Ghazal Culture: Exalted Nomads and Love’s Elusive Gate
Although known as a unique poetic form with roots in Arabia, the ghazal’s history suggests it is also a cultural phenomenon with an international and wide-ranging influence on cultures and languages, even religions, quite surprising for what is, after all, a form of poetry. It developed over time from the qasida, a long (50-100 lines) pre-Islamic mono-rhymed poetic form noted for its elaborate metrics and central role in nomadic Arabian society. Sometimes called “golden odes,” these were usually in three parts: an introduction or nasib, which set the emotional tone by focusing on longing for home or a lost love; a narrative section or rahil whose Arabic name suggests the travel/ movement typical of nomadic life (the word Arab itself meaning “nomad”), often describing battles, camels, or campsites/ journeys; and the final section which focused on a particular genre, such as the panegyric, boast, lampoon, homoerotic, or didactic poem. The ghazal developed out of the nasib and its theme of longing, often focused on love. Its being essentially a performance art, which tends to be less aristocratic and more “of the people,” with close ties to song (often sung with instruments), one given to intense expression of emotion or desire, with room for satire and commentary on hypocrisy, may have helped the ghazal become more influential than a single form of poetry would ordinarily be.
The predominant mood of longing still infuses the ghazal as a sort of signature in itself, reflecting the nomadic sense of rootlessness and yearning for home/ stability that characterized ancient Arabian life. To understand this more deeply, one needs to imagine the desert, where the horizon can be seen in its 360 degree totality, with a merciless sun burning the spare surroundings, often with few signs of life during the day. At night, life blossoms in the sky, with its dazzling display of stars, planets, the moon, the Milky Way. Having lived albeit briefly in such an environment, I can understand the tendency toward the philosophical, the mystical, the symbolic, as well as the yearning (a mindset common to many cultures prior to the divorce of “spirituality” from “reason” in the modern era). Here is a world without the distraction of plenty, without forests or meadows, where oases are places of water, life-like jewels on the necklace of one’s caravan-path, indeed like the shers or couplets in a ghazal. In a world seemingly devoid of companionship other than one’s tribe, dwarfed by surrounding distances, where the word “desert” reflects a sense of being “deserted,” the fruits of the mind, in this case poetry, were cultivated as a garden of imagery, of imagination and language, sharing and thus augmenting the power of words both as a cohesive force (the repeating words and rhymes of form holding the disparate imagery) and a creative force (expanding and inventing language to convey emotional intensity and value).
Nomadic life also infused the ghazal with the sense of migration and exile, now a strikingly central issue in modern life, the tension between borders, traditions, a need for stability, and the constant change that survival needs impose on the human spirit. As the history of its assimilation into widely varying cultures reveals, the ghazal exemplifies how art gives beauty and value to human life and emotion, in this case as something fleeting, not despite being mortal and suffering but inspired by it, finding in our very temporality and its inevitable pain a cause célèbre, as exalted transients, nomads in the desert who create out of nothing, love and beauty. And that speaks to and elevates the “common people” or the commonality of human life. In a place as culturally disparate as Japan, for example, Pico Iyer says “we cherish things…because they cannot last.”
The very name “ghazal” means “flirtation,” implying not only the lovestruck poet expressing desire, love/ devotion and longing for another, but also a certain lightheartedness, which in the ghazal is usually expressed in wordplay. But the ghazal as a poetic form tends to express much more than mere flirtation, alluding to powerful emotions and desires as well, often erotic, intense, or even religious in its quest of the beloved, who is often impassive or out of reach. With the arrival of the Quran, which greatly enhanced and shaped the Arabic language, the ghazal eventually developed as an independent form, spreading with Islam and its culture to many countries and languages (such as Persian, Urdu, Turkish, Hindi, Pashto, Bengali, Hebrew, and many others). In each of these languages, the ghazal embraced the language most people spoke, and in turn was incorporated by each of the varying cultures as their own, even making it part of their folklore. This also gave it a certain immediacy that translations tend to lose, instead each language developing its own “ghazal culture,” varying to some extent in form but maintaining the spirit of longing, long-suffering love, intense emotion and beauty regardless to the language in which they are composed.
“A brief tour through the passages of this poetic form and its diverse routes would reveal both its uniqueness and universal appeal. When the ghazal moved out of the Arabian Peninsula, it found a hospitable space in medieval Spain where it was written both in the Arabic and the Hebrew languages. In yet another instance, we have the ghazal reaching out to west African languages like Hausa and Fulfulde.
“The ghazal written in Persian, the dominant literary language of central Asia and India, made remarkable impact and proved quite consequential in the development of the ghazal as an archetypal form of poetic expression in the East."
That formal development truly flowered in Persia; indeed, most of the formal elements considered as the defining perimeters of the ghazal in English, are essentially Persian using Farsi terms. The traditional Persian ghazal consists of around 7-10 couplets called shers. The first sher sets the tone and the radif or repeating word or phrase at the end of each line in the first couplet, and thereafter each second line. The radif is often preceded by a repeating rhyme or qafiya. Each sher is written as an independent unit without a direct link to the other shers in the ghazal. Often the author will insert their name (or a pun/play on their name) into the final couplet. An example of this form by Hafez (1350-1390 CE), one of the greatest ghazal poets in Persia, is here translated by Roger Sedarat:
Dear wine boy, bring us wine. The fast's over.
Give us the cup. The well-known past's over.
It's time to say prayers we've long forgotten.
Thank God the break from wine at last's over.
Intoxicate me so I will forget
Those I've known well and those I've passed over.
We catch the scent of what's inside the cup.
We send, in thanks, our deepest prayers over.
From the dead heart new life had reached the soul.
From the soft breeze your perfume passed over.
The prideful ascetic followed danger.
The path to a safe life's been passed over.
I spent all my heart's currency on wine.
My counterfeit coins have been passed over.
How long can one repent in such turmoil?
Pour wine, at last the madness is over.
Don't try to lead Hafez down the hard path.
He's discovered wine. The hard path's over.
Of course, in opting to adhere to the formal constraints, the translator increases the difficulty of recreating the sonic and meaning-rich sense of the original. Like the kigo or “season words” that give Japanese Haiku their depth, Persian poetry has its own lexicon of associative and multi-referenced words whose symbolic and emotional power is universally recognized by its society/ tradition, but lost on “outsiders.”. Here the word “wine” is such a word, which does not only mean the alcoholic drink, but also its intoxicating properties associated with deliciousness and concentrated enjoyment, a freedom from restraint in expression, and a dedicated passion, all of which associates it with love, both in the erotic sense and, for the Sufi or Islamic mystic, as was Hafez, the divine sense. The Muslim prohibition on alcohol also gave the word “wine,” in Islamic cultures such as in Persia, a sense of transgression and all the tensions associated with that. Thus “wine” means not only “love,” but forbidden love, with greater intensity and more complex emotion. Here “intoxication” occurs also in the heart, including a “higher” or mystical love, which too is in some circles considered taboo. Asceticism, the Spartan-like path to mystic transformation, can also be part of the Sufi way and is referred to in this ghazal as both seeking “danger” (of self-denial in excess) and “safe,” contrasting with the intoxicating liberty and danger of love/ ecstasy. The tension between intoxication’s intense and free expression and prohibition’s strictures is a common theme in Persian poetry, and this tension itself serves as an evocative metaphor for love and sexuality or religious inner devotion as a powerful force vs. the moral/ religious restrictions imposed on it.
The translator, Roger Sedarat, himself an accomplished ghazal poet, has rendered both the words and the formal qualities of this ghazal; alas, the one missing element must be imagined rather than savored here, and that is beauty. Of course, the beauty of one language is nigh impossible to translate into the qualities of another. Even more so of English and Persian, which differ greatly in so many ways, particularly when it comes to poetry, that saying “wine” means “love” fails to register its emotional and aesthetic significance to the audience, because simply, Persian as a language has developed a poetry where beauty reigns supreme, whereas the English is more concerned with presenting common experience, warts and all: an entirely different aesthetic. What a Persian considers beauty may differ then from what a Westerner would think.
In his essay “On Not Translating Hafez,” Dick Davis, elaborates on this point:
Persian poetry is full of words that express this aesthetic of wonder and amazement. What is unexpected, unnatural, miraculous, producing puzzled or overwhelmed wonder in the observer, is, ipso facto, considered poetic. ...This idealization of reality, and the calling forth of emotions like wonder and astonishment, which are seen as reactions to unprecedented perfection, are again relatively rare in the English poetic tradition, which frequently tends toward the specific and idiosyncratic, and which looks for the flash of recognition in the reader rather than amazed wonder at an ideal which is remote from quotidian experience.
It is also no small point that English is a notoriously difficult language for rhyme, as compared to Persian as well as other languages such as Italian, and metrical considerations can create the casual but less lovely contractions found above. Frustrated at the impossibility of rendering an effective translation of the Hafez’s ghazals, Davis notes further: “Ghazals often seem to end with the literary equivalent of throwing one’s hands in the air, as if nothing can be done about the situation the poem describes: recognizing that there is no end to the situation is what constitutes the end of the poem.” He contrasts this with Shakespearean sonnets whose essential “turn” creates a narrative and emotional transformation, however subtle, at the end. Also, as a performance art, ghazals often take on the formal characteristics of music:
The semantic separateness of each line within an overall mono-rhymed structure produces an artifact not unlike that of a musical theme and variations: each line is a discrete variation that is nevertheless tied closely to the overall theme, which is usually stated most succinctly in the opening or closing line. The mono-rhyme formally confirms that we always in a sense end where we begin, that psychological ‘development’ from one stage to another is not, normally, what is being attempted or presented.
It’s significant to note that many influential ghazal poets were also Sufis, not only in Persia, where Rumi was another now-famous example, but also in the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan, and Turkey and Turkic regions—wherever Islam entered and influenced people. These poets added spiritual elements to the ghazal’s repertoire, making it “a poetic form that includes a multitude of themes and moods tied together by a single refrain,” often “tying together the sacred with the secular.” This “tying together” means that the ghazal ultimately could mean both or something of its own independent of each, an expression of human art, expressing both reverence and irreverence, intoxicated both by the Divine and the human in all its desires and weaknesses, but seeking an overall poetic beauty.
Another Sufi poet, Amir Khusrao (also spelled Khusrow), best exemplifies one way in which the ghazal became a cultural phenomenon: his work with the ghazal helped create a new language, Urdu, which, according to Shadab Zeest Hashmi, “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.” Note the influence of the vernacular, the local language of the common people. “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.” Hashmi continues, “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.” It is then no wonder that Urdu’s first poet would also be both highbrow and lowbrow, both classically trained and a “people’s poet.” Although obviously the birth of a language is a long process with many influences, to make a language amenable to poetry and the expression of beauty cannot come from ordinary utilitarian usage. For example, Urdu grew from these roots:
“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).
This is hardly an auspicious beginning for a language; then there was the contrast between Persian and its elite courtly influence, and Hindavi, the vernacular of the people actually living on the land. It is Khusrao’s weaving of the textures and sensibilities, of these contrasting languages, that gave Urdu its depth, and as such paved the way for the great Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, famed for his ghazals.
Indeed it was in honor of Mirza Ghalib that the ghazal was first significantly introduced to America in 1969 when an anthology of translations of Ghalib’s ghazals into English was published, including translations by such luminaries as W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, and Galway Kinnell, among many others. These poets set out to capture the spirit rather than the form of the ghazal. Yet although a number of these translator-poets became enamored of the form as an inspiration for free verse, featuring them in their work, the form as such never really took off or entered the canon of poetic forms in English for years, since no particular perimeters had been set for the ghazal. That would be accomplished by Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, fluent in both Urdu and English, with his own ghazals as well as an anthology, Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English (2000). The formal rules he espoused for the ghazal in English are directly taken from the Persian ghazal, as described above. Ali himself described the “classic” Persian form, which is now considered its “canonical” English form, and its effect on the poet:
“Some rules of the ghazal are clear and classically stringent. The opening couplet (called matla) sets up a scheme (of rhyme—called qafia; and refrain—called radif) by having it occur in both lines—the rhyme immediately preceding the refrain–and then this scheme occurs only in the second line of each succeeding couplet. That is, once a poet establishes the scheme—with total freedom, I might add—she or he becomes its slave. What results in the rest of the poem is the alluring tension of a slave trying to master the master.”
Because Ali was equally fluent in both English and Urdu, he was able to write with both sensibilities, bringing the “newness” and unexpected imagery that has become the must-have feature of modern English poetry with the longing and emotional intensity of the ghazal, its formal repetitions linking wildly diverse content, wherein each sher (couplet) could be seemingly unrelated to the others, indeed should function as an independent unit, what Ali famously called “ravishing disunities,” the title phrase of his anthology. These features only tell us about the poetic form, but not its cultural possibilities, although Ali’s discussion of the “slave/poet” gives us a taste of the emotional intensity that sets the ghazal apart. Comparing his poetry to the translated version of Hafez, one may appreciate the importance of Ali’s fluency in both traditions to give us the possibility of our own.
For Galway Kinnell
At dawn you leave. The river wears its skin of light.
And I trace love’s loss to the origin of light.
“I swallow down the goodbyes I won’t get to use.”
At grief’s speed she waves from a palanquin of light.
My book’s been burned? Send me the ashes, so I can say
I’ve been sent the phoenix in a coffin of light.
From History tears learn a slanted understanding
of the human face torn by blood’s bulletin of light.
It was a temporal thought. Well, it has vanished.
Will Prometheus commit the mortal sin of light?
When I go off alone, as if listening for God,
there’s absolutely nothing I can win of light.
Now everything’s left to the imagination —
A djinn has deprived even Aladdin of light.
Again on the point of giving away my heart,
Life is stalked by Fog, that blond assassin of light.
One day the streets all over the world will be empty:
From every tomb I’ll learn all we imagine of light.
Here the difference between the translated and the native-language ghazal becomes apparent. Hafez’s use of the word “wine” can’t deliver the sense of the Persian nor its sound; there being no culture of prohibition in English, nor common usage of the word as it is in Persian, the texture of poetic feeling and beauty is lost even in skilled hands, whereas the English wordplay in Ali’s ghazal gives it touches of beauty, such as “a palanquin of light” or the alliterative blast of “blood’s bulletin of light.” Yet he maintains something of the ghazal’s essential character: the sense of longing, the exaggerated intensity, the discreteness of the shers (couplets), the lack of a “turn”, which he mitigates at the end by ending on a cumulative “all” and the future sense of “one day.” What is lacking, however, is the performance.
Which brings us to another cultural phenomenon, personified in one of the greatest influences on Ali, the “Queen of the Ghazal,” Begum Akhtar (1914-1974), who actually sang ghazals in her native India, which by that time were considered akin to Indian folklore or traditional songs. Within her cultural context, Akhtar was a rock star, whose ghazals (and other traditional forms of song) expressed both the exaltation of love as she wanted it to be, and the suffering from her life where love was an elusive paradox, who began singing at a young age and so impressed those who heard her that she was offered work as an actress in Bollywood films, where she found considerable success. Yet singing ghazals was what she loved most, and for which she was most famous and beloved, expressing an intensity of emotion and unique voice that haunted the poet Agha Shahid Ali all his life.
Her family life was shattered as a very young child when her father left her mother and his twin daughters, Akhtaribai Faizabadi who would become Begum Akhtar, and her twin who died when both got food poisoning at the age of four, leaving Akhtar devastated by two losses. Without a means of support, Akhtar’s mother presumably brought her into the tawaif (courtesan) or Indian geisha tradition where she learned to sing and play musical instruments. Not much is clear about her life as a tawaif, this particular point missing or minimized in her biographies, out of deference to the beloved singer “of the people” she became. Akhtar’s private pain was often expressed in her signature phrase, translated “O God, what next?” Or as one biographer put it,
As a tawaif, she was trained to charm the system and subvert narrow patriarchal practices by means of highly sophisticated seduction. At another level, she was a hapless victim, constantly tormented by the twists and turns of her own destiny.
In this way, Begum Akhtar represents how the ghazal form became a part of a complex culture in her native India, and also how her role as performer of the ghazals of many famous poets, such as the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (whose work Ali also admired and translated into English), helped popularize their work and even heighten the power of the poems themselves. It was by mentioning his tenuous connection to Akhtar that the Kashmiri-American poet Ali was able to meet his idol Faiz, who was also a huge Akhtar fan. Her rise from the low esteem of a courtesan to a beloved and influential artist in her own right exemplifies a thread in the history of the ghazal wherein a subtle empowerment of women takes place. For it was not merely “low esteem” that she suffered, but sexual abuse: from a rape at the age of 16 (by a raja and wealthy patron of classic Indian Music), she bore a daughter, and to save her face, Akhtar’s mother claimed to have delivered the baby, who thereafter lived her life as the sister of her biological mother. Her great suffering in fact gave her art that undefinable quality that can only come from the heart, a continuous work of transforming pain into beauty.
In the “After Words” to Ali’s Ravishing Unities ghazal anthology, Sara Suleri Goodyear writes: “form itself questions the limitations of cultural context and a specific language.” This is why I call the ghazal a cultural phenomenon. Because it is the rare form which, demanding a certain latitude from the poet, transformed languages and crossed cultural boundaries to influence wide-ranging cultures in significant ways, sometimes as a ghazal keeping a significant portion of its formal/ content characteristics, as we have seen above (transforming Urdu, creating an artistic performance phenomenon), sometimes in other ways. But in all cases, the ghazal as a form evolved as a vernacular poetry, sometimes challenging an established “courtly” or “elite” poetic language, but always trending towards a wider accessibility.
For an example of the “other ways” the ghazal influences culture, we should briefly consider its influence in Andalusia, the Iberian peninsula which Muslims from North Africa developed after conquering the Visigoths and others who had previously inhabited and governed parts of the region which is now Spain. Al-Andalus, as it was known in Arabic (which became the dominant language there, both as a literary and spoken language), was part of the Islamic empire in various forms from around 711-1492 CE, the latter date being not only when Columbus set sail for what would end up being part of America, but also when Queen Isabella declared the region henceforth suddenly Catholic by force, triggering the infamous Spanish Inquisition. But long before that, Andalusia was a place of intercultural and interfaith exchange and tolerance, as well as a place of great learning and development under a varying landscape of Muslim rule. The ghazal also began to develop there under the Umayyads, and slowly exert its influence on Europe. .
There were cultural interrelations between Muslim Spain (which, like the Indus Valley, became part of the Muslim empire after 711) and its Christian neighbours, and this meant that many philosophical and scientific works filtered through to western Europe. It is also likely that the poetry of Muslim Spain influenced the growth of certain forms of Spanish and French troubadour poetry and provided an element, however distorted, for medieval Western romances and heroic tales.
The “many philosophical and scientific works” were part of the enlightened culture of Al-Andalus, or what is referred to as “Muslim Spain” above, unique in the world of the Middle Ages as a cosmopolitan place, a center of learning and culture where, although Islam was the dominant religion, Christianity and Judaism also thrived, and where knowledge was sought and valued in its libraries and places of learning, famous at the time. Scholars of Europe were not only influenced, but in many ways dependent on the schools and libraries of Andalusia as the source of learning and civilization, including Classical Greek philosophy and literature, among other traditions. Religious tolerance and cultural pluralism attracted and influenced thinkers and writers from Europe. Both the qasida and the ghazal were popular forms of poetry, and regional poets wrote ghazals in Arabic, Hebrew (from the culturally active Jewish community), and some suggest possibly in another cross-cultural language, Mozarabic, a local vernacular. Of these poets, one in particular stands out because she was a woman— in her case, of high social status who wrote popular ghazals in Arabic, Hafsa bint al-Hajj al-Rakuniya (1135–1191 CE).
What makes Hafsa outstanding among women poets, for there were quite a number of women poets in Al-Andalus, is the volume of her surviving work, around 60 lines in nineteen compositions, the largest surviving record for any female Andalusian poet. That this much of her work survived is impressive especially considering the centuries that passed between that era and our own, in particular the Spanish Inquisition whose main purpose was to eradicate Al-Andalus, its legacy of tolerance and multi-culturalism, destroying whole libraries, mosques, schools, and written works/ books, as well as “eliminating” their authors, thus erasing much of the poetry and written records of Andalusia. That a sample of Hafsa’s poems, and those of other Andalusian women poets, survived at all, speaks to the likelihood that much more of their and others’ work existed but was lost through the destruction of time and religious barbarism.
She is also known for her self-initiated love affair with the poet Abu J’afir, with whom she exchanged poetry when he traveled abroad. These facts are rather stunning in themselves, at a time when most women in Medieval Europe were little more than childbearing property with no say in whom they would marry, let alone to carry on extramarital relations. Women generally could not work and were denied education in Europe at the time when higher-class Andalusian women were given education at the discretion of their fathers, a choice often made by fathers without sons. Hafsa herself was not ostracized for taking a lover, and there’s no indication her social status was affected. On the contrary, she and other women poets were quite popular at the time. Both her and her male counterparts’ poetry included a range of styles and subjects, including the erotic, and indeed writing poetry was the rare venue where both men and women had a relatively equal footing.
Her ability to compose a ghazal, in fact, reflects a transformation in the social function of love poetry; for due to the ghazal’s lofty status in the medieval courts of Andalusia, a certain receptivity to variations on the conventional discourse surrounding women and their sexuality allowed Hafsa to subvert courtly conventions in her poem. In broaching what ostensibly began as a male genre, Hafsa and other women poets, “established authority by employing conventions for representing their own bodies and augmented it by playing with and altering those conventions.” (Segol 148).
This ghazal is shown here:
A visitor arrives with a gazelle-like neck
the crescent peering through her hair.
With a glance cast by Babel’s magic
and saliva surpassing the taste of wine.
With cheeks that rival roses
And teeth that scandalize pearls.
What more than this arrival
That you take for mere chance?
Will you answer her then,
Or does another call you instead?
According to Lubna Safi, who translated this ghazal from the Arabic, “Hafsa embeds herself into the ghazal as a poetic form that communicates like a letter between two lovers. She elaborates this metaphor by overlapping the traditional descriptions of the beloved’s physical features—employing the conventions of describing the white teeth, sweet breath and saliva of the beloved to extol her own features—while a second-order meaning arises…Hafsa and the ghazal are one.”
Instead of the traditional male addressing a female beloved, Hafsa becomes the one addressing her male lover, at the same time being self-referential, “embedding” herself in the ghazal as the one being described, at the end referring to herself in the third person. To reflect these traits emphatically on herself, she selects rhymes in the Arabic possessive form,
Even the monorhyme at the end of every couplet which in the Arabic—lilhilālī, adawālī, lilaālī, infiṣālī, alashghālī—carries meaning as the sound lee (lī) also gestures to the possessive pronoun ‘mine’ in Arabic.
Such skill in poetics is indicative of the level of learning and language skills available to women who had access to education. But there is context to this, as described by Margo Segol:
In the courts of medieval Islam, poetry was the very language of public and political discourse, and as such a man could make his fortune, or lose it, based on his poetic acumen. The same is true of individual women, especially those existing outside the social norms of the pious, free woman.
Thus it was not that women were generally free, but that for certain classes of women (mainly slaves and noblewomen), a level of greater freedom and higher status could be obtained by demonstrating mastery in the art of poetics, especially love poetry, of which the ghazal was a major part. Segol describes the sequestration of women in medieval Muslim society as pervasive and oppressive, true particularly for women who were considered “pious” or subject to religious law by virtue of being free and married. However, slaves and noblewomen were considered exceptions to the rule of piety, hence allowed to travel with relative freedom outside the home, and for noblewomen, to have far more freedom over her own body, as we have seen with Hafsa. But even she didn’t take such freedom for granted, but actively asserted her right of movement and self-control through her poetry. “Piety” itself was, ironically, a means of controlling women.
Education, of which “pious” women were often (but not always) deprived, could be achieved by both noblewomen and slaves. Examples of the works of female slaves still survive, from which we learn that they wrote with their own pens and ink, meaning they were educated. Gentlewomen had, unlike slaves, power over their own bodies, but both could also, using the “invective” poem, satirize male double-standards. Thus the ghazal became literally a liberating force for those women with access to use it.
The ghazal as a poetic expression of longing and (usually unfulfilled) love, as exemplified by Andalusian poets generally, undoubtedly also influenced the troubadours in Spain and France as suggested above. Cultural and linguistic differences between the troubadours and the Andalusians do not preclude this, since what made it popular is the basic message and sense of the ghazal as a vehicle for love poetry, including courtly love, the idealization of the woman, the concept of sacrificial love, and the Sufi notion of love for the divine as a vehicle for spiritual enlightenment.
“Communication between these Moslem states...and the adjoining Christian states was both easy and frequent. Often the poets themselves were the mediums of communication....Even the metrical forms and the themes of the Spanish poets are like those that were later used by the troubadours." Since medieval Europe acquired much of its "refinement of life" from Islamic sources, such direct transmission is altogether plausible and offers much the simplest explanation of the two genres' similarity.
Although much argument surrounds this topic, one can see in even the celebrated poet Dante’s work the influence of the troubadours and their idealization of love, use of the vernacular to compose beautiful poetry, and the use of forms as a framework for the expression of love and longing, as well as the spiritual, even mystical elements with which love could be exalted and transformed. These similarities to the ghazal seem, in light of the subject as a whole, quite unmistakeable.
Dante wrote his own work in the vernacular, thus creating, in a real sense, the Italian language. And his expressed purpose of choosing the vernacular (instead of Latin, the literary language at the time) was in order to reach an audience of women, whom Dante felt had better knowledge than men on the subject of love, and would therefore be his ideal audience, as he expressed in his early work, the Vita Nova. Not only that, “women for Dante are the great teachers of the heart and the crucial guides for the soul’s salvation.” Dante addresses many of his poems to women in the Vita Nova, as in this canzone: “Women who understand the truth of love,/… you, the amorous and wise of us,/ since no one else can grasp what we discuss.” Thus he addresses not merely one idolized woman as love object, as in ghazal culture, but a society of real women whose knowledge of matters of the heart he deems of highest importance and unique to them.
If Andalusia gave certain women access to greater freedoms and validation through writing poetry but not “piety”, Dante, through his poetry and writings, validated all women (potentially) precisely through their “piety” as expressed by the heart and their natural propensity to knowledge of love, considered by the poet as the highest path to God, accessible to all those who so desire. Love as spiritual and divine transformation is also an idea from Sufism, the Islamic mysticism propagated by Jalal-al-Din Rumi and others, such as ibn Arabi, in their poetry and ghazals, of which Dante was possibly aware indirectly, and certainly as ideas. But Dante was more specific and thorough in his validation and exaltation of the Feminine not only in the abstract or persona, but of women as actual living human beings. In this way, Dante took the best and most Quranic aspects of Islamic faith, filtered through the lens of his own Christianity and social environment, and created a template for the recognition, even exaltation, of women as highly valued and beneficial to both God and society.
It was not really the form of the ghazal so much as its culture, especially as expressed by the troubadours, that influenced Dante, from courtly love and longing for the unattainable to the Sufi themes of divine love and mysticism, which Dante expressed in his poetic treatment of Beatrice, especially in the Paradiso., There, she openly disagrees with and corrects prominent male theologians, such as Gregory the Great (Paradiso XXVIII.133), Augustine, Plato, and Aquinas, showing her knowledge of what truly matters, the “heart” (in its larger sense). It is a ray of hope that in the so-called dark ages, poetry gave humanity a ray of light connecting Christianity and Islam (not to the exclusion of other faith traditions), and poetry, as paths for seeking truth and beauty, freeing that search from both dogma and academic limitations.
Returning to the ghazal’s inclusion in the repertoire of formal poetry in English, it’s interesting to note that as a ghazal-writer myself, I’ve found the world of poetry publication much more amenable to this specific form than others, taking exception to its rhyme and meter, even by venues who explicitly state they do not like rhyming poetry. Perhaps because its disjunctive couplets create unique combinations of words and ideas that fits the modern oeuvre, or because of its association with the now-popular Sufi Rumi, or because it is not part of the “Western canon,” but whatever the reason, the ghazal seems to be finding its place in an increasingly meaning-deficient world, where longing and exile, the emotionally-wrenching beauty of life as something transitory, is a subject which is always central to valuing ourselves as human. Its history as a form in languages spoken by the common people of various societies, in particular its historical role of influence toward the empowerment and inclusion of women in society, make the ghazal eminently relevant, bringing beauty as a deeply felt sense of our shared impermanence, hoping to transcend division, coercion, and darkness, seeking love’s elusive gate.
Read ghazals published by The Chained Muse here.
SIHAM KARAMI’s poetry has appeared in The Comstock Review, Pleiades, Measure, Able Muse, The Rumpus, Mezzo Cammin, Tupelo Quarterly Review, Literary Mama, Off the Coast, and Orchards Poetry. Nominated multiple times for both the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, she blogs at sihamkarami.wordpress.com. Her book of poetry, To Love the River, is now available on Kelsay Books and Amazon.
Jalajel, David, “A Short History of the Ghazal,” http://www.ghazalpage.net/prose/notes/short_history_of_the_ghazal.html#origins
, Pico, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells, excerpted here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2019/10/11/autumn-light-pico-iyer/
Rahman, Anisur, “How the Ghazal Traveled from 16th Century Arabia to Persia, India, and the English-speaking World,” https://scroll.in/article/908670/how-the-ghazal-traveled-from-6th-century-arabia-to-persia-india-and-the-english-speaking-world
Sedarat, Roger (translator), Hafez, “Two Ghazals,” Asymptote Journal, https://www.asymptotejournal.com/poetry/hafez-two-ghazals/
Davis, Dick, “On Not Translating Hafez,” New England Review, 25, 1-2. Captured at http://www.columbia.akadns.net/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ghalib/texts/txt_davis_translatinghafiz_2004.pdf
Hashmi, Shadab Zeest, “Ghazal, Sufism, and the Birth of a Language,” https://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2014/02/ghazal-sufism-and-the-birth-of-a-language.html
Ghosh, Amitav, “‘The Ghat of the Only World: Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn,” https://www.thenation.com/article/ghat-only-world-agha-shahid-ali-brooklyn/
Ali, Agha Shahid, “Of Light,” Poetry, May 2001. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=41175
Kalidas, S., Begum Akhtar: Love’s Own Voice (2000) ISBN 978-8174365958
Ali, Agha Shahid, ed., Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English (Wesleyan University Press, 2000), Afterword by Sara Suleri Goodyear.
[19[“Islamic literatures and the West,” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Islamic-arts/Islamic-literatures-and-the-West
Safi, Lubna, “With the Neck of a Gazelle: Translating the 12th Century ghazal of Hafsa al-Rakuniya,” https://exchanges.uiowa.edu/issues/cae-sura/with-the-neck-of-a-gazelle-2/
Segol, Marla, “Representing the Body in Poems by Medieval Muslim Women,” pp. 147-8 https://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1773&context=mff
Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, trans. John Jay Parry (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1959), p. 8.
Pritchett, Frances W., “Convention in the Classical Urdu Ghazal: The Case of Mir,” Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies VoI. III, No.1, Fall 1979, pp. 60-77.
Curtotti, Michael, “Dante and the Invention of the Italian Language,” https://beyondforeignness.org/5781
Dante, La Vita Nova, Translation, Notes, and Introduction by Andrew Frisardi, (Northwestern University Press, 2012), Introduction pp. xlvi-xlvii.
Ibid, pp. 22-3
Albeity, Heba, “Dante’s Beatrice in Light of Sufism,” http://albeityacademic.blogspot.com/2009/12/dantes-beatrice-in-light-of-sufism.html?m=1