‘Ramzan’ Or ‘Ramadan’? A Look Into The Cultural Chauvinism Among North Indian Muslims

Posted on July 23, 2014 in Specials, Staff Picks

By Mahtab Alam:

This year, a week before the month of Muslim/Islamic fasting started, social media was abuzz with a debate about how to actually pronounce, spell, and write the name of the month. Is one supposed to call it Ramadan, or is Ramzan the proper term? The debate was so fierce that a few non-Muslim friends emailed and called up enquiring about this. My answer was simple – there is nothing wrong and right about it. Keep pronouncing, spelling, and writing, the way you used to. People of different geographies do it differently.

Ramzan

Many believe, though, that this isn’t just a matter of spelling or pronouncing, as Irena Akbar of Indian Express in her latest column notes: “How can someone living in India, and being Indian, ever say “Ramadan”? That was a point raised by one Facebook friend (not real-life friend), when she posted, “Aap sabhi ko Ramadhan, Ramadan nahi – sirf saada, sachcha, hindustani ‘Ramzan Mubarak’!” (Wish you all not Ramadan, but only simple, true Indian Ramzan Mubarak’). She later even suggested that those who prefer “d” over “z” are followers of “Saudi Islam”, and that choosing “Ramadan” over “Ramzan” is not just a spelling preference but a “political decision” of favouring Arabs over Persians!

On a similar note, Rana Safvi in her blog, The Journey from Ramzan to Ramadan writes, “From childhood, I have heard people using the word Ramzan and keeping rozas. Of late it has become Ramadan. The object of my blog is to trace how this happened and whether we can still use Ramzan.” After explaining a bit about origin and context of the Islamic month of fasting, she goes on to ask, “Why on earth would we wish someone in a foreign language? (English /Urdu /Hindi are now our mother tongues but Arabic is not).” She does not stop there, but goes on to conclude, “This is nothing but the hardening of religious stances syndrome. It is this syndrome which says that saying ‘Khuda hafiz’ is wrong, it should be ‘Allah hafiz’. We try to bring God down to our own narrow, petty level. Will HE not protect me if I call him Khuda, instead of Allah? Will he not accept my ‘rozas’ kept in the month of ‘Ramzan’ as opposed to those who keep ‘sawm’ in Ramadan’?”

Another writer, this time from the other side of the border, Pakistan, Mina Malik Hussain in The Nation, writes, “When we were small, there was a month and it used to be called Ramzan. It was Ramzan on television, it was Ramzan in the newspaper with the sehr-o-iftar timings…And then, insidiously, The Arabs crept up on us…Ramzan became Ramadan. Nobody knew exactly how it happened…”

Now the question is – is it so simple? Are there no socio-economic and cultural aspects to it? Why should only Arabic be considered a foreign language — and why should only ‘English /Urdu /Hindi’ be considered mother tongue of Indian Muslims, as Rana Safvi suggests? And whose mother tongue? I am not sure if I can claim that my mother tongue is Urdu, Hindi or Maithili. The way I speak at home will not fit in any of these languages. For the sake of immediate identity politics, I might say Urdu/Hindi/Maithili is my mother tongue. But the fact of the matter is that a puritan would baulk hearing me speak any of these languages.

Forget about English, Arabic and Persian, what about Bangla, Assamese, Malayalam, Tamil and other languages, which are spoken by most Muslims across India as their mother tongue? Why do the cultural elite Muslims of North India always insist that ‘Urdu should be spoken in the Urdu way’? And why are those who can’t pronounce Urdu ‘properly’ always ridiculed and often seen as a lesser Muslim or lesser Civilized?

Let me explain this in Mina Malik Hussain’s style.

“When I was small, there was a month and it used to be called Ramjan (not Ramzan). It was Ramjan on television, it was Ramjan in the newspaper with the Sehri aur Aftar (not Sehr-o-iftar) timings and to wish anyone, it would have been Ramjan Mobarak (not Ramzan Mubarik). And then, when I moved to Delhi from a small town of Bihar (at the age of 14) the Culture wallahs and wallihs started insisting — rather ridiculing: ‘you don’t even know how to pronounce things properly. It’s Ramzan not Ramjan, you Biharis!”

It wasn’t and is not limited to Biharis only; most of the Muslims from Bengal, Assam, North-East, or for that matter, a large number of people from eastern UP don’t pronounce and write it Ramazan but as Ramojan, Rumjan and Ramjan, etc. One can also include Bangladesh in this this list. In fact, you will find people from these geographies spelling their name as Ramjan Ali, Romjan Ali and Rumjan Ali, etc instead of Ramzan Ali.

Let me also confess that I started using Khuda Hafiz to say good bye only after coming to Delhi. Even today, most of the ordinary Muslims in my home town don’t say anything while bidding good bye, forget about Allah Hafiz. “You must be from some remote part of North India, which is still far from civilization,” one can argue. True, I am. And I don’t mind being ‘Uncultured’ and ‘lesser Civilized.’ But so are most of Indian Muslims.

According to the latest census (2011), a high percentage of Muslims in India don’t live in the so-called Urdu/Hindi ‘speaking’ states like UP and Bihar but in Assam (30.9%), West Bengal (25.2%) and Kerala (24.7%). And because they primarily don’t speak Urdu, they are considered as lesser Muslims. If I am wrong, please tell me why the Muslims don’t have non-Urdu speaking ‘National Muslim leaders’ from these states? Are they not competent enough? Why are they forced to learn and speak Urdu? Is it not true that we will only accept G M Banatwa (a Guajarati, Muslim League, Kerala), Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait (a Cutchi Memon from Mysore, Muslim League, Kerala) and Badruddin Ajmal (an Assamese, graduated from Darul Uloom Deoband) and others because they were/are as fluent in Urdu as North Indian Muslim are? Is not it also a form of cultural chauvinism?

In her article, Mina Malik Hussain claims, “… as a nation we were still fairly open-minded about this, so we fasted year after year and didn’t really pay attention to the semantics of it…Because here in multi-religious, multi-cultural and secular Pakistan there was actual leeway where one would wonder who exactly Khuda is, and perhaps not want to be entrusted to a pagan god. Some people resisted, and continue to resist Allah hafiz and keep saying khuda-hafiz with the logic and hope…”

I have only one question to the writer: How did the Bengali Language Movement start in (east) Pakistan, resulting ultimately in the partition of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh. Was there no role played by the proponents of Urdu Nationalism and Cultural Muslims? Was it also a project of the Saudis/Arabs, insidiously destroying ‘multi-religious, multi-cultural and secular Pakistan’?

I know this is an endless and complex debate. One can go on and on. Hence, my submission would be, let’s not over-simplify it as most of the people are doing right now. Irena Akbar, towards the end of her article rightly suggests that “Let’s not, in an attempt to prove our patriotism and secularism, run down the Arabs and Indian Muslims who prefer Arabic over Persian, or who don’t visit Sufi shrines. If ‘Indian Islam’ followers think their anti-Arab, pro-Sufi stance makes them more secular and patriotic in the eyes of non-Muslim Indians, they are wrong.” Because, there is no Indian and South Asian way of doing it. Insistence on one is as hegemonic as the other one. At the end of the day, what matters is intention and Rana Safvi is absolutely right when she says, Dil se jo baat nikalti hai asar rakhti hai.

And before a debate breaks out about the correctness of whether its Eid or Id, Eid-ul Fitr or Id-ul-Adha, let me wish you Mubarak in advance, whichever way you wish to spell it.

Mahtab Alam consider himself a Muslim without any suffix and prefix. He blogs at http://mahtabnama.wordpress.com/ and Tweets at @MahtabNama

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