Language Log

Why are Indian Muslims using the Arabic word ‘Ramadan’ instead of the traditional 'Ramzan'?

Increasingly, Indian Muslims are looking to a globalised Saudi brand of Islam for inspiration.

It’s that time of the year again. As the annual month of dawn-to-dusk fasting begins, people everywhere are girding their social media loins to fight the inevitable lexical war that’s about to break out: Ramzan or Ramadan?

This contentious battle is being fought over the name of the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, which is also when Muslims fast to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad. Historically, most Muslims on the subcontinent have called this month by its Persian-origin name, “Ramzan”, loaned by languages such as Urdu, Bengali etc. In the past decade or so, however, a great many subcontinental Muslims have rejected these names in their native languages and taken to using what they believe is the Arabic word for it: Ramadan.

Linguistic purity fail

The name of this month in Arabic can be transliterated into Roman characters as “Ramadan” – the “d” there being a rather arcane and ancient Arabic sound that really has no equivalent in any Indian language or English and is terribly difficult to enunciate. For non-Arabs, the “d” is usually approximated to the soft “d” of “dal-chawal” or (by English speakers) with a hard “d” (as in “dad”).

Ironically, even modern-day Arabs pronounce this “d” sound quite differently from the time the Quran was written, a natural result of the phonological changes that any language goes through with time.

End result: in spite of the intentions of speakers to mimic Quranic pronunciation, it’s a lot easier said than said correctly.

Language is a powerful marker of intent and identity and, more often than not, people try and mould it into idealised shapes. Unfortunately, as this example shows, language is also an incredibly difficult thing to change, hardwired as it is into our brain. Arabic isn’t the only example. The brouhaha over teaching Sanskrit, right after the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party came to power was quite ironic since, right now, millions of Indian children supposedly study the language without even learning how to pronounce Sanskrit’s ancient sounds, which have long since ceased to exist in India’s modern bhashas.

Indo-Persian culture

If, however, Indian Muslims have jumped from one incorrect pronunciation to the other, what was the point of it all? Twisting the pronunciation of Ramzan does not serve any explicit theological purpose, but it does serve as a rather prominent cultural marker, signalling a significant change in the way Indian Muslims – specifically Urdu-speaking Muslims – look at their culture.

Much of what is Indian Islam – with possibly the exception of Kerala – comes down not from the Arabs but Central Asians and Iranis, members of the Persian cultural sphere that dominated the Eastern Islamic world. India was itself a part of this cultural sphere and for hundreds of years, Persian was the country’s lingua franca, resulting in native languages such as Marathi and Bengali being inundated with Persian words. This influence was so pervasive that India’s largest language has a Persian name: Hindi (literally, “Indian”).

The language of Indian Islam is, therefore, highly Persianised – an oddity for a religion that has Arabic as its liturgical language. The word for the Islamic prayer is the Persian “namaaz” (Arabic: salaah) and for fast, the Persian loan “roza” (Arabic: sawm). Most prominently, the common everyday word for "God" is from Farsi: Khuda.

These borrowings, mixed in with local elements, created a unique Indo-Islamic culture that stood for a great many centuries.

Arabisation

Events in faraway Arabia, though, changed matters. After World War I, a family called the Saud, driven by a fanatical version of Islam called Wahhabism, captured much of the Arabian peninsula including the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In spite of housing these two cities, however, this patch of desert land had never been very powerful and the great Arab empires ruled from up north in what is now Iraq. A singular stroke of luck changed that for the Saudis: the land spouted oil, great fountains of it – a crucial mineral in the age of machines.

In the subcontinent, meanwhile, Muslim elites, defeated by British colonialism and facing a precipitous decline in their fortunes, weren’t terribly upbeat about their own cultural moorings. The influence of the rich Saudi state, both soft and hard, crept into the subcontinent, as its Muslims looked to the ultra-conservative theocratic state for cultural and theological ballast.

In Pakistan, for example, massively popular televangelists took to pushing Arab credentials as a marker of piety. Similar dynamics were at play in India too: superstar televangelist from Mumbai, Zakir Naik, wouldn’t be caught dead calling it the Urdu “Ramzan”.

Muslims elites across the subcontinent borrowed these Arab liturgical words, now as markers of their religious identity. Not only were they Muslims, but a certain kind of Muslim, following a Saudi-influenced brand of Islam, so strict that even in common speech, no measure of so-called unIslamicness was allowed to creep in. “Ramzan” hasn’t been the only target, as can be expected. The word “Khuda”, a mainstay of cultural expressions such as Urdu poetry, is also being expunged, since God can only have an Arabic name. The standard Urdu expression for “goodbye” – “Khuda hafiz” – is now being bowdlerised to “Allah hafiz”.

Renaming God and fasts is still fine – men have been known to do odder things for religion. But when people begin chopping and changing their word for “goodbye”, then you know you’ve got a serious case of cultural insecurity on your hands.

A version of this article was first published here.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.