The Humble I

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

The Imortal “If”

Kipling_If_(Doubleday_1910)The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘There is wisdom in poetry.’ [Bukhari, no.6145] He also said: ‘Poetry has the same status as prose – good poetry is like good prose, bad poetry is like bad prose.’ [Al-Daraqutni, no.495] That being said, the Sunnah cautions against over indulging in poetry, as per the following hadith: ‘It is better for one of you to fill their stomach with pus than to fill it with poetry.’ [Bukhari, no.6155]

Good poetry is, in a sense, timeless and immortal. This is not only because it is read by generation after generation of readers, but also because poems – unlike novels, essays or articles – tend to be felt, experienced, absorbed; and not merely read for the sake of reading or finishing. It has been said that a poem can deliver to the sensitive reader an ‘immortal wound’ that one may never quite get over.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem, simply entitled If, ranks amongst the most popular pieces of poetry in Britain and enjoys widespread recognition. Written in 1895, and published first  in 1910, the poem speaks of virtue, stoicism and personal integrity, and contains profound mottos and maxims for life.

Muslims, as with peoples of other faiths, will be quick to point out how these maxims and ideals closely contour their own religious teachings. In fact, the Victorian ethics If evokes has much in common with the conservative ethos that tempers Islam’s moral code: its moderation and modesty; its stoicism; its insistence upon a certain sense of reserve; and its insistence on common sense and pragmatism.

Much has been written about Kipling’s attitude towards imperialism, or the apparent racism found in his prose and poetry: was Kipling merely critiquing racist attitudes or exhibiting them himself? That aside, no such controversy exists about the didactic If. In our times, it is regarded as a popular classic of English literature; lines from it even appear over the player’s entrance to Wimbledon’s center court – a telling reminder of its abiding inspiration.

As traditional canons of beauty give way to a culture of shallowness, mediocrity and crass consumption, the poem distills the loftier human virtues. It presupposes that true manhood (or womanhood) is rooted, not in material advancement, but in moral behaviour and ethical living. So, with these few introductory passages, there is little else left to be said save: read, enjoy, be inspired, and suffer the immortal wound that is If.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master,
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

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13 thoughts on “The Imortal “If”

  1. Thank you for your post
    Although there is much insight, inspiration and wisdom in this poem I find it problematic in many ways . Just to mention a few.Firstly, and critically there is no explicit mention of God and recognition of his power and decree. For example, in the opening passage “If you can trust yourself…” surely as people of faith we say that we ultimately put our trust in God. Furthermore, there is no mention of love, sorrow, and giving charity which are integral part of a man’s intellectual, emotional and spiritual makeup.
    In my “humbli eye”, this poem is too philosophical and lacks religiosity(for my liking) particularly in the light of the fact that Mr Kipling claimed to be a believer (Christian)!

    • I can understand why it may seem problematic, especially to those who have an affinity to the mystic/sufi poetry of the great Muslim masters like Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, may Allah have mercy upon him. The lack of God’s mention, or mention of the lover being lost in His remembrance, can make all else seem “dry” or of little worth.

      Nonetheless, our scholars tell us that non-Islamic poetry – even when devoid of religious sentiments – can be benefitted from in terms of:

      1. The glimmers or gems of wisdom that they may contain and which are in harmony (or at least, not in opposition) to Islam’s teachings. The rule in this regard is simply: “Wisdom is the lost property of a believer; wherever he finds it, he is more entitled to it.”

      2. Its cultural content, in that poetry can help us understand much about peoples’ culture. Provided one’s intention is sound, and one’s knowledge and commitment to Islam firm, one could even benefit from irreligious poetry – for the sake of da’wah, for instance, or to better understand non-Muslim culture.

      3. The literary content. Much like the previous point, one’s intention could be to understand the language of a people and improve their own grasp of it. Much jahli poetry (the Arabic poetry of pre-Islamic ignorance) was/is used by our scholars for sharpening their understanding of the Arabic language. Indeed, it has long been the case in Islam that being bereft of a share of jahili poetry can be considered a slight or a deficiency in a person’s actual scholarship.

      4. Allowing the mind and heart to relax from serious study or diligent worship. Occasionally indulging in what is trivial allows the soul to rejuvenate and be reinvigorated.

      As for what you found problematic, shyaan (below) has offered an alternative reading to it. Indeed, that is the nature of much poetry – it can be open to multiple meanings.

      And Allah knows best.

  2. Muhammed on said:

    Never heard of it before, jazakallah khair for the post!

  3. “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you”

    I trust in myself that I have complete Trust in Allah…. 🙂

  4. Abdur-rahman on said:

    Jzk.k for the post

  5. Muhammed & Abdur-rahman: Barakallahu fikum to you both.

  6. Jazak Allah Khair for this – I have always loved this poem. Rudyard Kipling was a great literary writer – why do we always have to disseminate and ruin a perfectly good piece of prose and read more into it than what is there? There are no ulterior motives in poetry. Just stop and smell the roses and take it for what it is – a beautifully written poem.

  7. One of my favourite poems…IF more or less describes humanity where one person must never try to gain a position of power over another…whatever position held on the human planet at that person’s stage of life… privilege, he shows it is better to consider oneself just an ant within the team..and try to do one’s best whatever position a person has been assigned to…IF is a great encouragement IMO as some of the hadiths within the qur’an were obviously very important to Rudyard Kipling…never discussed before..which means that the garden of roses, is in almost perfect order!! Many composers, artists and much literature shows that people do believe in Universal order!!

    • Indeed, there is a universal set of values – a “moral law”, as some put it – that is shared by people and cultures around the world and throughout history. The Qur’an says [91:7-8]: By the soul and He that fashioned it, then inspired it with [knowing] wickedness and piety. Thus the moral instinct has been ingrained in the souls of people, and it is this which helps people of different cultures and histories live with each other in some sort of conviviality and harmony.

      Yet we mustn’t forget that, along with this shared moral code, it is Abrahamic Monotheism, and its specific demands, that we as believers are called upon to invite humanity to.

  8. Atif Jung on said:

    This poem is truly one of the greatest poems of the 20th century IMHO. It never fails to make the hair on the back of my neck stand straight. I think the sahaba and the character they embodied is truly summed up in this poem. Perfection of character. Even if God is not mentioned, we as Muslims, feel his presence throughout this poem.

    • Mashallah.

      Sufyan al-Thawri, that outstanding scholar and pietist, once said: al-mar’u idha kana lahu fikrah fa fi kulli shay’in lahu ‘ibrah – “A person, if he is given to much reflection, will draw a valuable lesson from everything.”

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