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The great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is known for the fascination he held for Persian poetry, the verse of Hafiz in particular, as well as for the inspiration he drew from the literary and mystical manifestation of Islamic culture. He wrote his acclaimed West-öslicher Divan [West-East Divan] replete with Perso-Islamic motifs and even folklore figures — so we find here sections such as Muganni Nama (Book of the Singer), Hikmat Nama (Book of Wisdom) Ishq Nama (Book of Love) and historical-fictional characters such as Rustam, Zulaikha, Shirin-Farhad, Laila-Majnun and so on.

But what is particularly relevant in this month of Rabiul Awwal is Goethe’s poem that he wrote in 1772-3 celebrating the Holy Prophet (PBUH), called Mahomets Gesang (Song of Muhammad — Upon Whom be Peace!). In this lush poem the poet plays with the metaphor of a living water stream and gives it such glowing cosmic proportions that it becomes simply a poetic glory. Allama Iqbal wrote his work Payam-i-Mashriq (Message of the East) as a response and tribute to his German predecessor and rendered the Gesang freely into Persian, calling it Ju-i-Aab (Water Stream). I have translated Iqbal’s translation into English, drawing some benefit from an earlier translation published by the Iqbal Academy. My translation, then, is twice removed.

Look at the stream —

How merrily it flows

Like a galaxy rising from the breast of the meadow!

In the cradle of the clouds it lay in sweet slumber,

And opened its keen eyes in the embrace of

the mountains.

From tiny stones its graceful flow draws melodies

Its face like a mirror — polished, unblemished!

How merrily it flows to the boundless ocean —

Unique in itself, unconcerned with all else, it flows.

A gushing river, it crosses over dams and folds,

It flows past narrow crevices of valleys, hills and deserts

Low or high — just the same, it gushes forth …

It moves across the king’s palace and fortifications,

It crosses green fields and gardens.

Impatient, intense; fierce, heart-inflaming, restless —

In every epoch reaching the new, leaving behind the old

How merrily it flows to the boundless ocean —

Unique in itself, unconcerned with all else, it flows.

The columnist is a professor and advisor of the social sciences and liberal arts programme at the IBA, Karachi, and visiting faculty at the University of Pennsylvania

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 10th, 2017