Unbranded and home on the range.

Shikwa wa Jawaab el-Shikwa – Part One

Shikwa wa Jawaab el-Shikwa
Complaint and the Answer to the Complaint
Originally By Allama Muhammad Iqbal.

Mention this Iqbal classic to anyone who has read the classical Arabiy, Farsi and Urdu works and you get this dreamy look in their eyes, as if they’re reminiscing about old times. With good reason: this poem – circa 1918 – is one of his greatest works of written art which forever put him into the hall of famous Muslim thinkers, writers and poets.

As you read the translation below, it may seem like it’s Yoda talking and in fact, I have to confess, reading this translation only makes you realize how crass the English language is when compared to Arabiy, Farsi or Urdu – whether classical or contemporary.

Tha translation I’ve used is that of A. J. Arberry, Sir Thomas Adam’s Professor of Arabic in the University of Cambridge. It is indeed a rare gem that I picked up from a dark corner of an Islamic bookstore and to illustrate its literary power – I was busy typing up the translation late at night when my mother came into my room and asked me what I was doing, so I told her I was writing up Shikwa wa Jawaab el-Shikwa. Her tired eyes immediately lit up as she walked up to my desk with an amazed look on her face, almost as if in a trance, and then picked up the copy of the poem and began to walk away with it. Despite my earnest entreaties that I was just about to finish writing up the first part, she would hear none of it and last I saw, she was happily reclining on her bed with the lamp on, reading the poem – her gaze relishing each and every word of the acclaimed wordsmith.

The poem follows a format wherein the Shikwa (complaint) is written in the style of a servant complaining to his master, a servant who has been blinded to the core reasons of his own dissatisfaction, and the Jawaab (answer) is written as if it were a reply from the Master Himself. It is quite lengthy and the first part manages to cover as topics as varied as the original Khyber and the conquests of expansion, to the passion of Qais and Laila.

Part Two will follow later insha’allah.


Why must I forever suffer loss, oblivious to gain,
Why think not upon the morrow, drowned in grief for yesterday?
Why must I attentively heed the nightingale’s lament of pain?
Fellow-bard, am I a rose, condemned to silence all the way?

No; the burning power of song bids me to be bold and not to faint,
Dust be in my mouth, but God – He is the theme of my complaint.


True, we are forever, famous for our habit to submit,
Yet we tell our tale of grief, as by our grief we are constrained.
We are but a muted lyre, yet a lament inhabits it
If a sigh escapes our lips, no more can sorrow be contained.

God give ear to the complain of us, Your servants tried and true,
You are used to songs of praise, now hear a note of protest too.


In Your everlasting Essence, You were from eternity,
Bright the bloom bedecked the garden, undiffused the scent abode.
Lord of Universal favour, let impartial justice be –
Could the rose’s perfume scatter with no breeze to waft abroad?

Peace of mind and quiet spirit won we of our labours glad,
Else the folk of Your Beloved – should they be accounted mad?

Strange indeed was the spectacle of Your world existing before our days.
Here men bowed them down to stones, they paid their reverence to trees.
Only to the visual image was attuned the human gaze –
How could hearts adore a God no eye percipient may seize?

Well you know, was there anywhere to name your Name?
By the Muslim’s strong right arm Your purpose to fulfillment came.

Though the Seljuks had their empire, the Turanians had their sway,
Though the Chinese ruled in China, the Sassanians in Iran.
Though the Greeks inhabited abroad, fruitful acres in their day,
And the Jews possessed their cubit, and the Christians owned their span.

Who upraised the sword of battle in Your Name’s most sacred cause?
Or who strove to right the ruined world by Your most hallowed laws?

It was we, an we alone, who marched Your soldiers to the fight,
Now upon the land engaging, now embattled upon the sea.
The triumphant call to prayer in Europe’s churches to recite,
Through the wastes of Africa to summon men to worship You.

All the glittering splendour of great emperors we reckoned none,
In the shadow of our glinting swords we shouted, “God to One!”

All of our life we dedicated to the dire distress of war,
When we died, we died exultant for the glory of Your Name.
Not to win a private empire did we draw the swords we bore,
Was it the quest of riches to Earth’s frontiers that we came?

had our people striven for the sake of worldly goods and gold,
Would they then have shattered idols they might have gainfully sold?

We were rocks immovable when in the field we took our stand,
And the bravest warriors by our thrust were swept away.
It sufficed us to enrage, if any gainsaid Your command,
Then we hurled us on their cannons, took their swordpoints but for play.

Into every heart we struck the impress of Your Unity,
And beneath the dagger’s lightning preached the Message, Lord, of Thee.

Tell us this, and tell us truly – who uprooted Khyber’s gate?
Or who overthrew the city where great Caesar reigned in pride?
Who destroyed the gods that hands of others laboured to create,
Who, the marshalled armies of the unbelievers drove aside?

Who extinguished from the altars of Iran that sacred flame,
Who revived the dimmed remembrance of Yazdan’s immortal name?

Strove there ever another nation in the cause of You alone,
Bore there ever another people battle’s anguish for Your sake?
Whose the sword that seized the world, and ruled it as its very own?
Whose the loud Allahu Akbar that compelled the Earth to wake?

Whose the dread that kept the idols cowering and terrified,
So that, heads cast down and humbled “He is God, the One” they cried?

In the press of mortal combat if the hour of worship came,
Then the people of Hejaz, to Makkah turning, bowed in prayer.
King Mahmoud, Ayaz the slave, their rank in service was the same,
Lord and servant – at devotion never difference was there.

Slave and master, rich and needy – all the old distinctions gone,
Unified in the adoration of Your Presence, they were one.

In the Hall of Space and Being, at the dawn and eventide,
Circulated we like goblets with the Wine of Faith replete.
Still we roved o’er plain and mountain, spread Your Message far and wide,
Is it known to You, if we ever returned to defeat?

Desert after desert spanning, faring on through sea on sea,
In the Ocean of the Shadows our strong coursers watered we.

We erased the smudge of falsehood from the parchment firmament,
We redeemed the human species from the chains of slavery
And we filled the Holy Kabaa with our foreheads humbly bent,
Clutching to our fervent bosoms the Qur’an in ecstasy.

Yet the charge is laid against us we have played the faithless part,
If disloyal we have proved, have You deserved to win our heart?

Other creeds claim other peoples and they have their sinners too,
There are lowly men among them and men drunken with conceit.
Some are sluggards, some neglectful, some are vigilant and true,
Multitudes disdain Your Name in loathing utter and complete.

But the showers of Your mercy other thirsting souls assuage,
Only on the hapless Muslims falls the lightning of Your rage.

Hark, the idols in the temples shout “The Muslims are no more.”
Jubilant to see the guardians of the Kabaa’s shrine depart.
The world’s inn is emptied of those singing cameleers of yore,
Vanished is their caravan, Qur’an closed pressed to reverent heart.

Disbelief is loud with laughter, are You deaf, indifferent?
Disregard You Your Unity, as if it nothing meant?

Not of this are we complaining, that their coffers overflow,
Who have not the wit or grace of converse in society.
But that infidels should own the houris and the palaces – ayb, woe!
While the wretched Muslims must with promises contented be.

Now no more for us Your favours and Your old benevolence –
How and wherefore is Your pristine kindliness departed hence?

Why no more are worldly riches among Muslims to be found,
Since Your power is as of old beyond compute and unconfined?
If You will, foaming fountains from the desert’s breast can be bound,
And the rippling mirage may the traveller in the forest blind.

All we have is jeers from strangers, public shame, and poverty –
Is disgrace our recompense for laying down our lives for You?

So, is it on others only that the world its love bestows,
We, who walk Your chosen path – to us a phantom world is left.
Be it so, bid us be gone, and the the Earth belong to those,
Yet protest not that the Earth, of Unity, is now bereft.

For no other cause we live but Your remembrance to maintain,
When the saqi is departed, can the wine-cup yet remain?

Gone is now the thronged assembly and Your lovers too are gone,
Ended are the midnight sightings, silenced dawn’s deep threnody.
They bestowed their hearts upon You and with their reward passed on,
Scarcely were Your faithful seated when they were dismissed from You.

So your lovers came, so with the promise of “Tomorrow” went –
Now come, seek them with the lantern of Your beauty’s blandishment.

Laila’s pangs are still the same, Qais yearns as fiercely as of old,
Still amid the forests and vales of Nejd the fleet deer run.
Beauty rules the same as ever, hearts deep passions still enfold
Still abide the folk of Ahmad, still you are their Lord, the One.

Then what mean Your high displeasure, since its cause is all unknown?
What denotes it, that Your eye is turned in wrath upon Your own?

Did we ever shun You, or Arabia’s Messenger forsake?
Did we tire of idol-breaking, and to idol-making turn?
Did we cry an end to passion, growing weary of love’s ache?
Did we quit the path of Salman, cease from Qarni to learn?

Still the fire of “God is Greatest” in our hearts we keep ablaze,
Still Bilal the Abyssinian guides us in our daily ways.

It may be that Love’s sweet manners are perchance no more observed,
And the path of acquiescence leads no longer hearts resigned.
Haply the heart’s Qiblah-pointing compass from its course has swerved,
And the ancient law of faithfulness has lost its power to bind.

Yet You too, alas are changed, now us, now others favouring,
Monstrous as it is to say, Your love is such a fickle thing!

On the summit of Faran, You made Faith complete and whole,
Took captive hearts a thousand with a single simple sign.
You it was that Love’s quintessence set afire, a blazing coal,
Flamed the assembly with the ardour of Your loveliness divine.

Why is it, that in our bosoms not a spark remains today?
We are still the same burnt chattels what, has You forgotten, pray?

In the vale of Nejd no longer may those clanging chains be heard,
Qais no more awaits distracted Laila’s litter to behold.
Vanished are those passionate yearnings, we are dead, our hearts interred,
Gone the light of assembly, the abode is dark and cold.

Joyous day, when You return in Your beauty and grace,
And unbashfully reveal to our gathering Your face!

Strangers, sit within the garden, quaffing wine beside the stream,
Glass in hand they sit and listen to the cuckoo song of Spring.
Far from the commotioned meadow we sit silently and dream,
Dream, Your lovers of Your coming and the cry of “He, the King!”

Reawaken in Your moths the eager joy to be aflame,
Bid again the ancient lightnings brand our bosoms with Your Name!

Turns anew the wandering people to the Hejaz their bridle-string,
Skyward lifts the wingless nightingale the lilting love of flight.
In the garden every blossom fragrance-drenched is quivering,
Strike the silent lute, long eager for Your plectrum to alight.

String-imprisoned melodies await Your touch to sing in choir!
Sinai is trembling, trembling to be ravished by Your fire.

Grant at last Your sore-tried people in their difficulties ease,
Make the ant of little substance peer of Solomon to be.
Love is grown too rare and costly – cheapen its exalted fees,
Turn our India’s temple-squatters into Muslims true to You.

See, the stream of blood is pouring from our griefs, so long suppressed,
Hark, the cry of pain is throbbing in our dagger-riven breast.

Now the secret of the garden by the rose’s scent is spread,
Shame it is, the garden’s blossoms should themselves the traitor play!
Now the garden’s Lyer is broken, and the rose’s bloom-time sped,
And the minstrels of the garden from their twigs have winged away.

Yet one nightingale sings on there, rapt by his own melody,
In his breast the plangent music tosses still tempestuously.

All the ring-doves from the branches of the cypresses have flown,
And the petals of the blossoms flutter down and take to flight.
And the garden’s ancient walks how desolate they are and alone,
Ravished of their leafy robes, the boughs stand naked to the light.

Still he sings forlorn, all heedless of the season’s changing mood,
Oh, that someone in the garden his sad anthem understood!

Life is joyless now, and death no comfort promises to bring,
To remember ancient sorrows is the sole delight I know.
In the mirror of my mind what gems of thought are shimmering,
In the darkness of my breast what shining revelations glow!

Yet no witness in the garden may the miracle attest,
Not a tulip there lies bleeding with a brand upon its breast.

Break, hard hearts, to hear the carol of this nightingale forlorn,
Wake, dull hearts, to heed the clamour and the clangour of this bell.
Rise, dead hearts, by this new compact of fidelity reborn,
Thirst, dry hearts, for the old vintage whose sweet tang you knew so well.

Though the jar was cast in Persia, in Hejaz the wine first flowed,
And though Indian the song be, from Hejaz derives the mode.



Filed under: Rune

6 Responses

  1. Umm Nour says:

    Did anyone actually read the whole thing? I stopped after the first three lines… :S

  2. Maverick says:

    I put it up because its a very nice *but very long* poem and I don’t really expect anyone to read the whole thing. The beauty of the original prose is of course, that it maks you want to read on and on … while with the translation that’s not necessarily true.

  3. mariya says:

    Not half as good in English, as it is in Urdu…

  4. Maverick says:

    So, my mom walks into the room and she stabs an accusing finger at the little booklet and she goes “This translation is not right” and I say “Yeah, I know” – and then proceeded to point out the explanation given by the translator as to why the translation was inaccurate [sic] in some places.

    So my mom walks away saying :

    “Itney piyaree nazam? Aur uske translation bilkul buckwaas…”
    (Such a beautiful poem? And its translation such absolute crap…)

    English is so crass. If it were up to me I’d take so many words from Arabiy, farsi and Urdu and add them to the English language. That wouldn’t be such a radical step, seeing as how English has been injected with so many xenolithic words already over the years.

  5. if you are really into iqbal, check this out:

  6. Maverick says:

    Very Impressive.

    My mom’s going to be all over it once I tell her about it, she’ll probably ask me to print out some section every night. Which means I should go stock up on paper and printer ink cartridges …

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