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.
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.
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.