The moth flew to the candle —
Yes, this much we did witness
And then, all we saw
Was a flame, raging, restless

This is Mir Taqi Mir, invoking the candle and moth symbolism — something ubiquitous in classical Urdu poetry. Indeed, it is found copiously in the works of two other giants of this glowing legacy: Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Allama Muhammad Iqbal.

As a matter of fact, this symbol is so fully integrated into the metaphorical and figurative cache of traditional Urdu (and Persian) holdings that, despite its familiarity, many of us generally have no idea what the historical source of this creative shift of domain happens to be — this shift from the experiential to the imaginative, from the concrete to the metaphorical.

But only if we were to pay convergent attention to what is considered to be Iqbal’s magnum opus, namely his Javidnaama [The Book of Eternity], we would have known how long the shadow of Arabic Sufi literature has extended — both in geographical and linguistic terms — from mediaeval Baghdad all the way to early modern and modern Delhi, Lahore and Agra among other cities in South Asia. And linguistically, this is a transmission of literature from Arabic, a Semitic language, to Persian and Urdu, which are languages of the Indo-European family.

In Javidnaama — an imagined heavenly journey carried out under the guidance of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi — Iqbal has gathered four souls in the sphere of Jupiter: Ghalib, the slain Iranian poet Qurrat al-Ayn Tahira of the suppressed Babi movement, the famous Sufi martyr (Ibn) Mansur Hallaj and Iblis [Satan], who is most dramatically reconstructed by Hallaj.

Now, except for Hallaj and Iblis, Iqbal makes the souls speak very little. On the other hand, the Sufi, who wrote only in Arabic, gives a long oration and the Hallajian Iblis, too, speaks at length — all in glorious Persian verse, composed in the same metre that is employed by our poet’s guide in his grand Masnavi.

We see here that Iqbal’s rather well-known, intriguing notion of Iblis — as we find it throughout his poetry — has been lavishly lifted from the Kitaab al Tawasin of Hallaj. More than that, the poet also imitates the Tawasin in many of Javidnaama’s chapter titles as well as in their mystical spirit.

And it is in this very Kitaab al Tawasin that one finds the moth-candle symbolism for the first time as far as historical records go. Mir has, in fact, masterfully recrafted, practically verbatim, the Arabic text which speaks of the moth drowning itself into the flame. “And then, lo, there remained nothing but ashes dispersed in the air,” writes Mansur Hallaj in the chapter ‘Tasin al Fahm’ [The Tasin of Understanding], no moth any more, no form, no body.

These days, when Arabic-bashing is rampant, we fail to recognise the impact of the Arabic literary tradition on South Asian poetry.

And it is in this chapter, for example, that we find the Sufi notions of khabar [transmitted report] and nazar [direct vision]. Hallaj’s story is that the moth was not satisfied with secondary reports about the flame; it desired to know the flame directly, through unmediated ocular vision, nazar.

Among other elements, Iqbal has assimilated this khabar-nazar dyad also in his vast metaphorical treasure:

The intellect gives you nothing but khabar
Your remedy is nothing else but nazar

But this is Iqbal, who has now hardly remained accessible to us, dwindling day by day, falling into the bottomless pit of the darkness of oblivion. Indeed, relatively closer to us, alive even in the streets, in social media and chanted all around us in public gatherings is Faiz Ahmed Faiz, our beloved poet.

Now, Faiz knew Arabic and one notices even lexical shadows of the syntactical structure of this Semitic language in him; for example, creating glorious strings of nouns without verbs: raahguzar, saaey, shajar, manzil-o-dar, halqa-i-baam (walkway, shadows, trees, doors and dwellings, threshold of the roof).

One often notices an overarching shadow of Mansur Hallaj hovering over Faiz. He names Hallaj explicitly, as does Ghalib, and claims that it is because of Faiz that the custom of Hallaj is alive. And he talks about the clamour in prison cells of “Ana al Haq” [I am the Truth] — the famous cry of Hallaj for which he was ostensibly pulled on the gallows in 922. We recall that Faiz uses most skilfully and in a novel way the imagery of blood, without being morbid, and with his signature aesthetic ornamentation.

But two of Faiz’s poems tell us virtually the whole story of our Sufi who was consumed — like the moth — at the threshold of his Divine beloved. Both these stories appear in the Arabic compilation Akhbar al Hallaj [The Stories of Hallaj].

‘Aaj Bazaar Mein Pa-Bajolaan Chalo’ [Let’s Walk Through the Bazaar in Chains] — one of the most powerful and popular of Faiz’s poems, made eternal by Nayyara Noor’s precious rendition — is one of the two. What Faiz has done is a rendering of the Akhbar’s story, virtually verbatim, in sublime poetry, and he has done so in a glowing ghazalesque transformation.

The other poem emerging out of the story of Hallaj is the graphic ‘Hazar Karo Meray Tan Se’ [Stay Away from My Body]. This heart-rending poem reproduces the last words of Hallaj as they are reported in the Akhbar al Hallaj.

These days, when Arabic-bashing is rampant as a political and ideological stance, we fail to recognise the impact of the Arabic literary tradition on South Asian poetry, including the Persian poetry of Masud Saad Salman of Ghaznavid Lahore, and — of all people — on Faiz, on whose head we place the crown of latter-day Urdu poetry.

Mansur Hallaj’s moth has traversed a long flight.

  • All translations are by the columnist

The columnist is working on a critical edition and an English translation of the text of Kitaab al Tawasin for New York University Press

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 27th, 2022

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