Would anyone dare issue a fatwa against Iqbal?
By M J Akbar
Spare a prayer for God's professionals; they are not very fashionable among the elite, and who is more elitist than media? I have great respect for the thousands of priests, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, who perform community service on pitiable pay. There is neither reward nor award for the nameless, selfless maulvis and monks devoted to a Calcutta Muslim Orphanage or a Ramakrishna Mission. We pen-pushers swan around mouthing homilies and delivering self-satisfied sermons; they deliver.
But so much of their good work on the ground is destroyed by the pomposity of clerics floating at the top. Education is no insurance against their stupidity.
The Lucknow maulana - whose name is irrelevant and would in any case take up too much space - who passed a fatwa against Harivansh Rai Bachchan's Madhushala because it "eulogized alcohol and drunkenness in society" has been blessed by neither wit nor a sense of poetry. Who can explain the power of a metaphor to someone who does not know the nuance of verse? How do we convey the tremor of a poet's subversion to one who has not learnt to smile? A closed mind is by inclination self-righteous. When no one else believes you are right, you have to console yourself.
By the Lucknow maulana's standards of literary criticism, a substantial body of Urdu poetry would be banned. Urdu verse has brought indescribable delight to those who know the language, most of whom are Muslims. It is a poetry that can be enjoyed either in the company of thousands, at a mushaira, where the poet recites his or her composition, or in the silence of a room over a book. The cleric would have to pass a fatwa against every Urdu poet, from Ghalib, Daagh and Zauq down to the humblest versifier, for each one has used the symbol of a cup of wine and the saqi, who pours it in the tavern. I presume the learned cleric of Lucknow has not read this couplet, for it is a needle designed to puncture smugness:
Zauq! Jo medresse ke bigre hue hain mulla
Un ko maikhaane mein le aao sanwar jaayenge.
(Zauq! Bring the mulla misled by a medressa
To the tavern, it will correct his ways.)
The tension between the tavern and the mulla is a constant, and even overworked theme of Urdu poetry. Hazrat Daagh Dehlivi was no less scathing (incidentally, my apologies for the poor quality of translation):
Lutf-e-mai tujh se kya kahoon, zahid
Hai kambakht tu ne pee hi nahin.
(How do I describe, o priest, wine's joy to you?
A drop has never passed your misbegotten lips.)
I suppose it would be considered too predictable to quote Ghalib, since he has been turned into a bit of a caricature of the hard-drinking, irresponsible lover-poet; but his verse is so utterly beautiful that it would be a shame to pass up an opportunity to offer more than one gem.
Har chand ho mushahda-e-haq ki guftagu
Banti nahin hai badah-o-saaghan kahe baghair.
(Let us discourse, each moment, of truth divine
How do we talk without the strength of wine?)
Kahan maikhana ka darwaza Ghalib aur kahan waaez
Par itna jaante hain, kal wo jaata tha ke ham nikle.
(Where is the tavern door, Ghalib, and where the priest!
But this I know: yesterday he entered as I was leaving.)
The conflict is not between religion and the believer, but between religiosity and the poet. The poet taunts those who seek to dominate men in the name of God, without understanding either God or man. There has been no one with a finer understanding of Islam among the greats of the language than Allama Iqbal. Iqbal's personal commitment to his faith shaped his world-view, and underpinned his philosophical essays. If Iqbal was not a Muslim then a Muslim has not been born on the Indian subcontinent. Iqbal uses the image of wine and saqi, freely.
Sharaab-e-kuhan phir pila saaqiya
Yahi jaam gardish mein laa saaqiya.
(Pour me that familiar wine again, saqi!
Fill the world with the same wine, saqi!)
Iqbal is even more scathing of the priest than Daagh:
Ummeed-e hoor ne sab kuch sikha rakha hai waaez ko
Yeh hazrat dekhne main seedhe hain, saade hain, bhole bhaale hain.
(The hope of houris has taught him all he wants to know
The priest merely looks simple, humble, plain, innocent.)
Would the Lucknow maulana like to pass a fatwa against Iqbal's poetry? Now that would be much bigger news than a judgement against Madhushala. Of course Iqbal was never as provocative as Daagh could be:
Zahid sharaab peene de masjid mein baith kar
Ya wo jagah bata de jahan par Khuda na ho.
(Priest, let me sit and drink inside the mosque
Or tell me that place where God can't be found.)
Indian Muslims have savoured such verse since it entered public space; no one has taken it as a literal injunction to start drinking inside a mosque. The poetic truth is not the literal truth, which of course is the point of poetry.
Perhaps the last word - or last sheyer - should be left to the Anonymous poet:
Pahunchi yahan bhi Shaikh wa Brahman ki guftagu
Ab maikada bhi sair ke qaabil nahin raha.
(The quarrel of Shaikh, Brahmin has reached here
Even the tavern is no longer worth a visit!)
Appeared in Times of India - November 23, 2008