How the ghazal traveled from 6th-century Arabia to Persia, India and the English-speaking world


(This is an excerpt from the Preface to Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi: The Wonderful World of Urdu Ghazals, selected, edited and translated by Anisur Rahman, HarperCollins India, detailing the journey of the ghazal across time and space.)

The literary form has been adopted by many different cultures and adapted for a variety of languages.

The trajectory of the ghazal is unlike that of any other literary form that has had a history of traversing beyond its spatial confines. 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.

Even while these ghazals developed their own marks, they also kept close to the Arabic model by retaining the traditional Arabic metres and forms.

It was only when the ghazal reached Persia in the middle of the 8th century that it started developing its own contours even while it did not entirely disengage from the formal patterns of the Arabic ghazals.

Later, the Persian ghazal acquired its definite character when it developed its own stylistic marks in refurbishing the matla, the first sher of the ghazal, and evolving a pattern of refrains (radeef) as the last unit of expression in the second line of each sher.

It also defined the length of the ghazal from seven to 15 shers, and made way for the poets to use their signature in maqta, the last sher of the composition.

Abdullah Jafar Rudaki, the first canonical ghazal writer of Persia towards the end of the 9th century, was followed in chronological order by other major poets like Sanai Ghaznavi and Fariduddin Attar in the 12th century, Sadi Shirazi and Jalaluddin Rumi in the 13th and Hafiz Shirazi in the 14th century.

The Persian ghazal matured further after the classical models in the subsequent centuries but it always distinguished itself for two of its most distinctive qualities: its acute mystical preoccupations and its keen philosophical concerns.

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.

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