If anything, the wine of adoration may actually have enhanced Ghalib’s description of those mystic themes of Love Divine. February 15th marks the 142nd death anniversary of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib
“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 Bahadur Shah Zafar heard Ghalib recite the above ghazal, he commented, “No, my friend, even so we should never have counted you a saint.” 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, 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 Wahdat al-Wujudi school of Sufism, which is most liberal school among sufis” 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.
Commenting on Ghalib’s faith, Russell and 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 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.
Sufism and its intricacies are not my forte nor do I wish to venture where the greats like Malik Ram and Maulana Ghulam Rasool Mehr had once held sway. 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 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 [RA] and do not swear by his name in vain).
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.
If anything, the wine of adoration may actually have enhanced Ghalib’s description of those mystic themes of Love Divine. February 15th marks the 142nd death anniversary of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib.
(Versified translations from Professors Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam.)
Courtesy: Daily Times