Reading Ghalib

The Master on Life and Afterlife
Reading Ghalib

"Ghalib is a sad angel,

Who from the intoxication of nearness

Has brought divine revelation

In the form of his ghazals."

(Yusuf Hussain's translation. Other translations here arefrom the same work Persian Ghazals of Ghalib)

Indeed Ghalib has bought a "revelation" that has been such ahealing and joy and a fount of beauty. One must be thankful for the privilegeof being born in a land and with a language of Ghalib.

Ghalib's Islam as an "Answer" to Difficult Questions

Every Muslim in the subcontinent who can read poetry but isdisturbed over routine disharmonies or complains about this or that issue inlife would be required to answer one question on the Day of Judgment: Have youread Ghalib? Ghalib "answers" all our complaints we might conceive or imagineagainst Fate or providence or people or God. Since God created Ghalib, He hasbeen largely relieved of entertaining many a question on wonder, love, beauty,betrayal, poverty, faith and infidelity. Let us read the Master on certain keyquestions of life that trouble us.What Ghalib said as an artist, as "the mostintellectual poet", as someone who sought to approximate a sage or Sufimetaphysician is important.

Ghalib's chief strategy against key anxieties that troubleordinary mortals is invitation to Islam understood as submission toTruth/Beauty through sacrificing the devil called ego. Few know about the depthof Ghalib's commitment to essential tenets of Islam, to Sufism, to Muhammad(SAW).. All great poetry is a product of vision. As an artist one can only a aMuslim – muslim/submitter to truth, the other, the given, that which is, thatwhich lifts us up or transports to another dimension or depth dimension thatconstitutes the experiential referent of the concept of otherworld.

Islam: We have been fondly reared

In the merciful tavern of submission;

The raised head of our pride

Is laid low at thy feet.

Ghalib has put his faith in the Mystery/Wonder and theQuestion and thus dissolved all rationcinatory queries. He invites us to seehow all answers supplied by ideologies and exotericists are not for the wiseand one better celebrates God as Mystery (Gayyib) and life opens up itsbeauties. Ghalib is overawed by everything and loves to be drunk with the joythat is life lived at the plane of selflessnesss (bay-khudi) and has no timefor debates and questions that wreck lesser minds.

Ghalib's Religion: Faith of a Mystic

Since all great art has something to do with the mystical(understood , in Goethe's terms, as dialogue with God/Reality)  and mystics don't argue about God but witnesssomething of what is called God in the depths of their own being/life/experience the question regarding belief in God/higher world/otherworld needn'tbe asked.  About Ghalib we know that oneof the towering Sufi scholars would treasure his company for illuminatingdifficult questions of Sufi metaphysics and we find arguably one of the mostsuccinct and irrefutable explications of wahadat al wujud doctrine in Ghalib'sprose.  Though he didn't live the life ofa Sufi, Ghalib was, nevertheless, the Master of Masters in explicatingintellectual content of Sufism.

Ghalib was not indifferent to the call of religion orterrors of hell. His biographer, Hali, narrates ample evidence to the effectthat he reminds us of passionately religious poets (such as Donne and Iqbal)when it comes to the question of facing God's Judgment in the higher world.Though often perceived as proud man highly conscious of his stature, heconsidered himself too sinful and lowly to face God. People read a verse or twofrom him and attribute to him this or that belief regarding higher or deeperthings. All great poetry is premised on faith in immortality, wrote Yeats. Suchworks as Last Things in Shakespeare and Shakespeare in the Light of Sacred Artexplain how immortality has central place in the work of the greatest ofEnglish poet-playwrights. In fact great art is born in the fount of higherspiritual life or vision.


Islam as metaphysically understood by Ghalib called forhumility though this isn't incompatible with the sense of human dignity ofwhich he was highly conscious. Prof. G R Malik, one of our very few Ghalib expertsin Kashmir, often quotes "Dhampa kafan ne daag-e-ayob-e barhangi/Main, warnaher libas mein nang-e- wujood tha." Hali lists his extreme sense of failure –a  mark of humility – as informing hisconviction that  he deserves worse thanordinary hell.

Tragic sense of life

Poetry is born when Adam is expelled and mourns hisseparation for Ewe and lost paradise. (This happens, on mystical andexistentialist theological readings, daily, to each one of us.)  Poetry is nostalgia. Nietzsche also notedthat the essential pain of Homeric men was " separation from that sunlight"that gods embody.  Man announces hisbirth with a cry of grief and we are told in traditions that a child is reallymourning the warmth of heavenly angelic presence he/she was bathed in in thewomb – and psychoanalysis, in its own secularized way, has  affirmed this. Birth is given "astride of agrave." Schopenhaur had proposed a universal greeting "O! fellow sufferer."There is no greater sin than that of your existence or your very existence is a sin, is a point that Maariand many Sufis have reiterated and some even claim it to be traceable to theHoly Prophet (SAW). "Sarvum dukkham," the first noble truth of the Awakenedone, finds expression in Ghalib in scores of verses: Here is one example:

"In the composition of man,

The original element is anguish of the heart;

The root of every hair in every living being

Is smeared with blood"

Heaven and Hell

Heaven/God is really a state of love or attachment to theAbsolute as manifested in Beauty/Joy:

In our drunkenness we were searching

The flower-garden of paradise;

Our surmise found its way through the dust

Raised by thy graceful walking.

Anyone who has really loved the graceful gestures andcoquetry of children or spouses or friends (and blessed are those who, as IbnTaymiyyah points out on his Uboodiyyah, can love all things in God or  love God above everything or love everythingfor the sake of God the Beauty, the Most Loving or, with Abu Yazid Bistami, seeGod first and beloved object later in every encounter with anything) canunderstand Ghalib's point.

By melting down our whole existence

We have drunk our morning draught;

The sun of Doomsday's morning

Is our brimful goblet

In paradise there is a stream of wine

And a stream of honey,

But thy ruby lips are for me

Both the one and the other

Those who have been blessed with a loving heart have enteredparadise of a sort here and now and since there is a stamp of eternity on everyexperience of love it reverberates in every new world.

In this world one should not be absorbed

By the relishing of pleasure;

Our fly sits on sugar-candy,

And not on honey.

Thy loving beauty, in the ways

Of heart-ravishing, has as its attributes

The waving ringlets and hair-thin waist

Of the phenomenal world.

Ghalib has called the divine displeasure a stream of honeywith the quality of wine. Since "the taste of wine is bitter to non-drunkardsand sweet and agreeable [this , incidentally is the literal meaning of azb, theroot word for azab, as especially emphasized in Ibn Arabi] to drunkards so isthe beloved's anger, disagreeable to non-lovers and agreeable to lovers."

If any Muslim living in the subcontinent has a choice to readonly one book of poetry it should be Deewani Ghalib. Ghalib's Deewan is awazeefa that comes handy on almost every sweet and bitter occasion.

Most Muslims can't fail to taunt or pity Ghalib for hisaddiction to drinking. Let us see what Ghalib has to say:

Wine may be prohibited, but witty speech

Is not against the Divine Law;

If thou dost not appreciate the good in us,

At least don't taunt us for the bad.


He who drinks wine with the friend, in privacy,

Knows full well what is the houri,

What Kousar and what Darsssalam

Our heart bears the wounds of affliction,

And wine is the only cure;

For those who are wounded, what is this talk

Of lawful and unlawful?

Who, amongst us lesser mortals, has not some limitations andhas not committed some sins and isn't it best to leave the judgment to God aswe all want to be spared the gaze or taunt of others? When we examine  the case of humans we find they are mostlydrunk with some idea or thing – love, beauty, wonder, music, art,  ideology, smoking, alcohol.  Along with Ghalib, " We are devoid of wisdomand good deeds" but could perhaps claim "But yet are filled with Thy love;/Our intoxication is perpetual/Sincewe break our fast with wine." I know of none who isn't afflicted with theaffliction of love  we are all yearning,longing for Home/the Beloved who is Repose.

One needs to note that God creates each one of us with an eye on what good could come out of usand as Tagore and others have noted, the fact that new children are born dailymeans God has not been disappointed from human race. See what great good hasflown from the pen of Ghalib – if there were some law necessitating payinghomage or royalty to the poet for every verse we chant, Ghalib's posthumousestate would be the biggest in the subcontinent and almost every day we wouldneed to pay something as Ghalib comes handy on almost every occasion.

Reading Ghalib is not easy as it is not easy to readscripture or generality of great works because life

itself is not easy read or adventure and poets present lifeat its most intense, sublime, profound and elusive plane.

The secret that is hidden in our breast

Is not an exhortation;

It can be told on the gallows,

But not proclaimed from the pulpit.

What is this secret exposing which costs gallows? The poetbelongs to the tribe of Mansoor and Socrates. The charge against Mansoor was hespoke truth and nothing but truth stripping all the guises that it hastraditionally worn to help lesser mortals gaze at it that otherwise consumesone. The charge against Socrates is charge of the naïve, cocksure closedminds/fundamentalists against ironists. For Ghalib life throws questions andchallenges too big for oftenly rehearsed theories or constructs that explainaway the essential mystery or transcendence. In fact life/man is a Question. Our life remains worth living as long aswe stand open to the unknown, to the unknowable (Al-Gayyib). Faith iscommitment to guarding this porosity to the other, to let love dictate terms tothe ego.

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