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.]