A couple of years ago, a Bollywood movie called Dil Se epitomized the idea of seven stages of love. These seven stages have been variously attributed to Arabic literature and/or Sufi philosophy. My research could not find anything to validate the roots of this stages in Arabic literature, and I can confirm that these stages have not been taken from Sufi philosophy, because the Sufi stages of love are far more complex, both philosophically and spiritually. Someday, I’d do a series on the real Sufi stages of love.
This piece however is about the seven stages of love that pop culture presented to us. In all probability they are a derivative from some existing source, or maybe they’re just a spiritual lightning that struck the writer’s room for this movie. Either way, they’re fascinating.
So the seven stages of love, according to some unnamed sources and at least two Bollywood movies are:
Ishq Par Zor Nahin, Hai Ye Wo Aatish ‘Ghalib’
Jo Lagaye Na Lage Aur Bujhaye Na Bujhe
— Mirza Ghalib
Love is a force beyond all control, a fire, O Ghalib
That can neither be ignited nor extinguished at will
If Urdu’s entire existence, its very essence were to reduced into a single word, that word would probably be Ishq.
Not just because Ishq is without doubt the most used and abused word in the entire Urdu dictionary, not just within the traditions of Bollywood’s version of love and love songs, but in every poetic, cultural and artistic tradition that has ever sought inspiration from or refuge in Urdu.
Ishq. Literally translated, it means love. But love has nothing on the intensity and madness and poetic depth of Ishq. Just say word out aloud, and you will hear the resonance its resonance in your heart. Ishq is love at its finest, both in terms of aesthetics and impact.
Without Ishq there would be no Ghazals, those beautiful poetic gems that continue to remain the gateway drug for every potential Urdu fanatic. Without Ishq there is no Shayari (Meaning: Urdu poetry). Without Ishq there are no poems, no stories, no art both within and without the realm of Urdu.
Ishq is where all art is born. Ishq is where all art goes to die.
Ishq Jab Tak Na Kar Chuke Rusva
Aadmi Kaam Ka Nahin Hota
— Jigar Moradabadi
Until Love ruins a man,
A man is worth nothing
Ishq is the purest manifestation of all human emotions, it is the peak, the ultimate high, the essence of our emotional core.
No wonder, poets blame Ishq for the creation of this Universe. And for the destruction of it as well.
A reader messaged me on Facebook with a very pertinent question. If these are seven stages of Love or Ishq, then how come Ishq or Love happens to be one of the stages as well?
Koi Samjhe To Ek Baat Kahun
Ishq Taufiq Hai Gunah Nahin
— Firaq Gorakhpuri
If someone would pay heed, then I’d tell them this
Love is a divine blessing, not a crime
Ishq is a complicated beast, a panoramic dream, a multi-layered reality. And the dichotomy of Ishq being a stage in its own seven stages is a reflection of this very reality.
Ishq is momentous. Ishq is also momentary. And in that paradox lies the complexity of Ishq.
When Ishq is momentary, an intense, life changing moment in time, it is a stage of love. One of the seven stages that together constitute the momentous, all encompassing idea of Ishq.
When Ishq is transient, it is a stage. When it traverses the seven stages and achieves its highest zenith, it becomes the Ishq that is divine, spiritual, intangible and beyond all material and human bonds.
The seven stages of love are a progression, like a multi level game where every stage brings you closer to the idea of the Divine. But then, Ishq is also an emotion, the most powerful impulse that humans are capable of and in the journey of the divine, that stage, that impulse are fundamental to push us forward.
Essentially, Ishq as an idea exists at two levels. One is transient, while the other is eternal. The eternal encompasses the seven stages and beyond, while the transient is just another stage, a truck stop. And whether it becomes a truck stop for us on the way to the divine, or just another story of heartache (or heartbreak), depends on us and our own individual journeys.
This transient Ishq is what the narrative of love in popular culture and our lives in general centers around. When we talk about love or Ishq, we are usually referring to the transient version of the idea, simply because it is the version that is most common, and easily accessible. Most of us, whether personally or via second hand narratives, have experienced this version of Ishq. Most of us at some level are aware of what it feels like to be in the throes of Ishq, what it feels like to be in love with someone and pine for the beloved.
Ishq Nazuk-Mizaj Hai Behad
Aql Ka Bojh Utha Nahin Sakta
— Akbar Allahabadi
Love has a delicate disposition
It cannot bear the burden of logic
Such is the power of Ishq, that even at its transient best, it is still force to reckon with, a force that is often life altering (or destroying depending on who you ask), a force that is like an earthquake whose tremors continue to rock your life long after the event.
Ishq as a transient force is as destructive as it can be divine. It is powerful in its presence, and is absolutely formidable in its absence.No wonder, poets in almost every cultural and linguistic tradition have held the idea of Ishq culpable, holding it responsible for destroying hearts and humans and sometimes entire worlds. Tragedies in love are an inalienable part of fiction and life because when Ishq burns, it sets everything in vicinity on fire.
Transient Ishq has its charm, a magical, magnetic pull that is irresistible and incomprehensible. We all may have experienced this Ishq, but none of us really understand it. Perhaps because it is beyond human cognition. And those poems and stories and songs and literature traversing centuries and civilizations that continue to be obsessed with the idea of Ishq are merely a reflection of humanity’s never ending struggle to make sense of this maddening force of the Universe.
The fact is Ishq cannot be understood. Or rationalized. Or reasoned with. Ishq can only be lived and felt and exprienced.
Transient Ishq, formidable as it is, is still merely a shadow. A shadow of the larger force of which it is merely a meager chunk.
The larger force that Ishq in its truest, most divine, all encompassing form. Ishq that is a sum of its parts, the seven stages and yet is so much more. Ishq that is all encompassing of the humanity, the Universe, the Divine and beyond.
This Ishq is the Ishq that lies at the heart of the Sufi traditions. The Ishq that is the zenith of all human experiences, the very embodiment of the Divine. The Ishq that seeks nothing, expects nothing, demands nothing, wants nothing.
The Ishq that just is.
Whether we realize it or not, the humanity’s general obsession with the idea of Ishq is merely an unconscious or rather a subconscious pursuit of a goal that is much higher and deeper. It is an involuntary expression of our response to the call of our soul and the soul of the Universe — the soul that aspires for, craves for the Ishq in its highest form.
Sufi traditions are borne out of the idea of Ishq. They not only deem Ishq as Bandagi (meaning : Devotion/Prayer) but in fact they deem Ishq as the ultimate manifestation of God. It is a complex spiritual idea, but essentially what it means is that losing oneself to Ishq or pure devotion, the object of the said Ishq or devotion notwithstanding, is in itself a straight path to the spiritual zenith in every sense of that word. It is a stage where the form, the subject and the act merge into each other and lose meaning. Crudely put, it is a state where there is no difference between the prayer and the God, but where the act of prayer is in itself God.
It is a state where neither prayer nor God have any meaning. It is the purest state of being, an existential high that is beyond ordinary mortal’s reach. We can only aspire to get as close to that ideal spiritual zenith as possible, and Ishq is the shortest if not the easiest, and the perhaps our only path there.
Ishq in these divine terms is independent of object. And so your Ishq for a beloved is much a potential path to Divine as your Ishq for your work or art, or anything or anyone else that you may choose to bestow your Ishq on. However, material world and its various facets, be it a human beloved or a passion for one’s work or art, may often be too limited and insufficient and bogged down by their own worldly flaws and limitations to contain a force as massive and momentous as the Ishq in its divine form. It is not impossible, but it would be difficult.
It is perhaps for this very reason that the Sufi traditions choose to focus their Ishq on their God or the Higher Consciousness of the Universe. They call their God their beloved and through their Ishq for this beloved they trace their spiritual journeys. And because this Higher Consciousness is all pervasive, the object of their Ishq also becomes pervasive and all encompassing, essentially creating an existence that is not only deeply spiritual but also soaked in universal love, compassion and empathy for everyone within their circle and beyond.
Esoteric and radical as it may sound, this is a beautiful concept that actually focuses on channelizing a force as powerful as Ishq and using it as spiritual tool to achieve a higher state of being, or at least a happier, more fulfilling existence. After all, Ishq is an inescapable force. But to give it a free rein is to surrender our control to the whim of its transience. Sufi traditions offer us an idea and tools through which we can channelize the force of Ishq for our own spiritual and general fulfillment.
Ultimately, ideal spiritual zenith maybe just that, an ideal. But it is an ideal worth aspiring for in the sense the closer we get to it, the better the quality of our life and general existence becomes. Spirituality is not a dream reserved for Dervesh and ascetics. It is out there, up for grabs for anyone who is willing to give it a try. Achieving the zenith may be far fetched, but then achieving it may not be the point after all. And that is exactly what the idea of Ishq within the spiritual realm stands to remind us.
It doesn’t matter if our Ishq leads us to that zenith or not; it doesn’t matter whether our Ishq happens to be for our God or our beloved or our family or our work or our art.
What matters is that we lose ourselves to the spiritual depths of our Ishq and let it define our lives, our very being. More often than not, that alone is enough.
Ishq Mein Bhi Koi Anjam Hua Karta Hai
Ishq Mein Yaad Hai Aġhaaz Hi Aghaaz Mujhe
— Zia Jalandhari
Are there any consequences in love, any endings?
As far as I remember, there are only beginnings, and beginnings in love
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