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.