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Response to Iqbal’s “Complaint and Answer” to tune of “Jerusalem”

Michael Paladino
Islamic Civilizations 178
Creative Response to The Complaint and Answer
November 5, 2014

An Imperial Response

For my creative response, I decided to sing a rendition of selected verses from The Complaint and Answer by Muhammad Iqbal to the tune of the hymn Jerusalem, which is considered a British Imperial Anthem and patriotic song of England.
I felt this mash-up was fitting for several reasons: First, it happens to be a staple in the repertoire of my acapella group, the Krokodiloes, so I know it very well and it means a lot to me – in fact, verses 2 and 4 in the recording mimic the bass line of the song when sung in harmony. More importantly, however, the song has many themes that relate to the circumstance and themes around which The Complaint and Answer was written. The original lyrics Jerusalem, written during the height of the British Empire during the late 19th/early 20th century, suggest that a New Jerusalem, here representing the idea of heaven, will be built in England, indicating that England is God’s chosen land as the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Combined with language of aggression such as “spear,” “chariot of fire,” “arrows,” and “sword,” the hymn as a whole can be construed as an anthem for British Imperial Rule, indicating that England is the chosen place and people of God and is therefore a justified and righteous conqueror.
On the other side of the same coin is The Complaint and Answer, which was written by Iqbal during the same time period in response to the loss of Muslim rule in South Asia at the hands of the British and the West in general. The “Complainer” of the poem complains to God about the loss of Muslim power to the West, and asks why He would forsake the chosen people, the Muslims, while rewarding the infidels. This mode of thinking is not very far off from the philosophy of Jerusalem: both works assert that a particular group, either Muslims or the English, are God’s chosen people, and as such they are justified in having and indeed deserve to have political and military power on Earth. Historically, both British colonial rule and the Muslim empire-building were justified using arguments along this vein – by conquering others in the name of spreading their faith, they claimed to “save” or “enlighten” their subjects. Thus, I find striking similarities in the rationale behind both the Muslim and British takeover of South Asia, and considering that the former lost power to the latter, I find it fitting that the Muslims’ lament in The Complaint and Answer be represented by a British song that encapsulates that self-aggrandizing imperial philosophy.
The recording itself showcases a call-and-response pattern of song, in which the first verse is sung by the “Complainer,” to which the “Answerer” responds with the second verse, and so on. I selected verses that particularly emulated the themes of Jerusalem: The first verse describes how Muslims did God’s work by spreading Islam through military strength, to places such as Europe and Africa; However, the second verse’s response holds that, indeed, the Muslims of old conquered the lands and worshipped God to spread Islam, but they are not the same as the current Muslims, who expect to reap the rewards of political power without putting forth the effort and dedication of their forefathers. The third verse is a rebuttal from the “Complainer,” now asking why infidels are rewarded while God’s chosen people, Muslims, are subjugated; to this, the fourth verse answers that even if infidels live like a true Muslim, such as being virtuous, praying to God, etc., they still “merit Faith’s reward.” This suggests that Muslims do not automatically earn or deserve anything just for calling themselves Muslim, but rather they must actively live by God’s will and worship Islam in the proper sense, to work towards the reward of power rather than expect it. Finally, in the 5th verse the “Complainer” essentially asks God to show the way to Him, and thus the way to regain power on Earth by carrying out Islam in a proper and just way; the answer in verse 6 holds that Islam has no boundaries on Earth, and if Muslims finally get their act together, they can regain prominence. In the actual singing, I tried as best as possible to convey a weaker tone of voice in the “Complainer” verses, and a stronger, lower, admonishing voice in the “Answer” verses, to suggest that the complainer is whiny and self-entitled in asking why he has no more power.
In the end I found this a very fulfilling way to get across Iqbal’s message in The Complaint and Answer: As Iqbal suggests, by merely expecting power to continue as usual, Muslims went astray from their perceived path as virtuous and just rulers, and therefore found themselves ruled by what is essentially their own imperial philosophy through the British. Thus, in seeking only power rather than seeking God and true faith, they lost that power. Truly, in looking at history, that sort of outlook in conquering people in the name of making the world a better place never holds up for very long – both the Muslim empires and the British Empire eventually ended. However, due to the true believers and carriers of faith, religions such as Islam have lasted for centuries upon centuries. Perhaps something can be learned from the “Answerer” of Iqbal’s work, as it would appear that true virtue and faith better withstands the test of time than false rationalization.

Original Text of the hymn, Jerusalem, often regarded as an anthem of Imperial Britain:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills.

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O Clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land!


Selected text from Iqbal’s Complaint and Answer, corresponding to the recording:

It was we and we alone who marched,
Thy soldiers to the fight,
Now upon the land engaging, now
Embattled on the sea,
The triumphant Call to Prayer in
Europe’s churches to recite,
Through the wastes of Africa to
Summon men to worship thee. (Iqbal, trans. Arberry, page 8)

…Who redeemed the human species
from the chains of slavery?
Clutching to their fervent bosoms the
Quran in ecstasy?
Who were they? They were your
Fathers; as for now, why, what are
Squatting snug, serenely waiting for
to-morrow to come true? (Iqbal, trans. Arberry, page 47)

But that infidels should own the
houris and the palaces – ah woe!
While wretched Muslims must with
Promises contended be.
Now no more for us Thy favours and
Thy old benevolence –
How and wherefore is Thy pristine
Kindliness departed hence? (Iqbal, trans. Arberry, page 18)

Did you say that Muslims must with
Promises contended be?
That is a complaint unfounded, and
By commonsense abhorred;
The Creator’s law is justice, out of
all eternity –
Infidels who live like Muslims surely
merit Faith’s reward. (Iqbal, trans. Arberry, page 48)

Far from the commotioned meadow
We sit silently and dream,
Dream, Thy lovers, of Thy coming,
and the cry of “He, the King!”
Reawaken in Thy moths the eager
joy to be aflame,
Bid again the ancient lightnings brand
Our bosoms with Thy name! (Iqbal, trans. Arberry, page 27)

From the dust of a fixed homeland is
Thy skirt forever free,
Thou a Jospeh art whose Canaan is in
every Egypt found; (Iqbal, trans. Arberry, page 64)
Be thou faithful to Muhammad, and
We yield Ourself to thee;
Not this world alone – the Tablet and
The Pen thy prize shall be. (Iqbal, trans. Arberry, page 72)

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