Eagle as a Symbol in Iqbal’s Poetry

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The remarkable strength and courage of the eagle have inspired mankind throughout the ages. In ancient times the battles between the sun and the clouds were considered as battles between an eagle and a serpent and the eagle was held in awe and worshiped for its majestic figure and superb qualities. Because of their strength, eagles have been a mark of war and imperial power since Babylonian times. In Assyrian myths the eagle was the symbol of storms and lightning and the god who carried souls to Hades. In India and Babylon the eagle was the symbol of fire, wind and storms, and regarded as the messenger of immortality. In the Golden Age of Greece, it was the emblem of victory and supreme spiritual energy. The eagle was the sacred bird of Zeus, the ruler of all gods. The Greeks represented eagles with wings outstretched, holding a serpent in their claws, which signified the triumph of good over evil. In Rome, an eagle was the symbol of Jupiter, the supreme god. For the Romans the eagle was the sign of victory. As Roman legions conquered the world, they marched under the standard of the eagle, with outstretched wings.

It was the only bird believed to be capable of staring at the sun, which mythology held to be the light of God. Eagle was the personal emblem of the Caesars who represented supreme authority. Afterwords, in the Middle Ages, it became the symbol of Germany. Hunting with an eagle was an outstanding sport in Europe but it was permissible only for the kings and monarchs. The rise of Christianity brought still more honor and dignity for the eagles. To the early Christians, the eagle was the symbol of the Ascension. In the early nineteenth century, French troops under Napoleon conquered Europe under the symbol of the eagle.

There is no denying the fact that the eagle upholds its grandeur and stateliness even in the modern times. With its acute eyesight, the eagle has come to embody an all-seeing EYE. The eagle is often a solar symbol, and is generally linked to all sky gods. It signifies inspiration, release from bondage, victory, longevity, speed, pride, agility and royalty; it is often an emblem for powerful nations. Since it lives in full light of the sun, it is considered luminous and shares characteristics with air and fire The Roman, French, Austrian, German, and American peoples have all adopted this image as their symbol. Through its detachment from earth it represents spirit and soul. Dante calls the eagle as ‘bird of God’. Being a symbol of power and authority, it retains a prominent place in America as was in ancient Rome. In American culture, the eagle is a symbol of great courage, strength and freedom. The emblems of the President, Vice President, several members of the Cabinet, and most branches of the armed forces center on the eagle. The Apollo 11 crew chose “Eagle” as the name for the first lunar landing module. Man was on the moon with the words of Eagle Scout Neil Armstrong: “Houston, Tranquility Base here — The Eagle has landed”.

In 1911, following a tradition as old as man himself, the Boy Scouts of America chose the eagle to symbolize the highest achievement. In short, since the beginning of time, man has been using the eagle as a symbol of power, victory, authority, royalty and valor. And throughout the history, the eagle is profoundly associated with man’s triumph, valor and victory.

The qualities that are attributed to a symbol may or may not be realistic or accurate. But in any case, a symbol is chosen to represent qualities or characteristics that in some sense are expressions of the ideals of that culture. Because of its large size, nomadic lifestyle, striking visage, and graceful flight, the eagle has symbolized great power, strength, freedom, elegance, and independence to many cultures throughout history. So an Eagle stands for a nation or a person who soars to the highest realms of truth and knows no fear and no bounds of time and space. It is the symbol of a passion, an ambition, an ideal as the Eagle is seen high above in the heavens and is endowed with exalted spirits. The Eagle is fiery, majestic, vigorous and robust whose kingdom is the boundless and never-ending sky, which is swift in pursuit, terrible in battle. He is a king, a fighting and formidable king. Soaring with scholar’s thought and world high into the regions of truth and excellence, flapping his glorious wings and casting his ominous shadow below, the Eagle without any iota of doubt gives an immensely ominous look and leaves an indelible impression on the mind.

Symbolism is profusely and extensively expressed in the visual arts, literature, and music. Conventional symbols have a customary effect on us, inciting common responses to items that we share in common. For example, the cross is a symbol of Christianity, and the rose is a symbol of love. However, in literature, a symbol can come to mean which the author or writer associates with the item. Cultures that revered the eagle and idealized its impressive qualities often featured it in their arts and poetical works. This was true in the past as much as it is today.

Now we come to Iqbal. In his poetry Iqbal has used many symbols among which “Eagle” is a potent and powerful symbol applied in an aptly unique style and prolific fashion. Iqbal is an advocate of the cultivation of strength and deprecates weakness. He is, therefore, keen to select eagle because of its courage, great strength, self-reliance, superb aerial skills and singularity. The eagle does not attempt to live off the efforts of others. It flies high and high and seems to have no concern to build its nest in wild and mountainous country. It is Guardian of liberty, courageous protector of its young ones and fearlessly combats any threat to their safety. It lives an austere life and subsists on live prey. Eagles are too ponderous for effective aerial pursuit but try to surprise and overwhelm their prey on the ground due to their immense sharp-sightedness.

Let us see Iqbal’s symbolism of eagle from another angle. The central theme of his poetry is “khudi”. Khudi as conceived by him is the name of several attributes, found in an ideal character. These are self-assertion, self-realization, the spirit of independence, sense of honor, noble idealism and action. Its object is not material aggrandizement but spiritual adornment and elevation. In the eagle we observe almost all these salient characteristics. That is why Iqbal conveys his message to the youth and advises them to foster an “eagle-like” spirit. Thus Shaheen becomes his choicest bird, just as the Skylark of Shelley or that of Wordsworth.

His Shaheen stands for courage and self-respect, purity of soul and character, devotion and dedication, struggle and endurance, prestige and perseverance, self-control and self-reliance. In Shaheen he envisages the desired attributes of a devoted Muslim or Momin. Therefore when he asks the youth to become a Shaheen, he means the inculcation of these lofty ideals. He is invariably an advocate of the cultivation of strength and deprecates weakness. The following free translation of a few of his Persian verses demonstrate his views in this connection:

“Weakness is a highway robber which destroys life,

Her real form has not been recognized.

People have placed different veils on her face, Mildness and compassion are sometimes the veils across her face.

She done the garb of humility at other times.

She is occasionally hidden under the plea of compulsion.

When analyzed it is nothing but a love of ease,

It takes the heart out of an individual who could have been strong

He expected the youth to look forward and high. Whenever he wanted to convey the message of action, he presented the examples of heroes of Islam like Tariq and Sultan Tipu as they were courageous and brave like Shaheen. Once some influential Muslims approached him with a request that he should consent to their proposal of a military college to be named after him. Iqbal declined and wrote in response: “It is no use naming a military college after an ordinary poet like me. I suggest that it should be named after Tipu Sultan. It would be a fitting memorial to the great son of Islam and a source of inspiration to the Muslim youth”