Saturday, August 29, 2009

Joseph: diction, recitation and embellishment

Joseph: diction, recitation and embellishment
In the honor of the holy month, the four Saturday sessions of Iqbal Academy Pakistan at TDC, Karachi, during Ramazan shall focus on discussing Surah Yusuf (Chapter 12 of the Quran), which is also a significant reference in the works of Iqbal. The second half was discussed on Saturday, August 29.

The surah begins as God’s address to the reader:
A. L. R. These are the verses of the perspicuous Book.
We have sent it down as an Arabic Quran, in order that you may learn wisdom.
We do relate to you the most beautiful of stories, in that We reveal to you this Quran: before this, you too were among those who knew it not.
One possible implication of being “the best of the stories” can be that each generation should be able to see this surah as the finest model of any genre best-known to them. We are just coming out of an age where screenplay was the dominant form of literature, and are probably entering an era when blog, website and interactive workshop may become accepted as forms of literatures. As such, we are likely to appreciate this surah by such analogies – just as our ancestors may have decoded it as the celestial prototype of epic poem, dastan and history.
Like them, we must also remember that despite being so many different things to so many different people, it essentially remains what it really is: a surah of “an Arabic Quran.” Neither poetry, nor fiction, it is a sign of God, which begins with three cryptic letters whose meaning is known only to God – just like those dreams and visions which Joseph encounters in the story.
A dignity befitting this relationship between the Divine narrator and a most special listener is retained despite all twists and turns. The narrative does not become fragmented into different “voices”. Only within a well-guarded unity of theme and plot is each character allowed the opportunity to speak out his or her mind. Hence Potiphar says, “Behold! It is a snare of you women! Truly, mighty is your snare,” and we get the impression of an honest but busy bureaucrat who is given to generalization for the sake of reaching quick decisions and preserving order at the cost of original thinking.
Hence, the surah has a form of its own which may not be completely paralleled anywhere else in the world – and hence the famous claim of the Quran, “And if you are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a surah like thereunto, and call your witnesses or helpers besides Allah, if yours are true” (Chapter 2, ‘The Cow’, Verse 23).
The originality of this Quranic form may not be fully appreciated until we listen to the original text (even without knowing Arabic), and imbibe its resonation not with the critical right brain but the more holistic left brain. It could be a singularly enriching experience to encounter the powerful musical element in the diction of this surah, for instance in a “creative” recitation by someone like Mishary Rashid (highly recommended: you can listen to him in the Quran Explorer or on his personal website).
Moving across such spectacular locations as stars and moon, deserts and oases, caravans, the Nile Rive Valley, and markets and palaces of ancient Egypt, this narrative is singularly lacking in that vivid imagery which characterizes some other passages in the Quran. The reason is obvious: the power of this surah can be felt apart from “representation and appearances” and its most important embellishment comes from the soul of its real protagonist, the reader.
As mentioned before, the “framing action” of the surah is dialogue between God and the reader, with which the surah begins. The subsequent story of Joseph, however interesting it may be, is just a kind of mise en abyme – a design within design – in this, and the “framing action” is resumed as soon as the subplot of Joseph finishes. “Such is one of the stories of what happened unseen, which We reveal by inspiration to you,” says God in Verse 102, and ends His epilogue on a spectacularly high note, nine verses later, declaring the surah to be “a detailed exposition of all things, and a guide and a mercy to any such as believe.”
A detailed exposition of “all things” in only a hundred and eleven verses may also be an acknowledgement of the inexhaustible depth of the reader’s own soul. Theme, action, characters, diction, music and embellishment became an indivisible unity in this narrative so that the reader could write on her or his soul the greater Unity of God, which was the key with which Joseph decoded mysteries and foretold destinies of individuals and nations. For that, the readers have to recollect their own energies – the Josephs of their souls must also outwit the scheming stepbrothers of fear, desire and flawed reasoning in order to become one unified whole. To quote from Iqbal: “What is the nation, you who declare ‘No god but God’? With thousands of eyes, to be one in vision! …Do not look slightingly on oneness of vision; this is a true epiphany of the Unity…Are you dead? Become living through oneness of vision; cease to be centre-less, become stable. Create unity of thought and action, that you may possess authority in the world” (‘Beyond the Spheres’ in Javidnama).
For this reason, no Sufi poet may have mentioned Joseph without insisting that the reader, too, is a Joseph. In The Conference of the Birds, Attar goes to the extent of introducing a fictitious anecdote which cannot be fitted into the Quranic version of this story but which drives home the analogy between Joseph and the readers of Attar’s book at the end of their journeys.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Surah Yusuf: theme, plot and characters

In the honor of the holy month, the four Saturday sessions of Iqbal Academy Pakistan at TDC, Karachi, during Ramazan shall focus on discussing Surah Yusuf (Chapter 12 of the Quran), which is also a significant reference in the works of Iqbal. The first half was discussed on Saturday, August 22.

The theme of this surah is the gift bestowed upon Joseph by God. Implications of the gift are insight into destiny through interpretation of visions, events and stories. Its corollaries are incorruptible moral character, patience, hope and forgiveness. Its purpose is to bring together a scattered “family,” be it the house of Jacob or the family of God (i.e. the entire human race).

In this chapter, described by the Quran as “the best of the stories”, the pace of action is fast. For instance, in Verse 5, Joseph’s father advises him not to mention his vision to his stepbrothers but as early as Verse 8, stepbrothers are already discussing what they should do about this peculiar vision. The narrative shifts between at least six “scenes” in as few as seventeen initial verses:

1-3: Prelude

4-6: Joseph shares his dream with father

7-10: Brothers plan against Joseph

11-14: Brothers persuade father to send Joseph with them

15: Brother throw Joseph in the well, and he receives revelation from God

16-17: Brothers return to father and give false report

Verisimilitude is avoided and even certain details found in other sources, such as the Old Testament, are skipped. This gives us a terse and compact narrative in which every single item is a metaphor that may never run out of applications in the lives of individuals, nations and humanity.

With the exception of Joseph, active characters are not called by their proper names but mentioned either by their relationship with Joseph or their function in the plot. Even “the father of Joseph”, named in the Quran on several other occasions, is not called Jacob in this surah – except once, where he is being listed among Joseph’s predecessors along with Abraham and Isaac, and hence is not in his active role in the plot.

Characters are well-rounded. Even among the respectful commentators of the Quran, we do find many who analyze the character of Joseph with a frankness with which they may not dare approach any other figure in the Quran. Personally, I do not condone such attitude but at least it is a testimony to the naturalism of this particular surah that even some otherwise staunch and orthodox writers have gotten carried away in this manner. Even the mischievous wife of Potiphar doesn’t fail to gain sympathy with the reader and, by her proper name Zulaykha (not mentioned in the Quran), she becomes one of the most popular characters in Sufi literature inspired by this surah.

The terseness of the narrative adds to the psychological depth of characters rather than diminish it. For instance, Jacob tells Joseph in Verse 5 that Satan is an open enemy, and in Verse 9, the brothers are quoted as saying, “Slay Joseph or cast him out to some other land, that so the favor of your father may be given to you alone, for you to be righteous after that.” Layers of hypocrisy can be seen working behind this idea of attaining a spiritual station by committing sin and murder, and hoping that later piety would make up for it. Since Satan has been mentioned just before this “scene”, the dialogue also becomes a study in the psychology of diabolically inspired thinking.

This error will be exposed through the action of the plot itself. In the second half of the story, we shall see that the brothers have indeed become “honest” but just when they would have no intention of doing away with Joseph’s other real brother (the precious “Benjamin”), he would be taken away from them. Again, they will have to stand before their father, offering excuses, and the shame of failing to protect a brother will be theirs once more. Hence, the unity of this narrative is such that it becomes difficult to separate theme, action and plot.

Incidentally, two new characters introduced by the Quran who are not so active in other versions, and who are as integral to this unity of theme, action and plot here, are God Himself and “you”, i.e. the reader. The surah begins as dialogue between these two characters and that’s how it ends. The relationship between these two major “characters” resonates in the diction and music of this surah, and provides it the necessary embellishment, as shall be seen in the next session on Saturday, August 29.

Attendance is free but registration is required. For details,contact Dr. Hena Jawaid at

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Workshops in Iqbal Studies

Iqbal Academy Pakistan is offering a series of weekly workshops about the basic ideas of Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal and related subjects. Participation is free for the following four sessions but due to limited space, advanced registration is NECESSARY and please be there in time (seats will be given on “first come first” basis).
Resource Person:
Khurram Ali Shafique, author of The Republic of Rumi: A Novel of Reality
Venue: Teachers’ Development Center, 129-G, P.E.C.H. Society, Block 2, Karachi. Phone: (021)4392949
Timings (for all workshops): 3:00 pm to 4:30 pm
Contact for further information: Dr. Hena Jawaid

Program: Ramazan

The four workshops this Ramazan will focus on discussion of Surah Yusuf (Chapter 12 of the Quran), which has a special significance in the thought of Iqbal. Participants are advised to read the relevant verses in translation ahead of attending the session according to the following schedule:

1. Verses 1-44 – Saturday, August 22
2. Verses 45-59 – Saturday, August 29
3. Verses 60-89 – Saturday, September 5
4. Verses 90-111 – Saturday, September 12

August 15, 2009

“Listen to the flute, how it complains of separation and tells its story,” says Rumi at the beginning of the Masnavi. Then he goes on to say that just as the music of the flute is the breath of the flute player, so our voices are also coming from somewhere else.

In his famous poem ‘Answer to the Complaint’ (‘Jawab-i-Shikwa’), Iqbal seems to be playing around with this premise when he says at the very beginning that a word which comes from the heart never goes without effect: since it is “heavenly originated”, it reaches the heaven. Here, we see that Iqbal takes Rumi’s premise to mean that the connection between the voice and its source is two-way!

Iqbal recited this poem in October 1912, and according to my research, it was shortly after this poem that Iqbal was visited by Rumi in a dream (discussed in a previous post).

The verses which Iqbal found himself writing as he woke up from his dream were about the significance of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon) for defining “Love”. Interestingly, it was precisely the point at which ‘Answer to the Complaint’ had left off a few months ago.

Hence it seems that there was a strong undercurrent which was running through the creative self of Iqbal around this time, and that may also be taken into account when exploring the spiritual connection with Rumi which became manifest in this manner at this point.

Subsequently, the most important change which Iqbal suggested in spiritual though was to redefine “Real Love” (ishq-i-haqeeqi) as love of nation rather than the love of God as it was understood previously. In the intellectual milieu to which Iqbal belonged, the Muslim nation is more than collective consciousness. It is a real entity. It is a collective ego, which is inherently the same as “the spirit of all human beings.”

Whether perceived in that manner or simply defined as the collective ego of Muslim nation, it is invariably connected with the spiritual life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). To a Muslim, love of nation and humanity is only a practical aspect of the love of Prophet Muhammad.

Is it possible that Rumi also meant this love of nation and humanity when he talked about “love” in his Masnavi? If the flute is the human soul, then what is the reed bed from which it has been cut off? At least the opening lines of the second volume of the Masnavi provide some basis for interpreting the reed bed as the collective ego rather than God. “Only the animal soul can exist separately,” says Rumi. “The human soul is just one.”

Two years ago I was interviewed for the Voice of America about the impact of Rumi on Iqbal. I replied that I would rather like to talk about the impact of Iqbal on Rumi: the message of Iqbal seems to be suggesting the possibility of a new interpretation of Rumi.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Why Iqbal chose Rumi?

Iqbal Academy Pakistan is offering a series of weekly workshops about the basic ideas of Allama Iqbal and related subjects. Participation is free for the following three sessions but due to limited space, advanced registration is NECESSARY and please be there in time (seats will be given on "first come first" basis).

Resource Person:
Khurram Ali Shafique, author of The Republic of Rumi: A Novel of Reality
Venue: Teachers' Development Center, 129-G, P.E.C.H. Society, Block 2, Karachi. Phone: (021) 4392949
Timings (for all workshops): 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm
Contact for further information:

Dr. Hena Jawaid

Why Iqbal chose Rumi? – Saturday, August 15

The question has often been asked but the material required to properly address it had never been collected in one place as it has been in the recently published Iqbal: Tashkeely Daur. This workshop enables the participants to discuss the question and arrive at their own conclusions based on evidence provided in the workshop.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Shikwa: behind the scenes

‘Shikwa’, which was first recited by Iqbal to a large gathering of several thousand people in Lahore in March 1911, is perhaps the most famous poem in Urdu. The session on August 8 presented biographical and creative background of the poem in the light of material which was never compiled before the recently Iqbal: Tashkeeli Daur, the second volume in the comprehensive biography of Iqbal by Khurram Ali Shafique.
The first thing to be noticed is the similarity with the ‘Wasokht’ of Mir Taqi Mir (as pointed out by Sheikh Abdul Qadir in one of his essays). It may be noticed that the themes and content of the Iqbal’s “complaint” is almost the same as those in the four poems of Mir but Iqbal’s complaint is addressed to God while the complaint of the elder poet is addressed to a beloved which is likely to be (a) a human being; (b) the Muslim world; or (c) the Persianized Indian Muslim civilization which had been smashed by Persian and Afghan invaders, such as Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali.
However, since Iqbal himself uses images from conventional love poetry – especially Layla and Majnun – and converts them into metaphors for the bond between the individual and society, therefore it becomes possible to interpret not only the original poem of Mir but also much of the conventional love poetry in the same manner.
The substance of Iqbal’s poem is a complaint against God on behalf of the Muslim nation which, according to the poet, had been responsible for spreading the message of God but had fallen out of Divine favor – apparently for “no reason”. Did Iqbal really mean it?
Quite interestingly, the writing of Shikwa was preceded by one of the most formative years in Iqbal’s career – 1910 – when he seemed to be working out the grand structure of the message he was going to deliver over the rest of his life. Surviving documentary evidence of this thought process includes:
(a) his private notebook Stray Reflections
(b) his paper ‘The Muslim Community – a Sociological Study’
(c) a ‘Lecture’ delivered in the annual session of Anjuman Himayat-i-Islam, Lahore, perhaps a day before reciting ‘Shikwa’ in the same gathering
Quite interestingly, none of these writings substantiate the thesis of ‘Shikwa’, i.e. that God had turned away from Muslims “without reason”. Instead, in all his prose writings and lectures of that time, Iqbal seems to be driving home the message that Muslims are responsible for their own downfall because they forgot the message of Islam. This is precisely what he was going to put forward in the sequel to the great poem, ‘Jawab-i-Shikwa’ (Answer to the Complaint) a year and half later.
Can we then say that the contents of ‘Jawab-i-Shikwa’ were already in Iqbal’s mind when he wrote ‘Shikwa’ – and that the famous “complaint” was just a poetic tool for preparing the ground for the actual message which was to be presented in the sequel? Biographical evidence seems to be pointing in this direction.
What was the message which Muslims had spread across the world in the past and had forgotten in Iqbal’s time? The poem itself does not elucidate it and only tells us that the message was “the Unity” (Tauhid). However, in the ‘Lecture’ delivered before the poem, Iqbal explained that if a civilization could be judged according to its attitudes towards reason, emotion and action, then the medieval Western civilization seemed to be based on the following propositions:
1. Only dogma can provide true knowledge
2. There is no beauty in Nature
3. Human being does not deserve freedom
According to Iqbal, contemporary Western civilization had rightly rejected these propositions and had moved on to “the correct principles of culture,” which were:
1. Observation and experience were reliable sources of knowledge
2. There is beauty in Nature
3. Human being is born free
According to Iqbal, these principles were first introduced by the Quran. They were embedded in the uncompromising Islamic version of “Unity” (tauhid), and this was “the message” which early Muslims spread across the world – an episode which is depicted in ‘Shikwa’ with much flourish and effect.

Monday, August 3, 2009

August 1, 2009

The session on August 1, 2009 had been publicized through the online newsletter as well as the facebook page, and was attended by more than twenty participants, some of whom had registered after learning about it from the Internet.
Participants were asked to list all questions which come to their minds after reading the last section of Andaz Mehramana (2009), written by the facilitator Khurram Ali Shafique and published by Iqbal Academy Pakistan (complimentary copies were given to the participants).
As expected, most of the questions were about “tall claims” made by Iqbal throughout his poetry, prose and private correspondence regarding his assumed insight into the future history of Islam – did he have such an insight and what happened to the book he intended to write on this subject?
It got highlighted during the discussion that the issue cannot be brushed under the carpet because (a) Iqbal himself made claims of this nature throughout his career; (b) “Forecasts by Iqbal” is already a well-established strand in Iqbal Studies which started in the lifetime of Iqbal himself; and (c) the issue had already started receiving special attention in the media recently, and more attention may be given to it since people tend to become interested in such things in turbulent times (and Pakistan is passing through turbulent times at the moment).
It is therefore important to approach the subject with caution and take into consideration the protocols of the milieu to which Iqbal belonged. To begin with, there is a need to properly systematize his works: of all his writings he cared to protect through copyright only 9 books of poetry and one book of prose. To these may be added the presidential address on the basis of which Pakistan came into being. These eleven works properly form the “canon” of Iqbal’s writings:
1. Secrets and Mysteries (Asrar-o-Ramooz); 1915-18
2. A Message from the East (Payam-i-Mashriq); 1923
3. The Call of the Marching Bell (Baang-i-Dara); 1924
4. Persian Psalms (Zuboor-i-Ajam); 1927
5. Javidnama; 1932
6. Gabriel’s Wing (Baal-i-Jibreel); 1935
7. The Rod of Moses (Zarb-i-Kaleem); 1936
8. O Nations of the East! (Aye Aqwam-i-Sharq); 1937
9. The Gift of Hijaz (Armughan-i-Hijaz); 1938
10. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1930-34)
11. The Allahabad Address (1930)

An interesting observation is that ‘Gulshan-i-Raz Jadeed’ included in the fourth book of Iqbal’s poetry contains nine questions and each of the nine books of poetry seem to be addressing one of these questions in the same order (the poet died soon after finishing the ninth book).
Another example of internal coherence is the seven “poems for children” included in the third book. When they are studied in the order which was given to them by the poet himself, they become a coherent narrative about the development of the self from a “fly” (traditionally a symbol of the lower form of self in Sufi literature) to a “bird” who is has succeeded in recalling the “memories” from before his “captivity” (earthly existence) and is yearning to fly in the open skies and go back to his “garden”.
These issues have been discussed in more detail in Andaz Mehramana, which also offers a critique of some of the approaches that have prevailed in Iqbal Studies so far.