Come the month of fasting, a controversy erupts on Twitter. Is the ninth month of the Hijri calendar pronounced Ramazan or Ramadan? The passion with which discussion on this relatively innocuous matter takes place sometimes amazes me. Does it really make a difference either way?
Personally, I tend to say “Ramazan” when speaking in Urdu to Pakistanis but “Ramadan” when speaking to anyone else, including not just Arabs, but also Americans, British and those belonging to other nationalities. Since the months of the Hijri calendar are in the Arabic language, the authentic pronunciation would be “Ramadan” and hence, that is how it is known in most of the world. Yet, I must hasten to add that the softer “z” sound is more pleasing to the ear compared with the “d” sound, and hence, when I speak in Urdu, I call it Ramazan, which is the Pakistani version of the word.
Discussion on this subject, however, is as irrelevant as whether September, the ninth month of the Gregorian calendar, should be pronounced “September” or “Setambur” (the Urdu version). I would surmise that most people would say “September” when talking to non-Pakistanis but may say “Setambur” or “September” when talking to Pakistanis in Urdu. Essentially, it can go either way and calling it “September” doesn’t make one Westernised, just as saying “Ramadan” doesn’t make one Arabised.
While it is true that the Ramadan pronunciation became more commonplace in Pakistan once Pakistanis began returning home from the Gulf, i.e., in the 1980s, and in our conscience, that time is marked with Ziaul Haq’s misadventures, it may be far-fetched to link this adaptation of pronunciation to the influx of foreign fighters and permeation of puritanical thought in Pakistani society. Pakistanis moving to the Gulf and picking up Arabic pronunciation for certain words is no different from Pakistanis moving to the US or the UK and picking up the American or British accent.
Moreover, language has historically evolved as a result of travel and interaction between disparate communities. It is not just Pakistanis who have picked up Arabic by living in the Gulf, but also Arabs who have picked up Urdu. When I was in Makkah a couple of years ago, the Saudi driver who drove me to the Jeddah airport was keen to practise his Urdu with me. Nor is it uncommon for fabric vendors in Saudi Arabia to speak to their Pakistani clientele in a mix of Arabic and Urdu. “Kameez ke liye dhai gaz, sari ke liye chay gaz” is a common refrain.
Yet, it’s not just Ramazan/Ramadan, which sparks debate on Twitter. So does Allah Hafiz/Khuda Hafiz. The latter, unlike the former, is subject to relevant criticism by those who opine that “Allah Hafiz” is not an original Urdu greeting and that “Khuda Hafiz” was consciously done away with by many around the same notorious time period, the 1980s. The only thing the critics are confused about, however, is that they think this term, too, was imported from the Arab world. It wasn’t. I have never heard any Arab use the greeting “Allah Hafiz”. It is a latter-day Pakistani invention and has nearly replaced the original “Khuda Hafiz”, a greeting that we shared with our Persian neighbours.
In fact, even the greeting Assalamu Alaikum (which is Arabic) is used far more regularly in Pakistan than in the Arab world, where (Saudi Arabia included) often the more secular Merhaba is used to greet. In addition, Arabs use a number of other secular greetings such as Subah al khair or Masa al khair (meaning “good morning” and “good evening”) and though Urdu too has Subah bakhair and Shab bakhair, their use is becoming limited compared with Assalamu Alaikum and Allah Hafiz. What is particularly peculiar is that if it makes people feel closer to God to use the word “Allah” (though it is our belief that Allah has 3,000 names of which only 1,000 are revealed), then why not say Allah Nighiban, which is a far older Urdu idiom?
Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2013.