Why Urdu Isn’t Just a ‘Muslim’ Language

A lot of people mistakenly believe that they don’t know Urdu. Chances are, if you’re a Hindi speaker, then you’re familiar with Urdu, whether you realise it or not.

In order to understand what Urdu is, we first need to understand the linguistic makeup of the cow belt region or roughly, northern India. The first misconception we suffer from is thinking that Hindi is the lingua franca of north India, in actuality the language that binds the region together is Hindustani, or for simplification, Hindi-Urdu.

If you were to watch an Urdu news channel or Pakistani soap opera, you’d notice immediately that Urdu and Hindi share the same grammar, but in Urdu’s cases a lot of words have Persian and Arabic roots, whereas Hindi words often derive from Sanskrit. It could be said that one is speaking Hindi if there is negligible use of Persian-Arabic words or Hindi if she uses more Sanskrit words.

However, when it comes to our daily speech, it’s impossible to limit our usage of either Persian-Arabic or Sanskrit for a simple reason – understanding each other. For example, if we replace the Persian word zyaada (more) with adhik (the Sanskrit version), or if we replace the word koshish (attempt) with the word prayaas, people would mock us for being “purists” and using words that don’t fit into our regular vocabulary. Therefore, the vernacular language is Hindustani, and “pure” Hindi and Urdu survive only as literary languages.

It’s funny that most people don’t know that the language that they speak is not the language that they think they speak, simply because we rarely recognise our spoken language as Hindustani. When we write Hindustani in Devanagari, we call it Hindi, so if we write it in the Arabic script, then we call it Urdu.

Since we’re talking about Hindustani, it’s worthwhile to look at one of the theories on how Urdu originated. Dr. Masud Husain from Aligarh Muslim University thinks that the language developed around the time that Persian entered the subcontinental area with Muslim invaders, mixing with Hariani and resulting in the creation of a new language, Urdu. While this sounds like it happened instantly, new languages take centuries to develop.

We all speak a little Hindi and a little Urdu, so it’s unfortunate that we’ve come to think of Urdu as a Muslim language. Just like the religious divide emphasises more differences than there really are, this linguistic distinction draws a firm boundary where there isn’t really one.

The people who are ignorant of the Nastaʿlīq script presume that Urdu is linked to Islam because of its resemblance to Arabic, which is the language of the Qur’an. This, coupled with the fact that Urdu is the national language of Pakistan has contributed to its Other-ing in India.

The truth however remains that Urdu is a language of India. Urdu played a significant role in India’s independence, the slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ was given by Maulana Hasrat Mohani in 1921 (Zee News, 2017). This Urdu slogan empowered many freedom fighters, including Bhagat Singh. Another example is the popular revolutionary couplet:

Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna Ab Hamare Dil Mein Hai

Dekhna Hai Zor Kitna Baazu-e-Qaatil Mein Hai

It was written by the poet Bismil Azimabadi and popularised by Ramprasad Bismil during the freedom struggle.

Urdu was also the language of the progressive writers’ movement or Taraqqi Pasand Musnafeen-e-Hind as it was called in Urdu. It was a literary movement which started in pre-partition India, the movement produced some of the finest lyricists, writers and poets our nation has seen, including Sahir Ludhianvi, Munshi Premchand and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The movement thrived on the ideas of communism and Marxism, inspiring Urdu literature that veered far from conservatism and religious fundamentalism.

Even looking at Urdu as an “Islamic” language yields surprising results. For instance, only 8% of Pakistan’s population speaks Urdu, it’s official national language, as its first one. Whereas 48% people speak Punjabi as their first language (Virk, 2016). Coming to the other neighbouring Muslim country, Bangladesh. When, in 1948, Muhammad Ali Jinnah announced that Urdu was going to be imposed on Bangladesh (then, East Bengal), the Bengali-speaking population protested vehemently, as they felt they would lose their cultural identity by accepting an alien language.

Outside of the Indian subcontinent, Urdu is not spoken at all. Most countries with majority Muslim populations speak Arabic (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Morocco etc) or Persian (Iran, Tajikistan, etc).

Urdu is a language unique to the Indian subcontinent and so ingrained in our Hindi that it’s hard to imagine speaking without it. That’s something to be celebrated not derided.

Arslan Jafri is a student of Business Administration at Ahmedabad University and has a keen interest in Urdu and Persian literature. 

Featured image credit: Facebook/Khwaab Tanha Collective