How Urdu got associated with Muslims in India — Part II

By the 20th century, Urdu came to possess an impressive amount of Islamic literature including scholarly works.

Dr Tariq Rahman August 27, 2011

The first part of this article dwelt on the 18th century movement of linguistic reform (which I called ‘Islamisation of Urdu’) which Persianised Urdu and changed its Indic-orientation to Islamic culture. This part will take up another aspect of the same issue — the use of Urdu in education, printing and religious debate in British India. These factors also associated Urdu, which has an Indic base and was not associated with any specific religious community till the late 18th century, with Islam and Muslim identity in India.

Urdu-Hindi (the ancestor of both modern Urdu and Hindi) was not originally associated either with formal religious institutions or bureaucracy of the state in Mughal India. The language of the Islamic texts and liturgical practices was, of course, Arabic. However, religious texts were explained in Persian. Persian was also used for formal discourse on Islamic issues by the ulema. Yet, probably to communicate to the common people, some of the sufis used the local languages. Thus there are references to conversation, poetry recited during musical (sama’a) sessions and wise sayings in Urdu-Hindi from the 15th century onwards.

Remarkably enough, a religious reformer called Bayazid Ansari (1526-1572) wrote lines in what he called ‘Hindi’ in the Perso-Arabic script in his book entitled Khairul Bayan (1560-1570). The book was written in South Waziristan, in a Pashto-speaking area, but he thought this language useful for the propagation of his religious ideas. Anyway, despite this and other early writings, this ancestor of Urdu was not associated with Muslims. This association grew during the British period and, apart from the reasons given in Part-I of this article, it grew mainly because of the use of Urdu in printing, education and religious debate.

As Muslim political power shrank and anxiety spread about why this had happened, the ulema began a movement of education and purification. This they did by writing small books (chapbooks) in the local languages. Thus there are nur namas, wafat namas, jang namas, lahad namas etc. in almost all languages used by Muslims in South Asia and, as it happens, most of them are in Urdu. This movement started in the 18th century and accelerated in the 19th and the 20th centuries. Indeed, if one consults the British reports on printing, one finds that two themes always predominate: religion and love. In some years, one may exceed the other but, as books on history and morals also have a religious colour, it may be true to say that religion mostly predominates printing.

This was a tremendous social change for all religious communities in India. Thus, although there was a secularising trend introduced by the British also, there were more religious texts available in print than ever before. Hence, the consciousness of religious identity grew among all religious communities in India. And within Islam, the consciousness of sectarian identity grew also. Thus, on the one hand the modernist secular classes grew alienated from the religious masses. But on the other, the religious classes also grew alienated from each other and from other religious communities.

As for education, the madrassas started explaining the Arabic texts of the Dars-i-Nizami in Urdu though the classical exegeses were still in Persian. Meanwhile, Shah Abdul Qadir (1753-1827) and Shah Rafiuddin (1749-1817) translated the Holy Quran into Urdu. Exegeses of the Holy Quran, such as Murad Ullah Sanbhli’s Tafsir-e-Muradi (1771) came to be printed.

Indeed, by the 20th century, Urdu came to possess an impressive amount of Islamic literature. From the popular elegies for the martyrs of Karbala (marsiya) to devotional poetry; from stories read out among illiterate women (for example, Bibi Fatima ki Kahani) to scholarly works on Islamic philosophy; from the hagiographies of saints to the strictly monotheistic sermons of the Wahabis — all this varied literature was predominantly in Urdu.

Moreover, the sub-sects of Islam — not just the Sunnis and the Shias but the Ahle Hadith, Deobandis, Barelvis and others — wrote their polemical literature in Urdu. They indulged in debate (munazara) in Urdu and refuted each others’ claims in the same language. Even those who are considered heretics — as Bayazid Ansari was in the 16th century — published their works, attacked their opponents and defended themselves in Urdu.

Whether one is looking at the fundamentalists, revivalists, modernists or heretics — one notices that their favourite medium of expression is Urdu. This incessant debate went on in face-to-face munazaras and through constant pamphleteering throughout the 20th century and still continues. Even the works of the al Qaeda philosophy and the literature of the militants which is on sale outside mosques and madrassas in Pakistan today is in Urdu though hardly any of them are mother-tongue speakers of the language. Moreover, Urdu is still the preferred language of instruction and examination in Pakistan and India. Even some madrassas in Bangladesh give it some space though, of course, others use Bengali.

All these factors associate Urdu with Islam and the Islamic identity in the public mind in South Asia. While it is true that Urdu has also been associated with socialism (Taraqqi Pasand Adab), modernity and enlightenment (the Delhi Renaissance), the association with Islam predominates. The official discourse in Pakistan celebrates this in order to emphasise difference from India. The Indian Muslims, on the other hand, emphasise the composite character of Urdu and call it a joint product of the Hindu and Muslim civilisations. Yet, in India, too, Urdu is part of Muslim politics and efforts to preserve it necessarily dwell on the Perso-Arabic script and the Persian and Arabic diction of modern Urdu. Yet, a language may have more than one association. And it is always possible that Urdu can produce discourses of inclusiveness, tolerance and pluralism which can make it both a rich repository of Islamic literature and a language of enlightened, progressive and tolerant thought. (For details see my book From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History Oxford University Press, 2011 and Orient Blackswan edition in India).

Published in The Express Tribune, August 28th, 2011.


Sridhar | 9 years ago | Reply

Someone said that Hindi has been in existence for thousands of years. That is a joke. I agree that sanskrit is an ancient language and has existed for centuries (surviving to the present day though not as a spoken language) but Hindi is not very old. Many south indian languages like Tamil, Telugu are a lot older. What we call as "standard hindi" today is derived from "Khari boli" of the mughal period. In fact, even the grammar was standardized after independence only. Hindi grammar borrowed liberally from Panini's grammar ("Ashtadhyayi"). Hindi neither has the sheer beauty of urdu nor the grandeur of sanskrit.

Jon | 9 years ago | Reply The amount of misinformation is this article is really appalling. Hindi has been in existence for thousands of years (derived from Sanskrit and Pali) and is an indigenous language of India. So the question of Hindi deriving anything from Urdu does not arise. Urdu is nothing but a concoction of Hindi, Persian, Arabic and Turkic which has developed in the last few hundred years. Most of the language which passes of as Urdu in India is basically Hindi language with some persian and turkic nouns and adjectives thrown in. In Pakistan, Urdu has more extensive use persian, arabic and turkic in order to appear more "islamic". There is no such thing as "islamic culture". The Arabs never had any culture to begin with. They were nomadic vagabonds for centuries with no indigenous culture of their own. What is claimed to be islamic culture is primarily Persian culture which is part of the ancient Persian civilization born and developed way before Islam was even born or imposed on Iran. If it has to be associated to any religion, it would be the Zoroastrian religion -- the indigenous religion of Persia.
Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ