Ramadan or Ramazan: linguistic purism or radicalism

Since a few years, it has been noticed that there has been furious debate over the usage of the term «ramadan» or «ramazan» in the Indian sub-continent and particularly in the educated sections of India. Many pieces have been written on the legitimacy of one or the other term, and here is my attempt to understand this debate.

It has been blamed often that usage of the term «ramadan» is the Wahhabisation or in speaking in other terms «Arabization» of the word «ramzan». Different sections of society, whether, liberal, Muslim liberal or even, atheist have condemned the usage of «ramazan» because they see with it the dominance of Arabian influence on the Urdu language word. The non-Muslim folks are confused about the term and they write sometimes both. If a celebrity writes «ramadan» in a tweet on Twitter or on Facebook, s/he is often immediately asked by a zealous Indian Muslim to use the appropriate term «ramazan».

So, what is basically the problem? What’s happening and why is this happening? Let us know first that this term is analyzed from the Urdu language viewpoint. And secondly, it is all about the writing of this word in a roman script, that is in English, and the word is written as we perceive its sound ( /za/ ou /da/).

Urdu is a language which has borrowed a great number of lexems from Persian and Arabic. It has been claimed that around 40% of the Urdu lexicon is made up of these two languages, though some scholars put the borrowing at around 23%. From the Arabic language, most of the borrowings have been nouns, there are some adjectives, prepositions and prefixes, but very few verbs. There is a long list of Arabic words in Urdu, which we use in our daily lives, and some of them are: /kitab/ (book), /din/ (religion), /hukumat/ (government), /yatim/ (orphan), /kursi/ (chair), /libas/ (dress), /jism/ (body). Among the prefixes, there are to be found from Arabic /la/, /na/ and /bila/ either conjoined with Arabic words or from other sources in the Urdu languages: /laparvah/ (careless), /namumkin/ (impossible), /bilaijazat/ (without permission). To some degree, we can say that we speak Arabic words and that there is a substantial amount of Arabic influence within our daily language use of Urdu and to some extent upon Hindi too, even though the latter underwent Sanskritization.

Ramadan is an Arabic word which has been borrowed into Urdu like many other religious words of Islamic beliefs. In Urdu, there is a general tendency to neutralize the Arabic speech sounds. There are 28 letters in Arabic whereas there are 39 in the Urdu language. It does not mean necessarily that Urdu has 11 more sounds than Arabic but Urdu has retroflex and aspiration (from indigenous Indian language influence) and Persian sounds. The focus of this piece is on the letter /dād/ which is in Arabic written as ض and it is written likewise in Urdu, but its pronunciation is instead /zād/ where /z/ is like /zebra/. The /dād/ of Arabic is specific to the Arabic language and it has no equivalent sound to be found in the other language. The correct way of writing the phoneme /d/ (the first /d/) will be /ḍ/. In contemporary Arabic, the /ḍād/ is an emphatic voiced (vocal chords vibrate) dental plosive (sudden burst of air). It means that there is a shift from the earlier /ḍ/ which was considered to be a lateral consonant by the ancient grammarians including Sibawayh. He described the sound from the back side of the tongue touching the molars, air passing thorough the sides of the tongue and sound occurring from the right side.

The /ḍ/ when reciting the Quran comes from the contemporary pronunciation which is a dental emphatic stop or plosive. The last sentence of the surat Al-Fatiha where the word “Walaḍalin” appears has this sound. However, in the Indian sub-continent including Pakistan, the attempt is made to neutralize the /ḍ/ sound by replacing it with /zād/ because the letter ض is found in Urdu. In many madrasas and in Muslim households, the children learn the /zād/ sound. In this manner, it shows that there is a violation of the Arabic scripture. The person is reading Arabic and normally it is not conceivable to read it with any other external sound. It is like reading English with a French sound, for example the battle name Azincourt which in English is said Agincourt. Moreover, with Quranic Arabic and its texts, it has been claimed by scholars that reciting it with a slightly different intonation, or sounds and not respecting the punctuation marks with breathing may amount to a change in the significance of the text itself. So, if we read a text in certain language, why do we not stick to its phonological rules?

Ramazan is an Urdu word. /z/ is equivalent to the ض of Urdu but there are four other sounds of /z/ in Urdu which correspond to the letters ذ, ز, ظ and ژ which all have different variations. There is no ژ in Arabic, but we find all the other variants of /z/ similar to Urdu. What I am trying to say here is that, if Arabic Ramaḍan were written with some other consonant or variant of /z/, Urdu speakers would have perhaps found the right equivalent.

By now, one may have got the idea that the borrowing of Ramaḍan in Urdu has failed miserably from a phonological viewpoint. Ramazan and Ramaḍan are two homographs in Urdu whereas the former borrows also the sense of the latter within Arabic. There is no debate over the Perso-Arabic script in Urdu language for these two terms, but in English it has become a thorn in one’s flesh.

My personal position on this matter is that this is more about linguistic purism than any sort of radicalism as commonly perceived by many people. Though some have opined that this is an end result of globalization, where the Indian sub-continent Muslims working in the Middle East, have become aware of the right pronunciation of Ramaḍan and thus they start using it with folks in their native countries. We must admit that the fault lies with the Urdu orthography, which should have not copied ض but a د (/d/) to come at least somewhat near to the original pronunciation.

Ramazan is the word which has been incorporated in our own culture with one faux pas. I myself use and write this word because I have been brought up in this milieu. However, I am conscious of the fact that I am making a linguistic error, but a word has also its importance culturally and in that sense, I have no qualms.


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