Annual of Urdu Studies, v. 3, 1983 p. 11.

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Shamsur Rahman Faruqi


Does poetry have a social purpose? Should it have a social purpose? Should it, in order to be good and valuable, work side by side with the forces of social change? And does poetry fall from its high station if it fails to take sides, or sit in judgement? These and similar questions became familiar to Urdu intellectuals only with the advent of Western ideas in India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For Urdu poetics—indeed nearly all Eastern poetics—never addressed itself to these questions, in fact never considered them relevant or worthwhile insofar as the study of poetry was concerned.

In the Islamicate tradition, poetry was seen to be a matter of words, and sometimes even beyond words, because poetry might try to create meanings which words could not effectively convey. Ibn Khaldun's famous dictum that poetry is made of words echoes the remarks of the eleventh century author of the Qabus Nama, Qabus Unsur al-Ma'ali, who wrote that poetry should not be without an artifice and arrangement of words, and whatever can be said in prose should not be said in poetry. A century later, Nizami 'Aruzi stated even more clearly that poetry is an artifact through which the poet can present small meanings as large, and large meanings as small. Much before any of the above, Ibn Qutaibah, the first major theoretician in Arabic literature, wrote in the ninth century that all poetry should be judged by aesthetic canons.

Both the unity and continuity of that tradition can be seen in a speech that occurs in a dastan written by a comparatively obscure author in Lucknow in 1900.1 The dSst'an, as is well-known, is perhaps the most traditional of all prose narrative forms in Indo-Iranian literature, and its authors always worked within the traditional assumptions about the nature of literature. In this instance, Qubad, the king in the dastan, has heard a poem being recited, and has premonitions of death. His grandfather and protector, Hamza, tries to take his mind away from such morbid thoughts. The author, Ahmad Husain Qamar, has Hamza speak to Qubad thus: "Light of my eyes, the pronouncements of poets have no credibility. It is futile to be affected by their themes. The poet is concerned with verbal niceties and conceits; he will put into verse whatever theme occurs to him, even if he runs the risk of becoming irreligious. The reader should look to the niceties and conceits, and not believe the content to be true." There is nothing original in these formulations, but that is exactly what must be emphasized. The assumptions that underlie these words have always been the basis of the theory of poetry in the East.

It is to Plato that we owe the origin of the questions which were put at the beginning of this paper. This is not


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