Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ghalib on the Faith of Faithlessness

Ghalib has much to say on the meaning of faith (deen) and infidelity/faithlessness (kufr). A recurring theme is his insistence on constancy and purity of belief, as opposed to outward manifestations of piety or faith. The conclusion is that, if one is pure of heart or steadfast in faith, then the actual object of belied matters less. I had blogged earlier on a Farsi verse to that effect. Subsequently I was reminded of a very powerful, direct Urdu verse which echoes a similar statement. In this newer entry I am putting both next to each other.

The Farsi verse exhibits Ghalib's seemingly insatiable penchant for paradoxes or for juxtaposing opposing thoughts/concepts and showing them to be somehow connected/the same at some deeper level. Like the other Farsi verses I have previously commented on, this one too does not show too many intricate or ornate metaphors or improbably flights of fancy (as Ghalib is known to do from time to time). Such proclivity (fancy metaphors) is usually recognized to be a feature of the "Indian School" of Persian poetry (sabk-e-hind or sabk-e-hindi) of which Bedil and Ghalib are two excellent examples. Click here for a nice blog entry on some of Bedil's verses. A very informative article on the poetics of the Indian style of Persian poetry by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi is available here (pdf format).

Anyway, I digress. The point is, this verse is marked not by fancy metaphors so much as densely packed philosophical observations where the philosophical point is made by presenting something that at first glance present a paradox, or that does not seem to belong together. But the opposing things are shown to be connected somehow. Now on to the Farsi verse itself:

کفر و دین چیست جز آلایش پندار وجود

پاک شو پاک کہ ہم کفر تو دین تو شود

kufr-o-deen chest juz aalaaish-e-pindaar-e-vujood
paak sho paak ke ham kufr-e-to din-e-to shavad

What are faithlessness and faith
but corruptions of the conceit of being/existence
Purify yourself so that even
Your infidelity becomes your religion/faith

Both religion and infidelity or faithlessness are imperatives born of the Ego (the conceit of being). They both corrupt the Truth in their own way because neither conquers the Ego. But if the Ego is quelled through purification or if purification consists of quelling the ego, then faithlessness itself can be as good as faith. As is often the case, the first line is beautiful and expresses an important thought, but doesn't surprise us too much. Surprise is usually reserved for the second line, because in a mushaairah, the first line would be repeated several times building up the suspense for what was to come. The second line does not disappoint. First we are told to purify ourselves (presumably of duplicity, deceit and dishonesty), and then the punch is delivered at the last moment. If yuo purify yourself, then even your faithlessness (ham kufr-e-to) will become your faith (deen-e-to).

In an famous Urdu verse, Ghalib plays with this theme of a steadfastly followed infidelity being as good as faith. Here is the verse:

وفاداری بہ شرط استواری اصل ایماں ےہ

مرے بت خانے میں تو کعبے میں گاڑھو برہمن کو

vafaadaarii ba shart-e-ustuvaarii asl-e-iimaaN hai
mare but;xaane meN to ka((be meN gaa;Rho barahmin ko

Faithfulness, as long as it is firm, is the essence/root of religion/faith
If he dies in the temple (idol-house) bury the Brahmin in the Ka'ba

Fran Pritchett's entry for this verse is found here. The Urdu verse makes a point quite similar to the Farsi verse, though I think much more firmly, startlingly. Pritchett comments on the effect of the imperative tense of the second line. There is fantastic use of strong verbs, marnaa (to die) and gaaRhna (to bury) and of course the sheer contradictory pleasure of seeing the Brahmin, the scion of Hindu faith, buried (no less!!) in the Ka'ba (no less!!). Ghalib uses the power of this immediately felt contradiction (the Brahmin who dies in the temple, is to be buried in the Ka'ba), to point to the philosophical contradiction. That even faithlessness (of the Brahman) can be equal to faith, if only it is pure, it is firm, it is steadfast. The firmess in this instance of the Brahmin's faith is illustrated by his death in the temple. It is as if the Brahmin has followed the advice given by Ghalib in the second line of the Farsi verse: Purify yourself and your kufr (Hindu belief, idol worship) will be as good as deen/religion/Islam.

Finally, the image of dying in the house of worship, as a sign of faith, reminds me of Hazrat Ali's death in the Ka'ba, which is also invoked as a powerful symbol of his faith.


  1. Correction. Hazrat Ali died in Masjid-e-Kufa, which is in Iraq.

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  3. Thanks Tanveer. I stand corrected. Hazrat Ali was in fact born in the Ka'ba and was assassinated in the Masjid of Kufa.

  4. Hi Amit,

    Huzoor bahut hi tafseel se mutaala kiya hai aapne ghalib ke farsi ashaar ka...waise hum bhi urdu sher-o-shayri mein kaafi dilchaspi rakhte hain...

    Oh n from Amit to another, here's my blog address

  5. maula ali was born in kaba but ghalib did;nt know islaam he was only a urdu farsi poet who had lack of religion knowledge