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Pilgrim clouds: the polymorphous sacred in Indo-Muslim imagination.

This article explores one Urdu poem of the early twentieth century, by the Indian poet Sayyid Muhammad "Muhsin" Kakorvi. "In Praise of the Best of Messengers" includes imagery of shape-shifting clouds that the poet skillfully uses to evoke the sacred and to describe his own relationship to the Prophet Muhammad from his locale as a Muslim in colonial India. He does this by invoking multiple geographic, cultural, and religious references in juxtaposition, as he moves from Qur'anic to Indic religious motifs through cloud images. His sense of the sacred is rooted in Indian imagery even as it embraces a wider Islamic identity that is also Persianate and Arabian. Muhsin's poetry seeks to reassert a multi-dimensional Islamic identity in India, anchored in Sufi theo-erotic mysticism and "oneness of being" philosophy. This is in stark contrast to other colonial Urdu poets, like Hali and Iqbal, whose use of religious imagery is more ideological and who saw poetry as a vehicle for nascent nationalism and communal separatism in a self-consciously "modernist" movement.


Ritual gives the force of the sacred a fixed form and knowable boundaries. Temples, mosques, and pilgrimage destinations root the sacred in specific places and known precincts. Prayers, sacrifices, and pilgrimage journeys fix the sacred a specific time and known duration. These sacred times and places give the chaos and uncertainty of profane life a certain sureness and foundation in a time beyond time and a place beyond place. (1)

In contrast, in the field of poetry, the sacred can manifest in a persistently polymorphous way. In the free play of words, the sacred can infuse any metaphor or image, even those that seemingly belong to more profane spheres of life. In poetry, a single metaphor can suggest both sacredness and profane life at the same time in ways that are provocative and arresting, or even transgressive. Like clouds, metaphors in poetry are free to shift spaces and forms, suggesting a sense of space and time which is beyond the structure of routine life on the ground. The clouds are natural symbols of liminality, that quality of the sacred which anthropologist Victor Turner captures as "betwixt and between" the structures of social life on the one hand and ritual life on the other.

The shape-shifting dynamism of clouds inspired one of modern Urdu literature's most intriguing poems in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. Written by Sayyid Muhammad "Muhsin" (who died in 1905 CE), this poem is in the genre of na't. Na't literally means "description" but in Urdu poetry always means the poetic description of the virtuous qualities of the Prophet Muhammad. This na't is unusual, however, in that it describes the movement of clouds. Beneath the shifting surface of cloud images, their power of movement and ability to change shape allow Muhsin to use clouds as an intermediary between heaven and earth. The image of clouds helps Muhsin to overcome the geo-cultural distance between himself, as a Muslim subject of British India, and Muhammad the Arabian Prophet, the founder of his religion and his own ancestor. This praise poem and its images of clouds give us contemporary readers a way to assess the complex ways in which Islamic imagination apprehended the sacred (through images drawn from history, literature, mysticism and scripture) in South Asia in a period of modern tensions.

Although ostensibly in praise of Muhammad, Muhsin's epic poem is more than direct praise of its heroic subject. The poem takes its reader on a pilgrimage to Mecca. But how to go on the pilgrimage when the poet is rooted firmly in Northern India? His love and longing for the Prophet take his vision to the clouds, which are not trapped by time and space. In the movement of the clouds, the poet can travel in his imagination through geographical space and historical time that separate him from the Prophet of Arabia. He does not address history and geography directly, however (in contrast to other modern Urdu poets like Altaf Hussayn Hali and Muhammad Iqbal); rather the clouds allow him to travel through literary tropes that span the distance linking his Urdu India to Arabian Mecca. In the progress of his Urdu poem, Muhsin conjures up poetry of the past. He makes reference to Prakrit love poetry to Krishna, classical Urdu love poetry set in the garden, Persian ghazal lyrics to a cruelly distant beloved, and pre-Islamic Arabic qasida odes mourning the departure of the beloved from the abandoned camp in the desert. As he watches the clouds pass overhead, they take on the form of all these poetic traditions, linking him to distant times and places. In the end, his goal is to find in the passage of the clouds the presence of Muhammad's prophetic mission. Finally, he finds this meaning not beyond himself in the lofty shape-shifting of clouds, but within himself as the speaking poet. As time and space dissolve on the day of judgement, he can imagine himself standing with the Prophet, saved by Muhammad's intercession, and ushered (with the clouds) into paradise. This study presents an original translation into English of many of the couplets of Muhsin's praise poem. The author has chosen ninety-one couplets to translate here (out of the full one-hundred and forty-three); the selection is intended to give a flavor of the full variety and ultimate trajectory of the poem while focusing more specifically on the image of the clouds. This will supplement (but not replace) the translation of forty-five selected couplets by Ali Asani. (2)

Before turning to the poem under consideration, we should first focus on this term "sacred" which has become a central theme in religious studies in the twentieth century, as the discipline has diverged from theology and struggled to find descriptive theoretical terms which can be used to analyze religious people's reaction to social, psychological and natural phenomena. Although he did not invent the term, Mircea Eliade has given it a classic definition, as the opposite of profane. (3) He gives the sacred no definite theological definition, but rather posits that "sacred and profane" is a universal structural binary through which human communities organize their social conceptions of time, space, cosmos and salvation: "For religious man, nature is never only 'natural;' it is always fraught with a religious value ... coming from the hands of the gods, the world is impregnated with sacredness ... [the gods] manifested the different modalities of the sacred in the very structure of the world and of cosmic phenomena." (4) In brief, the sacred is a dimension of life that surpasses time and space even as it serves as the foundation for social time and space. Though many scholars in the social sciences find Eliade's ideas unproved and incapable of proof, others in the interpretive humanities has found them challenging and useful. Many have been moved by the inter-penetration of the binary forces of sacred/profane as seen in the rhyming binaries of sky/earth or heaven/world. Phenomenological philosopher John Sallis does not cite Eliade, but clearly echoes his thoughts:
 Nothing is more of the sky than clouds, and yet clouds
 interrupt the shining, and thus, while belonging to the sky,
 they pose an opposite to the pure radiance that sky is.... If
 the clouds are in movement, such movement serves to
 disclose, again by contrast, the utter immobility of the sky.
 Indeed, sky is so absolutely immobile that one cannot
 even determine a sense in which one might say that sky
 moves.... Between earth and sky, there are concurrences,
 exchanges. Most notable are those that go to constitute
 what is called weather.... Yet all such exchanges.... occur
 within the open expanse that is delimited as such
 by earth and sky. This elemental spacing first opens, in its
 originary guise, what will come--not without reduction--to
 be called place or space. But also this elemental spacing
 bears on the constitution of time. (5)

These concurrences or exchanges (in the terminology of phenomenology) are what Eliade calls "hierophanies" or "manifestations of the sacred" (in the terminology of religious studies). Both authors concur that space and time, as the most basic concepts of human existence, are not neutral categories apprehended directly by reason. Rather, they are concepts created indirectly by imagination, as mediated by primal observation of cosmic forces, like earth and sky, and by that evocative intermediary force that is at once both solid and subtle: the clouds.

With that theoretical preamble, we can now turn to Muhsin's poem. It is entitled In Praise of the Best of Messengers (Madih Khayr al-Mursalin) and is a qasida, a long poetic form that, in Urdu literature, is associated with praise of kings or heroes. The couplets of the qasida are linked by the rhyme of the final syllable with the sound "-al." (6) The qasida begins firmly rooted in the local soil of Northern India. The monsoon season has arrived and the clouds begin to mass on the horizon, moving swiftly from East to West.
 From beyond Kashi the clouds
 begin to roll toward Mathura
 on lightning's swift shoulder
 breezes carry sacred water to the Ganga

 The beauties of Gokul awaken
 With cypress grace they wash at home
 though they long to bathe
 at the distant shores of the Jamuna

 News has spread, soaring
 arriving now at Mahaban
 clouds have alighted the wind
 undertaking their pilgrimage (7)

The pilgrimage of the clouds begins as a very Indic pilgrimage. Their movement is measured by the sacred geography of Hindus. They mass in the direction of Kashi, or Benaras, the city sacred to Shiva. Then they begin to move west across the fertile plains toward Mathura, the city sacred to Krishna. They move across the sacred rivers of the Ganges (Ganga) and the Jamuna, bearing the water that will feed them in their contra-flow toward the East, a flow that sustains all life on the Indic plain.

The next few couplets upset this idyllic setting. These Hindu surroundings, though beautiful, ancient and alluring, seem to engulf any hope of making a pilgrimage through the imagination to an Arabian prophet of radical monotheism. The poet raises his voice from the communalist tensions that have beset South Asia after the institution of British colonial rule. (8)
 Dark multitudes of cloud
 rise into view from afar
 As if all the gods have gathered,
 not just of India but the whole world

 Converging toward Mecca
 an assault of black clouds
 As if the idols Allat and Hubal
 Would once again seize the Ka'ba

 Lightning is the ablution pool of fire-worshipers
 taking fire from water
 Ebony clouds are the Brahmin's knot of hair
 taking water from fire

 Of the clouds' tumultuous waves
 Punjab is the superintendent
 While the lightning stroke of darkest Bengal
 is the governor general (9)

Communally conscious readers found the images of Hindu devotional life or images of love and passion out of place or even sacrilegious. In this series of couplets, Muhsin piles up the idols of infidelity suggested to him by the threatening mass of black clouds. These images include Hindu deities, pre-Islamic Arabian gods like Hubal and his female consort Allat, and even the ruling British empire's Governor General (traditionally based in Calcutta in Bengal) and military Superintendent (traditionally drawn from Silda military clans in Punjab). The clouds represent coercive power, whether it is the power of political force or of religious orthodoxy. The dark clouds blot out the light and obscure the truth, in a translation through imagery of the theological term kufr, often translated as "infidelity" but more literally understood as "obscuring what one knows to be true." (10) Muhsin was criticized for beginning a poem in praise of Muhammad with such images. (11) His admirers had to write a spirited defense of Muhsin's poetic propriety, noting that if the Prophet Muhammad himself read and praised love poetry, then how could anyone object to including images from love poetry in praise of the Prophet?

But soon, this threat is softened as the power of clouds brings the blessing of rain.
 All day, not one dry moment
 Water soaks the passing time
 for fifteen days, nothing but rain
 from Tuesday to Tuesday to Tuesday

 Young women peer at the sky
 yearning for Krishna's dark figure
 In their lithe breasts, Gopis' hearts
 tremble in expectation

 Brahmins stand in the doorways
 in hand gift bracelets for Rakhi
 But the downpour gives no break
 not an hour, not a minute

 Even the festival of Hindoli
 lost in a whirlpool
 No palanquins, no chariots
 not a single ox-drawn cart

 The people of Benaras can only
 dip into the waters of the Ganges
 For the holiday of youths
 this Tuesday festival wet beyond wet

 From depths to heights the wind
 blasts and gushes
 like a troop of mariners
 pouring Ganges waters in the rain

 Sinking then surfacing
 the new moon is a lone raft
 dropped into the billows of the emerald sea
 seething with turbulence (12)

The effects of the rain conjure up the romantic yearning of the monsoon season, a theme that dominates Indic poetry (in Hindi and other Prakrit languages, as well as in Urdu). The rain evokes longing in lovers, like the Gopis, the cowherds in Brindaban, who yearn for the handsome Krishna. Just a moment before, the dark clouds were the military Krishna, the charioteer and war hero. Now they have become the blue-black skin of the lover Krishna, who cavorts in the forest and leaves love-struck devotees yearning for his presence, as illustrated in the following Bengali devotional poem:
 Oh my friend, my sorrow is unending.
 It is the rainy season, my house is empty,
 The sky is filled with seething clouds,
 The earth sodden with rain,
 And my love far away.

 Cruel Kama pierces me with his arrows:
 The lightning flashes, the peacocks dance,
 Frogs and waterbirds, drunk with delight,
 Call incessantly--and my heart is heavy.
 Darkness on earth,
 The sky intermittently lit with a sullen glare ...

 Vidyapati says,
 How will you pass this night without you lord? (13)

Such erotic poetry describing the longing and ecstasy between Krishna and his lovers is characteristic of Bhakti, or Hindu devotional movements that found love (rather than knowledge or duty) to be the connection between divinity and devotee. (14) The rain that evokes love in Bhakti poetry also prevents Hindus from completing their ritual duties, as it washes away processions and prevents people from going out to visit relatives or temples. With their rituals left behind, the poem suggests that maybe, in this Bhakti mood, love and erotically charged mysticism can be the common ground that allows Muslims and Hindus to live in harmony.

The romantic yearning of the monsoon season affected South Asian Muslim poets just as deeply as it did Hindu poets. Amir Khusraw (1253-1325 CE) was one of the earliest Muslim poets in South Asia who integrated Indic images into the high classical Persian poetic tradition. Though he was a Turkish courtier in the administration of the Delhi Sultanate, his mother was Indian and he discovered a graceful congruity between Persian and Indian poetic images. Although he wrote in the qasida genre (panegyrics for kings and epic histories of their exploits), Amir Khusraw is more popularly remembered for his lyric love poetry, both ghazal in Persian and devotional verses in Braj-bhasha. The following Persian ghazal by Khusraw presents a paradox. The onset of the rainy season is the time of romance, but for the voice in this poem, the rainy season has brought him only separation from his lover. This painful separation is only heightened by the Indic expectations of love in the rain. The radif, or rhyming syllables at the close of each couplet, is -ar juda (translated here as "alone").
 Clouds pour rain and my friend leaves me alone
 why have I, so suddenly, from my heart's love grown alone?

 Clouds and rain, I and my friend, suspended in farewell
 I weep in solitude, clouds so far, my friend so alone

 Shoots tender, breeze fresh, a verdant garden in bloom
 nightingale, in anguish far from the rose, sings darkly alone

 With each hair of your tumultuous locks you've bound me
 how in one instant could you release me, leave me alone?

 You, pupil of my eye, for you alone my eyes are shot with blood
 be a true man, don't leave these beckoning bloodshot eyes alone!

 Who wants the blessing of sight that after this might remain
 any remaining sight but the blessed glimpse of you alone?

 I give you my soul, don't leave me, or else don't believe
 That any desires a garden that leaves its caretaker to go it alone

 Your enchanting allure won't remain once you abandon Khusraw
 how long lasts the rose, once it leaves its thorns to stand
 alone (15)

The clouds wander far afield like the beloved friend, leaving the poet drenched in rain like the tears that are his only companion. The satirical chiding of the final couplet, in which the poet speaks of himself or to himself as if he were a separate person (a standard rhetorical gesture of the Persian and Urdu ghazal genre) tries to cover over the poet's heartache by turning on the absent beloved with blame. Yet one couplet, no matter how barbed, cannot overwhelm the melancholy tone of anguish that the lover feels in separation from the beloved.

Muhsin's depiction of the clouds combines the erotic expectation of Hindi devotional poetry with the lovelorn melancholia of Persian lyric poetry. Even deeper than either of these medieval references, however, are echoes of an even more classical source in Sanskrit literature, a love poem in Hindu mythological setting, The Cloud Messenger by Kalidasa. (16) In this poem, the lover is separated from his beloved and exiled to a mountain where he invokes the clouds and charges them with a message to take to his beloved. Muhsin's qasida gains momentum now that it has entered the classical garden of love themes. The absent beloved may be the Prophet Muhammad, but the poet lover has been abandoned in the monsoon-drenched garden landscape of Northern India. The clouds explode into a kaleidoscope of images hovering over the garden. Now the images capture their dark outline against light, now their undulating motion, now their flashes of brilliance, now the textures created by their rainfall.
 Doves sweetly speak
 to the sacred Tooba tree
 Tulips of the garden whisper
 to the blackening skies

 Evening sinks into darkness
 hiding dark behind darker
 Layla in her palanquin
 her face behind a veil

 The idol worshiper looks on
 as the veil is lifted
 Beguiling ebony eyes rimmed with black
 Traced with enchanting kohl

 Like a yogi's saffron cloth
 the sky is humbled ashen
 Like a hermit spreading his blanket
 over the mountain wilderness

 At night the moon's invisible
 in the day the sun is hidden
 This darkness spreads like calamity
 under the influence of Saturn

 The rainfall so dense
 not a candle can be seen
 Even the moth circles forlorn
 searching for a flame

 a blossom of flame
 its smoke reaching the dawn sky
 spreads adhering like soot
 along the ceiling of the sun

 Darkness so thick
 even clouds can scarcely move
 Thunder claps call the lightning
 Come quickly, bring a torch

 Once it strikes
 lightning has no hope of return
 the fortress of the sky
 is a labyrinth of shifting clouds

 The shimmering air
 rippling silvery flowing
 a mirror about to fall
 if nobody catches it in time

 In a twinkling movement
 the garden springs full of life
 The eye of the narcissus looks about
 bewildered, still blind (17)

In this luscious garden, the images proliferate. The clouds dissolve into a bewildering pattern of images that dazzle the love-struck poet. The black clouds and the verdant roiling of the garden remind him of Layla, the beloved of the Arabic lover-poet Majnun. Her name means "night" and her eyes are as black as the hidden centers of the narcissus flower while her hair is as black as night. Like her lover, Majnun "the crazed," the poet is out of his mind with love in the charmed and charming garden.

By mentioning Layla and Majnun, Muhsin takes his reader back beyond Persian to more ancient echoes from classical and pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. His qasida begins to grow with a proliferation of garden images in a description of the traces of the beloved, in accord with the conventions of Arabic poetry. Scholar and poetic translator, Michael Sells, has described well this convention which can often take the Western reader by surprise: "Given the original expectation of a description of the beloved, the simile dissembles. The primary referent of these similes is not the beloved but a symbolic analogue of the beloved, the lost garden." (18) Sells then offers the illustration of the opening section (nasib) of the Mu 'allaqah of the pre-Islamic Arabian poet, 'Antarah:
 She takes your heart
 with the flash edge of her smile
 her mouth sweet to the kiss
 sweet to the taste

 As if a draft of musk
 from a spiceman's pouch
 announced the wet gleam
 of her inner teeth

 Or an untouched meadow
 blooms and grass
 sheltered in rain, untrodden,
 dung free, hidden

 Over it the white
 first clouds of spring
 pour down, leaving small pools
 like silver dirhams

 Pouring and bursting
 evening on evening
 gushing over it
 in an endless stream (19)

Muhsin made these references to classical Arabic poetry very self-consciously, for he had studied Arabic poetry as part of his primary education. He read it not only as poetry and grammar, but as the key to understanding metaphors in the Qur'an. He was therefore able to see not only the erotic energy of garden imagery, but also its mythic quality in conjuring up sacred landscapes and hints of paradise.

Here in this mythic place, the poet can meet Khidr, the immortal paragon of wisdom. Khidr is associated with the dark green of water and foliage, and his gift is the power of insight to grant ever-renewed life. (20) Khidr is the governing power in this garden of delight that distracts the senses and ensnares the heart. Khidr's inspiration leads lovers to ecstasy, to a literal "standing outside the self." Although his intoxicating work seems to be the opposite of the sober awareness of the Prophets, Khidr is the companion of Moses, just like Uways al-Qarani who let go the reins of self-control is reputed to have been the spiritual companion of the Prophet Muhammad. (21) Through this garden, ecstatic love might lead back to the presence of the Prophet.
 Khidr speaks to the hyacinth
 "May you live forever"
 and to the other flowers
 "Keep spreading hope's garden!"

 Jasmine, rose and jonquil
 sprinkle droplets of perfume
 From smooth light petals
 drips a liquor like ambrosia

 Foliage flows in waves
 against outbursts of lightning
 Sheer muslin taut across the sky
 rich velvet draped across the earth

 Fireflies pirouette
 illuminating the garden
 Gilding the edge of each petal
 with illuminated script

 All creatures with one voice
 praise the garden's delights
 The parrots rhyming epic
 the nightingale's lyric song

 Clouds shade the garden
 the canopy of a peacock throne
 Like an open parasol
 one flower shades another below

 Tiny white buds burst
 from every direction into bloom
 Chattering at each other
 a council of pale Europeans

 Flowers tremble on branches
 above the ground-hugging spikenard
 Each sways in the breeze
 Like riders and walkers along garden paths

 Fallen blossoms wander
 along the ground to farthest corners
 Or saunter along the walkways
 as if in a canter

 In the sigh of doves is delight
 a delight of such intensity
 That cypresses begin to bloom
 and from flowers emerge fruit

 Altogether come laments
 of the passionate heart's fragments
 The tree of sighs
 traces out its shooting stems

 The wine bearer's family tree
 has many bastard branches
 In the chaste purity of wine
 are many potent flecks of dross

 Winds begin to play
 in the downy hairs over his scarlet lip
 A lovebird takes off from beauty's garden
 becomes a prancing deer

 Like a startled dusky quail
 at the moment of flight
 Her eyelashes spread with kohl
 are about to take wing

 Tiny white blossoms laugh
 in the storm of judgement day
 And wonder that the velvet dream
 could ever be disturbed (22)

The beauty of a firefly's illuminated trail in the dark is like the illuminated page of a manuscript (perhaps even of the Qur'an, the illuminated script par excellence). Scriptural truth cannot be "read" but must be experienced in a state of love. The leaves of the garden bear the same message, Muhsin suggests, as do the leaves of a codex of sacred text. The only way to confront the scriptural declaration that judgement day is inevitably approaching, he suggests, is with love followed by longing, wonder and rapture. Only love is truly sincere, and only sincere actions will bear moral weight in the scales of judgement day.

At this point, voices ring out in the garden. There is not just a rose, but a nightingale as well. In Urdu and Persian poetry, the Prophet who speaks God's message is compared to a bird whose song rings out. Often it is the nightingale, sometimes the parrot, and in this case it is a dove. The Muslim reader will recognize the dove as a symbol of love. (23) The message is one of longing and lamenting the separation the bird suffers in the absence of its love and its sacred source. The nightingale's voice emerges in a ghazal, a lyric poem associated with words of love spoken to the absent beloved. Inlayed into the qasida is a ghazal, a different form that is more condensed and often more abstract. (24) The rhyme of the ghazal echoes the word "clouds" for they have led the poet into this dream-like place with all the beauties of a garden. Here the Muslim God (Allah al-Bari) and the Hindu God (Sri Krishna) are juxtaposed and through the dazzled eye of love appear to be the same.
 Surrounded by novel beauties
 wonder's captive wanders ensnared

 Black kohl is the powder of sleep
 in my yet open eyes

 On the branches of boxwood
 a dove nestled among tender shoots
 Sings to the assembled garden
 this ghazal of rhyming clouds

 From Kashi toward Mathura
 In a wave are rolling clouds
 Reflected in the Ganga and Jamuna
 float images of rolling clouds

 From Kashi the clouds
 have departed for Mathura
 Lord Krishna hides in towers
 of black soaring clouds

 Clouds spread thickly
 over the cowherds of Mathura
 Today the mood of poetry
 Is fully infusing clouds

 Clouds are roaming with the gorgeous rose
 and the darkest foreboding
 Lightning says "be blessed!"
 from the sorcerous seething clouds

 On the horizon line
 the shimmering Ganga and Jamuna
 Gilded sinews of lightning
 face the fast approaching clouds

 Glimmering movement of lightning
 appears again, again
 Foliage glimmers startled
 jolted by lurching clouds

 Why doesn't the lightning
 Linger just a moment
 Exchange the dark for light
 in this drunken hoard of roving clouds (25)

 Toward the abode of Rajender's temples
 of drunken beauties incline the rains
 Toward the abode of Krishna's melodies
 Of piercing flute turn reeling clouds

 Let the bitterness of wine arouse
 overflowing mercy of the Eternal
 As the glimmer of lighting hints
 At the shape of looming clouds

 Has there ever been harder
 Weeping and wailing than that of Muhsin?
 It's never been matched
 Even by roiling and raining clouds (26)

The clouds and their gift of rain now summon the names of God and the hope of God's mercy. Beyond the images of longing for Krishna, idol worship and wine drinking, the elemental reality of rain-bearing clouds strikes a deeper resonance. These couplets invoke the force of Qur'anic images in the Muslim poet's imagination.

Although Islamic theology has carefully distinguished the Qur'anic discourse as revelation superior to poetry, the Qur'an undeniably contains powerful poetic images. Its language has a power that is beyond just the ethical imperatives or legal rules that Muslims have extracted from it. That power has insured that poetry would be the primary art form of Islamic civilization (rivaled only by calligraphy and architecture). It has also provided specific images that poets have used, thereby allowing descriptions of seemingly profane or naturalistic topics to resonate with scriptural vibrations.

Muhsin makes just such skillful use of the images of clouds. The Qur'an directs human attention toward the clouds as one of the signs of God's existence and continual action in the natural and social world. Their moving in patterns, their providing shade, and their bearing nurturing rain are all actions of God. Rain is one of the primary symbols in the Qur'an for God's mercy, as Muhsin echoes in these couplets. A primary example of how the Qur'an argues for radical monotheism through poetic images occurs in Surat al-Rum:
 Allah it is
 Who sends winds
 That stir up clouds
 Then Allah spreads them across the sky
 As Allah wills
 breaks them into fragments
 And you witness the rain pouring forth
 From their midst
 Then those servants whom Allah makes to receive rain
 how they rejoice
 Even though before rain was sent down
 They were, just a moment before,
 Dumb-struck with despair.
 Won't you contemplate
 The traces of Allah's mercy,
 How the earth is revived after its death?
 That same power will revive the dead
 And is powerful over all things. (27)

In other Qur'anic verses, the clouds are pictured piled high into formations like the mountains, granting the clouds solidity, majesty, and power in addition to their life-sustaining role. In Surat al-Nur, the Qur'an presents clouds as life-threatening as well as life-sustaining, presenting the same ambivalence that Muhsin captures in his poem of praise.
 Do you not see
 That Allah moves the clouds
 Joins them together
 Masses them into a heap
 Then you see the rain
 Coming forth from their midst?
 Allah sends down from the sky
 Hail from mountainous masses
 To afflict with hail whom Allah wills
 And to turn it away from whom Allah wills.
 Its lightning flash almost takes away
 The power of sight. (28)

The image of massive objects being dissolved into vapor is one way that the Qur'an describes the coming day of judgement. The clouds share this quality of being a mass without durable substance. Muhsin invokes the clouds as a symbol ushering in the imminence of judgement day. The clouds hint at Divine mercy, but also loom in dark formations that suggest Divine wrath. In Surat al-Furqan, the Qur'an pictures the clouds again: they act as intermediaries between the earth and sky, and are mentioned along with angels who will appear when the sky that seems so firm is cleft open.
 That day we will turn to
 Whatever deeds they have done
 And make them like particles of dust
 That day the sky is cleft open
 With clouds
 And the angels are sent down
 Descending. (29)

Mentioning judgement day, when the clouds will have a special role, brings the poet a new urgent awareness of his current state. This moment corresponds to the close of the ghazal section, when Mushin mentions his own name as if he were standing outside himself. Has there ever been harder weeping and wailing than that of Muhsin? Is this a self-criticism or a statement of admiration?

The rain inclines toward the charms of Benares while the clouds incline toward the beauties of Brindaban; yet Muhsin weeps louder and longer than either one, due to the force of his longing love. And what direction does that love take him? The beauties of this garden intoxicate him and strip him of his senses. In that moment of letting go of self-centeredness, the poet finds himself transported into the presence of the Prophet Muhammad. This is a presence beyond any rival sacred place or competing beloved.
 Stirring up drunken delight
 Dark potent clouds swirl above the garden
 Into the wine-tavern of Brindaban
 Clouds carry the goblet of the sun

 Wine-drowsed eyes are rimmed with red delight
 As if a bank of roses has burst into bloom
 Like a fragrant Keora bud opening
 The seal is broken on the bottle (30)

 Take a close look
 Follow how this discourse ascends
 A decorated goblet in hand
 A bottle of wine under arm

 Drunk with ecstasy
 Where will this wanderer land?
 Not even the wing of secrets
 Can imagine such a place

 He's arrived at a place
 an expanse of ultimate light
 From where even the clouds are as insignificant
 as a haystack struck by lightning

 There angels' hymns of blessing
 Pour out continuously like rain
 And praises for the Lord
 Of all worlds, the Majestic and Mighty

 Here is the tree of life
 There immortality's spring and paradise's gardens
 In this direction flows a river of milk
 While that way flows a stream of honey

 Gabriel reigns supreme here
 And there rules Asrafiel
 Rizwan guards the portal
 While beauty personified pours wine from the spring

 The lover asks for nothing
 But the beloved's face clearly shown
 The playfully flirting beloved
 At times behind a veil and at times with beauty dazzling (31)

In these couplets, the poet follows the presence of the Prophet Muhammad. On those august footsteps, the poet is able to ascend like the Prophet through the skies and into the heavens. The night journey (isra') and ascension to heaven (mi'raj) are among the rare miracles of the Prophet, and comprise one of the favorite themes of folktale tellers, allegorical mystics and poets. Even in his ascension to join the Prophet in heaven, the poet measures his position by the clouds: he has reached a place from where even the magnificent clouds, once so high and powerful, seem as fragile and ephemeral as a haystack struck by lightning. The haystack under lightning is a classic image from Persian and Urdu poetry, usually compared to the fleeting nature of a person's life and the futility of hoarding against future calamity. The metaphor here suggests a double image: not only the poet's own mortality (with a life that in one flash can go up in flames) but also the imminence of Judgement Day (when the masses of clouds in one instant can dissolve and the sky can be cleft open).

Ascension is an image of radical transcendence. From the heavenly vantage point, even the clouds seem as earth-bound as a haystack. Yet in the transcendent space of the heavens, sensory images of abundance and repose are vivid in their immanence. Distance from earthly objects conversely suggests proximity and intimacy with divine realities. However, as a lover the poet is not tempted to enjoy the sensual abundance of paradise's garden; rather his devoted attention is riveted on the beloved alone. At this point, the poet enters the more theologically standard realm of praise for the Prophet.
 The garden of transcendence
 Sprouts with buds of immanence
 Its firm branches are the Prophets
 While sages and saints are its visible flowers

 A flower of such exquisite color
 Is the Arab Prophet of Medina
 He's the embroidery on the cloth of eternity
 The gilt pin on the turban of everlastingness

 None is like him
 None can even come close
 None can be equated to him
 None can compete or compare

 He is the full moon at its height
 The fruit of the palm tree of both worlds
 The pearl of the ocean of unity
 The fount of the spring of multiplicity (32)

The couplets of hyperbolic praise follow in rapid succession, as the Prophet is found to be present within any image of beauty. According to Islamic tradition, God said to the Prophet Muhammad, "If not for you, I would not have created the spheres." (33) Any image of beauty, and how many of them the poet presents in the course of his qasida, is beautiful only through the Prophet's presence. With this insight, the poet turns back to the beauty of the clouds. How could they be antagonistic to the Prophet? How could they even move without the dynamic presence of the Prophet? How could their majesty and mercy suggest anything other than the Prophet?

As the clouds move from East to West, the poet discovers their true orientation and true goal. Like himself, they are turned toward the Prophet's birthplace at Mecca. At this point, the poet intensifies the rhyme once again in the form of a second ghazal (again with the radif -a badal).
 Could it be that toward the Ka'ba
 Now are blowing clouds?
 prostrating toward the earth of Mecca
 move those forehead-lowering clouds

 They have left the taverns of India
 And the idol temples of Brindaban
 Today in the sanctuary of the Ka'ba
 Race the refuge-taking clouds

 The fate-turning skies have been brought
 Down bedecked and saddled
 For an Arabian king to ride
 The black and bucking clouds

 The Arab Messenger is the purest pearl
 hidden deep in the sea of potentiality
 Raised by the mercy of the Lord
 and lodged in surrounding clouds

 Those with wisdom endowed
 Pray toward the brow of the Prophet
 His bright countenance almost veiled
 by black curls of enframing clouds

 Lightning weeps out-shined
 By the flame of your enchanting cheek
 Across the shamed face of lightning
 Is pulled the veil of concealing clouds

 The fame of that life-giving lip
 Of Muhammad has reached so far
 "Has the healer, Lord Jesus, heard of him yet?"
 Declare the preaching clouds

 At the threshold of utmost holiness
 He passed beyond the bounds of angels
 On his night ascension to the divine throne
 Beyond all obscuring clouds

 He kept pace with the lightning-footed
 Fleet steed called Burraq
 Like a bird soaring through gardens
 of the upper world beyond lofting clouds (34)


 In the battle field of bravery
 Your sword flashes like lightning
 In the rose garden of generosity
 Your hand gleams like ever-giving clouds

 Muhsin, now wander through the gardens
 Of intimate conversation with God
 You might receive an answer like a precious pearl
 falling from the request-receiving clouds (35)

The second ghazal thus ends as the poet again addresses himself as another. He invites Muhsin to enter into a new garden: beyond the apparent garden of paradise is a more secret garden of intimate conversations with God, or munajat.

This is the ultimate proximity to God. The poet has reached this point of intimacy through loving devotion to the Prophet and outspoken praise of his virtues. Those virtues are incomparable, yet the poet compares them to so many images of beauty, strength and profundity. The very inability to comprehend and express the Prophet's virtues demonstrates his incomparable virtue. At this point, the poet can state his request to God directly and this is the very goal of the long poem itself.

That request is to stand next to the Prophet on the day of judgement, protected by the Prophet's intercession. The qasida concludes with this request, as audacious as it is humble.
 "Your Lord is most high
 Superior to any and all"
 Let these few words
 Encompass each detail of my faith

 My only hope
 Is that your admiring praise might fill
 My every word, leaving no rhyme bare
 Nor couplet, no qasida no ghazal

 I rely on nothing in this world
 or preparing for the next world
 except for you, on you I depend
 on your power, on your strength

 My hope's thin thread
 Is that ever-green palm
 Whose every branch blossoms
 Whose every blossom bears fruit

 My only desire is that my focus
 On your person lasts till a dying breath
 So that your blessed form rises
 In my vision as life ebbs away

 My tongue says your name Ahmad
 My breast in secret pronounces Ahad
 On my lips "May God bless him"
 In my art "God himself, the Magnificent and Mighty"

 The angel of death can take my soul
 Anywhere it pleases
 Just let my longing soul first visit Medina
 From there, take it however you will!

 Let my dying breath show
 That your intercession is assured
 I've no thought for tomorrow
 Let it come and bring whatever it may

 I'm still bewildered from gazing
 At the reflection of your cheek
 In my eyes the grave's straits
 Are more lovely than a glass-paneled palace

 Wherever you call home
 The angels who try the dead
 Act as generous hosts who never trouble
 Your guests or leave them restless

 The light of your countenance
 Will stay with me as I pass away
 Accompany me on a journey to nothingness
 Like a lamp lighting up the darkness

 When my deeds, both weak and strong
 Are weighed in judgement's scales
 Let my sins be left aside
 All my sins, both heavy and light

 If judgement is against me
 veil my ill fate with your black tresses
 If my deeds are deemed wholesome
 Uncover your fair cheeks to be my witness (36)

The Prophet is so close to Goal that he is the only vehicle to drawing near unto God. The name of the Prophet, Ahmad, the most praised, is so close as to be separated by just one letter to the name of God, Ahad, the Unique One. Just as clouds are the channel for God's mercy in the passage of routine worldly time, so the Prophet will be the channel for God's mercy at the end of time, of death, judgement, and life beyond death. In praising the Prophet, the poet draws near to him, and in drawing near to him he asks for the Prophet's protection. The angels of death and trial will offer their scrolls that record all his deeds, both sinfully bad and ineffectually good; the poet, however, will be clutching his own scroll, the pages on which he has written this long poem of praise.
 Let this humble one who praises you
 Stand with you on judgement day
 His trembling hand proffering
 This crazy qasida, this lovelorn ghazal

 When Gabriel will give the sign
 "In God's name, yes, go forth!"
 Then from Kashi toward Mathura
 the clouds begin to roll (37)

In the end, the poet hopes that his praise will be accepted and his intercession assured. Then the angel will give the command for his spirit to go forth, along with his Prophet, into the everlasting garden and its promise of beatific vision of the presence of God. He will move onward with the same swiftness, grace and unstoppable momentum as he had observed in the monsoon clouds at the initiation of the poem. Then from Kashi toward Mathura, the clouds begin to roll. Even from Northern India, a few words of praise can transport the lover to the holy city of Medina, the presence of the Prophet, and beyond.

Muhsin was, in some ways, an innovator in Urdu poetry. He wrote in an age of rapid change and modernization in literature as in society. He is famous for being the first poet to devote his literary craft exclusively to the genre of na't, or praise of the Prophet Muhammad. As he wrote himself, "My only hope is that your admiring praise might fill/My every word, leaving no rhyme bare nor couplet, no qasida no ghazal." He also adopted the formal qasida form to this subject, while earlier poets had used the lighter and more lyrical thumri form for praising the Prophet. In Persian and Urdu, the qasida was court poetry par excellence; a poet would write a qasida as a form of panegyric for the king or patron, in exchange for material support or favors. Muhsin adopted this very profane form of poetry and transposed it into a religious framework. His qasida is a long and complex epic of praise for the Prophet, and he offers it at the gates of heaven (not at court) for the favor of intercession and salvation (not for material patronage).

Muhsin made this rhetorical move at a time of social crisis for Muslims in South Asia. Their courts had been steadily marginalized and controlled by the British colonial project, and the violent events of 1857 CE finally obliterated the last vestiges of Mughal court life at Delhi. Some modernizing poets and authors turned to British colonial institutions for patronage, others found careers as lawyers or educators. Muhsin lived through these traumas and negotiated their pitfalls by retreating from the urban centers to the small traditional town where his ancestors had settled, the Qasba of Kakora. In this way, he was able to innovate within traditional forms rather than innovate through modernizing his poetic output. In contrast, other poets in his era who remained in urban centers relied on modern colonial institutions; these poets (like Hali, Azad and later Iqbal) were pushed to reform their literary production. They adopted new poetic forms, socially useful topics, and Victorian moral standards. (38) Muhsin was comparatively exempt from these pressures; this is what makes his poetic output so intriguing. To better understand this approach to poetry, which turned his eye to the clouds rather than to communalist moralizing or political rhetoric, we have to keep in mind the biographical details of his life.

Muhammad Muhsin was born in Kakora in 1242 Hijri (1826-7 CE). (39) He began his education in religious studies at age six, under the tutelage of his grandfather, Maulvi Hussayn Bakhsh. This grandfather had worked with English colonial administrators to earn a living, but at a certain point took an oath of ascetic renunciation and gave up career aspirations to dedicate himself to prayer and meditation according to the family's Sufi heritage. The family had a long association with the Qadiri Sufi community. (40) He also dedicated time to the composition of books in Arabic and Persian. If we can judge by the range of topics on which he wrote, he gave his grandson a very deep literary and theological education, including heavy doses of Arabic and Persian poetry. (41)

Muhsin's grandfather was the foundation for his education, his spiritual orientation, and his poetic project. The family traced its ancestry back to the family of the Prophet Muhammad, through his cousin and closest follower, Hazrat 'Ali. Muhsin must have seen his grandfather as the key link in his own connection to the Prophet, not just genealogically but also spiritually. Muhsin composed his first poem at age nine (in Persian) in response to a dream vision. This vision linked the young soon-to-be poet to his grandfather and to the Prophet in a very powerful way that was to shape Muhsin's later development:
 It was the night before Friday, the ninth of Dhu al-Qa'ida
 in the year 1251 Hijri, when I was just a few months past
 nine years old. I was sleeping next to my grandfather
 when I had a dream. I saw that I was in a vast desert, travelling
 with my grandfather and holding him by the hand.
 Then the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be
 upon him and his family and companions, came up to us.
 He was holding in his blessed hand a string of prayer
 beads, with beads that were huge and black. He came up
 to us and took our hands. He led us to a place of astounding
 purity and turned us to face the direction of Mecca.
 Holding my grandfather's hand, the Prophet took from
 him an oath of allegiance and conferred on him the status
 of disciple [murid]. Then he turned to me and granted me
 the same blessing. Then he turned to Rustam [the great
 pre-Islamic Iranian hero memorialized in the classic
 Persian epic poem, Shahnama by Firdausi]. We washed
 his hands and feet and Rustam became a Muslim. We
 desired that Rustam also become a disciple of the Prophet
 Muhammad, but he did not agree to this. Then I woke up
 and found that I had been sleeping next to my grandfather.
 I gave heart-felt thanks to God for having given me
 this blessed dream vision. (42)

Muhsin reflected on this dream in a Persian poem, which he claims was the first poem that he ever wrote. In it, one can see the seeds of Muhsin's future vocation as a poet. He reified his relationship to the Prophet, and took on the vocation of being a disciple of the Prophet himself, rather than of any living Sufi master or spiritual guide. (43) In addition, the young Muhsin helped "convert" the hero of Persian epic poetry, Rustam, to Islam. Throughout his life, Muhsin would try to similarly "convert" Persian and Urdu poetic images, forms and conventions to a similar reorientation toward the praise of the Prophet Muhammad. Rather than condemning love poetry, Muhsin tried to reorient it, insisting that all images of love were really love for the Prophet, beyond their more immediate metaphoric surface.

Muhsin's grandfather was murdered in 1257 Hijri (1841 CE), and the young poet continued his studies with his father and other teachers. Muhsin's father was also an author, and seems to have experimented in writing praise poems for the Prophet in more traditional genres. (44) The father died in 1301 Hijri, leaving Muhsin and younger brother, Muhammad Ahsan. His father sent Muhsin's early poems to his uncle in Lucknow for correction and polishing. This uncle, Maulvi Hadi Ali "Ashk," was a litterateur and editor at the famous Nawal Kishor press in Lucknow; he was Muhsin's only poetic teacher and mentor.

After completing his education, a local judge who was a family friend encouraged Muhsin to qualify for legal work as an attorney. He passed the required exams and moved to Agra to work at the high court (Sadr 'Adalat) there and also in Mathura. This career was cut short, however, by the events of 1857 (that the British called "the Sepoy Mutiny" and South Asians know as "the first war of independence"). South Asian soldiers in the army of the British East India Company rebelled when the British illegally annexed the Kingdom of Awadh (that had Lucknow as its capital). The rebellion spread in the name of the Mughal emperor who had been kept as a puppet king at Delhi (though the emperor, Bahadur Shah "Zafar," was more involved in Urdu poetry than in either ruling or rebelling against foreign rule). The British suppressed the rebellion and wiped out the last vestiges of Mughal royalty, coming down hard on local Muslim notables in major cities like Delhi and Agra whom they suspected of disloyalty. In these dire circumstances, Muhsin returned from Agra to the safety of his ancestral home in Kakora.

Muhsin continued to practice his legal career and manage land estates in his mature years, even as he wrote poetry. But as he aged, he grew more interested in leading an explicitly devotional life, on the model of his grandfather. He eventually gave up his productive career, retired from social life, and devoted his time to studying and meditating on Sufi classics, especially Ibn al-'Arabi's Fusus al-Hikam. (45) In his later life, Muhsin was the poetic mentor and teacher of several friends and relatives, and passed away in 1905. (46)

These biographical details help us to assess Muhsin's poetic innovations in Urdu literature, as well as the particular complexity of "this crazy qasida, that lovelorn ghazal" that he wrote in praise of the Prophet. Muhsin seems out of touch with the poetic currents of his contemporaries such as Hali and Iqbal, even as he had access to the same modernizing milieu that they did. Hali worked for the colonial education department in Lahore, while Iqbal worked in the courts as a lawyer. They were both deeply committed to "modernizing" Urdu poetry to make it a vehicle for expressing the aspirations and imaginations of the South Asian Muslim community after the suppression of the Mughal court. They both experimented with new poetic forms, especially the musaddas, a long poem of six-line stanzas. The musaddas was not a popular classical form for Urdu or Persian poetry, unlike the ghazal or the qasida. It was therefore the perfect vehicle for "modern" poetic ideas, especially poems of communal exhortation, historical argumentation, and political reformism.

The most famous musaddas is probably that of Altaf Hussayn Hali, entitled The Ebb and Flow of Islam. It was an exhortation to South Asian Muslims to return to the original spirit of Islam in its Arabian environment. Hali pictured Islam in a state of decline, like the tides at their lowest ebb. According to Hali's diagnosis, social ills, poetic conceit, effeminate elite classes, and religious sectarianism were all to blame for allowing the Muslim community to surfer colonial occupation by the British. Hali's epic poem takes a tour through Islamic history, aimed at stripping off the discolored varnish of Indo-Islamic, Persian, and Turkish culture to recover the original sound wood of Arab-Islamic communal strength. Interestingly, Hali too uses images of clouds to illustrate the expansion of Islam through the vehicle of Arab conquests; however, in his imagination the nourishing clouds originated in the deserts of Mecca and Medina in a surprising reversal of climatic expectations.
 A rain-cloud arose from the mountains of Batha
 And its fame suddenly spread in all directions
 It's thunder and lightning extended far
 When it thundered over the Tagus it rained over the Ganges
 No creatures of water or of earth remained in want of it
 God's whole plantation became green.

 The 'illiterate' Arabs kindled a radiance in the world
 Which made Islam prosper gloriously.
 They expelled idols from Arabia and the rest of the world
 They went and set to rights every sinking ship.
 They spread pure monotheism over the world.
 The cry of "He is the true God!" began to come from every home.


 They went and made every desolate land flourish.
 They prepared the material basis for everyone's comfort.
 Mountains and deserts that were dangerous
 Were turned by them into the envy of the rose-garden's enclosure.
 The spring season which has now come into the world
 Had its seedlings planted by them. (47)

However, this flourishing garden that Hall attributes to Arabian Islamic culture had passed into decline, allowing Europeans to take the reins of "civilization." As he writes in the concluding aphorism of his long poem, "Many springs have welled up here only to run dry, many gardens have bloomed and blossomed only to be cut back." In Hali's Musaddas, the colonial occupiers were a blessing, since they stripped Muslims of this decaying past and woke them up to the need for reform. It was a pruning that, in his estimation, had been a long time in coming.

A generation later, Muhammad Iqbal revisited the musaddas form, composing his famous Complaint Against God which launched his poetic lame. He first recited the poem in 1909, upon returning to South Asia from Europe (where he finished his doctorate in philosophy at Munich). Like Hali, he engages history directly, taking his listeners on a tour of past Islamic triumphs. However, his history has a different rhetorical framework. He writes his musaddas as a complaint to God against God. Iqbal accused God of having abandoned the Muslim community by letting them fall under the control of British overlords. This was the result not of Muslims' infidelity to some imagined Arab-Islamic purity, but rather of God's infidelity to the Muslim community! The poet speaks openly to remind God of their covenant, to return Muslims to their previous position of leaders in world civilization and South Asian politics.
 Why is my work wasted and I'm left bankrupt?
 No thought for the future except remorse for the past?
 I've listened rapt to the nightingale's lament while my body
 wastes away
 Am I a rose, my friend, that I pass away in silence?
 I'm all fired up, my speech makes me bold
 To hell with consequences, I'll complain of God to God!


 Now the world bestows favors on our rivals
 While we're left with an imaginary world
 We've been dismissed and the world is ruled by others,
 Still you can't say faith in one God is absent from the world
 We live only for the world to resound with your Name!
 How could the wine-pourer abscond while the goblet
 faithful remain? (48)

The audacity of this public complaint riled up the more traditionally orthodox scholars of the Muslim community. (49) However, Iqbal's voice was the rallying cry for many modernist Muslims who were more sensitive to the growing communal tensions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Iqbal, in these poems as in his prose lectures, urged Muslims to adopt modern institutions (national states, parliamentary legislatures, and reformed legal codes). This and only this, he argued, would renew the Muslim community's contact with the original dynamic spirit of the Prophet of Islam.

When placed next to these two modernizing Urdu poets, Muhsin seems to have deliberately lost his voice in traditional imagery and poetic forms. However, the quality of being lost in the traditional imagery of Urdu poetry gives Muhsin's qasida its unique approach to innovation. Like Hali and Iqbal, he also is forced by political trauma to look back into the past and review the literary and cultural history of Muslims in South Asia. Muhsin's assessment is far more loving and appreciative than Iqbal's or Hali's. The difference is that Muhsin can still perceive the polymorphous quality of the sacred; he still upholds poetry as the clearest lens through which this quality of sacred power can be seen. If God created the universe through an original act of desire and love (God's love for the Prophet Muhammad as the primordial human being who acts as the most complete reflection of God's own qualities), then any passionately loving response by human beings to the universe is true worship of God.
 The Reality first expressed the Breath which is called the
 Breath of the Merciful from the Lordship by creating the
 Cosmos.... Know that the Reality ... in His Self-manifestation,
 transmutes Himself in the forms; know also that when
 the Heart embraces the Reality, it embraces none other than
 He, since it is as if the Reality fills the Heart.... Consider
 then how wonderful is God in His Identity and in His relation
 to the Cosmos.... Who is here and what is there? Who is
 here is what is there! He who is universal is particular and He
 Who is particular is universal.... Surely in that is a reminder
 for him who has a heart, by reason of His [constant] transformation
 through all the varieties of forms and attributes. (50)

It is fitting to end this study of Muhsin's poem with this quote from the Sufi theologian, Ibn al-'Arabi. Muhsin spent his life studying Ibn al'Arabi's text, Fusus al-Hikam, and the concepts expressed in that text--about the spiritual and cosmological wisdom personified in the Prophets--are the foundation of his poetic imagery. Hali can find sacredness only in the historically distant past in the life of the Arabian Prophet. Iqbal can find sacredness only in the providential political and cultural superiority of the Muslim community as defined by its ritual practices and theological distinctiveness. In contrast, Muhsin (following the hints of Ibn al-'Arabi) can find sacredness in natural phenomena, like the passage of clouds, which are universally accessible even as they are insistently ephemeral and bewilderingly polymorphous. If one tries to define and delimit the shape of the clouds according to one's self-centered conceits, clouds will forever elude one's grasp and leave one pitifully earth-bound.

However, the ultimate message of Muhsin's qasida is that one can abandon self-centered conceits through a passionately loving response to nature, to people, to the Prophet himself (and perhaps to the divine Real who sent the Prophet). If one's heart is filled with love and longing, like the lost heart of the poet, then the clouds become intelligible, bearing a message in their continually shifting shapes. They can carry one on a pilgrimage, not just to the physical Ka'ba in Mecca where the Prophet prayed, but to the more subtle Ka'ba of the heart where the Prophet can be fully present.


(1) Many thanks to Stephen Hopkins, Katherine Ulrich and Muhammad Shahab Ahmed for reading, critiquing, and helping to improve this article while it was in preparation.

(2) Ali Ansari, "The Rain Cloud and the Prophet," Celebrating Muhammad: Images of the Prophet in Popular Muslim Poetry, eds. Ali Asani and Kamal Abdel-Malik (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995), 37-45 and 85-89. The translations offered in this present article were made without reference to those of Ali Asani, and are offered here with the acknowledgement that all translations are "betrayals" of the original and that multiple betrayals are more interesting than singular ones. It is hoped that a more intrepid translator in the future might offer a full translation of Muhsin's entire qasida.

(3) Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (San Diego: Harcourt Inc., 1956; rpt. 1987).

(4) Eliade, 116.

(5) John Sallis, Force of Imagination: The Sense of the Elemental (Bloomington: Indiana U P, 2000), 182-83.

(6) Sayyid Muhammad Muhsin, Kulliyat-i Na't-i Muhsin, ed. Muhammad Nur al-Hasan (Lucknow: Uttar Pradesh Urdu Academy, 1972), 93-123. Many thanks to my friend, Syed Mehdi of Aligarh, for first bringing this poem to my attention. Thanks also to my tutors, Safdar Shafiq and Tashhirullah Hussayni of Hyderabad, for reading through the poem with me. The translation is the author's, but I am indebted to the discussions that we had shared while reading through it together. All subsequent translations from the poem will be indicated by couplet number.

(7) Couplets 1-3. References to Gokul and Mahaban (the great forest) point to specific locations in the homeland of Krishna at Brindaban, near the city of Mathura, that were the focus of intense pilgrimage activity among Hindu devotees to Krishna. Some Muslims in the early modern period were also devoted to Krishna, like the Mughal-era poet "Rahim" who composed verses in Braj-bhasha (the local dialect of Hindustani current around Mathura) in praise of Krishna.

(8) Even difference in language was caught up in communalist tensions as Urdu became seen as "the language of Muslims" as distinct from Hindi as "the language of Hindus." Arguably, both had previously been subtle variations on Hindustani, a language common to Muslims, Hindus and others in the Indo-Gangetic plain. See David Lelyveld, "Colonial Knowledge and the Fate of Hindustani," Comparative Studies in Society and History 35.4 (October 1993): 665-83.

(9) Couplets 4-7.

(10) Toshohiko Izutsu, God and Man in the Koran: Semantics of the Koranic Weltanschauung (Tokyo: Keio Institute of Culture and Linguistic Studies, 1964, rpt. 1987), 31-33.

(11) Asani in pages 41-42 details how his contemporaries critiqued Muhsin's choice of images and the defense mounted by his friends and admirers.

(12) Couplets 11-17.

(13) Edward Dimock and Denise Levertov, trans., In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967). "Prakrit" refers to diverse regional Indic languages that evolved in contrast to Sanskrit as a classical language, including Bengali from which this example is drawn. Kama refers to the deity of love and passion.

(14) Krishna Chaitanya, The Betrayal of Krishna: Vicissitudes of a Great Myth (New Delhi: Clarion Books, 1991), 422-47.

(15) Amir Khusraw, Intikhab-i Ghazaliyat-i Khusraw (Lahore: Majlis-i Taraqqi-yi Adab, n.d.), 6. This ghazal is also included in Wheeler Thackston, ed., A Millennium of Classical Poetry (Bethesda: Iran Books, 1994), 51.

(16) Kalidasa, The Cloud Messenger: translated from Sanskrit by Franklin and Eleanor Edgerton (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964).

(17) Couplets 15-20, 22-24, 26 and 28.

(18) Michael Sells, "Guises of the Ghul: Dissembling Simile and Semantic Overflow in the Classical Arabic Nasib," Reorientations/Arabic and Persian Poetry, ed. Susan Stetkevych (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994), 131.

(19) Sells, "Guises of the Ghul," 135. For other examples of the "overflow" of erotic into garden imagery, see Micheal Sells, trans., Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan U P, 1989).

(20) The Qur'an, in Surat al-Kahf (chapter XVIII), alludes to Khidr as "the companion of Moses" and the "servant of Alexander" who recognizes the spring of the water of life and enjoys the gift of divine inspiration that is before or beyond even Prophetic revelation.

(21) For more information about Khidr and Uways, see Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimension of Islam (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1975).

(22) Couplets 29-43.

(23) Ibn Hazm, Tawq al-Hamama (The Ring of the Dove), trans. A. J. Arberry (London: Luzac Oriental, 1994) collects Arab and Andalusian stories of love and lovers under the symbol of the dove. In Islamitic poetry, the dove is a symbol of love, rather than a symbol of peace as English readers might assume.

(24) The ghazal sections are technically part of the qasida and are not separate from it. The ghazals form an intensification of the qasida's rhyme structure, for each couplet ends with the syllable pattern "-aa badal" (translated as--ing the clouds) rather than just "-al" like the surrounding qasida (which is not translated with a fixed rhyme in this English version).

(25) Couplets 44-51 and 53.

(26) Couplets 61-63.

(27) Qur'an, Surat al-Rum XXX:48-49. Translation of this and all subsequent verses from the Qur'an are by the author.

(28) Qur'an, Surat al-Nur XXIV:43.

(29) Qur'an, Surat al-Furqan XXV:23-25.

(30) Couplets 64-65.

(31) Couplets 81-86 and 88. In Islamic cosmology, Asrafiel is the archangel who will sound the trumpet that signals the beginning of Judgement while Rizwan is the angel who guards the entrance to paradise.

(32) Couplets 90-93.

(33) "If not for you, I would not have created the spheres" is a hadith qudsi, or inspiration of God as translated through the Prophet Muhammad's own words outside of the Qur'anic revelation. Muhammad was often known among Muslims as "the Lord of If Not For You." See Annemarie Schimmel, And Muhammad Is His Messenger: Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 131-35.

(34) Couplets 113-115, 117-119 and 121-122. In the Mi'raj narrative, Burraq is the mythical winged steed upon which Muhammad mounted to ascend from Jerusalem through the seven layers of the Heavens until he reached the Divine Throne. Muhsin wrote various poetic descriptions of this heavenly journey, as in his mathnawi "Chiragh-i Ka'ba" (Illumination of the House of God), Kulliyat-i Na't-i Muhsin, 124-155.

(35) Couplets 127-128.

(36) Couplets 129-141.

(37) Couplets 142-143.

(38) Scott Kugle, "Sultan Mahmud's Make-Over: Colonial Homophobia and the Persian-Urdu Literary Tradition," Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society, ed. Ruth Vanita (New York: Routledge, 2002), 30-46 discusses how this modernizing poetic reform affected the use of erotic imagery.

(39) The editor, Muhammad Nur al-Hasan, has included a biography of the poet as an introduction to Kulliyat-i Na't-i Muhsin, 4-20.

(40) His ancestors traced their religious allegiance to 'Abd al-Qadir Jilani, a great hadith scholar, Hanbali jurist, and Sufi saint who is eponymous "founder" of the Qadiriyya Sufi community. One of Muhsin's ancestors was a delegate of the saint's son and disciple, 'Abd al-Razzaq Qadiri. His family left Baghdad to migrate to Khurasan (northern Persia) and then to Northern India. In the reign of Sultan Ibrahim Lodi, his ancestor, Qari Amir Sayf al-Din settled in the fortress town of Kakora, in Uttar Pradesh. This ancestor and his descendents had a reputation for scholarship and Sufi piety. Their biographies are included in hagiographic literature and collections of the lives of Muslim scholars in India, such as Abd al-Qadir Badauni's Muntakhab al-Tawarikh (Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1924) and Wajih al-Din Ashraf's Bahr-i Zakhkhar (ms Hyderabad, India: Andhra Pradesh State Oriental Manuscript and Research Library 238, "Farsi Tazkira").

(41) Maulvi Hussayn Bakhsh wrote in Arabic a book about Arabic poetic literature, Dururiyyat al-Udaba', and another on Persian literature, Dastur al-Kamalat, among other books on grammar and mathematics.

(42) Kulliyat-i Na't-i Muhsin, 9.

(43) This echoes developments in the Naqshbandi Sufi movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, called "Tariqa Muhammadiyya" in which Mir Dard, the famous Urdu poet and Sufi leader, participated as well. See Annemarie Schimmel, Pain and Grace: A Study of Two Mystical Writers of Eighteenth Century Muslim India (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1976).

(44) Muhsin's father, Maulvi Hasan Bakhsh, composed a collection of stories about the Prophets from Adam to Muhammad, entitled Tafrih al-Adhkiya' fi Ahwal al-Anbiya', which included in its conclusion his collection of Thumri verses in Urdu (in praise of the Prophet).

(45) This is the classic text of Ibn al-'Arabi that summarizes his philosophical and ethical argument for the oneness of being; see Ibn al-'Arabi, Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R. J. W. Austin, (New York: Paulist Press, 1980).

(46) His pupils included his younger brother Sayyid Muhammad "Ahsan," Maulvi Ahsanullah Khan "Saqib," Munshi 'Abd al-Wahid "Tirang," and others.

(47) Christopher Shackle and Muhammad Mujib, Hali's Musaddas: The Flow and Ebb of Islam (Delhi: Oxford U P, 1997), stanzas 69, 70 and 76. Hali attributes the appealing imagery of gardens to Arabian Islamic culture (as opposed to the Persian, Mughal or Indian Muslim cultures that actually cultivated gardens) as part of his critique of his own immediate contemporaries and their recent history, literary productions, and religious ethos.

(48) Muhammad Iqbal, Shikwa wa Jawab-i Shikwa: Complaint and Answer (Delhi: Oxford U P, 1981), stanzas 1 and 18.

(49) This forced Iqbal to write a companion Musaddas, Jawab-i Shikwa (God's Answer to the Complaint), in which he tried to dismiss the criticisms that were leveled against him, by giving God the final word.

(50) Ibn al-'Arabi, Bezels of Wisdom, 148-50, comments on the Qur'an, L:37.
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Author:Kugle, Scott
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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