Islam and Linguistic Imperialism

Photo By: Dylan Payne (Flickr)

Religion's desire to keep the “truth” and “knowledge” hidden away from the masses is wonderfully demonstrated in many distinctive cases. During the Reformation, the Catholic Church reacted with violent persecution against those translating the New Testament into their native languages, and Hindu Brahmin priests prohibited everyone save the caste of the kings from learning Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas (Hindu holy texts). Yet in the realm of controlling language to control people, none has left a mark like Islam – while it upholds Arabic as the one holy language that Allah chose to provide his final revelation, it also uses the Arabic script and vocabulary to colonize and destroy local languages, dividing peoples and histories while it’s at it.

With the conquest of Persia, the new Arab masters inflicted their script upon Farsi, a language whose body of literature and poetry are considered the greatest ever produced in the East. Farsi was duly forced to incorporate Arabic script, vocabulary and grammar, and the trend continued in every country that was forced to “Islamize.” Arab conquerors attempted to redefine entire societies to depend upon the Arabic script and language as a mark of permanent superiority. The most severe consequences of this have been felt in the Indian subcontinent, home to ancient civilizations, where peoples have been torn apart and continue to be to this day.

Partition of Mother Tongues

Until their last day, the Muslim rulers of India used Farsi as the official language of the court and Arabic for religious affairs–for nearly a thousand years, the Muslim elite rigidly preserved their identity as foreign conquerors, refusing to link themselves with the conquered natives by either language, custom or religion. Under British Raj, local languages such as Hindi began to be used officially, and Farsi was ultimately discarded, for it had no native following. This added to the growing sense of political isolation for the Muslim elites, who responded by promoting the use of Urdu as the “lingua franca” and linguistic identity for Muslims. As a mark of where Islam came from, the Arabic script was enforced for Urdu, which in Turkish meant “Army.” It was important to retain the distinction from the native Hindus, even though most of the Muslim masses were direct descendants of Hindus who had been converted.

Urdu was supposed to be a mix of the Turkish, Farsi and Arabic spoken by the many foreign Muslim legions that had invaded India and established Muslim empires. However, this foreign genesis was actually derived from Khariboli, the language of the natives of the Delhi region. Being mutually intelligible with Hindi, the two languages were known as the single “Hindustani” (the language of Hindustan, another name for northern India). Pioneers of Urdu, from Sir Syed Ahmed Khan to Maulvi Abdul Haq infused more Farsi and Arabic words into the vocabulary. Tying it to religious purity and political survival, Muslims began adopting the language of the conquerors. Hindu pride against the “conquerors” had brought the influx of Sanskrit vocabulary and grammar into what became a distinct Hindi. While Hindi and Urdu remain mutually intelligible to this day, this linguistic irredentism had major consequences. The facade of a distinct language helped foster a sense of a distinct, non-Indian Muslim identity, which contributed to the vivisection of India to create the Muslim state of Pakistan.

Arabizing By Violence

It was not only land that was divided when India was partitioned in 1947. The Punjabi language, mother tongue of millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, is written in two distinct scripts – “Shahmukhi” in Pakistani Punjab, and Gurmukhi in Indian Punjab. While Gurmukhi was the original script, “Shahmukhi” looks exactly like Arabic and Farsi. The ancient Sindhi language, predating Islam by a thousand years, is now written in the Arabic script in Pakistan. The 1973 Constitution of Pakistan makes it a duty of the government to facilitate the learning and understanding of Arabic, so that Islam, the basis of the national identity, is studied properly by Pakistanis.

These divisions caused massive earthquakes for ordinary people. For starters, the most populous region in the new Pakistani state was East Bengal, which formed 50% of the national population and had a rich linguistic tradition in Bengali. This was a source of great pride for the people, both Hindu and Muslim. Bengali used a script close to the script of Sanskrit and Hindi Devanagari, and its literary tradition borrowed nothing from Farsi or Arabic. To the founders of Pakistan, this was a lingering taint of a “Hindu” identity from which the people had to be purified. Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, second only to the prophet himself in popularity, ended up being roundly booed when, in his only visit to East Bengal, he attempted to chastise the Bengali demand for official recognition and insisted only on Urdu. Songs written by Bengali poets such as Rabindranath Tagore were banned, despite their mass popularity. Plans were made for the introduction of the Arabic script to Bengali. Massive protests broke out across the province against the government's policy, culminating in the 1953 Language Movement which saw many Bengali civilians being shot dead by the Pakistani army. These events gave birth to a Bengali nationalist movement, which culminated with the war for the independence of East Bengal in 1971, which lead to it being renamed “Bangladesh.” Perhaps the biggest irony for the Urdu crusaders is that the migrants to Pakistan from northern India have been victims of much discrimination and violence in Pakistan, and have been forced to become a distinct cultural group, the “Mohajirs.” As it happens, the Mohajirs are the only people in Pakistan who speak Urdu as their mother tongue. The region where they came from is known as the “Hindi belt” in India, and for many decades, they were derisively referred to by “native” Pakistanis as “Hindustanis,” or Indians. The discrimination is strong enough to power the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a murderous ethnic gang that poses as a political party and controls Pakistan's largest city, Karachi. This group brought Karachi it to its knees in the late 1980s with a street-to-street civil war. In the meantime, any acclaimed literature Pakistan has produced since 1947 has been in English.

India, which became constitutionally secular, did not tell the Muslims who remained in India to give up Urdu. Urdu has been adopted as a co-official language in states where Muslims make a significant portion of the population, Urdu and Farsi poetry are widely enjoyed and Urdu-Farsi words are regularly used Hindi language films and by large numbers of Hindus. Most of the singers and poets who give voice to Urdu are Hindus. Pakistani Urdu television programs are popular amongst Indians, who do not need subtitles to understand what their Pakistani cousins are talking about. Some partitions remain undone.

The Long March of Imperialism

Men and women of reason may not understand how Muslims can take a perverted pleasure in exterminating languages with rich poetic and literary traditions. It should suffice to remember that Muslims are very serious when they claim that the Qur'an is the greatest book ever written. What, they ask, is the point in wanting to read anything else? The disease has spread wide, with varying degrees of success. The Malay language was transformed into the Arabic script, even though a lot of its vocabulary is distinctly Sanskrit. The word the constitution of Malaysia uses for a Malay Muslim, the first-class citizen above the non-Muslim Indians and Chinese, is “Bumiputra” Sanskrit for “son of the soil.” Predating the revolt of the Bengalis was Mustafa Kemal's modernization of Turkey, which dropped the Arabic script and Ottoman Turkish, and brought in the Latin alphabet to make the language more modern and scientific. Both were better alternatives to the cultural extermination strategy of the Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula, which wiped out both Islam and Arab culture with ruthless severity, sparing not even the poets and intellectuals, and their works, all sacrificed at the altar of Roman Catholicism.

Yet when even the “moderate” Iranian political and religious leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani proclaims that one day, there will be no more Farsi and only the pure Arabic will be spoken across the world, it is clear that Islam's ambitions of linguistic imperialism are far from dead. Indeed, Muslims have lately been informed that the Farsi word for God, “Khuda,” has to be dropped in favor of “Allah,” so the traditional goodbye of “Khuda Hafiz” (“May God Protect You”) becomes “Allah Hafiz.”

From partitioning languages and nations, to simple greetings–in Islamic imperialism, every triviality counts.

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