Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ghalib, Sufism and the attack on symbolism

Going after conventional symbols, ridiculing them, inverting them to provoke thought in the listener or reader is a favorite Sufi trick. The aim is to make us think about the arbitrary nature of the customs we consider holy. Ghalib is a master at this art, as we have had occasion to note before. Recall, mare but;xaane meiN to ka'be meiN gaaDho barhaman ko. So here is another verse in the same spirit. This one is not part of the regular divaan, so we are not providing a link to Desertful of Roses.

کعبے میں جا بجایںگے ناقوس
اب تو باندھا ہے دیر میں احرام

ka'be meN jaa bajaaeNge naaquus
ab to baaNdhaa hai dair meN ahraam

काबे में जा बजाएंगे नाकूस
अब तो बंधा है दैर में एहराम

1. (we) will go and strike a gong in the Ka'ba
2. since now we have tied the holy cloak in the church/temple

Parallel commentary on The South Asian Idea.

According to Platts dictionary:
A ناقوس nāqūs (v.n. fr. نقس 'to strike (a gong),' &c.), s.m. A kind of wooden gong; a thin oblong piece of wood, suspended by two strings and struck with a flexible rod (used by the Eastern Christians)
Steingass Persian-English dictionary adds the following: a kind of wooden gong (used by the Christians in Muhammadan countries instead of church-bells)

The main symbolism is thus in ka'ba, naaquus, dair and ehraam. By taking visibly Chirstian and Muslim symbols and mixing them up, reversing their place, Ghalibs shows powerfully how our mind grows to make certain associations which are somewhat arbitrary or conventional. A true Sufi or one who seeks the Beloved would not think twice about flouting these conventions. In fact would flout them to show others their sectarian nature. Even to a secular mind like mine the image of blowing a conch in the ka'ba or wearing a holy cloak to a temple is startling.

Prof Moazzam Siddiqi offers the following explication:
The associations between, ka'ba and iHraam and dayr and naaquus are quite obvious, and they follow an apparently logical, rather, traditional logic: The iHraam is always tied in the holy precincts of Mecca, and the only call to prayer one hears there is the azaaN. It would be an unthinkable act of defiance and blasphemy even to imagine the naaquus being blown in the Ka'ba. Not content with one act of blasphemy and defiance (breaking the norms of established religion), namely blowing the naaquus in Ka'ba, and thus defiling it (in the eyes of the upholders of the followers of exoteric [zaahirii] aspect of religion), the poet wants to repeat the same act by defiling the dayr [could be a Christian church/monastery, a Jewish synagogue or a Hindu or Buddhist temple] by donning the iHraam there. For those [someone like Rumi] who are the Sufis [ahl-e baatin or esoterists] it is inconsequential where you blow the naaquus or where you cry out the azaaN or tie the iHraam; it does not matter whether you do it in the Ka'ba or butkhaana or dayr, because the One you are looking for and want to please resides in all these houses of worship. The shocking effect is deliberately created for maximum impact, so that the poet may drive his/her point home more effectively. This kind of Ghalibian iconoclasm deliberately breaks the established norm (which we are brain washed to believe that this is the only logical/rational way of doing things, because our ancestors/the society in their infinite wisdom have done so and said so). It is this mode of thinking that Ghalib wanted to change. If he had lived in the present day Pakistan he would long be dead, killed by some salafi/jihadi/lashkari/taliban/jamaa'ati zealot. For the same reason Ghalib in one of his Farsi she'rs (which I cannot recall at this point) once said that a person who is ahl-e khirad (endowed with intelligence and reason) would not be pleased with the established ways of the faith of his ancestors and discover a new path for himself. Some people argue that this was the reason why he turned away from Sunni Islam (the religion of his ancestors) and chose to follow the Shia belief. It is interesting to note that we come across this brazen iconoclasm largely in his Urdu poetry. His Persian poetry on the other hand is not tinged with this quality. In it he comes across more as a devotee of the Prophet and his family, especially Ali...MS
Thanks to Dr. Moazzam Siddiqi for explaining the meaning and intent of the sh’er. The onus of the liberties we have taken is on us.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ghalib on Difference and Unity

After a break of a few weeks we are back our series on Ghalib. This time we take a somewhat lesser known verse from a very famous ghazal. The verse is chosen to affirm our unity in the face of differences that threaten to overwhelm us. The Ghazal (#111), sab kahaaN, kuchh laala-o-gul meiN is deservedly one of Ghalib's most quoted, most sung, most recited ones. The verse is the following:

ham muva;h;hid hai;N hamaaraa kesh hai tark-e rusuum
millate;N jab mi;T ga))ii;N ajzaa-e iimaa;N ho ga))ii;N

1) we are monists, our practice is the renunciation of customs
2) when the communities were erased, they became parts of the faith

Translation and commentary on Desertful of Roses.

To see why we prefer "monist" to "monotheist" as translation of muvahhid, see companion commentary on The South Asian Idea.

This is a complex and densely packed verse with some heavy-duty Persian and Arabic vocabulary. Heavy-duty not only in the sense of difficulty (such as the arabic plural of juz, ajzaa), but also in the sense of using words that are multivalent and heavy with philosophical and theological meaning. For me this is an example of Ghalib in his erudite and didactic mood. Of course the beauty of Ghalib is that even in such a mood he retains a measure of poetic stature which a lesser poet would find difficult to attain. One way Ghalib does this is to rely on his quintessential sense of paradox or contradiction. So as S.R. Faruqi notes, the verse claims that "In our capacity as monotheist we know that the only true religion [مذہب] is not to have a religion [مذہب]." The second way he does this, also typical of his style is to exploit the formal structure of the Ghazal itself and to hold the powerful image for the very end. A third way, again something which I have commented on a few times before, is to mix high Perso-Arabic terminology with a few Indic words well chosen to accentuate the difference in consonants. Here the hardness of "mit jaanaa" amidst the other words, works very well, particularly if you recite the verse with dramatic effect, stressing the hard "t" in "mit."

Now for the meaning: FWP notes that "The terms here are a wild conceptual jungle, and surely deliberately framed to be so. All of them are notably broad and highly flexible." As proof I give below the Platts Discitonary entries on the key words.

A مؤحد muʼaḥḥid and muwaḥḥid act. part. of أحّد and وحّد 'to make, or to call, one; to declare God to be one,
P کيش kesh, s.f.m. Faith, religion, sect;—manner, quality (often used in comp.):—kāfir-kesh, adj. Prone to infidelity; (met.) a mistress, sweetheart.
A رسوم rusūm, s.f. pl. (of rasm, q.v.), Customs, usages, &c.;
A ترك tark, s.m. Abandoning, forsaking, leaving; setting aside; abandonment, desertion; relinquishment
P ملت millat (for A. ملة, v.n. fr. ملّ 'to turn; to convert,' &c.), s.f. Religion, faith, creed;—a nation, people
A اجزا ajzā (pl. of جز juz), s.m. Parts, portions, divisions, sections; sections of the Qorʼān; feet (of a verse); constituent parts (of a thing), elements; members; ingredients (of any compound or mixture).
A ايمان īmān [inf. n. iv of امن 'To be safe or secure'], s.m. Belief (particularly in God, and in His word and apostles, &c.); faith, religion, creed; conscience; good faith, trustworthiness, integrity:

You will see that "religion, faith, creed" appears as one possible meaning of three different words in the verse, kesh, millat and imaaN. But each time something different is meant. The first line is more straighforward. Since we are monists and we believe in the oneness of God or oneness of Being, our religion is the renunciation of particular rituals (note that rasm, of which the plural is rusuum, is here translated as customs, though in the context of the verse I think rituals would be a better translation. Even today we refer to rituals as rasm-o-rivaaj, e.g. shaadi is rasm and so on). The second line offers us a vision of what would happen if rituals and customs were indeed renounced. When distinctions between communities and creeds and nations who each have a distinct identity based on their customs and rituals are erased, the different parts become part of the Whole. Since the Whole in question here is God/Being, it is One and indivisible, and hence cannot consist of parts. So there is subtle wordplay here. They are parts (ajzaa) and yet not parts (because they have been erased). This is tight way of communicated a profound truth of Sufism. That when the one is lost in the One, individual identities are lost in the Whole, and Union (wasl) is achieved.

As Kabir would say:
mera mujhe meiN kucch naiN, jo kucch hai so teraa
tera tujhko sauNp rahaa, kyaa laage hai meraa

Nothing is mine in me, everything is yours
When I entrust you yours, what is left of me?

And speaking of Kabir tark-e-rusuum was a very important theme with him as well. Rituals are constantly attacked for getting in the way of true Union with the Beloved.

malaa to kar meiN phire jeebh phire mukh maahii
manvaa to chahuuN dish phire ye to sumiran nahii

the rosary turns in the hand, the tongue roams in the mouth
the mind roams the four directions, this is not meditation

topi pahire mala pahire chhap tilak anumana
sakhi sabade gavat bhule atam khabari na jana

wearing a cap, turning the rosary, adorning marks of the faith
singing hymns, they keep no knowledge of the soul.

Kabir and Ghalib offer fascinating examples of how similar ideas can be expressed in completely different idioms of expression. South Asia is heir to all these idioms and these thoughts are not foreign to us. Rather they are in the fabric of our being. Bringing them forward, affirming them and reaffirming them is our task for the times.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Terrorism and South Asia: Join us in a new initiative

Last week and this week we suspended our usual series of blog entries on Ghalib. Like many others from South Asia, Nov. 26-28 saw me transfixed to NDTV Online watching the horrific events unfold in Bombay, a city I lived in for the first twenty years of my life, and still think of as home. Much ink has been spilled already in the mainstream and alternative media, the blogosphere and elsewhere on the attacks and the aftermath. Understandably there is much anger among the ordinary Mumbaikars.

But hearteningly the last ten days have seen, not more bloodshed and rioting, not wanton targeting of an entire community just because the killers bore certain names. Rather the last ten days have seen countless vigils, peace marches, and new initiatives within India, across India-Pakistan and in the US. Since the true victory of the extremists lies in destroying trust and mutual goodwill among people, these initiatives are vital in ensuring that no such victory ensues.

Even though angry and upset, I still eschew any language of being "tough on terrorism," or "waging a global war on terror," because I have seen all too often how ordinary people pay the price for the "toughness." The Police has its place, the security forces have their place, no doubt. But far more important, the faith, the trust of the ordinary Indian and the ordinary Pakistan, both equally victims of terrorism, has the pride of place.

Together with the virtual blog partner of mehr-e-niimroz, The South Asian Idea, we propose some steps towards establishing a way forward. This way forward relies on ordinary people in India, Pakistan, the United States, stepping forward to be counted among those who feel that the way to defeat such extremism is to kindle new friendships and renew old ones, to emphasize our commonalities instead of stressing the differences, and realizing that no borders, no number of 9/11s or 26/11s can break the centuries old bonds that tie communities toghether in South Asia.

Here is what we propose:

[From The South Asian Idea]
"To begin with, The South Asian Idea will promote three functions: First, to be an ongoing roll of all the individuals who sign up to play a proactive roll to end terrorism in the world. We will see our names spilling across pages and draw comfort from the fact that there are many of us, that our numbers are increasing, and that we are united.

Second, to be a vehicle for reaching out and joining hands. We propose to initiate this by twinning educational institutions across South Asia – school with school, college with college, university with university, one pair at a time. We will then ask each pair of institutions to facilitate the linking of individual students with each other. These unions will be the bricks of our defensive wall.

Third, to be a forum where these pairs and unions will begin to open their hearts and minds to each other, to air their best hopes and their worst fears, to talk to each other, to raise the tough issues that need to be raised, to discuss the strategies that need to be implemented, to become friends, to fall in love, to provide the mortar that would make our wall of defense impregnable.

Every individual can do but a little. Together we can do a lot. We invite you to reach out and join hands with us."

Volunteers who wish to join this effort should send an email with suggestions and a description of the skills they can contribute to or

A discussion group (South Asians for Peace) has been set up as a first step to facilitate an exchange of ideas about more specific initiatives for the future. Do join and contribute your thoughts.