Monday, October 28, 2013

Unravelling Urdu

Urdu is the lingua franca of the Muslims of the Indo-Pak Subcontinent. As a relatively new language, its history is intertwined with the Muslim rule of India. As the common language of the soldiers Muslim armies it evolved by borrowing their native words from Arabic, Persian, Turkish and regional Indian languages. For most of the history of Muslim rule in India, Persian was the official court language. It was used in all literature, communication, edicts, deeds, wills, contracts, etc. To be considered educated a person was supposed to know Persian and its rich literature no matter what religion one followed. About 200 years ago towards the end of the Mughal reign, Urdu slowly displaced Persian.

During the Partition of India, Urdu became a means for the demand of a separate Muslim homeland and as such it was quickly adopted as the official language of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, despite a dearth of native speakers among its citizens. Since then there have been serious dissatisfaction with the promotion of Urdu at the expense of other regional languages in Pakistan. As the feelings of Muslim nationalism gradually dissipated and were substituted by regional demands, language riots broke out for greater demands for languages such as Bengali, Sindhi, Seraiki, etc. Urdu eventually became a political rallying point for the Muhajirs. Thus historically this language has been intertwined with the politics of the Indo-Pak Subcontinent.
Culturally Urdu represents the culmination of centuries of malaise in the Indian Muslim psyche. Its literature is filled with a passion for women, wine and a longing of past glories. It seldom points to any practical and sound solution for the revival of Muslims to regain their leadership position of the world.  Iqbal’s poetry is filled with instigations for Muslims to wake up from centuries of this slumber, but it gives few solutions that are holistically sound and based on religion. Urdu religious literature is also marked by an excess of piety, which crosses the limits, by its exaggerated praise of pious men of past; raising their status to inhuman levels. The intercultural milieu of the Subcontinent and its distance from the source language of Islam continues to give rise to numerous deviant sects and groups. Their ideologies have affected the very fabric of Urdu language which is often used to convey and promote them.

The language of Islam in the Subcontinent used to be Arabic like everywhere else. All religious education was conducted in it. It was slowly replaced by Persian and then by Urdu. Even in religious seminaries, although Arabic is still taught it has taken the place as a subject among several subjects and not the medium of instructions of all subjects as should be the case. The further a nation is from the source language of the religion, the more chances of deviation arise. The miracle of Islam is the Quran, whose linguistic eloquence and meaning cannot be fathomed without a deep understanding of Arabic. The Quran and the Sunnah cannot be implemented without a tight grip on Arabic. The absence of Arabic at a community level in society has led to a lack of understanding and adoption of the holistic worldview of the sources of Islam. The essence of Islam is missing from our individual and collective lives, no matter how enthusiastically we claim love for it for historical and nationalistic reasons. Without a love of Arabic our love for Islam is not sincere. Many of our current problems stem from the fact that we discount the internal spirit of the religion by sticking rigidly to its external rulings.
In recent years, the status of Urdu as a Muslim language has been seriously challenged. The mainstream digital media regularly broadcasts programs and views in Urdu that are openly secular. The inundation of Hindi songs and movies in Muslim communities has set its own worldview which is at direct contrast with the Islamic one. English has directly challenged the position of Urdu as the language of education and reform. Khyber-Pakhtunkha province of Pakistan recently decided to teach English instead of Urdu in its public schools. Muslims are not reading much and those that are, are switching from Urdu to English for economic reasons alone. It is best if we face the fact that Urdu is a dying language that will eventually merge with Hindi and English to become a common hodge-podge vernacular for the masses of South Asia.

It is thus wise for Muslim families from the Subcontinent to revive Arabic learning and give it due importance. Many families make a decision about what set of languages they should teach their children – English, Urdu, French, Chinese, Arabic, etc. In today’s globalized world, the child will learn English regardless of how much effort we put in it. If the family is culturally inclined and speak Urdu at home, the child will eventually learn to understand and perhaps speak Urdu without extra effort. French and Chinese are good languages to learn for dawah purposes due to the shear large number of its speakers, worldview. But in order to convey the message of Islam, your child must first imbibe it himself and that is only possible by immersing him in Arabic. It is more productive if parents set a good example by constantly engaging themselves with acquiring Arabic. This way they will pass on their love and enthusiasm for it to their children.  If your child masters Arabic, learning to read and write Urdu will not be problematic, due to the similarity in their script. In fact, by learning Arabic, your child’s Urdu will automatically improve as one of the foundations of Urdu is Arabic.