Imagine a mosque, especially in north India, where the Hindi translation and transliteration of the Quran and other Islamic religious books and scriptures are available and all public instructions for worshippers are written in the Nagari script?
Indeed our imagination and set notions do not permit this.
Mosques are often considered as alien places of worship (as Islam does not originate in India), which promote and imbibe a culture of (non-Indian) Arabic-Urdu-Persian language. It is believed that since Muslims are a highly inward-looking, immobile community, the evolution of Arabic-Urdu-Persian culture as Islamic culture is valid and natural.
This prevailing public perception is highly problematic. Although, it is true that Arabic is respected as the original language of the Quran, and the tradition of recitation as well memorisation of the Quran has flourished in a highly unprecedented manner in postcolonial India, yet Hindi (both in terms of language and script) has emerged as a powerful linguistic mode to unpack the meanings of the Quran. All authentic translations and explanations of the Quran are available in Hindi; many original Hindi translations of this sacred book have already been published.
This phenomenal growth of Islamic literature in Hindi is inextricably linked to the changing forms of Islamic religiosities in India. Unlike the late 19th and early 20h century Islamic reforms, postcolonial Islamic traditions operate in a very different socio-political environment. The constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of religion on one hand, and the stigma of Partition (at least in North India) on the other determines the nature of Islamic traditions in the post-1947 period.
As expected, Hindi became a powerful tool for religious mobilisation. This slow process began with the publication of the Quran and other religious books in Hindi, which gradually transformed the entire Islamic religious culture of North India. The impact of this linguistic shift from predominantly Urdu to Hindi was equally radical.
Let us take a few examples to illustrate this point.
The Hindi notice board in the central mosque of Nainital — a famous tourist place in Uttrakhand — makes an interesting case. It says that Muslim men should come inside and participate in the congregational prayers while requesting women and accompanying children to wait outside.
However, after the congregational prayer, the men are requested to leave the mosque to take care of children outside, so that women could come inside and offer namaz as well. Interestingly, the mosque management committee is liberal enough to allow women to come inside the mosque even without the burqa.
(Hindi notice board at the Nainital Central Mosque, Uttrakhand. Photo Source: HA Collection, 2013)
The notice board in a mosque situated in Sadar Bazar, New Delhi is another example. Written both in Hindi and Urdu, the board makes it clear that the mosque management is open to public criticism. Like a modern organisation, it asks the worshippers to offer criticisms and suggestions about rules and norms that are practised in the mosque. Concerned about the nature of announcements and speeches that are made inside the mosque, the management committee also mandates that prior permission of the manager (Nazim) should be sought before any public speeches or announcements are made.
(Hindi-Urdu Notice Board at the mosque at Sadar Bazar, Delhi. Photo Source: HA Collection, 2014)
Hindi has also reached Muslim graveyards of North India. For instance, the main entrance to East Delhi’s Kardam Puri graveyard has “786” (in Roman) and a Hindi inscription on it to inform the visitors that it is an Islamic place.
(Entrance of the Kardam Puri graveyard, Delhi. Photo Source: HA Collection, 2009)
Inside the graveyard, clear instructions for the burial of Muslims has been written in Hindi and Urdu on the wall. The graveyard space is restricted for the residents of six redeveloped colonies of East Delhi. One has to get a death certificate in order to secure a grave space. In addition, no one is allowed to make permanent graves (pucca qabr) which are made up of cement and concrete, instead, the graveyard management encourages the use of wood to cover the upper layer of the kuccha grave.
(Kardam Puri graveyard, Delhi. Photo Source: HA Collection, 2009)
These examples show that Hindi comes naturally as a language of expression to ordinary Muslims in North India. They do not face cultural or political hurdles while expressing their thoughts, anxieties and Islamic belief in Hindi.
At the same time, this unprecedented proliferation of Islamic Hindi does not become a challenge for Urdu. Hindi translations of Islamic texts written in Urdu function as a bridge to introduce Muslims (as well as non-Muslims, who can only read the Nagari script) to the intellectual world of Islam. On the other hand, Islamic terminology, which evolved in Arabic-Urdu-Persian language culture of the 19h century, enriches the Islamic Hindi vocabulary. In this sense, Hindi and Urdu complement each other. The notice boards in the Sadar Bazar mosque and the Kardam Puri graveyard emphasise this mutual co-existence of Urdu and Hindi.
The emergence of Hindi as a modern Islamic language also symbolises a significant religious-cultural transformation. The legitimate entry of women inside a mosque to offer prayers (that is run by Hanafi-Sunni Muslims) without any state intervention, underlines the fact that gender roles among Muslims are changing. Although, it is not reasonable to make a sweeping generalisation with regard to gender relations among North Indian Muslim communities only on the basis of just one example, the opening of Nainital mosque for Muslim women is indicative of a substantial social change.
Similarly, asking worshippers to file grievances and offer comments and criticisms for effective management of the Sadar Bazar mosque points towards a growing culture of constructive criticisms, if not internal democratization. An apparently powerful modernist impulse is also evident in the instructions written outside the Kardam Puri graveyard. The graveyard committee’s insistence for proper documentation and observance of certain processes goes against the dominant assumption that all Muslims follow just one form of Islam in the matters of life and death. The space of graveyard, in this case, is confined for the Muslim residents of a few notified colonies.
This postcolonial Indo-Islamic religiosity, which is very much embedded in Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani language culture, cannot be understood either as an ‘expression of secularism’ or a zeal for Indianization by Muslims. In fact, the politics of language, especially the Hindi-Urdu debate, cannot accommodate these nuanced language-identity forms.
This is the second piece in a two-part series on the role of language in forging a Muslim identity. You can read the first piece here.
Muslims and Modernity is a fortnightly column by Hilal Ahmed. The author can be contacted on Twitter @Ahmed1Hilal.