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When science was taught in Urdu

Updated July 10, 2018


WITH the rise of the English language as global lingua franca and with our educational system adopting English — at least partially, if not entirely — as medium of instruction, many raise the question how you can impart modern scientific knowledge in Urdu. When and where had Urdu been a medium of instruction, especially for teaching science? They ask.

The other question that follows is: are there any books in Urdu on science and technology?

Let us find the answers to these questions.

Yes, Urdu had been a medium of instruction some 200 years ago at Delhi College and all contemporary scientific subjects were taught in Urdu. As mentioned by Moulvi Abdul Haq in his book Marhoom Dehli College, in 1825, Delhi College began working as a non-religious educational institute established to impart modern and scientific knowledge. Renowned orientalists such as Aloys Sprenger and Felix Boutros had been associated with Delhi College and they encouraged the local Indian teaching staff, both Hindus and Muslims, to translate scientific books into Urdu.

They translated a large number of scientific works into Urdu and those books were made part of the syllabi as the medium of instruction at Delhi College was Urdu. All this changed after 1835, as mentioned by Abdul Haq, as the British India government under the influence of the policies chalked out by Lord Macaulay began discouraging education in the local languages. Moulvi Abdul Haq’s book Marhoom Dehli College has been reprinted by Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu Pakistan, Karachi, recently. It succinctly narrates the sad story of Delhi College, its history, the great job it did and how it was stopped halfway from achieving the great task of imparting all scientific knowledge in Urdu.

Initially, the writers and teachers at Fort William College, established in Kolkata in 1800, had begun writing books on science and technical subjects in Urdu, but it did not last long. After Delhi College, Usmania University, Hyderabad (Deccan), established in 1918, was another institution where Urdu was the medium of instruction for all higher education, including engineering and medicine. Usmania University and some other institutes, established by the rulers of the former Princely State of Deccan, have had the distinction of having translated thousands of terminologies into Urdu and having published hundreds of books on scientific and technical subjects with the help of dictionaries of technical and scientific terms.

Urdu College, Karachi, now Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science and Technology (FUUAST), with campuses in Karachi and Islamabad, has been teaching many science subjects completely or partially in Urdu ever since its establishment as a college in 1949 by Moulvi Abdul Haq. FUUAST’s aim is to teach ultimately all scientific subjects completely in Urdu, right up to the master’s level and beyond.

Yes, here are thousands of Urdu books available on science and technology. The complete list of such works would take several volumes. But a brief list, mentioning hundreds of such works, is given by Abul Lais Siddiqi in his book Urdu mein saainsee adab ka ishariya (National Language Authority, 1981).

The earliest example of a scientific work in Urdu, according to Hameeduddin Shahid, is Bhog bal, penned by Shahabuddin Qureshi, between 1505 and 1543, at Deccan. It was a masnavi that included medical prescriptions for some diseases. The manuscript is preserved at Hyderabad (Deccan)’s Salar Jang Museum. In 19th century, the rulers of Deccan, known as Shams-ul-umera, patronised scientific works written in Urdu and such books were published in large numbers.

Later, the rulers of Oudh (Awadh) patronised scientific books written and published in Urdu, until the fall of Oudh in 1850s. Then Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Scientific Society got written or translated and published books in Urdu. Roorkee Engineering College is one of the oldest technical and engineering institutes in the subcontinent. Established in 1840s by the British India government, it played an important role in teaching science in Urdu and getting books written and published in Urdu on science and engineering.

In Pakistan, some organisations have been publishing books in Urdu on science and technology and the list includes Urdu Science Board, National Language Authority, Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu and University of Karachi, to name but a few.

It is worth noting what Lord Macaulay had written in 1835 while chalking out a policy for the colonial subcontinent: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”.

When someone questions why we should teach in Urdu and why not in English, one feels that Macaulay had indeed been successful in his planning.

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2018

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