Wilful Ignorance

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Urdu originated as a mix of several languages spoken during the Sultanate era in Delhi. Those who reject the language now are rejecting their own legacy

I know that it is a moral failing, but I have never been able to summon any sympathy for the ignorant. In this day and age there are so many ways and means of getting information that it takes a great deal of effort to stay ignorant. Those who stay without knowledge in today’s world are those who have made an effort not to know, and it is difficult to sympathise with this.

One example of such wilful ignorance is the increasing use of the term ‘Allah hafez’ among South Asian Muslims. This is a twisting of the Farsi term ‘Khudahafez’, which translates as ‘May God take care of you’ and is used as goodbye. In fact, ‘goodbye’ is itself a contraction of the old English term ‘God be with ye’, so it’s an almost exact translation. But for some people, ‘khudahafez’ no longer suffices, and instead of ‘May God take care of you’, they prefer to say, ‘May Allah take care of you’.

It is a distinction without a difference. ‘Khuda’ is Farsi for ‘God’ and the Arabic term ‘Allah’ is a contraction of the words ‘al ilah’—or ‘the god’. Insisting on ‘Allah, not khuda’, thus, is the equivalent of insisting on ‘God, not God’. At best, it signals a preference for Arabic instead of Farsi. What sounds silly is when an Arabic term ‘Allah’ is forced into a Farsi phrase, leaving it neither Farsi nor Arabic but a mockery of both.

When Arabs say farewell, they use the term ‘Ma Salaama’ or ‘Go in peace’. Considering the warfare that has blighted the Arab world, it is a plaintive prayer. If people preferred Arabic to Farsi, they would use this term, but they do not. Instead, they insert an Arabic term into a Farsi phrase and assert the imagined superiority of one language by distorting another, exposing their arrogance and ignorance in equal measure.

Such idiocy is not peculiar to a single set of people. Across North India, another visible effort is the trend of renaming old Urdu Bazaar areas of small cities ‘Hindi Bazaar’. Unfortunately for these rewriters, the ‘Urdu’ in Urdu Bazaar has nothing to do with language. In Turkish, the word for military is ‘ordu/urdu’. These Urdu Bazaars were cantonment markets set up during the Sultanate and Mughal eras. Their civilian equivalents were the Sadar Bazaars. As far as I can tell, the British continued this tradition with their cantonment markets and Civil Lines, which we still follow.

The name of the Urdu language comes from the term ‘zubaan-e-urdu-mualla’ (language of the noble army), a name it only truly acquired in the 18th century. In its early days as a popularly spoken language, it was an eclectic mix of Turki, Farsi, Braj, Khadi Boli and other local dialects that emerged during the Sultanate era in Delhi and its environs from the 12th century onwards. Among this blend’s early literary exponents were people like the great poet Amir Khusrow, who called it ‘Hindavi’, and wrote:

‘Chu man tutı- -ye hindam ar rast pursı-/ Zi man hindu' ı- purs ta naghz guyam

(As I’m a parrot of India, to speak truthfully/ Ask Hindu’i of me so I speak beautifully).

As the language of a mixed culture, spoken on the streets and used in Sufi poetry, Urdu was often looked down upon by aristocrats who looked to Persia for inspiration, especially since they relied on Central Asian recruits for a large measure of their military power.

By the 17th century, the Mughal court had lost some of its linguistic arrogance. Buffetted by changes in Central Asia and reeling under a series of uprisings, it learnt to honour local allies and acknowledge that a key part of its strength came from the mixed culture of the empire. And that is how Urdu was finally recognised as a ‘sophisticated’ language, and even aristocrats started offering their verses in this common tongue. As late as the 19th century, poets like Ghalib composed their early verses in Farsi, only later writing them in Urdu (which was called Rekhta at the time), but it was this switch that has assured them immortality.

The history of Urdu as a language is a history of indigenisation, of the way Indians taught the haughty Mughal Darbaar some humility. Instead of understanding this history, some would like to paint over the name ‘Urdu’ and write ‘Hindi’ in its stead much the same way that some Muslims, turning towards the Arab world, would like to replace Farsi with Arabic.

Maybe it feels empowering to say, ‘Our way is best, and we will overwrite history in our name.’ Yet, in trying to overwrite history, we lose out so much that is our own. In rejecting a mixed legacy, we only reject a part of our own inheritance, leaving all of us poorer in the process.

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