Saturday, October 11, 2008

Ghalib on the object of true worship

This week's verse, all of Ghalib's commentators note, could only have occurred to Ghalib. His penchant for paradox, for surprising the reader by using common words and ideas to make uncommon points, for holding the suspense till the last possible minute, and all the while making a profound (in this case philosophical) point, all this is in evidence here. It is verses like these, that compel us to agree with Ghalib and say, "haaN Mirzaa saahab, aapkaa andaaz-e-bayaaN hai aur!"

So without further ado, the verse:

ہے پرے سرحد ادراک سے اپنا مسجود
قبلے کو اہل نظر قبلہ نما کہتے ہیں

hai pare sar;had-e idraak se apnaa masjuud
qible ko ahl-e na:zar qiblah-numaa kahte hai;N

1) beyond the limit of the senses/perception/comprehension is [their/our] own {worship/prostration}-object
2) people of vision call the Qiblah the 'Qiblah-pointer'

The literal translation is Frances Pritchett's with some additions from me. Click here for this verse's entry on Desertful of Roses.

The first line makes a broad comment. Our object of worship is beyond (a beautiful use of a simple word, pare) the border or limit of the senses or of perception. Most commentators have chosen to interpret idraak here as simply the senses or sense perception, but it can also mean understanding or comprehension. The later gives a stronger interpretation. Not only is our object of worship beyond the senses, it is beyond human comprehension. And since that which cannot be perceived can still be comprehended (for e.g. the existence of unseen planets or start, or even a magenta colored flying horse), it actually means something to say that the Absolute is not only beyond our senses, it is also beyond comprehension.

It is not till the second line that we get the full significance of the first (a sign of a well-crafted she'r). So what is the consequence of the fact that our object of worship is beyond perception and comprehension? It is that those with vision or those who have true perception (ahl-e-nazar) call the qiblah, qiblah-numa. The qiblah, the direction to prayer for a Muslim (the direction where the Ka'ba is to be found), is itself a pointer to the Real Qiblah. Platts dictionary defines the qiblah-numa thus:

qibla-numa, s.m. lit. 'Showing the qibla'; an instrument by which Muhammadans at a distance from Mecca ascertain the direction of the qibla;—a mariner's compass.

Thus as Nazm notes, "by doing prostrations toward the Ka'bah, the goal is not to do prostrations to the Ka'bah. Rather, the one to Whom we do prostrations is beyond the directions, and a prostration must have a direction. For this reason, He has decreed the direction of the Ka'bah."

So the Qiblah itself is merely a pointer to the Qiblah. As the commentators say, no one but Ghalib would have thought of calling the qiblah, a pointer to guide to the qiblah. What the commentators don't mention is that this second line also sets up a nice little infinite regress. Since the new qiblah being pointed to is itself, a qiblah, it is therefore also a qiblah-numa and so on ad infinitum. This interpretation is sustained by the fact that Ghalib doesn't say, the qiblah is a pointer to the "real qiblah" or anything like that. He simply says, a qiblah (any qiblah) is a qiblah-pointer. Perhaps this is why in the first line Ghalib says that the object of worship is beyond comprehension. Thinking about it sets us down a path of infinite regress.

Actually the verse works at two levels parallely. If we interpret idraak as senses or sense perception then the second line offers "proof" that the real object of worship is beyond the senses just as the real qiblah is only gestured to by what ordinary people call the qiblah. In this reading, there is nice resonance between sarhad-e-idraak and ahl-e-nazar (limit of senses, and people who have sight or vision). On the other hand, if we interpret idraak as understanding or comprehension, then the second line gives a separate proof and can be read in the way I mentioned above with an infinite regress in it.

In either reading, Ghalib invokes his favorite theme regarding the Absolute or the Divine. This is the theme of that worldly objects (existence) gestures to the Other World, points to non-existence. I have commented earlier on other verses that display this theme.

Finally, as always Ghalib has lessons for us today. What do we worship? Are we falling into the trap of symbolsim, mistaking the symbol for the object it signifies? In the course of this project we have seen this theme occupy Ghalib's mind on repeated occasions. Given the turmoil over religion in South Asia we feel this is one theme has bears all the repeating. Visit The South Asian Idea Weblog for for questions and for what we can learn from Ghalib in this instance.

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