The ghazal is a short poem consisting of rhyming couplets, called Sher or Bayt. Most ghazals have between seven and twelve shers. For a poem to be considered a true ghazal, it must have no fewer than five couplets. Almost all ghazals confine themselves to less than fifteen couplets (poems that exceed this length are more accurately considered as qasidas). Ghazal couplets end with the same rhyming pattern and are expected to have the same meter. The ghazal’s uniqueness arises from its rhyme and refrain rules, referred to as the ‘qaafiyaa’ and ‘radif’ respectively. A ghazal’s rhyming pattern may be described as AA, BA, CA, DA, … and so on.
In its strictest form, a ghazal must follow five rules:
Matlaa: The first sher in a ghazal is called the ‘matlaa’. Both lines of the matla must contain the qaafiyaa and radif. The matlaa sets the tone of the ghazal, as well as its rhyming and refrain pattern. .
Radif/Radeef: The refrain word or phrase. Both lines of the matlaa and the second lines of all subsequent shers must end in the same refrain word called the radif.
Qaafiyaa: The rhyming pattern. The radif is immediately preceded by words or phrases with the same end rhyme pattern, called the qaafiyaa.
Maqtaa/Maktaa: The last couplet of the ghazal is called the maqtaa. It is common in ghazals for the poet’s nom de plume, known as takhallus to be featured in the maqtaa. The maqtaa is typically more personal than the other couplets in a ghazal. The creativity with which a poet incorporates homonymous meanings of their takhallus to offer additional layers of meaning to the couplet is an indicator of their skill.
Bah’r/Beher: Each line of a ghazal must follow the same metrical pattern and syllabic (or morae) count.
Unlike in a nazm, a ghazal’s couplets do not need a common theme or continuity. Each sher is self-contained and independent from the others, containing the complete expression of an idea. However, the shers all contain a thematic or tonal connection to each other, which may be highly allusive. A near-universal convention (although not a hard rule) that traces its history to the origins of the ghazal form is that the poem is addressed to a female beloved by a male narrator.