(an article of mine printed on February 7th, 1997 in The News:)
Iqbal’s poetry gives purpose to one’s life. Shireen Najib discovers self after reading the English translations of the poet of the East.
I was never touched by Iqbal’s poetry. – Simply because I never understood it. No English medium person can. Our education system has ensured that!
But what intrigued me most was …. the way Iqbal’s poetry affected my father. My otherwise martial father, a true Piffer , would be totally ignited by the poetry of Iqbal. Hearing a verse would send him into a trance. I too would try to feel the power of this poetry, and meekly ask:
“Daddy, what does Khirad mean?” He would look at me from far away. Then focus on me. And all he saw was my ignorance. This would send him into a fury.
“You do not know the meaning of khirad? What kind of Urdu do they teach you? How can you be so ignorant??!!” In all this process of post-mortem of teaching of Urdu in English medium schools in Pakistan … Iqbal would be left far behind ….
Time passed. I was not much affected by the lack of understanding of Iqbal. I had plenty else to do. There was my art, my studies, my friends, my writing, my husband, home, and time consuming children. Where did I have the time for Iqbal?!!
In any case… my father always said “In order to understand Iqbal, you have to have complete knowledge of religion (and not only your own,) Urdu, Arabic, and some Persian, history, and geography.”
Now, tell me, where would I get the time to start learning all those other subjects before I got near Iqbal? Since it was impossible, I forgot all about it.
But there was always something missing in life.
I could not pin it down. I could not understand it. You could call it an in-completeness, a lack of satisfaction, a feeling of being all alone, or a feeling of deprivation. Like a ship without anchor in the storm of life. Sometimes I drifted in one direction, sometimes in another. Restless. Furious. Frustrated. I felt the fire of emotions I felt alone in my quest for understand of myself and my fellow human beings.
I had a gut feeling that others too are just drifting. Everyone you meet seems to be fumbling in the dark. Looking for something to give a meaning to one’s existence. You often hear them making empty statements, as if they are trying to convince themselves. Knowing that things are not quite right. Looking for someone or something, to give a better understanding towards the meaning of one’s life.
As I lived and traveled and met many people, a couple just stood out among the crowd. One of them was Shafqat – who later became a very good friend. She was sitting next to me at a friends’ place in Kuwait. That place where the only talk is money talk. The women only talk of gold and “What’s new in the souks!” Here was someone concerned about mankind. I sensed from the beginning that there was something different about her. And then I heard that she writes poetry. That interested me. She had opinions and put forward sensitive questions. A perfectionist to the core, she was ruthless with herself and others. She looked for inner and finer truths in life. With a strength and a clear vision, she would notice things no one else did. And most amazing of all, she noticed the sublime, and good in others. As I looked around me I realized that it is not only I who love and admire her, others held her in great regard also.
What made her so different from the rest? Why is it, that as she enters a room, people turn their heads and look at her? As our friendship grew, so did our understanding. The mystery was solved: she was an Iqbal fan.
And then, in Peshawar, by sheer coincidence (which I firmly believe was Divinely Planned,) I came across this other person, Seema. The moment I saw her, I felt that here was someone who is very sure of herself. She observes purdah. She is a micro entrepreneur. She is active in conducting the weekly dars in our community. At the same time she has the time and energy to help anyone in trouble. She is thoroughly well organized. And not a stick-in-the-mud as you expect some religious freaks to be! She is admired by her friends, servants as well as all members of the community. Above all, she is a writer for Urdu dailies. How does she do it all? Where does she find the energy? It didn’t take me long to find out the source. And the source was Iqbal.
All the persons I have admired so deeply in my life are great admirers of Allama Iqbal’s poetry.
It suddenly dawned upon me. I realized that those who understand Iqbal are different people. They shine out among the rest. Their eyes give a different look, their gait is different too. They are distinct because they know exactly where they are going – unlike the majority of us.
Certainly, their thoughts and outlook in life is very confident. They don’t get swayed by the whims of the times. They are not affected by fashions, fads, and general living trends. They do not flow with the changing political winds. There are no confusions in their minds. No dilemmas. No conflicts.
These two friends and my father are three individuals whom I know personally, who are admired by all those who know them. I have observed them during extremely trying times in life. They are strong. The most prominent feature is their self-reliance and belief in their own talents and power.
I watched Prof. Anne Marie Schimmel deliver speeches on Iqbal on television. I often wondered “What is this graceful German lady doing in Pakistan, sprouting out Iqbal?” The big question loomed high “Why?”
What is so special about Iqbal, that years after his death, people are coming from far off lands to understand his thoughts (expressed over fifty years ago!) Now I realize that those thoughts still hold true and will continue to do so for centuries to come. This is so because he has dealt with the basic human issues, and the philosophy of life.
I believe that the West gave a great deal to the world during this century. But the East gave something too. Something which will hold good till the end of all times, for all human beings. Everywhere. That is the poetry of Iqbal. His thoughts, philosophies and understanding.
Iqbal is the greatest contribution of the East.
How did I finally get to know Iqbal? Well, I read the English translations of selected poems, beautifully rendered in poetry by Professor Hadi Husain. It is called THE MESSAGE OF THE EAST. These are selected translations from Iqbals’ famous Payam-e-Mashriq. You cannot just pass through it, you cannot just read through page after page. You can just read a verse, a poem at a time. Thought after thought. You need to give it time to sink in to be able to absorb it.
“Najib, I have finally found the anchor to my life!” I whispered to my husband, “Thank God!” He mumbled, he knew I was reading Iqbal these days.
When I came across Seema, we became friends instantly. And now we have a contract. Whenever we meet, we make time to learn Iqbal, and for a few moments, we walk into the real things in life. The truth of life and the living. We elevate ourselves from insignificant details of daily living to the sublime truths of eternal life. And after straining myself, I am beginning to understand Iqbal’s poetry, with greater ease. He is solving my problems of this Pakistan, which he dreamed up, and can save today from oblivion.
One day I was struck by a thought. This man’s poetry set the entire Sub-Continent on fire. The struggle for independence was energized by the poetry of Iqbal. At the time when very few people were educated, how did Allama Iqbal’s poetry reach the masses? How did they understand this high fluting Urdu? How did they catch the gist of his Persian poetry?
Was it because those few who did understand the poems, took the time and trouble to convey it to the rest of the people? And the others took the trouble to listen and try to fathom out the thoughts. There was a need. And the need was fulfilled. And most of all; there was the patience of learning.
In the absence of television, and materialism. Evenings were a time for sitting peacefully, exchanging views. Every evening, when the charpois were laid out, when the dust was settled with sprinkling of water, when the evening prayers were over. The day’s chores completed, the family members and relatives sat down to discuss items of interest. The elders expressed views and those who were well read and with greater wisdom would talk and the others listened intently. Eagerly listening and storing every word in memory. To be repeated later to other close friends. And thus spreading the words and thoughts of Iqbal.
Was it in such evenings that the poems of Iqbal were recited, and the people were ignited? My father often said “As students, we knew most of Iqbals’ verses by heart. Many times we would recite these together during the processions that took place for the freedom struggle for Pakistan.”
But then, what happened? When did we lose Iqbal? Why did we stop talking about his poetry and his thoughts? Because we need his guidance now, more than ever before. The inertia that has fallen upon ‘good’ people of our society is lethal. If Iqbal was known to these, they would not be sitting back and just shaking their heads. Watching all the gross malfunctions taking place with a helplessness.
Iqbals’ followers have never been helpless people. They have always been ‘action’ people. The kind who change the times.
We are suffering individually, and collectively purely because we have neglected one of the greatest forces that can help us. Iqbal’s poetry is there for the taking. We all have access to this great poetry, which carries the essence of living in it. Here are a few verses from Payam-e-Mashriq’s English translation by Professor Hadi:
“The garden songsters’ chorus I for one,
Do not join. But sing on my branch alone.
If you are weak, do not come near me; for
In my song you will see my heart’s blood drawn”
In another quartret he says:
“There is a world concealed within our breasts,
Hearts in our dust and passion ion our hearts.
Of that strong wine which once lit up our souls
There are a few drops still left in our bowls.”
So, this is the article I wrote on Iqbal twenty years ago. I’ve now illustrated the verses, and sharing them here with you. All the paintings are in the book published this June, 2017.
Now, I’ve illustrated and published this book which is translation of Iqbal’s ‘Message from the East’ (Payam-e-Mashriq). The book is available in Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar. You can order them from Saeed Book bank in Islamabad to be delivered anywhere in Pakistan.
If you are living abroad, contact me, and I’ll try to get it to you as soon as possible. The price is $12.00 plus delivery costs.