Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Pilgrim Clouds: The Polymorphous Sacred in Indo-Muslim Imagination

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Pilgrim Clouds: The Polymorphous Sacred in Indo-Muslim Imagination

Article excerpt

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. …

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