The ghazal spread into South Asia in the 12th century under the influence of the new Islamic Sultanate courts and Sufi mystics. Although the ghazal is most prominently a form of Dari poetry and Urdu poetry, today it is found in the poetry of many languages of Indian sub-continent.
Ghazals were written by the Persian mystics and poets Rumi (13th century) and Hafiz (14th century), the Azeri poet Fuzuli (16th century), as well as Mirza Ghalib (1797–1869) and Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), both of whom wrote ghazals in Persian and Urdu. Through the influence of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), the ghazal became very popular in Germany in the 19th century, and the form was used extensively by Friedrich Rückert (1788–1866) and August von Platen (1796–1835). The Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali was a proponent of the form, both in English and in other languages; he edited a volume of “real ghazals in English”.
In some ghazals the poet’s name is featured somewhere in the last verse (a convention known as takhallus).
Illicit unattainable love
The ghazal not only has a specific form, but traditionally deals with just one subject: love, specifically an illicit and unattainable love. The ghazals from Indian sub-continent have an influence of Islamic Mysticism and the subject of love can usually be interpreted for a higher being or for a mortal beloved. The love is always viewed as something that will complete a human being, and if attained will lift him or her into the ranks of the wise, or will bring satisfaction to the soul of the poet. Traditional ghazal love may or may not have an explicit element of sexual desire in it, and the love may be spiritual. The love may be directed to either a man or a woman.
The ghazal is always written from the point of view of the unrequited lover whose beloved is portrayed as unattainable. Most often either the beloved does not return the poet’s love or returns it without sincerity, or else the societal circumstances do not allow it. The lover is aware and resigned to this fate but continues loving nonetheless; the lyrical impetus of the poem derives from this tension. Representations of the lover’s powerlessness to resist his feelings often include lyrically exaggerated violence. The beloved’s power to captivate the speaker may be represented in extended metaphors about the “arrows of his eyes”, or by referring to the beloved as an assassin or a killer. Take for example the following couplets from Amir Khusro‘s Persian ghazal Nami danam chi manzil buud shab:
nemidanam che manzel bood shab jayi ke man boodam;
be har soo raghse besmel bood shab jayi ke man boodam.
pari peykar negari sarv ghadi laleh rokhsari;
sarapa afat-e del bood shab jayi ke man boodam.
I wonder what was the place where I was last night,
All around me were half-slaughtered victims of love, tossing about in agony.
There was a nymph-like beloved with cypress-like form and tulip-like face,
Ruthlessly playing havoc with the hearts of the lovers.
In the context of Sufism
It is not possible to get a full understanding of ghazal poetry without at least being familiar with some concepts of Sufism. All the major historical post-Islamic ghazal poets were either avowed Sufis themselves (like Rumi or Hafiz), or were sympathizers with Sufi ideas. Most ghazals can be viewed in a spiritual context, with the Beloved being a metaphor for God, or the poet’s spiritual master. It is the intense Divine Love of sufism that serves as a model for all the forms of love found in ghazal poetry.
Most ghazal scholars today recognize that some ghazal couplets are exclusively about Divine Love (ishq-e-haqiqi), others are about “earthly love” (ishq-e-majazi), but many of them can be interpreted in either context.
Traditionally invoking melancholy, love, longing, and metaphysical questions, ghazals are often sung by Iranian, Afghan, Pakistani, and Indian musicians. The form has roots in seventh-century Arabia, and gained prominence in the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century thanks to such Persian poets as Rumi and Hafiz and later due to Indian poets such as Mirza Ghalib. In the eighteenth-century, the ghazal was used by poets writing in Urdu, a mix of the medieval languages of Northern India, including Persian. Among these poets, Ghalib is the recognized master.
Important poets of Urdu ghazal
In Urdu, some important and respected ghazal poets are Wali, Aatish, Mir Taqi Mir, Mirza Rafi Sauda, Mirza Ghalib, Momin Khan Momin, Zauq, Dard, Daagh, Altaf Hussain Hali and Jigar Moradabadi. Post-partition poets include Firaq Gorakhpuri, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Hasrat Mohani, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Jaun Elia, Munir Niazi, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Shakeb Jalali, Qamar Jalalabadi, Qateel Shifai, Nasir Kazmi, Ahmad Faraz, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, and Sahir Ludhianvi.