Reflections on an address of the Aga Khan III

4 Nov, 2018

Reflecting on Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III’s address at the session of Motamer-e-Alam-e-Islami on Friday, 9th February 1951, Karachi.

.. by Dr Mir Baiz Khan

It was the 4th year of Pakistan’s inception as an independent sovereign country when it hosted Motamer-e-Alam-e-Islami on Friday, 9th February 1951 in Karachi. Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III’s address at this session is worth reflection on the occasion of his birthday. The leadership of Pakistan at this time was struggling with many pressing issues ranging from dealing with settling the enormous influx of refugees to making decision on a complex matter of what of the major languages would be the national language of the country. The decision related to language policy, it was hoped, would reflect and sustain the unity and long-term progress of Pakistan as a dynamic and forward looking modern nation within the broad compass of Muslim civilizational heritage; maintaining its historical pluralistic character and building on it to create a society in which justice, respect for human life and dignity, and peace and prosperity for all could be achieved.
As Tariq Rahman in his book Language and Politics in Pakistan reminds us the complexity and politics behind the decision to make Urdu, a non-indigenous language, to be the national language of the new multi-lingual and mult-cultural country. Below is a full text of address, rather an appeal, to the leadership of Pakistan at the time to decide on a language that could unite the nation rather than dividing it and would have larger appeal to Muslims in general beyond the borders of the new state.
The full text of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III’s address is reproduced below:
“Mr. President, Brother Muslims:
I can assure you that it is not with a light heart that I address you this evening. I fully realise that what I am going to say will make me most unpopular with important sections of the population. However, I would be a traitor to Islam if I let this opportunity pass without placing before the people of this powerful and populous Islamic nation the views which I consider my duty to place before the Muslims with as many of the arguments as I am capable of using in a short address. I fear some of my arguments will mortally offend those who under totally different conditions gave so much of their life for the support of the cause which I think today has been passed bye by events far more important than any dreamt of in those days.
I feel the responsibility greater than any I can think of to place my views and arguments before the Muslim population of Pakistan as a whole – each and every province – while what I consider a tragic and deadly step is not yet taken and not added to the consideration of this realm.
The language of a nation is not only the expression of its own voice but the mode of interpretation with all other human societies. Before it is too late, I, an old man, implore my brothers in Islam here not to finally decide for Urdu as the national language of Pakistan but to choose Arabic. Please hear my arguments.
First my argument against Urdu. If what was the other part of the former British Empire of India had made Urdu its national language, there would have been a great argument for Pakistan doing ditto. It could have been a linguistic and important point of contact with the vast Republic of the South. I am the last man on earth to desire to break any bridge of contact and understanding between Pakistan and its immense neighbour. Friends, not only Urdu but even Hindustani has been replaced by Hindi throughout Bharat as the national language. The people of Bharat were perfectly justified to choose any language which the majority considered most appropriate and historically justified to be their national language. The majority there had the right to choose what was most suitable for them as the official language of the country. Your choice in Pakistan of Urdu will in no way ameliorate or help your relations with your Southern neighbour nor will it help the Muslim minorities there in any conceivable way. Howsoever, you may add Arabic and Persian words to Urdu, there is no denying the fact that the syntax, the form, the fundamentals of the language is derived from Hindi and not from Arabic.
Was Urdu the language of the Muslims of India at the time of their glory? During the long Pathan period, Urdu was never considered the language of the rulers. Now we come to the Moghul Empire in the period of its glory. It was not the language of the educated. I defy anybody to produce a letter or any other form of writing by Emperors Aurengazeb, Shah Jahan, Jehangir, Akbar, Humayun or Babar in Urdu language. All that was spoken at the Court was Persian or occasional Turkish. I have read many of the writings of Aurengazeb and they are in beautiful Persian. Same is true if you go to the Taj Mahal and read what is written on the tombs of the Emperor and his famous consort. Persian was the Court language and the language of the educated and even till the early 19th century in far Bengal, the Hindu intelligentsia wrote and used Persian and not Urdu. Upto the time of Macaulay, Persian was the language of Bengali documents and various Sadar Adalat.
We must look historical facts in the face. Urdu became the language of Muslim India after the downfall. It is a language associated with the downfall. Its great poets are of the downfall period. The last and the greatest of them was Iqbal who with the inspiration of revival gave up Urdu poetry for Persian poetry. There was a meeting in Iqbal’s honour in London organised by men such as Prof. Nicholson. I was present at that meeting. Iqbal said that he went in for Persian poetry because it was associated with the greatness of the Islamic epoch and not with its misfortunes. Is it right that the language of the downfall period should become the national language of what we hope now is a phoenix like national rising? All the great masters of Urdu belong to the period of greatest depression and defeat. It was then a legitimate attempt by the use of a language of Hindi derivation with Arabic and Persian words to find ways and means of better understanding with the then majority fellow-countrymen. Today that vast British dependency is partitioned and succeeded by two, independent and great nations and the whole world hopes that both sides now accept partition as final.
Is it a natural and national language of the present population of Pakistan? Is it the language of Bengal where the majority of the Muslims live? Is it what you hear in the streets of Dacca or Chittagong? Is it the language of the North West Frontier? Is it the language of Sind? Is it the language of the Punjab? Certainly after the fall of the Moghul Empire, the Muslims and Hindus of certain areas found in it a common bond but now today other forms of bridges must be found for mutual understanding.
Who were the creators of Urdu? What are the origins of Urdu? Where did it come from? The camp followers; the vast Hindi speaking population attached to the Imperial Court who adapted, as they went along, more and more Arabic and Persian words into the syntax of their own language just as in later days the English words such as glass and cup became part of a new form of Urdu called Hindustani.
Are you going to make the language of the Camp or of the Court your national language of your new born realm? Every Muslim child of a certain economic standard learns the Qur’an in Arabic whether he is from Dacca or Quetta. He learns his Alif-Be to read his Qur’an. Arabic is the language of Islam. The Qur’an was [revealed] in Arabic. The Prophet’s Hadiths are in Arabic. The highest form of Islamic culture in Spain was in Arabic. Your children must learn Arabic to a certain extent always. The same is true of your West whether Sind, Baluchistan or the North. From the practical and worldly point of view, Arabic will give you, as a national language, immediate contact not only with the 40 million Arabic speaking people of independent nations on your West but the other 60 million more or less Arabic speaking people who are not independent but who exist in Africa. Right upto the Atlantic, not only in North but as far South as Nigeria and the Gold Coast, Arabic is known to the upper classes of the population. In all the Sudans, on the Nile or under French rule, Arabic is the language right upto the borders of Portuguese West Africa. In East Africa, not only in Zanzibar but amongst the Muslim population of even countries as far apart as Madagascar and Portuguese East Africa, Arabic is known. If we turn to the East on Arabic, Islam has been founded and prospered throughout the 80 million Muslims right upto the Philippines. In Ceylon Muslim children of the well-to-do classes get some knowledge of Arabic. Is it not right and proper that this powerful Muslim State of Pakistan with its central geographical position, its bridges between the nearly 100 million Muslims of the East and 100 million Muslims of the West – its position of the East from Philippines and the Great State of Indonesia and Malaya and Burma and then westward with the hundred millions in Africa, right upto the Atlantic, should make Arabic its national language and not isolate itself from all its neighbours and from the world of Islam with a language that was associated with the period of downfall of Muslim States. And finally while Arabic as a universal language of the Muslim world will unite, Urdu will divide and isolate.
Gentlemen, brothers in Islam, people of Pakistan, people of every Province, I appeal to you, before you take the final and what I unfortunately must say, I consider the fatal jump down the precipice, please discuss and let all and every one contribute their views. Take time and think over it.
Once more I appeal to those who I know I have offended, for Islamic charity in the discussions that inevitably will take place and all others to look facts in the face historically and the present world of today.
I pray that the people of this country may be guided by the Divine wisdom before they decide.”
It is now an irreversible fact that Urdu is the national language of Pakistan. It is unimaginable even to think that Urdu will ever be replaced by Arabic in Pakistan. The historical sketch, drawn in this speech, of the Muslim cultures and civilizations in which the Arabic language has left an indelible mark with its tremendous unifying capacity at the time is worth of reflection. The points raised in the speech are such which unveil many realities of the Muslim history, cultures and civilizations and invoke the sagacity of national decision making. How different Pakistan would be today if Aga Khan III’s appealed had received a favourable hearing and Arabic had become the national language of Pakistan. Had she maintained its unity and avoided separation of its Eastern wing and the many language insurgencies in West Pakistan. If it did, it would be arguably stronger, united and second largest Muslim populated country in the world as it was at the time of its creation. One thing, for sure, would have unchanged. That is that no language including Urdu would have been extinct, rather all would have flourished with additional vocabulary from Arabic and Farsi, the two important languages of Muslim civilizations. .. Dr Mir Baiz Khan, Toronto Canada 04 Oct 2018