Nationalism is a funny thing. It can be the source of bonding and camaraderie as well as the cause of animosity, chest-puffing, and downright silliness.
Just consider all the online debate about the recent article “Why are Indian Muslims using the Arabic word ‘Ramadan’ instead of the traditional ‘Ramzan’?“, written by Shoaib Daniyal.
The article details how, historically, the Arabic word for Islam’s sacred month “Ramadan” came to be pronounced “Ramzan” in the sub-continent and how, recently, many South Asian Muslims are reverting to the “Ramadan” pronunciation due to, as the author puts it, the effect of a “Saudi-influenced brand of Islam” and “cultural insecurity” on the part of said South Asians.
Apparently, this is a debate that has been cropping up annually in South Asian communities around Ramadan time, and there are a lot of competing socio-political tensions that underlie and color the conversation. As far as this article is concerned, however, much of it is little more than nationalism and thinly-veiled anti-Arabism masquerading as serious historical and linguistic analysis.
The Urge to Purge
Calls for abandoning “arabicized” language in preference for a more “authentic,” “traditional,” or “pure” use of language is hardly new and certainly not limited to South Asia. Historically, many nationalist movements in the Middle East have called for dropping vocabulary, pronunciation, and script associated with Arabs and Arabic. In 20th century Turkey, for example, part of Ataturk’s compulsory modernization program was replacing the Perso-Arabic script of Ottoman Turkish with a new Latin-based Turkish alphabet that was meant to be truer to the modern secular Turkish identity. In Iran also, government programs under the rule of Muhammad Reza Shah attempted to “purify” the Persian language by excising any and all Arabic vocabulary and replacing it with Farsi equivalents, even if that meant inventing a Farsi word from scratch. Historically, these calls for purging Arabic almost always coincided with efforts to secularize society and attenuate the influence of Islam in people’s lives.
Beyond the Middle East and Arabic in particular, attempting to reform the way people use language is often little more than a way to bolster, entrench, or cultivate nationalistic identities. Mundane linguistic details become the battlefield for ideological tug of war. What often features in these debates, however, is partisan historiography and what Prof. Reza Zia-Ebrahimi of King’s College in London calls “dislocative nationalism.” Prof. Zia-Ebrahimi’s research is concerned with how Persian nationalists in the 19th and 20th centuries invented an Aryan national identity that they then back-projected thousands of years to claim that Iran — as a cohesive nation with its own distinct identity, religion, and language — existed in ancient times and persisted throughout history despite the “corrupting” influence of invading forces and cross-cultural mixing. Nationalist reformers in modern times then attempted to “purify” what they anachronistically believed to be that essence of Aryanness by “decontaminating” cultural markers of anything believed to be foreign and non-Aryan, e.g., the Arabic language and even Islam as a whole.
What these nationalists failed to appreciate, however, is that the concept of a nation is a modern construction — strictly speaking, just a figment of our collective imagination — and that the history of any given geographic region is a rich tapestry of interweaving cultures, languages, and traditions. Only a highly selective (and, hence, inventive) reading of history could ignore all that diversity in partitioning off a specific nationalistic or racial essence. This kind of nationalistic essentialism is, of course, not unlike what renowned scholar Edward Said identified and bemoaned as being operative in Orientalism and Western colonialism generally.
Truth be told, this kind of caricaturing and mythologizing of history in service of contemporary nationalistic identity politics is ubiquitous, whether it is modern Egyptians feeling a sense of connection to and national pride for the Ancient Pyramids or modern Americans celebrating Thanksgiving as a commemoration of a peaceful partnership between the Pilgrims and Native Americans.
What does all this have to do with Ramzan?
We can see this selective and romanticized reading of history in Daniyal’s Ramadan vs. Ramzan article. For example, the author repeatedly uses the term “traditional” to characterize the “Ramzan” pronunciative variant. The question to ask is, what makes “Ramzan” so traditional? Given that the sub-continent is home to hundreds of distinct languages and dialects, each with its own storied history, why insist on this one particular pronunciation? As Mahtab Alam noted in his post on this issue last year, not all Indians, let alone South Asians, claim Urdu/Hindi as their mother tongue. Besides “Ramzan,” many South Asians have Ramojan, Ramjan, Rumjan, Ramazan, and so on. As he succinctly puts it, “Insistence on one [variation] is as hegemonic as the other one.”
Further selectivity can be seen in how Daniyal describes the historical influence of Persian/Farsi on the Indian native language as opposed to the purported influence of Saudi Arabia today. The author does not see anything problematic or objectionable about the adoption of Persian language and culture in the evolution of the sub-continent over the course of centuries. But, when it comes to the contemporary adoption of Arabicized speech patterns, that is somehow indicative of Saudi meddling and “cultural insecurity” on the part of Indian Muslims.
So why the inconsistency? If it is a legitimate, natural, organic process for language to shift over time in the sub-continent due to Persian influence historically, why is it suddenly illegitimate, unnatural, objectionable when that language continues to shift in present times due to an Arab (or American, or English, etc.) influence today? In other words, why does Daniyal take a laissez faire attitude when it comes to language transformation historically, but when it comes to modern transformations, suddenly “tradition” is so important and we have to preserve the pronunciations of old? What is so special, culturally iconic, and indispensable about this one particular Persian variant, “Ramzan”?
All that Daniyal has to offer in response to this is that “Ramzan” is traditional because that is how “most Muslim” Indians have been pronouncing it for a few hundred years. Of course, he does not cite any statistics or census results to substantiate this. But, lack of verification aside, if we go back in time, at one point that “Ramzan” pronunciation itself was brand new and unprecedented in the sub-continent, just like “Ramadan” is (supposedly) brand new and unprecedented today. Maybe in a few hundred years, “Ramadan” too will be considered the “traditional” and culturally correct pronunciation. Only Khuda knows.
To step back and comment on this entire debate, I just want to say that, ultimately, it does not matter how one pronounces Ramadan or if a Muslim says “namaz” instead of “salat.” From my own life experience and observing the cross-cultural Muslim communities in the West and abroad, I have found that these cultural debates are often nothing more than tribalism (`asabiyya) rearing its ugly head.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am Persian American and grew up saying “Ramezan,” “namaz,” “roozeh,” “sahari,” “Khuda,” etc. I still use these words when speaking to my Iranian family members and do feel a warm connection to my Persian heritage. At the same time, I have no issue using the Arabic equivalents when speaking to others, e.g., my Egyptian wife, or my half-Persian, half-Egyptian sons, who speak both Farsi and Arabic ma sha’ Allah. And, coincidentally, in Persian, my first name, “Daniel,” is pronounced “Daniyal.” Hopefully, my pronunciation of my own name “Daniel” instead of “Daniyal” is not cultural insecurity on my part.
As far as orthoepy is concerned, correct pronunciation is religiously significant when it comes to obligatory prayers as well as the study of the Islamic sciences, e.g., transmission of hadith. Beyond this, as Muslims we should also not lose sight of the fact that Arabic is a special language for a number of reasons, chief among them that it is the language Allah chose for the Quran, His final revelation to mankind. Also, it is the mother tongue of the beloved Messenger of God . Given these two facts alone, how can any Muslim not feel a deep abiding love for lisan al-`arab? As an American and a Persian, I personally feel no contradiction in or threat to my sense of identity by acknowledging this love. And when we look at the history, literature, and scholarship of non-Arab Muslims the world over, we also see a reverence for Arabic.
Of course, it should go without saying that one’s appreciation of Arabic has no bearing on one’s opinion of the Saudi government or any other state institution. And, furthermore, this love of classical, formal Arabic, i.e., fusha, does not give modern Arabs the right to look down on non-Arab Muslims as somehow less authentically Muslim for any reason, least of which the fact that non-Arab Muslims use the words “Ramzan,” “sehri,” etc., in lieu of the formal Arabic counterparts. Keep in mind that the first and, arguably, most influential book of Arabic grammar ever written was completed in the 2nd century of the Hijri calendar by the Persian Muslim scholar Sibawayh, who was a non-native speaker of the language to boot.
Whether we like it or not, if we go far enough back in time, all of our personal family and cultural histories are inevitably an amalgam of a multitude of cross-cultural influences, regardless of the modern national identities we may currently associate with. In that wider sense, vociferously insisting on a nationality and imbuing so much significance on a singular national identity and language just seems historically illiterate, chauvinistic, and, well, silly.
And a Final Note…
In this post, I have made a big deal about historical diversity and the intellectual inconsistency of essentializing and mythologizing the past in order to serve modern nationalism. But, as it turns out, this is precisely the reasoning many modern academics use to argue that there is no essential, definitive “Islam” with a capital “i”. Rather, there are only “islams,” i.e., myriad historical interpretations, all equally legitimate and normative because who’s to say otherwise? According to this reasoning, it is nothing more than crass essentialism and historical constructivism to pick out an “orthodox Islam” and try to tie that alleged orthodoxy to a past community, e.g., the Sahaba, the Salaf, the Khalaf, etc.
As I have argued elsewhere in response to this argument, there is a brazen double standard in modern academia where religions, like Islam, are portrayed as lacking the robust objectivity and internal coherence — in a word, an essence —that Western normative systems, like liberalism, secularism, communism, capitalism, etc., are believed to have. No one is charged with essentialism, for example, by claiming that liberalism stands for, say, equal rights for all. That is just what liberalism means, and then further details can be debated by scholars in an analytic way. Whereas for Islam, there are as many equally valid interpretations as there are interpreters, for liberalism, Marxism, feminism, etc., not any and every interpretation is valid. This is because those thought systems have an essential meaning that it is the job of a scholar to study and understand.
In other words, Western ideas are typically studied for their own independent merit as abstractions with logical implications completely apart from any sociological, cultural, or historical contextual considerations. When you study Descartes’ Meditations in modern introductory philosophy classes, for example, little attention is given to Descartes’ social or cultural milieu; the only concern is to understand the thesis of the work as Descartes intended it. Contrast this with how the Quran, for example, is treated in Islamic and religious studies departments. Little attention is paid to trying to understand what the Author of the Quran could be propounding and whether those propositions have any independent logical merit. After all, who’s to say what the text of the Quran even means? It is all open to interpretation, and any claim about the text is more a reflection of the biases and cultural and political commitments of the commenter than the text itself.
Now imagine if we took this same approach to an economics or analytic philosophy class, arguing that the concept of “democracy” is open to interpretation, and while in the cultural context of the US, we might understand democracy to mean one thing, in North Korea, it means something else entirely, and who’s to say which interpretation is more “correct” or “orthodox”? Or how about a physics class. Unless one’s physics professor is an unabashed postmodernist, he is not going to be amused by a student arguing that he does not deserve an ‘F’ on his midterm because Isaac Newton’s Principia or Albert Einstein’s The Field Equations of Gravitation are open to interpretation and the professor’s understanding is merely an ahistorical projection of biases onto the text in constructing an “orthodox physics.”
I, of course, do believe the Quran and the Islamic sciences in general have an internal logical coherence and intrinsic meaning (within a range of diversity of opinion). The question then is, why is such essentialism acceptable here but unacceptable in the case of nationalism? Answering this question in full is beyond the scope of this already long post, but part of the answer is that, over the centuries, scholars of Islam put a lot of time, energy, and thought in preserving the religion, preserving the Sunnah, and actively warding off illegitimate deviation. And, importantly, they were perfectly aware that that was what they were doing — that was their explicit intent, as the historical record shows. Nationalism, in contrast, lacks that historical continuation and self-reflexivity since, of course, the concept of a “nation” is only a couple hundred years old and anything even approximating contemporary nationalistic identities are notably absent from the historical record. Furthermore, when we look at historical discourse, say a thosand years ago, we do not find Indian or Persian scholars, for example, theorizing about the Hindustani or Aryan essence or concerning themselves with preserving an ethnic discursive tradition or racialized normative system til the end of time. With Islam and Muslim scholars, however, we do see this concern with preserving the normative vision of Islam indefinitely, and that is a crucial distinguishing factor. WaAllahu`alam.