Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Burns/Iqbal Supper - A Celebration of Many More...

The Scottish Islamic Foundation has made a call for a Burns/Iqbal Supper as a means to raise ‘Islamic awareness’ recently at their national conference. I have been thinking about what this supper would entail for a few days now and have come to the firm conclusion that this is a good match. Yep, I’m agreeing with SIF for once! But, not without a fair comparison of the two individuals in question.

Robert Burns, or Rabbie Burns, was a Scottish poet from Alloway, Ayrshire who was also a lyricist and farmer who lived, 1759-1796. Alama Muhammad Iqbal(b. 1877- d. 1938) was a poet, philosopher, and politician from Sialkot, Pakistan (my parents home city!) who studied Islamic metaphysics in England and Germany.

Robert Burns lived a life of poverty and the only schooling that he had was by his father, William Burness. Iqbal concentrated his efforts on the establishment of an independent state for Muslims of British India. It was here that he joined forces with Muhammad Ali Jinnah with his vision that a secular state would play a much better force in the creation of Pakistan.

Iqbal believed that Islam should be a source for government and society but was a free thinker too. Iqbal therefore declared that the closing of the door of Ijtihād (creative independent reasoning on matters of faith) ‘pure fiction’, and suggested it was stopped partly by the emergence of legal thought in Islam and partly by intellectual laziness which, ‘especially in the period of spiritual decay, turns great thinkers into idols.’ Burns’ short life was focused on his great love of poetry, which gave him the truly deserved honour of being a force in the romanticism literary movement.

Iqbal’s work of philosophy of the ‘self’ is still highly regarded but his main role in political Islam is seen as his main contribution to Islamic civilization. Robert Burns was well known for his debauched life style, something a lot of poets are quite renowned for. Burns’ first child was born to his Mother’s servant and named Elizabeth Paton Burns. At the same time he had twins with Jean Armour with a subsequent relationship with a Mary Campbell. All of which were happening pretty much simultaneously.

I think what convinced me about and Burns/Iqbal supper was Iqbal’s love for Mirza Ghalib, ok ok, I am bias! Great thinkers, poet don't emerge in isolation, they all have inspirations from someone/somewhere. It adds an interesting twist to to tale to see that Iqbal was inspired by Ghalib, someone most have dismissed as a drunk but a closer look at his poetry and thoughts reveals a spiritual man...probably the same could be said of Burns, (see the recent publication, God, the Poet and the Devil: Robert Burns and Religion by Donald Smith)

It was on his way to Europe that Iqbal’s teacher from Lahore, Sir Thomas Arnold, advised him to visit the mausoleums of Khwaja Nizamuddin*, Amir Khusrau** and Mirza Asadullah Ghalib. Iqbal was greatly influenced by the poetry of Mirza Ghalib and it is said that when he visited the grave of Ghalib someone began to recite his poetry at which ‘Iqbal sobbed bitterly and embraced Ghalib’s grave’.

In his book ‘Stray Reflections’ Iqbal states,
‘I confess I owe a great deal to Hegel, Goethe, Mirza Ghalib***, Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil**** and Wordsworth. The first two led me into the ‘inside’ of things, the third and fourth taught me how to remain oriental in spirit and expression after having assimilated foreign ideals of poetry, and the last saved me from atheism in my student days.’

So, a celebration of Burns and Iqbal is inextricably bound to the great works of Hegel, Goethe, Mirza Ghalib, Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil and Wordsworth. What a beautiful mixture! God rest all their souls! I wonder if the Scottish Islamic Foundation had envisaged that a celebration of Iqbal unpacks a whole array of spiritualities and religiosity, if they did, well done! Who knows if I get an invite I may even be tempted to recite some of Ghalib's poetry to showcase the poet who influenced Iqbal...

The inscription on Ghalib’s tombstone:

'The Alive, The Eternal (these are two of the names of God)
the envy of Urfi and the pride of Talib has died, Asadullah Khan Ghalib has died
(Urfi and Talib were Persian-Indian poets)

Yesterday in sadness and mourning, grief-afflicted too
I sat by the Master’s grave with sorrow profound
Seeing me thinking of a tareekh, Majruuh [taareeKh = chronogram]
A heavenly voice said, “treasury of meanings is under the ground”'

Translated into English by Vasmi Abidi


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