Two Verses of Ghalib
(for Fran Pritchett)
There is a Persian couplet by Ghalib that has long fascinated me. It is quite unusual, even for Ghalib, for it employs a theme that to my belief was never so clearly expressed by any other South Asian poet be it in Persian or in Urdu.
با من میاویز اے پدر فرزند آذر را نگر
هر کس که شد صاحب نظر دين بزرگاں خوش نكرد
The two lines may roughly be translated as follows:
Do not quarrel with me, father; look, instead, at Ázar’s son—
He who gains a discerning eye never favors ancestral ways.
Ghalib is, of course, alluding here to Ibrahim/Abraham, Prophet or Patriarch, whose father, according to the Qur’an, was named Ázar. He was, we are further told, the high priest to an idolatrous king, and wished to raise his son in the same faith. The boy Ibrahim, however, refused, since he had gained a radically different certitude—as much through his own deductive powers as through God’s guidance. This is how the Qur’an (6:74–79) tells the story:
“(74) Lo! Abraham said to his father Azar: ‘Takest thou idols for gods? For I see thee and thy people in manifest error.’ (75) So also did We show Abraham the power and the laws of the heavens and the earth, that he might (with understanding) have certitude. (76) When the night covered him over, he saw a star; he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set, he said: ‘I love not those that set.’ (77) When he saw the moon rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when the moon set, he said: ‘Unless my lord guide me, I shall surely be among those who go astray.’ (78) When he saw the sun rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord; this is the greatest (of all).’ But when the sun set, he said: ‘O my people! I am indeed free from your (guilt) of giving partners to God. (79) For me, I have set my face, firmly and truly, towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and never shall I give partners to God.’”
On another occasion, the young Ibrahim secretly broke all the idols in the temple except the biggest. When accused of vandalism the next day he confounded the accusers by retorting that they should instead ask the big idol since they considered it god.
It is this questioning, independently thinking, iconoclastic Ibrahim that Ghalib celebrates in that verse—an Ibrahim who put his faith in a unique and transcendent God but only after fully employing his God-given intellect.
This young Ibrahim, as we also know, is very different from the older prophet and patriarch of the Bible and the Qur’an. The patriarch readily abandons a wife and a son in a wilderness to please another wife, and only a miraculous intervention by God saves the two. Another time, the same patriarch hastens to sacrifice his son on account of a dream that reminds him of a reckless and uncalled for promise he had made long ago. Once again, God has to directly intervene to avert the calamity. In other words, the patriarch Ibrahim/Abraham unquestioningly submits to what he only too readily takes to be God’s wish, and fails to employ the questioning intellect he had used as a boy. And that habit of unquestioning submission seems to be his believing sons habit too.
Ghalib seems to have given some thought to that paradox. He has another Persian couplet:
The son willingly lays his neck under the father’s knife
If the father has himself walked through Nimrod’s fire.
Here Ghalib alludes to yet another event in Ibrahim’s boyhood, when his father’s master, the idolatrous king Nimrod had him cast into a huge fire for daring to reject the prevalent faith of the land, but God had saved him. In other words, for Ghalib an ancestor was worth following only if he had himself taken some terrible risk for the sake of his independent convictions. Not a very satisfying resolution, in my view, for it almost amounts to being another celebration of blind faith and patriarchy. As in the following verse by Iqbal, who incidentally, more than any other poet known to me, alludes to or celebrates Ibrahim/Abraham in numerous verses.
As Intellect lingered behind, engrossed in the surface glitz.
Iqbal’s poetry, as we sadly know, could easily be used for his own purpose by any deluded politician or army general. No fear of that with Ghalib. And yet, as I look around and see so many would-be patriarchs—drunk on their own easy certitudes—extracting ultimate sacrifice from the young and the innocent, I wish Ghalib, Iqbal and others, had given a bit more thought to the son. As for the mother/wife in the story, she predictably received no thought from either Ghalib or Iqbal—or, for that matter, from her Creator.
(Presented at a workshop at Columbia University on April 12, 2014, that honored Prof. Frances Pritchett on her retirement.)
 Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Quran: Text, Translation & Commentary (New York, 1946), pp. 309–10.
 But there is a boldly imagined poem in English that does just that: Eleanor Wilner’s “Sarah’s Choice,” in her eponymous collection (1989). It should be read again to learn the only lesson worth learning in plagues-ridden days.
Two other publications are of direct relevance: (1) Reza Baraheni, The Crowned Cannibals: Writings on Repression in Iran (New York: 1977), particularly the section titled ‘Masculine History,’ and (2) Carol Delaney, Abraham on Trial The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth (Princeton: 1998).