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COLUMN: What happened to Persian?

July 05, 2015


Ajmal Kamal
Ajmal Kamal

FOR many people like me the question of the Persian language in South Asia has significance in the context of the ongoing exploration of what has become of Urdu in the course of the past one and a half century. That is, ever since English and local languages were officially adopted to be used in the upper and lower levels, respectively, of administration, education and so on, and gradually began to be used in publishing as the printing press was introduced around the same time with the newly literate classes as the target readership.

One ready answer to the question is: well, it survives as a collection of its words and phrases in the Urdu vocabulary. How the Persian — or Persian-like — vocabulary lives on in modern officialese can be illustrated by quoting Ibne Insha, that matchless satirist who had a sharp eye for the inadequate. He writes a Tender Notice, for the supply of a hundred cartloads of mud to fill ditches on the roads of Sheikhupura district, in what is supposedly a parody, as follows:

(Urdu :Photo line 1)

It would be an almost linguistic sacrilege to rephrase the text, which is supposed to be functional, to read thus:

(Urdu: Photo line 2)

Why? Because it will take away the awe which must be there in a bureaucratic edict; and, for someone like Insha, the fun would be lost too. You would notice that the text created by Insha hardly has any Persian words in it except (Urdu; photo line 4, first word), (Urdu: photo line 4, second word) and (Urdu: photo line 4, third word) — and of course the uneasy Persian-style pluralising of local words for cart, ditch and road. What could be the reason for the insistence on using these foreign expressions and grammar rules? Insha, at another place, this time in the context of education, comes up with a possible reason:

** (Urdu: Photo line 3)**

(Hararat means garmi. Garmi is an easy word. Using it has the risk that it would be understood by students and the purpose of education itself would be defeated.)

The stubbornness of our linguistic decision-makers on tackling things in this manner is an important factor responsible for what the same gentlemen and ladies lament as the erosion of Urdu language. But we’ll analyse that phenomenon some time later.

What I wish to emphasise at this point is the fact that due to its centuries-long political and cultural presence in the subcontinent, Persian words, phrases and terms entered and in the course of time became part of the lexicon of many South Asian languages including Bangla, Marathi, Punjabi, Gujarati and so forth. (We are not talking here of languages such as Balochi that have a lot in common with Persian due to geographical proximity.) But in order to understand its special relationship with Urdu, and the Urduwalas, it would be useful to take a glance at its history in the region of the subcontinent historically known as Hindustan.

In the comprehensive and insightful compilation Literary Cultures in History: Reconstruction from South Asia (University of California Press, 2003), edited by Sheldon Pollock, the chapter on Persian has been penned by Muzaffar Alam: “The period examined in this chapter is between the 12th and 19th centuries, when Persian influence was at its apogee in northern India.” This is important, as the ‘Hindustan’-centric histories usually tend to neglect the presence of Persian before the mid-16th century. Alam brings forth some interesting and significant facts in this regard:

“(1) Sindh and Multan, being close to its borders, had age-long links with Iran; (2) the Sindhis seem to have fought with the Iranians against the Arabs during the early years of the expansion of Islam; (3) a number of Shirazis (Fars) were in the army of the Umayyad general Muhammad bin Qasim when he invaded and conquered Sindh; (4) the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu’tamad assigned Sindh and Multan to the Saffarids, and Persian was virtually the official language under Yaqub bin Lays; and (5) when Mahmud of Ghazna chased the Qarmatis in Multan and Sindh, it was in Persian that the Friday sermons were delivered from the pulpits of the mosques in Multan.”

It is an established, if generally downplayed, fact that Mahmud Ghaznavi (998-1030) attacked and destroyed the Ismaili Shia kingdom in Multan before setting his eyes on the treasures waiting to be looted at the Somnath Temple in Gujarat. Incidentally, it was also Mahmud who instituted “the position of malik al-shu’ara (poet laureate), which after his rule was absorbed into the Timurid court traditions in Herat in the 15th century and eventually reached the height of its importance in Mughal India,” Alam tells us.

Another oft-neglected fact is that the spread of the message of Islam among the lower strata of society, especially in Multan, Sindh, Rajasthan and Gujarat was thanks to the Ismaili Shia saints or holy men fleeing the widespread persecution of Shias under the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. The dargahs of these men dotting the entire region have always been at the centre of common people’s faith and are lately a target of the recent puritanical — essentially anti-Shia — wrath of the takfiri zealots.

Alam further says, “From Ghazna the New Persian literary culture spread farther east in the 11th century to Lahore, significantly sometimes called ‘little Ghazna,’ a major staging post for Ghaznavid ventures in Hindustan. In the first phase, the Muslim presence in the city seems to have been dominated by plunder-seeking frontier warriors (ghazis), but over time large numbers of Persian-speaking people reportedly settled around Lahore. The city, which had emerged as an important political centre of the eastern Ghaznavids in the 11th century, gradually attracted scholars and literary figures from Iran, Khurasan, and Mawara-an-nahr. Punjab thus witnessed the beginning and flowering of a high Persian literary tradition. Persian texts of the time of the first Ghurid ruler, Ala al-Din Jahansuz (1149-1161), stated that among the areas where Persian verse had cast its shadow and was appreciated was ‘the periphery [or the districts] of the land of Hind’ (atraf-i bilad-i Hind), referring to the Punjab.”

After the late 12th century, Persian scribes, writers, and poets were getting patronage in the durbars of the Sultans of Delhi. “The short-lived kingdom of Nasir al-Din Qabachah (1205-1228) in Uchch also played host to some of the best Persian poets and writers.” A large wave of elite migration to the area came in the wake of the Mongol conquest of the Perso-Islamic world. “The sultanate of Delhi patronised these men of learning and piety with revenue grants (imlak, auqaf, idrarat, vaza’if, etc.), which were often located in the countryside. Thus a gradual penetration of Persian into small towns and rural centres began through these beneficiaries of the state’s largesse.”

Generally speaking, this essentially was the community that later came to call itself the ‘ilmi gharanas’ and it was they who were responsible for the use of Persian in the fields of religion, poetry, history, medicine and intellectual quest and scholarship. They, along with the royalty, also came to constitute the ‘Ashraf’ or ‘Shurafa’, i.e. ‘higher-caste’ Muslims, adopting the local system of caste hierarchy, to distinguish themselves with the raiyyat (the ruled) which category included both converted and non-Muslim population belonging to middle and lower castes. With the passage of time converts from Hindu upper castes too joined the Shurafa set, and the Brahmins and Kayasthas associated with the durbars started using Persian for administrative and intellectual pursuits.

Persian in those days must have enjoyed the international status in the area under its cultural influence akin to that of English today. This is why we see it being used in the subcontinent not only by the Mughal durbar (as the zaban-i urdu-i mu’alla or the ‘language of the exalted court’ before passing this title on to Urdu) but also by the Peshwas of Maharashtra as well as the Takht Lahore of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

In a way the phenomenon of Persian in Hindustan (as it appears in the history of the development of Urdu) can be likened to the relationship of French with English during the Normans’ rule in England (which began in 1066). That era is marked with the relegation of English to a third position in the political and cultural hierarchy after French and Latin, and resulted in huge borrowings from French into English which stand absorbed in it. After the fall of Normandy in 1204, engineered by the French King Phillip II, the Normans in England gradually decided to adopt the identity and language of the local people.

The Persian community of Hindustan, too, severed its association with the language that had sustained it politically and intellectually for over half a millennium, but in its stead they adopted English during the latter half of the 19th century; they might have realised that it was the language of the colonial power that held the key to survival and progress for their class and made them better equipped to compete with Hindus, especially those from Bengal, who had already gained a foothold in the local power elite under the British rule.

Stimulated by the efforts of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), the founder of the Muslim Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh, and his supporters, the said Persian community, the Shurafa, got rid of its imported cultural asset, perhaps considering it a political liability, in a matter of merely two generations, only to adopt the current foreign language of power and scholarship — English. The reasoning behind this significant cultural transformation is reflected in the popular saying — funny and sad at the same time — of those days:

(Urdu: Photo last line)

(learning Persian is good only for selling oil).

It must be added here that this derogatory phrase has no connection with the prosperity of the oil-rich Middle East which was to come much later!

AJMAL KAMAL edits and publishes Aaj, an Urdu quarterly journal, from Karachi and runs a publishing house and bookshop. He translates and occasionally writes for English and Urdu publications.