Culture & Society

Translating Amir Khusrau’s ‘Zihaal-e-Miskeen’, The Ghazal Of Ghazals

'Zihaal' is a paradox: it combines two disparate languages so successfully in the ghazal form that they eventually became one language. On the other hand, this ghazal defies text, it defies a satisfactory interpretation of its gestures without oral rendition

The art of the 'Ghazal'

Poetry often bypasses the conventions of connotation, flexes the rigidity of common contextual structures and eventually reinvigorates language itself by nuancing the larger context and stretching what is imagined through it; much of this work of bending and reshaping meaning is done by exploiting the visceral base of language, its inherent music. Not unlike other poets, I believe that poetry is ultimately impossible to translate because it uses language to go beyond the realm of language. Due to the intense wrestling with meaning, as well as play with lexical and grammatical denotation that goes into making a worthy poem, the translator is at a loss as to how to preserve the integrity of what is said and how it is said, to showcase the sonic, semantic and referential innovations: the subtleties of craft that are only apparent to the native speaker/reader.

Any translation can be endlessly improved upon, but especially of the ghazalZihaal- e-Miskeen” by Amir Khusrau. It is composed in two languages, Persian, and Brij Bhasha — also called “Hindavi” and considered to be an archaic form of what later became Urdu. I have thus far resisted trying my hand at translating “Zihaal” because the charm of this ghazal is inextricable from its sonic structure. Khusrau, who had already penned Persian ghazals, happened upon a raw prototype of Urdu ghazal in composing “Zihaal” mainly through his genius for music. It may very well be a prototype of Qawwali, too — a musical genre of South Asian Sufi origins, whose earliest iteration, like the ghazal, is linked with Khusrau. “Zihaal” is a paradox: it combined two disparate languages so successfully in the ghazal form that they eventually became one language. On the other hand, this ghazal defies text, it defies a satisfactory interpretation of its gestures without oral rendition. 

In an essay on Amir Khusrau, I make the argument that Urdu is the child of the ghazal, a poetic form, introduced in 13th century India by Khusrau and propelled by the Sufi ethos that Khusrau practiced. I reflect on the braiding of disparate psyches and aural sensibilities that make up Urdu’s DNA, woven first through the egalitarian spirit of a poet who composed in the classical Persian tradition (being a court poet) as well as in the plainspoken folk dialect of the people whose company he kept as a devotee of the great Sufi Nizamuddin Aulia. In addition to discussing the aesthetic potential of this syncretic gift of a language, I talk about its power as a potential peace-broker, the first catalyst of whose alchemy was the work of a mystic poet — loved by ordinary people and the elite alike. A revised version of this essay appears in my book Ghazal Cosmopolitan (Jacar Press, 2017), which is an ode to the hybrid beauty of Urdu and the ghazal, Urdu’s special pride and the reason why the form entered the American literary scene in the late ’60s. 

There is no definitive evidence, but “Zihaal” may have been sung in the company of Aulia and his devotees. Aulia’s influence on Khusrau can be compared to Shams Tabrizi’s influence on Maulana Rumi. Khusrau, a court poet through the rule of seven kings of the Delhi sultanate, was attracted to the hermetic life due to his attachment to Aulia, but it is said that Aulia discouraged it because he considered Khusrau to be a bridge (to the ruling elite) to convey the Sufi message of peace, equality, harmony and inclusivism — part and parcel of the human connection with the divine as understood in Islam. In a time when the Sultanate’s empire was defined by differences of ethnicity, religion, and social status, Khusrau’s own engagement with spirituality and art brought about a movement that proved to have a long-lasting effect of coalescing the culture. To this day, no matter their linguistic/literary/religious background, people across South Asia and the diaspora know this ghazal by heart, which has been popularized by qawwali singing for centuries. 

Understanding Sufi music through Amir Khusraw's ghazals | Image credit: Shutterstock

There have been many Sufi poets in the region (during the long history of Muslim rule in South Asia), whose works in Sindhi, Punjabi and other languages of the subcontinent have infused an otherwise polarized culture with a sense of harmony, but Khusrau stands apart even in this esteemed company because he was successful in bridging the gap between the courtly arts and the folk cultures, infusing the former with the concerns and sensibilities of the masses and the latter with the refinement of the privileged. Khusrau blurred the cultural distinctions between the foreign rulers and the indigenous populations by transforming the fine arts that had thus far been unknown to ordinary people and celebrating the beauty of their age-old customs (a true reflection of the land) in the pluralistic Sufi spirit by coining a common aesthetic language for all. 

A note on my translation

One of the most beautiful and stunning aspects of “Zihaal” is the surprise of weaving two drastically separate aural threads; one, the court Persian Khusrau used to compose formal verse, the other, Brij Bhasha, the language of common folk that Khusrau used for playful riddles, and songs about seasons and festivals. Because the subject is love, at once ordinary and elevated, accessible and lofty, the two entirely different registers are interwoven with the authenticity of spirit that astounds and moves the listener. The Persian carries the weight of the sublime with the finesse that only Persian can, the Brij infuses the poem with remarkable intimacy, grounding it in genuine longing. As with the ghazal form, the addressee keeps shifting not only from couplet to couplet but verse to verse. The speaker of the ghazal is female. In my translation, I have used italics for Persian because it is the only way to indicate the shift in register and address — first person, second person, third person. I have tinkered with syntax in an attempt to infuse the lines with the freshness and surprise present in the original.

Khusrao’s use of a female persona reveals that his Brij compositions are often centered in the domain of women — many famous wedding songs and songs of seasons and festivals that are attributed to Khusrau point to the fact that the devotional voice in Indian sensibility is often female, while the divinity being praised is male. The female voice confides to a female friend (“sakhi”), with a winsome simplicity, and the Persian phrases and verses employ the classical metaphors (the beloved’s hair etc). I admire how elegantly the scholar/poet Anisur Rahman captures these (opening or “matla”) lines that are at once candid and lofty: “Ignore not this wretch, turn not your eyes away, make no excuse/I can’t bear this parting now, why can’t our hearts beat each to each”.


The best effect of this poem, in my opinion, is not found on the page — represented by letters — but in being swept away by the array of diverse sonic textures that mine a longing that goes deeper than words, befitting for Sufi verse which is at once personal and communal, romantic and mystic, foreign and familiar, raw and refined — manifested fully in the power of the singing voice. 

The subtleties of the craft are only apparent to native speakers of Urdu | Image credit: Shutterstock

Zihal-e-Miskeen MakunTaghaful

Do not neglect this hapless one! He looks away, weaves tales
For being apart is unbearable, my love! Why won’t he draw me near, keep me there?


Nights of separation, like the beloved’s locks, long
Andbriefthe day of union, like life itself

Friend, if I don’t see my beloved, 
How do I pass the darkness of nights?

All at once my calm is taken by a pair of enchanting eyes
And a hundred magical glances

Who would bother to go tell my sweet beloved 
The things I tell you?

I burn wild like a candle, like a grain crushed, scattered
Weeping without end for that moon

No sleep in my eyes, no rest is mine
Neither he comes, nor does he send word

An offering for the day of union with my love, in praise of the one who has long lured Khusrau
I keep my heartbeat hushed, towards my love may I go


— Amir Khusrau Dehlavi, Translated by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

(Shadab Zeest Hashmi, a Pakistani-American poet and essayist, is the winner of the San Diego Book Award, Sable Books’ Hybrid Book Prize, the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize, and has been nominated for the Pushcart multiple times. Her books include Kohl and Chalk, Baker of Tarifa, Ghazal Cosmopolitan and Comb, a hybrid memoir. Zeest Hashmi’s poetry has been translated into Spanish, Turkish, Bosnian and Urdu, and has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals worldwide, most recently in McSweeney’s In the Shape of a Human Body I am Visiting the Earth. Views expressed in this article are personal any may not necessarily reflect the views of Outlook Magazine.)