Tehzeeb-i-Sukhan: Iftikhar Arif Ki Shaeri Ki Roohani Jihaat
By Ahmed Javed
Emel Publications
ISBN: 978-969-9556-53-1
204pp.

In today’s world of social media, where anybody can become famous for 15 minutes, as goes the famous quote, it is not easy to imagine what fame meant in Pakistan in the 1960s and 1970s, with the sole TV channel being the state-controlled Pakistan Television (PTV).

You appeared on TV screens in the evening and the next morning the whole country was discussing you, in colleges, offices and teahouses. But it required — unlike today’s ephemeral fame — genuine talent, real hard work and perseverance.

Iftikhar Arif was famous back then, too, as says Ahmed Javed in Tehzeeb-i-Sukhan, the book under review, because Arif had demonstrated his abilities in PTV’s famous programme Kasauti, a quiz show where Iftikhar Arif and Ubaidullah Baig would weigh the clues given by the contestants in the form of replies to the questions that the duo asked and would almost always correctly name the person, place or book with their astonishing knowledge.

Then the entertainment industry changed and so did popular culture, but Iftikhar Arif’s fame was not transient. He had established himself as a genuine poet before settling in London, where his Urdu Markaz only furthered his fame, on a grander scale.

A book based on a series of lectures uses a philosophical approach to analyse the cultural and spiritual aspects of Iftikhar Arif’s poetry

After a decade or so, he came back and lo and behold, he became even more prominent. It was as if he had never been away, and became an essential part of the country’s vibrant literary scene from the late 1980s onwards, though some would rather say the country’s literary establishment.

In his preface, Ahmed Javed describes how the book was conceived. It was decided that our “incomparable personalities” should not be “sacrificed on the altar of our unappreciative attitude” and they should be talked about regularly. It began with a discussion on Iftikhar Arif and his poetry, but it took 12 sessions instead of a few, and Ahmed Javed feels that still so much remains to be said. Later on, these lectures were transcribed and presented in book form.

As the title Tehzeeb-i-Sukhan and the subtitle Iftikhar Arif Ki Shaeri Ki Roohani Jihaat suggest, it is an endeavour to discover the cultural and spiritual aspects of Arif’s poetry.

Iftikhar Arif
Iftikhar Arif

Urdu’s devotional or spiritual poetry has myriads of colours and Sufi poetry is but one hue of a wide range of religious verses. As displayed in ‘hamd’, ‘naat’, ‘manqabat’, ‘marsiya’ and other similar genres, devotional or religious poetry in Urdu has a long history and, contrary to early metaphysical poetry in English literature, Urdu poetry with metaphysical notions was never referred to disapprovingly, neither is it looked down upon today.

It was T.S. Eliot who began to use the term ‘metaphysical’ in criticism in an admiring tone while discussing such poetry, though it was considered, by some critics, to be a sign of Eliot’s desire about his own poetry rather than that of metaphysical English poets.

Devotional poetry in Urdu, in whatever form and whichever genre, could be an expression of a true and profound faith and, hence, is to be taken quite seriously. Iftikhar Arif is a poet of our times, who has consistently demonstrated his religious ideals and convictions in his poetry, so much so that, as put by Gopi Chand Narang, he has transformed the word ‘Karbala’ into a poetic metaphor.

Though several critical works on Iftikhar Arif’s poetry and its merits have been published, the book under review is, perhaps, the first attempt that takes up the topic with a philosophical basis, since its author, Ahmed Javed, is known for his philosophical approach, exposure to metaphysical debates and grip on critical theories.

The book begins with a chapter on Iftikhar Arif’s personality, goes on to discuss in the succeeding chapters Arif’s ghazal and his devotional poetry, juxtaposing it with some aesthetic, critical and philosophical notions.

Being a poet himself, Javed is able to trace some intricate ideas and innate spiritual motifs that are presented in Arif’s poetical works with intensity of emotions and a deep aesthetic sense. As intended, Javed focuses more on the spiritual side of Arif’s poetry.

“At times devotional poetry can sound laboured, mechanical or clichéd,” says Javed. “But Arif’s inner world is the locale for his religious poetry and he presents its ecstatic moments in rhapsodic tones with rare similes, thereby creating new semantic shades, but does it so carefully as never to let the technical or aesthetic aspects of poetry disappear.

“Arif gets inspiration from some sacred and most respected personalities of Islam and presents the emotions entwined inseparably with the intellectual aspects, transmuting emotional experience in intellectual terms. Urdu’s Sufi or religious poetry is often dichotomous, for it usually tries to separate body and soul. But in Arif’s poetry, body and soul are seen as interactive, something rarely reflected in Urdu poetry after Iqbal,” adds Javed. That’s why Arif’s devotional poetry never sounds mechanical, traditional or clichéd.

Arif’s ghazal, says the author, carries some allusions to our social and political environment, too, but they are so subtly presented with tropes that only a discerning reader — or the “qualified reader”, to quote the author — would be able to appreciate them.

To sum up, one can refer to Dr Khursheed Rizvi whose blurb analyses Ahmed Javed’s analysis. Rizvi feels Javed’s study of Iftikhar Arif’s poetry is profound and he wants to reach the depths of the subconscious mind of Iftikhar Arif, a hidden territory some corners of which are beyond the reach of Iftikhar Arif himself.

Since the book is based on appreciative lectures, during its course, Javed’s tone is mostly laudatory. But it is not altogether subjective, and he

has indeed been successful in discovering some poetic and psycho­logical depths of Iftikhar Arif’s poetry and his personality.

The reviewer has served as Professor, Department of Urdu, University of Karachi; Chief Editor, Urdu Dictionary Board, Karachi and Director General, National Language Promotion Department, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 26th, 2024

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