Sickness and Cure

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Sickness and Cure

Khalil Andani

 

The Sickness

 

1. We suffer thirst amidst a great flood

Its waters bitter as the scent of mud

 

2. A lonely island each man has become

Seeing himself as parts without a sum

 

3. Our gardens are overflowing with drought

Nothing growing from its soils to sprout

 

4. This sea of salt promised many riches

Seduced our intellects amidst its glitches

 

5. The stories told by the flood’s torrents

Are mere assertions without any warrant:

 

6. They hold beautiful images full of wonder

Seducing its onlookers to fall down under

 

7. Declaring that there is none else but its waves

They convince us to become their slaves

 

8. Yet man thirsts amid this illusionary sea

without a compass unable to perceive

 

9. His morals reduced to myth and fiction

As faith is removed from its jurisdiction

 

10. Against the waters some have built a damn

Those misguided Muslims erecting their sham

 

11. Damns funded by the Saudi thrones

Resembling bodies of mere skin and bones

 

12. Building mosques as self-promotion

They fall prostrate without devotion

 

13. Claiming their path is of the straight

They peddle a discourse of hate

 

14. Thinking they are safe from the floods

They grow barren trees without buds

 

15. My Lord, how can we find our way

Both of these camps have gone astray

 

 

The Cure

 

1. To quench the dryness in your throat

Reclaim your faith and construct the boat

 

2. Appoint your reason as your guide

And let thy virtue replace your pride

 

3. With generous deeds you must set sail

By the winds of Spirit you shall prevail

 

4. Moisten your hearts with heaven’s rains

Seek inspiration from the higher plane

 

5. Like Noah’s ark you ride the waves

As long as thy self behaves

 

6. Against the flood here is your medic:

Unite the world through prophetic ethics.

 

7. To put an end to all this strife

Revive their quality of life

 

8. Become a drop that contains the sea

Rise up as your Lord’s trustee

 

 

This poem, called Sickness and Cure is inspired by Iqbal’s critique of the West’s materialism and the sorry state of Muslims in his own time (Smith 128). The Sickness and Cure is a poetic critique of certain ideas prevalent in modern Western materialism and the ideologies espoused by extremist Muslim groups. The first segment is called “Sickness” because it seeks to convey an updated and more alarmist version of Iqbal’s “Complaint” in a modern context.  To describe the perils of the modern Western materialism as a worldview, the poem employs an ironic metaphor in which humankind is afflicted by a great flood while suffering from thirst (Verse 1). Salt, in traditional cultures, symbolized prosperity and wealth (i.e. the word salary is derived from salt). The poem employs this metaphor in a different way – by describing a flood of salt water. Salt with all its potential for material wealth is equally responsible for this thirst – since salt water cannot be processed and causes a sort of drought (verse 3 and 4). This metaphor is meant to illustrate how an oversupply of material prosperity can have negative results – resulting in spiritual thirst. All of this is meant to allude to the Western world’s overemphasis on material gain and its scientific reductionism – which has left many people in a state of spiritual thirst. These verses seek to channel Iqbal’s critique that the West is “power without love” or “knowledge without spirit” (Smith 130) but in the context of the twenty-first century where the situation is much worse. Verse 2 tries to convey a metaphoric description of the social alienation (the symbol of the island) felt by many people in modern times due to the “flood” of materialism and the reductionist view of Nature that prevails in modern physics and biology (alluded to by “parts without a sum”). The metaphoric description of Western materialism is further elaborated in verse 6 which speaks of the waves of this flood holding beautiful images that entice the onlookers until they fall into the water. This is a reference to the story of Narcissus, evoked in many literary and philosophical works, according to which the Greek hunter was attracted to his beautiful reflection in the water, fell in love with it and drowned in the water, not realizing this was but an image. These verses about Narcissus also evoke Iqbal’s verses quoted in Smith (130) where he accuses the West of bowing down “before mere appearance.” The next set of verses present metaphoric allusions to specific aspects of the Western materialist worldview. In verse 7, the flood is said to declare that nothing else exists except for its own waves. This is a reference to the worldview of modern atheist materialism in which transcendence is altogether denied and material world is claimed to be all that exists. The phrase “nothing else except its waves” serves as the atheist inverse of the Islamic shahadah (no god except God). In verse 9, morality is described as “myth and fiction”. This alludes to the moral relativism adopted by an increasing number of people in the West according to which there are no objective or absolute moral truths or values: all values are relative, arbitrary and subject to personal taste with no moral system having any universal value. In verses 10-14, the poem takes a different turn and proceeds to allegorize Muslim extremism. Some of these extremist and jihadist ideas are explicitly anti-Western (or at least claim to be so), thus the poem describes these ideologies as a “damn” constructed to block the flood of Westernization. The poem goes on to describe this phenomenon of jihadist extremism as something funded by the “Saudi thrones” and nothing more than “self-promotion” without “devotion.” Verse 13 describes how these extremists claim to be on the ‘Straight Path’ but are actually “peddling” an ideology of hate. This is an allusion to a strain of religious ideology lacking in spiritual substance, akin to the nationalism that Iqbal was against.

The second section, called “The Cure”, is loosely modelled after the “Answer” portion of Iqbal’s poem. The “Cure” represents God’s answer to the “Sickness” in which He provides guidance on how to remedy the present situation. Playing off the metaphoric imagery of the “flood” of Western materialism, the Cure presents the solution in the idea of a “boat” and evokes the memory of Noah’s ark. The Cure calls on human beings to harness the power of intellect, practice virtue in the form of a universal ethic, and regain a sense of transcendence. These themes are allegorized in imagery relating to the steering of a boat through the waves of materialism. Verse 3 links good deeds and spiritual inspiration by evoking the image of wind as a symbol of the Holy Spirit – as the Arabic word ruh (spirit) and rih (wind) share the same root. The Spirit is ever-present and immanent, even during the flood, like the wind and the sails represent good deeds which the spirit/wind moves. This metaphor is meant to express Iqbal’s ideas of divine immanence where he rejected supernaturalism dualism where God is outside the Universe in favour of an immanent monism in which God is present in all things (Smith, 122). Verse 4 calls on the reader to connect with the transcendent realm and this connection is symbolized by the rainfall from the sky – an image which Islamic philosophers often evoked to represent divine revelation and inspiration from the spiritual world. While Iqbal may have eschewed an explicit orientation toward a spiritual realm in his own day, we believe that the materialist worldviews of the twenty-first century would lead Iqbal to reformulate his expressions in order to combat such materialism and implore people to regain a sense of transcendence. Verses 6-8 call for human beings to adopt an active ethical programme as the proper “cure” to the sickness. This idea of a universal ethic as a means to unite the world is also inspired by the mandate of the Aga Khan Development Network and His Highness Aga Khan’s call for a global cosmopolitan ethic to unite people of different faiths and cultures (see Aga Khan, LaFontinate Balwdin Lecture, October 15, 2010). At the practical level, this universal ethic must aim to raise the quality of life for all peoples. Realizing this ideal at the individual level leads one to become the trustee (khalifah) or vicegerent of God (Verse 8). The focus on ethics as the means toward divine vicegerency is inspired by Iqbal’s focus on God being immanent and “absorbed” into the most complete individual who emulates God’s attributes (McDonough 19, 23-24).

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