The Poets of Life and the Poets of Death .

Of the Poet Imra-ul-Qais who flourished about 40 years before Islam, our Prophet is reported to have said:             
اشعرالشعراء وقائدھم الی النار
“He is the most poetic of all poets and their leader to Hell.””


In 1917, Iqbal wrote a short article called “Our Prophet’s Criticism of Contemporary Arabian Poetry,” which was published in NEW ERA, Lucknow. In this article, Iqbal informed the contemporary Indian Muslim writers and poets about the kind of poetry/literature the Prophet Muhammad approved, and the kind he disapproved.

The Prophet, having a refined literary taste, and having been raised in the desert amongst bedoiuns who were known to speak the purest form of Arabic – could well understand and appreciate poetry. His taste was, however, quite selective, and undoubtedly based on the criteria set forth by the Quran in Surah no. , Al Shua’ara, or The Poets:

“And the Poets,- It is those straying in Evil, who follow them. Seest thou not that they wander distracted in every valley? And that they say what they practise not? Except those who believe, work righteousness, engage much in the remembrance of Allah, and defend themselves only after they are unjustly attacked. And those who have wronged are going to know to what [kind of] return they will be returned.” 26:224-227

It was based on this Quranic criteria and the Prophet’s literary criticism, that Iqbal, in his renowned persian work Asrar e Khudi, mentioned two types of poets, which may be called:

1. The Poets of Life
2. The Poets of Death

The Poets of Life:

“(When) the following verse of Antra of the tribe of Abs was read to our Prophet:
و لقد ابیت علی المظوی واظنہ
حتی انبل بہ کریم الکامل
“Verily I pass through whole nights of toil to merit a livelihood worthy of an honourable man.”

The Prophet whose mission was to glorify life and to beautify all its trials was immensely pleased, and said to his companions: “The praise of an Arabian has never kindled in me a desire to see him, but I tell you I do wish to meet the author of this verse.”

Such were the words of the greatest man in history about an “infidel,” all due to the use of such words which compel an individual to embrace the trials of life and take pleasure in toil and strife. Such words compel the reader or listener to exult in hardship and struggle and to accept life’s challenges as they come.

These are the Poets of Life, about whom Iqbal says the following in Asrar e Khudi:

… ‘Tis in the poet’s breast that Beauty unveils,
‘Tis from his Sinai that Beauty’s beams arise.
By his look the fair is made fairer,
Through his enchantments Nature is more beloved…

…Sea and land are hidden within his water and clay
A hundred new Worlds are concealed in his heart, …

… His thoughts dwell with the moon and the stars,
He creates beauty and knows not what is ugly.
He is a Khizr, and amidst his darkness is the Fountain of Life:
All things that exist are made more living by his tears…

… That he may lead us into Life’s Paradise,
And that Life’s bow may become a full circle…

… His witchery makes Life develop itself
And become self-questioning and impatient.

The Poets of Death:

Returning now to Imra ul Qais, whom the Prophet called the leader of all poets to hell, Iqbal says:

“Now what do we find in the poetry of Imra-ul-Qais? Sparkling wine, enervating sentiments and situations of love, heart-rending moans over the ruins of habitations long swept away by stormy winds, superb pictures of the inspiring scenery of silent deserts-and all this is the choicest expression of old Arabia. Imra-ul-Qais appeals more to imagination than to will, and on the whole acts as a narcotic on the mind of the reader.”

This is the kind of poetry that would inadvertently lead the reader or listener towards dejection of spirits and depression. Instead of focusing on the “real,” this poetry transforms the individual into an imaginary world, dwelling more on mundane passions and lost causes.

Such are the Poets of Death, about whom Iqbal speaks in the following words:

Woe to a people that resigns itself to death.
And whose poet turns away from the joy of living!
His mirror shows beauty as ugliness,
His honey leaves a hundred stings in the heart.
He bereaves the cypress of delight in its beauty.
His cold breath makes a pheasant of the male falcon.
With his song he enchants the pilot
And casts the ship to the bottom of the sea.
His melodies steal firmness from thine heart,
His magic persuades thee that death is life.
He takes from thy soul the desire of existence,
He extracts from thy mine the blushing ruby.
He dresses gain in the garb of loss,
He makes everything praiseworthy blameful
He plunges thee in a sea of thought
And makes thee a stranger to action.
He is sick, and by his words our sickness is increased
The more his cup goes round, the more sick are they -that quaff it.
His garden is a mirage of colour and perfume.
His beauty hath no dealings with Truth,
There are none but flawed pearls in his sea.
Slumber he deemed sweeter than waking:
Our fire was quenched by his breath. 750
By the chant of his nightingale the heart was poisoned:
Under his heap of roses lurked a snake.
Beware of his decanter and cup!
Beware of his sparkling wine!

His cup is full of childish tears,
His house is furnished with distressful sighs.
Unhappy, melancholy, injured,
Kicked well-nigh to death by the warder;
Wasted like a reed by sorrows,
On his lips a store of complaints against Heaven.


If we now analyse our own writers and poets in the light of Iqbal’s words, we will come to realize that most of the poets and writers that we as a society have glorified and celebrated are most certainly the poets of death! We have been following those who make us believe that they are giving us the “truth,” but who are in fact making us dormant, resigned, bitter, dejected, depressed and fatalistic by pouring the poison of hopelessness in our minds through our eyes and ears. These writers think that by writing about the base, the vice, and the carnal instincts possessed by the lowest of the low in society, they are actually doing us service, when in fact they are responsible for propagating, exaggerating and enhancing the vice, and trivialising the goodness that prevails not only in our society, but is an inherent attribute of the entire humanity.

With regards to these writers/poets I am always reminded of these verses of Surah Al Baqarah:

And when it is said to them, “Do not cause corruption on the earth,” they say, “We are but reformers.” 2:11.

They are indeed the persecutors, they spread fitna, and turn a blind eye to whatever is good in society. Writers of such “masterpieces” as “Raja Gidh” and the likes, whose eyes can only see dirt and garbage! Or the “golden words” of a much glorified poet in our society:

جا بجا بکتے ہوئے کوچا و بازار میں جسم

خاک میں لتهڑے ہوئے خون میں نہلائے ہوئے

How does such poetry help in any way other than in further intensifying the pain and the feelings of utter helplessness amongst the people of a nation? The job of the poet is to instill self confidence in the nation and to prepare it to meet the toughest challenges of life.



The Quranic approach towards life is neither overly positive nor entirely pessimistic. The Quran, in saying:

ليس للانسان الا ما سعى 

takes the “middle road”, one called Meliorism. The dictionary definition of Meliorism is:

“The belief that the world can be made better by human effort.”

A true poet, the poet of life, is one who adopts this existential approach, he glorifies toil and struggle, and all that is noble in life, and the challenges which it has to offer.  He is intent on showing the way, and guiding his people out of darkness towards light and towards LIFE.


Literature and works of art function like the collective dream of a nation. In a way they predict or even design a nation’s destiny. Instead, of being the result of a nation’s collective consciousness, these poets, writers and men of art actually serve to design and mould the collective consciousness of a nation and present it with a collective dream. The collective dream produced by Poets of Death would therefore be a nightmare leading a nation towards its downfall!

Iqbal, in this article, means to give this message to the Indian Muslim poets and writers:

“The ultimate end of all human activity is Life-glorious, powerful, exuberant. All human art must be subordinated to this final purpose and the value of everything must be determined in reference to its life-yielding capacity. The highest art is that which awakens our dormant will-force, and nerves us to factethe trials of life manfully. All that brings drowsiness and makes us shut our eyes to reality around – on the mastery of which alone life depends – is a message of decay and death. There should be no opium-eating in Art. The dogma of Art for the sake of Art is a clever invention of decadence to cheat us out of life and power.”

We, as a society and nation are in desperate need today of such poets, writers and artists. It is our duty to keep our kids away from the works of the poets of death, and introduce them to the poets of life, no matter how few they are! It was this desire for the then Indian Muslim and now Pakistani poet which drew the following verses from Iqbal:

آداب جنوں شاعر مشرق کو سکها دو



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