A Short Memoir On the Arabisation of Islam in India: Shireen Azam

This is a guest post by SHIREEN AZAM

A Pakistani writer Mina Malik Hasan recently wrote about the Arabisation of Islam in Pakistan, (The Sheepification of Bakistan), a movement of sorts which is transforming Islam in the Indian subcontinent by the day, even though it is remarkably dispersed and often subtle. The Arabisation of Islam seeks to “correct” Islam as Muslims in the subcontinent have understood, practiced and lived it, and instead replace it with an Islam which is uniform, seemingly universal and which need not have any affiliation with our cultural and local identities and beliefs. Having been a participant observer of this change in India, I wish to supplement Mallik’s experience in Pakistan with my own, in the form of a short memoir of the nearing extinction of the urdu phrase “Khuda Hafiz”, a customary way to bid goodbye, with the phrase “Allah Hafiz”. While both the phrases literally mean ‘May god keep you safe’, the reason for the shift was likely because of a lack of clarity in the particular god being invoked term by the term ‘Khuda’, since Khuda has Persian roots. If anything, “Khuda” speaks of Muslims’ age-old assimilation in the Indian subcontinent, something that ‘Arabisation’ of Islam would conveniently want to ignore, and is sadly becoming successful in.

When Khuda Hafiz became Allah Hafiz- A personal memoir.

9/11 had happened and so had Godhra, and I begin by saying this because I first heard of “Allah Hafiz” during the same days as I heard of the other things that made Muslims in India doubly remember that they were Muslims. Those were also the days when I was desperately trying to grow up, and listening to adults’ drawing room conversations seemed the quickest route. These are the lone landmarks for me to mark the time of evening when Rizwaan nana came to our Nani’s house with “Allah Hafiz” in his bag. Rizwaan Nana, I should already say, was no real Nana of mine, neither was he old enough to be called one. He was just Nani’s neighbor in her large new house where she had recently shifted, so that her last decades could be spent in fresh air. For almost every day of the 3 years that the house took to be built, Nani would clamber onto a cycle rickshaw amidst layers of silk sari around her heavy bosom- bunch of keys in left hand, multi-story steel tiffin box in right, and watch silently as labourers built her house brick by cement by brick.

But I deviate. Rizwaan Nana was a regular visitor in the new house. On his visit before the one when he brought ‘Allah Hafiz’, Rizwan Nana had advised my mother to not take up the accommodation that was offered to her as a government school teacher in Mecon Colony. Someone served onion pakodas as Rizwaan Nana told us in great detail how a Muslim family was murdered by his otherwise friendly neighbours during a riot. “Don’t risk it”, he told her, “Ranchi can become very sensitive.” Thankfully my mum never took him as seriously as I did

But on the Allah Hafiz visit, Rizwan Nana’s advice was not to fall on deaf years again. Instead, it is the only starting point I can remember of an inconceivably quick movement that Mina Malik Hussain has traced in her article “The Sheepification of Bakistan” i.e. when words that subcontinental Muslims had held as markers of their culture and religion started being challenged and changed to their Arabic versions with the contention that the latter was the “correct” usage. Among all things, the absolute replacement of the phrase Khuda Hafiz with Allah Hafiz within a decade and without any apparent institutional effort is one of the most defining, intriguing and disturbing examples of the ongoing transformation of Islam in the subcontinent. For readers who are not aware of this, let me tell you that like Hussain in Pakistan, for me growing up in North India, Khuda Hafiz has been one of the most used phrases in any conversation. Unless the phone fell while I was on a call, or I got hit by a car on the road, all of my conversations with anyone half Muslim would end with a Khuda Hafiz. Saying Khuda Hafiz was customary while I was growing up and it came out almost involuntarily, like saying hi and bye, people said it all the time. And the unsaid golden rule which made Khuda Hafiz awesome, was that when you said a Khuda Hafiz , you heard a Khuda Hafiz. Two Khuda Hafiz’s together made a complete polite bye.

Indeed, now that I write this, I realize that the beauty of the Khuda-hafiz-style-bye is such that it gets you out of uncomfortable situations without having to be rude. Since it literally means means “May god keep you safe”, it is much more polite than a curt bye which means nothing but a wish to part. In awkward situations while being bored by the neighborhood aunty telling you should study harder and get into IIT one day, you can always say, “yeah, lets see what happens, —(and and then, quickly)— okay, Aunty Khuda Hafiz. And if you wished someone safety, they have to wish it back to you too, so Khuda Hafiz plus Khuda Hafiz and voila, you are free! By now the reader would have understood that Khuda hafiz was a magical fullstop, and not rarely well-meant. I remember saying Khuda Hafiz to my dad on the railway station with all my heart. I wished that god magically kept him safe.

The point is that within a few years, I found myself saying “Allah Hafiz” to recreate the magic. And the problem is, it worked. Within a mere few years of Rizwan Nana’s visit, if you said one Allah hafiz on the street, you would hear another Allah hafiz, and a bad (or a good for that matter) conversation would end magically all the same. How is it that within a decade, a phrase so crucial to a culture gets perfectly replaced by a new phrase? Language changes and usages change, true. New words become a part of our vocabulary when we hear other people using it, but Allah Hafiz blossomed not as a new usage but as a “right” one. Khuda Hafiz did not die its own death, it died by being corrected.

Which brings me back to Rizwaan Nana and the story he told us that day which really didn’t need require the suspense I have let it enjoy here. But here it is. That day, Rizwaan Nana told us a simple thing, Beta we should not say Khuda, because Khuda is a Persian word, and why should we call our god by that name. That way, you should start saying Bhagwan Hafiz right? Khuda Hafiz and Bhagwan Hafiz are the same and thus since our god is only Allah we should say Allah Hafiz. It seems that this wisdom of two lines was spread sporadically by many Rizwaan Nanas and many enlightened kids correcting other not-yet-rizwaan nanas. Where its origin actually lay, no one knows. Rizwan Nana had no real Arab connections, neither was he the most religious person around, but he was generally inspiring and Allah Hafiz seemed inspiring too. It was a virus: correcting someone’s khuda hafiz, it could have very well developed into a game with points if people started counting and comparing their booty of corrected Allah Hafiz’s. I do not remember ever reading about using Allah Hafiz, or seeing an advertisement encouraging us to use Allah Hafiz. The passing of the information was purely oral and the ‘correction’ spread without the need of a position of conventional authority, a feature of neo-Islam that has understandably multiplied its fan-base in the subcontinent.

And thus a Khuda-Hafiz no more guaranteed riddance from annoying acquaintance. Instead, an innocent Khuda hafiz uttered with hope and reassurance of being set free in two seconds, was instead greeted with concern: “Beta don’t you know, you should say Allah hafiz and not Khuda Hafiz, because our god is Allah and not Khuda, because Khuda can be any god”

I started saying Allah Hafiz because I wanted to seem cooler and have the permitted joy of correcting people, and mostly elders. Maybe someone else did because they wanted to return the magical goodbye-ness to it. You see, one Allah hafiz and one Khuda Hafiz make no magic. They prolong bad conversations, not end them.

[Shireen Azam is a writer and researcher from the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities.]

14 thoughts on “A Short Memoir On the Arabisation of Islam in India: Shireen Azam”

  1. This article led me to Mina Malik Hasan’s hilarious blog, and I am still smiling while writing this comment. On a serious note, I still find Khuda Hafiz quite prevalent among Muslims in India and Pakistan, and Hindus often respond using the same words. Interestingly, a Pakistani Muslim friend used to call God as Bhagawan, and Namaaz as Pooja, whenever around me. The caste division among Muslims is not too different from Hindus in Pakistan. There is an inherent disliking of Arabs among Indian sub-continent Muslims who have lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, it seems to be caused by the cultural divergence. Therefore, the Arabisation of Islam in India and Pakistan would take time, or it may never happen entirely.


  2. Allah Hafiz gained currency in Pakistan during Zia ul Huqs time when he started the process of following Islam more rigorously.There is a nice passage about in the novel A case of exploding Mangoes by Mohammad Hanif.To a truly spiritual person God should sound just as sweet in any other tongue.


  3. It doesn’t really matter. Say “Khuda Hafiz” if you want or “Allah Hafiz”. All languages evolve over time, why should be so concerned over this minuscule change?

    I have noticed this trend here in Pakistan as well. But many I speak to say that “Allah Hafiz” is much easier to pronounce than “Khuda Hafiz”. Allah Hafiz rolls off the tongue much more easier. Besides as someone commented earlier. Why should we privilege Persian over Arabic? Why are Farsi customs and traditions considered more authentic? We should not consciously avoid embracing Arabic Islam in the subcontinent for no reason. We should embrace Arabic heritage just as readily as we embrace Persian heritage. In fact, it is arguable Arabic is more richer and the birth place of Islam. So why shouldn’t we embrace Arabic traditions, customs and heritage? Why is it a problem if a woman wants to wear the abaaya over shalwar kameez? We should accept arabic cultural influences such as the abaaya – just as we have accepted western dress (such as jeans and suits). Likewise we have incorporated many many english words into our Urdu. So why is it a problem if we wish to include some Arabic words into it (which by the way Urdu is already a mix or Arabic, Persian and Turkish).


  4. Thanks to Shireen Azam for this important note on how our languages and cultures shift directions.
    The arrival of ‘Allah hafiz’ in the last two decades or so is linked not just to a ‘correction’ or an Arabization of being Muslim, but also of a particular understanding of Islam, one that is intolerant of lived/living interpretations of Islam. Both right-wing and racist in its move, the slow and almost complete erasure of ‘Khuda hafiz’ attempts to wipe out the multiple geographical, cultural and linguistically rich heritage of Islam.
    On a more personal note, I continue to persist with my ‘Khuda hafiz’ in the face of its near absence in my immediate contexts!


  5. I am unclear. Does the author think it is harmless that ‘Khuda hafiz’ has been replaced with ‘Allah hafiz’ or is she being critical of this shift? For me, ‘Allah hafiz’ is a constant reminder of the creeping obscurantism in South Asian Islam, and every time I hear it, which is all the time, I cringe.


  6. “Khuda has Persian roots. If anything, “Khuda” speaks of Muslims’ age-old assimilation in the Indian subcontinent, something that ‘Arabisation’ of Islam would conveniently want to ignore, and is sadly becoming successful in.”

    In light of West and Central Asian history, I find this statement extremely ironic. The record of Arab lands on religious tolerance is far better than that of Persian lands. Uptil the devastating events of the last decade, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria all held extremely large non-Muslim minorities and diverse Islamic traditions as well.

    The Persian record on this matter is a bit different. The conversion of Iran to Shia Islam under the Safavid dynasty is one of the few genuine examples of state sponsored religious conversion. The treatment of Jews in Iran (when they were there) was abominable and the treatment of Sunnis in Ahvaz remains oppressive even today. Not to mention the plight of Bahais. There have been no significant religious minorities for Iran for more than a century now. Iran’s record of exporting religious extremism is as bad as Saudi Arabia’s, although of course Saudi Arabia’s is more effective because they are richer.

    None of this undermines the contributions of Persian culture to India, but Arabian, Western, African and East Asian cultures have contributed much as well, and we (Hindus or Muslims) shouldnt privilege one over the other.


    1. Interesting observation, and I largely concur. However, a counterpoint. Within India Shia Muslim states have been far more accommodating of native Hindu culture than their Sunni counterparts. Awadh, the major Shia muslim state of India never displayed the kind of fanaticism that was endemic of Sunni states. Even to this day, the Indian cities where the Shias forms the “majority” of the muslim minority population, remain largely free of the communal tensions.


  7. Etymology is the very devil.

    Once upon a time in Bollywood, the Catholic priest — usually played by Nazir Hussain — would speak perfect Bambaiya Hindi, but refer to his khuda as ‘God’, because that’s apparently how Christians refer to their bhagwan or dev (from which Sanskrit root word also comes ‘devil’, but do they care?)

    But to come back to God, very recently Malay-speaking Christians who habitually used the word ‘Allah’ — which means God — for God were ordered by a Malaysian court to stop calling God Allah. They are, however, welcome to refer to God as ‘Tuhan’, or Lord, which renders one of the Ten Commandments as ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy Lord in vain’, though of course thou may do so tautologously.

    My own mother-tongue uses the generic term ‘daivam’ for assorted sky gods, whose referent can be divined only from context. It’s admittedly very confusing, but I am confident that the Lord thy Lord can sort these things out by Herself.


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s