Unlike other diaspora communities in the Chicagoland area, and by extension the United States, the Urdu-speaking diaspora (encompassing North and Central Indian Muslims and Pakistani Muhajirs) lacks in attempting to preserve their mother tongue. While other communities have established schools dedicated solely to teaching American-born generations their mother tongue, no such examples exist among Urdu-speakers in Chicago to the likes of the Greek and Iranian diaspora. This could be attributed to various factors including a greater desire to assimilate due to the hegemonic dismissal of languages besides English in the West, or simply being unaware exactly how to implement the system. There could very well be several factors playing at once, and many seem to be a continuation of various ways Urdu has been viewed and understood as a language by its native speakers over the centuries.
With its earliest found written poetry dating to the 13th and 14th centuries, Modern Standard Urdu has cycled through a half-dozen names in 800 years, its current name being popularized by the British in the 19th century in place of the then more popular Hindi and Hindavi. Leading Urdu linguists and theorists argue this emphasis to promote the names Hindustani and then Urdu over others was a conscious attempt by the British to differentiate between Hindi as spoken by Indian Muslims and Indian Hindus. Such a differentiation is present in the works of the early East India Company linguist John Gilchrist where he creates a Hindu vs. Muslim Hindavi vs. Hindustani/Urdu dichotomy which did not exist in the minds of the natives at the time. This was reinforced by the Hindi-Urdu controversy of the late 19th century by which Modern Standard Hindi and Urdu became realities divided on religious lines. Urdu now became the sole property of North Indian Muslims and subsequently all Indian Muslims in attempt to concoct an ethnonational group necessitating its own homeland.
The language to become the national language of Pakistan was thus politically conceived, rendering it relevant only in the context of politicization with the demands of a specific group, initially to link Urdu’s future with state patronage. The turn of the 20th century saw regulation of government jobs being open to those who read Hindi/Urdu in the Devanagari script. The new government practice only increased the new Muslim elite’s association with Urdu to the extent it was claimed Urdu was being “served” for its “progression” (Urdu ki khidmat/taraqqi). “Have you ever heard of a sailor claiming he is serving a boat or a river?” Ajmal Kamal aptly asks about the unprecedented concept. This newfound desire to serve Urdu was intricately linked to the political and economic success of a religious group confined primarily to one Indian province and one would assume less importance would be given to the language when no longer relevant to one’s Muslim identity.
While new desire to serve Urdu boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries linked to political rights and a newly contrived identity, the decades and centuries prior to the 1870s show widespread discomfort and even contempt of the language. One of the names used for Urdu in the 18th and 19th centuries was Rekhta: literally meaning a mixture. Initially the name of a genre of poetry where Persian was written in a Hindi template or vice versa, it later became the name of the language in which such poetry was written. This shows the lowly status Urdu held with respect to Persian in the eyes of the native elite where the language was viewed as inferior, as if it fell from heavenly status. Proper contempt was expressed by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his peers at Aligarh who viewed Urdu as unfit for scientific, progressive thought. In order for the Indian Muslims to progress, Sir Syed claimed, they must unlearn the “looseness of expression” inherent to Urdu. English thus became the epitome of an academic language to emulate, replacing Persian a proper century before the diaspora phenomenon.
Urdu’s being considered an unacademic language is further evident in its formal instruction being established by the British at Fort William College. It was the establishment of the Fort William College which popularized modern Hindi and Urdu prose on the lines of John Gilchrist’s differentiation between Hindi and Hindustani where Hindustani/Urdu was clearly favored with more texts produced in its Persianized method. Previous Urdu prose was not written in such language, its purpose was to rather present information to the public in simple discourse as exemplified by the 18th century Karbal literature. The establishment of such institutions, however, never rendered Urdu education popular. According to Sir Syed, many of his peers disliked reading Urdu and thus disliked government schools which only taught Urdu and not Persian or Arabic.
A similar indifference to the teaching of Urdu exists among the diaspora where Urdu classes are offered in mosque Sunday schools. Students of such Urdu classes at a predominantly South Asian mosque of Chicago state their instructors and parents did not emphasize the Urdu curriculum to the extent Islamic history and jurisprudence were, in fact it was expected by some that the younger generation would learn Urdu through listening to religious speeches in the language. Such expectations are a common feature of native speakers in the diaspora where the onus is placed on the newer generation to absorb the idiomatic expression in a society worlds apart from the native land. This resembles a continuation of Urdu’s not being formally instructed prior to the British; while Arabic and Persian both had curricula upheld for centuries in the Subcontinent, Urdu’s lack of a standardized curriculum remained in the diaspora. While such absorption was and is possible in the Subcontinent, it becomes difficult when not entrenched by Urdu-speakers and its culture.
One early example of students being encouraged to learn Urdu is that of Shah Waliullah urging his sons to learn idiomatic Urdu to easily address the Delhi public – his sons subsequently wrote the first complete Urdu translations of the Qur’an. Many religious elites truly regarded Urdu as a language to be stooped down to; letters survive of savants apologizing for writing in Urdu for the purpose of explaining that which would typically be expounded on in Persian. English had already replaced Persian as the academic language in North India prior to the creation of Pakistan, yet an abundant mass of religious literature was written in Urdu throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The mass publication of religious literature in Urdu was propagated by reformist clerics belonging to the Deoband, Ahl-e-Hadith, and Barelvi movements, including thousands of polemical works within and beyond sectarian boundaries, further solidifying Urdu’s association with the Indian Muslims.
Urdu’s relevance to a Muslim identity has diminished within the diaspora, however, as Urdu-speaking Muslims often find themselves in multiethnic and multinational mosques where English becomes more important as a unifier. Even attendees of predominantly South Asian mosques do not confer importance to Urdu when it comes to imagining their place in the United States as Muslims in an era where it is taught that their Muslim identity must precede or even erase any other identity. This scene is worlds apart from the state of the youth in Karachi surveyed by Ali Kamran Chishti at multiple universities on whether they primarily identify themselves as Muslim or Muhajir – 73% of adult students identified themselves as Muhajir first and Muslim second. While Muhajirs in Karachi do not find their strong ethnolinguistic identity to compromise their religiosity, it has become commonplace among Urdu-speaking youth in the diaspora to identify themselves as first and foremost Muslim.
Faruqi, Shamsur Rehman. 2003.”Long History of Urdu Literary Culture, Part 1: Naming and Placing a Literary Culture.” In Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.