When I was younger, I pestered my mom to tell me how to say things in Pashto (our family language) and Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. As I grew older, I sought to learn more about Urdu, and my efforts led me toward poetry and Indian Bollywood movies, which I thought to be only in Hindi. While watching, however, I noticed characters using Urdu words like khuda and bahar, which mean “god” and “spring,” respectively, of which the Hindi words are bhagavaan and vasanta. My assumption was that Urdu is a Pakistani language and that Hindi is an Indian language. However, due to similarities between Urdu and Hindi, I could understand the movies, but why were the two languages so similar? Was the connection purely one of coincidence, one of correlation, or one of causation? As a result, I started to pay much greater attention to the circumstances and contexts in which Urdu is used. Urdu kya hai aur Urdu kis ki zaban hai?, or “what is Urdu and whose language is Urdu?” were the questions that floated in my mind as I read the poems of Allama Iqbal, listened to “Tu Meri Zindagi Hai” (an Urdu song in the Bollywood movie, Aashiqui), and heard my family switch from Pashto to Urdu to English seamlessly. Urdu proves to be a complex language, as the connotations surrounding this language, spoken by Pakistanis, Indians, Bengalis, and their respective diasporas, seem to constantly change. This project attempts to uncover and untangle some of Urdu’s complexity, while remaining open to the shifting nature of its use and implementation.
The Urdu language is used in such diverse forums as Islamic nasheeds, Pakistani news, and the Hindi film industry. As a result, and unsurprisingly, a myriad of different groups claim this language as their own, from religious groups (Islamic) to literary enthusiasts to filmmakers
to ordinary citizens of Pakistan and India who simply want to communicate with each other. Clearly, Urdu provides affordances and a medium of communication for a variety of groups. The debate over who owns this complex language makes it difficult for those who speak it to support its usage and preserve Urdu in a world where technology is making it easier for these various groups to communicate in ways that do not use Urdu. These continuing fluctuations in contexts, uses, and users of Urdu have forced me to confront a new possibility for explaining Urdu: that no one entity should rightfully claim possession. What might such an understanding mean for linguists, aspiring scholars, and even users of Urdu? To arrive at those answers, one must begin by grappling with Urdu’s history.
The complexities surrounding ownership of Urdu begin at its origins. Urdu, an Indo- Aryan language, derives from Hindvi (Faruqi 21). It is very similar to Hindi verbally and grammatically; however, Urdu uses the Nastaliq or Persian script whereas Hindi is written in Devanagari or Sanskritic script.
Another distinguishing feature between the two languages is its track record or history. The first mention of “Urdu” as a language occurs relatively recently (Faruqi 21). According to Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, an acclaimed poet, Urdu critic, and theorist, “Urdu” as a name for the language first occurred in poet Mushafi’s first divan around 1780:
‘Mushafi has, most surely,
claim of superiority in Rekhtah—
That is to say, he has expert knowledge of the language of urdu’ (23).
Could this revelation that Urdu as a named language did not appear until the late eighteenth century mean that it should be thought of principally as a descendant or amalgam of other languages? A closer look at the history reveals some of the traces that Urdu pulls from other tongues, but it also raises distinguishing factors in terms of purposes for which Urdu was
specifically chosen. The name “Urdu,” meaning “camp” or “city” came from “zaban-e Urdu-e mualla-e Shahjahanabad” (the language of the exalted city/court of Shahjahanabad); however, “zaban” (language) signified Persian, not Urdu (Farooqi 20). As the Mughals invaded the Subcontinent, Persian became mixed with the local vernacular until a distinction could be seen between Hindi and this new language. It is for this reason that Urdu contains many loanwords from Persian and Arabic as the Persian-speaking Mughals brought them when they invaded.
However, when did a more “formal” perception of Urdu come about? This switch from Persian to Urdu happened in 1772 when Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II, spoke Hindi on informal occasions and used it in the Nastaliq script as the language for his prose work (Faruqi 26). Faruqi quotes a poet from Lucknow in the eighteenth century, Yakta, who says that because they had to “deal with the local people, it became necessary for them to converse in this language [Hindi]” (39). Yakta then goes into further detail when outlining that the people “mixed each other’s vocabulary as much as needed” and when “this had continued over a long span of time, a state was reached when, by virtue of absorption of words and connections…it would be described as a new language.” Yakta continues his reasoning by stating that “neither Arabic remained Arabic, nor Persian, Persian, nor…did the dialects and vernaculars…retain their original form.” (Faruqi 39) Hence, Urdu was formed as a fusion of Hindi, Persian, and Arabic.
Yet, despite the complex geographical origins of the language, many today view Urdu as a language solely for Muslims in the Subcontinent. This perception results from the fact that a majority of Urdu speakers are Muslim and use Urdu for myriad reasons, from preservation of Urdu, political gains for Muslims, and Islamic education. This association between Urdu and Islamic identity has deep historical roots. According to Tariq Rahman of Quad-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Urdu was part of Islamic identity because it became the language of the
ruling Mughal elite (104). As the Mughals declined, the need to preserve its culture led to the implementation of “schools, the printing press, an orderly bureaucracy and the concept of the unity of India” (Rahman 104). Schools, such as madrassas (Islamic schools), were taught in Urdu and served to enhance Urdu’s tie with Islam in addition to the mullahs’ extensive use of Urdu in correspondence between one another and to the Muslims coming to them to learn. As the Mughals, or “Muslim invaders,” brought about this formation of a new language, Urdu became synonymous with Muslims, especially since it was written in the Nastaliq script. The Sufis, Islam’s mystics, though, as opposed to the ordinary Muslim Mughal, contributed the most in this respect when they began to use “Hindvi” because the locals did not understand Persian or Arabic (Rahman 104). The Sufis used poetry and song to not only show their love of Islam but to educate the locals and spread Islam to the non-Muslims, and so, they realized they had to do so in a way that the locals could understand, with “Hindvi.” In addition to the Sufis’ attempt to preach their views about Islam, Muslims used Urdu to unite themselves against the Hindu majority. Rahman shows this strengthening of Urdu’s tie to Muslim identity during the nineteenth century when Muslims were trying to create a new state for themselves. Along the road to independence, the Indian Muslims used Urdu to further distinguish themselves from the Hindus, which led to the recognition of Urdu as the language of Islam in the Subcontinent. (Rahman 111) From this point on, the language continued to have an Islamic tie to it, and is currently shown through Pakistan’s (a Muslim majority nation) use of the language as their national language.
If Urdu retains its tie to Islam as a sort of protection for Muslims from becoming overshadowed by the Hindu majority in India and to unify the many ethnic groups in Pakistan, then Muslims in the Subcontinent may feel compelled to learn Urdu in order to act more piously
and to help in understanding the Quran and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad(S). They will have to send their children to Urdu medium schools, or madrassas in the case of India, to ensure that their children get a sound Islamic foundation, regardless of reputation.
However, other Urdu-speakers cannot be left out of this inquiry into the ownership of the language. What about those who are Urdu speakers and have no ties to Islam or possess only an indirect tie to the religion? They may want to give their children a more rounded education in public or private schools even if there are no non-religious Urdu medium schools in India.
Another reason is because it is hard to have to deal with multiple different scripts in India since Urdu uses the Nastaliq script while Hindi is written in Devanagari, in addition to the other major scripts such as Tamil, Bengali, Telugu, Gurmukhi, Gujarati, Kannada, and Malayalam. (Farouqui 2406-2407) Yet, Urdu has led to the strengthening of the Muslims in the area as a significant political force grounded in religious ideologies. However, as Urdu continues to be tied with Islam by both Muslims and Hindus, Abbi and Kidwai, of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Husnain of Aligarh Muslim University have found that Urdu and Hindi speakers alike do not associate their language to be linked with their religious identity.
Instead, certain Urdu speakers use the language as a common language that crosses cultural and ethnic boundaries. In their paper, Whose Language is Urdu?, Abbi et al. explain that the majority of Urdu speakers do not associate a Muslim identity with the language. Instead, a cross-cultural identity exists between Urdu speakers. The study conducted by Abbi et al. shows a considerable view that the majority of Urdu speakers, over 80%, denied such an identification (5). The study took place in cities in India that are known to use Urdu for communication or literature, such as Delhi, Bhiar, Lucknow, and Shimla, among others. Among all these cities, in various ethnic regions of the country, the majority claimed that Urdu cannot be “identifited as the
language of Muslims” (5). Alok Rai, avid supporter for the promotion of both Urdu and Hindi, further points out that the “Punjabi-dominated Pakistan still declares Urdu to be its national language.” (277) How could one religion speak up for the various ethnic groups it comprises? In this way, too, Urdu not only cannot be restricted to Islam since so many Muslims and non- Muslims use it, as well as different ethnic groups. In addition to Punjabis using the language, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Balochis, Biharis, Delhiites, Kashmiris, and Uttar Pradeshis make up the majority of Urdu speakers, who comprise of multiple ethnic groups (Khalique). Along these lines, Urdu should be viewed as a language that is not limited to one group of people; it serves as an intermingling of cultures, according to Inder Jit Lall. Lall, literary critic, translator, author, and promoter of the study of Urdu literature. He shows how Urdu’s vocabulary includes words from Hindi, Arabic, Sanskrit, Persian, English, Pali, Punjabi, and Portuguese (48). In this manner, Urdu represents a shared language that the different ethnic groups—who have their own languages—can use to converse outside of their mother culture group. By doing so, they retain their own separate culture and not some fabricated “ethno-linguistic group” that Harris Khalique attests is impossible to do. Khalique, writer and poet, states that those who claim to be solely “Urdu-speaking” are in the wrong for trying to claim Urdu as part an “ethno-linguistic group” that does not exist. In this sense, Urdu should continue to be promoted and should be revived as a language that supports interethnic communication. However, it is important that Urdu not be seen as belonging to even multiple groups precisely because it might displace those groups’ connections to their mother tongue and culture, especially when speaking of the Pakistani, Indian, and Bengali diasporas. The Pakistanis and Indians who have emigrated to the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates converse in Urdu to stay close with their own people, even if Urdu is not their mother tongue (Nauman).
Another way in which Urdu escapes being able to be confined to a single use or people is in its relationship to literature, where its literary contributions have made a lasting impression on people and should not be ignored. Alok Rai states that, even with its association with Islam, Urdu arises as some “ultimate, unattainable resource and reservoir of eloquence” (279). He states that people use Urdu, not to act more piously, but to act more cultured and above in station than those they are conversing with (279-280). According to Rai, this desire to seem more cultured can be viewed in the literary perspective of Urdu, where the implementation of literary Urdu speaks as a sort of beauty. Some writers use this beauty to make a stronger impact with their messages by appealing to their audiences and readers. Most popular literary forms of Urdu continue to be expressed as poetry whether written, oral, or in music. Famous Urdu poets include Mir Taqi Mir, Mirza Ghalib, Akbar Ala Abadi, Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Saadat Hasan Manto, Gulzar, and Javed Akhtar, among others. One example of the Iqbal’s more political work is his poem, “Democracy”:
“By some European sage This secret was revealed,
Though men endowed with sense, Keep points like this concealed.
Democracy means a mode To rule the common man
No doubt, they count the votes, But conduct do not scan.” (1-8)
Iqbal is seen to be commenting on democracy of the West and provides his definition as “a mode/ to rule the common man.” Although Iqbal is deeply spiritual and contributed to the unification of Indian Muslims during the end of British rule, this writer does not use the fact that he is a Muslim to frame his philosophical use of Urdu; nor does he use Urdu merely to converse with his fellow Indians. In addition to beauty and political usages, poets use Urdu to portray love, nature, and, in the case of the more religious poets, spirituality. Songwriters, too, use Urdu as the
prevalent form of expression in the predominantly Hindi Bollywood movies. The song “Tu Meri Zindagi Hai” in the film Aashiqui takes directly from the Urdu Pakistani song: “You are my life, you are my every happiness. / You are love itself, you are passion, you are romance itself.” This highly romantic and extremely popular song shows Urdu as a medium for romance and for love. Indeed, many Bollywood filmmakers use Urdu to portray a deeper form of passion as Urdu has been associated with such romantic eloquence as described by Rai. However, many people do not know that these Hindi films are using Urdu because the words have become so commonplace (Akbar). Does such a realization that Urdu is chosen for literary and filmic romance not for any inherent quality but because of its popular accessibility undermine its value? In fact the opposite has happened: Urdu’s proliferation within multiple genres has only increased the idea that Urdu’s value resides outside of any one religion or genre, whether Muslim or Hindu, politics, spirituality, love, or beauty. Thus, some advocates, such as Inder Jit Lall and Alok Rai, argue that users of Urdu must rethink their possession of the language due to its diverse uses and the diverse groups of people who claim this language as theirs.
Ultimately, Urdu remains a conundrum in terms of how it should be framed because of its myriad uses for diverse groups of people. From Muslims to writers to interethnic communication, various groups claim this “zaban” as their own in order to spread their own views and demonstrate their intentions, even if it is something as simple as using a more eloquent word in a film. Thus, when it comes to whose language is Urdu, Urdu may belong to no one and everyone at the same time. It might not matter how one uses the language. Instead, it may only matter that people continue to support the existence of Urdu. Urdu seems to serve as a facilitator between these competing groups in communication, politics, and the arts, while also allowing those in the Subcontinent to cling to their own mother tongue and culture. This may allow Urdu speakers to preserve the language in a world where a few languages are dominating the scene so that we can enhance the recognition of Urdu’s literary value while making it more accessible to different groups of Urdu speakers and for different purposes.