Ghalib: Idols and the Ka’ba

With this verse we are concluding, at least for now, our collaborative series of commentaries on Ghalib.


go vaa;N nahii;N pah vaa;N ke nikaale hu))e to hai;N
ka((be se un buto;N ko bhii nisbat hai duur kii

1. even though [they] are not there, still [they] have been expelled from there
2. with the ka’ba even those/ also those idols have a distant relationship

nisbat : ‘Referring (to, – se ); deriving (from); –reference, respect, regard (to); attribute; relation, connexion; affinity; analogy; comparison; –ratio; proportion; –relationship by marriage; matrimonial alliance; betrothal; –a relation, or connexion; –a conundrum’. (Platts p.1137)

Click here for translation and commentary on Desertful of Roses. Click here for parallel commentary on The South Asian Idea

A charming and straightforward verse, though not without its hidden depths, as we explore here. The historical reference necessary to appreciate the verse is the episode in early Islamic history when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) orders the Ka’ba cleared of all idols since these can have no place in a monotheistic faith which preaches belief in the one abstract God.

But Ghalib is not content with this. So what if the idols are not in the Ka’ba, have they not been expelled from there? Hence they have a relationship, albeit a distant one, to the Ka’ba. One cannothelp but think of Ghalib (or the archetypal poet/sinner) who has similarly been expelled from the mosque, but seems to be saying: sure, I have been removed, I am no longer welcome there in the house of worship, but at least I have been expelled (as opposed to never having been there at all), so I have a relationship still, its one of expulsion!

This theme, that even expulsion or a negative relationship is better than nothing at all is explored by Ghalib in other ways where the beloved’s greatest “sitam” is to ignore the lover. Click here for an example. To be expelled from her mehfil would be a far greater honor than to not be there in the first place due to neglect! In a volte face here it is the idols (but, which is the usual metaphor for a beautiful person or the beloved) who are being expelled from God’s mehfil. And interestingly some of these idols were indeed of godesses (banat allah or daughters of God).

Philosophically Ghalib seems interested in exploring the relationship or connection between True and False belief. He seems to challenge the everyday perceptions of idol-worshipers (but-parastaaN) (Hindus) and idol-crushers (Muslims) as being really different, unrelated when it comes to matters of faith. He is obviously constrained by space in how much he can say in two lines, but does a great job, in the process using the word “but” (idol) in its non-metaphorical form.

Structurally, the she’r follows all the usual rules to make it work in a recitation. The first line gives almost nothing away, it is too general. The second line holds back the punch until we hear the word “nisbet” and then if we have kept the radif (rhyme scheme) in mind, we can fill in the end in unison with the poet, since “duur” is the obvious choice. In terms of wordplay, Ghalib uses the potential hidden in “bhi” which doubles as “also” and “even.” Both those meanings work here, even though “even” seems to work better in context.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s