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How to Read Iqbal?

Essays on Iqbal, Urdu Poetry & Literary Theory
By Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
Edited and compiled by Suheyl Umer
Pages: 248 | Publisher: IAP


Faced with the daunting task of writing about Shamsur Rahman Faruqi one is inclined to reach instinctively to one’s betters and to latch onto hyperboles and superlatives. I would therefore try to resist both the impulses and shall proceed
mundanely and work up to what I want to say. The essays collected in this slender volume under the title How to Read Iqbal?— Essays on Iqbal, Urdu Poetry & Literary Theory address a very important issue of Iqbal Studies, directly in the first and second parts of the book, namely, “How to Read Iqbal?” and “Review Articles— Iqbal Studies” and comes back to it in the third part, “Urdu Literature— Literary Themes and History”, in an indirect but wider perspective. The question has been elucidated by him in the following words.

Is Iqbal, the Poet, Relevant to us Today? The answer to this question could be “Yes”, or “No”, or “Partly”, depending on what image of Iqbal one has in one’s mind and also, of course, what sort of person one is…...It is curious that the Iqbal who is talked about and discussed by one critic is so different from the Iqbal who appears in another critic’s writings that one is inclined to wonder if
they are talking about the same poet. Now there is nothing bad (and in fact everything good) in a poet being approached and interpreted in as many legitimate ways as possible; the fact that a poet’s work admits of many interpretations is a sure indication of his being a good poet. The problem arises when one set of persons believes that a certain poet is good, while another would have nothing to do with him. Another problem that arises generally, and especially in reference to Iqbal is that the reasons that one set of persons, or one critic, adduces to support the view that a poet is good, are not found
by another group sufficient or even valid to prove that the poet in question is good. In fact, it often happens that the reasons somebody offers to show that a certain poet is good, are considered by some others as proof enough to show that the poet is no good. As I said just now, these two states of affairs have prevailed more in Iqbal criticism (and the view of Iqbal that people have) than in any other criticism.

In a more recent article (2004) “How to read Iqbal?” he formulated the question slightly differently.

It is true that such a question would not be asked by someone who has the slightest feel for the Urdu language and the rhythms of its poetry. For even the dullest of Iqbal’s poems rings and reverberates not just in the outer ear but deep in one’s psyche and sets up vibrations of pleasure in one’s soul. But the problem arises when one is made to read Iqbal not for pleasure, but for profit. For Iqbal is also a politician’s poet, a religious thinker’s poet, and a philosopher’s poet and much more besides. Iqbal has earned a lot of praise and not a little blame as well, for being one or other of the things mentioned above.
The specific issue of Iqbal Studies, that is, “why do critics judge Iqbal in nonliterary terms”? is then traced back to the perennial question in literary criticism “Is it legitimate to judge a piece of literature by extra-literary standards”? It is true that misreading a poet of the past is more acute in the case of Urdu poetry since its history, to quote him again, “suffered a major literary cultural discontinuity in the middle of the nineteenth century,” but the
problem acquires still larger dimensions with “the systematic misreadings of Iqbal.”

The insights Faruqi offers to the reader are seldom equaled, and never surpassed, (no escape from superlatives!) and his arguments are grounded in serene logical acumen and a tremendous wealth of literary information. The questions he raises are essential for our understanding of our literary history
and the answers he provides are illuminating. As compared to his corpus of writings in Urdu these essays appear to be little more than a fragment but in terms of literary merit and depth and breadth of scholarship they outshine many a large tome on literary history and theory.

Muhammad Suheyl Umar

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