Mustansir Dalvi talks to Ziya Us Salam about the relevance of the poet Iqbal in today’s times in the light of his translated work, “Iqbal Taking Issue and Allah’s Answer: Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa”

It was in kindergarten that one first heard of Muhammad Iqbal, thanks to “Sa Re Jahan Se Achcha” which was a part of the school assembly five days a week. A few years later, still very much a part of middle school, one developed a nodding acquaintance with his work at a poetic soiree. A student, obviously egged on by parents who were fans of Iqbal, recited “Dil se jo baat nikalti hai asar rakhti hai/Parr nahin, taaqat-e-parwaaz magar rakhti hai”. Cultivating a relationship was to take longer. A few years actually. The fruition came, again, at a poetic soiree in New Delhi. This time noted poets from Jamia Millia Islamia, Jawaharlal Nehru and Osmania universities enthusiastically recited from Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawaab-e-Shikwa. Happily, they pointed out the similarities in the essence of his teachings and the message of many Quranic verses.

Not always managing to reciprocate to the words, it did, however, open a window to the poet’s world. The window was to turn into a big door a little later when recently Penguin India came up with Iqbal Taking Issue and Allah’s Answer: Shikwa and Jawaab-e-Shikwa. Translated by clarity and precision by Mustansir Dalvi, the book talks of the time when Iqbal recited Shikwa in 1909 and the audience was enraged by his effrontery. There he had taken up issue with Allah. The recompense came four years later in 1913 when Allah responds to the poet. It is under this light that one engages Mumbai-based Dalvi to answer to few questions about Iqbal, the times of his work, and of course, the translation. Excerpts.

How does one appreciate the genius of Muhammad Iqbal? Does one consider him a poet-philosopher or a philosopher-poet?

Iqbal is very much a product of his own time. He is one of many Indian intellectuals who had the best of both traditions; his own home grown Indian/Islamic cultural upbringing as well as the liberal/humanist traditions associated with Western education. In this he is one with Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru and Maulana Azad. Although Iqbal’s own education is deeply rooted in the philosophical, Iqbal’s writings to me are more worldly and interpretative. This also makes his views subjective, rather than timeless. His writings should be seen both as a kind of ijtihaad as well as a modernist manifesto of an Islamic future. Iqbal’s genius is, of course, in his poetry. His rousing verse, his appropriation of tropes from Urdu and Persian poetry, the manner in which he makes them his own, is unique and memorable.

Iqbal was many things to many people across the great political divide. For some he was Shair-e-Mushriq, for others, he was Muffakir-e-Pakistan. And for us here, he is remembered as the man who gave the Tarana-e-Hind. How does a lover of Urdu poetry look at him in 2012?

Iqbal’s poems have not lost any of their power in 2012. His voice is direct and gets under your skin, forces you to react. His language is not far removed from our colloquial Hindustani. The way he uses language is impactful. He can elevate you with his turn of phrase and rile you with his censure. The simplicity of ‘Sare jahaan se achcha’ is inherent in several of his poems. Today, a lover of Urdu poetry can relate to Iqbal just like his readers in his own time. It is time that some of his earlier poems like ‘Bachche ki Dua’, ‘Himalaa’ and ‘Naanak’ were rediscovered through re-reading and translation.

For a man who read Goethe and was inspired by Western thought, Iqbal is often denied the right to unbiased, well rounded appraisal. Do you think his generation’s (and successive generations too) eagerness to appropriate him turned a truly international voice into one from (and about) the Indian subcontinent?

Perhaps, they did. Although Iqbal is being reappraised by contemporary thinkers and that is to be welcomed. Iqbal’s central message about an Islam that should look to its first principles for its future is very much in keeping with his western education. His paradigm is modernist, calling for a return to fundamentals while rejecting immediate cultures as contaminant to the essential message. A lot of contemporary thinking prevalent around his time (the early years of the 20th Century) would define modernity in a similar manner. Iqbal’s western influences cannot be disassociated from his writings on Islam, and his ideas about its reconstruction.

Talking of “Shikwa” and “Jawaab-e-Shikwa”, Iqbal's seminal work is to this day talked about at Islamic forums with the faithful finding in many of his poems a reflection of the teachings of the Holy Quran. What, in your opinion, was the turning point for him, when he left the philosophy, the dogma of the West and truly embraced one of Islam?

I have reservations about this. His call is one of affirmative action, for changing one’s own life through a developed worldview, not a sermon on the Quran’s teachings. The turning point was the time he spent in Europe, working on his doctoral thesis, travelling and writing. This was a time of great uncertainty in Europe and the Western world, the years leading to the First World War. This was also a time when the past bastions of Islamic culture were facing direct threat from imperialist forces, specifically the Caliphate in Turkey. Iqbal returned to India, and now seeing the world with fresh eyes, turned his attention toward the state of Muslims in India and the world.

In recent times, we have been lucky to have a lot of Urdu literature of the 20th Century rendered into English thanks to some tireless translations. How difficult was it to translate Iqbal, more so because his words have been analysed from varied prisms all the time?

I did set myself up for the translation, by not bringing to the translation the varied prism, as you put it, that have been applied to Shikwa and Jawaab since its time, and by attempting to read his text in the context of his time, I think I have gained a better insight into Iqbal. Free of future interpretations and appropriations, Iqbal comes across as an Indian poet who is an Indian Muslim deeply concerned about the future of Muslims in his own country and worldwide.

Though espousing profound thoughts, Iqbal’s language was contemporary and easy to relate to. Does that make it more easily identifiable to the modern-day reader who may never read Urdu?

That’s just it; Iqbal’s language is contemporary for a reader today. I have therefore kept the reader of English, who is also conversant in the Hindustani parole of the Indian subcontinent, as my audience. Readers, who may never have read Urdu, but know Hindustani, should enjoy the richness of Iqbal’s original verses. So it was my specific agenda to create a new Roman transliteration of Iqbal’s Urdu verses, along with the translations. I think the reader should enjoy the best of both.

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