My name Is Urdu and I am not a Muslim

Urdu hai mera naam main Khusrau ki paheli

Main Meer ki humraaz hun Ghalib ki saheli
(My name is Urdu and I am Khusrau’s riddle
I am Meer’s confidante and Ghalib’s friend)
Kyun mujhko banate ho tassub ka nishana
Maine to kabhi khud ko musalmaan nahi maana
(Why have you made me a target for bigotry?
I have never thought myself a Muslim)
Dekha tha kabhi maine bhi khushiyo ka zamana
Apne hi watan me hu magar aaj akayli
(I too have seen an era of happiness
But today I am an orphan in my own country)

I don’t think anything can describe the state of Urdu’s neglect and decline than these lines by Iqbal Ashar

I have only taken a few relevant verses .For the full poem, Urdu hai mera naam, please visit

( )

In this article I want to dispel the notion that a language can have a religion and trace the roots of how that tag got attached to it.

First of all, we must understand what is meant by the term Language. Language is a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition.

India is home to several hundred languages out of which 22 are scheduled languages and a rich cultural heritage attached to all of them.

After independence, the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights recommended that the official language of India be made Hindustani, as it was already the national language:

“Hindustani, written either in Devanagari or the Perso-Arabic script at the option of the citizen, shall, as the national language, be the first official language of the Union.”

Had this been adopted there would just be a beautiful national language, Hindustani’ with a shared cultural heritage instead of two artificially created languages via kind courtesy of the British: Sansritised Hindustani called Hindi and Persianised Hindustani called Urdu.

Unfortunately, this recommendation was not adopted by the Constituent Assembly.

Urdu and its associations

Till the early twentieth century Urdu was the medium of instruction for many North Indians. Our Prime Minister and poet Gulzar even today use the Urdu script for their writings. Many friends who read this will say their fathers or grandfathers according to their age received education in Urdu medium schools and were fluent in the language.

So where did the language go wrong? Why did it suddenly become associated with a religious community?

To understand this we must understand the aftermath of 1857 and the British ‘divide and rule‘ policy.

Languages are a common cultural bond and having known this the British encouraged the use of Perso-Arabic and Devnagari script via the printing press to cement the division of Hindustani (which included Urdu and Hindi), a common language into the standardised Urdu and Hindi language.

In fact Bibles which were distributed by the missionaries to spread Christianity were also printed in the 2 scripts and distributed accordingly as per religion of recipient.

After partition, the death knell for Urdu as an Indian language was struck when it was declared as the national language of Pakistan. But today only 7.4 % of the total population of Pakistan claim Urdu as their mother tongue (and I suspect these are the muhajirs who went from the Indo-Gangetic plains.)

Opposed to this is the figure of 44.15 % Pakistanis who speak/ list Punjabi as their mother tongue. (In Pakistan, Urdu is spoken by a much larger percentage of people but they do not list it as their mother language and it’s the same case in India)

In India there are 5.01 % of the population for whom Urdu is the mother tongue and Hindi is spoken by 41.03 %.

(All figures are taken from Tariq Rahman’s book From Hindi to Urdu.)

Please note that the total population of Muslims in India is 13.4% of the country’s population. So if Urdu is supposed to be a language of Muslims why don’t the Muslims of Kerala speak it? Why do they communicate in Malayalam? Muslims represent a majority of the local population in Lakshadweep (93%) and they all speak Malayalam.

Why do Muslims of West Bengal speak Bangla? (West Bengal has the second largest Muslim population in India, after Uttar Pradesh and followed by Bihar.)

Yes, majority of practising Muslims in India as well as in the rest of the world read/ understand Arabic or at least try to. That can be called the language of the Muslims as the Holy Book was revealed in it.

In 2010 Gujarat High Court observed there was nothing on record to suggest that any provision has been made or order issued declaring Hindi as a national language of the country.

Hindavi, Dehalvi, Gujri , Dakhini, Rekhta were the names given to the language which evolved from Hindustani to today’s Hindi and Urdu. In fact according to S.R. Farooqui the term Urdu was used during Akbar’s time to denote ‘royal city’.

Emperor Shah Alam II with his love for Hindi, gave it a position in his court with the nomenclature, “ Zabaan e Urdu e mualla,.’ ( the language of the exalted city.)(3.)

The conversion of Hindavi/ Hindustani into Urdu, a language of Muslims started with Gilchrist (June 1759 – 1841) a surgeon turned Indologist who wrote and published ‘An English-Hindustani Dictionary, A Grammar of the Hindoostanee Language’ in Persian and Devnagari script.

Though the British accepted that Hindustani was spoken or at least understood all over India, they insisted on identifying it with Muslims.

According to S.R. Farooqui since the term Hindustani was ambiguous in its religious affiliation, the British insisted on Urdu, as “that didn’t have the faintest reverberations of a Hindu link.”

The earliest reference to the story of the Zaban e Urdu, Hindi being generated by Muslim invaders was in a book for teaching Hindustani (that is Urdu) to British bureaucrats, and was written and printed in Fort William College under the aegis of Gilchrist, by Mir Amman Dihalvi called Baagh o Bahar.

Mir Amman’s book had many loopholes and he also forgot to mention that the language he called Zaban e Urdu was in a sense the language of the city and referred to as Hindvi / Hindi, as it was called at that time. Soon the popularity of his text book ensured the perpetuation of the myth of Urdu as a language of Muslim invaders

It took a long time to harden the khari boli into separate Hindi/ Urdu traditions and there is evidence that the Hindu populace for whom” a new linguistic tradition was being created in the 19th century, resisted the idea. (3.)

Hindi/Hindvi/Hindui, Dehlavi, Gujri/Gojri/Gujarati, Dakhni, Indostan/Moors, Rekhta and Hindustani are the names of the journey that was charted by present day Urdu/Hindi.

Hindavi , Hindawi, or Hindvi is the mother language of modern standard Urdu and later Hindi. It was born as a result of the intermingling of Persian words with the native Khariboli language spoken in Delhi and was written in the Perso-Arabic script.

Amir Khusrau (1253-1325 AD) referred to the language that he wrote in as Dehalvi or language of Delhi.

Dakhini (Urdu: دکنی‎) also spelled Dakkhani and Deccani, arose as a Muslim court language of the Deccan Plateau ca. 1300 AD in ways similar to Urdu. It is similar to Urdu by way of the influence of Persian with a Hindi base, but differs the strong influence of Arabic, Persian, Konkani and Marathi, and the Telugu and Kannada Tamil inhabitants of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and Tamilnadu.


Muhammad Husain Azad maintains that Brij Bhasha, a dialect of Western Hindi, is the basic language. After the conquest of Delhi by the Muslims, the Persian element was grafted which resulted to the existence of Urdu language.

Mahmud Sherani, on the contrary, holds that the Urdu language originated in the first contact of the Muslims and Hindus after the conquest and incorporation of the Punjab and Sind In the Empire of Mahmud of Ghazni. In his book Punjab men Urdu, he has discussed the structure and morphology of the Urdu language and has shown grammatical affinity which it has with the Punjabi language.

Dr. Masud Husain of the Aligarh Muslim University said that the basic language spoken in Delhi at the time of Muslim conquest was Hariani. When Persian was grafted on Hariani, it resulted in the creation of the Urdu language. (9.)

Rekhta was the name of the Hindustani language from 17th to 18th century after which it was replaced by Hindavi and then Urdu/Hindi.

Rekhta means “scattered”, ”fallen”, “material used for building a house”, “concrete” according to Mohammed Hussain Azad, a historian of Urdu and is made up of bricks and stones from many languages too. Rekhta was also not as strongly Persianised as happened later.

Mushafi ‘s (d.1824) verse illustrates that Hindi and Urdu were synonymous then.

Mushafi farsi ko taaq pe rakh

Ab hai ashaar-e-Hindavi ka rivaaj

(Mushafi put Persian back in the closet

Custom is now to write verses in Hindi)

What is Urdu? How did this name originate?

The word Urdu is derived from the same Turkish word ‘ordu’ (army) that has given English horde and was used to describe the common language of the Mughal army.

But it was not used as a word denoting language till Mushafi (1750-1824) first used the word Urdu meaning a language in his poems.

Till then it was called hindavi and Rekhta.

Rekhta ke tum hi ustaad nahiN ho Ghalib

kehte haiN agle zamane meN koi Meer bhi tha

(You are not the only expert of Rekhta,Ghalib

Have heard tell that ere was a Meer too)

In fact according to S.R Farooqui Urdu began life as Urdu e Mualla (language of the exalted and referred to Persian rather than present day Urdu.)

Peter Austin in his “One thousand languages: living, endangered, and lost” writes that “Urdu and Hindi have the same roots in the emerging Indo-Aryan language varieties spoken in an area centred on Delhi and specially the variety called Khari Boli which spread throughout India under the Muslim armies of the Delhi Sultanate (13th to 15th Century).

In the early 19th Century the British chose Khari Boli as their administrative language, encouraging the use of Perso-Arabic and Devnagari script in parallel. The choice of scripts and source of learned of vocabulary gradually became a source of religious affiliations and ultimately resulted in two standard languages, Urdu and Hindi.”

The advent of the Printing Press meant that religious literature was translated for the common man. This deepened the growing schism amongst religions which was being fanned by the British and led to Sanskrtisation and Persianisation of Hindustani into a formal Urdu written in Persian script using Persian origin words and Hindi written in Devnagari with more words of Sanskrit origin.

The British rulers created texts and published discourses for Indians in the now rapidly getting standardised Hindi or Urdu by using Devanagari or Perso-Arabic script and distributing accordingly.

In the early days translations of The Quran were commissioned and printed in Persian and Devanagari script. Later Urdu was preferred medium for Islamic texts and treatises. However, today I have many relatives who read the Quran in Devanagari and many Gujarati friends who read it in Gujarati script.

Tariq Rahman in his book “From Hindi to Urdu,” talks of how “ The British rulers of colonial India were the first to use local vernacular (Hindustani) “as a tool of imperialism” (cf. p. 201) in various domains of power. They were also responsible for creating and later reinforcing rivalry between Hindi and Urdu as the markers of antagonistic Hindu and Muslim identities. The British wrote grammar books and dialogue books and produced all kinds of instructional materials to learn the language as well as spread it all over India.”

On the first page itself Tariq Rahman says, “One should not forget that for centuries “the name of the language we now call Urdu was mostly Hindi”, even though “then it was not this language” (6.)

Literature in Urdu Language

Even though when we speak of Urdu we think of its glorious tradition of poetry or shayri there is an enormous body of prose which has been written in that language. The first writer to popularise the language was the prolific and wondrous Amir Khusrau.

This prolific and prodigiously gifted scholar did much to popularise the language and Sunil Sharma, the author of “Amir Khusrow: the poet of Sultan and Sufis” credits Khusrau as being the father of Hindi and Urdu.

Khusrau baazi prem ki main khelun pi ke sang,

Jeet gayi to piya moray, haari, pi kay sang.


(I play the game of love with my beloved,

If I win, the beloved is mine, if I lose, my Beloved I am yours.)

There is a vast treasure trove of Indian literature, prose and poetry written in Urdu. Everyone in India has heard of the poetry of Ghalib, Meer, Daagh, Brij Narain Chakbast, Krishna Bihari Noor, Josh Malihabadi, Jigar Moradabadi, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni to present day Javed Akhtar and Gulzar to name just a few.

Ghalib’s poetry knows no religious barriers. I wonder if there is anyone who speaks even a smattering of Hindi/ urdu who has not heard , enjoyed or

quoted Ghalib at some point in their life

“huyi muddat ke Ghalib mar gaya par yaad aataa hai..

Vo har ik baat par kehna, ke, yun hota, to kya hotaa…”

( It’s been a while since Ghalib died but I still remember

His love of argument, and habit of saying if this happened then what?’)


“Hazaron khwahshe aisin ke har khwahish pe dam nikle

Bahut nikle mere arman lekin phir bhi kam nikle”

(A thousand desires have I, each desire to die for

Many a desire have I fulfilled yet many more remain)

In prose we have Munshi Premchand, Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Qurratulain Hyder,Ismat Chughtai.Munshi Premchand’s first novella, Asrar e Ma’abid was first published in Awaz-e-Khalq, an Urdu Weekly, after which he became associated with an Urdu magazine Zamana, writing columns on national and international events. He wrote under the pseudonym Nawab Rai and in Urdu script, afterwards transcribing them (or hiring some local helper to transcribe them) into Devnagari, so that he eventually published practically everything in both scripts. According to Pritchett at a certain point in his career Premchand is said to have reversed the process, since he was paid better by the increasingly flourishing Hindi journals than by the Urdu one.

A picture of the original manuscript of Kafan

” An admirer of Premchand’s Hindi works, we are told, was once intrigued to see a bundle of Urdu manuscipts by his side, and asked Premchand if he still kept up his interest in Urdu.

“Of course,” said Premchand. “I do.”

“You mean you still write in Urdu?”

“Yes, I do. While my mornings are devoted to writing in Hindi, my evenings are devoted to Urdu.”

–(Madan Gopal, Munshi Premchand: A Literary Biography, Delhi, 1964, p. 281).

Firaq Gorakhpuri who had been a champion of secularism all his life, was a chief crusader against the government’s effort to brand Urdu as the language of Muslim. He was also instrumental in the allocation of funds for the promotion of the language.

Initially Hindavi/ Dahalvi was given a huge boost by the sufi poets like Amir Khusrau, Kabirdas, Namdeo and Ravidas who used the variants of the prevailing spoken language.

Chalti Chakki Dekh Kar, Diya Kabira Roye

Do Paatan Ke Beech Mein,Sabit Bacha Na Koye

Watching the grinding stones, the lamp Kabir Cries

Inside the Two Stones, no one survives

Later, the vast treasure house of literature of the Sufis who were mainly responsible for the spread of Islam were of Persian/ Arabic origin was translated into Urdu for their followers, again deepening the perception of religious affiliation.

“Gaesoo e urdu abhi minnat pazeer e shaana hey

Shama ye saudaai e dil souzi e parvaana hey.

(Hair of Urdu is longing for a shoulder to rest.

This language, like a flame, is longing for its moth.”)

Kabir is said to have been born of Hindu parents and adopted by Muslim weavers , yet we don’t know his religion and he is revered by all Indians. Why can’t the same be said for Urdu? Urdu was born out of Hindavi and later adopted by the Perso-Arabic script and so Muslims, yet it never converted!

Today Urdu is languishing because somewhere along the line it was adopted by Muslim parents and had apparently converted to Islam, even though it never said it belonged to a religion. Of course now that Pakistan has made it their national language it is orphaned in the land of its birth.

Today Urdu it is no longer linked to jobs and no language can progress or grow unless it can lead to economic rewards.

Urdu newspapers are on the decline because of lack of advertising revenue.

Schools/ colleges have stopped using it as medium of instruction because of dearth of Urdu text books for science and technology. Urdu medium schools lack qualified teachers.

Associated as it is people’s eyes with Muslims it has become nothing but a trap for vote bank politics, un-kept promises and empty dreams.

Justice Markandey Katju in his blog Satyam Bruyat has written a masterful piece called ,”What is Urdu.”

In that he describes his recommendations for revival of Urdu:

“While a Judge of Allahabad High Court I had given a judgment,Ramesh Upadhyaya vs. State of U.P., Writ Petition No.29290 of 1990 decided on 18.1.1993 in which I recommended that Sanskrit and Urdu, our two great cultural languages, be made compulsory in all schools for five years (from class 3 to class 8). As yet this recommendation has not been accepted, but if it is accepted it will mean that thousands of people knowing Urdu will get jobs in schools in many parts of India. In this way Urdu will get connected to bread and butter, and also, our children will get a foundation of this great cultural language, which they can later build upon if they wish. They will thereby also learn the Persian script. All lovers of Urdu can request the Central and State Governments to implement my recommendations.” (4.)

Today Urdu is languishing because somewhere along the line it was adopted by Muslim parents’ and the common perception is that it had apparently converted to Islam too! Nowadays it’s just a malnourished, homeless orphan.

(Urdu is the 6th most spoken language in the country but of all the original Schedule 8 Languages, Sindhi and Urdu are the only languages, which are ‘homeless’ as they are not the principal language of any state. (Census 2001))

(Even though Urdu is the official language of J&K it is not the principal language spoken there, which is Kashmiri.)

The percentage of people listing Urdu as their mother tongue is also declining. In many instances Muslims themselves are listed with their mother tongue as Hindi by census officers because they don’t know how to read and write Urdu.

Today Urdu is no longer linked to jobs and no language can progress or grow unless it can lead to economic rewards. Urdu newspapers are on the decline because of lack of advertising revenue. Schools/ colleges have stopped using it as medium of instruction because of dearth of Urdu text books for science and technology. Urdu medium schools lack qualified teachers.


ssociated as it is in people’s eyes with Muslims, it has become nothing but a trap for vote bank politics, unkept promises and empty dreams. The only silver lining is that it still lives in the hearts of many across religious lines, in our Hindi films and TV serials, the crowds flocking to mushairas and the number of sites which provide sms lines on the internet.

After all everyone needs words to express love!

“baad-e-nafrat phir mohabbat ko zabaan darkaar hai

phir aziiz-e-jaan vahii urdu zabaan hone lagii

(After hatred, once again love needs a language for expression,

Once again Urdu becomes beloved of all)”

Dr. Mohammad Yaqub ‘Aamir’

Bibliography and suggested Reading


2. From Hindi to Urdu by Tariq Rahman








( numbers given in brackets give the reference from the source it has been taken from in Bibliograohy)

This article has appeared in an abridged form on Tehelka blogs

One Comments

  • Chetna 04 / 03 / 2016 Reply

    The ‘divide and rule‘ policy inspired some of our leaders so much that the legacy goes on… Urdu is the most beautiful language, my late father could write it well; my mother in law reads and writes it, she is a Kaur! I can too in a modest way. Alhamdulillah!

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