Not just Sanskrit, Gujarati owes a lot to Arabic and Persian too

The Hindu literati claimed the purity of the language in the ancient age and its deterioration during the Muslim period.
Updated Aug 28, 2019 12:42pm

Gujarati is a family of languages. Some of these are written in Arabic script and spoken in both India and Pakistan.

Growing up in Gujarat, I was taught that Gujarati language traces its origin to Sanskrit language. That Gujarati is taught to be written in a variant of Devanagari script today, seemed to me like a natural extension of this origin story.

But this story omits many waves of significant influences that other languages, like Arabic and Persian, have had on Gujarati.

Political choice

We grow up linking the spoken language with a particular script to an extent that, over the years, this link seems ‘natural’. But the popularisation of a particular script over another is a political decision, driven by the context in which the language is standardised.

One striking example is the Turkish language script reform under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1932, when ‘official’ Turkish language ceased to be written in the Ottoman Turkish alphabet (a Perso-Arabic variant) and was replaced instead with Latin alphabet.

One of the goals of this reform was to remove influences of Arabic and Persian languages, both associated with the clergy in the Ottoman Empire.

Sanskritisation, in search of ‘pure’ Gujarati

Like in the case of the Turkish language, Gujarati underwent a process of standardisation. The use of a variant of Devanagari script was made in order to align with the idea of Gujarati as “the accomplished daughter of Sanskrit,” in the words of missionary Joseph Van S. Taylor.

The language reform in Gujarati took place in parallel with that among many other languages in pre-Independence India. During this time, writes Clair Tisdal, "three main varieties" of Gujarati were found: "Hindi Gujarati", "Parsi Gujarati", and "Muhammadan Gujarati".

Both Parsi Gujarati and Muhammadan Gujarati were seen as “corrupt” by the Hindu high-caste intellectuals in that period. These intellectuals (consisting mostly of Brahmins and Baniyas) would go on to determine what constitutes “pure” Gujarati.

Given that there were competing claims as to what constitutes “pure” Gujarati language, the upper-caste intellectuals sought refuge in a constructed past. As Riho Isaka writes, “the Hindu literati claimed the ‘purity’ of their language in the ancient age and its deterioration during the ‘Muslim period’.”

During this standardisation that took place between the 19th and early 20th century, words from ‘foreign’ languages like Arabic, Persian, and English that were commonly used in spoken Gujarati were replaced with those derived from Sanskrit. Gujarati hence underwent a process of Sanskritisation.

Language of Gandhi, Jinnah

The politics of pre-Independence nationalism played an important role in the Sanskritisation of Gujarati, which was the first-language of both Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi, the fathers of the two partitioned nations. Their respective relation with the language has a lot to say about the politics of language(s) in the pre- and post-Partition era.

Gandhi played a significant role in the standardisation of Gujarati. Through Gujarat Vidhyapith (an institution he helped set up), Gandhi led the publication of Jodanikosh in 1929. According to V. Sebastian, Jodanikosh “was the first dictionary which sought to standardize Gujarati orthography with a set of 33 rules.”

Over time, multiple updated editions of the dictionary were published and its rules adopted in schools to teach a standardised Gujarati. The standardised orthography was intertwined with Sanskrit to an extent that, as Somabhai Patel writes, “[i]f you want to know Gujarati spelling, then you should know Sanskrit spelling because without Sanskrit knowledge, you are not going to write ‘correct’ Gujarati.”

On the other hand, Muhammad Ali Jinnah came to be associated with Urdu, the language that was linked with Islam because of the use of Nastaliq (Arabic) script and which was to become an official language of Pakistan.

Jinnah was born “Mahomedali Jinnahbhai” and raised in a Gujarati-Ismaili family. According to historian Faisal Devji, “while his knowledge of Urdu, the official language of Muslim nationalism, was poor, Jinnah apparently spoke Gujarati and Kutchi beautifully if never in public.”

Disassociation of Muslims

Today, Gujarati written in Devanagari script is considered a ‘Hindu’ language. The Muslim population of Gujarat is imagined as relying solely on Urdu, and seen as not belonging to Gujarat (or India) because of the myth of all Muslims having arrived in the subcontinent as ‘invaders.’

Yet, Muslim communities in the region have spoken Gujarati for many centuries. Many among them continue to write Gujarati in Arabic script. Lisan ud-Dawat, a language used among the Alawi Bohra and Dawoodi Bohra communities in both India and Pakistan, is one such example.

Both communities belong to the greater Ismaili Shia community that traces itself to Fatimid Ismailis in Egypt and Yemen. Because of the presence of Bohra diaspora communities around the world, including in countries like the United Kingdom, Kenya, and the United States, the language has made its way outside of the region.

Gujarati, beyond Sanskrit

The name ‘Lisan ud-Dawat’ (لسان الدعوة) is derived from Arabic and can be translated as the ‘language of the religious gathering’. It continues to remain the principal language of sermons and religious rituals among the Bohra community, with many of the traditions written in and passed on in this language.

The language is seen as a “bridge” between Gujarati and Arabic (the language of the Holy Quran) and incorporates more Persian and Arabic words than that found in the standardised Gujarati.

Why is it important to know about the existence of the plurality of Gujarati languages? The existence of languages like Lisan ud-Dawat puts to question the myth of Sanskrit as being the only language that influenced Gujarati. Its presence is also a proof of the co-existence of Hindu and Muslim communities in Gujarat prior to the Mughal rule in South Asia.

That myths about the Gujarati language and its history persist is indicative of the politics of assertion of dominance of a religious majority over a religious minority in India.


The article was first published in ThePrint and has been reproduced with permission.