Poetry at Sangam



TAKING ISSUE AND ALLAH’S ANSWER by Iqbal, translated by Mustansir Dalvi

(Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India. Taking Issue and Allah’s Answer by Iqbal, translated by Mustansir Dalvi, is a Penguin Modern Classic.)

From the Translator’s Introduction


Shikwa and Jawaab are poems of their time, inspired by events and circumstances in the first and second decades of the twentieth century, and a response to them. These were traumatic times for most Muslims, for, in the space of one generation, they were witness to the decline and eclipse of three of the most significant sites of Muslim domination, faith and memory. Most of these erstwhile historic, political and cultural strongholds of Islamic power had come under western colonial administrations.

In the subcontinent, the dominion of the British empire was at its strongest. After the events of 1857, the Queen of England, now calling herself Kaiser-i-Hind, had fashioned India into the first bauble of the empire. The Uprising had been put down with a heavy hand by the British, who had exiled the last Mughal emperor from his capital in Delhi, and with his expulsion went the entire subculture of courtly Muslims. The extinguishing of the Mughals had come with violent and humiliating reprisals. The raw memories of the forced removal of all Muslims from Delhi continued to reverberate through retelling by its survivors. The sense of victimhood would have been at its strongest especially in northern India. Iqbal was born but one generation away from this turbulence.

By the time Iqbal returned to Lahore and recited Shikwa in 1909, the Ottoman Empire was at its nadir, facing external threat from the Balkans. After five hundred years of supremacy it was nearing collapse. Iraq and Egypt were controlled by the British. The British had also supported the Arab uprising that would bring the Saudis to power and give them control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In India and worldwide, Muslims felt an estrangement from the very fonts of culture that had nurtured them. The state of the Islamic world and that of Islam in India, in that first decade, would bring Iqbal to tears:

Rulaataa hai tera nazaaraa, Ai Hindustaan mujhko
Ki ibratkhez hai teraa phasaanaa sub phasaanon mein

Witnessing your plight
I weep, O Hindustan!
Of all the tales told
Yours is the most chastening.

Tasveer-e-Dard (A Picture of Pain)

Iqbal was in Europe when war clouds were at their blackest. The precipitate Balkan war and the imminent fall of the Caliphate would be the inspiration for Jawaab-e-Shikwa, his second mussaddas. If Shikwa is prophetic in the light of later events, Jawaab is its fulfillment. Iqbal’s anguish is for Muslims both within India and around the world. Where else could a poet vent his feelings than at the feet of his maker? Iqbal invokes Allah, with vehemence in Shikwa, and takes ‘the normative Muslim belief in the absence of any intermediaries between the individual and God to an extreme’. He recounts the early successes of Islam, both in faith and in territory, to prove the credentials of the community of Islam to Allah. These are referenced almost as a list, from battles enjoined in the lifetime of the Prophet to the later Muslim dominance and the unification under Islam of large parts of Asia and Europe. Now all that was gone, the Garden of Allah was barren and forlorn and Iqbal remained the only bulbul still clamoring for better times.


Interestingly, both Shikwa and Jawaab center round a Sufi metaphor: that of a songbird singing in a barren garden/meadow. The nightingale sings of longing, and wants to be heard by the Beloved. The garden is an allusion to paradise, or paradise lost. There is an entire tradition of Sufi metaphors that evoke the absent lover, and the travails that lead to final union. Iqbal describes the madness of the legendary lover Quais for his absent beloved Laila. The Beloved is the godhead, although in many poems may refer to the prophet Muhammad. The Sufi sings of his eternal devotion and undying love for the prophet, and like Owais Karani expresses this devotion even in the knowledge that they shall never meet.

Iqbal’s poems develop on many tropes of Sufi allusion. His hurt is like the wounded heart of the poppy (lala). Life itself is fleeting, as fragile as a haystack (khirman) that can be burnt to a cinder by a single bolt of lightning (barq). In the short time that he has, the poet tries to catch the attention of the wine-bearer who carries the ewer (khum) filled with wine (jaam): a metaphor for seeking audience with Allah.

Given Iqbal’s ambivalence towards Sufi practices, could the appropriation of the very vocabulary associated with the Sufis be an unselfconscious act? After all, these tropes are some of the commonest, used extensively in Persian and Urdu poetry, in ghazal, qasida, naat and musaddas. Such metaphors are suffused in day-to-day usage, in the parole, as it were, of the language itself. Does Iqbal not contradict himself in writing both Shikwa and Jawaab so filled with Sufi imagery? A deeper reading of both poems reveals that this is not quite so–Iqbal uses these tropes with awareness and strategy, and he makes these metaphors his own. Iqbal the poet is the lone bulbul himself, bewailing the sorry state of the garden, threadbare and untended, that is the former Islamic world, now emptied of the Ummat and occupied by strangers.

Tujhe kyon fikr hai, Ai gul, dil-e-sad, chaak-e-bulbul ki
Tu apne pahrahan ke chaak to pehle rafoo kar le

Why are you concerned, O Bloom,
with the wounded lament of the bulbul?
repair your own torn raiment first.

Phool (Blossom)

Iqbal bemoans the state of his community that has fallen into statis like an abandoned haystack, unaware that disaster could strike any time. He rues the state of the Indian Muslims who remain benumbed despite the warning signs that abound. The poet carries a wound in his heart from the pain of exile, not an earthly one but from the good graces of Allah. He seeks the attention of Allah for redressal and is impudent enough to call to him directly. In this act of madness, Iqbal seeks to wake his fraternity, his Ummah, from the slumber of the apathetic. Iqbal’s allusions are deeply political, he represents himself as a lone voice of warning, reason and exhortation to his fellow Muslims in India to shake themselves out of their waywardness and once again aspire to be like the Muslims of the Hejaz who succeeded in consolidating and spreading the faith so far and wide in so short a time.

from Shikwa (Taking Issue)

Kyon ziakaar banoon, sood faraamosh rahoon?
Fikr-e-fardaa na karoon, meh’v-e-gham-e-dosh rahoon

Naale bulbul ke sunoon aur hamaatan gosh rahoon
Hamnavaa! Main bhi koi gul hoon ki khamosh rahoon?

Jurrat-aamoz meri taab-e-sukhan hai mujhko
Shikwa Allah se, khaakam-badahan hai mujhko

Am I then, always
to remain a victim?
Forego just dues each time?
Never be anxious about tomorrows,
allowed only to mope

in lost evenings, entranced
forever by the bewailing bulbul?
What am I—a flower,
to bloom in silence?

I take issue with You, Allah!
My impertinence
loosens my tongue
and my mouth fills with mud.


Hai bajaa sheva-e-taslim mein mash’hoor hain hum
Kissa-e-dard sunaatein hain ki majboor hain hum

Saazein khamosh hain, fariyaad se maa’moor hain hum
Naala aata hai agar labh pe to maa’zoor hain hum

Ai Khuda! Shikwa-e-arbaab-e-wafaa bhi sun le
Khugar-e-hamd se thoda sa gila bhi sun le

In submitting to You,
we found our glory,
in chords of silence
we now vent our voice.

Our song strains at our lips,
but will not be stifled.
Hear us out,
for we have no choice.

God! Listen to our plaint;
we are Your faithful,
and although we praise,
we have our grouses too.


Bu-e-gul le gayi bairoon-e-chaman raaz-e-chaman
Kya qayaamat hai ki khud phool hai ghammaz-e-chaman

Ahd-e-gul khatm hua toot gaya saaz-e-chaman
Ud gaye daaliyon se zamzamaa pardaaz-e-chaman

Ek bulbul hai ki hai mehb-e-tarannum ab tak
Iske seenein mein hai naghmon ka talaatum ab tak

The fragrance gave away
all that was secret. Woe,
it was the flower itself
that betrayed the garden.

Now the season of bloom
is gone, the lute lies broken,
songbirds have taken wing,
the branches are bereft.

A lone bulbul remains,
in thrall of its own song,
a heart tossed
upon surging waves of melody.


Kumriyaan shaakh-e-sanobar se gurezaan bhi hui
Pattiyaan phool ki jhad-jhad ke pareshaan bhi hui

Woh puraani ravishein baagh ke veeraan bhi hui
Daaliyaan pehran-e-barg se uriyaan bhi hui

Qaid-e-mausam se tabiyat rahi aazaad uski
Kaash gulshan mein samajhtaa koi fariyaad uski

Petals shed,
now lie scattered and strewn,
the doves have abandoned
the cypresses.

Once trod, garden paths
now lie forlorn,
branches stripped bare
of their vestments.

Only the bulbul is free
of the shackles of seasons,
if only someone in the garden
could comprehend his prayer.


Lutf marne mein hai baaki na mazaa jeene mein
Kuch mazaa hai to yahi khoon-e-jigar peene mein

Kitne betaab hai jauhar mere aaeene mein
Kis qadar jalwe tadapte hain mere seenein mein

Is gulistaan mein magar dekhne waale hi nahin
Daagh jo seene mein rakhte hain wo laale hi nahin

What pleasure is there in dying?
Where is the joy in living?
If anything, we enjoy
wallowing in our sorrows.

My heart sparkles with the agony
of myriad passions
like a looking glass,
studded with matchless jewels;

but in this garden
there is no one to witness,
no bloom that nurses
a wound within its breast.

from Jawaab-e-shikwa (Allah’s Answer)

Dil se jo baat nikalti hai asar rakhti hai
Parr nahin, taaqat-e-parwaaz magar rakhti hai

Qudsiul asl hai, rifat pe nazar rakhti hai
Khaak se uthti hai gardoon pe guzar rakhti hai

Ishq tha fitna’garo sarkashi chaalaak mera
Aasmaan cheer gaya naala-e-bebaak mera

A cry from the heart
is always redressed.
It may have no wings,
but still, it can fly.

The plaint genuine,
looks up to the sky,
rises from the earth,
seeks fulfilment.

I am all impertinence,
my love, bent upon trouble:
my impudent song
cleaves an azure sky.


Peer gardoon ne kaha sunke, kahin hain koi
Bole sayyare sar-e- arsh-e-bareen hai koi

Chaand kehta tha, nahin, ahl-e-zameen hai koi
Kehkashaan kehti thi poshidaa yahin hai koi

Kuch to samjha mere shikwe ko to Rizwaan samjha
Mujhe jannat se nikaalaa hua insaan samjha

The keeper of firmaments said:
Someone is somewhere.
The planets looked to
the celestial throne.

The galaxy sensed
some hidden presence.
The moon differed: someone
from the earth, perhaps.

Only Rizwan, at Heaven’s Gate,
could appreciate my grouse.
He saw me for what I am—
son of Adam, ousted from paradise.


Thi farishton mein bhi hairat ki yeh aawaaz hai kya
Arshwaalon pe bhi khulta nahin yeh raaz hai kya

Taa sar-e – arsh bhi insaan ki taghotaaz hai kya?
Aa gayi khaak se chutki ko bhi parwaaz hai kya?

Ghaafil aadaab se sukkaane zameen kaise hain
Shokh-o-gustaakh yeh pasti ke makeen kaise hain

Angels too were astounded
by this terrestrial voice,
heavenly beings confounded
by its mysterious lilt.

Could a mere human
aspire to the sky?
An earthman,
who lacks all graces,

how could this
insolent dweller of the dirt,
this speck of dust
grow wings?


Is qadar shokh ki Allah se bhi barham hai
Tha jo masjood-e-malaaik yeh wahi Aadam hai?

Aalam-e-qaif hai, daanaa-e-ramooz kamm hai
Haan, magar izz ke asraar se na marham hai

Naaz hai taaqat-e-guftaar pe insaanon ko
Baat karne ka saleeka nahin naadaanon ko

What kind of pride
that he rants against Allah thus?
Is this the same Adam
before whom angels genuflected?

Knowing this
and that and the other,
yet showing not
the slightest humility.

There is a conceit in men,
in their facility to speak,
yet these boorish ones
know not how to.


Aayi aawaaz: ghamangez hai afsaanaa tera
Ashq-e-betaab se labrez hai paimaanaa tera

Aasmaan-gir hua naaraa-e-mastanaa tera
Is qadar shokh zabaan hai dil-e-deewaanaa tera

Shukar shikwe ko kiyaa husn-e-adaa se toone
Humsukhan kar diyaa bandon ko khudaa se toone

The Voice rang out:
Your story is filled with grief,
like a goblet brimming
with unspilled tears.

Your passionate lament
has rent the sky. How silken
is the voice of your besotted heart,
its wily ways

make gripes sound like praise.
Your eloquence
gives supplicants sanction
to speak with their Maker as equals.