Faiz Ahmed Faiz: A Legend In His Lifetime

By: Sehrish Ajmal

Rarely in the legacies of history are born some human nous from the wombs of nations   whose pens wreak revolution in the cognitive world ___ such are the works of the poets who see the world retrospectively. Among the most eloquent and revolutionary poets of  subcontinent namely Allama lqbal , Mirza Ghalib ,  Ahmed Faraz ,  Pablo Neruda and so many more , is  Faiz Ahmed Faiz who is known as the “poet of protest” because of his revolutionary thoughts  . There are many facets of Faiz’s poetry but the most fascinating one is the dichotomy between a lover and revolutionary that he so beautifully captures in his poetry.


Born on February 13, 1911 ,as the son of  wealthy landowners Sultan Fatima and Sultan Muhammad Khan, Faiz relished a privileged childhood .His father was  a prominent lawyer and the member of an elite literary circle which included Allama Iqbal, the  national poet of Pakistan.

Evolving Style of Poetry

Faiz’s early poems had been conventional, light-hearted treatises on love and beauty, but while in Lahore he began to expand into politics, community, and the thematic interconnectedness he felt was fundamental in both life and poetry. It was also during this period that he married Alys George, a British expatriate and converts to Islam, with whom he had two daughters. In 1942, he left teaching to join the British Indian Army, for which he received a British Empire Medal for his service during World War II. After the partition of India in 1947, Faiz resigned from the army and became the editor of The Pakistan Times, a socialist English-language newspaper.

At the time of partition in 1947, the area of Kashmir   under dispute was ruled by Hindu prince of Dogra Dynasty. This area supported a Muslim majority. Following a period of indecision over the administrative future of his territory, the ruler made a decision in favour of India and accordingly made his commitment.  Indian armed forces moved into Kashmir. Major General Akbar Khan, a loyal Pakistani, was head of a guerrilla force involved in a ‘sort of unconventional warfare’ in Kashmir following partition. His appeals to the Liaqat Ali Khan government for military reinforcements went unheeded. Thus certain disenchantment, fuelled possibly by political ambition, becomes nurtured in Akbar Khan and in a few of his close military associates.

This unrest led to the formulation of a plot to overthrow the government.  Several trusted army colleagues, along with known communists, were invited to participate. However, the plot seems not to have developed beyond the embryonic stage. After a marathon meeting at which it is believed that Faiz was present but was not in favour of pursuing the plan further, the idea was abandoned.

Faiz Between Ghalib and Iqbal 

What strikes me about Faiz is that his origins and educational background were very similar to that of Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s (a lawyer by profession and a friend of Faiz’s father, Sultan Muhammad Khan), the greatest Urdu poet after Ghalib. Both were born in Sialkot, both got educated in colleges in Lahore, both studied Arabic and Persian (though Iqbal’s main subject was philosophy) and both taught for a while before moving into other domains of profession – Iqbal into full-time practice of law and Faiz into the British Indian army.


Iqbal revered Ghalib as a master poet, yet it was Faiz, not Iqbal, who came closest to composing poetry in Ghalib’s style of classicism, and became the last greatest poet of Urdu.


Iqbal was a revolutionary poet, too, but his commitment to inspire the Muslim community became his main focus. Faiz, a man who saw India’s Independence that came with the horror of Partition and that brought power to the elites but the misery of the poor and the dispossessed continued, tackled themes of socialism and class struggle, after the initial phase of composing romantic poetry.


When I read Faiz, I get the feeling that I am reading Ghalib in a new tongue, with a new sensibility – two minds diffused with the same soul. For example, when Ghalib said:


“Haal-e dil likhon kab tak jaaon unko dikhla doon

Ungliyaan figaar apni khama khonn chukan apna.”


(How long shall I write about the state of my heart, let me go and show him

My wounded fingers, my bleeding pen!)


Years later, Faiz said:


“Matae laoh o qalam chin gayi to kaya gham hai

Ke khoon-e dil me dabo lee hain ungliyan main ne.”


(There isn’t any despair even if pen and paper have been snatched away from me

I’ve buried my fingers in the blood of my own heart.)


Ghalib said:


“Tere siwa bhi hum pe bahut se sitam huye”


(Besides you, many more cruelties were unleashed on me)


And Faiz protested thus:


“Mujh se pehli si mohabbat mere mahboob na maang”


(Don’t ask of me the love I earlier had for you, my love)


The above examples show how Faiz was kind of echoing Ghalib in a new voice. Interestingly, I also find colours of Iqbal’s poetry in Faiz’s work. Iqbal had said:


“Nikal kar khanqahoon see ada kar rasm-e shabbiri”


And Faiz has said:


“Aye khaaqnashino uth baitho woh waqt qareeb aa pahuncha hai

Jab takht giraye jayenge jab taaj uchhale jayenge”


What I find beautiful in Faiz’s poetry is the dichotomy of a lover and a revolutionary that he embodies in his poetry. In his poems, you can palpably feel how he was at a loss between love and revolution. “The thought of the beloved did not completely spare him so that he could serve the cause of the revolution with full gusto and dedication,” says Anees Ayesha, the author of Urdu Poetry: An Introduction (Singapore: Kitaab, 2013). Consider this example from his poem, “Raqeeb Se”:


“Woh log bahut khush-qismat the

Jo ishq ko kaam samajhte the

Hum jeete ji masroof rahe

Kuchch ishq kiya kuchch kaam kiya

Kaam ishq ke aade aata raha

Aur ishq se kaam ulajhta raha

Phir aakhir tang aakar hum ne

Dono ko adhura chhod diya.”


In his early poems, his commitment to love was complete – it was an unquestionable gamble. A lover can never be a loser, he claims here:


“Gar baazi ishq ki baazi hai jo chahe laga do darr kaisa

Gar jeet gaye to kya kehna hare bhi to baazi maat nahin”


Yet, when the lover starts dealing with the pains of the world, the world’s cruelties dull his heart:


“Duniya ne teri yaad se begana kar diya

Tujh se bhi dil-fareb hain gham rozgaar ky”

Faiz In Exile And Last Period of His Life

In 1964, Faiz settled in Karachi and was appointed principal of Abdullah Haroon College, while also working as an editor and writer for several distinguished magazines and newspapers. He worked in an honorary capacity for the Department of Information during the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, and wrote stark poems of outrage over the bloodshed between Pakistan, India, and what later became Bangladesh. However, when Bhutto was overthrown by Zia Ul-Haq, Faiz was forced into exile in Beirut, Lebanon. There he edited the magazine Lotus, and continued to write poems in Urdu. He remained in exile until 1982. He died in Lahore in 1984, shortly after receiving a nomination for the Nobel Prize.


Throughout his tumultuous life, Faiz continually wrote and published, becoming the best-selling modern Urdu poet in both India and Pakistan. While his work is written in fairly strict diction, his poems maintain a casual, conversational tone, creating tension between the elite and the common, somewhat in the tradition of Ghalib, the renowned 19th century Urdu poet. Faiz is especially celebrated for his poems in traditional Urdu forms, such as the ghazal, and his remarkable ability to expand the conventional thematic expectations to include political and social issues.


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