Ramzan or Ramadan. Why should Indian Muslims be put to test?

Even a slight variation may make you a fit case to be 'sent to Pakistan'.

 |  7-minute read |   01-07-2015
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One of my first roommates in hostel, during my BA days, was Jaseem Khan. Another of our hostel mates from eastern Uttar Pradesh, who stayed next door, would often mispronounce my name as Reyaj. One evening, Jaseem tried to teach him the difference between Z and J. After some tongue twisting, the boy could pronounce my name correctly. But the very next moment we all broke into a riot of laughter after he called my roommate Zaseem instead of Jaseem.

As the debate over Ramadan and Ramzan raged on, I was reminded of this nine- year old incident. Premchand might have said, "What's in a name?" (Shakespeare said it first). But we certainly know how important names are. While debates must continue, this one seems to be going off the track.

Those increasingly calling it Ramadan argue that they are only using the "more correct" and "universal" pronunciation, and that the allegations of getting Arabised are far-fetched to say the least. The nationalist champions of Ramzan on the other hand have declared that "Not Saudi, this is India! Not Ramadan, it's Ramzan!" They argue that this is how it has always been for us Indians and this is how it must remain. So the usage of Z or D, intentional or otherwise, has turned into an "Indian question" on which the loyalty of the Muslims in this country is going to be tested. The English bard who said "What's in a name?" might have himself used at least 16 spellings of his own name on different occasions, but even a slight variation in India may make you a fit case to be "sent to Pakistan"!

Is it a Z or a D?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic Hijri calendar and irrespective of whether you write it in Urdu, Persian or Arabic, it has the same spelling. The problem arises when you try writing it in English or other languages, for there is no exact equivalent of the Arabic letter "ض" - zād - which would ideally fall somewhere between Z and Dh and is difficult to pronounce for those who don't speak Arabic.

In fact, there is nothing unique in the debate over the pronunciation of J-Z-Dh. While transcribing Urdu words with letters that have sounds similar to Z, F, et al to Hindi, many people prefer to put a dot below ज, फ, etc. Someone from, say the district of Muzaffarpur in Bihar, may thus often mispronounce the name of their native with a J (instead of Z) and Ph (instead of F) in Hindi, or would similarly call the Islamic month "Ramjan". The holy month began with the sighting of the moon, as did the debate. A friend from Assam wrote on Facebook: "Romjan Mubarak." But what if the same people from Muzaffarpur or Assam come to Delhi and learn to speak correctly at some university and start adding a dot below ज.

Let's take another example - the English spelling for a "centre for learning" in Arabic is as varied as madrasah, madarasaa, medresa, madrassa, madraza, medrese, etc. To say that one is more correct or must be preferred over others is nothing more than the sign of a closed mind.

The argument that Indian Muslims have traditionally used Persian forms and words like Ramzan, khuda, namaz over ramadan, Allah, salat, which are symbolic of syncretistic culture itself is flawed. Yes, it is true that in north India Islam spread through Persia and Central Asia and hence we find their influence. But could not one argue that we are Indians and not Persians, and like the current ruling dispensation that wants to do away with several English influences, we should also shun the Persian influence? Who decides which "foreign influence" is correct and which is not? Moreover, it's a fact that the language of Quran is Arabic. So irrespective of whether you call it salat or namaz, Muslims - even Iranians - end up using Arabic in prayers while enchanting the holy verses, just as Hindus use Sanskrit.

Further, what if one argues that right from the Oxford dictionary to BBC and to the New York Times, the conventional pronunciation of Ramadan is with a D and hence more than the Arab influence, it is a practised universal form. For example, if I am writing an article or posting something on social media with a hashtag, I would prefer to spell it with a D simply because I would want to reach out to more readers across the globe. Clearly, I don't see any Arabic influence on myself, considering I am a vocal critic of Saudi/Wahabi/Arab powers.

The arm-chair experts - or those who want to pander to the new hyper-nationalist government - who are crying hoarse at "depleting" Persian influences, it appears, have read little even about Iran. From the official website of Iran's Supreme Leader Imam Khamenei to their leading TV channels, everyone in the country uses "D" while describing the ninth month in English. Are these cultural critics going to claim that even the Iranian media and their Supreme Leader are under the influence of their bête noire, the extremist Wahabis of Saudi Arabia?

India has generally been quite open to embracing other cultures and influences. Few outside Bengal would, in fact, know that "Banerjee" evolved from Sanskrit "Bandyopadhyay", "Mukherjee" from "Mukhopadhyay", "Ganguly" from "Gangopadhyay", and so on. It is not certain how the simplified version evolved, but many say that it is the Tadbhav form (with the word "Ji" suffixed as a mark of respect) that was later adopted in English as well. The beauty of Bengali Bhadralok is that they are equally comfortable with both and use them interchangeably even today. Our very own Didi, the West Bengal CM, is thus referred to as Mamata Badopadhyay or Mamata Banerjee.

Similarly, Shukl has become Shukla for Hindi speakers. It is interesting that one of the first people to flag this debate last year was senior Journalist Kanchan Gupta, who otherwise does not appear to have any qualm using an extra "A" in his surname. In fact, as we debate over Ramadan, the ancient Indian practice of Yog has quietly been mutated to Yoga, again with the emphasis on "A" without raising a brow.

Question of identity?

Of course, many Muslims, particularly the Sunnis, look upon Mecca and Medina symbolically because Prophet Muhammad lived there and, increasingly, you see shops in Muslim localities with names beginning with Al (Arabic for the). Sometimes, even a hybrid like Al-Bake. Further, a semi literate man, from say the remote Gopalganj or Azamgarh, who goes to work in Dubai, might be fascinated by  the rapid "development", skyscrapers and wealth he sees in the host country. He might also bring the traditional Arabic cloak, Jubba or thobe for his son for Eid (or is it Id now?), just as someone from the West would bring western dresses - the late Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi famously got a refrigerator for Sharmila Tagore from London. But terming the attire of a young boy or man wearing a loosely fitted, and clearly out of place, Jubba a manifestation of the Arab/Wahabi influence is too simplistic. It is a dangerous inference that smirks of crass stereotyping, bordering on prejudices. Identity is often a cocktail of context and rationality and based as much on the "self-image" as on the "perception" of others. It is a complex issue that needs to be probed and understood before raising false flags.

Is there no radicalisation?

It is true that irrespective of religion, increasingly, people belonging to different groups have become more assertive, contrary to what most early theoreticians of globalisation had thought, and one must look beyond the global-local binary to understand this phenomenon. It is also right that the radicalisation is fast taking deep roots among a small minority of the disenchanted community. Certainly, there is some radicalisation and a tendency towards an extremist interpretation of the holy scriptures. But how far would it be right to associate all assertions with such extremism, or worse to see every religious or cultural assertion negatively in a country where even the Constitution guarantees freedom to profess, protect and practise diverse religious and cultural values?

Further, creating scarecrows and dubbing every issue as a manifestation of extremism is akin to the ways of a village quack who is aware that, in the monsoon season, mosquitoes breed rapidly and, consequently, result in an increase in malaria cases. So every time there is a reported case of fever, he starts the "course" to cure the malaria without even bothering to conduct medical tests.

Post-Script: The Arabic/Urdu spelling of my name and the capital of Saudi Arabia are same, ending with this controversial letter. While I continue using E and Z in English, the city's name is spelt with "I" and "Dh" - Riyadh.


M Reyaz M Reyaz @journalistreyaz

The writer is a journalist who also shares his knowledge with young minds as an assistant professor of media communication at Aliah University, Kolkata.

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