not just in South Asia but across much of the Islamic world. Born of Kashmiri Pandit stock (same as Jawaharlal Nehru) his forebears converted to Islam and moved to Punjab (Sialkot). Iqbal’s father was a humble tailor and it is great testament to his son’s capability and ambition that he became one of the Muslim world’s great modern philosophers. Indeed, he is credited with conceiving of the idea of a separate Muslim homeland on the Indian subcontinent, something that became reality in the country of Pakistan, some 10 years after his death.
In 1905, he traveled to England for his higher education. Iqbal qualified for a scholarship from Trinity College in Cambridge and obtained Bachelor of Arts in 1906, and in the same year he was called to the bar as a barrister from Lincoln’s Inn. In 1907, he moved to Germany to pursue a doctorate; he earned his PhD from the Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich in 1908. Working under the guidance of Friedrich Hommel, Iqbal published his doctoral thesis, The Development of Metaphysics in Persia, in 1908.
He studied Goethe’s Faust, Heine and Nietzsche but discovered that Persian was the language in which he could best express his spiritual and creative self. He continued to write poetry and philosophical works in Persian throughout his life, with his Persian verse being considered the very acme of the genre. In contemporary Pakistan he is considered the spiritual father of Pakistan and accorded on an equal, if not even more elevated, status as the country’s political founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
In 1909 upon return to India from Europe he wrote an epic of Urdu poetry entitled Shikwa (Complaint). Like the Old Testament prophets or the sage, Job, who railed against the Almighty for his supposed injustice and negligence of his chosen people, Iqbal’s 186-verse poem captured the zeitgeist of early 20th century South Asian Muslims.
If we lived, we lived for the calamities of wars. If we died, we died for the grandeur of Thy name. We did not wield the sword for our kingdoms. Did we roam about the world fearlessly for wealth? If our nation had been greedy of worldly wealth why would we have been idol breakers instead of idol sellers?
We continuously wandered all over the world. We wandered like the wine cup with Tawhid’s [Monotheism] wine. We wandered with Thy message in the mountains, in the deserts. And doth Thou know whether we ever returned unsuccessful? What of the deserts! we did not spare even oceans! We galloped our horses into the dark oceans!
We effaced falsehood from the earth’s surface. We freed the human race from bonds of slavery. We filled Thy Kaa’ba with our foreheads. We put Thy Qur’an to our hearts. Still Thou complaineth that we are lacking fealty. If we are lacking fealty, Thou also art not generous.
There are other nations, among them are sinners also. There are modest people and arrogant ones also. Among them are slothful, indolent as well as clever people. There are also hundreds who are disgusted with Thy name. Thy graces descend on the other people’s abodes yet lightning strikes only the poor Muslims’ abodes.
The idols in temples say ‘The Muslims are gone’ . They are glad that the Ka’ba’s sentinels are gone. From the world’s stage the hudi singers are gone .They, with the Qur’an in their arm pits, are gone. Infidelity is mocking, hast Thou some feeling or not? Dost Thou have any regard for Thy own Tawhid or not?
Now, the world is the lover of others. For us it is only an imaginary world. We have departed, others have taken over the world. Do not complain now that the world has become devoid of Tawhid. We live with the object of spreading Thy fame in the world. Can the wine cup exist if the cup bearer does not live?
We do not complain that their treasures are full. Who are not in possession of even basic social graces? Outrageous that infidel are rewarded with houries and palaces while the poor Muslims are placated with only the promise of Houries! We have been deprived of the former graces and favours. What is the matter? we are deprived of the former honours.
The verses above (not in chronological order) show the depth of feeling, hurt and disempowerment felt by Muslims. The poem was an instant sensation. Published repeatedly in journals across India it was hailed by intellectuals as a great masterpiece. However, conservative elements of the community objected: how could a mere human address the Almighty so directly? And with such spite? Surely, God is blameless, they said. There is no basis for complaints.
Four years later Iqbal felt compelled to answer (and placate?) the conservatives. He published an accompanying piece called, Jawab-e-shikwa (Response to Complaint) and it is together that the two poems are most usually read. A few verses from God’s response to his complaining creation are included below.
They said, “Can Man now roving come and reach these regions high?
That tiny speck of mortal clay, has it now learnt to fly?
How little do these beings of earth the laws of conduct know;
How coarse and insolent they are, these men who live below.
So great their insolence indeed, they dare even God upbraid!
Is this the Man to whom their bow the Angels once had made?
Of Quality and Quantity He knows the secrets, true—
The ways of humbleness as well If he a little knew!
That they alone are blest with speech how proud these humans be,
Yet, ignorant, they lack the art to use it gracefully.”
Unto a nation faith is life, You lost your faith and fell,
When gravitation fails, must cease concourse celestial.
You love your homes the least among the nations of the earth,
You are the most incompetent in knowledge and in worth;
Shikwa was a brave piece of moral protest and spiritual outrage. Jawab-e-Shikwa a (somewhat forced) attempt to save the situation. Together the two poems, (or the two halves of the one poem) stand as one of the highlights of South Asian literature. For the angry and sceptical Shikwa provided an acceptable means of expressing their disquiet and even, disenchantment. For the true believer, Jawab –e-shikwa proved to be a platform from which to rebuild faith and hope in the eternal glory of Allah and his people. A win-win situation for all.
The poems have been set to music and sung by many performers. Today’s post highlights the interpretation of the mighty Sabri Brothers. I particularly like this version as the two voices (the pleading, complainant and the Almighty Creator) are interwoven in the manner of a real conversation. The performance is exciting. Thrilling. A real muqaabla (struggle) of and for the Soul of man.
- Shikwa Jawab-e-Shikwa (pt.1)
- Shikwa Jawab-e-Shikwa (pt.2)