Does homosexuality exist in the Urdu ghazal tradition?

Published: February 6, 2016

The book, Dabistan-e-Karachi mein Urdu ghazal ka irtiqa (The evolution of the Urdu ghazal in the Karachi school of poetry) on about 80 poets was launched at a ceremony at Arts Council. PHOTO: TRIBUNE

The term homosexual was coined in 19th century Europe but its categorisation for the people in the Indian subcontinent had existed long before. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activism emerged in South Asia in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding the 1996 Indian-Canadian film Fire, written and directed by Deepa Mehta which starred Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das.

This film argued in favour of the legitimacy of lesbian representation in cinema and subsequently, in public discourse. Following this contention, Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai presented an outstanding array of writings on same-sex relationships drawn from two thousand years of Indian literature to highlight the prevalence of homosexual themes from centuries earlier.

Their book, Same-Sex love in India: Readings from Literature and History covers the ancient period through texts like the Kama Sutra, Ramayana, Tantric Puranic texts, the medieval period through the genre of kafi from early Punjabi, and the relatively more recent period through early Urdu ghazals from the Deccan and rekhti poems from 19th century Lucknow.

One of the explicit aims of their work is to counter homophobic myths existing in India, and elsewhere, that homosexuality was imported from the West and was suppressed by the East. Vanita and Kidwai aim to recover, reclaim and palpably recuperate the lost and marginalised strands of the Indian subcontinent’s literary life through a celebration and re-creation of a past in post-colonial times. The relationship of homosexuality, continuing ghazal tradition and the newly innovated rekhti tradition is not only one of differences, but they appear to be in dialogue with the norms of the society in which they were begotten and reached the pinnacle of their fame.

In Islamic societies, symbolic poetry has always been a safe medium for expressing controversial ideas: what was not said in prose was licit in poetry. The ghazal tradition’s aesthetics are derived from Perso-Arabic Islamicate literature and the genre was developed mostly by Muslim poets under the patronage of Muslim royalty in North India. Although the ghazal deals with the whole spectrum of human experience, its central concern is love. According to Carla Petievich, this form of poetry is composed in two line verses, shers; its main subject is an idealised love (ishq), and its (anti) hero-narrator; a lover or aashiq (masculine voice) speaks to or about the beloved mashooq or mahbub (also in the masculine voice) who plays the role of the aashiq’s antagonist, and who is generally elusive, aloof, and even cruel.

There is a great deal of ambiguity surrounding the gender and imagery of the beloved in the ghazal tradition.

This ambivalence is explored in CM Naim’s famous article, The theme of homosexual love in pre-modern Urdu poetry,” where the apologists’ justification regarding the incertitude surrounding the gender debate of the ghazal tradition is chalked out in order to defend it against homosexuality. The apologists state that the reference of the ghazal’s romantic hero to the beloved in masculine terms is a grammatical necessity for purposes of universality.

Naim also states that many verses not only exclusively refer to male accoutrements like swords and turbans but unambiguously refer to boys persistently: launda, larka, bacca, pisa. The apologists enunciate that masculine imagery could either refer to an earthly male or to the Divine beloved. This claim borrows heavily from the Sufi tradition where it is believed that the beauty of God is reflected in every earthly entity and ishq-e-haqiqi (love for the Divine) is reached only after the seeker had learned to love his murshid (a manifestation of ishq-e-majazi, that is mortal or earthly love) and both these objects of love were referred to in the masculine voice.

The very fact that the apologists go to lengths to defend the genre could reveal three extremely divergent viewpoints: one; where the ghazal tradition has no affiliation or inclination towards homosexuality and the need to defend it arises against the modern day misreading of the genre, two; where the ghazal tradition provides an expression of homosexuality without having any link or bearing with and to the society in which it was written and recited, and three; where the ghazal tradition incorporates the theme of homosexuality either because the notion of homosexuality like many other kinds of sexual orientation and love, found no acceptance in society or alternatively, because it was a thorough reflection of a tolerant society.

If the fact that homosexuality was expressed in the Urdu ghazal tradition but had no connection with the society in which it was begotten and recited, then this theme becomes a mere tool for aesthetic pleasure. Indrani Chatterjee states all this is simply to “invite the reader to reflect upon the sensuality of the world, contemplation of a debilitating lust.”

Shamsur Rehman Faruqi, however, debunks the notion that literature and poetry especially, the ghazal tradition, can only serve an aesthetic purpose. He states the ghazal was intended to be recited at mushairas and public gatherings — largely disseminated by word of mouth.

According to Faruqi,

“Poems – an oral performance needed to make sense of the experience, or the idea, of love, and in terms that made sense to the audience as a whole, and not a specific individual, beloved, or friend.”

This immediately means that the ghazal could not simply be for purposes of amusement and would need to encompass themes known to the audience either through their own experiences (their practice of homosexuality) or through the themes’ prevalence and acceptance in the society they inhabited (tolerance for homosexuality).

If the Urdu ghazals of the 18th and 19th centuries express homosexuality according to the social milieu in which they were produced, was the expression of homosexuality in this genre a platform for the enunciation of suppressed desire or a reflection of the tolerant attitudes of the time?

According to KC Kanda,

“In the medieval Islamic society where the purdah system prevailed and a rigid moral code denied to the young the freedom to mix and converse, love could only be indulged in secret, and expressed with indirection in hushed tones often with the aid or indirection and innuendo.”

He links the origin of the word to ghazaal in Arabic: “the painful wail of a wounded deer – The lover pained by the arrows of love and hounded by a hostile society” expresses his frustration and deep emotion which can never take place in reality due to its illicit nature through the ghazal. Homosexuality, in this way, seems to be one of the unacceptable forms of love in the Indian subcontinent which found expression in the Urdu ghazals.

Naim buttresses this stance when he says,

“In any case, such verses, whether true testaments or false, would not have shocked their audiences in the 18th century. Indian society has never looked upon homosexuality with the horror and anxiety that have characterised western responses to it since the early modern period.”

In summary, therefore, it is safe to say the attitude of the society through multiple layers and cultural lenses concludes that homosexual expression was a symptom of the re-imagination of poetry as a social institution with a role to play in the life of its linguistic community.

Yusra Hayat

Yusra Hayat

The author has a Bachelor’s in English Literature from LUMS. She is a sub-editor at The Express Tribune Peshawar desk. She tweets at @hayat55y (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Abu Ismael

    some drunkard wrote poetry about faggotry and tribune wants to use it to create gradual tolerance amongst Pakistani Muslims for something as reprehensible as homosexuality.Recommend

  • Milind A

    Its a recorded fact that Mughal invader Babar was smitten by a teenager lad in Afghanistan…. Homosexuality has existed amongst a certain (miniscule) portion of the population, since time immemorial.. Most ‘straight’ people are probably repelled or disgusted by the thought/concept and overreact and torment homosexuals, probably due to their own insecurities. This leads to further corruption.. For e.g. The Economist reports how Egypt has banned homosexuality with gays being imprisoned for their ‘fault’ and further raped by jailers.. Can there be a greater irony than this?Recommend

  • vinsin

    Women those who get raped also get imprisoned and raped by jailers in Iran. That is justice in Islam.Your logic only has value in a secular society. In India under Sharia, rapist of a daughter-in-law has to marry the girl. Well Alexandra was also gay and was never repelled anywhere. Hinduism has 10 different types of marriages among human, straight is just one of them.Recommend

  • Abhijeet

    Gayness is extremely common in punjabi culture and tradition. KASUR!Recommend

  • Bilal

    Homosexuality is haram in Islam. Period. When will you Pseudo Liberals get this.Recommend

  • Abu Ismael

    so only comments favouring homosexuality get published, even if they represent the point of view of an overwhelming majority? because it seemingly helps engineer the perception you’re trying to create?Recommend

  • Atif Malik

    A well-written piece; the writer certainly has a good analytical mind, and was able to put different interpretations into perspective!
    The discussion of Punjabi, Sufi folklore was missing though. Punjabi Sufi poetry has a 1000-year long tradition in the subcontinent.
    The narrator (first person) in Punjabi (Kaafi) poems, written by male poets/Sufis, is mostly a feminine voice, and the beloved is almost always male. This gender ascription should be viewed in the context of an extremely patriarchal society, where man is much more powerful (mostly an aloof, nonreciprocating beloved found in Sufi poems), as compared to the woman when they are in a romantic relationship! Man decides the fate of the (female) lover, chooses to ignore or indulge in the woman on his own terms and whims.
    Such gender roles found in Sufi poetry are metaphors for divine love, where the lover (humans) is completely powerless in the presence of the beloved (God).
    Almost all of the Punjabi Sufi poetry that I’ve been exposed to, carries the same metaphors and allegories. These poets, revered in their own times and later, seemed to have only one mission: to explain the intricacies of divine love, which, because of its sublime and esoteric nature, can only be explained by use of such metaphors. Thus, I feel there’s nothing sexual about these poems. And because these poems are completely devoid of sexual elements/suggestions/innuendos (though it seems otherwise to an uninitiated, culturally insensitive reader), the question of sexual orientation becomes completely irrelevant. Only very few readers, deeply well-versed in Quranic, Hadith, and Sufi traditions, are able to fully comprehend the true meanings of such poems. And the misinterpretation of these metaphors as sexual (homo- or hetro-) themes stem from a lack of understanding on our part, rather anything else.
    Just my two cents. thanks for writing this, Ms. Hayat!Recommend

  • Acorn Guts

    Fair point and very well made indeed but I believe this is exactly why the author remained within the bounds of traditional ghazal and did not bring sufi/mystic poetry into the realm.Recommend

  • Acorn Guts

    Status of homosexuality in Islam is not the topic of this article.Recommend

  • Vinod

    Yes you are right. I detest gays as they have too many rights in the west with gay marriages gays adopting kids.Recommend

  • Ali

    Firstly, the article is not advocating for homosexual rights. So you can calm down a little bit. Secondly, the “f” word you used is a disgusting homophobic slur, so refrain from that. Islam is not a homophobic religion. Thirdly, you its a clear fact that you Pakistanis are among the most intolerant towards women, children, non muslims, and other sects of islam. So its pretty clear tolerating homosexuals will follow the same path as the oppressed women and minorites I mentioned above.Recommend

  • Ali

    I like how you call anyone who isnt a filthy Fundamentalist as a “liberal”, lolRecommend

  • LS

    Live and let live. There is no need for the fake morals or throwing a religious tantrum. Let people do what they want to do… Recommend

  • Bilal

    Yes but articles like this shouldn’t be posted on Pakistani News sites for that reason.Recommend

  • Ali

    Or what? You’re going to riot and kill people in the name of islam, like how so many fundamentalists do daily? If you dont like it, dont read. If you dont like anti islam videos on youtube, then dont go watch them. Its actually very simple.Recommend

  • Acorn Guts

    For what reason exactly though? It hasn’t changed my sexual preferences, nor has it changed my point of view on the matter because it isn’t trying to do any of this.

    All this article has done is to provoke an aspect of our literary treasure that is seldom talked about and which I found very fascinating.

    The main problem here is that you belong to the generation that has been conditioned to protest anything that mentions homosexuality without reading, understanding or thinking about the context. The generations that turns a blind eye to the realities around it and the one that hinders our collective progress to a more tolerant and Islamic society.

    Take it easy my friend, Islam is not in danger due to this article.Recommend

  • Dawd

    ‘Women those who get raped also get imprisoned and raped by jailers in Iran. ‘ That is not islamic, it is barbarity. In the West men get jailed and the authorities turn a blind eye to sexual assualt and rape by other inmantes (an estimated 200,000 yearly in USA),
    Injustice occurs in every culture.Recommend

  • Eddied

    If you can get past the rhetoric and look at scientific facts you will find that 3-5% of every population on earth is gay… it has always been that way… it is only now people are being honest about it…Recommend

  • Bilal

    You are right Islam is in no danger from this article as nothing can harm Islam. Now articles like this are created in order to create tolerance for homosexuality. Recommend

  • Bilal

    Why would I go and riot and kill people? And if a fundamentalist in your eyes is somebody who follows the religion of his Rasullalah (SAW) and prays to Allah then yes I am a very proud fundamentalist. And all I am saying is articles like this should not be prevalent especially in Pakistani News sites as maybe if you know homosexuality is haram in Islam.Recommend

  • Bilal

    “Islam is not a homophobic religion”, please explain how our beautiful religion is not adjacent to this filthy act.Recommend

  • Ali

    Do you even know what homophobic means? It doesnt look like it. Homophobia is the fear or hatred of homosexuals. Islam only condemns the ACT of homsexuality, not feelings or thoughts. So try and be a little more sensistive, because there are plenty of muslims who have homosexual feelings and thoughts. You cant always control how you think or feel. And being a homophobe is not only a potential push for comitting suicide, but homophobia is also haraam. Understand?Recommend

  • Ali

    No, but homophobic comments are worthy of a speedy deletion.Recommend

  • No patience for moronpanti

    So, are you saying that gay people should have less rights than straight people because you don’t agree with their lifestyle?
    Get this concept drilled- every human on earth is entitled to the same human rights. If you don’t like their lifestyle, you don’t have to endorse it. But you have no right to say that they shouldn’t have the same rights as others.

  • Rd px

    we can talk about homosexualityRecommend

  • Acorn Guts

    But then gladiators like yourself have free reigns to ensure intolerance in this society .. don’t see why you have any problem.Recommend

  • Cybil Peril

    Was Prophet Mohammad pedophile? Sorry for it but there is a debate on this issue on net. Just wondered…4 sake of information. No disdrespect meant…Recommend