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An ode to the iconoclast Josh

Josh Malihabadi began as a fiery revolutionary poet against the most provocative and brutal forces of his time

By Iqbal Haider |
PUBLISHED March 12, 2023

Poetry is an ancient art that parallels the antiquity of gods. There have been zillions of poets, and there will be many more, but we can only name a few in every era and a fewer in every century that stood out and became immortal. What distinguishes a great poet is the treatment of their craft and exclusive, and intricate diction. But then again, what makes a great poet immortal is independent and indelible vision, and the conviction of expression.

Although its socio-economic conditions often dictate the preferential bent of a society, the necessities of life sometimes do not spare time for leisure pursuits. Yet, creative art still thrives well amid poverty and frustration. But not necessarily, in a deep-rooted, thriving and layered society that becomes disillusioned due to an unexpected mega catastrophe, just the way it happened during the turmoil in the fourth decade of the 20th century in the subcontinent.

The resulting apathy in these situations takes a while to find the radar. The value chart goes through a metamorphosis and never remains the same. In most cases, it becomes worse, when the holy slabs are rewritten and rehashed.

Consequently, history involuntarily rewrites itself, generating significant apathy, disillusionment and upheaval. What happened to the subcontinent also happened to Urdu, its intricacies of dialects, complexities of Urdu literature, and sensibilities of the masses.

We can evaluate the relevance of literature and the prevailing culture in society, especially in relation to Urdu. To comprehend it well, we must also assess the leading intellectual pursuits and logical leanings of its significant components during and in the aftermath of turbulent and tragic years towards the end of the 20th century.

An objective look at Josh Malihabadi’s poetry shows that it is an absolute miracle of art and a panoramic incarnation of pure rationality, and engaging diction. It is a subtly created medley of profound words.

Josh began as a fiery revolutionary poet against the most provocative and brutal forces of his time. Giving a fresh and objective perspective to aesthetics, thoughts and beliefs, he remained a revolutionary.

His intellect rationalised and analysed the integrity of character to fearlessly question, accept or discard the prevailing faith. Some questions cut too deep and too close to the core of the matter, which led to his persecution. How uniquely did he urge people to live rationally?


Do not revere tattered traditions 1

Never frown upon inquisitions

Lest you even embrace their religion as such

Do not love your parents ever so much


It is more evident now than ever, that the most challenging and popular poets and writers were non-conformist. Well, who wants a voice of reason that conforms, does not share the same life experiences or have the same point of view?

These seemingly unpopular intellect-martyrs do not share prevailent social values, question the flawed belief system, are highly blunt about their beliefs or non-beliefs, have a layered, multifaceted diction and live in a dogmatic society where people, specifically scholars, are not very fond of reading from the source. The critics listen to or read a couple of articles to form their opinion or write a piece. Josh was a victim of all of these trends.

A common public misconception about Josh is that he was a temperamental reactionary, rather than a deep-rooted intellectual and visionary. Whether popularly accepted or not, he commanded grudging respect.

Thinkers and poets such as Josh pioneered in a fair-minded society, flourishing like a budding plant in fertile soil. Since he was way more forward-looking than our community could fathom, he did not fit into an established classification of a state, religion or ideology. Disliked by the clergy and ideologues, this voice of life’s dynamism, tirelessly moved ahead in search of absolute truth.

As the night opens, its glossy locks

Suffocate serenity, Simmer pathos 2

Precisely then, in throbbing silence

I hear the creaking of Earth


I am surrounded by a strange uproar 3

Behind my back is a bow-like bosom

Whose eyes are following me around

Whom is that looking for me, O' Josh?


He does not stop there because, deep down he knew that it was far too colossal a task to affirm, given the prevailing limitations.

I am drowning in a rare perplexity o' God 4

Pretentious senses, restricted and imperfect

Suppose all the veils lifted off my sight

I still cannot firmly believe that you are


Beware o' you, so fond of awareness 5

This stream of senses may be a flood of deceit

The stolen goods of superstitions' catacomb

Does the insight offer all that


Perhaps, in his logical thinking our visionary poet is as reluctant to say no, as he is to say yes. But he does not get despondent.


Don't be so anxious, o' trekker of reason 6

The Mecca of "yes" or "no" is still far

Come along, brother, nonchalant

Somewhere this caravan of cause & effect will stop


If he relies on anything profound, embedded knowledge and analytical intellect may provide answers, which is why he says:


The pearl of ingenuity is far better than galaxy of stars 7

The suavity of wisdom is better than the taste of honey

A doubt created by an erudite is better than

The belief contrived by an unwise


He has insurmountable love for humanity, peace and fairness, and his philosophy, which includes spirituality and gods, is human-centric. He knows man, but he searches for God.

Regardless of his chosen path, every man who stood up for humanity and helped the cause of humanity, boosted collective wisdom or enhanced the meaningful growth of social progress and social consciousness, was venerable for Josh. That for him, was the genuine spiritual soul of existence.

The unconditional love of mankind is my faith 8

Distorted or charming every face is my holy scripture

I find God in my bosom

As soon as I console, a person is in my arm


Looking back at history, he witnesses the miseries, infighting, bloodshed, wars and other atrocities waged against humanity in the name of religion. He then cries out in pain and declares vengeance.


The faith does have a penchant for indulgence 9

Every deed seems to be a prelude to gratification

If not for the 'houries" of paradise or the captured virgins

There may not be any heroes or martyrs at all


Only the week deserves the wrath of law 10

The powerful are always entitled to the luxuries of life

Steal a backyard, and be

condemned as a thief for life

Steal the whole country and be praised as baron and king


Josh’s admirers and detractors seem to agree that he was an extraordinary man with an acutely sharp intellect. One of the most challenging visionary poets to analyse, assess or neglect, there was nothing ordinary about him.

Complex experiences are simple if received with an open mind, but open-mindedness is not one of our virtues. We seldom entertain the idea of an open-ended pursuit. For instance, when we talk about the universe, spirituality or truth, it is with a preconceived notion. Often, we are so busy trying to prove our righteousness that we forget to explore.

An open-ended approach often leads to infinite spirituality as opposed to confined religiosity. It is simply a state of mind that we talk about here, so we need not worry about hurting someone’s feelings.

Let us look at it slightly differently if one sets out to prove or disprove an idea that is easy and can be achieved within a timeline and with a degree of certainty. For example, if someone is overwhelmed by the vastness of the unknown and known, one would never stop exploring.

That is Josh. His logical hypothesis compelled him to ask that if the unknown is more significant than the known, then how can we claim anything? Since the universe is constantly unravelling itself, and anything is possible, why quarrel about it?


Ever tried straightening out the hump of faith?

Or tried transforming precepts into the wisdom 11

O you vain and haughty at the shore of assent!

Have you ever tried plummeting in the ocean of dissent?


If you want to untangle, then untangle all the knots

Let's weigh the notions in the balance of logic 12

Of course, someone's will, created the cosmos

And what's the reason behind it, do tell me


Ghalib, Josh, Firaq, Iqbal, Rousseau, Voltaire, Blake, Shelley, Byron, Rashid, Jaun Aliya and many others were willing to pay huge price ― not only to determine how far one can go, but also to promote and augment social conscience and collective sensibility.

The most crucial thing in creative arts is often the treatment of the subject with layers, nuances and shades hidden beneath the surface. But there must be intellect to judge and an eye to see beyond the surface.

Another potent but somewhat controversial and misconstrued aspect of Josh’s poetry is his treatment of the first person with all its dimensions, variances and shades.

Depending on the complexity of thoughts and intellect behind them, first person (singular and plural) narratives involve convoluted multi-level formation to create a stream of consciousness, and Josh mastered it. His peers callously ignored him due to a particular animosity towards his religious or social beliefs or non-beliefs.

A fabulous master of nuances, he beautifully and frequently juggles and juxtaposes the universal and personal self, including all that falls within. But like other great minds and thinkers, he was a narcissist, and it’s tough not to be, when one is Josh.

Being a narcissist, his subconscious mind must have thrived on the insight and the resonance created by these streams of consciousness. But isn’t it the essence of great art?

Hum aisey ahle nazar ko subut-e-haqq keliye 16

Agar rasul na hutey tu subha kafi thi


He will reward me for upholding the truth 17

And hail my intentions for fairness

I have the heart of prophets in my chest

Ask God he will witness


I live in the soil of the future

The present is a mere mute phase of mine 18

Atop the tree not planted yet

A branch is the abode of mine


Where am I o' you, o' lofty feather?

Where is the moon, the sun, the heavens? 19

What is this smoke of ashen rainbow?

Why is this cinder of scorched stars?


All this zenith, this acme, this grandeur

Sun rests on my shoulder, the moon on palm 20

Look, someone, knocking maybe Gabriel

Not the Gabriel, it is the Almighty, the God!

As we read these lines by Josh or a thought-provoking masterpiece by another poet, we must realise, first and foremost, that they are poets. They say things differently because they can see, feel, internalise, and express them differently. At times it may have tongue-in-the-cheek mischief, dare-devilish boldness, pinch-the-hypocritical-brain defiance.

What remains steady is an undercurrent constantly functioning to expand intellectual boundaries and human discourse.

I cited a few examples, but a look at Josh’s overall style and diction shows that it is relatively easy to know when he refers to himself and when he talks about the future man and the universe as he expects and sees it unfolding. He has a unique way of looking at things and a more distinctive way of articulating them.

No discussion on Josh is ever complete without discussing his revolutionary poetry. A quick reference to his concept of revolution and progress before we proceed further.

Both revolution and progress are perpetual and fluid. As life is not static, the moment we stop, we become regressive, because life marches on. Minds conceive revolutions before they reach people. Anything short of that is a dogmatic entity and religion disguised and wrapped in a smaller package of ideology.

Religious zealots rejected Josh and his so-called progressive and revolutionary comrades and disciples. They thought they found Marxism-based progress in the same fashion that religionists felt they had attained without making any positive difference in life.

In a way, progressives did worse because at least there is a promise of a better life in the hereafter, if nothing else. The progressives do not have that because their philosophy deals only with the world here.

This new testament failed them again without any metamorphosis of their dogmatic nature. So, it became frozen in time quicker than the other ones. The Brian trust of the commune in the subcontinent was so anxious to bow that they did not even bother to determine the massive difference between the two regions and their exploiting forces.

The result is that there has been no positive change to this day, let alone a revolution. In Europe, the deity was not a massive exploiting force. It was and still is in the East, and mainly in the subcontinent.

To summarise, I question those selflessly fighting the real oppressive force. Who went after the fundamental exploiting forces, whose intellect relentlessly moved forward and refused to submit to subversive forces? And who was left alone and by whom?

Some horror of the clergy, some terror of rulers

Some dreads of mansions, some of passing day 21

Do not call this frightening collection history

It is nothing but a chronicle of rumours

When with the help of sparkling wisdom

Man will become the sovereign of the universe 22

You, the darling of both worlds, if I do not see

How would you escape my children’s gaze?

I would like to conclude by quoting one of my favourite verses and an astonishingly unique quatrain of Josh ― a noble and original concept.

Judging from the year of publication of this book, it appears that Josh must have written it in the late 50s. The idea represented in this rubai (quatrain) was alien to Urdu literature and possibly to any other literature at the time.

I yearn for the dawn of the oneness of mankind 23

Like a niche on which the candle of humanity glows

Neither bound to the east nor tied to the west

Being a man, a citizen of the universe, I am

Iqbal Haider is a scholar based in Canada. He can be reached at [email protected]. All facts and information are the responsibility of the writer. All translations have been made by the writer as well.