Ghazal, Sufism, and the Birth of a Language

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

ScreenHunter_482 Feb. 03 10.28Language on the tongue is need and desire and now, but more potently, it is the taste of ancestral memory: the truest flavor of our origins, almost indescribable and yet at the root of the desire for expression itself, like Michelangelo’s Adam reaching for God, permanently in pursuit of exactitude but touching only the energies emanating from it. Language is a wick in the space between their hands, burning with the desire for precision, joining past and present. The words we rummage for most desperately are the ones that were let loose by our forebears to inhabit this space between identification and imagination. It is in the nature of such words to float, like pollen, into the future, and germinate into poetry. If ever there was a language that hangs like pollen, it is Urdu— and a poetic form that allows for those floating, protean, seemingly disharmonious or paradoxical ideas to engage with one another, it is the ghazal.

Urdu, a hybrid, hangs between its many “parent” languages, between the divergent cultures and histories of its speakers— the people of the Indian subcontinent; it hangs between the imperial past of Indian Muslims who ruled India for a millennium, and their unique partitions post-Raj (British rule: 1857-1947), their new identities in our times as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. As the state language of Pakistan, Urdu hangs between the educated and the unlettered, between regional culture and ruling culture, between serving the immediate function as a communication tool for people of different provinces (with their own linguistic traditions and literatures) and the civilizational function of tethering the heritage of a millennium-long imperial culture to Pakistan’s evolving identity. It hangs ready to pollinate new time with old time.

“Urdu,” a variant of the Turkic “Ordu,” meaning “camp” or “army,” evolved due to the mixing of languages by soldiers employed in the extensive military of the Muslim empires of India (711-1857). Native speakers of North Indian languages as well as Persian, Arabic, Turkic Chagatai and others (English among them) were part of the army and the court, as various Muslim dynasties themselves came from different linguistic backgrounds and constantly imported not only soldiers, but scholars, builders and artisans from neighboring regions. A language with many dialects in the early phases of its formation, Urdu developed over centuries and came to find somewhat of a standardized form around the seventeenth century.

Cast into a utilitarian mold at birth, Urdu has ironically served less for communication between ordinary people, more as a symbol of cultural refinement and status, having been wielded by men of poetry and men of power. In its relatively short history, it has given its users a remarkable golden age as well as tyranny, as any language associated with empire is wont to do. Polygenetic, pluralistic, as well as imperial and despotic; deep, lofty, sonically pleasing, naturally fit for poetry, yet stunted in many ways and lexically insufficient for science and technology, Urdu is replete with contradictions. The story of Urdu’s genesis that I’m attached to, however, is nothing short of a poetic legend: it is the story of the Sufi poet Amir Khusrao, whose ecstatic spirit, courtly upbringing and poetic craft gave birth to a new language that combined the refinement of court Persian with the visceral charm of the locally spoken Hindavi (also known as Dehlvi and derived from Brij Bhasaha) language. Besides being known as the first poet of Urdu, Khusrao pioneered many other things we have come to associate with Indio-Pak culture, such as the Sitar, qawwali, and most importantly for me, the ghazal.

It was through Khusrao’s introduction of the Arabo-Persian ghazal (a poetic form that includes a multitude of themes and moods tied together by a single refrain) that the rudimentary form of Urdu emerged, though Urdu was not then known by this name. In a way, Urdu can be said to be the child of the ghazal because in no other context or form do we see the marriage of indigenous sensibilities and Arabo-Persian poetics as clearly as Amir Khusrao’s ghazals— these astonishingly beautiful couplets contain a line of Persian followed by a line of Hindavi (Brij Bhasha dialect). Khusrao’s Persian is as true to the tradition of Persian poetry as his Hindavi is authentic. The Islamic content and vocabulary of the former tradition merged with the vibrancy and immediacy of the latter to make for a definitive Sufi idiom— inclusive and transcendental, while staying true to the ghazal’s typical manner of tying together the sacred with the secular.

Khusrao’s life (1253-1325) offered the varied facets and seemingly contradictory elements that are reflected in Urdu as well as the ghazal form. Khusrao embraced and found meaning in these polarities. He had a Muslim Turkic courtier (a migrant nobleman) for a father and an Indian mother from a Rajput Hindu lineage; a career as a court poet through the rule of seven emperors while also living the life of a humble devotee (he was a disciple of Nizam uddin Aulia, India’s beloved Sufi saint), a gift for sophisticated literary technique as well as a deep attachment with folk tropes and traditions. It’s possible that his mystic leanings helped him to not only reconcile these paradoxes within his personal life but to invent a new language via poetry, and to find in the ghazal form a fitting mold for exploring the polarities that are so quintessentially Sub-continental. Khusrao’s ghazals carry a synergetic quality, a live force that aims to bridge the cultures that have the baggage of empire— putting at ease the ruler and the ruled in their struggle to be defined and acknowledged through language. Khusrao defines both with love.

Amir Khusrao’s work as a scholar is of seminal importance to the Indian culture, however, it is more through the senses than the intellect that Khusrao was able to accomplish the tectonic feat of creating, in Urdu, a language that combined sonic and thematic elements that had thus far been culturally alien to each other. He absorbed and responded to the distinct and varied music of India, hearing the reverberations of his own Islamic faith in that ancient land of multiple faiths. He celebrated his love of the divine and of everyday people, using classical Islamic metaphors and forms (ghazal, masnavi, khamsa, Ruba’i) as well as folk songs and riddles that are quintessentially Indian in theme and style. He blended Sufi gestures with subtle, lovingly made observations of the Indian landscape, seasons, habits and aesthetics. He wrote India’s very pulse and its scent.

Khusrao’s work as a musician and lyricist played a strong part in the unique genesis of Urdu as a language engineered by a Sufi’s spirit to unify highbrow culture with lowbrow culture. His devotional poems in Persian, written in formal verse, as well as his folk lyrics in Hindavi, have been sung for centuries at tombs of saints, courts, in concert halls, on radio and television, at wedding ceremonies, and seasonal festivals across the Urdu/Hindi speaking world. He is at once a classically trained court poet and a “people’s poet;” a pioneering authority of elite culture and an anti-elitist himself, an ecstatic spirit drawn to the joys, sorrows and wisdom of common people and a devout mystic.

Urdu’s detailed history through all its developmental phases— the raw, the decadent, the turbulent, is yet to be rigorously researched and written. When it is, we are bound to find rare and unique achievements of civilization as well as colossal disasters; Urdu as a relic of empire has given the world a rich literature (especially the ghazal) in its short history but it has also been used as a tool to impose supremacy during Pakistan’s fragile, formative years, resulting in the kind of racism that negates the inclusive, polyglot character of the language, its very origins.

Language is a reflection of shared values. It is what its speakers make of it, especially a language such as Urdu, which, by definition, empowers and praises the plural, and promises such great riches of sound and idiom. The fact of Urdu’s Sufi and literary beginnings in the hands of Amir Khusrao, serves as a reminder of its inherent possibilities, its fluid, generative, generous and affirming nature. To revive its soul in the midst of the present political fragmentation (in Pakistan and the rest of the Urdu speaking world) is to revive the values of harmonious coexistence, to celebrate the potential of the poetic space between identification and imagination, the generative space where all people have a hope to thrive.