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Ghazal

You may know all about sonnets but have you heard of Ghazals? Keep reading to find out more about Ghazal and Arabic poetry!

Ghazal meaning

Let's start with the definition of Ghazal:

Ghazal is an ancient form of poetic expression originating in Arabic poetry, written in the form of multiple two-line couplets following a particular rhyming pattern of AA, BA, CA, DA, EA, etc. A Ghazal consists of 5 - 15 rhyming couplets, each called a sher (plural: ashaar).

Ghazals were primarily in Arabic and Urdu, known to have originated in the 7th century in Arabic poetry. Ghazal was also widely present in Persian literature, which later on spread to other parts of South Asia due to the territorial expansion of Islam at that time. It is now seen in all languages around the world but is not as widespread in the West as compared to the Asian community. Nevertheless, Ghazals have structural similarities to the Italian Petrarchan sonnet.

A Petrarchan sonnet is a sonnet which consists of fourteen lines that are split into an octave (eight line stanza) and a sestet (six line stanza).

The Petrarchan sonnet is named after the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374).

Urdu Ghazal

The Urdu Ghazal is a South Asian form of Ghazal written in the Urdu language (the national language of Pakistan). Emerging in the late 17th-early 18th century, Urdu Ghazal is much newer than the Arabic Ghazal. It was brought upon by poets who were influenced by Sufism and Persian poetry.

Sufism is a mystic practice within the wider religion of Islam.

Ghazal poetry

Let's take a look at 'Ghazals on Ghazals' from John Hollander's book Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse (2001). It is unique as it explains what a Ghazal is, in the form of a Ghazal itself. This is interesting because the theme of this particular Ghazal is quite different from the usual themes connected to the topic of love.

For couplets the ghazal is prime; at the end

Of each one’s a refrain like a chime: “at the end.”

But in subsequent couplets throughout the whole poem,

It’s this second line only will rhyme at the end

One such a string of strange, unpronounceable fruits,

How fine the familiar old lime at the end!

All our writing is silent, the dance of the hand,

So that what it comes down to’s all mime, at the end.

Dust and ashes? How dainty and dry! We decay

To our messy primordial slime at the end.

Two frail arms of your delicate form I pursue,

Inaccessible, vibrant, sublime at the end.

You gathered all manner of flowers all day,

But your hands were most fragrant of thyme, at the end.

There are so many sounds! A poem having one rhyme?

A good life with sad, minor crime at the end.

Each new couplet’s a different ascent: no great peak,

But a low hill quite easy to climb at the end.

Two armed bandits: start out with a great wad of green

Thoughts, but you’re left with a dime at the end.

Each assertion’s a knot which must shorten, alas.

This long-worded rope of which I’m at the end.

Now Quafia Radif has grown weary, like life,

At the same he’s been wasting his time at. THE END.

Ghazal structure

A Ghazal is much more than just a poem. It is a short collection of shers which follow the rules of matla, maqta, beher, kafiya, and radif. Now we will look at the structure of a Ghazal with reference to the above example, ‘Ghazals on Ghazals’.

Sher

A sher is a two line poem. A notable feature of Ghazals is that each sher is an independent poem in itself, and may or may not be of the same theme. In ‘Ghazals on Ghazals’, each of the couplets is called a sher, and in this particular instance all of them are about Ghazals but it is not necessarily for them to be on a single topic.

Beher

Beher is the length or meter of the shers. All the lines of a Ghazal must be of the same length. They can be short, medium or long. In ‘Ghazals on Ghazals’, notice that both the lines of each sher are the same beher. This holds true for the entire Ghazal.

Radif

In a Ghazal, the second line of each sher must end with the same word. This repeating word is known as the radif. In Hollander's Ghazal, the radif is ‘at the end.’

Matla

It is a rule that the first sher of a Ghazal, must contain the ‘radif’ in both lines. This first sher is known as the matla. There can be more than one matla in a Ghazal, and in those instances, the second one is known as the matla-e-saani or husn-e-matla. In ‘Ghazals on Ghazals’, the first couplet or sher is known as the matla, because the radif ('at the end') is found in both sentences.

Kafiya

A Kafiya is the rhyming pattern of the words before the radif. In 'Ghazals on Ghazals’, the kafiya are ‘prime’, ‘chime’, ‘rhyme’, ‘lime’, ‘mime’, ‘slime’, ‘sublime’, ‘thyme’, ‘crime’, ‘climb’, ‘dime’, ‘I’m’, and ‘time.’ The kafiya may be perfect (lime v/s mime) or imperfect (prime v/s chime) rhyming words. In the above example, the kafiya includes both perfect and imperfect rhyming words.

Maqta

Every poet usually has a pen name (also called takhallus) and generally, in the last sher of a Ghazal the poet uses their pen name in either first, second or third person. In this example, the poet uses the pen name Quafia Radif. This last sher is known as maqta.

General theme of a Ghazal

Initially, Ghazals were composed purely for religious reasons, but they later developed to include themes of love, Sufism, pain and longing. Ghazals gained prominence in the 14th century by poetry from the Persian Sufi mystics Rumi and Hafez. Some of the greatest Ghazal poets of all time are - Wali Mohammed Wali (classical), Altaf Hussain Hali (modernist) and Ada Jafri (contemporary) - were well renowned poets from the Arabic and Urdu culture.

Love in Ghazals does not just include factual human love affairs (ishq-e-majazi) but also of the divine union or divine love (ishq-e-haqiqi). Ghazals on divine love are widely written. They are from the perspective of an unrequited lover whose beloved is used as a metaphor for God.

The Persians were known to write about Sufism in their Ghazals before the topic was widely seen in the Urdu Ghazals. Sufism refers to the presence of God rather than physical passion. Unrequited love and longing is another theme that is widely present in Ghazals.

Difference between Ghazal and Nazm

Although Ghazal and Nazm are both different types of poems, they often get confused with one another. The difference lies in the technicalities of their structure. This is elaborated in the table below:

GhazalNazm

Consist of couplets of two lines each.

There is no limit to the number of lines present in a stanza.

The theme of the different couplet may or may not be the same.

All stanzas revolve around a central theme or idea.

Generally, the central theme of Ghazals is love.

Nazm can be written on any topic.

The couplets are complete poems in themselves.

All verses of a Nazm are interlinked and convey the same meaning.

The end of a Ghazal includes the poet’s pen name or takhallus.

There is no mention of the takhallus in a Nazm.

The rhyming pattern is - AA BA CA DA EA, etc.

The poet uses their own preferred rhyming pattern.

Ghazals are generally sung.

Nazms are normally read or recited.

How to write a Ghazal

Ghazals are currently practised in Iran (Persian), Pakistan (Urdu) and India (Urdu and Hindi). There are some that are written in English as well. Nevertheless, if you want to try something new, have a go at writing your own Ghazal! It will help you improve your English vocabulary and creativity.

  1. Decide on a topic that you want to write on. Bear in mind that you do have the choice of writing on multiple topics, with each sher/couplet concentrating on a particular topic (this is a unique feature of Ghazals).

  2. Think of a line for the Ghazal; this should contains the refrain or the recurring word at the end. Make sure the recurring word is such that it can be used in the multiple lines that would follow.

  3. Concentrate on the kaafiya or the rhyming word that precedes the recurring word (radif). Write down a list of rhyming words. Try doing it alphabetically, as this will provide you with a range of words to choose from when structuring sentences.

  4. Think of sentences that can end with the kaafiya and radif, i.e. the second sentence of each sher.

  5. Once you have a suitable opening line and the radif, your first sher is ready.

  6. Think of and write down another sentence that ends with the kaafiya-radif. Then add a suitable preceding sentence. Together, these two sentences form the second couplet/sher.

  7. Repeat step 6 until you have a suitable number of couplets.

  8. In the last couplet (maqta), you may choose to use your name or pen name in a suitable manner.

Keep in mind that the Ghazal must be such that it can be sung. Free verses or blank verses are pointless in a Ghazal. Each sher/couplet must be able to stand on its own, and an entire grammatical unit by itself.

Ghazal - Key takeaways

  • Ghazals are an ancient form of poems that originated in the 7th century in Arabic poetry, written in the form of multiple couplets.
  • They have a rhyming pattern of AA BA CA DA EA and so on.
  • Each couplet is called a sher.
  • Ghazals must follow the rules of matla, maqta, beher, kafiya, and radif.
  • The general themes around which Ghazals are written are love, longing, pain, and Sufism.
  • Ghazal and Nazm are two different forms of poetry, with distinguishing features. Ghazals are often sung whereas Nazms are either read or recited.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ghazal

Ghazals generally surround the topics of love, longing, pain and Sufism. 

‘Ghazal on Ghazals’ from Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse (2001) by John Hollander is an example of an English Ghazal. 

Ghazals are poems that are generally sung. Their structure includes multiple couplets put together which are called sher. Each couplet may or may not be on the same topic, and are independent of each other. They have a rhyming scheme of AA BA CA DA EA and so on. The poet may choose to include his pen name in the final couplet. They follow the rules of kafiya and radif. 

Nazms, on the other hand, are generally read or recited. They may have either short or long verses. They are interrelated to one another meaning that they are all written on the same topic. The rhyming scheme is that of the poet’s preference. The poet does not include their pen name in a Nazm and it is not necessary to follow the rules of kafiya or radif.


Decide on the topic/s you want to write about, and the radif (the recurring word at the end of the second sentence of each sher and first two lines of the first sher). Think about the rhyming words (kafiya) that you can use. Write down sentences ending with the kafiya-radif, which will serve as the second line of each couplet. Write down suitable preceding sentences for each of these lines, and each of them will now form a couplet. In the last couplet, you may choose to include your pen name. 

Ghazal originated in Arabic poetry in the 7th century.

Final Ghazal Quiz

Question

What is the rhyme scheme of a Nazm? 


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Answer

There is no fixed rhyme scheme a Nazm must follow, it is the choice of the poet.

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Question

Which of the following is written only on one topic?


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Answer

Nazm.

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Question

True or false: each sher of a Ghazal can be of a different length. 

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Answer

False.

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Question

Which of the following describes the length of the sher? 

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Answer

Neither.


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Question

What is a radif? 


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Answer

The recurring word at the end of the first sentence and the second sentence of each sher is called the radif. It is a distinct feature of a Ghazal. 


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Question

Which of the following is the odd one out?

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Answer

Radif.

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Question

What is a maqta? 

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Answer

The last couplet/sher generally includes the pen name of the poet. This last sher is known as the maqta, and is a unique feature of Ghazals. 

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Question

True or false: a Ghazal always surrounds only one topic. 

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Answer

False.

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Question

What is a matla? 

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Answer

The first couplet/sher of a Ghazal is called a matla. It is a rule that both the sentences of this first sher must end with the radif, which is what distinguishes itself from the other couplets of a Ghazal. 


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Question

What are the features of a Ghazal?

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Answer

Each couplet of a Ghazal is called a sher. Some of the features distinct to Ghazals are that of  matla, maqta, beher, kafiya, and radif.


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