Gender Inversion in Oriental Islamic Literature: The Female Voice in Poetry by Male Writers from the Muslim World

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Gender Inversion in Oriental Islamic Literature: The Female Voice in Poetry by Male Writers from the Muslim World.
Poetry from Islamic traditions, whether secular or religious, often exhibits the phenomenon of gender transference in the use of voice, the male assuming a woman's voice to address the beloved and the woman often adopting the male voice. The practice is widely observed in poetry and song composed and/or sung by poets and singers from areas where Islam was, or remains dominant, from the middle-east to the Indian sub-continent and from medieval Spain through Northern Africa, Turkey and Iran embracing a huge variety of linguistic and cultural traditions. It is thus a vast subject that awaits serious and particularized study. For the present, however, I will be focusing on the phenomenon, in a limited way, in poetry written by men within a few illustrative Islamic traditions, the Indo-Iranian, with some reference to practices and concepts originating in Muslim Spain, and offer some generalized propositions for further study. This paper surveys, among other matters, the social and religious cultures that produce this phenomenon and examines the implications of such a strategy or literary device. Approaching the subject from a variety of theoretical perspectives, historical, religious, secular love tradition, conventions of sufi thought and expression, it attempts to appraise the phenomenon in the light of womanist and feminist approaches to see if indeed it is one that participates in the abbreviation of the rights of women by appropriating their voices or performs, concomitantly or alternatively, other functions such as subverting, and thus challenging, the prevalent mores of gender disparity, privileging the sensibility and capacity acquired by women under the rigor of patriarchal intemperance, and reflecting a more fluid sense of gender that offers a different view of understanding the notions of masculine and feminine in the dynamics of interdependence and interfusion that produces a ceaselessly fascinating mutual shaping and reshaping.

The forms of poetry prevalent in the Arabic and Indo-Iranian traditions include nazm, ghazal (rhymed couplets not necessarily connected in theme but following the same rhyme—qafia-radeef, throughout), kafi (short devotional poem), qita (a short poem within or independent of a ghazal), rubai (quatrain), qawwali (based on “qaul”, a famous saying, generally from Hadith, having its origin in 9th c. Baghdad—“qawwals” are those who recite the qauls), qasida (poem of praise in rhymed couplets), sufi (also known as sufiana kalam—literally mystical speech), marsiya (elegy, generally in commemoration of Imam Husain’s martyrdom at Kerbala), and the masnavi (narrative poem in rhymed couplets). Those peculiar to the Indo-Iranian culture include bol (sayings, proverbs), doha (rhymed couplets), geet (song of love, devotion, or pain of separation), thumri (a semi-classical song genre in the woman’s voice), dadra ( )—ghazal, qawwali, and sufiana kalam, however, being far more popular here than in any other part of the Islamic world today. Often the gender of the poetic voice in many of these forms is either female or indeterminate. However, any of the following permutations or combinations may manifest themselves:


  1. Use of indeterminate gender for both poetic persona and addressee (beloved);

  2. Use of indeterminate gender for either poetic persona or addressee, but not for both;

  3. Male persona addressing a female beloved;

  4. Female persona addressing a male beloved;

  5. Male persona addressing a male beloved;

  6. Female persona addressing a female beloved;

  7. Male persona addressing an adolescent beloved, male or female, but generally male;

  8. Female addressing an adolescent beloved, male or female.

It may be interesting to note that all the permutations deal with an exploration of the emotion of love in all its gendered possibilities. This is partly determined by the nature of the poetic forms culturally available to the poet. It could be argued that all poetry, being in some way a manifestation or unfolding of Divine attributes, is ultimately about love, but most of the forms noted above are constituted specifically as social, cultural, or religious performatives of this emotion.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi in an enlightening article, “Coventions of Love, Love of Conventions: Urdu Love Poetry in the Eighteenth Century,” approaches the subject at a slant. “One of the recurrent themes in the eighteenth-century Urdu ghazal is the poet’s self-denigration as a ‘writer of elegies,’ and not of poems proper,” he writes, and quotes from Qudrat ullah, Mirza Mazhar Jan e Janan, Mir Taqi Mir, and Mushafi in support:
Nothing falls from the lips of Qudrat

But lamentation. He’s no poet

But an elegist for his own heart.

It’s a whole age

Since Mazhar has been pouring

His lamentations into meter,

And yet in the beloved’s mind,

He doesn’t speak like a poet.


Don’t describe me as a poet, Oh Mir,

I collected the numerous griefs and sorrows

And made up a Divan.
I am not really a poet, Oh Mushafi,

I am an elegy reciter;

I recite the soz, and make

The lovers weep.

Faruqi goes on to say: “Poetry thus was basically a quest for themes, and love was just another theme, not an event in the poet’s real life; only that in the ghazal, love was the most important theme. And the core function of love was to soften the heart, to make it receptive to more pain, which ultimately made the human heart a site for the Divine Light to be reflected upon and into it. Pain, and things that caused pain, had a positive value. The lover’s place was to suffer; the beloved’s function was to inflict suffering. This was a sufistic formulation,” Faruqi adds, “but was regularly taken by the ghazal poet to be true for the ghazal universe.” The persona, thus, in the ghazal (and this carries on to other forms as well, as we shall see) is that of “the only true lover: all the rest are false, and given to havas (lust), rather than shauq (desire), or ishq (love).” As far as the diurnal world is concerned, then, success in love would signify only an utter failure since it would not relieve the lover of his ego. Only death can bring that about, but not death by one’s own hand. And not an easy death either. The highest aspiration would be to suffer constantly at the hands of the beloved, to experience anguish at the indifference, fickleness, injustice, and unfairness, even animosity and enmity of the beloved, but not to give up loving, for all these states still keep a connection with the lover alive.

Koi meray dil sey puchhay, tere teer e neem kash ko

Ye khalish kahan sey hoti jo jigar key par hota


Let someone ask my heart, your slow-released arrow

Would not have given this exquisite pain, if it had shot right through


Qata kejay nan taaluq ham sey

Kuch nahin hai to adawat he sahee


Don’t sever the connection with me

If nothing, I have at least your enmity


But the poetic persona is not just an abject nobody. Others may consider the lover mad, but, as Ghalib notes in this memorable couplet, it is this madness of the lover that has given fame to the beloved.
Ishq mujh ko nahin wahshat hi sahee

Meri wahshat teri shuhrat he sahee


Alright, it may not be love, but madness in me

But, consider, it is my madness that gives you fame


It is the “other” who is less than fully devoted, out for temporary and temporal satisfactions—the friend who has betrayed the lover to get intimate the beloved, the advisor who always cautions against extremes, the censor who threatens with the weight of social custom, the preacher who has nothing but banal advice that puts you to sleep, the priest who represents religious disapproval, the formerly trusted messenger who now struts about flaunting his own connection with the beloved, or person of consequence before whose privilege and power the lover has neither status nor value, on all of whom the beloved may bestow its charms and favors, but whose love is mere lust, whose passion is mere pastime. The lover has nothing but contempt for them, though there is a secret envy at their proximity to the beloved. As Shamsur Rahman Faruqi notes, “The world of the ghazal is one world where the Outsider is the Hero, where non-conformism is the creed, and where prosperity is poverty.”

Such conventions of cruelty of the beloved did not originate in the Indian subcontinent. They appear to have a long history in Muslim culture going back at least to the time of Muslim rule in Spain from about the 8th c to the 12th—and thereafter, until the end of the 14th when it was confined to the kingdom of Granada. Ibn Hazm, who lived in the period of the destruction of the Ummayad court in Cordoba, wrote a celebrated thesis on love called The Ring of the Dove. It was widely read in his time and was seen by subsequent generations as a classic manual of courtly love. In it he writes, “Humiliation before the beloved is the natural character of a courteous man,” and advises that “A slave girl was the most favoured object of affection for a courtly lover” (252). “The lover was exalted and refined by abasing himself and by suffering the agonies of unrequited love, ” says Robert Irwin (Night and Horses And the Desert). Irwin goes on to add, “In his approach to the ennobling power of love, even when—especially when—the object of that love was unworthy of it, he was following the path of that arbiter of taste in the Abbasid period, Ibn Washsha. Some of the figures Ibn Hazm wrote about, such as the reproacher, the spy and the trusted confidant, had routinely featured in Arabic love poetry for centuries.” Ibn Hazm believed that “true love is a spiritual approbation, a fusion of souls,” and in this Neoplatonic idea one may see the seed of the approach to love as evidenced in the Muslim Urdu poetry of the Indian subcontinent.

Here is a passage from Ibn Hazm that elaborates his view of love: “Let no man say that the patience displayed by the lover when the beloved humiliates him is a sign of pusillanimity: that would be a grave error. We know that the beloved is not to be regarded as a match or an equal to the lover, that the injury inflicted by him on the lover should be repaid in kind. The beloved’s insults and affronts are not such as a man need regard as dishonoring him; the memory of them is not preserved down the ages; neither do they occur in the Courts of the Caliphs and the salons of the great, where endurance of an insult would imply humiliation, and submission would lead to utter contempt” (Ibn e Hazm, The Ring of the Dove, 255)
We see here a quite unusual turn given to the relationship between the lover and the beloved. The beloved before whom the lover abases itself is not equal or superior in worldly status, but far below, laboring under great rigor and disability, the most abject of the abject, being a slave. It is before this lowest of all beings in the social scale that the lover submits itself and binds itself as a slave to the beloved’s every command, suffering all persecution without complaint, and displaying a readiness to accept any humiliation, cruelty, betrayal, or injury that may come his way in the cause of love.

What does all this mean? How can we deconstruct this to discover the encoded intentions and motives behind this abjection of the lover? A minefield of possibilities may exist here, but here are some that come to my mind. At some level, this approach toward love is a challenge to the established social order. A slave, who may have little or no rights in society, is raised to a position, suddenly, that is above all else in this world, be it governor, king, qadi, imam, or caliph. In fact, the passion and singular focus of the love directed toward the slave may be such that it is seen as one with the Ultimate Reality. As in other forms of spiritual quest, consummation is neither desired nor possible in this world, for if it brings the lover in possession of the beloved, a certain parity would be achieved, the lover’s ego would be still intact, and the perfection of love, therefore, beyond its reach. The ideal is for the loving self to be completely absorbed in the beloved. It would require a forgetting of the self to the point of its elimination, in worldly terms, death for the lover, and, therefore, an end to both the experience and consciousness of loving. There would then be just one existence, not two—just the beloved, not the lover and the beloved. As the Punjabi mystical poet Bullhe Shah, assuming the female persona of Heer, says in one of his most famous kafis, Ranjha, Ranjha, kardi nin mein aape Ranjah hoee/Aakho menoon Deedho Ranjha, Heer nan aakho koee (Calling out, Ranjha, Ranjha, I am become Ranjha myself/Call me now Deedho Ranjha, not Heer anyone anymore). This move toward mystical transcendence is at the heart of Ibn Hazm’s concept of love, but it has personal and social consequences as well. The lover who is able to follow to precision this pattern of loving, and the desire would be to keep the consciousness of loving alive, will be seen as none other than a mad man by society. This love is against all reason, all norms of decency, socially constructed structures and sense of identity. It cannot be taken seriously, for if it is, the socio-political order would be challenged and the state’s machinery would come apart. Embedded here, then, apart from the embrace of necessary suffering, is the note of protest and rebellion which otherwise may not have found vent in an order established on the basis of class and power hierarchies, state policy, and religious doctrine. Poets in Islamic lands may have taken advantage of a certain license that those engaged in artistic pursuits may have to challenge the received norms of the times.

“There exists in poetry,” writes Andrew Schelling in his book on Mira Bai, For the Love of the Dark One, “a tradition of outriders or night cadres, of nomads, exiles and rebel songs. Throughout history, within every literate culture, poets belonging to this lineage have emerged to articulate a brave and defiant opposition to unjust distribution of wealth, religious persecution, oppression of women, and aggressive military expoits (98). Gender inversion in poetry by muslim writers and singers may play a similar kind of role in certain societies.

In The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual, Shameem Burney Abbas notes a qawwali by Sabri Brothers that uses the persona of Mira Bai’s voice to trace her journey of devotion to the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. Mira was a Rajput princess devoted since childhood to the image of Krishna. After the death of her husband, she abandoned her palace life with her friend (once her handmaid) Lalita to live among the common people composing and singing bhajans (devotional songs of love) to her beloved Krishna. Odd as it may seem, that her voice has been appropriated to narrate a journey of devotion (to the shrine of a Muslim saint, at that!) in qawwali, a strictly Islamic devotional performance, the folk tradition of India has several examples of this kind of interweaving between religious and cultural traditions. The close influences, borrowings, and sharing of ideas that occur in the bhakti tradition often move across geographical, religious, and even linguistic barriers with ease. The influence of Baba Farid’s dohas on Guru Nanak and the correspondences of ideas found in the dohas of Kabir have been often noted. The persona that emerges from these traditions and practices is in many ways similar to the one described by Faruqi in terms of the Urdu ghazal and by Schelling in a more general way. What is added, however, in the Sabri Brothers’ qawwali is the assumption of Mira Bai’s voice by male singers and composers. Is there a silencing of Mira’s real story in this? Perhaps. But she, a Hindu itinerant mystic, has been imported into an Islamic convention as well. Folk tradition seems comfortable with that. Khwaja Moinuddin’s shrine in Ajmer is visited by hundreds of thousands of people of different religions and denominations in India every year, as is the shrine of Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. But the Sheikhs of religion may not be too happy with this. In their own way, Sabri Brothers pay their respects to Mira Bai in assuming her voice and some in their audience may learn to navigate the divides of culture a little bit more easily as a result of this.

Importantly, however, for the present purpose, the practice challenges the familiar view of male and female as binary opposites and proffers a more fluid sense of gender that seems to be widely accepted in the areas under consideration. In taking up the voice of the female in his verse or song, a male poet or performer is illustrating precisely the artificial nature of socially ascribed gender roles. Poetry and singing are more closely connected in Islamic and Indo-Iranian cultures than in the West, perhaps because these cultures still retain a considerable tradition of orality. Many well-known works of the great poets of the past and present have been brought to the general public by musicians and singers through performances of their verse. Thus Jami, Hafiz, Saadi, Rumi, Ghalib, Mir, Bullhe Shah, Khwaja Farid, Sachal Sarmast, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, and a host of others have been introduced to most people in these cultures through the medium of singing by performers famous in their own right. And it is therefore not surprising that the practice of gender inversion occurs as much in singing performances as it does in written poetry, nor that it is spread across a large array of languages.

Shameem Burney Abbas, who has done seminal work in the female voice in sufi ritual, attests to this prevalence: “I saw the same patterns emerge in Urdu, Purbi, Hindi, Panjabi, Siraiki, and Sindhi poetry that the musicians sang. I found references to mothers and daughters, sisters and brothers, and generally to kin relationships with women. There were allusions to the mystic veil, to women’s work, such as husking, grinding, spinning, and weaving, and most fascinating of all to bold female lovers like Hir, Sohni, Sassi, Layla, Mira Bai, and many more. In addition to singing devotional poetry that paid homage to the prophet Mohammad, his family, and his azwaj (wives) the musicians further recited the Prophet’s hadith (sayings). They invoked bridal imagery to speak about the miraj (the Prophet’s ascension) and the Prophet’s meeting with the deity, when the veil is lifted or the state of kasf is attained. They sang about the Sufis of the Muslim world and about gender, class, color, and caste. Their discourse challenged the patriarchy and the establishment through the device of the female speaker; even in the metalanguage of the mystic ecstasy, the musicians spoke as females” (xxii). And, one may add, that the poetry they sing is generally by celebrated sufi poets from the Islamic tradition, among whom Amir Khusrau (d. 1325), poet, musician, diplomat, and wit, who introduced the qawwali, as we know it, to the Indian sub-continent, is one of the most revered.

Amir Khusrau was a disciple of Khwaja Nizam ud din Auliya and his songs and sayings are sung and quoted to this day in the Indo-Pakistan sub-continent. He is seen by many scholars to be the first poet that wrote in an idiom that closely resembles what later came to be known as Urdu or Hindi. Though he also wrote in Persian, the language of learning at that time, his impact on the sub-continental culture came largely through the use of the vernacular, Hindavi, or Brij Bhasha, for his compositions, and in importing the subjects of everyday life, with their everyday emotions and feelings, into his poetry. He is also believed to have invented the sitar and several other modes of singing that are still used to this day. His “Babul” is a wedding song, also a song of parting, sung by the bride as she leaves her parent’s house to go with her bridegroom (there are mystical overtones with subtle allusions to death and departure from this world and union with the Creator, seen as the ultimate bridegroom) and it has not only inspired countless imitations but itself remains one of the most moving cultural expressions of widai (departure in marriage) throughout northern India and Pakistan.
Kahe ko biyahi bides

Sun babul mere


Bhaioon ko dene mahal do mahaley

Mujh ko dia pardes

Re sun babul merey
Ham tore babul angina ki chirryaan

Raen basey urr jaen

Ham tore babul belay ki kaliyaan

Ghar ghar mangi jaen

Re sun babul merey
Taq bhari me nein gurria jo chhorri

To chorra sahelion ka saath

Re sun babul merey
Doley ka parda utha kar jo dekha

To aya paraya pardes

Re sun babul merey
Ye dekh Khusrau yu mukh bole

Jam jam raho suhag rey

Sun babul merey
Why marry me off to a foreign land

O’ my father, why

My brothers get your palaces

And I this alien land

O’ listen, my father

We are the sparrows of your cloister

Just stay the night and leave

O’ listen, my father
We are the buds of your garden

Every house asks for them

O’ listen, my father
Why marry me off to a foreign land

O’ my father, why


The niche filled up when I abandoned my dolls

Then abandoned the friends of my youth

O’ listen, my father
When I lifted the palanquin’s curtain to see

It was a foreign land

O’ listen, my father
Seeing this Khusrau says these words:

Long may your union thrive

Listen, my father
On the one hand this can be seen as a painful reminder of patriarchal rigor in sub-continental culture where not only is the father the arbiter of his daughter’s future but has also inculcated in her the belief that her bridegroom, whom she has not even seen, occupies the position of her lord and master once she leaves her parent’s house. On the other hand, it is also an investigation of the nature of love, childhood memories, associations, and the idea of responsibility. Not only is there empathy with the suffering of the departing bride but identification with it. It seems to be implying that in the different spheres of existence, male and female both experience this pain, uncertainty, and apprehension. Something remarkable, something admirable, is communicated about the nature of the person who is experiencing these feelings, and this silently attests to the care, affection, and understanding we owe to this person, and, by extension, to each other—and this engaged respect and love is owed, firstly, to the girl who is being sent off in marriage, and secondly, to the women in society, generally, who also suffer under the same rigor. Herein, perhaps, lies also the seed of dissonance—a quiet, but unmistakable, subversion of unjust social norms.

In an interview on the use of female voice in mystical poetry with Shameem Abbas, Nusrat Fateh Ali made the following observations:

“The Sufi poets—in the tradition of Sufi mystical poetry . . . when they speak they do it in the female voice—they present themselves as the female—for them their beloved—their mentor—their sheikh—is the male—whereas their own voice is that of the female—their own discourse is that of the female . . .

“They court the beloved in the female voice, they woo the beloved—themselves speaking in the female voice—you can read the entire sufiana kalam—the entire Sufi kalam—that discourse is in the female voice . . .

“You can see this in Amir Khusrau’s texts that are in Hindi—the old Panjabi mystical texts—then when you read Baba Farid—Bulle Shah . . .

“There is elegance in it . . . a humility in the female voice—which is lacking in the male voice—all these aesthetics—it is altogether something very different . . .

“. . . they found their spirit—their soul—the essence of what they wanted to say in the female voice . . .

“I’ll tell you something—something about Bulle Shah—when his sheikh—his mentor got annoyed with him—got weary of him—his pir—he went away to spend twelve years among the dancing girls—he adopted the dancing girl’s identity—the female’s voice—her identity—and returned to dance—dance like the dancing girl—before the mentor—to woo him—to win him back—” (68-69)

Others have noted these elements of humility and elegance in the female voice too, and it may have a curious origin in poetry. Once again, we may need to go back to Muslim Spain of the 8th – the 10th c to find it. Arberry records that the Muslim kings of Spain were great patrons of the arts and their court in Cordova was resplendent with poets, dancers, artisans, and artists of all kinds. Since respectable Muslim women were not allowed to perform in public women of exceptional beauty and gifts were inducted specially for court performances. These women (courtesans) were often trained from a very young age in the arts of dancing, elocution, singing, and social manners. Since it was the desire of all aspiring poets to be known at court, poets in Muslim Spain often wrote their verses in an assumed female voice so that it could be sung by the courtesans before the king. In time, this custom evolved into the forms that we see today, some of which have been discussed in this paper.

Another aspect that emerges from Nusrat Fateh Ali’s comments above relates to the close bond that a number of male mystics and/or saints have been known to form with another male. Bulle Shah’s relationship with Shah Inayat (his master/mentor) has already been mentioned, but there are other noteworthy examples: Rumi and Shams Tabrez, Amir Khusrau and Khwaja Nizam ud din Auliya, Shah Husain and Madho Lal, and so on. Shah Husain’s connection with Madho Lal is particularly interesting since the latter was a Hindu boy and Shah Husain is considered a great saint among Muslims of northern India. Madho Lal is said to have died young and Shah Husain was so distraught he assumed his name so that he is known today as Madho Lal Husain and his kafis (metaphysical songs sung in a woman’s voice) are extremely popular among the rich and poor alike. Whether this same sex bond was homoerotic or not has never been convincingly determined, but the practice among these poet mystics to address their “friend” or “beloved” in the voice of a woman provides another illustration of gender inversion with which this paper is concerned. Addressing the “friend” as “beloved” and finding in it the manifestation of the Divine is quite in keeping with other forms and ramifications of this practice.
I close with one of the most well-known instances of this form of address in sub-continental Muslim culture and history. When Khwaja Nizam ud Din Auliya died in Delhi in 1325, Amir Khusrau was away on some court business. He hastened to his beloved friend’s ahata (cloister) as soon as he returned only to discover as soon as he stepped in that the great Khwaja was no more. Immediately, he tore of his clothes and pouring dust over his head and face cried:
Gori sowe sej par

Mukh pe dale kes

Chal Khusrau ghar apne

Raen bahi sab des

My dearest lies on her marriage bed

Her hair covering her face

Go, Khusrau, now to your home

Night comes upon the land


It is said, that as he uttered these words, he fell on his face and died. He is buried in the same ahata as Khwaja Nizam ud din Auliya at the very spot he is said to have breathed his last.


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