Urdu speakers take much pride in their language. They particularly flaunt Urdu’s allegedly unique ability to put into resounding words whatever spasm of politesse grabs them at any time. It’s often edifying to see the results, particularly when the politesse is mixed comes packaged with an intense desire to be “religiously correct”.

Consider talking of death. Urdu has one perfectly good, all-purpose word: marnā (to die). We also have, for the purpose of being more specific in a certain “technical” sense, qatl honā (to be murdered) and halāk honā (to die a violent death of some other kind, say, in an epidemic or a train crash). We also have generally applicable euphemistic expressions, such as uTh jānā and guzar jānā (to be lifted from the world; to pass on). Then there are the more “formal” or “dignified” expressions for a general use, like wafāt pānā and intiqāl honā (to die). I may write, Pandit Nehru kā intiqāl 1949 men huā, or Qaid Azam ne 1950 men wafāt pāī, and in both cases my Urdu would be considered quite correct. I would, in fact, get an A for not using marnā with reference to the two statesmen. On facts alone would I be denounced, and rightly so.

Now consider the situations that the editors of some Urdu newspaper in Pakistan recently faced, and the decisions they made regarding the word “killed.”

In December 2014 there was a horrifying attack on the students of the Army Public School at Peshawar. The headline of the report in the Jang read:

In the terrorist attack on the Army Public School, 137 persons, including children, were killed (shahīd) and more than 245 injured.

The report then used the word shahīd (martyr) several times with reference to the victims, in general, and the children, in particular. I was not able to access the report in the Express, but one can be sure that it too did exactly the same.

A month later, there was an equally dastardly attack on a Shi’ah mosque in Shikarpur, in which 58 persons, including many children, lost their lives, and many more were injured. This is how the Jang headlined its report on January 30, 2015:

Fifty-eight persons, including children, who had come to offer Friday prayers were killed (jān ba-haq) when an explosion occurred inside the Imambargah at Lakhi Dar in Shikarpur.

Jān ba-haq is an abbreviation of the euphemistic expression jān ba-haq taslīm karnā, i.e. “to submit one’s life to God.” The report used that expression throughout. In this case, I was able to check the report in the Express—they too had done exactly the same.

On May 7, 2015, there was a tragic accident in Gilgit in which an army helicopter carrying various foreign diplomats crashed while landing. The Jang reported it with the headline:

Due to some technical problem, a Pakistani army helicopter crashed near Gilgit, and seven persons were killed (jān ba-haq).

However, as the report progressed, the paper used (jān ba-Haq) with reference to the ambassadors and their wives, and consistently used shahīd when it referred to the two Army pilots and one Army technician. The Express, in this case, consistently used the common expression halāk hona (to be killed) with reference to both groups. Two other papers that I looked into, Dunya and Nai Bat, followed the Jang’s example, and used jān ba-Haq with reference to the foreigners and shahīd concerning the Pakistani army personnel. Apparently, in the opinion of the Jang, Dunya, and Nai Bat, even the Muslim wives of the Ambassadors from Malaysia and Indonesia were not considered fit to be designates as martyrs.

A few days later there was a horrible attack on a private bus in Karachi. The Jang reported it in this manner:

Terrorists forced their way into a bus of the Isma’ili community and blindly opened fire on innocent passengers, as a result 45 persons, including women, were killed (jān ba-Haq).

The same expression was used in the three other newspapers that I checked that day: Dunya, Express, and Nai Bat.

Earlier this year, on Sunday, March 15, two separate suicide bombers attacked two churches in Lahore. As a result 15 Christian worshippers died, while 79 were severely injured. Both the Jang and Express reported the tragedy in bold letters on their front pages, but both used the expression halāk honā to refer to the Christian victims of the attack. Mercifully, the suicide bombers, both Muslims, were not called either shahīd or jān ba-haq. In fact, they were not much mentioned at all.

Five years back, on May 28, 2010, Lahore witnessed another ghastly carnage, when two Ahmadi mosques were similarly attacked during the Friday congregational prayers. As a result 88 worshippers, including women and children, instantly lost their lives, and more than 200 worshippers were badly injured. Urdu newspapers rigorously referred to them as mahlukīn (the killed). And, of course, as required by law in Pakistan, they referred to the Ahmadi mosques as ahmadī ‘ibādatgāh.

The headline in the Express next day read:

Firing in Ahmadi Worship-places in Garhi Shahu and Model Town; Suicide bombings; 88 killed (halāk), 200 wounded.

In the body of the full report, the Express used the expressions halāk honā and marnā when referring to the victims, except near the very end when it said: “It is feared that the number of people killed (jān ba-haq) in this terrorist attack could exceed 100.” Earlier the report mentioned that one of the victims was Major General (retd.) Nasir Ahmad—a cousin of Sir Zafarullah Khan, Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister—but both times used the verb marnā. The report in the next day’s paper used marnā and halāk honā exclusively. I was not able to access the issues of the Jang—their Internet archive does not go that far back—but I am confident that they did exactly the same, and used only the expressions marnā and halāk honā with reference to the Ahmadi victims of a well-coordinated attack by “mainline” Muslim fanatics.

So, what do we learn from this little exercise?

At least in these two Urdu newspapers, the attackers are always only dahshatgard (terrorists). They either blow themselves up to smithereens or are killed (māre gaye). Their religious/sectarian affiliations are not mentioned; they may, however, be identified as belonging to some organization, particularly if that organization immediate takes “credit” for the carnage.

As for the victims, Christians and Ahmadi Muslims only die or get killed (marnā; halāk honā). Shi’ahs and Ismailis get to “submit their lives to the Truth” (jān ba-Haq), and foreign dignitaries—Muslim and non-Muslim, alike—may get that privilege too. Only the non-Ahmadi Army personnel and students at Army schools are unequivocally recognized as worthy of being designated as “martyrs” (shahīd).

Both the Jang and the Express have sister publications—The News and the Express Tribune, respectively— in English. In them, people “die” or get “killed”, but the news-writers remain respectfully silent about the deceased person’s relationship with his Maker.

Verbal religious finesse has not yet reached such dubious heights in the Urdu press in India, but the potential is very much there. I well recall the time, decades ago, when Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi raised a ruckus in his popular and influential weekly, Sidq-e Jadīd (Lucknow), over someone’s use of the word marhūm with reference to either Jawaharlal Nehru or Lal Bahadur Shastri. The word is commonly used in Urdu the way the expression, “the late….” is used in English, its more literal meaning being, “One who has received God’s Mercy.” The Maulana insisted that it was not correct to use marhūm with reference to non-Muslims, and that instead everyone should use ān-jahānī (Belonging to the Other World). As I remember, the Maulana very much prevailed over the few who had opposed his assertion. Even now one hardly ever sees marhūm after a non-Muslim name in Indian Urdu newspapers. It is always ān-jahānī, placed before or after the deceased’s name. Incidentally, if memory still serves me right, the old Arya Samajist Urdu journals, used marhūm with Muslim names, granting them the mercy of Allah, and svargīya or svargbāshī (Residing in Paradise) with Hindu names. What they did with Christian and Sikh names escapes my memory.


*Published in Scroll.in on June 27, 2015.

05. June 2015 · Comments Off on Islamophobia and Blasphemy · Categories: Archive, Muslims in South Asia, The Only World We have · Tags: , , ,

I have huge respect for Javed Anand and the work he has been doing (with Teesta Setalvad) for a few decades. But I would like to raise some caveats concerning his piece ‘On the other side of fear‘ (IE, September 29).

His essay chiefly consists of three parts. In the first, he rightly condemns the manner in which Muslims in some countries have protested against the notorious anti-Islam video. Next, he asserts that something new is taking place now: a “reiteration… by a growing number of Muslim scholars that Islam too rests on the freedom bedrock and the very notion of blasphemy is ‘un-Islamic’.” In support of this claim, Anand refers us to unnamed editorial-writers and religious leaders in the Urdu press, and in particular draws our attention to a “boxed” letter from a Saudi Arabia-based Indian Muslim, Abdul Rehman Mohammed Yahya, that simultaneously appeared on September 24 in three Urdu journals, Sahafat, Inqilab and Rashtriya Sahara. To quote Anand: “The gist of the long letter is a rhetorical question addressed to fellow Muslims: ‘What did Prophet Muhammad do in the face of repeated insults heaped on him during his lifetime?’ The answer: he forgave them.”

Surely, the present Muslim definition of “blasphemy” is not limited to “any insult to the Prophet of Islam”? Even in India, there are at least two prominent anti-”blasphemy” movements at play among the Muslims under the guise of Tahaffuz (Protection): Tahaffuz-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwat (Protection of the Finality of Prophethood), accusing the Ahmadis of “blasphemy”; and Tahaffuz-i-Namus-i-Sahaba (Protection of the Honour of the Companions of the Prophet), accusing the Shias of “blasphemy”. Not to mention the accusations of “blasphemy” against Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin. Second, while Anand is right in stating that it “is a universal Muslim belief that the Prophet never retaliated to repeated insults to him, through either word or deed”— and, indeed, the vast majority of Muslims live by that belief, and many may even try to emulate it in their own lives — it is also true that a few enemies of the Prophet were ordered by him to be mortally punished, including one or two who verbally abused him. A devout Muslim, therefore, may claim a right to follow whichever tradition suits his own inclination.

The issue should not be what the Prophet did or did not do, for once we raise it we only fall into an easy trap. It becomes a conflict between only apparently equal claims of righteousness; quickly, it becomes another instance, at best, of sectarianism, and, at worst, of “blasphemy”. In any case, a devout Muslim may aspire to emulate the Prophet’s actions but by the same token can never claim to have done so. Yahya’s letter is a good sign, but so are also a few other articles. These are acts of personal piety, and one must be thankful for them. But the same boxed space — actually there is nothing special or prominent about it — in Sahafat (Delhi) that carried Yahya’s letter contained on September 29 a letter on the same subject of the video from a Muhammad Ziaur Rahman, department of Urdu, Delhi University, under the title: “Yahud wa Nasara Musalmanon ke Khullamkhulla Dushman” (Jews and Christians are blatant enemies of the Muslims). Rahman claims, among other things, that on September 11 this year, the film “Innocence of Muslims” was shown in cinemas across the United States, and that the United States rained missiles on Iraq when a woman in Baghdad named Laila Al-Attar drew a cartoon of President George Bush [in 2003].

In the final part of his essay, Anand highlights “Islamophobia” in Western countries, using as his chief source a recent book, The Islamophobia Industry, by Nathan Lean. I confess I have only read about the book, and not the book itself. Its significance seems to lie in what its subtitle describes: “How the right manufactures fear of Muslims.” It is the political right in the US that Lean is concerned with, and “Islamophobia” is not what describes it. The American right has its own political agenda; its domestic dimension, in fact, is its chief driving force. “Islamophobia” is only one of its many tactics — similar, to my mind, to the fear-mongering of the right in India, as also of the right among Indian Muslims. Vis-à-vis the latter, it mainly takes the form of “anti-Jewism” and anti-Ahmadism, together with the cry of an exceptional and absolute “victimhood”. From the perspective of the health and security of any democratic polity or its civic society, however, the two slogans—“Islam is a cancer” and “Islam is in danger”—are equally pernicious and corrosive.

Anand closes his comments by asking a rhetorical question: “Are Muslims being made the “new Jews” in post-Holocaust West?” The influence and success of the Israel lobby in American politics should not mean that anti-Semitism has disappeared in the US. It is as much present now as is racism, though not in the blatant manner it used to be before World War II, and, judged by what appears in the Urdu journals of India and Pakistan, still is among much of the Muslim population in South Asia.


Originally published in The Indian Express (New Delhi), October 2, 2012.