The Development of a Symbol : A Study of Iqbal’s Poem, Aftab

      Since the word symbol occurs in the title of this presentation, I would like to preface it with an extremely brief account, in general terms, about the use of symbols in poetry. Of course this is one of the weightiest ever subjects and can, by no means, be dismissed in a brief prefatory note. These remarks are, therefore, added only to introduce the present discourse.


    Broadly speaking symbols may be divided into three categories:
  • The Collective or Cultural symbols: The collective symbols have a universal character in that they have acquired a more-or-less common signification amongst the generality of human beings: Two examples of such symbols are the sunrise and the sunset which are considered to be symbolical of birth and death among almost all human groups and cultures. A cultural symbol, on the other hand, is peculiar to a certain culture. The cross, for instance, is peculiar to Christianity, Trishul to the Hindus and the Crescent to the Muslims.
  • Personal symbols: Sometimes a poet (generally a great poet) evolves a personal symbolism whose understanding and interpretation demands a good deal of effort from the reader. Three good examples of the use of such symbolism are those of Blake, Yeats and Iqbal. Examples of striking symbols evolved by these poets are the lamb and rose (Blake), the swan and the gyre (Yeats) and the tulip and the eagle (Iqbal). Such symbols may occur originally as ordinary images but after their first appearance they gather layers, about them through recurrent use until they develop into real symbols.
  • Symbols which have associations attached to them among men in general or among certain cultural groups and which the poet exploits for his peculiar purposes. The ‘shepherd’, for instance, is a symbol of affection, guidance and benign patronage in many cultures. The snake is a loathsome symbol in some cultures while in others it symbolizes sanctity and nobility. In the use of such symbols the poet significantly modifies or adds to the symbolic import of such recurrent symbols so that they emerge ultimately as the personal symbols of the poet. Blake’s treatment of the symbol, ‘shepherd’ and Shelley’s use of the symbol of ‘snake’ are good illustrations of this process. ‘Shepherd’ is now a personal symbol of Blake as is ‘snake’ that of Shelley.

In creative art it is the last two categories of symbols which alone merit the epithet of the symbol proper. It is such a symbol which Coleridge defined as the presentation of something eternal through and in the temporal. Such a symbol is so thick, multi-layered, multi-dimensional and largely inscrutable that it is hard to reduce it to a one-to-one correspondence with something. As Carl Jaspers points out in Truth and Symbol, such a symbol is not explained by the other: what can be interpreted finally and precisely ceases to be a symbol. A symbol is not passed over by being understood but deepened by being meditated upon.
Iqbal makes use of symbols of all the three categories but achieves signal success in the use of the symbols of the second and third categories. The tulip (lalah), the glow-worm (jugnoo), the eagle (shaheen) and the stream (naddi) are examples of the second category of symbols in Iqbal’s poetry whereas the bulbul, the star and the candle (shama) are the examples of the third category. Iqbal’s use of these symbols is so complex that this categorisation does not always hold god but breaks down in most contexts. On the whole, however, it remains valid.
Iqbal’s poem, Aftab is an exquisite illustration of the use of a symbol of the third category. He takes it up as an image and then subjects it to a creative transformation, an artistic process in which it gathers layers around it by recurrent use in different contexts and develops into a complex symbol. In this lies the whole significance of the poem Aftab otherwise it, most certainly, is not one of the great poems of Iqbal.
The images which have the greatest fascination for Iqbal include the images of light and among them he is most preoccupied with the image of the sun. In his early poetry it appears as a simple image borrowed from the world of nature and assimilated to different poetic contexts but with his growth as a thinker and creative artist, it gathers new dimensions around it, incorporates new strands and becomes more and more complex until it emerges as a great symbol. In Aftab, the symbol seems to have arrived and from this point of view it is one of the significant poems of Iqbal.
As a sub-title to the poem Iqbal adds significantly Tarjumah Gayatri (a translation of Gayatri). In fact it is not a translation but a representation of a symbol under the inspiration of Gayatri. Gayatri acts as a key to unlock a whole complex of ideas, feelings and sensations that had become inseparably linked in the mind of Iqbal with the image of the sun. Traces of his absorption with the sun at the mental as well as the emotional level are interspersed throughout his writings. In an early poem, Aftab-i Subh, he wants to emulate the sun’s universal bountifulness and craves for a light of which the sunlight is merely a symbol:


We harbour in our heats a yearning for the light of truth.
Later this early fascination with the rising sun found a sublime expression in the opening of Zouq-u-Shouq:

The sun-rise in the desert revives the Eye and the Heart.
Streamlets of light flow from the spring of the sun.
The veil of existence is torn and primordial Beauty is unveiled.
Now sparing a glance brings a thousand benefits to the heart.
And again in the poem-sequence entitled Mihrab Gul Afgahn Ke Afkar in Zarb-i Kalim:

O Sun, come out of the royal pavilion in the East
And clothe my mountains with garments of henna.
Like the sun-rise, the sun-set is also fascinating for him. In Bazm-i Unjum the setting sun decorates the evening with garlands of tulips:

As the sun went down it decorated the black robed evening
With tulip blossoms from the horizon’s platter.
In Masjid-i Qurtaba the image occurs again in a more impressive manner and finally in Khidhr-i Rah and Javid Namah the mystic dimensions of the sun-set are brought to light:

The sun-set in the calm of the desert evening
Which lit up the world-seeing eye of God’s friend (Abraham).

The mountain, the lake and the sun-set
I saw God unmasked there.
In Mathnavi: Paschi Bayed Kard, a whole poem is addressed to the sun which in part seems to be the Persian version of the poem which is now under our consideration. More of this later.
In 1905 Iqbal was travelling to Europe by sea for higher studies, while at sea, he wrote in a letter:
It is the morning of 12 September. I have got up early... The sun seems to rise from the spring of water and the ocean looks like our river Ravi. For a sensitive heart sunrise is like the recitation of the scripture.
...Those who have adopted sun-worship as their religion stand, in my view, excused.7

Here I feel almost impelled to quote a passage from The life of John Buncle:
The sun was rising as we mounted the horses, and struck me so powerfully with the surpassing splendor and majesty of its appearance, so cheered me by the gladsome influences, and intimate refreshment of its all enlivening beams, that I was contriving as I rid on an apology for the first adorers of the solar orb, and imagined that they intended nothing more than the worship of the transcendent majesty of the invisible Creator, under the symbol of his most excellent and nearly resembling Creature...a visible glorious presence of Jehovah Elohim....This is some excuse for the first worshippers of the solar orb.8
The famous painter, Turner’s last words are said to have been “the Sun is God”.9
When Iqbal wrote the letter from the sea, he must have been conceiving the subject of his doctoral research for which he was travelling to Europe. The subject, as we know now, was to be The Development of Metaphysics in Persia.
In the first chapter of this dissertation Iqbal traces the development of the Magian belief in the dualism of Light and Darkness in ancient Persia. Zoroaster systematised this religious thinking and accorded primacy to Light. Mani (Manes or Manichaeus) built his dualistic philosophy on the light-darkness antithesis. This mode of thinking was so predominant in ancient Iran that even an avowedly atheistic thinker, Mazdak (one of the first pioneers of communist thought), had to erect the metaphysical side of his system on the distinction between Shidh (light) and Tar (darkness). Against this background when the medieval Muslim sufis read the Quranic verse,

Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth.
They must have seen in it the continuation of a centuries-old religious truth.
All this reveals that Iqbal’s creative mind must have remained obsessed with the idea of light and its most prominent manifestation for man, the sun. It is a poet of this mental make-up who is brooding in Aftab on one of the oldest hymns addressed to the sun as a symbol of the ultimate Reality. Before we proceed ahead let us look at the text of the hymn common to all the four holy Vedas. According to Gian Chand Jain the text of the hymn reads as follows:


Om, bhur bhuvah sivah
Tatsavitru vareniam
Bhargo devasya dhimahi
Dhiyo yonah parchodayat.11


Gyan Chand’s Urdu translation of the prayer is:

Gian Chand Jain points out that the hymn is in the pre-Sanskrit language, the Vedic-Sanskrit, and therefore not easy to translate. W J Wilkins in his book, The Hindu Mythology, quotes the text of Gayatri in the following words:

Let us meditate on that excellent glory
Of the divine Vivifier. May he enlighten
(or stimulate) our understandings.13



And this is how the hymn has been translated by Sir William Jones:

Let us adore the supremacy of that divine sun (opposed to the visible luminary), the godhead who illuminates all, who recreates all, from whom all proceed, to whom all must return, whom we invoke to direct our understandings aright in our progress.14
Iqbal’s poem was written in 1902 and appeared first in Makhzan with a detailed note by the poet confirming that Gayatri acted only as a stimulus to express something that was already ripe in his mind. In what follows I sum up the main contents of Iqbal’s note:

  • This prayer common to all the four Vedas is an expression of the impressions cast in human mind by the awe-inspiring phenomena of Nature.
  • Although the hymn has been translated into several European languages, the syntactical complicacies of Sanskrit have defied the attempts of the translators (including Sir William Jones) to appropriately capture the spirit and content of the original.
  • In the original Sanskrit the key-word used is Savitra. Since it was difficult to find its equivalent in Urdu, I have used word Aftab which represents that supra-sensible sun from which our sun acquires its light.
  • The majority of our sufis believe in

Read against this background, Aftab is less the description of the physical sun, much less a translation of Gayatri, than the expression of a symbol for celestial light which has shaped itself in the poet’s creative mind through a process of incubation spread over many long years.

O sun, you are the soul and the spirit of the world,
The organiser, the binder of the book of the world.
The appearance of existence and non-existence is due to you
As well as the ‘is’ and ‘is not’ of the garden:
You are the cause of the collocation of elements
And that of the animate world’s urge to live.
Your resplendence upholds every object;
Your passion, your harmony is the basis of life.
The sun whose light illuminates Time
Is heart, mind, spirit, consciousness.
O sun! Lend us the light of awareness;
Enlighten a little the eye of Reason.
You provide for the whole congregation of existence;
You are God to denizens of the below and the above.
Your perfection speaks in every mountain range;
You nourish the life of every object;
You are the prince of the creatures of light.
You are without a beginning; without an end:
Your light is not limited by the categories of the ‘first and the ‘last’.

The symbolic signification of the sun is also the burden of Iqbal’s poem, Khitab ba Mehr-i Alamtab (To the World-illuming Sun) in Mathnavi Pas Chi Bayed Kard:


Yours is the passion, the harmony in the existence;
The hidden longs for appearance because of you.
More effulgent than the hand of Kalim is the movement
Of your golden canoe in the silvery stream.
Convert my dark dust into illumination all over
And enfold and wrap my being in your light abounding.

In both of these poems we meet not with the physical but the symbolical sun and if the first title of Aftab, as Gian Chand Jain tells us, was Aftab-i Haqiqat (the Sun of Reality), it was certainly most appropriate.

As I said at the outset, Aftab is not a great poem but it assumes significance as it helps us understand one of the ways in which symbols develop in great poetry. It is not the only way but surely the most usual one. What happens is that in the creative mind of the poet, around an image, ideas, feelings, sensations and other images, connected in some way with the pivotal image, start gathering and developing into a single complex. The pivotal image loses its thinness, its unidimensionality and becomes a complicated and multi-layered complex; a symbol is born and waits for a poetic context to find expression. Such a symbol with Iqbal is the sun and Aftab (Tarjumah Gayatri) provided him with the first context in which it found an appropriate expression.   



Notes and references

Kuliyat-i Iqbal: Urdu (Aligarh: Educational Book House, 1975), P.49. This standard edition of

Iqbal’s Urdu poems is the source of all subsequent citations and translations are mine.

Ibid., P.403.

Ibid., P.637.

Ibid., P.173.

Ibid., P.258.

Kuliyat-i Ashar-i Farisi: Maulana Iqbal Lahori (Tehran: Kitabkhana-i Sanai), P.360.

Javid Iqbal, Zindah Rud (Lahore: Ghulam Ali Publishers, 1979), PP. 108-109.

Quoted by John Beer in Coleridge: The Visionary (London: Chatto & Windus, 1959),    P.45.

Quoted by Elaine Jordan in Alfred Tennyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988),P.94.

The Quran, Al-Nur, V.35.

Gian Chand Jain, Ibtida-i Kalam-i Iqbal: Be tartib-i Mah-u Sal (Hyderabad: Urdu Research Centre, 1988), P.174.

Ibid., P. 176. Translation: Om! Lord of the earth, the heavens and the space; the sublimest source of all lights – the concentration of all celestial lights. We meditate on you; stimulate our understandings.

The Hindu Mythology: Vedic and Puranic (1882; Rupa, 1975), P.30.

  1. Works of Sir William Jones: In Six Volumes (London, 1799), Vol. VI, P.417.

Kuliyat Persian, P 390.