By Zehra Kazmi:
If we turn the pages of history, we can see how language has led to wars. It remains one of the most potent tools of influence in the world that shapes our society in myriad ways. Urdu was born in the region I hail from –Awadh, and it has held a special place in my heart. I am far from a fluent speaker of the language, but I make an effort to work on it and reach a level of proficiency that I can be confident of someday. It has been established that Urdu’s popularity is on the decline, a slow death that has been lamented by many including the Vice President of India.
Most Indians of the subcontinent have started preferring the Arabic Ramadaan over the usual Urdu/Farsi Ramzan. Mubarak has become Mabrouk or Kareem. A huge criticism of this debate has been that it is unnecessary, but I think that is a very shallow view of the entire issue. The words we choose to describe ourselves or our situation are of utmost importance. They reflect in which context we choose to place ourselves. Trust a Literature student to know that. To develop perspective, we must first understand what Arab cultural hegemony is in Islamic culture.
After World War I, the Sauds, followers of an extremist interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism, captured much of the Arabian Peninsula including the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The great Arab empires had never ruled from Mecca or Medina, the power centre was always Syria or Iraq. As soon as huge fountains of oil were found sprouting in this patch of desert, fortunes changed and the tables turned. The relevance of the cultural practices of Arab Muslims suddenly increased manifold because now Arabia was the playground of the West-seat of money and power. The Arabian Peninsula, despite its many great cultural achievements, is presently associated with a certain kind of interpretation of Islam called Salafism. Organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda derive their inspiration from Salafism. Of course, I don’t mean to insinuate that all Arabs are Salafists, but the changes in Arab geopolitics and the recent obsession of non-Arabs trying to seem closer to Allah by being more Arabic are linked. In my opinion, every time Urdu speaking Muslims decide to exchange Urdu words for Arabic, we buy into the Salafi/Wahabi discourse.
Historically, Indian Islam derives a huge amount of cultural influence from Iran and Central Asia (with the notable exception of Kerala).
When writers like Irena Akbar say, “Who is anyone to decide what Indian Islam is?“, I agree with her to a certain extent. Of course, no one can or should control how a person chooses to develop their spiritual understanding of Islam, as long as it brings about no third-party harm. Yet in the more nuanced sphere of cultural expression, this sort of invasion of the ethos of the Indian Muslim is dangerous. Our history bears witness to what makes Indian Islam so specific and distinctive.
Of course, a person will not automatically pledge allegiance to Salafism just because they use the word Ramadaan instead of Ramzan, but it’s also important to note that language is one of the most primary tools of indoctrination. For example, it makes a difference if you call a Cherokee man a Red Indian or a Native American. Closer home, there is a certain politics behind why the word ‘Dalit’ holds so much significance to the community. Slowly but certainly, this Salafi discourse will spread itself in our society through these seemingly innocuous methods. Look at televangelists like Dr. Zakir Naik, so keen on representing themselves as more religious by being more Arab-ised. Moreover, why barter our allegiance to Urdu, the language that was born in India, in exchange for sounding more “sophisticated”?
Urdu is an amalgamation of Khari Boli and Persian, with regional influences coming into play depending upon which state we refer to. There are slight differences in the dialects of the language spoken in Hyderabad, Lucknow or Patna. It would be wrong to say that Urdu is the language of the Muslims. It is one of the most important languages of the subcontinent, and Urdu would be much poorer without the contribution made to it by people like Gulzar, Rajinder Bedi, Raghupati Sahay or Gopi Chand Narang. In fact for many North Indian Hindus and Sikhs, Urdu was the lingua franca till two generations ago. We are accelerating the death of a language that has a distinctly composite history, rooted in our past, and are allowing it to be swallowed up by another. Countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan have lost out on their culture because they chose to associate themselves with a whole different brand of Islamic socio-religious expression, i.e., the Salafi one. The cultural heritage of the Pashtun and Sindhi Muslims is being systematically destroyed as a result of this move.
I understand that this is not about Islam specifically, but the larger socio-religious structure our culture is enmeshed within. I have emphasized in my previous articles that the implications of being an Indian Muslim are very different from being, say, an Algerian one. There are very specific cultural and social impulses that drive us and there are myriad sub-cultures that exist within us-Bengali, Assamese, Tamil. I am concerned about the preservation of a culture that has been an intrinsic part of us for centuries.
Now you know that there is a very political reason behind why I choose to call this column Ramzan with Zehra and not Ramadaan with Zehra. These ‘small matters’ are not small at all.