Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2019

Ali Karjoo-Ravary

Bucknell University


The Ghazal as Islam’s Garment: Poetic Form Between Imitation and Inimitability

This paper focuses on relatively early examples of Turkic ghazal poetry to interrogate the form of the ghazal as an indicator of Islam and Islamization. I argue that the production of ghazal poetry in Old Anatolian Turkish by the scholar king, Burhan al-Din Ahmad of Sivas (d. 1398 CE), was a formal reproduction of the Arabic Qur’an through which Burhan al-Din refashioned himself as a successor to Muhammad. It is precisely the formal continuity that allowed him to claim this— his production of written metered poetry in a language that lacked a clear written history mirrored Muhammad’s Qur’an, a work of “wonder” without obvious precedent that paved the way for future imitation.

Through this case study, the second half of this paper considers the transfer of the ghazal’s form across linguistic barriers and interrogate the ruptures and continuities latent in this process. More importantly, it considers the question of the ghazal’s relationship to Islam, arguing that the ghazal is a formal marker of Islam. This mark necessitates an understanding that the ghazal is not merely translated into new linguistic contexts, rather, those contexts are also translated (and thereby adapted) into the context of the ghazal. This paper concludes by reflecting on the repercussions of such an understanding, questioning whether all ghazal poets, even the most transgressive, are “Muslim” in virtue of their poetic form and irrespective of their confessional identities.