Restrained by faith, called by Disbelief: Postcolonial Resonances in Mirza Ghalib’s Verse

Mirza Ghalib

Imān  mujhe  roke  hai  jo  kheenchay  hai  mujhe  kufr
Kaʿbah  mere  pīchhe  hai  kalīsā  mere  āge

Faith restrains me, yet disbelief calls;
The Kaaba is at my back, the church before me.

Mirza Ghalib

In the context of postcolonial theory, Ghalib’s couplet resonates powerfully with several key concepts. One is the notion of “hybridity,” prominently theorized by Homi K. Bhabha. Hybridity refers to the blending of cultures that occurs in colonial and postcolonial settings, resulting in new, mixed identities that are neither wholly indigenous nor entirely Western. Ghalib’s speaker embodies this hybridity: positioned between the Kaaba and the church, he is a product of both Islamic and Christian influences, unable to fully belong to either world.

This state of in-betweenness is another crucial theme in postcolonial studies. Theorists like Edward Said have shown how colonialism creates ambivalent subjects who feel alienated from both their native culture and the dominant colonial culture. In Ghalib’s verse, the speaker’s positioning—back to one faith, face to another—perfectly captures this sense of dislocation. He is in a liminal space, a threshold between two worlds, experiencing what postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak might call a “catachresis”—a misplacement or dislocation in the order of metaphors.

The couplet also speaks to the concept of “mimicry” in postcolonial theory. Developed by Bhabha, mimicry describes the process by which colonized people adopt the colonizer’s cultural habits, assumptions, institutions, and values, but in a way that is never quite perfect, resulting in a “blurred copy” of the colonizer. In Ghalib’s imagery, facing the church suggests a form of mimicry—an attempt to align with Western values or Christianity. Yet the very acknowledgment of the Kaaba’s presence implies that this alignment is incomplete, disrupted by the persistent pull of the poet’s Islamic heritage.

Moreover, Ghalib’s verse illustrates the psychological effects of what Frantz Fanon termed “cultural alienation.” In his seminal work “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952), Fanon explored how colonialism induces a sense of inferiority in the colonized, leading them to devalue their own culture and aspire to the colonizer’s way of life. The speaker’s orientation away from the Kaaba and towards the church could be read as a manifestation of this alienation—a subconscious turning away from his own traditions, deemed backward, toward the ostensibly advanced culture of the colonizer.

However, the couplet’s structure suggests that this alienation is not complete. The balanced juxtaposition of Kaaba and church, each granted equal weight in the verse, implies a kind of equilibrium. This balance reflects what postcolonial theorist Bill Ashcroft calls “interpolation”—the ability of postcolonial subjects to interpose their own cultural codes into dominant discourses, thereby asserting their agency. Even as the speaker faces the church, the Kaaba’s presence in his consciousness signifies a refusal to be wholly subsumed by colonial ideology.

The internal conflict expressed in Ghalib’s lines also echoes the concept of “double consciousness,” originally formulated by W.E.B. Du Bois in relation to African American experience but later applied to colonial contexts. Double consciousness refers to the psychological tension of having to see oneself through the eyes of another, dominant culture. In the couplet, the push-pull between faith and disbelief, between Kaaba and church, reflects this divided consciousness—the struggle to reconcile one’s self-perception with the image imposed by colonial discourse.

Furthermore, Ghalib’s verse can be seen as an early expression of what Edward Said later termed “contrapuntal awareness.” In his book “Culture and Imperialism” (1993), Said argues that experiences of empire create a kind of double perspective, allowing individuals to see things in terms of both their local context and the larger, global context shaped by imperialism. Ghalib’s speaker, poised between Islamic and Christian symbols, embodies this contrapuntal vision—a heightened awareness of how his personal spiritual dilemma is entangled with broader cultural and political currents.

It’s important to note that while Ghalib lived under colonial rule, he predates the formal articulation of postcolonial theory by over a century. His poetry does not explicitly engage with political resistance or anti-colonial nationalism—themes that would become prominent in later Indian literature. Instead, his work reflects the more subtle, interior effects of cultural encounter and domination. This introspective quality makes his verse particularly valuable for postcolonial analysis, as it captures the psychological and spiritual dimensions of colonialism often overshadowed by more overt political struggles.

In fact, the ambiguity of Ghalib’s language—his refusal to resolve the tension between faith and disbelief, Kaaba and church—can itself be read as a form of resistance. As Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin argue in “The Empire Writes Back” (1989), ambiguity in postcolonial literature often serves to subvert the binaries (civilized/savage, modern/traditional) that underpin colonial discourse. By presenting his spiritual crisis without clear resolution, Ghalib resists any simplistic categorization, asserting the complexity of the colonized subject’s inner life.

This complexity is further enriched by considering the specific religious symbols Ghalib employs. In colonial India, Islam occupied an ambivalent position. While it was the faith of the declining Mughal rulers, it was also, like Hinduism, subjugated to British Christian hegemony. Yet Islam’s global reach and its history of empires (Ottoman, Safavid, Mughal) complicated its status, making it both a local tradition and a transnational force. The Kaaba, as Islam’s universal center, evokes this dual identity—rooting the speaker in Indian Muslim culture while also connecting him to a wider Islamic world beyond British control.

Similarly, the church in Ghalib’s verse is not just a Western imposition but a site of active engagement. Throughout the colonial period, many Indians interacted critically with Christianity, some converting, others synthesizing Christian ideas with Hindu or Islamic thought, and some using Christian concepts to reform their own traditions. The church’s frontal position in the couplet suggests this dynamic interaction—not passive acceptance but a confrontation that could lead to rejection, adaptation, or creative reinterpretation.

In this light, Ghalib’s couplet can be seen as foreshadowing what postcolonial theorist Mary Louise Pratt calls “transculturation”—the process by which subordinated groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant culture. The speaker’s hesitation between Kaaba and church hints at the possibility of such creative synthesis, a hallmark of many postcolonial societies where indigenous and Western elements combine in unexpected ways.

As we move further into the postcolonial era, Ghalib’s verse takes on new resonances. In today’s globalized world, where cultures increasingly interpenetrate, many individuals find themselves in positions analogous to Ghalib’s speaker—caught between traditional affiliations and the appeal of other worldviews. This is particularly true for diaspora communities and in nations still grappling with the long-term effects of colonialism. For them, the question “Which way do I face?” is not merely poetic but deeply personal and political.

Moreover, in an age where religious identities are often mobilized for political ends—sometimes in reaction to perceived Western domination—Ghalib’s nuanced portrayal of spiritual doubt feels strikingly contemporary. His verse reminds us that beneath the surface of seemingly rigid religious or cultural allegiances, there may be profound uncertainties, hybridities, and possibilities for change. This insight is crucial in postcolonial nations where the quest for authentic, precolonial identities can sometimes lead to oversimplified, even fundamentalist, assertions of tradition.

In conclusion, Mirza Ghalib’s couplet “Faith restrains me, yet disbelief calls. / The Kaaba is at my back, the church before me” stands as a remarkably prescient text for postcolonial theory. Through its concise yet multi-layered imagery, the verse encapsulates key postcolonial concepts: hybridity, mimicry, cultural alienation, double consciousness, and the subversive power of ambiguity. It vividly portrays the psychological state of individuals caught between cultures, faiths, and value systems in the colonial encounter.

Yet Ghalib’s contribution goes beyond merely illustrating theoretical constructs. His poetry reminds us that the effects of colonialism were not just political or economic but profoundly personal, involving crises of faith, identity, and belonging. It shows that long before scholars formalized postcolonial theory, colonized subjects were already grappling with its central issues in deeply introspective ways.

Furthermore, by leaving his spiritual dilemma unresolved, Ghalib points toward the open-endedness of the postcolonial condition. There is no simple return to a pure precolonial past, nor is there complete assimilation into Western modernity. Instead, there is an ongoing negotiation, a perpetual balancing act between old and new, familiar and foreign. In this sense, Ghalib’s verse not only reflects the colonial past but also anticipates our contemporary global reality—a world where many people, like his conflicted speaker, must continually navigate between diverse cultural forces, seeking coherence in the face of multiplicity.


Subzar Ahmad works as Lecturer urdu in the department of school education Jammu & Kashmir. He can be contacted via email at [email protected]

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