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.

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