Is your ‘ghairat’ up?

Published: October 19, 2011
The writer is Director at the South Asian Media School in Lahore

The writer is Director at the South Asian Media School in Lahore [email protected]

Whenever we are challenged by the enemy (excluding Taliban and al Qaeda) we feel an upsurge of ghairat. These days, it is America which is arousing it. It is a magic word: the arousal it causes should lead to war.

Honour is a tribal characteristic. Feudal societies are also based on honour because of their strong tribal memory. Urbanised and literate societies don’t function on the basis of honour. Tribal Pathans and the Baloch often refer to the ‘dishonourable’ Punjabi because he is more urbanised.

Honour cannot exist without the condition of requital. When hurt is received to pride, it must be avenged. An ‘honourable’ person will never be a slave. He will be independent and will guard this independence by disagreeing, if agreeing threatens it.

Ghairat’ is the word which is used in honour killing in Pakistan, not ‘izzat’. Therefore, ‘ghairat’ is a special word. It can be linked to a just war, respect cannot. Why is honour killing a characteristic of the primitive?

Why are the educated without ‘ghairat’? What did the word actually mean when it began its rather strange journey?

Societies that develop towards commerce leave ‘ghairat’ behind because peace is the irreducible condition of commerce. One has to overlook matters of honour to secure one’s investment and trade routes.

Islam, like democracies of today, ordains fighting only defensively.

Ghair’ means ‘strange’ in Arabic. In a tribal society, an outsider could be a target of hatred. In many societies, ‘ghair’ is the ‘other’ that must be eliminated for the sake of survival. In Urdu ‘ghazal ghair’ is the rival in love: ‘the other man’.

This could obviously explain how ‘ghairat’ became the bogey word that leads to the killing of women by males that prize their honour in Pakistan. But what does etymology say?

We all know that in Arabic ‘taghayyur’ means ‘change’. Change is not compatible with honour and ‘ghairat’. A dishonourable person is the one who changes. A ‘ghairatmand’ person stands firm and opposes those who shift loyalties.

The Quran talks of ‘ghairat’ in totally different terms. It definitely does not sanction the kind of revenge-based tradition we are following in Pakistan. Tragically, the word has come from a physical function. The Quranic meaning is ‘adjustment’, the very opposite of revenge-killing.

The physical action it has come from is related not surprisingly to the camel. When a camel carries its load, its motion tends to make the division of the load on both sides of its back unequal. You have to correct the balance again and again. That is called ‘ghairat’!

Today, the term ‘bayghairat’ is the most insulting term you can apply to a person in Urdu. Strangely it has a subtext explaining a man’s inability to avenge his wife’s tendency to disloyalty. Pakistanis admire Iran for standing up to America; they call their own country ‘bayghairat’.

We use the word ‘ghairat’ for honour while it means something that is simply its opposite: changeability and adjustment and accommodation! Islam is more in favour of wisdom (‘hikmat’) than ‘ghairat’. ‘Hikmat’ denotes survival while ‘ghairat’ aspires to martyrdom.

English ‘revenge’ is from Latin ‘vindex’ which began by meaning ‘a claim’. This indicates that the beginning of the fight of honour was really a plaint which later got complicated and became vendetta, which is closer to the origin, ‘vindex’.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 20th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (26)

  • pj
    Oct 19, 2011 - 10:07PM

    Thank you sir for elucidating the meaning of such an important and overused word. Perhaps it will be very helpful if you do the same for other overused (or ‘abused’) words which are confusing people these days.


  • Timorov
    Oct 19, 2011 - 10:07PM

    Great piece Mr. Ahmed. You are spot on in that Islam does espouse “Hikmah” over the kind of vanity and pride associated with extreme “ghairat”. This sort of “ghairat” was the hallmark of the “jahilliyah” society in the Arabian peninsula (and of the Roman Empire incidentally).


  • Nate Gupta
    Oct 19, 2011 - 10:24PM


    Did I read correctly – Pakistanis admire Iran for standing up to America? Isn’t Iran a Shia majority country and thus, not pure? Another case of hypocrisy?


  • Mohammed Bilal Khan
    Oct 19, 2011 - 10:26PM

    Great article.

    I will pick Hikmat over Ghairat anyday.


  • usman
    Oct 19, 2011 - 10:33PM

    very convincingly put forward. i started taking etymology seriously after reading your articles on the origin of words. Planning to buy your word for word.


  • kashif manzoor
    Oct 19, 2011 - 11:24PM

    liberals have nothing else to do but gimmicks. keep it up manRecommend

  • Safir,,
    Oct 19, 2011 - 11:25PM

    Mr Khalid,
    So wher can we implement “ghairat” against india only where we know peoples are
    protien less and against america we use “hikmah” because we know the teeth sorry
    thats my little humble opinion.


  • Salahuddin
    Oct 20, 2011 - 12:32AM

    Khalid sb- Thanks for educating us. God bless you, sir. I hope for the day, when “Ghairat Brigade” will listen to logic and “hikmah”.


  • Deb
    Oct 20, 2011 - 12:53AM

    @kashif manzoor

    Please keep quiet when you have nothing to offer but frivolity.


  • faraz
    Oct 20, 2011 - 1:07AM

    And in case of Pakistan, constant beggary does not hurt our ghairat


  • Oct 20, 2011 - 6:51AM

    This is yet another example of the variation in how “Islam” is observed. While the author claims that Islam allows Muslims the luxury to adapt to the changing times, many Muslims claim that it’s a strict, timeless system that must be followed word-by-word no matter what.

    You would call a suicide-bomber “kafir”, while he would call you the same for not carrying out your Islamic duties.

    At the end none of these interpretations are wrong, but none are right either. Because religion after all is a matter of personal faith, not objective evidence, which makes it incredibly easy for people to lose themselves in their own versions of it.


  • rehmat
    Oct 20, 2011 - 10:25AM

    Since ghairat is discussed in great detail. Just wanted to people to see this wonderful song by the Beghairat Brigade which was uploaded yto the Youtube about 3 days back. . In 3 minutes flat they sum the social, economic, political and religious issues in Pakistan today.

    The song has gone viral and most people on this forum may have already heard it – but just in case you all haven’t.


  • Oct 20, 2011 - 11:19AM

    This is one of the articles I read sipping my tea enjoyably. I assume as everyone does, Pakistanis, the Tribal Pakistanis, are included in the reactionary systems. Those who oppose any transformation and entitle the change dark sin. I thank you for putting this word in such an amazingly written article. At least a few could get the picture.


  • KM
    Oct 20, 2011 - 12:34PM

    This is the first time that I have ever heard someone discussing such a huge issue we often dont even realize. The power of such boogey words is underestimated in our society, this one word has been the cause of oppression on women in Pakistan. This magical word justifies oppression such as women. A little hurt to the word and the man demonstrates unjust behaviours of gigantic proportions such as honour killing. Domestic violence, double-standards and patriarchy depends on this word because a man must protect his ‘ghaiyrat’.
    Countries around the word cause movements to change the use of a word that implicates a negative suggestion or encourages certain type of unwanted behaviour. For example, the use of the word ‘gay’ has been encouraged to queer. Or rather:
    ”In Canada, the system now known as Employment Insurance was formerly called Unemployment Insurance. The name was changed in 1996, in order to alleviate perceived negative connotations.”
    The list goes on and on. We should pay more attention towards this issue.


  • Mast Qalandar
    Oct 20, 2011 - 1:06PM

    Going by the prevailing meaning of “ghairat” in Pakistan today, the Taliban (by whatever name called) are the people with most “ghairat” at present; however “ghair” they may actually be going by the etymology described by Mr Khaled Ahmed.

    May be some right thinking citizens should send General Shuja Pasha and General Kiyani CDs of the old Sahir song (sung by Lata) from the film “Aankhen”

    “Ghairon pe karam, apnon pe sitam
    ai jaane-wafa yeh zulm na kar…
    …yeh zulm na kar…”


  • Nadir Chaudhri
    Oct 20, 2011 - 1:07PM

    Khalid sahib, I claim to relate to your philosophy and intellect in more depth than most. In fact you could say I am an ardent student of ‘Khalidism’. If education and urbanity or other such factors alone distance one from the ‘primitive’ instinct of ghairat, how are instances of ghairat explained when they occur in the educated and urbane western societies? In the UK where I live an overwhelmning majority of people believe that Princess Diana was assassinated for honour. In other words it was an honour killing. The chilling aspect of their belief is their acceptability of the deed since it was bound to happen and “she was asking for it”. I could give countless examples of ghairat based decisions and events here in the West by individuals, masses and states. Hitler’s whole rise was based on ghairat in a nation so blessed with intellect. George W’s entire discourse was ghairat based. I would be grateful for some clarity on this.


  • R.A
    Oct 20, 2011 - 2:28PM

    Look down and start with yourself
    Give a deep thaught , then
    I am sure you will not find anyone
    to use you GHAIRAT on.

  • Aristo
    Oct 20, 2011 - 4:01PM

    99% of the people who misuse this term will never get to read your explanation of the term. This article must be translated into URDU and other regional languages and published where the ghairat brigade can actually get to read it.


  • Som
    Oct 20, 2011 - 5:22PM

    Please also write on the etymology of BEGGARIAT and its use by Pakistan.


  • Ali Tanoli,
    Oct 20, 2011 - 6:23PM

    Is there any country have ‘gharat’ in this world of “intrest” is america gharat mond or
    may just one country have this animal and it is afghanistan that we saw ten eleven years


  • Balma
    Oct 20, 2011 - 6:36PM

    Son of Timur,
    I may not ahve occured to you that this publication, while American owned, is still published in Pakistan. So, the correct Urdu pronounciation would be ‘jahiliyat’ and ‘hikmat’.Recommend

  • Oct 20, 2011 - 9:06PM

    This wonderful analysis is akin to a dissection of our human SOUL. It needs to be pondered uponand studied deeply——–“until I know my own ignorance—–it is fruitless to carry opinions’. Also recommend , as another reader here has suggested—– to translate—-extremely carefully—- into pastu, balochi, bangla, hindi , panjabi , urdu, chinese–mandarin as well as Cantonese, turki, arabic and french, german, russian, spanish and italian –not forgetting danish, finnish and esperanto. In short—Khalid’s conception of these WORDS ought to become “VIRAL” ASAP.


  • Talat Haque
    Oct 20, 2011 - 9:31PM

    Lets have a “Hikmat” brigade ! to counter the “ghairat” one !!!


  • Oct 21, 2011 - 1:10AM

    Hikmat tells, “There’s nothing like a free dinner” and that calls for gairat.
    (gairat= 1)confidence/pride in self, 2)self-reliance, 3)self-esteem. BTW, if there’s an urdu word for this triad, do let us know, will replace it with gairat!)


  • Oct 21, 2011 - 1:16AM

    Hikmat about ghairat:

    “Great champions have an enormous sense of pride/ghairat/honor. The people who excel are those who are driven to show the world and prove to themselves just how good they are.”


  • Muslim shah
    Oct 21, 2011 - 12:27PM

    excellent article as usual


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