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Faiz and the verses of a bigot

Faiz' Hum Dekhenge and a ghazal by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini both place themselves within a tradition stretching back to the 14th century poet Hafez

A protest against CAA near Jamia Millia Islamia on 25 December.
A protest against CAA near Jamia Millia Islamia on 25 December. (Photo: Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times)

I can only read Urdu with the help of transliterations and translations. As a consequence, my knowledge of Urdu poetry is feeble, restricted largely to the work of Mirza Ghalib. I am, however, familiar with poet and author Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge, a protest anthem composed in 1979 and originally aimed at the dictatorship of then Pakistan president Zia-ul-Haq, which has been sung at a few demonstrations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Kanpur’s Indian Institute of Technology invited ridicule by setting up a committee to examine if Hum Dekhenge expressed anti-Hindu sentiments, following a complaint by a faculty member named Vashi Mant Sharma. Sharma, who has published rants against Islam and Muslims on his blog and on a revivalist site called Agniveer seemingly without being rebuked by the institution, singled out three non-contiguous lines in the poem that he claimed were offensive to Hindus: Jab arz-e-Khuda ke kaabe se/ Sab but uthwae jaenge…/ Bas naam rahega Allah ka (When, from the Kaaba of god’s earth,/ All false idols shall be uprooted… / Only the name of Allah will remain…).

The picture of the Marxist Faiz writing Islamist propaganda is so absurd that most of his admirers disregarded the particulars of Sharma’s complaint. I am glad lyricist Javed Akhtar issued a detailed rebuttal in interviews with The Quint and India Today, because people like Sharma are too dangerous to be dismissed without response even if such rejoinders fail to penetrate the right-wing’s force field. Akhtar explained how the Kaaba in the poem is not Mecca’s Kaaba, but the earth viewed as the humanist equivalent of Islam’s holiest spot. The false idols are dictators bound to be swept away by history’s tide.

If Hum Dekhenge critiques any religious faith, it is orthodox Islam. The nazm’s most contentious lines appear near its end: Utthega an-al-haq ka nara/ Jo mai bhi hoon aur tum bhi ho (The cry will rise, “I am the Truth"/ Which I am, as are you).

The phrase An-al-haq (I am the Truth) has echoed through Islamic history for over a thousand years since it was first pronounced by Mansur al-Hallaj, a Sufi mystic put to death in 922 AD during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Al-Muqtadir bi-llāh. Al-Hallaj thumbed a nose at orthodoxy and authority in numerous ways, but in the popular imagination his fate was sealed by his heretical shath, or ecstatic proclamation, “An-al-haq!" He grew central to the Sufi tradition, and his hanging became an important enough event to be depicted in Persian and Mughal miniatures centuries after it occurred.

Faiz was not the only radical to invoke Mansur al-Hallaj in a late 20th century poem. A ghazal in Farsi written a few years after Hum Dekhenge contains the lines: Farigh az Khud shudam wa koos an-al-haq bezadam./ Hamchu Mansur kharidar sare dar shudam. (No longer myself, I beat the drum of, “I am the Truth"./ Like Mansur, I have become a purchaser of the noose.) The poem continues: The agony of love burns into my being/ My affairs have become the talk of the town./ I say let us spend night and day in the tavern/ I am sick of the mosque and the seminary.../The Mullah’s preaching makes me ill./ Give me the honest company of the lewd,/ Or leave me alone with memories of the temple/ Where I was awakened by the sweet touch of the beloved’s hand.

The unlikely author of this ode to wantonness is Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s first supreme leader, who composed it not long before his death in 1989. Coming across a translation of the poem in The New Republic magazine, I could not reconcile the words with the stern cleric who had enforced stringent sharia-based rules and shut down every bar and pub in his country.

I did not know then that Khomeini’s lyrics place themselves solidly within a tradition stretching back to the greatest ghazal composer of them all, the 14th century poet Hafez. It is hard to convey how precious the poems of Hafez are to Iranians. His tomb in his hometown Shiraz, which I visited 10 years ago, draws women and men, young and old, tourists and locals, devout and sceptical, by the thousands. Many visitors place a hand on the exquisitely engraved tombstone and commune in whispers with the spirit of the man. Iranians learn his ghazals by heart, quote from them in conversation, and even use books of his verse for divination, opening a page at random to guess what the future holds.

Hafez frequently contrasted official religion, symbolized by mosques and seminaries, with true religious faith, represented by alehouses, wine, goblets, idols and sexual union. His words are customarily interpreted as examples of mystical Islamic verse and the imagery he favoured has been recycled ever since by Persian poets with an esoteric bent. While Faiz adapted the religious terminology of idols in the Kaaba for secular, political ends in Hum Dekhenge, Khomeini was doing the opposite in his ghazal, employing the secular imagery of taverns and romantic affairs as mystical metaphors. Both are bound to be misinterpreted by readers who approach them with an insufficient understanding of the language and an unfamiliarity with the tradition in which they wrote.

Expertise used to be granted more respect than it is at present, when novices assert an equal right to interpretation. The new confidence of laypersons is refreshing in some ways, for the elite often simply argue from a position of authority. On the flip side, authors and artists are constrained in what they can say, fearing a backlash on social media. Facing reactions that reach beyond the merely critical to the life-threatening, writers, film-makers, cartoonists and painters can find themselves in Mansur Al-Hallaj’s situation for proclaiming their own version of An-al-haq.

Ayatollah Khomeini himself precipitated the era of jeopardy in 1989 by pronouncing a fatwa ordering the execution of Salman Rushdie for publishing The Satanic Verses, a supposedly blasphemous novel. The Ayatollah understood why masjids and madrasas were slighted in Farsi poetry, and even wrote a few derisory lines himself, but did not comprehend that a fictional character who shared attributes of the Prophet Muhammad could be the basis for a salutary questioning of tradition.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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