A History of Indo-Persian Literature (Part IV)



During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the Mughal empire declined and India fragmented into various competing kingdoms, confederacies and principalities. It was also during the eighteenth century that the British began to emerge as the dominant European colonial power.[1]

During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Urdu grew in popularity and ultimately displaced Persian as the preferred language of poetry across much of North India. Nevertheless, Persian retained its prestige as the language of culture and refinement during this period especially in prose.


Georgian London

One of the most fascinating historical accounts of this period is Abu Mirza Abu Talib Khan’s (1752-1806) The Tales of Mirza Abu Talib Khan in Asia, Africa and Europe (Masir Talib fi Bilad Afranji). Born and raised in a wealthy family from Lucknow, Abu Talib travels to London, Paris, Constantinople, Cape Town and Baghdad and writes about the people he meets there and their social customs:

I was also much pleased to observe, that in European society, when a person is speaking, the others never interrupt him, and the conversation is carried on in a gentle tone of voice. One evening, while I was engaged in conversation with the lady of the house, the servant entered with a largely tray of costly china; and his foot catching the edge of the carpet, he fell, and broke the whole to pieces: the lady, however, never noticed the circumstance, but continued her conversation with me in the most disturbed manner.[2]

On London, he writes:

The greatest ornament London can boast, is its numerous squares; many of which are very extensive, and only inhabited by people of large fortune. Each square contains a kind of garden in its center, surrounded with iron rails, to which every proprietor of a house in the square has a key, and where the women and children can walk, at all hours without being liable to molestation or insult.[3]

In his Diary of the Revolt of 1857 (Dastanbu), Ghalib (1797-1869) writes about the siege of Delhi:

 “The city has become a desert … By God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonement. No fort, no city, no bazaars, no watercourses … Four things kept Delhi alive – the Fort, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower-men. None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive? Yes [it is said that] there was once a city of that name in the realm of India.”[4]



The British abolished Persian as the official language of government in 1837. With the official institution of English and vernacular Indian languages such as Urdu and Bengali as languages of education, the status of Persian in India declined.

The growth of nationalism in India under the British and the idea of “one country, one language” meant that Persian was increasingly sidelined as a “foreign” language and one that belonged to India’s past.

Muhammad Iqbal


Born in Sialkot in 1877, Muhammad Iqbal is one of the greatest poets in the Urdu tradition of the twentieth century and the National Poet of Pakistan. He wrote most of his poetry, however, in Persian and he remains one of the few Persian poets from India who is known in modern Iran.

Iqbal’s mostly long philosophical poems show the influence of Rumi and Bedil as well as Goethe and Nietzche. He interprets Sufi concepts such as ‘ishq (love) in light of the philosophy of the European Enlightenment, namely as a force of will that animates and motivates the self (khudi) to create, imagine and conquer the world:

The luminous point whose name is the Self
Is the life-spark beneath our dust.
By Love it is made more lasting
More living, more burning, more glowing.

Iqbal’s epic poem, The Book of Eternity (Javednama), was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. In it, Iqbal journeys through the celestial spheres with the poet Rumi as his guide encountering the spirits of the Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, Muhammad, Hallaj, Ghalib and Nietzche along the way.



[1] The word “modern” is not without its problems, but it refers here to a period where, even before the advent of European colonialism, India was opening up to the world. The Mughal Empire was part of a cosmopolitan Persianate world and India at the height of Mughal rule was well-integrated into a larger world economy.

[2] https://archive.org/details/travelsmizraabu01khgoog/page/n201/mode/2up

[3] https://archive.org/details/travelsmizraabu01khgoog/page/n295/mode/2up

[4] Ralph Russell and Khurshid Islam, Ghalib: Life and Letters (Delhi, 1994), 296.

The Separation of Religion and State in Islam


Islamists and CNN proclaim alike that religion and state are one in Islam. The oneness of religion and state justifies the existence of Islamic states like Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban. It is a claim which inspires Islamist groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir to petition for the re-establishment of the Caliphate in the twenty-first century.

In his Allahabad Address in 1930, Muhammad Iqbal held that “the religious ideal of Islam…is organically related to the social order which it has created.” Yet Iqbal discusses neither what that social order is nor how those ideals are embodied in a social or political organization. Indeed, the idea that religion and state are one in Islam is a recent one with little historical precedent.

First, Islam originated in a society where there was no state. The revelations of the Qur’an are moral commands on how a Muslim should live, on the Oneness of God, on the inevitability of the day of judgement and on the line of prophets before Muhammad. Whereas the revelations do speak to some matters of marriage, divorce, the payment of alimony and inheritance, they say little on how states should be formed, how governments should be run or organizations managed.

Second, the idea that religion and state are separate in Islam is not borne out by history. The Prophet of Islam did not appoint a successor for the community. Although the Caliphate was the religious and political head of the early Muslim community, its authority remained temporal, leaving matters of religious doctrine to the Ulema. After the siege of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols, the Caliphate existed essentially as a figurehead until it was abolished in 1924. As Ayubi makes clear, the early Muslim communities were concerned more with the politics of survival and succession than political theories of the state.

The great Islamic empires of the medieval ages – the Ottomans in Turkey, the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India – saw powerful rulers run their empires through bureaucracies, economic systems and armies all of which had little if anything to do with religion. The Ulema meanwhile monopolized matters of religion, the preaching and administering personal law. Religion and state co-existed, but separately.

Third, the Qur’an does distinguish between the temporal world (dunya) and an eternal, spiritual world (akhira). The temporal world can be further separated into matters relating to the “secular” world (dunya) and to religion (din). This distinction is similar to the Christian idea of the “secular” as the temporal world of human activity and the “eternal” world of God or the spiritual.

Ironically, the father of secularism in the West is the Muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) or Averroes. Ibn Rushd distinguished between religious knowledge (ilm al-kalam) and philosophical knowledge (ilm al-falsafa) and between the human soul into the divine (eternal) and the individual (non-eternal), distinctions again important for distinguishing between the “temporal” or secular world and the “eternal” or spiritual world.

Fourth, and as a modern-day ideology, the characteristics of Islamism are shaped by the times and societies in which it originated. As Ayubi points out, Islamism emerged in post-colonial Arab societies amongst groups who felt excluded from power, who were distrustful of state authority, were also disdainful of modernity and sought to resurrect the “authenticity” of their culture which they presented as Islam. It was up to the Islamists to reassert the supremacy of that culture and to root out social, political and cultural corruption by seizing the instruments of power.

Like Islam however, Islamism has no specific theory of the state. What is “Islamic” for an Islamist is typically identified in opposition to what is “un-Islamic” (modernity, non-Muslims, foreign powers). There are little if any positive political theorizing or policy solutions in Islamism. The tendency of Islamists is to escape upwards to the Heavens by seeking absolute submission to God.  For them, Ayubi points out, “Islam is the solution” (al-islam huwa al-hall), with the implication that if Islamists took power, and declared the full sovereignty of God, social, economic and cultural problems will somehow solve themselves.

Written by Randeep Singh

Further Reading:

Nazih N. Ayubi, Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World (Routledge, London: 1991).

William Cleveland and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East (Westview Press, Boulder, CO: 2009).

Charles Taylor, “Modes of Secularism” in Secularism and Its Critics, ed. Rajeev Bhargava (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1998).

Urdu Poetry and Iqbal


Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) once said that he did not consider himself a poet. It is no use to compare him to Ghalib, Rumi or Tagore. There is little flight of imagination or profound silences in Iqbal’s poems. And yet, he influenced Urdu poetry.

First, Iqbal moved Urdu poetry from the classical poets’ inner world of anguish to the world of action. More than any other modern Urdu poet, Iqbal made Urdu poetry a tool for critique, a vehicle of social change, a quest for meaning and an affirmation of the human spirit. While many point to Faiz’ transformation of moth and flame into modern metaphors of revolution, it was Iqbal who first oriented Urdu poetical metaphors towards the moral and social revitalization of man and society.

Second, the musicality of Iqbal’s verse enriched the melody of Urdu. Faiz notes Iqbal’s use of unconventional metre (as in ‘Masjid-e-Qurtaba’), his use of unfamiliar (yet simple) words, his unprecedented use of proper names such as Delhi, Hejaz and Misr and his deliberate patterning of vowel and consonantal sounds, produced entire lines and quatrains that are a spectrum of sound and melody.

So, in “Ek Shaam” (‘One Evening’), Iqbal marries the picture of the hushed atmosphere over the valley to the sibilant consonants of verse (‘vaadee ke nava farosh khaamosh/kahsaar kee sabz posh khaamosh’), lulling the reader into silence. He rouses us from slumber through dramatic assonance (‘Ae Khuda Shikwah-e-Arbab-e-Wafa Bhi Sun Le/Khugar-e-Hamd Se Thora Sa Gila Bhi Sun Le’ in the poem ‘Shikwa’) and strings together sounds at the end of words (Rang ho ya Khisht-o-sang/Chang ho ya harf-o-saut) as if beating an Indian dafli drum.

Third, the range of themes and influence in Iqbal’s poetry is considerable, opening up horizons for Urdu. Through Iqbal, Urdu poetry pulses with the spirit of Keats, Nietzche, Bergson, Goethe to Rumi, Ghalib, Naziri and Bedil. His range of forms include ghazals, nazms, qita, rubiyat and mussadas verse forms; his range of subject matter, childrens’ poems, the nation, cinema, self-realization and imperialism; and his reader travels from the banks of the Ravi to the shores of Sicily to the Himalayas. Iqbal’s poetry is as much a epic history of twentieth century Asia as it is a philosophy of life.

He may not have considered himself a poet. Yet in making poetry the medium through which to express his message, Iqbal transformed the content, range and direction of Urdu poetry, suggesting an almost boundless range of place, theme and subject.

Written by Randeep Singh

Further Reading:

V.G. Kiernan (trans.), Poems from Iqbal: Renderings in English Verse with Comparative Urdu Text (Oxford University Press, Pakistan: 2013).

Sheema Majeed (ed.), Culture and Identity: Selected English Writings of Faiz (Oxford University Press, Karachi: 2005).

Barbara Metcalf, “Iqbal’s Imagined Geographies: The East, the West, the Nation, and Islam” in Kathryn Hansen and David Lelyveld, A Wilderness of Possibilities: Urdu Studies in Transnational Perspective (eds.) (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005).

Iqbal Singh, The Ardent Pilgrim: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Mohammad Iqbal . (Oxford University, New Delhi: 1997).