By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal’s “tremendous work”, wrote German writer Hermann Hesse (1877–1962), belonged to the world of Islam apart from two other domains of the worlds of India, and of Western thought. In his book Incarnations, academic Sunil Khilnani echoes Hesse and notes that Iqbal (1877-1938) was “deeply engaged with the histories, themes, and conflicts embedded in Islamic thought and in literary traditions that fired his imagination”.

Islam was certainly an important theme of Iqbal’s poetry. But he also wrote about important figures of other religions glowingly in the spirit of his famous couplet: “Mazhab nahin sikhata aapas mei bair rakhna, Hindi hai ham vatan hai Hindustan hamara”*. “Hai Ram ke vajud pe Hindustan ko naaz, ahl-e-nazar samajhte hain is ko imam-e-hind,’’** wrote Iqbal, highlighting the reverence a vast majority of Indians treated Lord Ram with.

But of all the non-Islamic religious icons, Iqbal perhaps wrote most admiringly about Sikhism founder Guru Nanak, whom he hailed as “mard-e kaamil [perfect man]”. His poem titled Nanak starts with a lament that “our people paid no heed to the message of Gautam [Buddha]”; did not recognise the worth of that “jewel of supreme wisdom”. It then refers to Nanak and says the perfect man “awakened Hind [India] from a deep slumber”.



I’m of a pure Somnathi extraction

My ancestors were idol worshippers


In a wide green field, a crowd chases a pretty, white pigeon. The pigeon circles above the heads of the chasing party. The crowd, in a mad dash, tries to capture the bird in flight. Now the bird flies high and now it descends down, teasing those who are sprinting after it. At last the pigeon swoops down into the lap of a tall and handsome 40-year-old man who accepts it as a gift from the heavens.

Shaikh Noor Muhammad, the man dreaming this dream, wakes up with a smile in a house near Do Darwaza Mosque in Kashmiri Mohalla in Sialkot, a border town of the Punjab located by the Chenab river, at the foot of the Kashmir hills.

It is a cold night in early November and he sees his wife Imam Bibi sleeping peacefully next to him under a warm blanket. She is expecting again and he interprets the dream to be a divine indication that he will be blessed with a son whose good fortune it will be to serve mankind.

The tall Kashmiri Noor Muhammad, red of skin and with a penetrating gaze, is known for his simplicity in the community. He has a peaceful and aff ectionate nature. When he was growing up, he could not study at the maktab, the local school; but this did not stop him from teaching himself the alphabets. Because of his own efforts he becomes literate and is able to read books in Urdu and Persian.

He is the eleventh child of his father, Shaikh Muhammad Rafiq, the only child to have survived from his father’s second wife. After him, another son, Ghulam Muhammad, was born. He grew up to be an overseer in the department of canals in the British government.

Noor Muhammad and his family have always lived together with his younger brother Ghulam Muhammad’s family. The house near the Do Darwaza Mosque was bought in 1861 by their father Muhammad Rafiq and they have been living in this house ever since. It has been expanded over time to accommodate new members of the family.

Noor Muhammad loves to spend a good deal of his time among sufis and Islamic scholars. By virtue of keeping such pious company, he has come to have a good grasp of Shariat and Tariqat. His knowledge of tasawwuf (mysticism) is so deep that his friends call him Anpadh Falsafi (Untutored Philosopher). He regularly studies and recites the Quran which he considers to be the ultimate source of all bliss, worldly and for the hereafter.

By profession, he is a tailor and embroiderer. In his early career, he helped his father, Shaikh Muhammad Rafiq, in his dhassa and loi (blankets and shawls) business but when an official rents him a Singer sewing machine, a mechanical marvel of its time, he turns to tailoring. His wife, Imam Bibi, disapproves of the sewing machine when she learns that the machine was bought with illicit money. Noor Muhammad returns the machine to the official and he strikes out on his own as a cap embroiderer, and makes Muslim prayer caps. The enterprise becomes a success and soon he employs other workmen in his workshop. By virtue of his popular merchandise, people start addressing him as Shaikh Natthu Topianwale. In the later stages of his life, he slowly loses interest in his business and takes a deeper interest in mysticism. He ignores his business and, with time, his business suffers decline.

Tasveer-e Urdu and the Centre for Indian Languages (SLLCS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi), plan to hold a two-day conference on the popular culture of Urdu language on 8-9 September 2017 in New Delhi. The organisers seek proposals of presentations that can lead to engaging discussions on the theme, outlined in the concept note shared below.

For submissions, a short abstract (not more than one page) should be sent in Urdu or English, with a short bio of the presenter’s past work, latest by 10 April 2017 to

Once the submitted abstract/concept is selected for participation, the selected submissions will have to send the full paper (5000 to 8000 words, in Urdu or English) by August 10, 2017.

For more details visit:

Concept Note:

While Urdu is typically celebrated as a language of romance and classical poetry by Ghalib, Mir, and Faiz etc., its lesser-acknowledged popular culture of movie songs, detective fiction, ghazal gayeki, poetry inscribed behind vehicles, mushairas, and qawwalis, has probably kept the language alive and kicking among the masses even as its more virtuous practitioners lament that Urdu is dying in India. So what are these popular forms that continue to thrive in the underbelly of classical Urdu and how different they are from its elite cultural life? More importantly, where does one draw a line between popular and classical in Urdu? Although some examples mentioned above are part of what we call ‘popular culture’, these were never really disconnected from what can be called ‘classical’. Urdu is not a monolithic entity in time and space – it has been changing over centuries in its vocabulary, usage, demographics and poetics. There have been multiple dilutions within Urdu that have redefined the notions of ‘Classical’ and ‘Popular’, not to mention the local or regional differences in Urdu’s use.

iqbal frontKhudi ko kar bulund itna ke har taqdeer se pahle

Khuda bande se khud poochhe teri raza kya hai

(Exalt thyself so high that before issuing the decree of fate

God may ask what your desire is.)

Years ago, I heard these lines from my father who also explained me the concept ofKhudi or selfhood, and it was my first introduction to Allama Iqbal. For many years this couplet adorned the wall next to my study table. Whenever I felt low I would recite it loudly. It made me feel better. Later, I loved his poems which were coloured in patriotism and gave the message of communal harmony and peace. But, at the same time, I also wondered how come a poet who had written Sare Jahan Se Achha Hindustan Hamarabecame ‘the spiritual father of Pakistan’. The book under review, to some extent, answers my questions about this great poet’s transformation from an Indian nationalist poet to a votary of pan-Islamism.

The book is not only for those whose mind permits the elasticity of its openness to myriad personalities that Iqbal was but also for unenthusiastic wanderers. Zafar makes this well-researched book available to a scholar as well as a novice reader in equal measure. Even a swift, fast reading will help any reader to absorb the crux as all comprehension flows from vivid description of background material which Zafar lays bare before his readers prodigiously. Elegance and condensation marks Zafar’s work. Nothing is over-explained.

Review of Zafar Anjum’s Iqbal-The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician (Random House India.
Price 499. Pages-274) by K K Srivastava

iqbal frontElemental awe, history and poetry are indelibly linked and the best connection among the three was sought by none other than Derek Walcott who wrote, “For every poet it is always the morning in the world, and History a forgotten insomniac night; History and elemental awe are always our early beginning, because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.” Zafar Anjum’s sprawling book, a reminder of the raison d’ etre of what Walcott said, begins with a question posed to him by one of his friends, ‘Why the biography of Iqbal?’ Zafar gives four answers splendidly. It is to,’ ‘Narrate Iqbal’s life once again for those who have forgotten him.’ and further because- ‘I am attached to Iqbal by an umbilical cord that is both spiritual and intellectual. ‘; ‘during languid summer afternoons and buried winter evenings, while we did our school work, Iqbal seeped into us’; and finally ‘The great poet, in an oblique way became a real presence in my life.’ And thus emanates the justification.

The book is neatly divided into four parts: each part covering distinct period of Iqbal’s life and evolution as a statesman. Readers inclination to read the book is not of much relevance here nor they have to toil to make good of lines as there are no stumbling stones; Zafar knows the art of excavating by traversing forgotten pages of history. Zafar locates the self of Iqbal which signifies Iqbal’s belief in ‘living a straight forward, honest life’ as ‘Life is a state of war’.in the backwash of history and culture and portrays Iqbal’s feelings with the solitude of an observer. Artistic unity of the book irrespective of sources material was culled from is distinctive and engaging. The book is not only for those whose mind permits the elasticity of its openness to myriad personality that Iqbal was but also for unenthusiastic wanderers. Zafar makes this well-researched book available to a scholar as well as a novice reader in equal measure. Even a swift, fast reading will help any reader to absorb the crux as all comprehension flows from vivid description of background material which Zafar lays bare before his readers prodigiously. Elegance and condensation marks Zafar’s work. Nothing is over-explained.

The Singapore-based journalist’s book narrates the poet-philosopher’s life as a novel so that the common man could better understand him:

iqbal frontAnjum’s narrative in lucid prose is engaging without becoming a boring history book. It gets interesting after Iqbal’s return from Europe to Lahore. Iqbal while practicing law also gets vociferous with his two-nation theory.

One of his famous poems, “Shikwa”, on the plight of Muslims world over was penned in 1912. The ulemas disapproved of this poem for being disrespectful. While Iqbal spoke of Muslim brotherhood and solidarity, he did not talk about world domination by Muslims.

At the Allahabad address of 1930, one of the statements he made was: “I entertain the highest respect for the customs, laws and religious institutions of other communities. Nay, it is my duty, according to the Quran, even to defend their places of worship if need be.”