It’s the communications, dummy

A picture of a crescent (new) moon in a red sky over two small trees, with the lights of a city behind them.
Crescent moon over Manama, Bahrain, marking the start of Ramadan

I follow a few Kashmir activists on Twitter and a theme that has been coming up a lot lately is Indian Hindus and secularist Muslims lecturing Indian Muslims (and Muslims in the Indo-Pak diaspora) that they should stop calling Ramadan ‘Ramadan’ and use the Indo-Persian rendering, ‘Ramazan’ or ‘Ramzan’ which has been what the sacred month has traditionally been called in India. This is usually accompanied by a moan about Arabisation of Indian Muslim culture and the effect of Gulf finance and supposed Wahhabi sectarianism. Others accuse Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistani dictator from the early 1980s, of imposing “Arab culture” in Pakistan, as if this could have had significant impact on India which is a much bigger country which no longer has significant traffic with Pakistan due to political hostility. Here’s an example from an Indian Washington Post columnist:

One wonders why people care about how followers of a religion they do not believe in pronounce names from their religion, but the answers lie in control and purity. If Indian Muslims are practising Islam in a way more influenced by Arab than Indian custom (even though they already regard Islam itself as an alien imposition), it gives the impression that they are not really committed to Indianness, to Indian culture, to loyalty to India rather than to Muslims around the world. To ‘liberal’ Hindus it represents the rise of youthful radicalism; to reactionary ones it proves what they believed all along: that Muslims really do not identify with India and have no place in India.

There is some parallel with the way women who wore the modern headscarf were treated in some Arab secular regimes and by writers hostile to Islam or ‘Islamism’. The new headscarf was seen as a symbol of Islamist ideology; it was not the association with patriarchy that was objected to but the sign of dissent to the ideology of the state. In Tunisia, where from the 1980s onwards the government repressed the wearing of hijab because they deemed it a symbol of ‘backwardness’ and of opposition to the regime, the traditional veil known as the safsari was permitted, yet this was a more restrictive garment that had to be held in place by hand. Patriarchy and restrictions on women’s liberty were fine by them as long as they were by themselves.

In truth, the spread of Arab pronunciations of words like ‘Ramadan’ has more to do with improved communications than with any ideology or religious movement. Indian Muslims until the 19th century rarely met an Arab Muslim until they went to Hajj which the majority were never able to do; Arabs came as traders and sometimes visiting scholars but rarely otherwise. Today, many Muslims (as well as others) go to work in the Gulf as well as in Europe and America where Persianisms such as ‘Namaz’ and ‘Ramazan’ are not normal. They gained their knowledge from local scholars who were not native Arabic speakers. Today, Muslims all over the world (at least the middle class and up) have access to satellite TV, the Internet, books and magazines published in their own language as well as English and Arabic and are aware of ways of practising Islam that are not the same way they do, and sometimes they learn that the way they do things is not the right way or at least not the only way. For example, it is surely no coincidence that the decline of practices such as FGM in parts of Africa where most people are Muslims has followed the opening-up of those countries to communication with Muslims outside who do not do these things and never have done. Before that, as in India, nobody except scholars and itinerant traders had contact with the outside world.

The irony is that ‘Ramazan’ is not the only ‘native’ way of pronouncing ‘Ramadan’ in India. In many places (such as in Bengal) it is pronounced ‘Ramajan’ (and the salaat or ritual prayer, known as namaz elsewhere in India, is ‘namaj’). ‘Ramazan’ is the north-east Indian Persian ‘court’ term. To anyone literate in Arabic, the idea that four Arabic letters with different pronunciations might all be rendered as ‘Z’ does not make sense, especially in a country where other Arabic sounds that are also not native there, such as qaf and ghayn, are prounounced more or less correctly; if you are praying with Arabs who are not of the Hanafi school of thought, they will regard your prayer as invalid if you mangle words like “dhaalleen” in the Fatiha. So, while it’s only to be expected that Hindu nationalists will carp at Muslims for embracing correct Arabic pronunciations (or something close to it), I do not see an honest reason for Muslims to do so. Why would you not want Muslims to embrace the language of the Qur’an and our Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam?

Image source: Ahmad Rabea, via Flickr. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 2.0 licence.

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