Linguistic clashes

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Huma Yusuf

WHILE the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee was trying to spot the new moon, another phenomenon was brewing on social media. Pakistanis took to their Twitter accounts and Facebook status updates to call for the holy month to be referred to as Ramazan, as it is pronounced in Urdu and Persian, and not Ramadan, which is the Arabic pronunciation.

The Ramazan versus Ramadan debate is not new or singular. Many Pakistanis have been discomfited by the gradual Arabisation of their language and culture. Saying goodbye to strangers and new acquaintances has become a tense exchange as the battle lines between those who say ‘Khuda hafiz’ and those who prefer ‘Allah hafiz’ hardens. Namaz is increasingly salat.

These linguistic tussles neatly distil Pakistan’s national identity crisis. Much has been written about Pakistan’s post-Partition attempts to distinguish itself from ‘Hindu’ India by cultivating an Islamic identity.

A shared subcontinental indigenous history going back to the ancient civilisations of the Indus Valley has been supplanted with a neat narrative of Islamisation, which begins with the arrival of Mohammad bin Qasim in Sindh and ends with the creation of Pakistan as a homeland for Muslims. Persian linguistic and cultural influences, which since the 1980s have been linked with ‘Shia’ Iran, have also gradually been undermined in favour of Arabic tropes.

Those struggling against the tide of Arabisation should remember that national identity is a construct and Pakistan is still in the process of forming its own. The Arabisation of our language is not an organic or spontaneous trend, or even the fallout of the widespread presence of Pakistani migrant labour in Gulf states as is often argued. The tilt towards Arabic has been built into our identity through the usual sites where national identity is constructed.

The most obvious of these sites are state school and university curriculums. Others include public broadcasters, both television and radio; government scholarships; national art schools and foundations; the film industry; censor boards; advertising; sports; museums; and national holiday parades.

The introduction of the Arabic language to Pakistan was the result of deliberate policies. Ayub Khan was the first to call for the teaching of Arabic in Pakistani government schools. His education policies also recommended the teaching of English in madressahs as well as the introduction of contemporary Arabic texts into seminary curriculums in the hopes of modernising the ulema. As such, whether inadvertently, Khan’s education policies pitted English and Arabic as the languages of modernity and progress in Pakistan, as has been argued by Alyssa Ayres.

Not surprisingly, the real push for introducing Arabic to the Pakistani mainstream occurred under Gen Ziaul Haq. He apparently perceived Arabic and Urdu as the languages that could unite a Muslim nation that stubbornly remained fragmented as a result of its indigenous, ethnic and linguistic diversity. Consequently, state-owned outlets broadcast the news in Arabic. The public airwaves were also used to disseminate Arabic-language and religious instruction.

In the early 1980s, madressah teachers were recruited to teach Arabic in state schools and Iqra centres where Urdu was taught, blurring the distinction between religious and secular instruction, and between state and non-governmental educational spaces. The consequences of giving unregulated madressahs (which fell beyond the purview of the state) control over education are apparent in more than the gradual Arabisation of the Urdu language; they are evident in the obscurantist and regressive ideologies and policies that are ascendant in Pakistan today.

Remembering how our national identity crisis was manufactured is key to shaping our identity differently, if that is what we want. Constant attention to the processes by which national identity is constructed bestows greater significance on local-level and disparate events that we may otherwise overlook, but that will inform what it means to be Pakistani in the future.

These include recent events such as Dr Bernadette Dean’s departure from Pakistan after receiving death threats from a religious political party for her work on reforming Sindh’s textbook curriculum; the Sindh government’s recent decision to include Jinnah’s Aug 11 speech about religious tolerance in the state school syllabus; the endless YouTube ban; government indifference in the face of the regular theft of archaeological artifacts; and so much more.

Cumulatively, these incidents are shaping our national identity, and will have serious implications for how we see ourselves — and indeed how we speak — decades in the future. This is why the social media campaign to preserve the Urdu/Persian pronunciation of Ramazan is not as frivolous as it may first seem. How we choose to inflect a letter today could have implications for what it means to be Pakistani several decades from now.

Huma Yusuf, “Linguistic clashes,” in Dawn, June 22, 2015. Accessed on June 22, 2015, at:

The item above written by Huma Yusuf and published in Dawn on June 22, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on June 22, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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