Archive for the ‘Poetry/Philosophy’ Category

Following are some of the main insights that I found in Iqbal’s poem, “The Morning Sun” (1902).

1. Iqbal begins this poem by praising with great enthusiasm the brightness and grandeur of the sun, but quickly changes his tone when he recalls what the sun’s immense energy can never accomplish — it cannot enlighten the human heart. The sun does a highly admirable job of illuminating the material world, but it does nothing to illuminate the world of the spirit. Only the outer eye benefits from the sun’s light, not the inner eye. When the sun rises each morning, its warm brilliance melts away any lingering sleep from our eyes, causing us to fully awaken. But this is not the only kind of awakening we need. We also need to open our spiritual eyes and to wake up from the dark night of ignorance. The poet tells us that, in addition to waking up each morning from physiological sleep, we also need to wake up from our dogmatic slumbers. He points out that it is not enough to have eyesight; we also need insight. For humans, the ability to see the reality of things is far more important than the ability to see their appearances.

2. Iqbal’s meditation on the morning sun makes him notice how the sun appears to have a transcendental perspective, that it seems to be above and beyond the petty distinctions and discriminations that cause so much suffering in the human world. Wouldn’t it be nice, the poet muses, if he too could have such an exalted perspective? He recognizes his heart’s desire at this point in his meditation: to become free of the shackles of mundane attachments and earthly relations, to be able to empathize with all people without regard to any markers of identity, and to rise above the boundaries and divisions that have been created by differences of cultures, customs, norms, and lifestyles. Iqbal understands that as a poet he has the power to influence people’s attitude. He wishes that his tongue remains free of group prejudices, that he neither favors nor criticizes anyone unfairly. He wishes for a broadening of his mental horizons so that he could see the whole world as his home and the entire humanity as his nation. The readers can notice the seeds of Iqbal’s cosmic perspective already in this early poem, which refutes the view that Iqbal was originally a narrow-minded Indian nationalist!

3. Continuing to voice his heart’s desire, Iqbal says that he wants the “secret of nature’s order” to be revealed to his heart’s eye. He wants to reach a state where he is no longer agitated by the struggle to resolve contradictions. At the relatively young age of twenty-five, Iqbal seems to be expressing here a theme that would remain important for him throughout his  life, i.e., how to reconcile the oppositions that one encounters within one’s experience? This early desire to become free of the inner turmoil caused by the “knot of contradictions” is a very interesting one, for it suggests a longing on Iqbal’s part to achieve what has been called a “second naïveté.” To achieve that state of inner peace, Iqbal longs for a profound vision of things as they really are. He wants to be able to “see” the kind of divine beauty that is capable of kindling the fire of love in a seeker’s heart, a beauty that he already believes exists in all things. The poet seems to be saying that while he knows this beauty intellectually, he longs to know it experientially; by so knowing, he hopes to transcend the oppositions that he is encountering in his experience. The suggestion here is that only a personal insight into the inherent beauty of the world, and the love that such insight generates, will allow the seeker to overcome the “knot of contradictions.”

4. How does one gain the kind of insight that reveals the “secret of nature’s order” to one’s heart? To get in touch with reality, one must pierce the veils of appearance, and this requires the cultivation of sensitivity and openness. The poet wishes that another person’s pain should cause him to cry, and that the trauma to a flower’s petal should turn into tears that flow from his own eyes. This fascination with shedding tears is not a masochistic craving for pain; rather, Iqbal is expressing his desire to experience a deep relationship with nature and to develop a strong sense of empathy with other persons. In other words, what is being desired is connectedness, and pain is simply the price we must pay whenever we are genuinely connected to an “other.” The poet wants insight into the nature of reality, but he knows that insight cannot be gained from a safe, objective distance. To achieve a state of connectedness, however, one must lower one’s defenses in order to become fully receptive to whatever is. This act of opening oneself up to the “other” necessarily involves becoming vulnerable to suffering. Iqbal seems to be saying that insight cannot be gained without love, that connectedness is the essential prerequisite for love, and that pain is simply a sign that one is open, sensitive, and receptive — and therefore vulnerable.

5. The poem starts with an eloquent depiction of how grand and exalted the sun is, but towards the end of the poem Iqbal is able to turn this idea on its head. The poet argues that while the sun may be the most intense body of light visible to us, the fact that it transcends the turmoil of the human world is no sign of supremacy. What the sun lacks is any awareness of its own beauty and brilliance. In sharp contrast, the human being has been blessed with self-consciousness. The human being possesses an inner light, the divine spark that made angels prostrate before Adam. As such, the human being alone is capable of beholding the spectacle of creation, of forever meeting new challenges and reaching towards new goals. The sun, on the other hand, must wait each morning for the permission to rise.

6. In this way, Iqbal’s meditations on the morning sun quickly develops into one of his favorite topics — the distinctive potential of the human self. Iqbal points out that, in contrast to the sun, the human heart has a special taste for seeking and desiring, for setting ideals and pursuing them, for craving the light of truth. Part of human uniqueness is our immense curiosity, our love of knowledge, our desire to find and meet fresh challenges. We enjoy the process of facing and overcoming obstacles, and experience an intense pleasure in figuring out complex mysteries. We are fully aware that there is no final destination for us to reach; that there will never come a time when we have uncovered all secrets and answered all questions. Yet, we find that the joy of participating and progressing in a journey that lacks a final end-point is far greater than even the satisfaction of arriving at one’s desired destination. The very experience of posing questions and seeking answers is blissfully rewarding, difficult and pleasurable at the same time. To be human is to experience this sweet pain of seeking, this longing for the secrets of nature–something that the mighty sun will never experience!

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“The Morning Sun” (Aftab-e Subh in Urdu) is an early poem by Iqbal, composed in the spring of 1902 and published in May of the same year. Iqbal revised this poem before including it in his first collection of Urdu verse, Bang-e Dara (1924).

Arguably, “The Morning Sun” does not show the same maturity of thought and expression that we find in Iqbal’s later work. Nevertheless, the poem contains many precious insights that are worth the reader’s time and attention. In the present post, I will quote the original poem and provide an English translation. In subsequent posts, I hope to offer a more detailed commentary on the poem.

Here’s the first half of “The Morning Sun”:

The poem starts by addressing the sun, acknowledging its grandeur, brilliance, and transcendence by invoking the usual metaphors of romantic poetry. The first four couplets are pretty conventional. The lines are charming and glamorous, demonstrating Iqbal’s creative use of traditional tropes and symbols; yet, they are relatively empty of substance. Starting with the fifth couplet, however, the poem shifts into a reflective and philosophical mode. That’s where the real fun begins!

The following is a translation of the first half of “The Morning Sun,” heavily modified from M. A. K. Khalil’s English version. In modifying Khalil’s translation, I have focused  on capturing and conveying Iqbal’s meaning as I have understood it. If the translation lacks rhyme and rhythm, that’s because I have made no attempt to compose a poem. Any suggestions for improving the translation will be greatly appreciated.

Please note that throughout the poem, the second person pronoun (“you”) refers to the sun.

You are far beyond the strife of humanity’s tavern
You are the wine-cup that adorns the assemblage of heaven;

You are the jewel that graces the morning bride’s ear
The horizon’s forehead is honored to have you as adornment;

Remove the blot of night’s ink from the page of time
Erase the stars from the sky like a false image;

When your beauty appears at the balcony of heaven
Our eyes are freed from the drunkenness of sleep;

Vision’s expanse becomes filled with light
Yet only the outer eye benefits from your radiance;

A spectacle for the inner eye to behold is what I desire
An epiphany that gives insight is what I desire;

My craving for freedom is yet to meet fulfillment
The bondage of relations is still keeping me imprisoned;

All the highs and the lows are the same in your sight
I long for the kind of view that you have;

I want my eyes to shed tears at the other’s anguish
I want my heart to transcend the distinctions of customs and norms.

Below is the second half of the poem:

And my translation:

I wish that my tongue remains free of group prejudice
That humankind be my nation, the world my homeland;

That the secret of nature’s order be exposed to my inner eye
That the smoke from my imagination’s candle reaches the heaven;

That the struggle to reconcile opposites ceases to agitate my heart
That I find the love-evoking beauty in everything I see;

That even if a rose petal were to be traumatized by the breeze
The impact on my heart flows as tears from my eyes;

I wish that my heart bears that little spark of love’s simmering fire
And that its glowing brilliance guides me to the mysteries of reality;

That my heart turns into a mirror for the divine beloved
That no ambitions remain in me, except compassion for humankind;

If you are far beyond the hardships of this tumultuous world
That’s not a mark of your eminence, O great luminary;

With no awareness of your own beauty that adorns the whole world
You are not equal to a speck of dust at the doorstep of Adam;

The light to which angels prostrated continues to seek the spectacle
While you remain obligated to the morning of tomorrow;

Our hearts are ablaze with the desire to seek the light of truth
Our hearts are the abode where the taste of longing resides;

What a joy it is for us to open an intricate knot
How blissful is each step in our struggle that never ends;

You have never been blessed with the pathos of inquiry
You remain unaware of the seeking of nature’s mystery.

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By saying that the Qur’an emphasizes “deed” rather than “idea,” Iqbal has identified for us what is perhaps the very essence of revelation.

Muslims take the Qur’an as containing the revelations that came from God to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The phenomenon of revelation, however, is not unique to Islam, and the Qur’an itself confirms that many individuals had been the recipients of such divine revelation in the past. This fact allows us to examine the phenomenon of revelation in a comparative perspective. When we look at the revelations found in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, and compare them with the revelations that we have in the form of the Qur’an, we are struck by the fact that all these revealed texts have one characteristic in common: They are invariably aimed at encouraging and facilitating some form of personal transformation.

The purpose of revelation is guidance, and the most important form of guidance that human beings need is practical guidance. Revealed texts are therefore meant to answer the most urgent of all questions, i.e., “how should I live?” While revelation provides theoretical guidance as well, the latter is discussed not for its own sake but mainly for its practical implications. In other words, the primary function of revelation is such that it is most clearly served when the revelation speaks in the imperative mode, as in the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), or in the saying of Jesus “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Even when the revelation speaks in the declarative mode, its aim is not simply to provide us with information but rather to transform us in some important way. For instance, when we are told: “God, there is no god except He . . .” (Qur’an 2:255), the revelation is not merely informing us that there is only one God; rather, it is reminding us of the attitude we are supposed to adopt given that there is only one God. In the same way, when the Qur’an narrates the stories of previous prophets or informs us of the punishments of hell and the blessings of paradise, its purpose is not to add more data to our minds; the purpose, rather, is to help us transform ourselves in the desired ways.

To claim that revelation does not emphasize “ideas” is to suggest that holding the right beliefs is not one of its central concerns. In the ordinary, non-technical sense of the word, “believing” refers to giving intellectual assent to certain ideas. While it is important to hold the right beliefs, or believe in the right ideas, this in itself does not provide any guarantee that personal transformation will actually take place. It is all too common for people to hold one set of ideas as true, while living their lives as if those ideas were entirely false. It would appear that people tend to hold not one but two sets of ideas in their minds: (1) ideas that they believe they hold, and (2) ideas that actually guide their choices and conduct. From the viewpoint of revelation, holding ideas that do not shape our lives is ultimately worthless even when they are objectively true. For there is no benefit in “knowing” a truth if one does not “understand” it, and there is no benefit in “understanding” a truth if it does not guide one’s attitudes, priorities, habits, and values. A truth that is held in the mind but not embodied is no better than a treasure that we own but cannot spend.

Revelation is definitely concerned with transforming our beliefs, but it is even more concerned with transforming our choices and conduct. From the viewpoint of revelation, only those of our beliefs are relevant that actually shape our lived reality, i.e., beliefs that actively determine our “deeds.”

Iqbal’s use of the word “deed” is such that it cannot be substituted by the word “action.” This is because he seems to have used the word “deed” in a much more comprehensive sense than what the word “action” would suggest. Nor should we think of “deed” as something that is diametrically opposed to “faith.” On the contrary, the words “faith” and “deed” are very nearly synonymous for Iqbal. I have been led to this conclusion because of three statements that Iqbal makes in the very first paragraph of The Reconstruction, immediately following the preface:

The essence of religion . . . is faith . . . .

. . . the transformation and guidance of man’s inner and outer life is the essential aim of religion . . . .

Religion is not a departmental affair; it is neither mere thought, nor mere feeling, nor mere action; it is an expression of the whole man.

That “faith” is the essence of religion is not an insignificant matter, for this implies that whatever is true of religion in general must be true of faith, if not truer. Consequently, if the purpose of religion is to guide and transform all aspects of human life, and if the essence of religion happens to be faith, then it would be a serious mistake to conceive of faith in a narrow or partial manner. What Iqbal says explicitly about religion he implicitly says about faith as well: Faith is neither mere thought, nor mere feeling, nor mere action; it is an expression of the whole person. For Iqbal, faith is the personal transformation that constitutes the “essential aim” of religion, as well as the means through which that aim is pursued.

If we can conceive of faith in this broad and comprehensive Iqbalian sense, then we can also appreciate the partial and limited nature of belief. Faith is an expression of the whole person — the sum total of one’s attitudes, priorities, habits, and values, as well as of one’s choices and conduct — while belief is merely an idea that a person holds in his or her mind. While it is obviously better to hold a true belief than a false one, holding a true belief is not the same thing as achieving the “essential aim” of religion, i.e., personal transformation.

When Iqbal says that the Qur’an emphasizes “deed” as opposed to “idea,” he is basically telling us that the Qur’an is far more concerned with “faith” than it is with “belief.”

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