How Hindi evolved as a modern language of Islam

In postcolonial India, Hindi was seen as a tool to spread the message of Quran

ByHilal Ahmed
How Hindi evolved as a modern language of Islam
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Is it legitimate to call Hindi — at least in the north Indian Hindustani speaking context — a modern Islamic language?

This question is not often asked for two obvious reasons. The north Indian Muslim political discourse of 1950-1970 articulated the question of Urdu to assert Muslim distinctiveness. It has always been claimed, in fact quite rightly, that Urdu cannot/should not be described merely as a language of Muslims. However, the manner in which the ‘protection of Urdu’ was used by so-called secular parties, eventually reduced Urdu as a fixed symbol of Muslim identity. As a result, the Urdu-Muslim and Hindi-Hindu binary was established and Urdu-Hindi controversy survived as an unresolvable issue.

Second, the proliferation of Hindi, at least the popularity of Nagari script, in north Indian Islamic discourses could not become a serious subject of investigation. The emphasis, or rather overemphasis on ‘Urdu culture’ in the public discourse overshadowed the gradual changes that were taking place in the religious spheres in post-Partition north India.

Persianised Urdu, we must remember, was the language of upper-caste, educated, upper-class north India Muslim elite. This elite was, no doubt, interested in maintaining the status of Urdu as a rich literary resource with the help of the postcolonial state. But using Urdu as a vehicle for mass mobilisation of any kind was not in the agenda for these Urdu leaders.

The north Indian Muslim communities, on the other hand, had not fully become Urdu-speaking at the time of Independence (despite the Muslim League’s two nation-rhetoric). This is very clearly reflected in the census data. Over the years, five to six per cent of Indians recognised Urdu as their language. It is very difficult to identify the religion of these Urdu speaking Indians. Nevertheless, it shows that Urdu, like Hindi, cannot be associated with any particular religious community. The campaign led by a few Muslim politicians in Uttar Pradesh in the 1960s to encourage Muslims to identify Urdu as their mother tongue, must be seen in relation to this Muslim apathy for Urdu in northern states.

The state-sponsored Sanskritised Hindi project affected the intellectual universe of yet-to-be educated Muslims at the bottom level of society, especially in the 1950s. Although the introduction of Sanskritised Hindi as a medium of instruction clearly aimed at achieving the standardisation of Hindi language and uniformity of its speakers, for Muslim communities, like many other social groups, it was a historical opportunity for upward mobility. Sanskritised Hindi could function as a vehicle to get into the emerging power structure of

Sanskritised Hindi could function as a vehicle to get into the emerging power structure of a postcolonial state. Thus, there was an interesting tussle: Urdu was attached to the Muslim identity as an inseparable entity; while Hindi was coming to them not merely as an acceptable language of political discourse but also as a possibility of empowerment.
The Islamic elite captured this trajectory just after the Independence. Since the prime concern for religious elites was to get involved in the everyday life of Muslim communities in various contexts, it was inevitable to move towards Hindi — that too — in its sensitised official version wholeheartedly. In fact, Hindi became a tool to spread the message of Islam, which can also be called ‘da’wa — (inviting Muslims as well as non-Muslims toward Islam).
Maulana Abu Ala Al-Mawdudi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami (JIH), delivered a powerful speech at Madras (now Chennai) on 26 April 1947 — a few months before the Partition. This speech is relevant because it explores the possibilities of Islamic da’wa in the future republic of India and offers a blueprint of what Mawdudi calls, a peaceful Islamic revolution.

Mawdudi made four proposals. The first two suggestions were concerned with creating a conducive environment for da’wa — a trust-building endeavour so as to carve out a space for spreading the message of Islam in India. Mawdudi suggests:

‘…confidence is to be reposed in the Hindu nationalist movement through our course of action that there is no other religion competing with them politically…the…important task for us to spread Islamic knowledge on a wide scale among Muslims, create in them a general desire for propagation of Islam and reform of their character and social lives to an extent where non-Muslims will feel their society to be clearly better than their own’.

The other two proposals were about the practicalities of da’wa: preparing Islamic intellectuals and translation of Islamic literature in Indian languages.
Mawdudi advises:

‘…our workers…should learn ….Indian languages…If Muslims restrict themselves only to Urdu due to their religious prejudice; they will become strangers to the general population to the nation.

The suggestions made by Mawdudi (who migrated to Pakistan in 1947) were taken up seriously by the JIH in India. This speech by Maulana Abul Lais Islahi Nadwi (the Amir of the JIH in the 1950s) in 1952 at Hyderabad is a good example to understand the placing of Hindi in Islamic discourses. He argues:

JIH is not a religious organisation in the restricted sense of the term; nor is it a political group in the way politics is popularly understood. …we invite people to worship Almighty. We have not only given da’wa to Muslims but have made a serious endeavour to introduce it (Islamic teachings) to each and every community of India. For this purpose, we have started producing literature in languages other than Urdu….We do not want to assemble a huge crowd; instead, we attempt to want conformity of ideas. When they (people) recognise the truthfulness of our message, they would redesign their lives accordingly’.

To work out a practical design for this seemingly difficult project of Islamic da’wa, especially in the post-Partition, anti-Muslim environment of 1950-1970s, JIH took the language question very seriously. The Foreword written by Maulana Mawdudi for the Hindi translation of the Quran in 1970 underlines this aspect. Mawdudi writes:

‘It had been felt for a long time that there was a need for translating the Quran and other Islamic literature in Hindi, which is the national language of India…so that the vast majority of Hindi speaking population gets acquainted with the fundamental essence of Islam’.

To understand the value of Mawdudi’s argument, one has to look at the manner in which the question of language and translation of the Quran has been debated in postcolonial India. The famous Calcutta Quran case is a good example here.

In 1985 a writ petition was filed in the Calcutta High Court demanding that ‘the publication of the Koran in the original Arabic as well as in its translations in various languages…amounts to commission of offences …and accordingly each copy of the book must be declared as forfeited´ (Writ Petition 227 of 1985). The petition, as expected, was dismissed by the court on the ground that Quran was the basic text of Islam. However, Hindu fundamentalist groups continued to use this politically-motivated reading of the Quran to mobilise Hindus.

The Hindi translation of the Quran published by the Jamiat-Ulama-e-Hind responded to this debate directly. In the Preface of the Hindi version of the Quran, the translators argue that the purpose of translating the Quran into Hindi was primarily to expose the anti-Muslim propaganda of Hindu fundamentalists. They argue that ‘the essentialist and anti-Muslim conclusions are quite possible only because of substandard Hindi translations of the Quran’. In order to maintain the purity of Hindi, this translation of Quran was finally sent to a few Hindi experts (who happened to be non-Muslims) for their approval.

Evolution of Hindi as a modern language of Islam in postcolonial Islamic discourse responded to the wider Hindi/Urdu politics very differently. The protection of Urdu, which eventually emerged as ‘minority issue’ is re-conceptualised by Islamic movements, especially by the JIH. While the adherence to the protection of Urdu was profoundly expressed in this case, the other Indian languages, especially Hindi, were seen as tools to spread the message of Islam. This re-ordering of languages helps groups like JIH and JHU to communicate with various actors — the state, non-Muslims and non-Urdu speaking Muslim communities — within the framework of constitutionally granted freedom of religion.

This is the first piece in a two-part series on the role of language in forging a Muslim identity. The second piece will be up next week. 

Muslims and Modernity is a fortnightly column by Hilal Ahmed. The author can be contacted on Twitter @Ahmed1Hilal.


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