From Khuda Hafiz to Allah Hafiz

Among sub continental Muslims, social salutation has assumed religious tones

Photo for representation.

Weaned on hearing and saying “Khuda Hafiz,” “Allah Hafiz” grates on my ears. I don’t understand, why sub-continental Muslims have suddenly begun to use this Arabic expression. This utter ‘Arabification’ (a term coined by the legendary orientalist, the late Edward W Said) of Islam, in almost all its facets, hasn’t even spared a language like Urdu, which belongs to Hindus as well as Muslims. Islam was born in Arabia, but it spread to all parts of the globe embracing the ethnic and linguistic ethos of the countries and continents it reached.

Allah is an Arabic word and nowhere in the Quran does one find Khuda for the almighty. Khuda is a Persian word, but even the rabidly ethnocentric Arabs didn’t mind saying Khuda Hafiz. Even today, one gets to hear Khuda Hafiz in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and North Africa, where Arabic is the predominant language. So why this insistence on Allah Hafiz rather than the innocuous Khuda Hafiz among the Muslims of the sub-continent?

Moreover, Arabs don’t say Allah Hafiz. They say “Ma’ assalamh, Fi salamatillah, Fi amanillah” etc. Allah Hafiz has been coined on the metre of Khuda Hafiz by non-Arabic speaking sub-continental Muslims. My point is: does language have anything to do with religion? The Uyghur Muslims of China, Chechen Muslims of Russia and Bangladeshi Muslims speak Chinese, Russian and Bengali respectively, not knowing Arabic at all.

It’s the spirit of a religion that binds people together transcending all other considerations. Whether a Muslim addresses Allah by one of his 99 names or by a name not mentioned or prescribed in the holy books shouldn’t make any difference.

The same insignificant issue of whether or not to use Khuda Hafiz arose at Al-Azhar, Cairo, long ago. The great blind scholar of Quran, Taha Hussain dismissed the whole issue in his inimitable style by saying, “A child calls his mother by so many names and also ‘coins’ new words for his/her mother and she invariably responds. Does she ever say why haven’t you called me mother?”

Today’s Muslims of the sub-continent (especially Indian Muslims) are actually a confused lot. They’re finding it increasingly difficult to relate to the country they’ve laid down their lives for. They feel betrayed, and justifiably at that. The events that have taken place in the last 20 years, haven’t been very favourable from the perspective of a Muslim. 9/11 drastically changed the whole world’s perceptions about Islam and its followers. They began to be looked down upon.

A ghettoised community often coins newfangled terms, ideas, identities and idioms as ideo-lingual measures of defence to thwart a humongous challenge, observed French social-theorist, Michel Foucault. Circa 2003, the Muslims of Bangladesh coined this exasperating Allah Hafiz and the jarring practice caught on. Now, at this juncture, there’re some Muslim ‘scholars’ who only talk of the Wahabi Islam of Saudi Arabia as the most pristine and correct form of Islam. Anything outside Arabia is a kind of interpolation that amounts to blasphemy. “We, the Muslims, must adhere to our Arab roots and we cannot afford to sever ties with our origin” — this mentality has got itself entrenched into the collective psyche of Indian Muslims and they’ve started to look towards Arabia for all their issues.

Anthropologist Dean Rusk’s observation — “this rather ill-conceived dependency has left them ‘religiously rootless’ and in such an uncertain state, a follower always tries to revert to his ‘roots’” — helps us partially understand the sudden transition from Khuda Hafiz to Allah Hafiz by the sub-continental Muslims

At the same time, recent linguistic tussle within the ambit of Islam has worked insidiously. Though Khuda Hafiz is not exactly frowned upon by the Arabs, an undercurrent of the supremacy of Persian and Arabic languages has always existed right from the inception of Islam, which came into being a little over 1,400 years ago. Persianisation and Arabification of Islam have occurred simultaneously in the history of Islam.

Religio-cultural trends are always influenced by linguistic hegemony. Indian and sub-continental Muslims, not knowing Persian and Arabic like native speakers, have always been a linguistically confounded lot. They themselves couldn’t decide the finesse of both the languages living on the sub-continent. So, the simultaneous emergence of the petro-dollar economy and the upsurge of Arab culture impacted the Muslims of the sub-continent.

Al-Furqan’s (Quran) language being Arabic and Saudi Arabia being the custodian of Islam’s two holiest mosques in Mecca and Medina, anything related to Arabs, their culture and language appealed to the Muslims in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. According to a few contemporary scholars of Islamic Theology, Allah is the holiest word in Islam and Khuda comes second on the scale of ‘Divine Profundity’. So, sub-continental Muslims thought that it would be in the fitness of things that Khuda be dropped and Allah be embraced more and more in daily conversation to be called a Momin (a true Muslim).

(The writer is a scholar of Sanskrit and Semitic languages, civilizations and literature.)

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