Mustansir Mir


The most significant and certainly the best known, image in Iqbal’s poetry is that of the eagle. “Live in the world like an eagle, and like an eagle die,” says Iqbal (Javīd Nāmah, in Kulliyāt‑i Iqbal: Persian [Iqbal Academy Pakistan, 1994], 654/182). An understanding of the eagle motif in Iqbal’s poetry thus becomes essential to understand Iqbal’s thought and message.

Two points should be made at the outset. First, Iqbal’s eagle is a construct. It would be a mistake to analyse Iqbal’s descriptions of the eagle with a view to determining how accurate they are from an ornithological standpoint. Second, we shall often be using the word “eagle” for the various names, Iqbal uses for the bird: shāhīn, ‘uqāb, bāz, shahbāz. Metrical constraints often determine which word will be used in a given place, but otherwise, too, Iqbal seems to be using these words interchangeably (see, for example, “Advice,” in Bāl‑i Jibrīl, in Kulliyāt‑i Iqbal: Urdu [Iqbal Academy Pakistan, 1994], 448/124, and “The Eagle,” Ibid., 495/171; see also ibid., 355). The interchangeable use makes sense because it enables Iqbal to borrow traits from the several members of the same family and produce a composite, but unified, portrait that will serve Iqbal’s particular purposes.

The two points can be illustrated by means of the following examples. Iqbal says that the fiercely proud eagle disdains to eat dead prey and eats only the prey it itself has caught live (Bāl‑i Jibrīl, 372/48, Payām‑i Mashriq, in Kulliyāt‑i Iqbal: Persian, 343/167). One might object that this description fits the hawk but not the eagle. But that would be missing the point. In another place, Iqbal says that the eagle is above making nests (Bāl‑i Jibrīl, in Kulliyāt‑i Iqbal: Urdu, 353/29). This statement, too, is not correct, but it makes good sense in the place where it is made and is in fact defensible in a certain sense (see n. 10 to “The Eagle”). Iqbal uses the eagle to make certain philosophical points, offer observations on aspects of life and exhort, motivate his audience to action. To this end he invests his eagle with certain character traits for which it would be futile to look for exact correspondences in the animal kingdom. The eagle we are dealing with is the Iqbalian eagle, and it is in terms of the qualities, role, and function Iqbal assigns to the eagle in various contexts that we should view his descriptions of the bird.

1. Iqbal wants Muslims to stop living a life of indolence and accept the challenges of life. Using the garden and the desert as metaphors respectively, for easy and tough life, he tells Muslims to quit the garden, reminding them that they have the power to fly like “the mountain eagle” (Bāng‑i Darā, 300/284; see also Payām‑i Mashriq, 237/61, first quatrain (no. 150), Zarbi Kalīm, in Kulliyāt‑i Iqbal: Urdu, 691/191, last two lines, and Zabūr‑i ‘Ajam, in Kulliyāt‑i Iqbal: Persian, 405/61). The Muslims are, by origin (aṣl), eagles, but their eyes no longer have the piercing look of an eagle (Bāl‑i Jibrīl, 407). In a passage in Pas Chi Bāyed Kard? (in Kulliyāt‑i Iqbal: Persian, 692/16, last two lines and 694/18, first six lines) Iqbal has this to say on the subject (he is addressing those who advise Muslims to renounce the world):

This world of clay and water is game to the believer.

Are you saying to the falcon, “Let go of your game?”
I have failed to solve this difficult problem:
Why does the eagle shun the skies?
Pity the eagle that does not act like one,
And whose claws never caused hurt to a bird,
An eagle that is nest‑bound, abject, crestfallen,
And does not flap its wings in the blue space!

In Iqbal’s view, in fact, the Muslims have acquired the ways of the vulture (the kargas, with which Iqbal often contrasts the shāhīn, signifies, in Iqbal’s poetry, not so much greed or rapacity, as it would in English, but baseness of stock, lowness of ambition, and parasitic attitudes), and Iqbal tells them to go back to their roots and become eagles again (Pas Chi Bāyed Kard? 809; cf. Bāl‑i Jibrīl, 408, where Iqbal, alluding to Muslims, remarks that they have been corrupted by their association with ravens, and Zabār‑i ‘Ajam, p. 479, 11. 9‑10, which is similar). “You are the eagle of Muhammad,” says Iqbal, addressing the Muslim, “and angels and houris are your prey” (Bāl‑i Jibrīl, p. 376, 4th quatrain).

In a short piece, “The Philosopher,” (Bāl‑i Jibrīl, 456) Iqbal points out the limitations of philosophical thought. For all its achievements, philosophy has not yielded definitive and reliable guidance on issues of fundamental importance to man. The philosopher is like a vulture (in the sense just explained) that flies around in space like an eagle, but unlike the eagle, fails to catch live prey (cf., in a similar context, Payām‑i Mashriq, p. 359: “The wings of a nightingale are of one kind, those of an eagle of another”; and in a slightly different context, Javīd Nāmah, 795, where the truly religious are contrasted with the shallow and unscrupulous pretenders to religiosity).

2. What distinguishes the eagle from the other birds is its sharp vision, its ability to soar into the air and rule the skies, its swift movement, its daring and its love of freedom and action. Cultivation of aquiline traits is therefore a requisite for success in life:

If you are bareheaded, develop high resolve,
For here the crown is only for the eagle’s head.

(Bāl‑i Jibrīl, p. 338)

Slavery turns an eagle into a bat (Zarb‑i Kalīm, p. 545; also Payām‑i Mashriq, p. 323, 11. 3‑4), and life denying art has a similar effect‑certain kinds of poetry, for instance, turn a free man‑an eagle into a slave‑a pheasant (Asrār‑i Khudī, in Kulliyāt‑i Iqbal: Persian, p. 36; cf. Armaghān‑i Ḥijāz, in Kulliyāt‑i Iqbal: Persian, p. 915, Ist quatrain). Freedom, on the other hand, would transform a nightingale into an eagle (Zarb‑i Kalīm, p.516; see also Armaghān‑i Ḥijāz, in Kulliyāt‑i Iqbal Urdu, p. 679, 11. 5‑4), and cf. Pas Chi Bāyed Kard? p. 816, 1. 18). In a poem on the Arab poet Abu ’l‑‘Alā al‑Ma‘arrī, Iqbal makes the vegetarian poet say the following on the gift of roast partridge a friend had sent him (Bāl‑i Jibrīl, pp. 448‑449):

Alas! A hundred times alas that you did not become an eagle!
Your eyes failed to catch the hints of nature.
The judge of fate has since eternity decreed:
“The crime of weakness merits instant death.”

The last line is also a neat summation of Iqbal’s understanding of the workings of history.

3. 1qbal criticizes the teaching institutions of the Muslim world. The teachers, for one thing, have failed to provide the vision and drive the Muslim youth need in order to perform their role with distinction in the world: the teachers “are teaching the eaglets how to play with and roll in dust Bāl‑i Jibrīl, p. 324; cf. Javīd Nāmah, p. 790, last couplet and Zarb‑i Kalīm, p. 540, 11. 1‑2). Quite naturally, 1qbal sees himself in the role of reminding the eaglesthe Muslimsof their roots and their potentialities:

Those who had been prey for long now have a new vision,
For I have divulged the ways of the falcon.

(Bāl‑i Jibrīl, p. 324; see also Ibid., p. 378, 1st quatrain, Bāng‑i Darā, p. 269,11. 1‑2, and Zabūr‑i ‘Ajam, p. 496, 11. 21‑22)

But if Iqbal has divulged to the community of eagles, or Muslims, the ways of the eagle then Iqbal might be expected to regard himself as an eagle and at least in two places he does so (Bāl‑i Jibrīl, pp. 350, 352).

4. Occasionally it seems that Iqbal has mentioned the eagle in a negative context. In one poem, for example, God addresses the angels, commanding them to rouse the poor and servile nations of the world to revolt against their rich and powerful but oppressive overlords, saying:

Heat up the slaves’ blood with ardent conviction:
Set the lowly sparrow against the eagle.

(Bāl‑i Jibrīl, p. 402; see also Ibid., p. 415, and cf. Armaghān‑i Ḥijāz, in Kulliyāt‑i Iqbal, Urdu, p. 652, II. 11‑12, and Armaghān ‑i Ḥijāz, in Kulliyāt‑i lqbal: Persian, p. 991, 2nd quatrain)

But this does not necessarily put the eagle in a bad light. Iqbal here uses the sparrow and the eagle as simple metaphors, without necessarily implying any judgement as to their relative worth, just as elsewhere (Bāl‑i Jibrīl, p. 418) he speaks of the eagle and the pigeon as different but related manifestations of the all‑encompassing current of life. In the poem “Conquest of Nature” (Payām‑i Mashriq) Iblis (Satan) asks Adam to choose a life of action over a life of idle peace. Agitation under the net would, he tells Adam, turn even a dove into an eagle (256), and he exhorts Adam to spread the wings of an eagle and spill the blood of pheasants (257). Again, the eagle here does not stand condemned; a life of action, symbolized by the eagle, is being referred to, only the speaker happens to be Iblis. The following are to be explained similarly: Zabūr‑i ‘Ajam, 521. 11. 1‑2, Javīd Nāmah, p. 659, 11. 19‑20.

A few remarks about the three poems here translated will be in order, but first a general observation. All three poems are, of course, about the eagle. Iqbal is perhaps the first poet in the Islamic literary traditionmight one say, in the world literary tradition?to make an elaborate and consistent use of the eagle to symbolize character.[1] The very mention of the world “eagle” in connection with Iqbal’s poetry conjures up a whole set of distinctive physical, moral and behavioural traits with which Iqbal has endowed his eagle. And as far as the literary genre of the ghazal is concerned, Iqbal is certainly the first one to employ it to write about a subjectthe eaglein a way that broadens the hitherto narrow channel of the genre, enabling it to accommodate serious philosophical thought and giving it a unity of structure it probably did not have before. The ghazal is, by definition, devoted to the theme of love between man and woman. Although it had occasionally been used before Iqbal to express quasi­-philosophical notions, such use had more to do with mood than with thought. The ghazal, that is to say, might reflect a mood, usually sombre and melancholic (another respect in which Iqbal’s ghazal is different), that passed for philosophical seriousness and fanciful musings that passed for weighty thought. Iqbal effectively redefined, at least for his own purposes, the ghazal, using it to treat a variety of serious subjects and his use of the genre to talk about the eagle should be seen in that larger context.

The first poem, “The Eagle,” highlights the “ascetic” and freedom‑loving nature of the eagle. The eagle shuns the pleasurable but enervating life of the garden, preferring the austere but salubrious environment of the desert. The second poem, “Beyond the Stars” is an exhortation to the eagle to discover new worlds by soaring ever higher. Iqbal’s addressee here is evidently an eagle that has lost its nest and Iqbal consoles it by saying that there are realms yet to be explored and conquered. The third poem, “An Eagle’s Advice to Its Young One,” is the most complete portrait of the Iqbalian eagle, and deserves special attention from the readers.

The Eagle [1]

I have turned my back on that world.[2]

Where sustenance is called grain and water.[3]

I like the solitude of the wilderness­-

I was always a hermit by nature­-

No spring breeze, no rose‑plucker, no nightingale,

And no illness of the songs of love! [4]

One must avoid the garden‑dwellers [5]

Their charms are too seductive! [6]

It is the desert wind that gives effect

To the stroke of the brave youth in combat. [7]

It is not that I am hungry for pigeon and dove­-

Renunciation is the mark of an eagle’s life­-

To swoop, to withdraw, and to swoop again

Is but a pretext to keep up blood heat.

This cast, this west is the pheasants’ world,[8]

Mine is the boundlessness of the blue sky!

I am the monk [9] of the kingdom of birds,

For the eagle is not given to making nests.[10]


 Beyond the Stars [11]

There are other worlds beyond the stars;

More tests of love are yet to come.[12]

This vast space is not lifeless‑

In it there are hundreds of other caravans.

Do not be content with the world of colour and smell: [13]

There are other gardens, and other nests, too.

What is to worry if you have lost one residence?

There are other stations one might sigh and cry for!

You are an eagle; your job is to fly:

You have other skies in front of you.

Do not get lost in this maze of day and night,

There is, for you, another space, another time.

Gone are the days when I was an isolate in the group:[14]

Many here now are, confidants of mine.[15]

 The Eagle’s Advice to its Youngster[16]

“You know that all eagles are, of essence, one:

A handful of feathers, they have the heart of a lion.

Be of good nature, and of mature strategy;[17]

Be daring, dignified,[18] and a hunter of big game.[19]

Do not mix with partridge, pheasant, and starling[20]

Except if you should desire to hunt.

What lowly, fear‑stricken group they are

That they wipe their beaks clean with dust![21]

The falcon that imitates the ways of its prey

Becomes the prey of its own prey.

Many a hunting bird that descends to earth

Perishes through mixing with pickers of grain.[22]

Take care of yourself  [23] and live in contentment.

Live the life of one brave, strong, and rugged.

Leave for the quail the soft and delicate body;

Develop a vein tough like the horns of a deer.

Any joy that becomes the lot of the world

Is due to hardship, toil, and fullness of breath.” [24]

Well did the eagle speak to its son: [25]

“One drop of blood is better than pure wine. [26]

Do not, like deer and sheep, seek out company;

Go into seclusion like your ancestors.[27]

I remember this of the words of the old falcons:

‘Do not make your nest on the branch of a tree.’

We do not make nests in garden or field,

For we have a paradise in mountains and deserts.

To pick up grain from the ground is an error,

For God has given us the vastness of the skies.

One of noble stock, if he scrapes his feet on the ground,

Becomes more despicable than a house bird.

For falcons the rock is a carpet­

Walking on rocks sharpens the claws.

You are one of the yellow‑eyed of the desert,[28]

You are noble of nature like the sīmurgh.[29]

You are noble‑born, one who, on combat day,

Draws out the pupil of the tiger’s eye.

Your flight has the majesty of angels,

In your veins is the blood of the kāfūrī falcon.[30]

Under the humpbacked, revolving sky

Eat what you catch, be it soft or hard;[31]

Do not take your food from another hand,

Be good and take the advice of the good.[32]


 The Eagle:

[1]  Source Bāl‑i Jibrīl, p. 457.

[2] world: The word used is khākdān, which, literally, is “rubbish dump.” Although this word is also used in the simple sense of “world,” the sense probably intended here, pejorative connotations are not entirely absent.

[3] Where ... water: The word used for “sustenance” is rizq. In the Qur’an the word rizq is used for ordinary food but also for spiritual and intellectual food. The eagle criticizes the limited definition of rizq—in terms of bread and water alone (cf. the well‑known New Testament saying, “Man does not live by bread alone”), and the criticism reflects the Qur’anic view, which Iqbal might consciously be alluding to. In the phrase grain and water(idiomatically, “food and water”; original: āb-o-­dānah), “grain” is suggestive: grain is used as bait to catch birds under a net. The eagle is thus expressing disdain for birds that fall for cheap rizq.

[4] No spring. . . love: That is, the wilderness fortunately has no distractions of garden life. The elements enumerated have double significance. At one level they make up a simple description: the spring breeze blows and the garden is filled with flowers; the flower‑plucker comes and robs the garden of its beauty; and the nightingale, pining for the rose, sings its sorrowful songs. At another level they contain allusions to some of the stock‑in‑trade of Urdu poetry, which Iqbal generally regarded as decadent and sterile. The phrase bīmāri‑i naghmah‑i ‘āshiqānah can have three meanings: (1) the illness that characterizes songs of love, (2) the illness songs of love cause in those who listen to them, and (3) the illness that leads one to compose songs of love. While all three meanings may be intended, the last one seems to be the most relevant. “Illness” here stands for a bad, chronic habit, and “songs of love” refer to the hackneyed love poems composed by Urdu poets.

[5] the garden‑dwellers: Those who live comfortable lives, as in populated cities with nice parks and gardens. The line thus alludes to urban life with its amenities, and a contrast with the simple and austere life of the wilderness is intended, the latter being the style of life preferred by the eagle.

[6] Their ... seductive! The implication is that these charms are artificial and not natural.

[7] It is ... combat: Note the almost imperceptible transformation of the eagle into-or rather identification of the eagle with-the brave youth.

[8] This east ... world: Iqbal’s eagle transcends the limitations of the compass points.

[9] monk: The word in the original is dervish, a man who has few needs, is content with what he has and rises above the temptations of the world. “Monk” seems to be closest to the spirit of the word here.

[10] For ... nests: This may be interpreted to mean that the eagle does not take any place as its permanent home.


Beyond the Stars:

[11] Bāl‑i Jibrīl, p. 353.

[12] More ... come., The connection with the first line is as follows: There are yet other worlds you will be required to conquer, and your commitment and devotion-or love, in 1qbal’s terminology-will be put to the test therein.

[13] the world of colour and smell: The terrestrial world.

[14] group: or “assembly” (original: anjuman).

[15] Gone . . . mine: A personal postscript by Iqbal which does not seem to be integrally related to the rest of the poem. It should be remembered, however, that this is a ghazal, whose individual couplets do not necessarily have to treat the same theme. But there may well be a connection: the eagle (and 1qbal may be addressing a typical eagle or one representing a group) presumably understands 1qbal’s message, which gives 1qbal the assurance that many now share his ideas.


The Eagle’s Advice to its Youngster:

[16] Payām‑i Mashriq, pp. 272‑273.

[17] strategy: I have tried to combine the two principal (and interrelated) meanings of tadbīr, “counsel, opinion” and “management or handling of affairs. Pukhtah tadbīr, the complete phrase used in the original, commonly means “mature, wise counsel.”

[18] dignified: Ghayyūr, the word used in the original, means: one who is high‑minded and jealously guards his honour.

[19] a hunter of big game., That is, aim high and do not be content with small achievements. cf. n. 6 below.

[20] Do not . . . starling: Elsewhere Iqbal says that an eagle associating with weaker or smaller birds will lose its eaglehood, while those other birds will not become eagles. Iqbal is by no means advocating elitism, something he detested and preached against in his prose and poetry both. He simply wishes the eagle to remain an “authentic” eagle. cf. Zarb‑i Kalīm, pp. 550:5‑6, where Iqbal says that an eagle cannot serve a pheasant.

[21] That they ... dust! The above‑named birds are content to derive their sustenance from the dusty ground. They have, that is to say, no higher goals in life. cf. n. 4 above.

[22] pickers of grain: Ordinary birds, like those mentioned in the beginning of the poem.

[23] Take care of yourself: The Persian phrase, Nigāh dar khud ra, has a moral ring to it, the meaning being: guard your virtues, avoid evil, etc. See the very next line in the text.

[24] fullness of breath: Indefatigableness. See also Zarb‑i Kalīm, p. 534: 11. 7‑8.

[25] Well did . . . son: It is possible that this sentence, too, is part of the advice the eagle is giving. It is more likely, however, that it is an interjection by the poet, dividing the poem into two halves, thus necessitating enclosing each half in quotation marks.

[26] One drop ... wine., The blood of a bird will keep you fit and strong, but wine will make you effete.

[27] Do not ... ancestors: Do not cultivate the herd instinct, but learn to withdraw into your own self, as did your ancestors, so that you can bring out your potential.

[28] the yellow‑eyed of the desert: Desert hawks.

[29] sīmurgh: A legendary bird. In Farīd al‑Dīn ‘Aṭṭār’s long Sufi allegorical poem, Manṭiq at-ٌayr, a group of birds, wishing to have, like all other species, a king of their own, set out in search of the sīmurgh, their would-be king. The name thus comes to have connotations of royalty and majesty.

[30] kāfūrī: Iqbal has written this note to the word: “A white hunting bird of the type of the falcon which is found in the mountains and deserts of Turkistan.”

[31] be it soft or hard: Whether it is delicious and palatable or not.

[32] Another poem, entitled “Advice” (again by an eagle to its young one), is found in Bāl‑i Jibrīl, p. 412. It is short enough to be quoted here in full:

The eagle said to its youngster:

May the heights of the lofty sky be easy your wings!

Youth means burning in one’s own blood:

It is hard work that turns life’s bitter into sweet.

The delight of swooping on the pigeon, my son,

Is perhaps not found in the pigeon’s blood itself.”