Urdu: global symbol of linguistic, cultural, religious identity

Urdu: global symbol of linguistic, cultural, religious identity

Urdu is based in the Indo-Aryan branch of Indo-European langua­ges, and it came to South Asia at the time of the Mughals in the 16th century. At the time, Persian was the official language of the Mughals, which perhaps is the reason why the Urdu script is highly Persianised and retains several elements of Persian.

Urdu was spoken by people of imperial rank, it eventually developed in a highly stylised form called Nasta’liq. Like Arabic and Persian, it is written from right to left, and contains a majority of the same characters with a couple of additions. Though it is now the prominent language of the sub-continent and spoken by the majority of the people in the region. Urdu is always considered by some scholars as the language of the elite and educated. Other indigenous languages were only spoken in the home by this percentage, and Urdu represented moving upward on the socio-economic ladder. 

Both Hindi and Urdu came about from a language called Hindustani. However after the partition in 1947, though still having shared elements, they developed differently in terms of scripts.  Scholars such as Christopher Schackle contend that after the partition, Urdu became a vehicle by which the Muslim elite of India could assert their own linguistic identity and unify a shared identity amongst the Muslims in South Asia.  Hence, even though very few people spoke Urdu in the region, it became a means by which to form South Asian identity.

On the note of association between South Asian identity and the Urdu language, Urdu becomes the outlet through which more can be gleaned regarding the development of Islam in South Asia. India having the second largest population of Muslims in the world after Indonesia. This is critical to note because especially with the study of Islam and Islamic cultures and civilisations, it is often assumed that Islamic is synonymous with West Asian and Arab culture.

The fact of the matter is that a majority of the world’s two billion Muslims actually live in the sub-continent.  In order to gain a better understanding of the rich religious tradition of Islam, it is crucial to understand South Asian culture, and by extension, South Asian Islam. This is particularly relevant in the post 9/11 climate in which it is the unfortunate reality that many misconceptions and inaccuracies are abounded.  It is extremely beneficial to put forth the idea that Islam is not a single entity with a monolithic identity.  Islam is, in fact, a dynamic and evolving tradition that differs greatly across various global regions.

It is clear that Islam has had a pervasive influence on South Asian culture with resp­ect to its impact on language, art, architecture, literature and poetry. One of the great scholars of Urdu literary tradition Gopi Chand Narang said, “Urdu is not the language of Muslims. If at all there is any language of Muslims it should be Arabic. Urdu belongs to the composite culture of India.”

Many of the institutions of higher learning in the United States would hold in agreement the critical role that the study of language holds in the overall examination of South Asian culture. Therefore, the study of South Asian languages such as Sanskrit, Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Tamil etc is often at the heart of an academic programme.  For example, in the programme at Harvard University, a student is required to gain competency in Sanskrit or another South Asian language as well as develop other expertise in other fields.

This requirement demonstrates just how crucial language study is to the overall field of South Asian Studies. The relationship between the study of language and an area studies would perhaps be clarified through understanding the perspective of philologists. Philology signifies the thorough study of language with respect to that language’s linguistic and literary tradition. It is derived from the Greek root phil which means love, and logos which represents that which is articulated. 

Language study

Philologists hold that learning the language of a specific region is the ideal entry a specific area of study, and a skill that is not only immensely beneficial, but wholly necessary in order to gain even the slightest accurate insight into a civilisation and culture. 

Therefore, language study is seen as the gateway into the culture because it provides the bridge into understanding the culture by providing access to South Asian literature and poetry, original historical texts, religious texts, philosophical works as well as music and art.

Whether or not one agrees with the standpoint of a philologist, the immense benefits of studying a South Asian language cannot be understated.  For example, a very strong case can be made for the reasons why a student should study the Urdu language at a higher institution, regardless of what that student’s specific area of interest is.  As mentioned earlier, both students who claim an ethnic and familial background in South Asia, as well as Americans with no such familial ties, are equally attracted to the study of Hindi and Urdu. 

Of these groups, there are those (South Asian and American alike) who are simply interested in linguistics, and for them, Urdu and Hindi are rich and beautiful languages that they want to be a part of. These students are the ones who are interested in developing proficiency in a foreign language to increase their access to people in different regions by enabling them to communicate with them.

The South Asian studies, particularly when undertaken by students of South Asian descent, can serve as a vehicle by which to preserve culture and cultivate a connection with familial roots. After all, for those students of American backgrounds, are also forging new connections with South Asian culture through the study of language, history, religion, and civilisation.

(The writer is a linguist teaching at the Washington University in St Louis, USA)