The recent hullabaloo in India around Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem Hum Dekhenge – which is being recited daily by students protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act – has devolved into two broad camps: On one side are those who decry the poem’s “anti-Hindu” slant, in particular two lines that mention “idols” and “Allah” in a way that is deemed hostile to polytheism. And on the other side are those who dismiss this critique with loud avowals of Faiz’s credentials as a lifelong secularist and progressive.

Incredibly, neither side engages with the poem on literary terms, ie, in ways that investigate its tropes and metaphors. Nor do they reckon with the full geopolitical context in which Faiz wrote it. Missing too is an appreciation of the poem’s place in Faiz’s oeuvre – as a culmination or summing-up of his life’s work.

Here are some key (currently underlooked) aspects of Hum Dekhenge:

Geopolitics

We know Faiz wrote the poem in 1979. That was the year Gen Zia-ul-Haq executed Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and embarked on his “Islamisation” of Pakistan. But there were other “zalzalas” in 1979 that were no less worthy of a poet’s attention. These were the Iranian Revolution; the Lebanese Civil War; the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan; and the Siege of Mecca by rebels demanding an end to Saudi rule.

Location

Faiz – a lifelong internationalist and reconciler of traditions – was living in Beirut at this time. In a sense it was the perfect place – a kind of epicentre, if you will – from which to observe these linked convulsions, some “progressive”, others “reactionary”, but all playing out in the shadow of the Cold War, which had been a persistent concern of Faiz’s poetry and journalism.

Also common to these events was a rhetoric of religious righteousness – now a chant of “Allahu Akbar!”, now an operatic vow of defiance – that Faiz intuitively recognised as belonging to a tradition of contestation stretching all the way back to the advent of Islam. It was thus a perfect occasion for Faiz-the-poet to embark on an epic, revisionist work that could serve as a map or tableau of this watershed in Muslim history.

Metaphors

A standard “trick” in Sufi poems is the updating or “progressive appropriation” of scriptural metaphors. Ibn-e-Arabi onwards, Muslim poets and philosophers have plucked images and phrases from theology and situated them creatively (and craftily!) in seemingly secular contexts. So too in Hum Dekhenge: the line “jab zulm-o-sitam ke koh-e-garaan rui ki tarha udh jaayenge” (“when dark peaks of torment and tyranny will be blown away like cotton fluff”) is inspired by Surah al-Qariah, the 101st chapter of the Quran, which describes Qayamat or the Day of Judgment as “a great clamour” (“when men shall be like scattered moths, And mountains will be like fluffed-up wool”).

Faiz is conjuring that imagery (“koh-e-garaan”) to enact a temporal conflict (“zulm-o-sitam”), casting a foretold clamour as a revolution and the rhetoric of righteousness as a form of dialectical disputation. The purpose is twofold: to rescue scripture from an absolutist altar; and to wrest juridical authority from the mullah (or the general) and hand it to the people.

Allusions

The line “jab arz-e-khudaa ke kaabay se sab boott utthhvaye jaayenge” (“when from the seat of the almighty all pedestals will lie displaced”) alludes to the conquest of Mecca in 630 AD, when the deities of the old Meccan elite were replaced by the “one and true (non-physical) god”. This is one of those lines currently causing offence in India for what is perceived as a Muslim-imperialist / Ghazva-e-Hind type chauvinism.

In fact it has the opposite intention, as the next line makes clear: “Hum ahl-e-safaa mardood-e-haram masnad pe bithhaye jaayenge”, ie, the “puppets” or “false icons” that represent only the powerful will be brought down and we, the marginal, the deprived, those who have “kept the faith” all along, will be let in and seated in our rightful place. Faiz is again taking a fabled event from Islamic history and giving it a revisionist, pro-people slant, as if to say, such acts are valid when they empower the people. It follows that if the revolt gives way to an oppressive theocracy (like it did in Iran), or an illegitimate dictatorship that denies people their rights (like Zia’s Pakistan), it will be a miscarriage of justice.

Puns

“Bas naam rahega Allah ka” – some people in India are interpreting this literally as the war-cry of a crazed jihadist. Actually it is a playful double-entendre typical of Urdu poetry. Like Iqbal and Ghalib before him, Faiz has crafted a phrase that contains two seemingly contradictory meanings: if you say this line aloud, and place an emphasis on “Allah”, you may sound like a prohibitive preacher (“Only the lord’s name will remain”). But if you emphasise “naam”, you will sound more like a secular humanist (“Only the lord’s name will remain”).

This ambivalence or “subjective duality” is a classic “shararat” of Sufi poems that dissolves the binary opposition between “sacred” and “secular” and brings people from different ideological camps into a shared poetic space. (It is also a strategy for exegesis, one that was applied by generations of Islamic scholars to tease out the meaning from enigmatic injunctions.)

Of course in real life this ambivalence can play out as a brutal confrontation between warring ideological camps, and a formerly shared space can be violently ruptured, like it was in Iran soon after the revolution, when the Islamists turned on the secular radicals who until yesterday had been their fellow-travellers, their brothers-in-arms in the struggle against injustice.

Paradox

Towards the end of the poem, Faiz defines god as a series of paradoxes (“jo ghaayab bhi hai haazir bhi, jo manzar bhi hai naazir bhi”), as an elusive simultaneity that cannot be beheld in conventional ways, that can only be sensed and evoked and comprehended as an all-encompassing totality. Here Faiz tips his hat to Mansur Hallaj, the radical Persian mystic who was executed in the 10th century for saying “An-al-Haq!” (“I am Truth”), because his prosecutors insisted on carrying out a literal (and thus tendentious) interpretation of his words.

Actually, Faiz seems to be saying, human affairs are not divorced from the divine reality, in fact the collective will of humankind in all its diverse, inclusive glory is the truest manifestation of the exemplary will (“aur raj karegi khalq-e-khudaa jo mein bhi houn aur tum bhi ho”). And perhaps Faiz is also gesturing here – as Javed Akhtar has pointed out – at the ancient Indic philosophy of “adhvayt”, or indivisibility of being, which does away with master-slave/high-low distinctions between god and humanity and proposes instead a connected oneness as the essential principle of existence.

In sum

Hum Dekhenge is anything but a literal “Islamist” rant. In fact it can be read as a lesson in Faiz’s subtle, layered poetics, in his love of thought-provoking metaphors; and as an algebraic “equation” of oppression-and-retribution that is rooted in the imagery of Islam but eternally extendable to the plight (and fight) of humanity. A kind of literary Guernica for the Muslim world, couched in the tropes and metaphors of that civilisation, but fully booted, as it were, for modern living

Main theme: Contestation of authority is inevitable and irrepressible.

Main message: Moral authority will always rest with those who are in the right, not those who are on the right.

English translations of Faiz’s lines taken from the wonderful Mustansir Dalvi.

A special thanks to Tamkinat Karim and Salima Hashmi for vetting and refining some of these ideas.



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