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What Is A Ghazal?
by Leigh Allen

Ghazal” is a word in Arabic that means talking to women.  A ghazal is a Persian poem of couplets, or “Shers,” in which each of the couplets can be considered a complete poem in itself.  A ghazal may have five or more sets of couplets, or shers.  The ghazal originated in Arabia and traveled to the Middle East and India, and lately to America.  Often, one might set Ghazals to music and include many popular songs.  They are also intended to be read as poetry.

As a musical form, ghazals have existed for several centuries.  Many of the songs heard in Indian cinema until the mid 1970's were ghazals.  In India, ghazals of singing had accompaniments of ragas--sitar and tabla.  They are still very popular.  One famous singer of ghazals is Habib Wali Mohammed.

Although ghazals can be on any subject, the tone of ghazals is traditionally one of longing and its topic is most often love.  In addition, ghazals can be in any language– including English.  Some English writers of ghazals include Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov and Robert Bly. There are numerous translations into English of Urdu ghazals and ghazals from other languages, but it can be difficult to get the whole picture from a translation of what, exactly, comprises a ghazal.

Each line of each couplet must have the same meter and length (the same number of syllables).  In addition, the first couplet, or “matla,” establishes the rhyme and refrain of the entire ghazal.  The rhyme and refrain occurs in both lines of the first couplet, and must repeat in the second line of each following couplet.  Therefore, the rhyming scheme would be: aa, ba, ca, da, ea, etc.  There is also a complex (sometime) requirement of repetition of the entire first line of the first couplet and second line of the first couplet in different places towards the end of the poem.  The ending couplet, or “maqta,” often contains the name or nom de plume of the poet.  

Here is a famous ghazal by Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American poet who was a finalist for the National Book Award, who died in 2001.  Although ghazals traditionally do not have titles, they sometimes become known by their refrains.  One may find this poem by Ali, entitled “Tonight” in his volume of poetry, “Call Me Ishmael Tonight: a Book of Ghazals (2004)”.  In this poem, the first two lines are the matla.  The last two lines are the maqta, containing the poet’s name, Shahid.  The refrain is the word “tonight’, and the rhymes that occur before the word “tonight” are: spell, expel, tell, cell, fell, infidel, spell, Hell, knell, infidel, Jezebel, gazelle, farewell, and Ishmael.

Where are you now?  Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?

Those “Fabrics of Cashmere--“ ”to make Me beautiful--“
“Trinket”-- to gem– “Me to adorn– How– tell”-- tonight?

I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates–
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar–
All the archangels– their wings frozen– fell tonight.

Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.

Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities
multiply me at once under your spell tonight.

He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.
He’s left open– for God– the doors of Hell tonight.

In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight

God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day–
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.

Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.

The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer
fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.

My rivals for your love– you’ve invited them all?
This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee–
God sobs in my arms.  Call me Ishmael tonight.

This is the most achingly beautiful ghazal I have read yet.  It is also a perfect ghazal form.  Many of the American English writers of ghazals do not follow all the traditional rules, and they call their ghazals “open ghazals” or “non-traditional ghazals.”  Adrienne Rich has written several series of ghazals, including “Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib" and "The Blue Ghazals," both of which are included in her collected poems, The Fact of a Doorframe (W.W. Norton 2002).


  • Ali, Aga Shahid, Call Me Ishmael Tonight, (W.W. Norton, 2003).
  • Ali, Aga Shahid, “Basic Points about the Ghazal,” ,
  • Avachat, Abhay, “What Is a Ghazal?”, posted on
  • Bhullar, Harsangeet Kaur, “The Ghazal-Then and Now), appeared as “Ghazas; Alive and Well,” in LYNX VOL.XII: NO.2,1997
  • Chang, Tina, Kathwari, Rafiq and Shankar, Ravi, Eds., Poetry Feature, Asian American:
  • Ramamurthey, Uma, “Urdu Ghazal, an Introduction,”
  • Rich, Adrienne, The Fact of a Doorframe, W.W. Norton 2002.

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