Urdu History and the Diaspora

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.

Kamal, Ajmal. December 2014. “اچھی اردو بھی کیا بری شے ہے” Tanqeed.

Rahman, Tariq. 2011. From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History. New York: Oxford.

Rahman, Tariq. 2000. “The Teaching of Urdu in British India.” Annual of Urdu Studies.

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Rethinking “Shia-Sunni marriages”

Discussions on Shia-Sunni relations are beyond necessary today in Pakistan, but when they do arise, there is almost always incredible oversimplification and shrouding of history. This article written by Narjis Fatema for Dawn includes a major flaw. While I would not like to discuss my own opinion on such marriages, I find it necessary to address a flaw which many in both the Sunni and Shia communities hold. 

The flaw I bring into question is in this summary of a discussion with one interviewee:

Attending majalis in Moharram out of respect and to mourn the martyrs of Karbala is no longer an exclusively Shia practice as Fatima explains.“ Though Sunni, my in-laws also accept and respect the sacrifice of Imam Hussain A.S. and have never resisted my attending or holding majalis.”

The majalis of Muharram were never exclusively Shia to begin with. Such a statement is illogical in that it entirely disregards Muslim history in the Subcontinent. Sunni Muslims commemorated Ashura and mourned Imam Hussain in their own fashion. They may not have participated in the Shia mourning rite of matam, but Sunni Muslims in every major Indian city made their own replicas of the Imams shrine and carried them in their own, exclusively Sunni Muslim juloos. This is a practice upheld in many Indian cities, here is an example of such a procession in Agra. 

The question I ask is why did the Sunni Muslims of Pakistan abandon these rituals? How can one’s grandparents and great-grandparents participate in Muharram rituals with passion and then divorce them after migrating to a Muslim-majority land?

Because azadari became too Shia. Creating a separate Muslim identity involved erasing non-Sunni elements from the religion. Azadari seems to have been the first to go, hence why Sunni Muslims of India have their own juloos while Sunni Muslims of Pakistan do not. 

It is interesting to note that Abdul Shakoor Lakhnavi, a scholar well known and commonly read among the Deobandi school, carried out such ritualistic processions despite criticism from Deobandi scholars of his age. Although his processions were anti-Shia in nature to promote Madh-e-Sahaba, the replicas of shrines made by his followers show dependence on A Shia-esque practice to establish unity within his own group. It is unlikely to find such taaziya dari among Deobandis today. 

A simple look into history shows that Sunni-Shia riots ensued in Lucknow following collisions of the Sunni and Shia juloos. It is likely that Aurangzeb outlawed public Muharram practices for this reason in the 1680s, in order to avoid bloodshed. Though while opposing processions led to chaos in many Indian cities, the Deccan has a rich history of including both Sunni and Shia Muslims in one juloos. While the Mughals worked toward curbing sectarian violence through outlawing public rituals, the South Indian Shia dynasties such as the Qutb Shahi and Adil Shahi effectively catered to the interests of both groups to include them both in the mourning of Ashura. 

Both groups had their own methods of remembering the massacre at Karbala, and it is a historical fallacy to assert that mourning was exclusively Shia. It would be more proper to say mourning became exclusively Shia after 1947. It does not add up when on one side we repeat Shah Ast Hussain, Islam zinda hota hai har Karbala ke baad, and Musa o Firawn o Shabbir o Yazid, poetry penned by Sunni Muslims, and then claim azadari is a “Shia exclusive” practice. 

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Manipulative Themes in Shia Poetry

Poetry has been a staple of South Asian culture for centuries as the languages are sweet. The renowned love stories of Punjab were narrated through poetry rather than prose, and this culture continued with the rise of the musaddas. Hali’s musaddas speaks of the ills of Muslim society through such poetry, but the most remarkable piece is Iqbal’s Shikwa. Through it, he traces the rise and fall of Islam. All through poetry.

South Asian Shi’ism was not to be excluded from this passion. Praise of the Prophet and his Ahl al-Bayt arguably begins with Abu Talib who praised his nephew’s status and religion through poetry. This practice was then continued by respected poets such as Farazdaq and Da’bal al-Khuzai, but Shia poetry was to receive its own color in the Subcontinent. Elegies pertaining to Karbala evolved in both Awadh and the Deccan. The marsiya was formed and several individuals will forever dominate the scene: Mir Anees and his younger brother Mir Moonis, Mirza Dabeer, and Josh Malihabadi are names never to be forgotten.

The marsiya’s counterpart, the noha, has always been a medium of relating the sufferings of Karbala, but can also include praise (fazail) of the Ahl al-Bayt and martyrs of Karbala. Poets also use the portion of fazail to address criticisms against the Shia faith to create fervor in those listening. In Pakistan, however, the plot allotted for fazail has been transformed into a justification of genocide.

Not just any genocide, but their own.

The couplet I would like to bring into question was read at a Shab Bedari following the 2009 Ashura Blast in Karachi

Bomb dhamakay huway jab Sheh ke julooson main kahin

Matami halqay se aik matami bahar na mila

Whenever bombs and explosions occurred in Hussain’s procession

Not a single mourner was found outside the group of mourners

Upon hearing these lines, one connects the thought to the evergreen passion of mourning, that no matter what happens, mourning for Hussain will never cease to exist. Such poetry may lift the spirits of those who witnessed the attack, but they prove disastrous for others. Deeper thought about these lines turns simple cultural mourning into a game of testing limits. The philosophy of Shia mourning has been changed through it, evolving from a duty of paying respects to an unruly means of protest. This poetry invites the enemy to continue giving their best effort of stopping azadari and to watch the reaction from the Shia community. 

What could be so wrong in writing such words? After all, it incites fervor in the Shia people, and is religiously recommended poetry on the Holy 14.

The problem lies in the following verse:

Ehtijaaj apna hamesha hai usoolon ki tarah

Hum janazon ko utha letay hain phoolon ki tarah

Har gali aur har aik sheher main dharna hoga

Zinda rehna hai to Shabbir pe marna hoga

Our protest is always representative of the principles

We carry coffins as if they are flowers

There will be a sit-in in every street and every city

If you wish to stay alive, you must die for Hussain

The bold line is what such poetry culminates in. When a community hears such poetry from their own poets and scholars, they stop viewing genocide as something that needs to be ended immediately. They become desensitized and view their own relatives as bodies waiting to be picked up. It connects brutality and violence to the nature of man, and people begin to view the bloodshed around them as the norm. Once violence is accepted as the norm, there is no desire to stop it. This is why when talking to Shias who experience this violence first hand, the only comment they have to offer is, “Bas janab, waisay hi chalta hai.”

Shias have never invited terror upon themselves as it is being done in Pakistan today. Such thoughts devalue individuals and minimize the consequences of genocide. Shia Muslims cease to seek solutions for this harsh violence, and begin to connect it with their literary invincibility. It’s one thing to praise the resilience of the Shia people, but welcoming bloodshed is counteractive to the Shia cause, which, sadly, has been on the rise.

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India’s Contribution to Shi’ism

Old-time scholars of Najaf and Qum are befittingly credited for centralizing the Shia faith, and have been for centuries. Scholars immediately following the Greater Occultation such as Sheikh Saduq and Sheikh Mufid organized core Shia beliefs into dozens of books and treatises to explain and defend, a custom also upheld in India. Unfortunately, the scholars of India no longer receive due credit for their work; names such as Mir Hamid Hussain and Muhammad Nasirabadi are unknown even to Indian/Pakistani Shias!

Discourse has long since been a staple of South Asian culture, a lone hour can be an insight into several topics. Religion was never excluded, especially when used to create hatred of Shia Muslims. Ibn Taymiyyah’s anti-Shia rhetoric reached India in the 1300s while under Tughluq rule, splitting Sunni Muslims into legalist and spiritual factions. The following centuries witnessed hundreds of anti-Shia works, it seemed necessary to be vocal against Shias, renowned Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi too was a forerunner in this practice.

Formal religious education became accessible to Indian Shias around the mid-eighteenth century. Once native scholars began to lead the Shia nation in place of then recent Persian migrants, Shia juices began to flow through the printing press. One of the biggest reformers of his time, “Mujaddid” Shah Abdul Aziz Dehlvi, wrote Tohfa Ithna Ashari as a refutation of the Shia creed, attempting to end massive family conversions to Shia Islam. Up to 11 Shia scholars wrote responses to Dehlvi’s nonsense, many writing multiple volumes simply to debunk a handful of pages.

The effort which stands out most is that of Allama Mir Hamid Hussain Moosvi, who wrote his response in twelve parts, several of these being published in two separate volumes due to their lengths. It is more than simply a distinguished task that Mir Hamid wrote over 8,000 pages in response to a single chapter pertaining to the core Shia belief of Imamat. Arab and Persian scholars have praised Mir Hamid as one of the most learned Shia theologians and that his Abaqat is the single greatest work on Imamat.

Similarly, Sayyid Muhammad Nasirabadi, son of Dildar Ali Nasirabadi (the first Indian Usooli scholar), once wrote a treatise defending the legal practice of Mutah. Sheikh Muhammad Hasan an-Najafi extolled him for his work, terming the treatise the “Crown of Shi’ism”. Following this, an-Najafi consistently had Indian Shia scholars send copies of their compositions to Najaf to be circulated.

Why were Indian refutations so widely in demand and distributed in the centers of Najaf and Qum?

It could be argued that the Shia community of India faced more pressure from Sunnis to justify their faith, ultimately realizing the value of religious discourse. Shias of the Arab world suffered harsh living conditions and threats to their lives. Iran had been predominantly Shia since the 1500s, hence there being no need to defend Shia practices. It was their Indian Shia counterparts who effectively justified Shia practices through Sunni and Shia works alike.

Sunni-Shia debates were incredibly common in the 19th and 20th centuries. Lucknow and other cities in Awadh often held these debates open for the public to attend. One such debate in Peshawar was transformed into an often read book by Shia youth, Peshawar Nights. This book has been credited as the gateway for many Sunnis to Shi’ism – a product of South Asian culture.

To this day the Indian/Pakistani Shia community is contributing plenty to Shi’ism through exploring old and new topics, educating the masses. Following Pakistan’s creation in 1947, dozens of treatises were written refuting the alleged marriage of Umm-e-Kulsoom (sa) and Hazrat Umar, something other Shias never felt the need to address or delve into. Extensive biographies on personalities such as Umm-e-Kulsoom, Ummul Baneen and Hazrat Qasim cannot be found in any language save Urdu due to the existence of Indian scholars like Allama Zameer Akhtar Naqvi. South Asian children continue to grow up in an environment where ability to defend the faith is essential in religiosity, as exhibited by passionate Shia youth who attend Muharram majalis to gather points on why our religion is the way it is.

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What Pakistan Means to Me

Persecution is not a new phenomenon for my family, my ancestors suffered under Umayyad and Abbasid hands before migrating to India. Roughly 70 years after the current Imam began his Greater Occultation, my forefathers settled in Peharsar, India. The city was officially ours in 1010.

In retrospect, little time was spent by my family in Karachi.

From the birth of the Prophet up until the death of the sixth Shia Imam are 195 years in Makkah and Madina. al-Sadiq was poisoned in 765, giving a possibility of 245 years spent in Iran. A total of 938 years were spent in Peharsar and Agra before our migration to Karachi in 1948.

My father left Karachi in 1987, only living there for 28 years of his life. With the death of my grandparents and many of my family members relocating to the Middle East, Pakistan was nothing but a 65 year interlude in my family history. Until the Imam makes His awaited advent, America will remain our abode.

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The 17th of Shawwal was the day the Battle of Uhud was fought. While Shia Muslims tend to remember the lack of valor and bravery of  certain personalities on this day, Hazrat Hamza (ra) is seldom discussed although he too was Sayyed ash-Shuhada. Interest in Islamic history is limited to the post-Ghadeer era, otherwise many do not care for the toils of the Prophet (saw) and other companions.

Hazrat Hamza (ra) is remembered for his standard bearing, however. Being in the same position of Hazrat Ali (as) and Hazrat Abbas (as), leading Islam against falsehood, is worthy of respect as Naseem Amrohvi writes in his musaddas of the Alam:

Hamza isi ke faiz se Jarrar ho gaye

Fath-e-mubeen ke baad main haqdar ho gaye

Jafar ko jab mila to woh Tayyar ho gaye

Haider isay uthatay hi Karrar ho gaye

Pathar main nasb ho ye faqat is ki shaan hai

Khaybar se pooch lo ye rajul ka nishaan hai

The alam has since become more than a symbol of war and bravery, for South Asian Shias it has became a symbol of our entire existence and history.  As Jafar Hussain Kazmi once wrote,

Humaray qaum ke parcham ki hai yehi pehchaan

Ho jis pe khoon ki cheentein alam humara hai

The panja sitting atop each alam carries even more spirituality, as explained by Naseem Amrohvi, representing the two core beliefs which Shia Islam revolves around.

First, the five pillars of faith:

Har jang main Rasool se aagay barha huwa

Sar par Usool-e-Deen ka panja charha huwa

And second, loyalty to the Ahl al-Bayt (as).

Panja pharera shahid-e-irfan-e-Panjtan

Paanch ungliyon se thaamay hai damaan-e-Panjtan

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Abdullah Qalandar Shirazi and his brother Fathullah Shirazi, descendants of the 6th Shia Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, were scholars in the army of Mehmood Ghaznavi. Ghaznavi’s 11th century campaign in India for the Ghaznavid Empire was one of the earliest Muslim invasions of the Subcontinent which increased Muslim presence in India, and may have established India’s first Twelver Shia Muslim community.

As a Sunni Muslim, Ghaznavi viewed the Abbasid Caliphs as the legitimate rulers of all Muslims. In order to garner their support and respect, his first campaign in the Subcontinent was to conquer Multan, where the local ruler converted to Ismaili Shi’ism and declared Multan a vassal of the Ismaili Fatimid Empire. Acknowledging that Ghaznavi’s initial invasion of India was justified on grounds of Jihad against Ismaili Shias, it is unlikely that he viewed the mainstream Twelver Shias in better regard, suggesting that the Shirazi brothers practiced dissimulation while in his army.

It was ~1010 when Ghaznavi’s soldiers under Abdullah Qalandar conquered a village in Eastern Rajasthan. The story goes that a man’s daughter was taken by the Hindu raja as a sex slave, this man pleaded for Ghaznavi to free his daughter, so he sent Abdullah Qalandar with some men. This battle lasted a pehar (equal to three hours), hence the name of the village eventually becoming Peharsar. Pleased with Abdullah’s valor, Ghaznavi gave Peharsar to Abdullah and his brother, who then invited other families descending from Jafar al-Sadiq (known as Jafri) to settle in Peharsar. It is dubious that these Shia families were comfortable being ruled by a Sunni Muslim empire, hence their shift to Peharsar allowed Shi’ism to be openly practiced.

The Shia Jafris of Eastern Rajasthan were on good terms with local Hindus. A book titled Guldasta-e-Sadaat is an account of the situation in Bharatpur (the state in which Peharsar lies) at the time of Partition. The author, Manzoor Ahmed Jafri, also explains Shia involvement in the establishment of the Bharatpur state. Hindu rajas as a result were grateful of the Shia population for assisting them in legitimizing their authority. The final raja in the wake of Partition, however, was plagued by hatred of Muslims, including those Shias in Peharsar who helped put his ancestors on the throne centuries prior. He started a genocidal campaign against Muslims in Bharatpur and wished to similarly slaughter the Shias of Peharsar but failed. In addition to his failure, the Shias made their decision to leave their homeland of nearly 1,000 years for Pakistan.

The Shia of Peharsar rightfully expected the same freedom of religion they enjoyed for 1,000 years as Jinnah told his followers that all Muslims would live peacefully in Pakistan. We are all aware this did not happen. It was evident when Sunni Muslims threw rocks at Shia Muslims in Karachi months after independence. It was evident when 116 Shia Muslims were massacred inside their mosque 16 years after independence.

It was evident when 60 year old Shia mosques were destroyed by Muslims as 900 year old Shia mosques were left alone by Hindus.


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