The concept of Ishq in Urdu poetry

Markandey Katju-

Justice Markandey Katju is a former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own.

There is a well-known sher (couplet) of the great Urdu poet Ghalib:

“Ishq ne Ghalib nikamma kar diya

Warna hum bhi aadmi the kaam ke”

What does this mean?

To answer this question one must first explain that Urdu poetry has often an outer, literal, superficial meaning, and an inner, metaphorical, real meaning.

Take, for instance, Faiz’ sher :

“Gulon mein rang bhare baad-e-naubahaar chale

Chale bhi aao ki gulshan ka kaarobaar chale”

Now the literal superficial meaning of the sher is :

“Among the flowers, a colorful breeze of the new spring is blowing

Come along, so that the work of the garden can be done”

But that is not what Faiz is really intending to convey. In this sher, the word ‘gulshan’ ’ must not be understood literally. It really means the country. Nor must the first misra ( line ) in the sher be understood literally.

The sher really means :

“The objective situation in the country is ripe ( for a revolution )

Come forward patriots, the country needs you”

Thus, to understand Urdu poetry one must not just go by the direct literal meaning but probe below and try to figure out the real meaning, which the poet is conveying indirectly, by hints, allusions, suggestions and indications.

The word ‘Ishq’ which occurs frequently in Urdu poetry is often misunderstood as physical love and attraction between a man and a woman. But that is not usually its real purport. Urdu poetry has a heavy Sufi influence, and among sufis the word Ishq really connotes love not for a woman but for god (ishq-e-haqiqi).

The Persian mystic Mansur Al Hajjaj ( 858-922 ) used to say ‘ anal haq ‘ (I am God ) for which he was misunderstood and beheaded. What he really meant was that he had annihilated his ego and given up all physical desires, and so had acquired divinity.

Thus, the word Ishq in Urdu poetry really means a passion for an ideal, a noble principle, for which one is prepared to selflessly give up all comforts, and even his life.

Ghalib writes :

“Ishq par zor nahi hai yeh woh aatish Ghalib

Ki lagaaye na lage aur bujhaaye na bane”

Here again, the word ‘Ishq’ must not be understood as a mere physical attraction between man and woman. It means an intense obsession that cannot be rationally explained, and which consumes a person like fire.

In Europe, while the great thinker Voltaire emphasized reason, the equally great thinker Rousseau said that without passion and emotion mere reason makes one a selfish calculating being, who will do nothing for the country or for others.

All great revolutionaries have ishq in this sense i.e. a selfless passion for serving one’s country even at the risk of losing all one has, even his life.

In America, George Washington was a very rich landowner, but when he was called upon to create and lead the Continental army in the American War of Independence ( 1775-81 ) against the British rulers, he accepted, though he was taking the risk of losing everything, even his life, if the British had been victorious.

The Britishers like Cromwell who fought for liberty and against the absolutism of King Charles I in the 17th century, the great French leaders in the French Revolution of 1789, Robespierre and Marat, and the Russian leader Lenin, all had the fire of ishq in them, that is, an intense passion for serving their countries selflessly.

In our own country great fighters against British rule like Bhagat Singh, Surya Sen, Chandrashekhar Azad, Bismil, Ashfaqulla, Khudiram Bose etc gave their lives for their ishq, and ‘sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai’ became the battle anthem of the freedom struggle.

So Ghalib’s sher ( mentioned at the beginning must be understood to mean “I too could have made a lot of money and lived in comfort had I not been consumed by a passion ( in his case poetry ).”

Today when our country is facing huge challenges, social, economic and political, genuine patriots with ishq are sorely required in large numbers to alleviate the people’s plight.