While studying in Cairo in 2009, taxi drivers would often ask me if I studied at Al-Azhar University. Although I was conversant in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic, several of my syllables strayed from native pronunciations. Sometimes I’d slip in some literary phrase if I couldn’t come up with the dialect, which made it plausible to the driver that I was some devoted Muslim boy studying at Al-Azhar. Nevertheless, on the outside, I looked as Indian to an Egyptian as Amitabh Bacchan. Even though I often played along with my Al-Azharite identity, to the disappointment of most taxi drivers, I have never been a pious student of Arabic nor a Bollywood superstar. I am not a hafiz though I can recite some well-known lines from Imru’ Qays, Mahmoud Darwish, and other poets through which I learned Arabic.
When my Urdu professors in Lucknow discovered my Arabic skills, they assumed that I would be one of those American students of Arabic who spent all their time at Lucknow’s Islamic nadwa (seminary) and befriended bearded men to whom the truth that I am a gay, Christian-raised, wine-drinking, American might be appalling. Though I had memorized a few verses of the Quran like any aspiring Arabist, my decision to study Arabic was not based on a particular desire to understand Islamic doctrine. Rather, knowledge of Islamic history is vital for a student of literatures produced in Islamic cultural contexts. For example, my reasons to learn about the Battle of Karbala were not to ponder hadith reports x or y, but to better understand literary genres like marsiyya (poems based on mourning the events at Karbala). Yet, what I have not been able to escape is that Arabic, as language outside of the Arab world, carries primarily religious connotations and is used primarily for liturgical purposes. The notion that the Quran was revealed in Arabic means that non-Arab Muslims memorize passages in Arabic without necessarily having Arabic language skills or studying other Arabic texts. Suffice to say, my Urdu teachers in India saw my Arabic skills as a means for me to understand the word of God.
In the eyes of many South Asian Muslims, an association with Arabic has served to elevate a text’s association with Islam. University of Chicago professor Tahera Qutbuddin argues in “Arabic in India: A Survey and Classification of Its Uses, Compared with Persian,” that “Indian Muslims consider the study of all texts Arabic to be a religious exercise.” *Even texts that are read as secular works of grammar, philosophy, and literature in the Arab world are read as religious documents in South Asia. This tendency implies that the study of Arabic in South Asia, irrespective of what the Arabic text says, is often regarded as a religious enterprise. Qutbuddin also writes, “it is the religious scholars in India who have produced the (relatively much smaller) body of non-religious Arabic literature, presumably part of their religious effort.” * This makes sense, because who else besides a religious scholar writing on Islam in South Asia would be able to write in Arabic in the first place? Because Arabic is primarily taught in madrasas, non-Muslims have very little access to Arabic scholarship.
The notion that Arabic has been locked away in the madrasa in South Asia makes me a bit uncomfortable. When entire genres such as qasida and ghazal have been appropriated in Urdu from Arabic by way of Persian, it is difficult to ignore the importance of Arabic detached from religion in South Asia. Literary genres in other South Asian languages from Gujrati to Panjabi have also been influenced by genres originating in Arabic. Along with genres, the rules of genres such as the presence of rhyming elements qafiyya and radif in the Urdu ghazal are also borrowed from Arabic by way of Persian. Islamic stories, like those found in a marsiyya, are better understood through religious teaching which was transmitted to the South Asian context in part through Arabic. When reading an Urdu or Indo-Persian text, the tendency for Arabists to recognize and interpret “Arabic” meanings is not completely off base when the writers had access to Arabic as well. Often times, Arabic knowledge eases the pain of making it through texts conventionally thought of as challenging. Beyond literature, the names of places, people, and buildings from the masjid to Nur Ul-Hasan (1921-1983) have come to Urdu, Indo-Persian, etc., through Arabic.
Nevertheless, scholars do not make the leap from Arabic to Urdu often. They argue that whatever Arabic came to Urdu came through Persian, and therefore the relationship between Urdu and Persian is a much more intimate relationship than Arabic and Urdu. While there is truth to this, major Indo-Muslim figures over the ages such as ‘Abd al-Rahim Khan-e Khanan (1556-1627), Siraj al-Din Ali Khan-e Arzu (1689-1756), and Azad Bilgrami (1704-1786) were well read in Arabic. Understanding whether or not the influence and presence of Arabic uniformly possesses religious connotations their works deserves further research. When even the titles of many South Asian secular works in Persian and Urdu, ranging from Shah Nawaz Khan’s seventeenth-century Ma’athir al-umara’ (Persian) to Nazir Ahmed Dehlvi’s nineteenth-century novel Mirat ul-Uroos (Urdu) bear Arabic titles what is the purpose of naming an Urdu or Persian work in Arabic? To elevate the work or to express something that Persian or Urdu will not express? Is Arabic evoked merely for effect to assert some association with a long lost or imaginary urtext? Shall we reduce a South Asian’s use of Arabic to their desire to invoke a religious truth or shall we explore the nature of this “truth” further?
Because there seems to be a clear influence of Arabic on nonreligious writing, the idea that Arabic in South Asia was read as exclusively divine seems to stand on shaky ground. If Arabic were to connote divinity in South Asia, does divinity imply truth? Did the reading of Arabic texts in South Asia leave space for debate and interpretation, or does the buck stop with Ul-this and mufa’lun-that? These are questions that must be further explored through research. It seems to me that in certain contexts the evocation of Arabic certainly functions to attach a sense of divinity to a certain thought, but this may not be true of all evocations of Arabic. By reading what has been written about Arabic in South Asia throughout history as well as what has been written in Arabic in South Asia we may pursue a philological study and find answers to these questions.
To read Arabic texts produced by South Asians is not enough to study Arabic in South Asia. The first reason being the fact that few Arabic texts have been written by South Asians. Because Arabic is so absorbed within the literary heritages of Indo-Persian, Urdu, and other South Asian languages, the influence of Arabic on other South Asian literatures must be studied. By reading both the translations and the Arabic texts, we can study how Arabic texts were translated or mimicked by Indo-Persian writers.
Arabic literature produced in the Arab world is itself an expansive area of study that requires further translation and research. But Arabic’s reach and its effects on other parts of the world is also immensely important to discovering how ideas were transmitted and adapted by other societies. While Islam is inescapable when discussing Arabic outside of the Arab worlds, Arabic in South Asia calls for philology. Perhaps through a study of Arabic in South Asia, we can understand similarities and differences that existed between Arab societies and South Asian societies in times far from the present, when cultural ties along certain Indian Ocean trade routes were arguably closer than today. If we can show how Arabic culture seeped out of the madrasa and into nonreligious spheres, we can find possible evidence of pluralism, interpretation, and debate in the past. More than anything, I want to live in a world where individuals from Egyptian taxi drivers to my Indian Urdu professors realize that Islam can be seen not only as divine, but also cultural. Religious culture warrants curiosity as much as a religious belief does.
* Tahera Qutbuddin, “Arabic in India: A Survey and Classification of its Uses, Compared with Persian,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 127:3 (2007), 333.
Vivek Gupta is a writer and translator whose work focuses on South Asian and Arab arts and literature. He received his B.A. in Comparative Literature and Arabic from Washington University in St. Louis in 2010.