Muslims in medieval India composed poetry either in Persian or in the various Indic vernaculars, depending on their socioeconomic class and the literary traditions with which they identified.
Poetry in Persian was principally associated with the ashraf, the ruling class and aristocracy of Central Asian or Iranian origin, who governed many regions of the subcontinent from the tenth century onward. Although the ashraf occasionally used Turkish and Arabic, they espoused Persian as their principal literary language to maintain a distinct cultural and ethnic identity from the local population. Their use of Persian enabled them to participate in a wider international Turko-Persian culture that, at least until the eighteenth century, provided a shared cultural ethos between the ruling elites of a vast region that now comprises modern-day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia, and even Turkey. The cosmopolitan nature of this culture meant that literati in Indian cities such as Delhi, Lahore, and Bijapur shared the same literary traditions as their counterparts in Heart, Bukhara, and Isfahan. It also meant that poets and artists could move freely in search of royal patronage in any part of this cultural nexus. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Mughals enhanced the status of Persian when they declared it as the official language of their empire and used it to create a common literary ethos between heterogeneous religious and social groups. Thus, members of the Hindu administrative and ruling elite became enthusiastic participants in Persian literary culture, many of them becoming significant poets in the language.
As a result of this official patronage, during certain historical periods the total quantity of Persian literature produced in India greatly exceeded that produced in Iran proper. The vast corpus includes every major and minor Persian literary genre. Poetry was by far the most popular form of literary composition in Persian. Poets in medieval India utilized all major poetic forms, including the qasida (the panegyric extolling the virtues of a ruler or patron), the ghazal (the mystically tinged love lyric) and the masnawi (a ‘‘double-rhymed’’ epic form used particularly for narrating epics). The vast majority of Persian poets in India adhered strictly to poetic conventions as they relate to symbols and imagery as developed in Iran and
Central Asia. They composed naziras, poems imitating the classical models of renowned Persian authors, as a way of demonstrating their literary skills. From very early on, however, there developed a unique style of Indian Persian called sabk-i hindi (the Indian style), which incorporated Indian elements into the world of Persian literary culture. The Indian style began modestly with early poets such as Mas’ud Sa’d Salman (d. ca. 1131) and Amir Khusrau (d. 1325), reaching maturity in the seventeenth century.
The influence of Persian extended far beyond its use as a literary medium among the elite. Persian became such an important cultural element in medieval India that Persian vocabulary features prominently in all major North Indian languages. It also strongly influenced the poetic forms, idioms, and even the writing systems of several Indic languages, such as Urdu, Sindhi, Baluchi, Pashtu, and Panjabi. Indeed, the poetic symbolism of Urdu poetry and its nuances cannot be appreciated without a background in Persian.
Pioneering the use of Indian vernaculars for composing poetry were various Sufis, or mystics. While it may be too simplistic to conceive of them as missionaries who converted substantial portions of the local population to Islam, the evidence strongly suggests that it was Sufis, composing poetry in local languages, who were responsible for the widespread dissemination of ideas among the masses. The most significant characteristic of this poetry was its folk character, drawing on indigenous traditions of folk songs, as a way of communicating with audiences who did not understand Persian or Arabic. Poets freely adopted indigenous literary structures and forms from folk poetic traditions that were predominantly oral in character and meant to be sung or recited with musical accompaniment. Often, these folk poems were incorporated in popular Sufi rituals such as the sama’ and qawwali (concerts of mystical music). As this folk poetic tradition was closely tied to women’s traditions, Sufi poetry in the vernaculars extensively adopts forms and symbols of songs sung by women as they performed their daily household chores such as spinning, weaving, grinding grain, and singing lullabies. As Richard Eaton illustrates in his book Sufis of Bijapur, Sufi poets incorporated in these songs basic teachings of Islam by drawing parallels between various household activities and Islamic practice or doctrine. The constant humming of the spinning wheel was compared to the Sufi dhikr, or ritual repetition of the names of God, while the upright handle of the grindstone (chakki) reminded one of the letter alif for Allah; the axle recalls the importance of Prophet Muhammad as a pivot of faith and the grain that is being ground resembles the ego self which must be transformed.
Perhaps the most interesting Indian literary convention that Sufi poets incorporated into their poetry is representing the soul as the virahini, a woman who is longing for her beloved, who is symbolically God. Though the woman-soul symbol is rare in Persian and Arabic poetry, it is quite common in Indian literature. Its most renowned use is in Hindu devotional poetry addressed to Krishna to whom the gopis, or milkmaids, in particular Radha, express their longing for union. Muslim poets adapted this symbol to various Islamic theological frameworks, varying the identity of the Muslim virahini's beloved according to the context. In some cases the beloved could be God, or the Prophet Muhammad, or even the Sufi shaykh. In the ginans, the devotional poems of the subcontinent’s Khoja Ismaili communities, the virahini’s beloved could even be the Shi‘i Imam. Naturally, the genre of folk poetry would vary not only from one Muslim theological context to another but also from region to region. Thus, in the South Indian region of Tamilnadu, the pillaitamil (baby poem) which was usually addressed to a Hindu deity such as Krishna in his form as a baby, was adapted for singing the praises of the baby Prophet Muhammad.
Muslim writers in the vernaculars could also express their ideas through other literary devices. In areas of northern India, especially where Hindi dialects such as Awadhi, Braj, and Bhojpuri were spoken, they used the romantic epic as a vehicle to transmit mystical ideas. In this, they were probably inspired by the well-established Persian tradition in which romances such as Yusuf-Zulaykha are retold within a mystical framework. The use of Indian romances can be dated to 1379, when the Hindi poet Maulana Daud, disciple of a Chishti Sufi master, composed the Chandayan, in which he retells the romance between Lurak and Chanda as a mystical allegory. This epic was so famous that Badauni, the author of Muntakhab al-Tawarikh, records that a Muslim preacher used excerpts from Maulana Daud’s epic during his sermon in the mosque because of its great impact on listeners. A pioneering literary work, the Chandayan initiated a centuries-long tradition of Islamic mystical romances in various dialects of Hindi, including masterpieces such as Kutuban’s Mrigavati (composed in 1503), Malik Muhammad Jaisi’s Padmavat (composed in 1540), and Manjhan’s Madhumalati (composed in 1545).
Use of popular romances in communicating mystical ideas is also found outside the Hindi-speaking belt. In the late fourteenth century, Shah Muhammad Saghir composed in Bengali the epic of Yusuf and
Zulaykha, which was based partly on the Persian tradition. This was the first of many such Islamic poetic epics in Bengali. In the Punjab, poets not only composed such epics in Punjabi, but they also regularly alluded to legendary Punjabi lovers in other poetic genres. Such was also the case in Sind, where we find Qazi Qadan (d. 1551), an early poet, alluding to Sindhi romances in his compositions. This trend was continued by later poets, the technique being perfected in the eighteenth century in the poetry of the Shah Abdul Latif in whose skillful hands the heroines of the romances are transformed into symbols for the soul longing for union with God through suffering and death.
Aside from the major thematic emphasis on portraying the human-divine relationship as one of yearning love, Muslim poetry in the vernaculars is characterized by other overarching themes: the condemnation of intellectualism and bookish learning as a means of approaching God, the main targets of criticism being the religious scholars and jurists who claimed exclusive authority to interpret matters of faith; the uselessness of blindly performed rituals; the centrality of the Prophet Muhammad as a guide, friend, and intercessor for the faithful; and the importance of the pir as a source of mystical guidance and instruction. On account of his special relationship as a wali (friend of God), and as a representative of the Prophet Muhammad, the pir also possesses a special numinous power (barakah) that can help the devotee through all sorts of difficulties, worldly or spiritual. The most controversial aspect of this poetry, at least in the eyes of the conservatives, was its expression of ideas associated with the wahdat al-wujud (unity of existence) mystical philosophy, traditionally associated with the school of Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), the Arabo-Hispanic mystic. This mystical philosophy, which had far-reaching influence in many different Muslim literary traditions, was used in India by Sufi poets to stress the fundamental unity of all that may outwardly appear multiple or different. As a consequence, Muslim poets composed verses indicating that there was no difference between Hindu and Muslim, or Ram and Rahim, or Nimrud and Abraham. Naturally, conservatives were alarmed by these expressions, which they felt blurred the distinction between Creator and creation.