Ramadan vs Ramazan Debate: ‘Creeping Wahhabism’ Is a False Alarm

Every year, there is an odd debate on the “correct” spelling of Ramadan/Ramazan. It is a curious thing, tinged with concerns about radicalisation, a xenophobic nativist unease about “Arabisation”, and generally divorced from any idea of history or an understanding of India’s place in the world.

Much of it reflects concerns with the Sunni violence perpetrated against the Shia populace of Pakistan, without acknowledging the large differences between the Muslim communities in India and Pakistan, and the impact of state policy and international wars.

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India’s Persian Connect

Let us begin with history. Since the days of the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th century, India has been a part of the Persian sphere, in that the court language and etiquette reflected the “high culture” of the Persian empire. It is worth noting that these rulers were almost exclusively Sunni, and Persian was not associated with the Shias in the way that it is now. Nor was Persian the language of the street.

Here, we had a curious mix of Braj Bhasha, Turki, Khadi Boli, and Persian (and I presume other strains), that would one day end up being called Urdu in one form, and Hindi in another. Amir Khusrow (1252-1325) exemplified this.

A son of a Turkish officer and an Indian Muslim mother, he would write, “Choman Tutiye-i-Hindaan, ar rast pursi Baman Hindavi purs, to naghma goun” (I am a parrot of India, ask me something in Hindavi, and I shall sing you a melody).

This language is heavily Persian-ised. Whether in Persian – if you were in court – or in Hindavi/Urdu/Rekhta – if you were in audience with the Sufi poet Ali Husseini Bande Nawaz (1321-1422), or the soldier-poet Shah Hatim (1699-1783) [who served in the army that was ravaged by Nadir Shah’s assault on Delhi] – the term would have remained “Ramazan”.

Even out of Delhi, in the court of Sher Shah Suri (1486 –1545), born in present-day Bihar – who consolidated his empire in Bengal, and turfed out Humayun from Delhi in 1540 – the language would have been Persian.

Of course, for many of the subjects of these empires, the pronunciation would have been all over the place – as it still is – and however it was spelt, they would have spoken of “Ramojan”, or some other variant.

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Even Hindu Poets Wrote in Persian

The “correct” spelling would remain “Ramazan” even under the onslaught of the British, when the East India Company would change the court language to Urdu in parts of north India in 1837. It had already become the de facto language, although called by a variety of names, by the 1700s. The loss of Afghanistan and Central Asia by the Mughal Empire to rulers such as Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali, who would raid Delhi instead of providing auxiliaries, forced the Mughals to reluctantly acknowledge local roots.

The personification of this would be Wali Mohammad Wali (1667-1707), popularly known as Wali Deccani, and born in Aurangabad, whose trip to Delhi in 1700 is considered the point when Urdu poetry became “high society” poetry. Nevertheless, writing a hundred years later, Ghalib would produce his first Diwan in Persian.

This depth of Persian influence was not merely a Muslim thing. Hindu poets were writing in Persian from the late Sultanate period, during the Lodi era, and by the 18th Century, the list of Hindu poets was long and glittering.

“In a non-exhaustive list, ʿAbd-Allāh cites over 130 names of Hindu Persian poets who lived in the late 18th and 19th century”. Chandar Bhan Brahman, who served in the courts of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, is one famous example. There were also a number of Sikh poets also who wrote in Persian.

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‘Arab World’ No Longer Far Away From South Asian Consciousness

This appreciation of Persian poetry did not end with the Mughal Empire, or even with Independence. Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s famous Madhushala is an explicit appreciation of the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam, who had written in Persian. In this time, the empires of India had little association with the Arab world, with the exception of the Hajj, and a few travelling scholars such as Ibn Batuta. No Indian ruler embarked on the Hajj during their lifetime, with the exception of Nawab Sikander Begum Sahiba (1817-68) of Bhopal, who had a terrible time. Bairam Khan, Akbar’s regent, whose life is described so skilfully by TCA Raghavan in his book Attendant Lords, would end his career when forced to go on Hajj by Akbar.

The Arab world was far away from the consciousness of South Asia, a place where people went at the end of their life, or were – during the time of the British – sent to exile. In contrast, Persian was at the heart of high culture. This has changed dramatically after Independence.

Part of the reason is that Pakistan is a large buffer between India and the erstwhile Persian world, and then, after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Iran – the heartland of Persian influence – has closed in on itself, and has been hemmed in by other powers. And the Arab countries, with the discovery of oil, became suddenly rich and needed workers. India had a dearth of jobs, and so Indians now suddenly found themselves in Arab lands, where the pronunciation was “Ramadan”.

Impact of Arab Influence

We have about six million Indians working in the Arab lands – about two million in Saudi Arabia alone – which has been in the forefront of a rivalry with Iran for influence. That rivalry has weaponised Sunni/Arab on one side, and Shia/Persian on the other. This difference has played out differently in various places. 60 percent of Iraqis were Shia but Arab, and took part in the eight year Iraq-Iran war. In India (never a party to this conflict), ‘Persian’ among Sunnis remained largely untouched, a sign of high culture even among very conservative Sunni families.

But decades of Arab influence on people working in their lands, has had a large influence on blue collar workers (the large part), and white collar workers. Many chose the Arab pronunciation.

Arabic, as the language of the Quran (even if its antique language has significant differences than the dialects currently spoken) has a certain social cachet, and here people were being able to speak it first-hand. Even the use of certain words in the “correct” manner gives a certain standing. Some of this is seen as a challenge by the custodians of “high culture”, and also a striking difference between the continuity of India’s long history of engagement with Persian.

Others fear that it portends a schism like that in Pakistan, where the Zia regime – which jumped into bed with the Arab and US rivalry against Iran – drenched in violence.

Is a ‘Change of Pronunciation’ Enough to Label Someone An ‘Extremist’?

This change of language, and a rejection of history, seems to be a type of Islam propagated by Saudi Arabia’s clerical establishment, often described as “Wahhabi”, and which bears a close resemblance to the religious ideas used by the Taliban, Al Qaida, and ISIS. But how can one tell the difference?

Is a change of pronunciation enough to denounce a person as an extremist? Is it enough to understand their religious or political beliefs? 

How do we judge somebody like Maulana Showkat Ahmed Shah, the President of the Jamiat-e Ahl-e Hadith (JeAH) in Jammu and Kashmir, very much a Salafi whose beliefs would be very closely aligned to Saudi-style Islam? How do we judge the fact that he denounced stone-pelting by protesters and was assassinated soon after (caveat: there is no proven linkage between this) on 8 April 2011?

The fear of looking into a change of pronunciation as a window into the propensity for violence (as happened in Pakistan), ignores the fact that the Pakistani state was inextricably bound into an external war, which has had severe domestic and foreign consequences.

It also ignores the long history of Sunni-Shia rivalry within India, which, despite riots in Lucknow over sectarian differences, has not turned into an inferno of self-inflicted violence.

In India, Difference in Pronunciation (Between Ramazan & Ramadan) Unlikely to Cause Conflict

In the end, whether one has used ‘Ramadan’ or ‘Ramazan’ in India (or Ramojan or whatever), it has had relatively little political consequences in the country which hasn’t been entwined in such conflicts. Just as being Catholic or Protestant has not had much significance in most of Europe, but is significant in Northern Ireland, where wars were fought along these lines.

For India, these spelling differences are currently as inconsequential as whether we spell ‘colour’ with a ‘u’ or not, choosing an allegiance to British or American spellings.

Can this change, can it be weaponised? Maybe. India is now growing closer to the Arab world than ever before, with Saudi looking to buy the biggest refinery in the world in India. India has, post-Independence, strategically chosen to stay away from being enmeshed in foreign conflicts. This has helped buffer its local populations from violence.

As India becomes more consequential and its overseas population travels more, this will be harder to maintain. But it will not be a difference in pronunciation that will lead to conflict.

Rather, if we become enmeshed in conflicts where sectarian differences are weaponised, pronunciations will end up being seen as important signifiers of differences – made into divisions – worth dying and killing for. We will not find safety in criticising one pronunciation as more correct than another, but rather in maintaining a society where many find their expression – without threatening, or being threatened, by another.

(Omair Ahmad is an Indian writer whose book Jimmy the Terrorist was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize. He tweets at @OmairTAhmad. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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