Saturday, March 10, 2012
In India, Call for Recognizing Sufi Ideas of 19th Century Urdu Poet Mirza Ghalib
The Indian government has recently been urged to recognize the 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib by posthumously awarding him Bharat Ratna, the country's highest civilian award. Ghalib may not be bestowed with the honor, but his supporters hope that such recognition will advance the Sufi thoughts of Ghalib and strengthen moderate Islamic forces.
Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869) was a cosmopolitan poet of Delhi who wrote mainly in Urdu but also in Persian, and lived during the last decades of the Mughal rule in India. In his poetry, Ghalib is known for walking a fine line between religion and life, thereby challenging the orthodox and leaving them without answers on questions of faith and worldly things. February 15th marks the 142nd anniversary of the death of Ghalib, who is recited popularly for the depth of meaning of simple words he regularly uses in his couplets.
The appeal for awarding him the Bharat Ratna was made by Justice Markandey Katju, the chairman of the Press Council of India and a former Supreme Court judge. He has been supported by numerous Ghalib fans, including Asghar Ali Engineer, a renowned Islamic reformist writer in India. Justice Katju was slammed by some critics who argued that such a move could open Pandora's Box and demands could be made to award Bharat Ratna to Hindu gods.
Expressing support for Justice Katju's call, Asghar Ali Engineer argued that Ghalib was not only a follower of Wahdat al-Wujud, a liberal school of Sufism (Islamic mysticism), but also represented the ethos of modern India. In another article, Pakistani writer Dr. Mohammad Taqi argued that Ghalib's Sufi ideas need to be studied, adding that he followed a distinct strand of Sufism.
Following are excerpts from Asghar Ali Engineer's article; following that are excerpts from Justice Markandey Katju's article; and finally excerpts from Mohammad Taqi's article:
Article by Asghar Ali Engineer, January 16-31, 2012
"[Ghalib] was Follower of ... Wahdat al-Wujudi School of Sufism Which is The Most Liberal School among Sufis; It is The Liberal Ethos of Wahdat al-Wujudi Sufis Which Created ... [A] Composite Culture [in India]"
"I think right now we are concerned with modern secular India and our engagement with modernity begins with the British period which is also known as the modern period in Indian history. Modernity created lot of conflict between rigid orthodoxy and liberal modernity. Modern India obviously could not have been built on rigid orthodoxy, though people are free according to our Constitution to believe in orthodoxy and thousands of them believe in it even today.
"But our Constitution and our liberal secular ethos are the essence of our modernity and Ghalib represents this eminently. He was a poet par excellence and his poetry represents modern secular values along with the value of love. Ghalib's poetry is ghazal poetry though he wrote in other genres also but he is mainly known for his ghazals which is basically love poetry. And he was a follower of what is known as the Wahdat al-Wujudi school of Sufism which is the most liberal school among Sufis.
"This school was founded by Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi [1165-1240AD] who says in one of his poems that my Deen (religion) and my shariat [path] is love and love is the very foundation of my philosophy. Most of the Indian Sufis, though not all, belong to this Wahdat al-Wujudi school and it is the liberal ethos of Wahdat al-Wujudi Sufis which created our composite culture and these Sufis whole-heartedly embraced local cultures and mainly wrote in local languages including Marathi, Punjabi, Kannada, Tamil, Gujarati, and so on.
"What is the implication of the philosophy of Wahdat al-Wujud? Wahdat al-Wujud means Unity of Being i.e. real being is one and we all (humanity) are its manifestations and those who believe in this philosophy do not distinguish between one human being and the other and one religion and the other. Ghalib's entire poetry is representative of this ethos.
"In this respect Ghalib's mathnavi (a form of long poem each verse of which has two lines) Chiragh-e-Dayr i.e. Lamp of a Temple. This mathnavi is about Banaras, the sacred Hindu city through which he passed on his way to Calcutta and he was so enchanted by its beauty that he wrote this poem in Persian which describes its charms so much so that he says that once anyone who saw the flowing Ganges of this city, his/her eyes will never by harmed. Describing its beautiful damsels he writes 'Their dainty and silken touch beats the pearl softness.'
"It is Kashi (Banaras) where springs of the world take refuge be it in hot summer or cold winter i.e. its weather is the most suitable weather in the world. The poem is so full of praise for Banaras that there is no city like this in the world. There is so much poetic exaggeration in describing the charms of Banaras. Not only this mathnavi but Ghalib's entire poetry very eminently represents the cultural ethos of India and particularly its composite culture."
"Ghalib Represents Beautifully the Tension between Tradition and Modernity; He Describes It as Conflict between Ka'ba and Kalisa (Church), Ka'ba Representing Tradition and Kalisa Modernity"
"Ghalib had friends among all communities of India, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and several of his disciples were Hindus. He has addressed several of his letters to his Hindu friends. He was so fond of unity of all human beings that when several of his friends were killed in the war of independence [against the British in 1857] he wrote in one of his letters that they say now we will meet on the day of judgment (Qiyamat) but what kind of meeting it would be? Sunnis will stand separately from Shi'as and Hindus separately from Muslims. Can it be called meeting together?
"Ghalib indeed was precursor of the ethos of our modern secular liberal India, one of its architects. Our Constitution has been based on these values and minus these values our nationhood would be seriously weakened. These are representative values of our nationhood. Even in the 21st century we are fighting among ourselves on the basis of religion, language, caste, region, and so on. Our country is highly diverse, in fact bewilderingly diverse and to create unity in such diversity we have to strive very hard and need persons like Ghalib with their progressive and liberal values.
"Urdu, in which Ghalib wrote, is itself a language of composite culture; it is a product of several languages and dialects, and Urdu is eminently qualified to express such progressive poetry as Ghalib composed. Urdu has been the language of love, not of hatred. Even today its ghazal poetry keeps millions spellbound even if they do not speak that language.
"Ghalib, through his poetry raised it to new heights. [Islamist Urdu poet Muhammad] Iqbal described him as Goethe of Urdu. It is because of Ghalib's poetry that Urdu poetry can be compared with the heights of world poetry. Ghalib represents beautifully the tension between tradition and modernity. He describes it as conflict between Ka'ba and Kalisa (church), Ka'ba representing tradition and Kalisa modernity. It is this tension which troubles Ghalib in the backdrop of the 1857 war of independence which makes his poetry all the more relevant to us."
Article by Justice Markandey Katju, December 20, 2011:
"Ghalib is a Modern Figure, Not a Legendary One Like Lord Rama; Many of His Thoughts were, for His Times, Surprisingly Modern; [He] Often Broke Through ... [Feudal] Tradition on Perceiving the Advantages of Modern Civilization"
"I have been criticized for demanding Bharat Ratna for Mirza Ghalib and [Bengali writer] Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay [1876-1938]. Some even lampooned me by saying that Bharat Ratna should also be given to Lord Rama and Gautam Buddha...."
"In reply, I wish to say that there is nothing wrong in giving awards posthumously, provided they are given to the right persons, and Bharat Ratna has been often conferred posthumously in the past...."
"Moreover, Ghalib is a modern figure, not a legendary one like Lord Rama, or an ancient one like Gautam Buddha. Many of his thoughts were, for his times, surprisingly modern. Though he was steeped in the feudal tradition, he often broke through that tradition on perceiving the advantages of modern civilization.
"Thus, in one sher (couplet) Ghalib writes: 'Imaan mujhe roke hai, jo khenche he muje kufr/ Kaaba merey peechey hai, kaleesa merey aage.' The word 'kaleesa' literally means church, but here it means modern civilization. Similarly, 'Kaaba' literally refers to the holy place in Mecca, but here it means feudalism [orthodoxy]. So the sher really means: 'Religious faith is holding me back, but skepticism is pulling me forward/ Feudalism is behind me, modern civilization is in front.' Thus, Ghalib is rejecting feudalism [or orthodoxy] and approving of modern civilization...."
"Urdu poetry is a shining gem in the treasury of Indian culture. Before 1947 [when India became free from British rule], Urdu was the common language of the educated class in large parts of India — whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Christian. Regrettably, after 1947 some vested interests created a false propaganda that Urdu was a foreign language and a language of Muslims alone.
"Mirza Ghalib is the foremost figure in Urdu, and in our composite culture. He no doubt died over a century back, but our culture, of which Urdu is a vital part, is still alive."
"When I First Appealed for the Award of Bharat Ratna to Ghalib..., My Appeal was Seconded by Many Prominent People; How Many People ... have Read Ghalib...? People are Talking of Giving the Bharat Ratna to Cricketers and Film Stars"
"When I first appealed for the award of Bharat Ratna to Ghalib in the Jashn-e-Bahaar mushaira in Delhi in April 2011, my appeal was seconded by many prominent people in the audience: Meira Kumar, speaker of Lok Sabha [lower house of parliament]; Salman Khurshid, Union law minister; S.Y. Qureshi, chief election commissioner; etc. However, soon after, a journal described my appeal as 'sentimentalism gone berserk.'
"As regards Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, in a recent function in Calcutta I appealed for the award of Bharat Ratna to him. Here was a man who in a feudal society (early 20th century Bengal) launched a full-blooded attack on the caste system, against women's oppression, and superstitions (read Srikant, Shesh Prashna, Charitraheen, Brahmin ki Beti, Devdas, Grameen Samaj, etc).
"In his acceptance speech organized in Calcutta Town Hall in 1933 to honor him, Sarat Chandra said: 'My literary debt is not limited to my predecessors only. I am forever indebted to the deprived, ordinary people who give this world everything they have and yet receive nothing in return, to the weak and oppressed people whose tears nobody bothers to notice. They inspired me to take up their cause and plead for them. I have witnessed endless injustices to these people, unfair, intolerable injustices. It is true that springs do come to this world for some....'"
"How many people in our country have read Ghalib and Sarat Chandra? People are talking of giving the Bharat Ratna to cricketers and film stars. This is the low cultural level to which we have sunk. We ignore our real heroes, and hail superficial ones. I regret to say that the present generation of Indians has been almost entirely de-cultured, and all they care for is money, film stars, cricket, and superficialities...."
Article by Mohammad Taqi, February 16, 2012:
"Ghalib's Biographers from Hali to Russell... Have All Acknowledged His Mystic Aptitude If not Outright Mysticism"
'Ghalib, you write so well upon these mystic themes of Love Divine,
We would have counted you a saint, but that we knew of your love of wine.'
"Professors Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam narrate from Altaf Hussain Hali's Yadgar-e-Ghalib (Memoir of Ghalib) that when King [of Delhi] Bahadur Shah Zafar heard Ghalib recite the above ghazal, he commented, 'No, my friend, even so we should never have counted you a saint [mystic].' Ghalib retorted, 'Your Majesty counts me one even now, and only speaks like this lest my sainthood should go to my head.'
"That 19th century connoisseur of wine — and mysticism — continues to fare quite well even today. Several biographies of Ghalib and translations and commentaries on his works have appeared in the past decade, like the 2003 volume by Professors Russell and Islam titled The Oxford India Ghalib: Life, Letters and Ghazals preceded by Natalia Prigarina's Mirza Ghalib: A Creative Biography in 2000.
"A few weeks ago in India, [former judge of Supreme Court] Justice Markandey Katju suggested that Ghalib be awarded the Bharat Ratna posthumously and the writer-activist Asghar Ali Engineer started a signature campaign towards that goal. The suggestion and the campaign became mired in a controversy, which is beyond our scope here. What really caught my attention was Mr. Engineer's apt comment that besides, and in, his literary contribution, Ghalib 'was a follower of what is known as the Wahdat al-Wujudi school of Sufism, which is the most liberal school among sufis [Islamic mystics]' and his entire poetry is representative of this liberal, humanistic and all-embracing ethos.
"Work on Ghalib's poetry, letters and life had started in his lifetime, with his close friends and disciples meticulously archiving the relevant materials. Ghalib's biographers from Hali to Russell, and his aficionados — Ghalib Shanasan – have all acknowledged his mystic aptitude if not outright mysticism.
"In biographical sketches his doctrinal inclinations too have been recorded. But while the masters writing on and about Ghalib have elaborated on his ostensibly sectarian persuasion and journeys in Sufism, a particular strand of Sufism that is unique to Ghalib has gone unnoticed. And interestingly this is something that has been hiding not just in plain sight but announced with pride by Ghalib himself."
"Within the Realm of Sufism, Ghalib Apportioned Himself a Niche that Perhaps was Neither Explored before Him nor Expounded on after Him"
"Commenting on Ghalib's faith, Russell and [Khurshidul] Islam, again on Hali's authority, report that his antecedents were Sunni Muslim but at some point in his life he became either a Shia or at least sympathetic to the Shias. Hali himself notes that Ghalib may have been a Tafzeeli — someone who exaggerates in praising [Islam's fourth caliph and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad] Hazrat Ali Murtaza (RA). Other scholars like Sufi Tabassum have made similar observations. This perhaps does not even begin to define Ghalib's creed, which he had himself expressed both in verse and prose.
"For all practical purposes Ghalib was not a religious man and had nothing to do with religious orthodoxies. For example, while his letters provide a great montage of almost all his life, there is remarkably no mention of him having participated in any Twelver Shia ritual at all. The anecdotes about his wine consumption and not observing fast or prayer rituals have, of course, been part of literary lore. Within the 19th century orthodox Muslim society, Ghalib remained an arch unorthodox...."
"I do want to draw the attention of the Ghalib scholars towards how within the realm of Sufism, Ghalib apportioned himself a niche that perhaps was neither explored before him nor expounded on after him. This may actually have to do with Ghalib's well-known desire to remain above the crowd in all his temporal and, indeed, divine quests, thus remaining unorthodox even within the heterodox Sufism.
"Hali's memoir of Ghalib had carried, in its opening, a portrait of the poet captioned with a Persian verse of Ghalib. A similar sketch, along with the same verse, adorns Russell and Islam's aforementioned work. The Urdu journal Nuqoosh had also opened its Ghalib edition with the same lines, which say:
"'Ghalib-e-naam-awaram, naam-o-nishanam ma-purs,
hum Asadullahem-o-hum Asadullahi-em.'
"(I am the renowned Ghalib; do not ask of my name and fame/I am both Asadullah and Asadullah's man.)
"Russell and [Khurshidul] Islam explain it as: 'My name is Asadullah and my allegiance is to Asadullah, 'the Lion of God' — a title of Ali (RA), a cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), and the object of Ghalib's special reverence.' But translating Asadullahi as mere allegiance is quite exoteric and does not do justice to the verse and the nuanced thought therein. On many occasions in his letters Ghalib refers to being the servant of Ali (RA), saying, for example, 'Ali ka bandah hoon, uss ki kasam jhoot naheen khata' (I am the retainer of my lord Ali ... and do not swear by his name in vain)."
"In His Declaration 'I am Asadullah' and Thereby the Annihilation into Ali, Ghalib Distinguishes Himself not Just from the Ordinary Crowd But Also His Strand of Sufism from Other Sufis and Sufi Orders"
"The God-man relationship in the Sufi realm, of course, has many dimensions. The fundamental one is that of Lord (rabb) and His servant (abd), and the more sublime and complex one is an inimitable and divine intimacy (wasl) with the Creator (dhat). Reading Ghalib's above quoted Persian verse, and other Urdu and Persian verses, and parts of his prose together suggest that the intended esoteric meaning of Asadullahi is not as limited as Russell et al had noted — perhaps Ghalib was pushing the envelope.
"Ghalib himself leads us into the second and related dimension of his Sufi realm in another Persian verse, saying:
Awaza-e-anaa Asadullah der afganem."
"Translation: (If) there is a sect of those saying Ali [RA] is our lord, (then) I am their Mansoor, For I chant that I am the (lord) Asadullah.
"Mansoor al-Hallaj's claim and fame in mysticism are self-explanatory. But by drawing a parallel between Mansoor and God on the one hand and himself and Asadullah Ali on the other, via equating an-al-Haq and anaa Asadullah, Ghalib appears to have let us in on the crux of his Wahdat al-Wujudi philosophy, and more. In his declaration 'I am Asadullah' and thereby the annihilation into Ali, Ghalib distinguishes himself not just from the ordinary crowd but also his strand of Sufism from other sufis and Sufi orders...."
 http://www.csss-isla.com/arch-January-16-31-2012.htm, accessed February 16, 2012. The text of the articles has been lightly edited for clarity.
 http://www.indianexpress.com/news/bharat-ratna-ghalib/889757/0, accessed February 16, 2012.
 Daily Times (Pakistan), February 16, 2012.