Over the past few years, before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan/Ramzan begins, a debate erupts (largely in the English-language media) about the difference between Ramzan, the Urdu spelling of the period, and Ramadan, its Arabic spelling. Writers with no linguistic training have claimed without any evidence that using the “Ramadan” spelling is a sign of “Islamic radicalism” in India.

In a previous article, I have written about the underlying political motivations behind the controversy and pointed out the role played by globalisation and contact between Indian languages and Arabic in the Gulf countries, where Indians form a large percentage of the workforce.

There is, of course, more to the month than the spelling controversy. Muslims all over the world engage in special religious practices during this month. A look at the Ramzan vocabulary will help understand not only their practices but also how they affect their social behaviour in schools, colleges and workplaces in this month.

Vendors arrange dried fruits and vermicelli, or sewaiyyan, at a market in Guwahati in Assam, in this photograph from May 2017. Credit: Reuters
  1. The month in which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk is called Ramzan in Urdu, which is the Urdu pronunciation of the Arabic word Ramaḍān, which literally means “excessive heat”. The Arabic word Ramḍā’, meaning “sun-baked”, is derived from the same root. The etymology of the Arabic word reflects the blistering hot and dry climatic conditions of the Southern Arabian Peninsula where Islam originated.

    Other Indian languages have different words for the month. For example, in Malayalam, which is not influenced by Arabic and Persian, like Urdu, it is called nomb masam – “month of fasting”, in addition to Ramsan, a variant spelling of the Arabic Ramadan.

    There are two reasons why the month is considered holy. Firstly, all adults observe obligatory fasting for the entire month as it is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. Secondly, it is also special because the Qur’an was revealed in this month. Muslims, therefore, read the Qur’an much more in this month than any other month, and therefore you may find them reading the Qur’an in public places.
  2. Fasting is called roza, which is an act of worship in which Muslims do not eat, drink and stay away from sexual intercourse during the daytime. The word roza in Urdu has come from Persian (not Arabic) which is derived from the word roz which means “day” or “daily”. The original Arabic word in the Qur’an for roza is sawm, which means abstaining from things, which reflects the act of worship in a more transparent way than the Urdu word roza.

    Muslims also abstain from evils such as lies, back-biting, and fights. There is a narration in which the Prophet advised Muslims to politely say, “I am fasting”, if someone hurled abuse at them or started a fight. Here, the expression refers to the broader meaning of abstaining from evils in general. In Malayalam, the word for fasting is nomb or vratham, borrowed from Sanskrit.
  3. At sunset, Muslims gather in mosques and other places to end their day-long fast and eat their first meal, which in Urdu is called iftar/iftari. Although both words come from Arabic, Arabs use futur, a word derived from the same root. In some Bihari dialects, the word is roj-kholia meaning “something on which you break your fast”. The word combines the Persian word roza with the Indic word kholna.

    In contrast with Urdu, in Malayalam, the word for the evening meal is nomb thura, literally “the opening of the fast”, which is not borrowed from Arabic or Persian. Since the iftar is a form of prayer, one might see Muslims rushing home to join their families for the evening meal. Hosting Iftar parties has become a common event in many political circles in India, which is aimed at forming alliances and solidarities.
  4. After the Muslims break their fast at sunset, they offer the evening prayers. Later at night, they offer a special prayer called taraweeh, which happens only during Ramzan. This prayer is rather long and is performed in a congregation, so it is not surprising to see a large number of Muslims gathering in mosques at night. In many Muslim neighbourhoods, mosques and the surrounding businesses become quite festive at night especially after the prayers.
  5. After this prayer, Muslims go back to bed and get up at dawn for their last meal before they start their fasting the following day. Many Muslims may stay awake the whole night and go to bed after the morning meal. This meal in Urdu is called sehri, which is derived from the Arabic word sahar, meaning “early dawn”. The Urdu word sehri in Arabic means “magical”, which shows how the word has undergone a semantic change in the Indian context.
  6. At the end of the month of fasting, Muslims are required to pay alms to the poor called zakat al-fitr also known as fitra in South Asia. The amount of the zakat is to be paid in kind and is calculated based on an Arabic system of measuring dates and grains called saa’a, which translates into two-and-a-half kilos of local produce or its equivalent value. The charity must be paid out before the Eid celebrations.

    While the benefit of fasting is limited to the person observing it, the fitra affects society. The purpose behind the alms is to make sure that the poor do not go hungry and share Eid Al-Fitr festivities with others. The most striking cultural icon of Eid among South Asian Muslims is sweets made from sewaiyyan, vermicelli. The word comes from Sanskrit Śamita, meaning “rice powder”, which changed to samia in Prakrit.

Muslims in North India start the Arabic month of Ramzan/Ramadan by observing the Persian roza and ending it with the celebration of the Arabic Eid sharing Sanskrit-origin sewaiyyan with Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Rizwan Ahmad is Associate Professor of sociolinguistics at Qatar University. He tweets at @rizwanahmad1