Published Sep 09, 2018 06:55am

COLUMN: STUMBLING OVER FAIZ’S ‘AHL-I-HIKAM’

Syed Nomanul Haq

A poem of Faiz Ahmed Faiz that begins with the line

[And so we shall witness] has become over the years perhaps the most popular item in his entire oeuvre. This poem certainly is rich in mass appeal. Faiz here talks about an impending doom when we shall see the unjust being humbled, crowns of majesty being flung in the air, thrones being overturned and reins of power being wrested from the powerful. Most graphically and, without compromising the poem’s shattering imagery, he portrays an apocalypse when heavens shall crack open and pulverise, when mountains shall fly away like shreds of cotton wool in a thunderous roar enveloping a trembling earth. And then comes the cosmological and metaphysical finale: when all else perishes in this world, there abides the Name of God,

The verses are overwhelmingly cataclysmic, disturbing and terrifying, but at the same time they shine a ray of hope, pronouncing the end of time when universal balance and justice shall at last rule and the downtrodden shall receive their divine succour.

Many experts say that this now ubiquitous poem is one of the least poetic of Faiz’s poetry. Among other things, it is sensational, too dramatic and too speedy. Such criticism is not without some degree of cogency, but let’s leave this aside. Most intriguing is the fact that there exists a multiplicity of ironies — painful ironies — in this whole popular phenomenon. To begin with, many public performers and a good number of those swept by the winds of a fad, who keep citing and declaiming this poem, do not know its title. And if you show them the title, unlikely it is that they will be able to read it easily, for it is in Arabic and can appear without full vocalisation. I must admit that my evidence is anecdotal, not based on any formal statistical survey, but we generally do know that it is certainly plausible. Besides, something like this is also noted by a most respectable veteran Urdu scholar of our times, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi.

But more, it often goes unrecognised that this ringing poem of Faiz is squarely rooted in the text of the Holy Quran. As a matter of fact, it can legitimately be considered a highly creative adaptation, nay, even direct translation, of different related Quranic verses. Indeed, the power of the poem’s imagery derives its motive force directly from these verses; in fact, in a harmonious key Faiz has even emulated their sound pattern with repeated beats:

The repetitive sounds of a shaking earth’s doom is from the 90th Quranic chapter, ‘Az Zalzala’ [The Earthquake]; then there is the 18th chapter, ‘Al Kahf’ [The Cave] which speaks of the doomsday when God will cause the mountains to disappear; the vision of mountains flying away like shreds of cotton wool appears in a supremely sonorous ‘Al Qariaa’ [The Striking Calamity], the 101st chapter, and so on. But what about the title of Faiz’s poem? It is, in fact, a fragment from a verse of the reciters’ cherished Quranic chapter about which Allama Muhammad Iqbal too sang sublime songs: ‘Ar Rahman’ [The Most Merciful]. Faiz’s fragment is from the 27th verse:

[And abides the Face of your Lord].

None of this is common knowledge despite the poem’s compelling echoes all around us. But perhaps the most disconcerting irony in this popular milieu, the most revealing and agonising, is the story of a phrase that Faiz tucked in the body of the poem: “ahl-i-hikam.” Note that in many editions of what has been available as his complete poetic works, the Nuskha ha-i-Vafa, this “doomed” phrase has been fully vocalised, with an i-vowel (zer) under the first letter and an a-vowel (zabar) over the second letter. But then it seems that no public reciter and no singer —

I repeat: no public reciter and no singer — could read it correctly, and the error is also to be found on famous websites. The phrase has been read as the distasteful “ahl-i-hukam”, but most often it is enunciated as “ahl-i-hakam.”

There exist decisive reasons why the phrase cannot be “ahl-i-hakam.” First, Faiz’s own editions vocalised it otherwise as noted. Then, “ahl-i-hakam” makes little sense anyway — hakam means “an arbiter”, “a referee”, “an umpire”, “a judge.” So “ahl-i-hakam”, if such a phrase exists at all, would translate as “the possessor of a referee” — and this will not work. On the other hand, if we read Faiz’s version, “ahl-i-hikam”, it works perfectly. Hikam is the plural of hikma (hikmat in Urdu/Persian) meaning “wisdom.” So it shall mean, “the possessor of wisdom” or by extension, “the philosopher”, “the thinker”, the “Ulema.” Now it is a rather known tradition in Islamic eschatology that on Doomsday, the first to be condemned to the Fire will be those who cultivated knowledge, but for their own gains. Here we have a cultural plausibility (qarina) of Faiz’s reading.

This is a sorry situation and shows how far removed we now are from source languages, particularly from Arabic. What I say is not merely an emotional swan song. Faiz knew Arabic and benefits from this knowledge in his poetry. For example, he often creates strings of nouns without the existential verb (is, are, was, were, etc) — this is an Arabic property; Arabic does not need the existential verb to form sentences. Remember:

[Road, shadows, trees, houses and doors, edge of the roof]
And

[The sky the frontier of sight, a road a road, a glass of wine a glass of wine]

The writer is professor of Comparative Liberal Studies at Habib University and Visiting Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania

*Translation given in the last two lines are from Victor Kiernan

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 9th, 2018

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