When Ramazan became Ramadan: Our infatuation with Arab culture
Come the sighting of the moon and my inbox, cell phone and social media feed is inundated with greetings of ‘Ramadan Kareem Mubarak’. It’s a common phenomenon and I am not the only one to experience this but it does make me think.
What has happened in the past couple of decades that we have made the shift from Urdu words to decidedly Arabic ones?
If the change was in language as a whole it would make some measure of sense. Languages are of course organic and new words come in but in this case it is not a natural transition but more of a deliberate supplanting of a word that is by all accounts, perfectly legit.
I grew up in a time when we called this Islamic month ‘Ramazan.’ It was not a conscious choice, just what the grandparents and elders called it and we were happy in following their legacy. We were also taught that when saying goodbye we should say ‘Khuda Hafiz’ and some families which had immigrated from Uttar Pradesh in India, including mine, were more inclined towards ‘adaab’ as a mode of greeting than salaam.
It started changing in the 80s with the PTV news anchor saying ‘Allah Hafiz’ at the end of the program. Some people did notice and talked about it but it was a military dictatorship and the man in charge was a known zealot. ‘It’s a passing trend’, was the general refrain. It was thought that things would go back once the dictatorship was over. How wrong they were.
Then I noticed more and more people who were hesitant in replying to my ‘adaab’ with the usual response, ‘jeetay raho’, literally: have a long and blessed life. These were not people who had always used the ‘salaam’, no these were folks who’s fathers, grandfathers, uncles and aunts all had lived and died using the same mode of salutations and greetings. And now they were replying back with ‘walekum adaab’, a rather cumbersome response which was neither here nor there. Then came snide comments about how ‘adaab’ is irreligious. About how it is decadent and a hangover from a previous era which should be consigned to the dustbin of history. About how it was used only to greet Hindus in India and so has no place in an (overtly) Islamic country. With time, most even called it downright blasphemous and refused to acknowledge it.
I had reservations with that view. I still do.
Why would Sibtain Ahmed, my great-grandfather, a marsiya poet and reciter of some repute, close associate of orator and scholar Rasheed Turabi and as religious a man as anyone I have seen, insist on this ‘blasphemous’ greeting even after immigrating to the ‘Bastion of Islam’ (read Pakistan). For that matter were the ancestors of these objectors decadent, blasphemous, and possibly in cahoots with Hindu extremists? Was my best friend’s grandfather working with the RSS or the VHP? Did they offer human sacrifices for pagan gods? Who can tell in these times?
Part of the change comes from the state sponsored change in language and its semantics. Part of it could be the influx of returnees in Pakistan from the Arab countries who in all their time there did not become fluent in Arabic due to their cloistered living style but are still compelled to say Arabic words when it comes to words that are associated with religion. That still does not explain why relatives and friends in the West, nary a tie with Arab soil, would change from their own parents’ ways.
Try as I might, I fail to get coherent responses.
The rest of the changes have been coming with increasing pace. The same school of thought that frowns upon my ‘adaab’ and ‘Khuda Hafiz’ has a bone to pick with my calling this Islamic month ‘Ramazan’. ‘Ramadan Kareem’, they correct me in a pious tone while rolling their eyes and smiling pityingly at my unholy ways. Iftar has given way to ‘fitr’ and ‘wuzu’ has died at the hands of ‘wudu’.
So we had been mispronouncing these words all these centuries.
‘Yes’, is the prompt response I receive along with a lecture about how better things are now.
And were savants such as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Maulana Azad, Nazeer Ahmed, Ghalib, et al also culpable to mispronunciations and astray from the true path? They were I am told.
So here we stand; our ancestors were wrong, the thinkers and intellectuals were wrong, the religious leaders were wrong and they are all morally, culturally and linguistically inferior to that PTV newscaster.
Zia would have been proud.
They say a language dies when you supplant words that carry weightage. ‘Ramazan’ is one such word, closely associated with our lives because of the changes in lifestyle that accompanies it and its age-old message of love for humankind, simplicity, tolerance, compassion and generosity. The symbiotic nature of the relationship between language and culture has been deeply explored and well established.
With the coming of its Ramazan’s Arabised counterpart have come other changes that belie the wholesome nature of the month and clash with my youthful memories of the month when it had no ritual gluttony in the name of fast food all-you-can-eat deals and post-midnight sehris at fancy restaurants.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.