Divergence and convergence

November 19, 2023

Iqbal explored the modern divergence between poetic and religious imagination

Divergence and convergence


odernity and secularism are epistemologically intertwined. Where there is modernity, there is individualism, worldliness, an emphasis on the present moment and a negation of all that is beyond the reach of human perception and intellect.

Embracing secularism is not enough, a modern soul must also feel vehemently the earthliness and worldliness of things.

Modernity is quintessentially linked to human experience. It has no room for utopian notions. Actual experience precedes the idea of that experience. To be heralds should be. There is total negation of the existence of a single, uniform, universal idea or structure of human experience. This way, modernity obliges uncharted spaces for a variety of human experiences. Individual human voices are deemed to have legitimate claim to being heard and getting registered. In the realm of art, the distinction of high-brow and low-brow is discarded.

As there is no single structure of human experience, a particular taste in art cannot define a standard or canon. Past and tradition alone cannot determine the form and content of the present. The immediate and lived, ahistorical reality is the bedrock of all modern art. This doesn’t mean that modern art is just a reportage of daily reality. It is much more than that. Imagination has a special place in modernity. Though the word imagination implies a sense of flight from reality, modern art works to create proximities to the realities lived by humans. So, modern imagination is earthly, worldly, profane and secular.

In the epistemology of modernity, there is no room for theological sanctity or categorical submissiveness. The artistic and religious imaginations are therefore antagonistic. Poets might embrace and practice a religion, but poetic imagination is non-religious, individual-human, material and secular. Likewise, religious persons might appreciate poetry, but religious imagination is metaphysical, supernatural, transcendental and hedged by the sacred. In other words, poetic imagination resists the religious and religious imagination repels the poetic.

The point to be stressed here is that this hard division between the religious and the poetic imaginations is modern. It signifies the modernity’s infatuation with the absolute authority of human experience. Such a division didn’t exist in pre-modern times. In ancient times, poetry and religion were as intertwined as modernity and secularism. Religious stories and scriptures used to employ poetic language. Poetry used to be soaked in lofty, transcendental themes.

Major poetic works of the medieval period – Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Rumi’s Masnavi, etc – were embedded in religious myths, characters, themes and visions. The poetic imagination had not fostered an antagonism against religious imagination. But with the emergence of modern sensibility, we see an insistence on the sole authenticity of human experience rather than the uncritical absorption of religious beliefs. So, there emerged a series of aberrations, drifting and digressions in modern literature. Disobedience and denial of godly forms of authority became the hallmark of modern art.

The view that modern sensibility originated in Europe and was then copied in the colonies is mistaken. In Ghalib’s poetry, we find a suite of couplets that seem to epitomise a digression from traditional religious views and strive to navigate the unmapped regions of human psyche.

hoañ munharif na

kyuuñ rah-o-rasm-i-savab


Terha laga hai qat

qalam-i-sarnavisht ko

[The reason I digress from the rituals of requital is that an awry cut is made in the nib of my pen.]

“A writing-reed with awry cut” symbolises drifting away from all sorts of orthodoxy, tradition, rituals and their symbolic representations. The truth is that the whole oeuvre of modern literature seems to have been composed by this “writing-reed with awry cut.” In each piece of modern literature, we find direct - glaring or symbolic - forms of defiance – to not just tradition and rituals but also to diction, taste and canon. The defiance was destructively creative. It aimed to destroy whatever had been received in order to create a new world that could be tested, assimilated and appreciated by human experience. It needs to be emphasised that human experience and the poetic imagination are not monochromatic. Polyphony or multiplicity of voices is the hallmark of modern art. However, all voices are essentially human.

Theoretically and epistemologically, modern poetic imagination is antagonistic to religious imagination. Pragmatically, the religious imagination—especially that which takes the form of poetry – has come to accommodate sceptical, noncompliant, contesting, quibbling human voice. A probability of convergence of opposites does exist.

Divergence and convergence

Iqbal seems to assert that the act of disobedience or defiance is creative. Only daring, fearless people can defy and turn their defiance into a springboard of creativity.
Divergence and convergence

British-American poet-critic TS Eliot strived to mitigate the theoretical antagonism between modern literature and religion. In his essay Religion and Literature, he says that literary form and religious judgment are inseparable. He admits that the genre of the novel has been completely secularised but not the literary taste. He is of the view that literary taste is not exhibited in our habit of reading for entertainment and pleasure; rather, “it affects us as entire human beings; it affects our moral and religious existence.” It can be inferred that the creative experience might engage us as entire human beings. However, Eliot missed the point that there is no single, uniform, ahistorical structure of human experience. The grammar and semantics of poetic and religious experiences have been in a state of flux and their relation has encountered new challenges.

This fact, though paradoxical, is evident across the poetry of Allama Iqbal. Iqbal’s oeuvre is not merely embedded deeply in religious imagination but also represents its nature, power and maxima. Iqbal’s poetry reveals that religious imagination is not monochromatic as is perceived through the lens of modernity. Though it calls for total, unconditional devotion and submission, it doesn’t deny room for assertive, interrogative, powerful human voice. Submission and assertion, devotion and grievance, or Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa, can go hand in hand. The worldliness of Shikwa can converge with the sacredness of praying. Adam’s voice, with its earthly woes and sufferings, can reverberate in the heavens.

Shikwa (lament) forms a major and poetically powerful part of his poetry. It is important to note that Shikwa doesn’t deny the existence of God; rather, it is made with the firm belief that God doesn’t only listen to the words of discontent from His creatures but is so kind and beneficent that He forgives, favours, and blesses them. Hence, Shikwa is a form of prayer. Shikwa adds new meaning to prayer and new dimension to God-human relation.

Lament, grief, discontent and a mild inquisitorial tone are the major constituents of Shikwa. Lament and discontent sprout from the perception of a gulf between idea and experienced reality. Religious imagination has etchings of some ideas about human existence and its role in the world that are extracted from creed and scriptures and their interpretations. The moment these ideas do not correspond to our real experience, the feelings of discontent, lament and aloofness overwhelm us. Aside from Iqbal’s long poem Shikwa, in Bal-i-Jibreel (Gabriel’s Wing) there are scores of couplets that speak out the poet’s heart.

agar kaj-rau haiñ anjum

asmañ taira hai ya maira

mujhay fikr-i-jehañ kyuuñ ho jehañ taira hai ya maira

agar hañgama-ha-i-shauq

say hai la-makañ khali

khata kis ki hai ya rab

la-makañ taira hai ya maira

usay subh-i-azal inkar ki

jurat hui kyuñkar

mujhay malum kya voh

razdañ taira hai ya maira

[If the stars stray – to whom do the heavens belong, You or me? Why must I worry about the world – to whom does this world belong, You or me?

If the placeless are devoid of any lively scenes of passion and longing, Whose fault is that, my Lord?— Does that realm belong to You or to me?

On the morning of eternity he dared to disobey, but how would I know why? Is he Your confidant, or is he mine?]

In these verses, Iqbal bills Adam’s worldview in contrast to God’s vision of the universe. Iqbal used to believe that Adam was sent to Earth with the purpose of creating a new world. His poem Jannat-i-Arzi Adam ka Istiqbal Karti Hae (The paradise-like Earth welcomes Adam) is about Adam’s potential to create his own paradise, epitomising his own vision on this planet. In Iqbal’s vision man appears as a creator, not an imitator. He is essentially an artist. However, unlike the modernist notion of artist, it is not destructive creativity but parallel creativity.

tu shab afreedi, chiragh

afreedam/ sifal afreedi, ayagh afreedam

[O God You created night, and I the lamp. You made mud and I out of this mud-shaped the bowl]

One who creates something is entitled to form an opinion about the nature and purpose of creation. A creator can be a critic. In Iqbal’s poetry, we find a sort of negotiation with the theological scheme of things. There is a sort of discomfort about man’s place and his bodily, imaginative and intellectual limitations sanctioned by destiny. For instance, he composed the poem Dua (prayer) while sitting in the Cordoba mosque. The point to be noted is that in Iqbal’s Dua, there is a shikwa.

teri khudai say hae

meray junoon ko gila

apnay liay la makan

meray liye char soo

[My madness complains to Your divinity. You have chosen the placeless for Yourself while I am surrounded by four dimensions.]

As man is a creator, he is a mard-i-azad (free man). The freedom guarantees creativity – freedom to think, to form opinions, to judge, to view things from an individual perspective and to speak out one’s heart. The will to freedom has to encounter numerous hindrances, natural, social and cultural. Hence, the mard-i-azad must show defiance. In Iqbal’s poetry, iblis appears as a personification of defiance. Interestingly, it is the religious imagination that has created space for iblis to proffer his worldview along with his woes and sorrows. In Iqbal words, iblis’s life is marked with “Burning and suffering, scars and pain, seeking and longing.” It was iblis who added colour to Adam’s saga.

Iblis revolted against God’s ordinance. He questioned the Godly scheme of the world and was doomed. Iqbal lets iblis speak out his mind. In Javed Nama (The Book of Eternity), iblis is made to say, “O God of right and wrong, I have been ruined in the company of men for they do not disobey me. They have lost the elements of disobedience.” Iqbal seems to assert that the act of disobedience or defiance is creative. Only daring, fearless people can defy and turn their defiance into a springboard of creativity.

The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and professor of Urdu at the University of the Punjab. His most recent publication is Naey Naqqad Kay Naam Khatoot

Divergence and convergence