One afternoon in Chicago with my aunt—likely providing her company while she organized her room—we stumbled across the bookshelf in the basement, and she pulled out a book of Allama Iqbal’s works. A poet, a philosopher, a politician, he had been well before that particular afternoon of mine. But it would be several years of exposure to his work before I would even begin to understand what my aunt read to me that day: Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawaab.
Over the next few years I came across bits of his work that stayed with me, and turned the way I saw life. But it was earlier this year when a beloved Pakistani singer by the name of Amjad Sabri, son of one of the most renowned Qawwali singers in the Indian subcontinent (Ghulam Farid Sabri) passed away, that I got back to Shikwa and Jawaab. I admittedly knew little about Amjad Sabri and the icon he too had become for Pakistan until after he passed away in a tragic killing this past June. Afterwards, while looking at what he sang, one day I came across a recitation of Shikwa and Jawaab. Both he and the other singer conveyed Allama Iqbal’s words so beautifully, giving them a voice that became unavoidable for me.
It quickly became an astonishing time. The month of Dhul Hijjah was in full swing and I had been learning about Prophet Ibrahim’s life, which was already resonating deeply. Parts of Shikwa and Jawab talk about Prophet Ibrahim too, and the messages all started weaving together.
Iqbal’s style of writing employs a heavy use of Farsi and is layered with meaning that conveys strong messages addressed to humans. Shikwa, or ‘Complaint’ was recited by Iqbal in 1912, after a couple years of particular difficulty that Muslims faced in many nations around the world, including India, Iran, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Turkey. The poem is bold as it is written from the perspective of a Muslim appealing to God in distress, declaring the loyalty he and other Muslims have toward God, and asking why then is there so much difficulty. In Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher, and Politician, Zafar Anjum describes the scene after Shikwa is recited for the first time:
The audience is spellbound when he recites the poem. They shower flowers on him. An old man shouts, ‘Illallah!’ and comes to stand in the middle of the assembly, tears streaming from his eyes. There is not a single soul in the audience whose heart is not howling listening to Iqbal’s complaint to God. Iqbal’s father is also in the audience, his eyes moist at his son’s success as a poet as well as at his poignant message to the Muslims of the world. (1)
Some of the conservative scholars did not approve as exuberantly, feeling that the tone of Shikwa was disrespectful to God, although Anjum points out that the poem is actually “a prayer in spirit that celebrates the ‘bonding between the human soul and the Creator.'”(2)
Nonetheless Iqbal writes Jawab-e-Shikwa (Response to the Complaint) in 1913 which is met with universal acclamation. It is intended to be God’s response to the complaint issued by man in Shikwa. Many would argue it is even stronger than Shikwa itself was, perhaps also because it physically demonstrates—as a conversation—the originally intended message of the bond between man and God.
After many months of attempting but being daunted away again by the task, I’ve tried to explain the first three verses of Shikwa and the first three of Jawaab-e-Shikwa. In all the texts I’ve had a chance to read, Shikwa and Jawab display some of the strongest introductory messages I have ever come across.
I’ve organized the verses by presenting the words in Roman Urdu first, and then with an English translation. The translation for Shikwa was taken from iqbaliyat.blogspot.com and the translation for Jawab-e-Shikwa is from iqbalurdu.blogspot.com. The text below the translation is called ‘tashreeh’ in Urdu, or analysis. It is an explanation of the verse, completed with gracious assistance from my mum, the most significant influence of poetry, Urdu, and all language that I have been blessed with.
First however, is the audio recitation by the late Amjad Sabri and Naeem Abbas Rofi, with high recommendation:
First Three Verses of Shikwa (The Complaint):
“Kyun Ziyaankar Banoon, Sood Faramosh Rahoon?
Fiqr-e-Farda Na Karoon, Mehev-e-Gham-e-Dosh Rahoon?”
Why should I be destructive and remain reckless of betterment?
Think not of the future, remain occupied in today’s problems?
Ziyaankar is ‘one who harms himself’. He asks should he be one who is self destructive? Sood is the word for monetary interest, and faramosh means ‘one who forgets’. Ahsaan Faramosh is a common urdu term. With ahsaan meaning ‘favor’, it denotes one who has been ungrateful, or has forgotten another’s favor. The poet has beautifully chosen the word sood faramosh to denote one who does not look at his own profit.
Fiqr is the term for ‘worry’ and Farda means ‘future’. He asks, should he not worry about the future, about what’s to come? Mehev means to be immersed in something. Gham means ‘sorrow’. Gham-e-dosh refers to other people’s worries and sorrows. He asks should he stay immersed in others’ problems instead of his own?
“Naal-e-Bulbul Ke Sunoon, Aur Hamatan Gosh Rahoon?
Humnawa, Main Bhi Koi Gul Hoon Ke Khamosh Rahoon?”
Should I hear nightingale’s wails and remain completely mute?
O companion! Am I some flower so that I may remain silent?
The word naala refers to a wailing or complaint and bulbul here refers to a nightingale. Hamatan gosh means listening with full, undivided attention. He then describes the scene of a silent garden and addresses the reader as humnawa, or companion/friend. The word hum in urdu means ‘we’ or the majestic plural for ‘I’. When a word is attached to the prefix hum, it denotes someone who is close to me in something. So humdard (me + pain) is he who is close to me in pain, ie ‘sympathizer.’ Humraaz (me + secret) is he who is close to me in my secret, ie ‘confidante.’ Humnaam (me + name) is he who is close to me in my name, ie ‘namesake.’ Here, humnawa (me+speech) means he who is close to me in speech, thought, views etc., ie ’empathizer.’
Iqbal paints the scene of a garden and places himself in comparison to a gul, or flower. He asks us, is he a silent bud in a garden, who says nothing of its own complaint but simply listens on to the nightingale’s wails? Shall he continue to just listen to others’ problems and complaints and say nothing of his own?
“Jurrat Aamoz Meri Taab-e-Sukhan Hai Mujhko!
Shikwa Allah Se, Khakam Badhan Hai Mujhko!”
The strength of my poetry is encouraging to me..
My complaint is against God! Woe be to me!
Aamoz refers to something that is learned and jurrat is dare and deliberation; Taab-e-sukhan is the strength and power of speech. The poet is saying: ‘the strength of the message within my words has granted me the dare to assert it out loud.’
Shikwa, the title of this poem translates as ‘complaint’. The poet is saying: ‘Look at me, I’m complaining to God Almighty!’ While he is complaining he is also ashamed, and curses himself by saying a farsi original of a common urdu phrase: ‘mere muu mei khaak’, meaning ‘let there be dust/sand in my mouth’. This phrase refers to someone who has said something of ill-omen or blasphemous nature. He says Khakam Badhan. Khaak translates as sand and badhan means ‘in my mouth’: ‘may there be sand in my mouth’, or in other words, ‘woe be to me’.
First Three Verses of Jawab-e-Shikwa (Response to the Complaint):
“Dil Se Jo Baat Nikalti Hai, Asar Rakhti Hai
Par Nahin, Taaqat-e-Parwaaz Magar Rakhti Hai”
When passion streaming from the heart turns human lips to lyres,
Some magic wings man’s music then, his song with soul inspires;
Dil means ‘heart’ and the closest meaning of baat in this context would be ‘plea.’ The writer has arranged the Urdu to place the word ‘heart’ first, so it reads as: ‘from the heart, the plea that escapes.’ He places emphasis on the heart by using it as the very first word and subject. This sets the tone of the work highlighting the core message that God hears the genuine plea of hearts that no man, no technology can even hear, even if a person were to declare it out loud. That silent outcry, Allah hears. Asar refers to ‘effect.’ This verse introduces Allah’s response, saying: ‘the plea that comes from within the heart, certainly has effect.’
Par refers to ‘wing’ and nahin is a simple negation. Both words together mean ‘no wings.’ The entire line however completes itself as a heavy statement. Taaqat is ‘strength,’ and parwaaz means flight or escalation. The word magar means ‘however’. The entire line talks about the plea from the heart saying that the plea has no wings, yet it possesses the ability of flight.
“Qudsi-Ul-Asal Hai, Riffat Pe Nazar Rakhti Hai
Khaak Se Uthti Hai, Gardoon Pe Guzar Rakhti Hai”
Man’s words are sacred then, they soar, The ears of heaven they seek,
From dust those mortal accents rise, Immortals hear them speak;
Quds means ‘pure’ and asal comes from the word asli which means ‘true.’ Qudsi-ul-asal translates as ‘purer than pure.’ Riffat is another for word bulandi which means height, or a higher place. Nazar means ‘gaze.’ This verse talks about the plea of the heart—that it is purer than pure, truer than true. Its gaze rests on a higher place.
Khaak means sand or dust, perhaps referring to the dust man was created from, or perhaps describing the earth where man lives. Gardoon means aasmaan or arsh, ‘the skies or heavens above.’ Guzar means passing or visitation. The line reads that the plea from the heart rises from khaak (man himself or the earth he lives on) yet it is able to travel through the heavens.
“Ishq Tha Fitna Gar-o-Sarkash-o-Chalaak Mera
Aasmaan Cheer Gaya, Naala-e-Bebaak Mera”
So wild and wayward was my Love, such tumult raised its sighs,
Before its daring swiftly fell the ramparts of the skies.
This is where Iqbal speaks again from the human’s accord. Ishq means an extreme love. Man here describes his love as fitna-gar. Fitna means trial or affliction. Fitna gar is that which spreads fitna. He also describes his love as sarkash, ‘headstrong’ (sar means head), and chalaak, meaning rapid and swift or something that has its wings spread and is flying. My interpretation is that he is in the highest level of astonishment he has ever known, and is now reflecting on what has happened.
He says that his love—which may be love for his own needs, or it may refer to the plea itself—was so troublesome, and it was so uncontrollable and rapid that the aasmaan (skies) were split open. Cheer means to slit something. Again Iqbal starts with the word ‘sky’ to emphasize the effect of what is being described. The sky is a grand ordeal. It is stacked with heaven upon heaven and described as an enormous entity especially in Islamic learning. It is this sky’s grandeur that we are shown first. Naala means ‘complaint,’ and bebaak means something that has no boundaries or regard.
Man says in awe: ‘the plea I made (with such boldness ) that issued from my heart, pierced the heavens toward God Himself. He heard me.’
Anjum, Zafar. Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher, and Politician. Haryana, India: Random House India, 2014. London, United Kingdom: Random House Group Limited, 2014. p.105.
2. Anjum, Zafar. Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher, and Politician. Haryana, India: Random House India, 2014. London, United Kingdom: Random House Group Limited, 2014. p.104.