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Syed Nomanul Haq teaches at the IBA. He is general editor of the Oxford University Press book series, Studies in Islamic Philosophy, and recently shared the Waldo Leland Prize of the American Historical Association.
Syed Nomanul Haq teaches at the IBA. He is general editor of the Oxford University Press book series, Studies in Islamic Philosophy, and recently shared the Waldo Leland Prize of the American Historical Association.

IT was not so long ago that Ahmad Faraz, and there is no other Urdu poet of our times as massively popular among the youth as he was, expressed the longing of his eyes to see his beloved manifested in the fullness of appearance. Ah, but then he poignantly confessed his defeat: for inflicted upon this longing was an eternal suffering, the suffering of remaining forever unfulfilled. Even poetry — with all its craft, its devices, and its freedom of imagination — failed to contain the sarapa of that infinite effulgence!

Sarapa yet again? Yes, indeed, we do see how resilient, nay invincible, this classical notion has turned out to be, and how rampant we find sarapa-writing (sarapa-nigari) in the lyrical ghazal poetry, so much so that a 21st century poet, whose death anniversary we just commemorated, invokes it too, a poet the bulk of whose teeming audience belongs to a generation largely untouched by Urdu classics. But let’s pause here and note this: that here we are not only talking about a literary trope or a clever device, something to be rehearsed ad nauseam — no, here is a notion deeply rooted in the very constitution, in the very qivam, of the cultural milieu to which Persian and Urdu ghazal tradition belongs.

Literally meaning “from head-to-toe”, “totally”, “cap-à-pié”, sarapa became a whole creative genre, and in the execution of this genre the poet’s virtuosity was conventionally considered to be precariously at stake. In this venture, the poet was supposed to describe meticulously and in full glory the details, the minutiae, of the physical characteristics of the beloved — the beloved’s sarapa that is, from the locks of the hair and the fragrance trapped in its snares, all the way down to the henna in its intricate arabesque of floral designs imprinted on the sole of the beloved’s foot. Listen to Aziz Hamid Madni, again a poet of contemporary times:

In self-adornment — see, the henna of the feet betrays her taste: At last, simplicity has escaped with a thievish tread, softly!

But at the same time there is a vicious undercurrent of irony here, for the splendour of the ghazal’s beloved was so limitlessly variegated and so intensely rich that it could never be captured — the eye was doomed to failure, and poetry humbled. Let’s recall the opening of the famous novel of Mirza Hadi Rusva, Umrao Jan Ada, where the author writes at the outset a ghazalesque verse serving as the very motto of a beautiful courtesan’s tale. The verse speaks in terms of metaphors: there is this painter (denoting of course the author, Rusva himself) facing his profusely radiant subject (indeed, this subject must symbolise Umrao Jan) whose portrait is to be painted (unmistakably, a metaphor for the novel that is about to begin). Now the subject robs the painter of all his senses due to the devastating effusion of her sheer beauty; and yet in her coquetry she orders him with a ringing laughter — “my portrait must appear to the eye as I appear to the eye, precisely!”

Having lost his senses, how can the portrait-maker ever comply? No matter how numerous his attempts, and no matter how hard he tries, the portrait is doomed to tell only an unfinished and garbled story.

Then we have Ghalib who is never able to see his beloved in the universe of his ghazals. Sometimes when he stands before the glorious display of the beloved’s portrait (jalwa-i timsal), he becomes like a tiny dust particle lost in the ray of the unruly sun — the ray pouring through a narrow opening of the poet’s chamber (rauzan), and sunk in this all-pervading luminosity the particle flutters around in a dance of restless frenzy (par-afshan), now this way, now that way. At other times, when the poet tries to look at the beloved’s sarapa in its unbounded display, he is utterly overwhelmed and blinded by wonder (hairat), his wonder struggling to track down the manifestation, desperately searching for clues and swelling in the process. The mirror too in which the image of the beloved is to be reflected lies in wait perpetually; in fact the mirror bears the burden of the entire “six-dimensions of waiting” (sash-jihat-i intizar). This reflecting surface, then, encompasses the whole spatial range of the cosmos, and so the quest is inherently unending.

Indeed, the degree of abstraction in Ghalib is terrifying; he constructs a towering high-rise of metaphors: on his skyline we find metaphor resting upon metaphor in an ever-higher ascent from the ground of gross, concrete reality. So when the passion and resolve of the poet manage to undo, to open, the ties of “beauty’s veil,” what comes to pass? In a cosmic irony, the very medium of sight (nigah) now becomes a hindrance (ha’il). What a paradox: that which is supposed to convey sight, now blocks access to it:

Ardour has opened the ties of beauty’s veil: No hindrance remains now — except sight …

But the most profound and shattering abstraction is of course found when Ghalib deploys the imagery of the visual arts, as did Mirza Rusva in Umrao Jan Ada. Thus, after an infinity of longing, when the beloved does after all manifest herself (or himself or Himself), the manifestation performs the task of its own contrary — it turns into a veil that is! This contrariety is explained masterfully in terms of an actual fact of perception: the onlooker becomes so intoxicated by the sheer resplendence of the view that his vision is dispersed all over the face of the beloved, spread all across, hopelessly fragmented. So, thereby, again, the poet is denied the possibility of discernable perception beyond the luxuriance of the surface. And again, the sight suffers a telling defeat:

When we talk about the luxuriance of surface, we are in effect invoking a profound cultural fact — for this is exactly one of the defining characteristics of the visual arts in the domain of a world civilisation that flourished from Spain through the Levant and Central Asia to the Indus Valley and beyond: call it “Muslim,” “Islamic,” “Islamicate,” or, should ideological quibbles be dreaded, even “Civilization X.” And, likewise, when we talk about sarapa , we stand at the crossroads of Sufism, poetry, and the visual arts — a tricoloured phenomenon unique to this civilisation. Following the monumental Chicago historian Marshall Hodgson, we see here the meeting of a challenge faced in consequence of the iconoclastic thrust of Abrahamic monotheisms that had ferociously rejected representational myths in the visual arts. Note that “iconoclasm,” though an early-modern term, was an actual attitude in creedal history, in fact a zealous movement, that predates the rise of Islam; it was particularly severe in Judaism, taking violent forms later in Christianity too.

Hodgson speaks of “hostility to the image” among the Jews, the monotheists who ruled out all figural imagery not only in their sacred precincts of worship, but even in ordinary places of public presence. Surely, recorded in the Book of Kings of the Hebrew Bible is King Hezekiah’s “purging” of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem carried out by destroying all figures it housed. This was the beginning of a chain of “cleansing” events some 700 years before the emergence of Christianity. And as for Christianity itself, a similar zealous act occurred in the 4th century during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Then, nearer to our times in the 16th century, historical data show more: an integral part of the story of Protestant Reformation is the rather violent and systematic destruction of Catholic images in churches, including paintings, sculptures, and other representational figures. This disfavour to images seems to have gained a characteristic intensity in the Islamic culture.

And here we come to the challenge just referred to, that eminent challenge for the visual arts to answer. Whereas ancient art was in essence symbolically representational — representing nature cults and the complex myths that attended them, heralding imperial dynasties and temple deities, and, above all, representing gods through symbolic correspondences — all of this now fell from grace in prophetic religious systems. The God of monotheisms was an unseen God, above the visible order of nature, thereby above the possibility of visual evocation. A painting, then, could not have transcendental reference; indeed, pushed to its end, the ruthless logic of this rejection meant that art must not aspire to symbolise anything beyond itself. Thus, denied to art was its centuries-old right to express symbolically the ultimate truths that were its very fundamental subject matter. Its iconic atelier had been emptied.

Hodgson tells us that “the full response to this challenge came only under Islam.” This remarkable observation ushers us into the joys of history: since we find that it engendered with a flash of irony a massive tide of novel creative developments in human culture — art did not wither; rather, it moved into the world of new possibilities. Many things happened: the concern of the artists was fully focused now on the sheer visual elements, visual elements constituting henceforth an independent aesthetic sphere, as an end unto themselves, without reference to anything beyond. So we see a ruthless exploitation of the graphic potentials of lines, surfaces, tones, and colours, all of it for its own sake. And counterintuitive as it may be, this self-reference of art sounds so very modern, and its recognition so very postmodern. In fact Hodgson does point out that in Islamic art is found “an anticipation of certain strains in the modern secular autonomy of art … insisting on pure visual effect.” He calls it “graphic autonomy.”

This explains the spectacular growth of calligraphy in Islamic art, utterly unconcerned with figural representation, and the rise of those intricate laced patterns we call arabesque. But more intriguingly, even figural art through its dissolution into purely visual elements served a non-representational function; human faces became an element of design, on a par with flowers and clouds and trees. So the doll-like faces of the familiar Persian miniatures begin to make sense: once it is understood that the human figures do not in general enter a scene by way of portraiture, but are items of design patterns, their expressionless, dehumanised, and emasculated appearance and their unnatural postures “cease to affront and can be appreciated for [their] consummate skill in [their] own terms.” These figures seem to be protected from any reference beyond themselves, and so the luxuriance of colours and tones all over the surface with multiple perspectives or vignettes; and so the lush crowding of objects, all equally near or equally far. The surface is made so rich that the eye is arrested within it; it is practically barred from seeking any reference in the artwork to the real world outside. Was Ghalib describing this very luxuriance when he says that he cannot see the beloved because his vision is spread all over her face? For this is precisely what happens to the onlooker in the case of Persian and Mughal miniatures.

Another thing that the tide of creative developments brought forth is equally intriguing: the symbolic embodiment of the divine creator was now taken up by Sufism; the Creator became the “Beloved” (Ma‘shûq) or the “Friend” (Yar), and the description of this object of desire, the sarapa , became the preoccupation of poetry. So in the culture we are talking about, one must not look for portraiture in the visual arts; no, portraitures are made in poetry. This is where portraits went. And here is a resounding fact that ought to be carved in our cultural consciousness. But note that the undercurrent of irony aggressively continues to flow: the Sufi is doomed forever to languish in separation from the Beloved; the poet can never achieve the perception of the sarapa to render it into words; and the artist must remain on the surface. It is not the destination that matters; it is the quest.

Iqbal made a portrait lament before its painter, lamenting that even though the painter has painted its eyes, these eyes have no vision — and so the portrait cannot see its creator, and this is “so very unfair!” Sometimes Iqbal addresses his own Creator, asking in a daring lamentation: “Is this Adam your great masterpiece? He cannot see himself; he cannot see the cosmos; nor can he see You? Is this your great masterpiece?” And then we have Faiz Sahib, remaining on the surface wondering what lies behind the curtain that makes it colourful:

Is it the border of her veil, or cheek, or is it her mantle? Something there is by which the curtain is being tinged with colour …