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The Immortal “If”: Musings on Rudyard Kipling’s Poem

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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 just read for the sake of reading and finishing. A poem can, in the words of Robert Frost, deliver to the sensitive reader “an immortal wound” that one may never quite get over.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem, simply entitled If, ranks among the most popular pieces of poetry in Britain and enjoys widespread recognition. Written in 1895, and first published in 1910, the poem speaks of virtue, stoicism and personal integrity; and encapsulates 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 faith 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 insistance on a certain sense of reserve; and its insistance on common sense and pragmatism.

Much has been written about Kipling’s attitude towards imperialism and 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, or instructional If. In our times, it is regarded as a popular classic of English literature; lines from the poem even appear over the player’s entrance to the center court at Wimbledon – a poignant reflection of its abiding inspiration.

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As traditional canons of beauty and behaviour give way to a culture of crass consumption, shallowness and mediocrity, the poem distills to us the loftier human virtues. The poem presupposes that true manhood (or womanhood, for that matter) 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 except 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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Abu Aaliyah is the founder of The Jawziyyah Institute, a leading institute for Islamic moderation and contemporary thought in the United Kingdom. Sidi Abu Aaliyah has been in involved in Dawah and Islamic teachings since 1986. He has translated a number of books from the Arabic language into English such as "The Exquisite Pearls". Abu Aaliyah's written works and audio lectures can be found online.

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Al-Karachwi

    January 3, 2008 at 9:51 AM

    What do these lines mean?

    “If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,”

    I could not decipher what the poet is trying to say here…

    Wassalam.

    • Vasanth Margabandhu

      July 15, 2011 at 8:08 AM

      IT MEANS THAT AN IDEAL MAN UNDERSTANDS THE VALUE OF TIME BY THINKING OF A MINUTE AS 60 LONG SECONDS.

  2. Esra Tasneem A .

    January 3, 2008 at 11:27 AM

    The sentiments expressed by Abu Aaliyah about this most beautiful poem “IF” by Rudyard Kipling echo mine .
    No matter how many times I read this poem , I like to keep reading it again & again .
    Yes , it is a poem that reflects the core of Islam in such a way that one & all can read it & be truely inspired .
    I wish everyone gets to read this poem , & Abu Aaliyah’s apt introductory passage to it . Inshallah .

  3. iMuslim

    January 3, 2008 at 12:16 PM

    First time i’ve read the whole poem, but can’t seem to do it without “Land of Hope & Glory” playing in my head!

    It is an inspiring work, masha’Allah.

  4. abdullah's mama

    January 3, 2008 at 4:48 PM

    I love this entry as it looks at literature through a deeni lens. On this poem, I’ve wondered how much of it reflects today’s British culture.

  5. mimi

    January 4, 2008 at 6:21 PM

    salams, may Allah bless you all for the dedication and time you spend in the way of Allah. However i have to say that i am dissappointed that this particular writer has been given this amount of free publicity as he was an open opponant to Allah and the faith practised by his followers. In future i think that better role models for the muslim youth should be presented as an alternative to aggresive atheists. jk

  6. SrAnonymous

    January 5, 2008 at 2:30 PM

    Re: Al Karachwi asking What do these lines mean?

    “If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,”

    I guess it means make the most of your time.

  7. Abu Aaliyah

    January 5, 2008 at 4:27 PM

    Al Karachwi: It’s often quite open as to what a poet does or does not intend. I tend to agree with SrAnonymous; Kipling seems to be talking about living each minute and not wasting time. Perhaps the “unforgiving” minute refers to times of hardship and tribulation and “sixty seconds of distance run” to the doing of what has to be done in such times.

    Mimi: Though I appreciate your sentiments and sense of “jealousy” for faith, one will find ample examples of the poetry of idolaters (mushriks) approvingly cited in classical works of Quranic exegesis, ethics, and sometimes even fiqh. The approval is not for the actual beliefs of the individual poet, but for the wisdom contained in the actual poetry or lines written. I believe that my emphasis in the introduction to Kipling’s “If” emphasised the poem, not the person. It was, I believe, in line with the Islamic adab of accepting and appreciating the truth from wherever it comes. And Allah knows best.

  8. Esra Tasneem A

    January 6, 2008 at 3:27 AM

    I do sincerely agree to the above response of Abu Aaliyah .
    And also , I feel , with all due respects to Mimi that his/her’s ‘sense of jealousy’ can be considered to be negativite to the positive cause of Islam , because it does appear that Mimi is being unreasonably intolerant & without having the right to be judgemental .
    After all , isn’t Allah Alone to be considered a Judge ?
    As humans , do we have the right to take His Place as the Judge , even though we are most fortunate to be Muslims ?
    Are not all the human beings of this world Allah’s Creations , even if some of those have not been Blessed with the Light of Guidance ?
    Is it wrong & un-Islamic to learn from the best from amongst all & to humbly look & understand as much as one can from as much as everything possible from under a ” Deeni lens ” as coined beautifully & aptly by abdullah’s mamma ?
    I mean no offense to Mimi , but Mimi needs to ponder . Islam advises one & all to ponder .

  9. FearAllah

    January 7, 2008 at 12:18 AM

    Wow subhanAllah, I have never come across this work before.
    Very very deep once you start to analyze it rather than skim over it.
    JazakAllahu khairun for sharing!

  10. Esra Tasneem A

    January 7, 2008 at 11:00 AM

    I am proud of my religion Islam . I am thankful for having been born with it . Islam is a religion of Peace .
    With a similar beautiful poetry in mind as “IF” , & peace of mind as can be again related to the core of Islam , I would like to humbly share this following poem written by a poet call Sir Edward Dyer . I thank Allah when I read humble minds .
    If I may …..

    “ My mind to me a kingdom is ”

    My mind to me a kingdom is ,
    Such present joys therein I find ,
    That it exceeds all other bliss
    That world affords or grows by kind .
    Though much I want which most would have ,
    Yet still my mind forbids to crave .

    No princely pomp , no wealthy store ,
    No force to win the victory ,
    No wily wit to salve a sore ,
    No shape to feed a loving eye ;
    To none of these I yield as thrall ,
    For why my mind doth serve for all .

    I see how plenty suffers oft ,
    And hasty climbers soon do fall ;
    I see that those which are aloft
    Mishap doth threaten most of all ;
    They get with toil , they keep with far :
    Such cares my mind could never bear .

    Content I live , this is my stay ,
    I seek no more than may suffice ;
    I press to bear no haughty sway ;
    Look , what I lack my mind supplies .
    Lo ! thus I triumph like a king ,
    Content with that my mind doth bring .

    Some have too much , yet still do crave ;
    I little have , and seek no more .
    They are but poor , though much they have ,
    And I am rich with little store .
    They poor , I rich ; they beg , I give ;
    They lack , I leave ; they pine , I live .

    I laugh not at another’s loss ;
    I grudge not at another’s gain ;
    No worldly waves my mind can toss ;
    My state at one doth still remain .
    I fear no foe , I fawn no friend :
    I loathe not life , nor dread my end .

    Some weigh their pleasure by their lust ,
    Their wisdom by their rage of will ;
    Their treasure is their only trust ,
    A cloaked craft their store of skill :
    But all the pleasure that I find
    Is to maintain a quiet mind .

    My wealth is health and perfect ease ,
    My conscience clear my choice defense ;
    I neither seek by bribes to please ,
    Nor by deceit to breed offence .
    Thus do I live ; thus will I die ;
    Would all did so as well as I !

    JazakAllah for reading .

  11. Abu Aaliyah

    January 7, 2008 at 8:49 PM

    Esra Tasneem: Jazakallahu khayran for sharing. Wonderful, mashallah!

  12. jessie

    February 10, 2008 at 5:00 PM

    good!!!

  13. Manzurul Haque

    May 16, 2008 at 8:11 AM

    Plz let me try to explain the minute and second thing: If you live your life (creatively) by every second, you would have lived enough in a minute, which in other case-scenario, would be a waste in your life.

  14. Lewis

    July 14, 2008 at 10:45 AM

    Kipling is drawing the metaphor of a race, a sprint, and playing on the fact that while sixty sexonds literally equals a minute, to fill a minute with sixty seconds of distance is, in the context of a sprint, more noble than filling it with, say, 10 seconds hesitation, 15 seconds running, 25 seconds self doubt etc. A defter expression of devotion can scarcely be imagined.

  15. shalini

    August 11, 2010 at 11:14 AM

    i liked the poem , and the way of expressing the feelings through poem

    shalini

  16. bella kemp

    December 17, 2013 at 6:04 PM

    This is a beautiful poem and the intelligent comments have given me much pleasure. For an old imperialist, Kipling was remarkably receptive to Islam and appreciated its beauties and truths. Many people are put off reading Kipling because some of his short stories and poems are terribly racist, but he was an honest pilgrim and his views changed over time. I would recommend everyone to read his novel ‘Kim’. Good wishes to you all.

  17. Muhammad Aaqib Shamim

    March 4, 2015 at 12:05 PM

    the poem is great but I’ve doubts regarding two of the lines.
    1)If all men count with you, but none too much:

    Why shouldn’t men count on us a lot? The more men count on us, the more we can serve them and the closer we can get to Our Creator.

    2) Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

    Isn’t all that Allaah’s? We can’t ever stake claim to it, can we?

    Please clear these doubts.

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