THE INIMITABLE AKBAR (Allahabadi)
Akbar, as a poet, was truly inimitable. He was the first and the last poet writing simple Urdu verse in a style which he created and which, in his particular field, remains unsurpassed to this day. Even the great Iqbal could not approach Akbar in his own domain, though in his early days Iqbal did try to imitate Akbar's style and even brought out a small pamphlet of verses under the title Akbari Iqbal. On the other hand, Akbar recognized the genius in Iqbal quite early. As he says:
"Last night Akbar was contending with spirit as to his merit in
learning and in intellect; But (even) he had to remain quiet, when,
perchance, the company began to speak of Iqbal !"
Though Akbar could also write serious verse of entrancing beauty, he really excelled in the very difficult art of writing humorous verse in Urdu, without making it profane. Besides, as we shall see, all his inimitable verse had a definite purpose to serve. He had a message to deliver. This message remains fresh - even today.
It is wrong to say, as the average reader supposes, that Akbar was a mere caricaturist in verse. Rather he might be compared with a truly inspired cartoonist, who does not distort anything, but even then brings out the sublime and the ridiculous by a few masterly and dexterous strokes of his pen, focusing one's attention on the salient points of a given situation - points that really do matter.
A true cartoonist of this calibre has not only to be a great artist in the medium he uses for his purposes. He has also to be a keen observer of the multifarious situations that arise in life, and a profound thinker. Unless there is a synthesis in the mind of the artist of all that he observes and of all that his thought reveals, he can never be able, by a few deft touches, to bring out all the high-lights of a given situation.
There is no buffoonery in this. There cannot be. When a great European cartoonist did a cartoon - without distorting the features of the two figures - showing a ship's captain (the late Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany) "Dropping the Pilot" - (Bismarck), he, in one characteristic line-drawing gave an indication of future grim events in Europe. This famous cartoon was published in the London Punch just a little before World War No. 1 and created quite a sensation at the time.
That is exactly what Akbar did, using the medium of Urdu verse of an astonishing simplicity, freely utilising English words and also such extremely common Urdu and Hindi words and phrases which every other poet considered beneath his dignity as a poet to use! And yet, with a few deft touches of his magic pen, he managed to convey not only a vivid commentary on the life of his times but actually succeeded in warning his generation of "the shape of things to come".
Thus, besides being a poet, one can truthfully call Akbar a man of vision as well. In the preface to his published works he appreciates the remarks of a critic to the effect that Akbar is more of a thinker than a poet. In fact he was a thinker-poet, with a style of his own. In this brief article only one or two aspects of his thought and its expression can merely be touched upon. To write on Akbar in detail would need a volume.
KHAN BAHADUR SYED AKBAR HUSSAIN ALLAHABADI (1846-1921), though well-educated, according to the custom of the times, in Urdu and Persian, acquired the knowledge of English by his personal efforts, privately. This stood him in good stead. Beginning on a low rung of the ladder in judicial life, he ultimately rose to be a District Sessions Judge. His name was suggested even for High Court Judgeship, when he retired in 1903. Thereafter he gave his entire spare time to, poetry and literary pursuits. He was also a Fellow of the Allahabad University.
To understand the implications of Akbar's thought expressed in his verse one must first know his times. Akbar was born a decade before the Mutiny; he was a young man when the after-effects of the Mutiny were being felt full-blast, especially by the Muslim community. Rightly or wrongly, the British thought the Mutiny was an attempt on the part of the Muslims to restore Moghul rule in India. They chose to conveniently forget that Hindu sepoys were also among the Mutineers. And so Hindus, at that time were persona grata with the rulers and the government posts then open to Indians went mostly to Hindu "babus".
The Muslims, who had just lost a kingdom, after centuries of rule, were much too stunned and dazed to be able to appreciate their position in the new circumstances that had arisen. They could hardly understand how they could lose a kingdom, not in fair fight with warriors, but through the machinations of a "trading Company"!
Those troublous and confused times threw up at least three outstanding personalities in the Muslim community - each having his own point of view. One was the great Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the Founder of the Aligarh College. He soon realised that under the changed circumstances Muslims in India will have to look forwards and not backwards, if they are to have a place in the new scheme of things. And according to Sir Syed, looking forwards meant chiefly one thing - westernisation. This was euphemistically called "reform". Only thus, thought Sir Syed, could the new rulers of the land be placated and won over, to recognise the rights of the Muslim community and to give them some share in governmental posts then open to Indians. Sir Syed was partly right. What he forgot was that history is the memory of a nation or a community and it cannot be effaced. Sir Syed advocated westernisation or, as he put it, "reform" both in externals and in thought.
Maulana Hali, the other great personality of this period, looked at the problems that the Muslim community undoubtedly faced, from another standpoint. The Maulana that he was, according to him the Muslims had only to concentrate on their past greatness and actually to go back to the past in their behaviour to achieve greatness in the present. His famous Musaddus was written with this end in view.
Akbar, the third great personality of the period, held a balanced view between these two extremes. He honestly believed that for the people of the East their own culture was the most suitable. At the same time he believed that, keeping the community rooted in their past culture, such "reform" as was absolutely necessary for the present circumstances was unavoidable. He was modem enough to send his own son for higher education to England.
But he disagreed with Sir Syed, to the end of his days, on the point of complete and entire westernisation in externals as well as in thought. Much of his humorous poetry contains sarcastic criticism of this "reform" advocated by Sir Syed.
Akbar's argument was that once our cultural roots were loosened we would be nowhere - neither truly Eastern nor truly Western. As he says at one place, parodying a famous couplet of Amir:
"Neither have we turned into Britishers
nor have we remained (true) Muslims:
(verily) we have wasted our lives for nothing, and have remained - just
He was against this "reformed" modern college education if religious
education, rooted in our own culture, was to be neglected. In the same
ghazal he once again hits the mode of Sir Syed's thought:
"0 Maulvis, we, of course, are going towards the (Aligarh) "college";
(But) in whose care should we leave you? - May Allah protect you!"
What irony and sarcasm! Maulvis are the theologians of Islam. They are the Interpreters of the "Law" to the populace and the repositories of the culture of centuries. The poet ironically imagines them to be powerless and impotent in these new times of "reform". It is the students who now think of giving protection to maulvis!
The true man of vision that he was, Akbar could see even at that early period that this "full-tilt" westernisation, especially in externals, would lead the community ultimately into a cultural wilderness. Was he not right? Where has this kind of westernisation led the immediate neighbours of India: Iran and Afghanistan - where Islamic culture was more surely grounded? We can see the results clearly only today! Says, Akbar, the Seer, in a sarcastic quatrain:
"On the slippery floor of the wine-shop of 'reform',
even the preacher's family (and descendants) slipped (and have fallen)!
Why (talk of) prayer? - Let us go and dance in the 'ball', Sir Sheikh!
(For) Don't you know the times have (completely) changed'!"
How true! The case of the westernisation of Turkey is entirely different. For centuries Turkey has been almost a European nation, with vast territories in Europe and Turks intermarrying freely with Europeans. This "plague" of westernisation, miscalled "reform", brought many social problems for the community to the fore. Some were trivial enough, such as wearing western dress, eating with fork and knife, shaving the beard, and so on. All these, and many more, have been the subject of sarcastic comment by the inimitable Akbar. For instance, shaving the beard was rather a serious thing for a Muslim of those days who wished to "keep face"
with the community. Akbar comments on this new practice in his own manner. He says:
"Truly, beard is 'the light of God'; but, Sir, what am I to do when this is the method of cleanliness dictated by (the god of) ' fashion?"
Other problems were more radical. Some of these wounded the sentiment of the people, based on the customs of centuries. But the wounds, at that time, were deep. Among such was the problem of purdah. Should the age-old custom of the seclusion of women go or not? This is how Akbar expresses his view-point on the subject:
"How long will the women have to be kept veiled? -
How long will you (men) remain each calling himself a 'miyan'?
For the protection of the women's secluded apartments not a sword remains!
Then how long will the (slender) stalks of the bamboo-screen help you
(protect your women-folk)?
(All the same,) Sir, Hazrat Akbar is an upholder of purdah!
But how long will he remain? - And, how long will his quatrains last?"
There were many other such social problems on which Akbar has given us a vivid and pithy comment. Nothing seemed to escape his eagle-eye!
Then there were the really serious problems, such as the problem of drink which, though anathema to the orthodox Muslim was yet becoming "fashionable" It was an inevitable corollary of "going western". Akbar felt about it keenly. His argument was that you cannot "run with the hare and hunt with the hound; you cannot take to drink and yet call yourself a true follower of the Prophet who forbade drink. In a sarcastic couplet he says:
"I drink wine mixed with the water of the (sacred well of) Zamzam (at Mecca);
(Verily) with the (modern) "tum-tum" (horse-carriage) I also keep a she-camel!"
Well may Akbar get frantic with the "Sheikh" -the "leader" - of the Muslim community when he finds him engaged in the meaningless and worthless phases of westernisation, to the detriment of Muslim culture, while Hindus continued to be true to their own mode of living, whether it was acceptable to the new Western masters or not. In a pithy couplet he exclaims:
O Akbar! Let the Brahmin (in his temple)
blow his conch with zest! -
Here the Sheikh (of the Muslims) is in the mood
to blow the-(European) 'bugle'"!
But the protest of Akbar went further and touched the very core of the problem. He protested against the westernisation in thought and blindly following in the footsteps of Spencer and John Stuart Mill, the two outstanding European philosophers of that period. He wanted the Muslims to remember that even in their own community and class there were thinkers and philosophers of outstanding merit, who had a definite and positive message for them. In a spirited couplet he says:
0 Akbar! The Book of the Heart (i.e., the observation and experience of
the deeper aspects of life) is enough for me for lessons in philosophy!
I am not dependent on Spencer, nor does Mill meet me (in his thought)!
Darwinism was the special butt of his targets. Even at that early period, when Darwinism was all the rage, it seemed ridiculous to Akbar that the humanity of man should have evolved from the body of a monkey! Again, Akbar stands vindicated today in the light of ultra-modern European thought. Twentieth-century European philosophers and scientists have themselves discredited most of the implications of old-fashioned nineteenth century Darwinism. He says:
"What connection can there be between this (new mode of) education and humanity?-
What has Janab Darwin to do with Hazrat Adam?"
It will now be clear that Akbar's criticism of westernisation, which in those days was euphemistically called "reform", was based on his firm belief that for us our own culture was the most suitable. Not only that. Akbar also intuitively perceived that much that passes for western "culture" is meretricious stuff. Again, time has proved the truth of his thought. Would any truly thinking man of the East deny Akbar' s contentions today? Two fratricidal wars in Europe, which engulfed the whole world, have at last showed that most of the culture of Europe was skin-deep and that unless ethics - life of the heart - is allied with science and philosophy - the life of the head" - the world will have no peace.
This brings us to the aspect of Akbar's thought which shows him a true Man of Faith, sincerely believing in the Truth that we call God, and in those Perfect Men who follow the Law of God. The very opening couplet in his Kulliat is significant:
"SAY! - It is God Who will protect me!
If I remain attached to Truth, what can my opponents do to me?"
As an example of his firm faith in Perfect Men who are ever ready to guide the seeker, his grand quatrain in praise of the Prophet may be cited:
"(O PROPHET!) Thy scattering of the jewels
(of knowledge) has verily turned each (poor little) drop (of water)
into a veritable Ocean (of wisdom)!-
The (darkness of the) heart has been transformed into (bright) light;
The (blind and unseeing) eyes have been made to see (the Truth)!
Those who themselves were not on the right path (i.e., the early Arabs)
became the (true) teachers of others! -
What a (wonderful) look (of yours) was this, ( O PROPHET!)',
that turned the (ostensibly) dead into (veritable) Messiahs (who restored the "dead" to life)! "
What deep feeling and what true faith is there behind this quatrain of untranslatable beauty!
As a thinker Akbar firmly believed in what the Quran calls the "high ends of Man". No stage in evolution is the end. One needs must go on -forwards and yet more forwards - following the Perfect Man Guide. In the Quran this Guide is symbolised as Khizr who comes to the aid of those wayfarers who have lost the way; who is ever-living, having drunk of the fount of Life Immortal; who comes even to the aid of the Prophets in their search for Reality. But to find Khizr is to find a Guide who knows the way - it does not mean reaching the goal! As a final quotation one may well cite one of his least known, nevertheless one of the grandest, couplets of Akbar showing the depth and breadth of his vision. He says:
"He, too, is unknowing (and ignorant) who does not seek to find Khizr
(the Guide of the wayfarer who has lost his way);
But he, too, is a fool who mistakes the finding of (the guide) Khizr with reaching his goal!"
Man has to go on and on! India - and the East - can hardly hope to have another Akbar!
(NOTE to the Editor: The original Urdu verses, the free translation of which has been given in the body of the article, are given here. It is recommended that each original verse may be printed just above its translation - either in Persian-Urdu or in Roman-Urdu script. Since the language used in most verses is extremely simple, this would definitely add to the interest of the general reader conversant with Hindustani. The intrinsic merit and the unsurpassing simplicity and the beauty of each verse can hardlv be brought out in translation. (A.G.C.)
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