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COLUMN: “O Lahore! How do you fare without me?”

August 30, 2015

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Syed Nomanul Haq
Syed Nomanul Haq

IT is interesting that Muslim Arabs invaded both Sindh and Spain practically at the same time in the early 8th century, though the political dynamics of the two events are very different, as is the subsequent career of the invaders and of the regions. But there is another curious coincidence of chronology: in the first decades of the 11th century when the Ghaznavids were consolidating their expanding hold over Punjab and adjacent Indian principalities, the glorious Umayyad caliphate of al-Andalus was disintegrating. Imperial gains in the Ghaznavid world were paralleled by a swelling series of territorial losses in Muslim Spain, so much so that the tidal wave of Reconquista could not be stemmed after this.

The breakup of Spanish Umayyad rule began roughly in 1009, and this was followed by what is called the period of ‘party kings,’ mulūk al-tawā’if — the Urdu expression tawā’if al-mulūkī, that now means anarchy, is a reconstructed form of the same two Arabic words. A situation of anarchy it indeed was, marked by confusion, commotion, and a widespread melee. Many short-lived political units would now emerge in rapid succession and recede into the oblivion of history; one who is a ruler today, may well be in prison tomorrow; a powerful prince may very quickly be beaten into abject submission by another, exiled, and incarcerated. It was in this milieu of fleeting dynastic rise and fall that Mu‘tamid wrote his prison poetry.

Who is Mu‘tamid? This poet-prince is the grandson of Muhammad ibn Abbād, the founder of the Abbadid dynasty of Seville, a dynasty rising in the dust of political machinations but judged by historians to be operationally the most glowing and strongest during the mulūk al-tawā’if period, wielding supreme control in the southern region. Mu‘tamid rose to power in 1068 and managed to bring the grand Cordoba into the fold of his Seville-based kingdom. From the perspective of cultural history, one ought to recognise that he also cultivated what was at that moment in history the most brilliant royal court in Spain.

But then, after all, Mu‘tamid did fall victim to the political trade of his times; mercilessly sacked by his erstwhile reinforcing military helpers Almoravids (al-Murābitūn) of North Africa, he was thrown into prison when they ambitiously established their own dynasty in the south in 1091.

And yet this condemned ruler had dual majesty — on the one hand, he had commanded worldly power; but then, on the other, he also possessed an inner power, that of poetry. This latter may well have been the stronger of the two, for the creative jet of his poetic expression while he was incarcerated seemed to have swept away his immediate imperial woes. In fact Mu‘tamid exercised his poetic power to tame his royal dreams.

We ought forever to be thankful to Iqbal for introducing Mu‘tamid’s prison poetry to the Urdu-reading public. Indeed, a small selection of these Arabic poems were rendered into English verse by one Dulcie Smith and published in London in 1921, but they were left yawning in obscurity and so one is impressed by the poetic sensitivity of Iqbal; he paused over them.

The lamentations of the fallen prince that appear in Smith’s volume overflow with pathos and poignancy, and yet they do not degenerate into unorganised sentimentality; they are laced with and controlled by the poetic craft of ornamentation, aesthetic virtuosity, and metaphysical flights. In Iqbal’s liberal verse rendering in the Bāl-e Jibra’īl, or rather in his Urdu adaptation, Mu‘tamid ends a prison poem with brimful, meaningful wit that follows an existential excursus:

What is left in my chest now is a sparkless

lament —

   gone is its burning; its effect no more.

Today, a brave warrior languishes in prison,

    no spear in his hand, no sword.

I lie in regret; in regret too are my stratagems.

My heart draws toward the shackling chain, all by itself —

    perhaps the steel of which it is cast,


    same steel it is that made my sword! 

What used to be my double-edged dagger

is now the chain tied to me —

    How capricious, how carefree 


    happens to be the fashioner of my fate!

(Translated by Nomanul Haq)

It is intriguing to recall again that Mu‘tamid was writing his prison poems in Spain and during his North African exile around the time when the Ghaznavids were reaching the pinnacle of their power in Transoxiana, Iran, and Hindustan. Based in Ghazna, they were ruling over the Punjab region too — and we tend to forget what a cradle of Persian culture Ghaznavid Lahore had become, this city that was dubbed “Little Ghazna”.

Much Persian literary activity was feverishly carried out in this Little Ghazna. We have, for example, the case of Abū Abdullah Rozbih bin Abdullah al-Naukatī, who is conjectured by Muzaffar Alam to be the first Lahore-born poet of Persian. Naukatī died around 1091— exactly the same year when the Almoravids established their Spanish rule after having defeated and exiled our Mu‘tamid. Then we have the great Persian poetic figure of Abul-Faraj Rūnī, born in a now-extinct village near Lahore called Rūn; and we meet a figure yet greater — Mas‘ūd Sa‘d Salmān, belonging to a Hamadani family, born in Lahore around 1046.

Mas‘ūd is considered both by the tradition and by modern scholars to be outstanding in his style, innovative in his genres and techniques, and the most influential poet of his times. Many Persian literary personages pay him tributes and the redoubtable Sanā’ī Ghaznavi (died around 1131), a beloved of Iqbal, thought so highly of the Lahori Persian poet that he put together a collection of his verses.

The vicissitudes of Mas‘ūd’s life are dramatic. He seems like a very ambitious man who dedicated himself to the service of the Ghaznavid empire, attaining for a brief period even the high rank of Jalandhar’s governorship. But then, all his life he longed to be called to the royal court in Ghazna, the imperial centre of high literary culture, rich in its potentials for generous patronage; he preferred it to staying in the regional orbit of Lahore. This longing was never fulfilled.

Given his high royal connections with their attending perils and shifting fortunes, Mas‘ūd suffered long periods of incarcerations and exile, a period of isolation that adds up to some 18 years. All this happened despite the irony that he was a boon companion of the Sultan’s viceroy Prince Mahmūd (not to be confused with Mahmūd Ghaznavi) who had Lahore under his control. Mas‘ūd could neither end up in Ghazna, nor could he live in peace without interruptions in the city of Lahore that he loved so dearly.

The tragedy of exile and incarceration is expressed in longings that burn like a white flame in Mas‘ūd’s superb Persian prison poems. Small wonder he is considered to be the master, the poet par excellence, of this genre called habsiyyāt (prison poetry). But how fascinating it is that far removed in the west, in the region of the south and east coasts of Spain, Mu‘tamid was carving the same genre at about the same time. So perhaps, like Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the case of calculus, both Mas‘ūd and his older Andalusi cohort are to be considered two independent contemporary innovators (or discoverers, if we speak ontologically) of a new poetic order.

Yet, Mas‘ūd may have some edge over his Andalusian elder, for he was a trendsetter and a pioneer in many other ways — in his style, in his substance, and above all in his role in the history of literature, Persian and by extension Urdu literature. One recalls his Shahr Ashub (city destruction) poetry, and then there are his poems written in the dark gloom of his separation from Lahore or from Ghazna. Indeed, over time both exile and incarceration became standard topoi to be found in classical Urdu ghazal as a convention. “There is no dignity left for the rose if it is not in its garden,” wrote Ghalib, “just as a collar is a shame to the [lover’s] robe if it [is not torn and] lies not in the hem (dāman)”. Recall that Nasir Kazimi called himself a stranger (ajnabī) in the city; and Faiz spoke of ajnabī khāk (dust), and in actual exile wrote his famous ‘Merē dil, merē musāfir’ (My heart, my wayfarer). And as for Faiz, recall also that he had called one of his entire collections Zindān Nāma, treating real experience poetically with the classical symbolism of a topos.

Mas‘ūd often combined his grief for exile from Lahore with his laments for incarceration, a double separation that was also the fate of Mu‘tamid, thus:

O Lord! Do you know I am in heavy chains?

O Lord! Do you know that I am weak and helpless?

O Lord! My soul has departed in sorrow for Lahore:

O Lord I long for it! O Lord!

(Translated by Sunil Sharma)

But then what deserves to be carved in our literary consciousness is the deep, dark longing for Lahore expressed in one of Mas‘ūd’s monumental qasīdas with its lush imagery, imagery that abides in the Urdu ghazal until today:

Alas, Lahore! How can you exist without me?

How can you shine without the brilliant sun?

Once decorated by the garden of my verses,

How can you now exist without the violet, tulip, and lily?

You were a forest of flowers, and I, a lion in this forest.

Having once been with me, how can you now exist without me?

(Translated by Muzaffar Alam)

It is a painful irony that some of the world’s leading contemporary experts of Indo-Persian culture hardly seem to be known in Pakistan’s academia. When Aditya Behl died at the young age of 42 this month in 2009, no ripples were made in the country’s literary chambers — no obituaries, no memorial events. Behl was doing some meticulous work particularly in early Sufi romances and Hindavi material. The groundbreaking writings of Muzaffar Alam too are not heard of much, and it was so very heartening to see Ajmal Kamal invoking him recently. As for Mas‘ūd, Sunil Sharma happens to be our rigorous guide, but he is another figure lying largely overlooked in Pakistan.


I have benefitted here from the researches of both Alam and Sharma, and I dedicate this article to the memory of my friend Aditya.

The quotation in the title is from Mas‘ūd in Sunil Sharma’s rendering.


SYED NOMANUL HAQ is Professor and Advisor of the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Programme at the IBA, Karachi. He also holds a visiting faculty appointment in Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations at the University of Pennsylvania.