Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Mohammed Iqbal (1877-1938) and Urdu poetry : Lent thoughts

Following the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, which is not far from Islamabad, it appears that Osama had been hiding for sometime in the area.  We do not know about the involvement of the ISI or the Government of Pakistan, but this may perhaps give another chance for Pakistan to recover some democracy and reality following years of bad government by some of the feudal families under the General Zia regime which only played into the fundamentalists hands.  This may also give a chance for some peace in the India/Pakistan/Afghanistan area.  The poetry of Mohammed Iqbal should be continually assessed.

We are reposting this and will update this fully.

source: all pictures courtesy of

At the time of writing, the British Prime Minister was in Islamabad, Pakistan.  The BBC broadcast a programme last week about Mohammed Iqbal, a poet who wrote in Urdu & Persian.  The BBC programme details are summarised below, with the text taken from the BBC website, where there is a facility to listen to the programme again until 8 April 2011:

“ … Seema Anand explores Muhammad Iqbal's epic poem Shikwa, one of the most famous and enduring works of Islamic literature. The poem is an audacious and heartfelt complaint … [about how]… God has let Muslims down.

When it was first recited by Iqbal at a public gathering … a fatwa was issued by Islamic scholars … shocked by its … impudence …

… Iqbal felt strongly that Islam should be open to reform and questioning - and many of his ideas are as powerfully relevant today as they were 100 years ago.
Iqbal is often called the spiritual father of Pakistan for using poetry to raise self-awareness amongst Muslims in pre-partition India so that they would eventually rise up and seek a separate nation. …

Contributors: Professor Javed Majeed, Navid Akhtar Readings by Sagar Arya, Saeed Jaffrey and Pervaiz Alam
  source: Page 28 from Shikwa & Jawab-i-Shikwa, Transl. by Khushwant Singh, Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Mohammed Iqbal (or Allama Iqbal, as he is known as in Pakistan) was an interesting character and an ‘official’ website can be found on   If you follow the link to Iqbal’s background ( you will note that he attended a “Scotch Mission College” (sic) and he went on to become the McLeod Arabic Reader at the Oriental College in Punjab University.

In a previous post, we refer to Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Hindu sacred texts.  Urdu and Hindi are mutually intelligible, though political and religious differences have resulted in a split of the old Hindustani along similar lines to Serbo-Croat in the former Yugoslavia
In other words, the choice of alphabet and the choice of keywords has reverted in the case of Urdu to some Persian and Arabic influences, while Hindi has become more a lingua franca of the modern Indian state, though many south Indians (from Kerala and Tamil Nadu) would object to this. 

Urdu poetry is very complex, as this programme illustrated and it was one of those programmes the BBC does quite well.  In other words, they got a non-Muslim to present it and share her experiences of the poetry with a range of experts and lay people. 

Iqbal studied in Germany and though there may be some glossing over his studies, one can detect echoes of Goethe (Faust) and Nietzsche.  However, Iqbal did not associate himself with the Nietzsche statement that God was dead, though he came fairly close to some of the thoughts on Self (khudi) as described in a previous post on advaita Vedanta. 

Given the atrocities at the Sufi shrine in Pakistan and the events in Afghanistan, I am reluctant to say much more, but it shows how tricky this subject can be – especially when some ‘fog horns’ are let loose and some people react to an obvious nutter in Florida.

Iqbal’s main works which caused controversy at the time were Complaint (Shikwa) and Response to a Complaint (Jawab – e- Shikwa).  In these poems, there are echoes of the Prophet Job arguing with God in the Old Testament; and there are obviously echoes of Iqbal’s studies in Germany.  It is interesting that Iqbal and Gandhi received much of their education from non-traditional Hindu and then Indian Muslim studies.  Both returned and came (respectively) to colonial India and developed their thoughts further.  Their later histories are well recorded.  A lot of Iqbal’s thoughts have probably been redacted due to some political influence over the years, especially with the swing towards a more fundamentalist interpretation of Islam since General Zia’s coup in 1978.

We would urge readers to make an effort to find this programme.  You can always leave a comment on the blog and an effort will be made to reply.

On a lighter note, last Sunday was Mother’s Day, a pleasant liturgical break from my Lenten observance.  You may wish to recall that I gave up the Archers for all of Lent, have avoided Thought for the Day, have given Sunday on Radio 4 a second chance and I have allowed myself one Lent talk.  On the roster this year for the BBC Lent Talks there were such luminaries as Lord Ian Blair, a former Metropolitan Police Chief who was effectively sacked by Boris Johnson.  I didn’t listen to this so make no comments.  Another talk was by Austin Iveraigh, a prolific writer, some time never off the BBC during the visit by Professor Ratzinger to England and Scotland.  The one I listened to was by Feisal Abdul Rauf, an imam from New York.  It may be that I caught the repeat, but I did learn something about multiculturalism and faith.  The Greek Orthodox Church comes from Greece, the Dutch Reformed Church comes from Holland, the Roman Catholic Church comes from Italy and the Anglican Church comes from …. Even my course on central European Philately 101 could have done a better job.  Why is this series of Lent talks so awful?  Discuss.

My references to fog horns and nutters should perhaps be extended further with a source from South Coast Today, which was kindly tweeted by a friend of the blog.  The conclusion: "Finally, if Terry Jones is an irresponsible fool for his pronouncements on Islam, the editor is as well for echoing his tripe."

Don't blame Muslims for murderous rampage: the 'God of hate' is Terry Jones' 'terracotta idol'.

In Kashmir (Indian administered) a blast at a mosque Srinagar has killed Maulvi Shaukat Ahmed Shah, a well-known moderate cleric.

Srinagar: Mosque blast kills Kashmir cleric

There is also an interesting article in the current issue of Time (no paywall!) about the sectarian roots of the current violence in Pakistan.  It appears that the Taliban is exploiting differences between the majority moderate Berelvi sect and the minority hardline Deobandi sect.  You can read the article on:,8599,2063794,00.html

Another media outlet, The Daily Mail, has covered an apparent 'gaffe' by Prime Minister Cameron on the occasion of his short trip to Pakistan.


  1. Thought you might find this interesting - seems there's no keeping the wretched fundamentalists quiet!

    Clinton Spotlights Murder of Bhatti, Christian Minorities in New Report

  2. It appears that Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad. Have you any details about the area and its proximity to Islamabad? We understand that there are some international schools in the area. We have found a link to some of them:

  3. Following Osama's killing, this is official statement by the Pakistani govt:

    Is this another form of obreption - or are they just deluding themselves?

  4. Here's an interesting piece on the 'web of deception' spun by the powerful in Pakistan to maintain their vested interests. It's an article on the website

  5. Thought you might like this for your blog:

    Sipahe Sahaba Pakistan, Jamaat ud Dawa call Osama Bin Laden a ‘martyr’ via @etribune

    Apparently people are even talking in terms of Osama being "a good Salafi Muslim"! An Alice in Wonderland world me thinks ...

  6. You may have heard from Pakistan that many journalists have left Abbotabad and that the town is struggling along as it always has with power cuts at regular intervals. Nonetheless we hope that Pakistan will reflect on some of Iqbal's poetry and not resort to attacks on any minority of whatever belief.