When Sun Meets Moon

Gender, Eros, and Ecstasy in Urdu Poetry

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Scott Kugle
Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    The University of North Carolina Press
    , June
     2016.
     348 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781469626772.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The “Sun” of the book’s title, Shah Siraj Awrangabadi (1715–1763), died long before he could ever meet the “Moon,” Mah Laqa Bai Chanda (1768–1820).

In When Sun Meets Moon: Gender, Eros, and Ecstasy in Urdu Poetry, Scott Kugle has brought these 18th-century Urdu poets into a conjunction that their orbits never had in life. Choosing these two figures—the former a Sufi renunciate and the latter a courtesan—as subjects for an intellectual biography makes for a rich study of the cultural and religious milieu of the Deccan (south-central India) of the 18th century.

This was a time of political and aesthetic transformation, as the Deccan had been recently integrated into the Mughal Empire, the Empire was itself creaking under fiscal and factional pressures, and literature in Urdu was increasingly holding its own against the Persian that had been dominant in Indo-Islamic elite circles for half a millennium.

This book does many different things, most of them impressively. Kugle is an engaging storyteller and a talented translator of the Persian and Urdu poetry that sits at the center of the stories he is telling. In terms of academic disciplines, Kugle writes that he is working across “world literature,” “gender studies,” “sexuality studies,” and “Islamic Studies” (with a particular focus on Sufism and Shiism) as well as “South Asian history” (6). Dipping into these different fields means possibly not doing justice to all of them, and the book has a number of “state of the field” thumbnail sketches that are inherently problematic because of their ambition to cover so much in so few words.

A key inspiration for Kugle’s project is another highly interdisciplinary work, Walter G. Andrews and Mehmet Kalpaklı’s The Age of Beloveds (Duke University Press, 2004), a reexamination of Early-Modern Ottoman aesthetic culture. Age of Beloveds brings out “hidden emotional histories” (8), and like When Sun Meets Moon, it is a wide-ranging study of poetic aesthetics and sexuality and how these mapped onto lived experience.

The key thread in Kugle’s work is that literature is connected to religious life and social thought in ways that are not obvious to modern, Western (or westernized) readers. The book’s great strength is to reconnect these threads in a manner that is engaging, erudite, and experiential. The author leads us through an analysis of poetry as music, poetry as mysticism, and poetry as different kinds of social capital. Shah Siraj and Mah Laqa Bai were devout Muslims and therefore wrote poetry that should be interpreted within an Islamic framework. To modern readers that notion might seem strange given how outré Shah Siraj and Mah Laqa Bai appear to have been, but Kugle builds up a detailed account of the varied trajectories that performing Islam could take in the 18th-century Deccan. This is an important achievement.

As in Age of Beloveds, the method here involves reading poems as social documents. While this opens up interpretive possibilities, it requires us to be comfortable with ambiguity because the source material is ambiguous. The poetry in question, especially the mystical, lyrical form known as the ghazal, is, as Kugle warns us, “not a genre that lends itself to accurate representations of reality, let alone a chronological narrative” (78). The interpreter, in this case Kugle, must constantly accompany his reader because the texts cannot narrate themselves. One cannot think of a better guide through this particular material than Kugle, but as readers we lean heavily on his interpretations.

The method’s main drawback is that in reading literary texts sociohistorically, it is tempting to interpret a convention of the genre or a philosophical or sociological awareness on the part of the author as a specific autobiographical detail. We are accustomed to thinking of tropes as “false” and biographical details as “real” but this is a deceptive choice because literary fact is not historical fact.

To take one straightforward example, in thinking about Siraj’s “sexual orientation” after Siraj apparently renounced worldly sensuality, Kugle analyzes a ghazal of his which features a beloved who is implied to be a comely young man (90-91). Since this is an extremely common trope in the genre, it is hard to see anything in this particular poem that differentiates it from what (to use an anachronistic term) any “straight” contemporary of Siraj might have written. The tropes invoked may have had more personal meaning for Siraj but we can only guess. The reach for biographical specificity here somewhat obscures an important larger point about “spiritual masculinity” in the poetry, which is well taken (96). For premodern poetry like the ghazal, the conventions of genre are extremely important for interpretation. Kugle frequently flags this and overall provides a good description of the genre’s conventions, so it is a shame that a reader as sensitive as he is sometimes puts his thumb on the interpretative scale when filling out a biography demands it.

I have dwelled on a flaw in the analytical method not because it is egregious in Kugle’s study but because it afflicts all of us who work at the intersection of history and literature. Although there are interpretations that one can quibble over, the book largely delivers on its promise of offering insights into a number of important interwoven questions. The analysis of Sufi attitudes towards homosexuality, the history of Sufi orders (and Sunni-Shi‘i relations) in the Deccan, the reconstruction of the lives of Shah Siraj and Mah Laqa Bai on the basis of scanty sources, and the sustained analysis of a single ghazal in chapter 2 are highlights. Kugle has succeeded in writing a book that would be engaging for undergraduates and general readers while also unearthing material that will interest specialists.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Arthur Dudney is an Affiliated Researcher in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Scott Kugle, associate professor of South Asian and Islamic studies at Emory University, is author of Sufis and Saints' Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, and Sacred Power in Islam.

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