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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Homosexuality in Urdu poetry: Tolerance in medieval India and Islamic societies in the past


For once, the Shankaracharya and the Shahi Imam are on the same side as also the BJP and the Muslim leaders. They are all opposed to the court's decision terming consenting homosexual relationship among adults as 'no longer criminal'.

Barely a handful of MPs have openly hailed the verdict. But it's interesting how tolerant people were towards homosexuality in the past. In Islamic world, from Iran to India,  such relationships were common and were completely acceptable in the society as well as among the Ulema [clergy].

Gar aan turk sheerazi be-dast aarad dil-e-maara
ba khaal hindosh bakhsham samarqand o bukhara ra [Hafiz]

Translation: If that Turk lad listens to my heart's cry, I can forsake the cities of Samarqand and Bukhara against the black mole on his face.

Poets like Hafez and the great Mir Taqi Mir openly wrote about their homosexuality. The divans of Urdu poets of 18th and 19th century are full of couplets that would outrage even some of today's 'self-styled liberals', but in those days even the orthodox Ulema were either lenient or indifferent.

They were ready to accept that everybody need not necessarily be like us and society should not impose its views on everyone. In present scenerio, it seems strange as an intellectual like Mushirul Hasan avoids commenting on the decision, for fear of enraging others.

Eminent religious scholars were less judgmental then and often took umbrage behind the extensive legal case including the requirement of witnesses that are needed to hold someone guilty of unnatural acts as per Shariah.

Either it was medieval homosexuality that is evident in couplets from the era of Aarzoo and Mir Soz or the pederasty in Firaq's shaayri and Josh's memoirs, the tolerant society openly accepted it. However, today it is unthinkable.

Contemporary Urdu poetry has just one openly gay poet Iftikhar Nasim 'Ifti'. However, in the past it was not considered outrageous. Poets openly wrote about their relationships.

Turk bachche se ishq kiyaa thaa rekhte kya kya maiNne kahe
rafta rafta Hindustaan se sher meraa Iran gayaa
[Mir Taqi Mir]

Above I quoted a coulet of the legendary Persian poet Hafiz. It was no different in India. Mir Taqi Mir celebrated his relationship:

Mir kyaa saade haiN biimar hue jiske sabab
usii attaar ke launDay se davaa lete haiN


Us Mughal-zaade se nibhii har baat kii takraar khuub
bad-zabaanii kii bhii usne, to kahaa bisyaar khuub

His divan is full of such references, often termed as 'ibtizaal' [literary decadence] and deleted from concise collection of his poetry. Like poets of that era, Mir had homosexual relationships with boys and later got married also, as per the tradition of the times.

But he never faced any opposition then. There was no disapproval from the Ulema then. Were they less religious or less cultured? Certainly not. But they did respect every person's right to lead his life as per his wishes.

Or at least leave them to their own ways rather than worrying about what they do in their bedrooms. I feel if a person is truly religious or spiritual he would be more compassionate and would avoid finding faults with others.

In Urdu ghazal, the gender of the beloved is often not clear. However, there are hundreds of couplets in divans of the classical poets where the lover is clearly a male or a boy.

The great poet Khwaja Haider Ali Aatish wrote:

Zuleikha ko dikhaaye aasmaaN tasviir Yusuf kii
Ye dil diivana hai jiskaa pari-paikar hai voh laRkaa

Mir Soz said:

Hai chaal qayaamat, hai husn ya sharaara
chaltaa hai kis adaa se Tuk, dekho Khudara

and Aarzoo wrote:

fareb-e-khush pisraaN khurdan Aarzoo rasm ast
za-rooe tajruba guft eeN chuniiN pidar maaraa

One of the greatest poets of the sub-continent, Mir Taqi Mir, who is termed Khuda-i-Sukhan, wrote numerous couplets celebrating gay relationships. In fact, so explicit is Mir, that one may think twice before quoting them.

Not more than a fraction of their poetry is explicit or obscene. In fact, a majority of the asha'ar treats the subject subtly and with sensuousness like the following couplet of a gahzal where the usage 'kya kya kuchh' is unusual and fresh. The poet yearning for his beloved dreams of the pleasures of sexual union.

wasl uskaa Khudaa nasiib kare
meraa dil chaahtaa hai kya kya kuchh

In these couplets Mir falls sick owing to his excessive longing for his beloved boy [yaani maiN shauq kii ifraat se biimaar huaa] and Mus'hafi describes the feelings in terms of waves [lahroN se saara daryaa aaGhosh kar diyaa].

The legendary Urdu scholar SR Faruqi terms some of them as 'international literary gems' and extraordinary couplets. It is noteworthy that Faruqi doesn't even use words like 'good' and 'fine' generously.

The recent court verdict has 'shocked' a large number of clerics and even litteratuers. The Victorian law that criminalised not just gay relationships but also any other form of sexual activity [even any other sexual position among man and woman except missionary posiion] other than the order of Nature, has just been reinterpreted by the Delhi High court.

Even today in sub-continent, many homosexuals succumb to family pressure and marry, thereby destroying the life of a woman also. Pakistan-born Iftikhar Nasim has been brutally honest about his life and the difficulties he faces when he decided to 'come out' rather than living a 'false life'.

Read selected couplets of Iftikhar Nasim here.
Read his famous poem Mere Baba. In this verse the poet seeks answers for his alternate sexuality in Urdu, Hindi and Roman scripts here.

[UPDATE: This post was written in 2009. Now, in 2013, the Supreme court has said that the law stands and homosexuality that had been de-criminalised, is a criminal act.]


Anonymous said...

Again you are showing an unhealthy obsession with the BJP.

For your information Shaina NC of the BJP has whole heartedly welcomed the decriminalization of homosexuality. Nirmala Sitharaman of the BJP also came out in support.

Fact is that except for the Left every party is cautious.

If you want you can say VHP is totally against the judgment along with other religious bodies amongst Muslims and Christians.

Why drag BJP into this?

Pinku said...


thanks for sharing the poetry and the post.

couldn't help wondering if you will ever have a greater lover than anonymous?

He seems to be there the moment you put up a post.

nimis540 said...

Interesting post..Never knew that people ,on a religious outlook,were tolerant towards homosexuality.

Whatever,I am least bothered about others sexual preferences as long as they confine it within their own personal space..

Shafiq said...

Not only in Iran and India, but also in the Arab world. I don't understand why the Muslim MPs have come out against this - in a secular democracy, it's only right for people to be able to live their private lives the way they see fit.

Arshad said...

The whole aricle looks out of place.Homosexuality can not be justified if a muslim poet's poetry has glimpse of it or even he excercised that. There might have been the individual cases of homosexual, gay , lesbian in society just like we have/had rapist,alcohalist, criminals etc.that does not mean it was not opposed by then Ulemas or legalised/ recognised by community at large. Injuction of Islamic law would be made only on the basis of Quran and Sunnah, which declares homosexuality as a grave sin.So please dont try to fool yourself nor to sow the seeds of confusion/uncertainity in the minds of muslim's mindm who knows less Islam.

How do we know said...

Its not just the Iran and Urdu shayars. Trust me, most Indians couldnt care less about who you marry, so long as it doesnt lead to a traffic jam.

My theory is that this whole homophobia is a direct import from the West.

indscribe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
indscribe said...

Anon @ Good to see you back but I wish you revealed your identity.

Pinku, Nimi, Shafiq, HDWK thanks for your comments

Arshad @ The court has de-criminalised the act, not legalised it, There is a thin difference and this is very important why it is needed to de-criminalise any act other than the missionary ordained sexual activity.

It is not a crime, though it may be immoral like many other things are to you and me. Morality differs from person to person.

And as far as Islamic point of view is concerned, I think Allah is the best judge.

Even otherwise Islam doesn't have a concept of institutionalised clergy, though it looks otherwise these days.

Half-a-dozen openly homosexual kings ruled in India alone (from Delhi) in the 850 years after Sultan Mahmood and none of the great clergymen had the courage to stop them or declare such acts illegal then. Even their names were read in 'khutba'.

The fact is that what someone does in his or her private life, should be between him/her and his/her God. We don't have the right to judge that. If an adult person insists on doing it, he should have every right to do it--even if it means 'destructing himself'.

At least, a homosexual declaring himself a homosexual is much better than a guy who marries for the sake of society, ruins the woman's life and still goes for such relations.

We are a modern nation where there should be space for every group including all sorts of minorities including the sexual ones.

Lucknowite said...

May be the Islamic societies you referred were tolerant, History has shown that darbari mullahs have gone up to any extent to appease their masters, so if you are concluding that Islam is tolerant towards Homosexuality you are wrong. The so called islamic societies are different than Quranic societies and Quran condemns homosexuality. And the poets, with all due respect to their talent, had openly flouted Islamic rules, alchohal, for example was an integral part of their lives same goes true with kings. So please don't confuse people, by giving impression that Islam keeps mum on these evils, in your quest to pose moderate, reformist or liberal, the so called politicized terms.

Anonymous said...

Homosexuality is disorder. Yes, like other deasese it should also be acceptable to society.

indscribe said...

@ Lucknowite: I hope you have read the whole post and comments. Firstly, it is not necessary that what is immoral in the eyes of Islam may necessarily be criminalised in a secular country that is governed by different laws.

And I wonder the Muslim organisations who take out morchas and rallies, issuing statements on homosexuality, do they ever realise that there are much bigger issues in this country.

Just the other day, I met a man who lost his pregnant wife because he didn't have money. He was crying endlessly, not just wife but the kid also died

And that was just one of the six cases reported in one hospital in a city in a single day. He didn't have money to pay bribe to the 'midwives' in the hospital.

This is happening across the country. It was incidental that he was a Muslim. Such guys have no where to go. Middle-class and rich go to private hospitals, leaving the poor to the mercy of ill-equipped govt hospitals.

I am amazed (in fact, sickened) by the apathetic society (of which I am a part) that doesn't care about poor Indians whether Hindus or Muslims at all, but feels important to hound the homosexuals.

As far as Islam is concerned, I don't understand how it clashes your or mine beliefs.

We are free to consider homosexuality as a sin. Ulema are free to express their opinion though if only we take out fatwas about a century back issued by the eminent clergymen, you would be astonished.

How harsh they were on issues like getting photographed which was considered a shirk.

Lucknowite said...

I understand that laws of secular countries are not governed by one single ideology. However you must understand that it was not Islam due to which homosexuality was considered unlawful so far by our secular laws. Historically in majority of the countries which are not necessarily Islamic, homosexuality was considered unlawful and called for punishment in some or other way. Countries where it is legal has been made legal through amendments later on.
People will justify any act which they feel satisfaction in. Ask a drug addict and he will tell you that there is no better satisfaction in the world than a dose he enjoys. It does not mean that drug consumption should be legalised or decriminallised if one is doing it for the sake of satisfaction without harming anyone else. You may say that drug kills eventually and leaves negative effects. So similar deductions hold good for homosexuality. Despite the opinion being divided, many experts will tell the ill effects of homosexuality and treat it as disorder. So what is wise; being cautious or freely engage in such activity? Till it is proven completely harmless.
Another point is that people become homosexual due to environmental factors especially during their puberty or due to their sexual fantasies. However in their subconcoious mind they also like to have a partner who resembles the opposite sex. That is why the poets you mentioned, have imagined the physique of their beloved with feminine traits and fantacised about them.
Thirdly if homosexuals can have the right to march on the streets in support of it why can't those who oppose it have the right to say so? that too in a democratic country and in a democratic way. Moreover you are mixing issues, How can opposing homosexuality deter someone to do other good deeds? If someone lost his life due to poverty, its the collective responsibility of the society which we all are part of. Yes its a sin committed by all of us if we turn a blind eye to such cases, Islam encourages helping people in need and does not let go any chance to help others. But it does not mean that if we have not done good, we must embrace other unwarranted things with open arms. In your words if society stops hounding wrong practices will it automatically encourage good practices? Both the things need dedicated efforts, when you construct something you also make arrangements to prevent it from distruction, one can't be compensated for other. Both are equally important.
And please don't judge Islam by mullah's actions. I know what kind of fatwas they issued in past and continuing. Common people like you and me have to come forward to do our bit be it constructing the society or protecting it from distruction. Though ideal would be doing both.

Shafiq said...


You're right. Homosexuality has been considered illegal traditionally be countries that were based on Abrahamic religions. Now that many of these countries are secular, there is no need to put religious law into common law.

The difference between a drug addict and a homosexual is simple - being homosexual does not adversely affect them or any other person in any way. Being a drug addict harms yourself and society, which is why it is criminalised.

Despite the opinion being divided, many experts will tell the ill effects of homosexuality and treat it as disorder.

There is no medical evidence that homosexuality can be treated, and seeing as it doesn't harm the individual, it can't be considered a disorder. You can twist what you said the other way - why treat homosexuality as a crime and a disorder before it can be proven to have negative effects?

And yes, you do have a right to oppose homosexuality and voice your disapproval. What you don't have the right to do, is call for it to be made illegal.

Mark Zamen said...

It seems we have much to learn from our medieval predecessors. While the court ruling in India decriminalizing homosexuality is unquestionably a step in the right direction, there remains a large segment of society, both in the U.S. and abroad, that still regards gay men and women as second-class citizens - or worse. That is the salient point of my recently released biographical novel, Broken Saint. It is based on my forty-year friendship with a gay man, and chronicles his internal and external struggles as he battles for acceptance (of himself and by others). More information on the book is available at www.eloquentbooks.com/BrokenSaint.html.

Mark Zamen, author

Adal said...

Indscribe has gone on the ninth cloud after reading the HC order ,which has just"decrimilnalised homosexualacts"!
This verdict could be challenged in the Supreme Court.As a fllout of this two gays married and divorced within matters of hours!
Society is larger and more important than the laws. such radical changes could not be made in our society.As per Quran and BIBle, the homosexuals of Sodom and Gomorroh were destroyed by rain of stones!Let us avoid such catastrophe in our times.

Dice said...

Homosexuality is irrational and immoral behavior. It should never be encouraged or promoted. Leave such filth to the white masses.

Delia said...

First of all, I consider homosexuality as sexual deviation...because you cannot be homosexual without practicing it.God created Adam and Eve and not 2 Adams or 2 Eves.The problem doesnt consist in what a person does in his intimacy and with whom, its his own conscience problem and his relation to God.The institutionalization of homosexuality is a big concern because of the positive discrimnation.It can boost group interests, not very honest ones who can touch in bad way the normal life of majority.So admission of homosexuality in the way western european countries understood it...is far from being an acceptable one.Homosexuality existed since begining of world and always will existed , is important we the "normal" ones how to solve the problems rising from this.Cause we cannot ignore it.We cannot neither demonish or forbid nor accept it...for reasons well known.
Its said that every society has its own criminals, so in extension our gays.Its "our" problem as persons, so we should start with each of us first of all.You dont go and kill a deasead person, but you feel pitty, you listen that person, his traumas that made that person become gay...might have been your own problems.Its difficult to judge and I think its waste to do that.And I also think that for each case the context is different.Some can really suffer from realising their situation...some can really enjoy..so we must know to what extent we let these people become a threat for good morality.
A balanced attitude is the most proper one!

Sohail Hashmi said...

The Great Sufi Poet Sarmad who was a contemporary of Shahjahan and Aurangzeb was a friend of Darashikoh. When Aurangzeb came to the throne, he wanted to get rid of Sarmad, he was declared a heretic and then excuted, but his Homosexuality and roaming the streets naked was never an issue, even during the time of Aurangzeb, despite his rather narrow tunnel vision on many issues.

The potry of Jafar Zattali, a contemporary of Farrukh Seer is filled with references to the many openly gay members from the nobility of the time.

We have inherited our anti Gay attitude from victorian moralists, U.K. has given up on their opposition to Homosexuality but we carry the cadaver on our shoulders, being true inheritors of all decadent ideas