THE Bāng-e Darā (Call of the Bell) of Iqbal has given us a simple, cute poem called ‘A Cow and a Goat,’ a poem that flows as gently and as softly as its own setting, that of a lush green meadow. Appearing in the fullness of spring, this meadow is a grazing pasture for animals, with rivers clear as crystals, singing birds, cool breeze, fruit trees. At the bank of a river, from somewhere deep into the meadow, a grazing goat stops to rest, and looking around it finds a cow standing nearby. A conversation between the two animals ensues.
Conscious of the higher stature of the cow, the goat addresses her with humble words and a gesture of deference that is most endearing. After salutations and greetings, the little animal enquires, “How are you, my senior lady?” But this question, an innocent polite question as it is, only releases much pent up anger buried in the recesses of the cow’s being, anger against the treatment she receives at the hands of human beings.
“My life is crowded with afflictions,” the cow agonises over human excesses. “God save us from these human beings!” And then a whole charter of indictments is unrolled: “If I fail to produce a large quantity of milk, they curse me! If I lose weight, they sell me off! With trickery they enslave me!” Do they not know, she asks rhetorically in an appeal to the moral sense of her interlocutor, “that I am the one who nourishes their children? And that it is I who pours life in their offspring through my own milk? O, how I mourn the existence of these wrongdoers!” The note progressively sharpens:
*O Lord, I beseech thee!
Man rewards good by evil!
How ill-fated am I —
I fear for my life, all the time!*
After hearing this prosecutorial lament, the goat steps in to defend the human beings, speaking ever so gently and softly. Let’s admit that jungles and forests hide a hundred dangers for us, she reminds the cow. This grazing field in the meadow, this breeze blowing without let, these cool shadows, these savoury blades of green grass — all of these joys we owe to the human being. “We are a safe community due to human vigil. So tell me my lady, is being held by the human being not better than freedom attended by vicious predators? Indeed, man has done us a favour; it’s unbecoming for us to indict him, disparage him, curse him!” The cow is embarrassed and regrets the bitter diatribe she had uttered, now paying a resounding compliment to the goat:
*Even though she belongs to a lowly stock —
How appealing to the heart is the word of the goat!*
This poem of Iqbal places him squarely in the chamber of the medieval Rasā’il Ikhwān al-Safā’ (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity), the famous ninth / 10th-century Arabic encyclopedic corpus written by a secret fraternity of anonymous authors. Evidently, it is the Epistle 22 that is the proximate model of Iqbal’s fable. But ultimately and more circuitously, ‘A Cow and a Goat’ ramifies in a complex transmission process from the mid-eighth century Arabic Kalila wa Dimna of Ibn al-Muqaffa‘; and the Kalila, in turn, arises out of a Pahlavi translation of the third-century BCE Sanskrit animal tale Panchatantra. This inter-cultural cross-border chain of transmission — Sanskrit into Pahlavi into Arabic into Persian into Urdu — is indeed highly instructive for it ramifies all around into many other linguistic domains and periods; yes, the chain is long with numerous additional links and multiple branches.
But back to the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. Who are these Brethren? What exactly are their dates? Given the clear but widely inconsistent Shia leanings of the corpus, what is the precise nature of the authors’ ideological commitment? Are they Isma‘ili, as many people continue to believe? Or do they belong to some other Shia subsect? Or, else, are they just eclectic, espousing both Imami and Sufi ideas? Alas, none of these questions can be answered definitively — these questions have exercised many generations of scholars and continue to remain a matter for investigation, consultation, debate, and disagreement.
The authors of the Epistles, as I have already indicated, never reveal their identity; they constitute a secretive coterie, perhaps for good reasons. Regarding their time, all we can say with some degree of confidence is that their corpus was written by several generations of sages roughly between the first half of the ninth to the second half of the 10th century of our Common Era; and that they were centred in the city of Basra. As for the explanation of their fraternal cover name, Ikhwān al-Safā’ wa Khullān al-Wafā’ (Brethren of Purity and Sincere Friends), it seems that they appropriated it from the fable Kalila wa Dimna. We recall that this Arabic adaptation of the Sanskrit original via Pahlavi includes the tales of some animals which / who form a bond of friendship for mutual reinforcement; thereby they forge a sincere brotherhood, calling themselves by the appellation now taken over by authors of the Epistles. Indeed, the Kalila is referred to by the Brethren more than once. Some scholars have also speculated that the name hints at the Isma‘iliyya.
And yet, despite some issues, relatively minor issues, of authenticity and enumeration of the Epistles, the text of this corpus has remained rather well established, available to us in many editions. So we can talk about the actual contents of the tracts with much more certainty. Generally written didactically in an exhortative mode, and addressed to the initiate, the Epistles have been described as one of the most complete mediaeval encyclopedias of sciences, predating by no less than 200 years the best known in the Latin world. The compendium contains a total of 52 epistles, but supervening over them is yet another one called ‘The Comprehensive Epistle’ and this latter has a further appendage called ‘The Condensed Comprehensive Epistle.’
Both extensively eclectic in drawing their source of knowledge, and comprehensive in their subject matter, the Brethren frequently quote the Qur’an and the Hadith, but then they also invoke the Torah of Judaism and the Gospel of Christianity. And more, they seek illumination from a host of ancient and classical philosophers, both historical and legendary: Pythagoras, The Thrice Great Hermes, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle among them. The 52 tracts have been divided into four sections — Propaedeutic Sciences is the very first of these; then come Natural Philosophy, Sciences of the Soul and Intellect, and finally Metaphysical-Theological Sciences. But hidden among them in the second section is our fable: ‘The Case of the Animals versus Humans Before the King of the Jinn.’ This is the Epistle 22, the longest in the entire collection.
Standing apart in its tone, tenor, and mode, the key shifts dramatically in this epistle: we are now taken from the environment of a running didactic expository prose into the world of fable — the world of fancy and tales, of interlocutions and suspense, of human-animal dialectic woven together imaginatively with principles of cosmic justice and balance. The fundamental drift of this animal story is adequately reproduced by Iqbal in his cow and goat poem. But here in the Brethren fable, it is not a single animal standing in front of another animal in a quasi-social setting, and painfully complaining about the afflictions it suffers on human hands. Here in our tract animals are the plaintiffs embodying a natural community, a community that in a formal manner brings a case against human excesses and arrogance before a non-human court — that of the wise king of the Jinn. They charge these human creatures of God with the offense of waywardness, insensitivity, and negligence. The indictment is severe.
Our aim, the animals explain, “is to consider the merits and distinctions of the animals, their admirable traits and their pleasing nature, and to touch on man’s overreaching, oppression, and injustice against the creatures that serve him — the beast and the cattle — and his heedless, impious thanklessness for the blessings for which he should be grateful.” The plea of the ram is just heart-rending:
“You would have pitied us, your Majesty, had you seen us as their prisoners, when they seized our smallest kids and lambs and tore them from their dams to steal our milk. They took our young and bound them hand and foot to be slaughtered and skinned, hungry, thirsty, bleating for mercy but unpitied, screaming for help with none to aid them …”
The fundamental cosmic principle promulgated by the animals is simple and elegant: that all creatures have an intrinsic natural place in God’s plan; no created being, then, is brought into existence for the sake of another created being. Indeed they say explicitly that in the bounty of nature animals exist for their own sake, not for the sake of human beings. This dignifying self-recoiling ontology generates an ethical eco-logical doctrine: that human beings have no metaphysical or innate superiority over the animal world. So the final ruling seems to be that the only characteristic that gives human beings an edge in the scheme of things is that they carry a moral onus; they are accountable for their actions and are charged with the duty of transcending their base instincts.
Both owing to its inherent appeal as an eventful and eloquent animal story and its moral thrust, the Epistle 22 has been translated many times in Urdu. Intriguingly, it became in its Urdu garb a required reading for the civil service examination during the British Raj in India. Just two years after the turmoil of 1857, it was rendered into Urdu by Moulavi Ikram Ali and published by the historic Fort William College of Calcutta (now Kolkata). Then, based on Ikram Ali’s translation another version appeared — that of John Platts, the redoubtable compiler of what is still considered to be the best Urdu-English dictionary. And there are other Urdu translations too, popping up here and there. And now we are most fortunate that two scholars, Lenn Goodman and Richard McGregor, have given us not only a crisp and flowing English translation of Epistle 22, but also a critical edition of the text; and all of this is reinforced by annotations and a fascinating Introduction. The work was first published in New York by Oxford University Press in 2009, appearing in a paperback volume in 2012 without the Arabic text. It is part of the commendable project of the Institute of Ismaili Studies that undertakes to publish a multi-author, multi-volume Arabic critical edition and annotated English translation of the whole corpus of 52 epistles.
Is literary imagination a mere subjective sport? One wonders. In our contemporary times, more than a millennium later, we have become sensitive to environment and ecology. Much is being written on what is recognised as an environmental crisis and we have been reminded of scriptural exhortations that human beings cannot arrogate to themselves a ruthless lordship over and the right to an endless exploitation of nature. The animal community of the Brethren does not dismiss the goodness that lie in the very human essence, but it does unfold the same ecological charter on which we have been working in our own age, and it does so charmingly, by means of a fable. Like Iqbal’s cow, we too would find the goat’s word appealing, but we also hear the echo of the ram’s plea before the king of the Jinn. The real world is the point of departure for imagination, but sometimes this world is also its end in objective truth.
Translations of Iqbal are by Syed Nomanul Haq. The Epistle English citations are from the work of Goodman and McGregor.