By Syed Mansoor Hussain
July 13, 2013
The time is nigh. A very important decision must be made. Is it Ramzan or Ramadan? Even The New York Times calls it Ramadan so those of us that write in English must decide and take sides. It is not just a religious question but a vital matter of linguistic transliteration. Once a decision is made to go with Ramadan instead of Ramzan that could have far reaching consequences for us in Pakistan. If we start replacing the ‘Zed’ sound’ with the ‘Dee’ sound, things could become a trifle complicated. Maulana Fazl ur Rehman will become Maulana Fadl ur Rehman. And of course we will have to rewrite a lot of our history. The hero of the Oval will become Fadal Mehmood, and many other historical figures will also have to be renamed in our English language books.
Will Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto become Dhulfiqar Ali Bhutto (DAB instead of ZAB)? Will his son Murtaza become Murtada? Will Bhutto’s president, Fazal Ilahi become Fadal Ilahi? And yes all those named Raza will become Radas. And all the Rizvis will perforce become Ridvis. This could lead to utter chaos with different English language publications using the either/or transliteration. I realise Mian Nawaz Sharif, our prime minister (PM) has important things on his proverbial plate but in my humble opinion this is also a matter that requires his urgent consideration.
I could suggest that the Council of Islamic Ideology or the Federal Shariat Court take up this question, but the problem with that could well be that neither body is sufficiently well versed in the finer points of the English language or the extant methodology of transliteration of Arabic into English. As such it might need help from an independent advisory ‘commission’ of experts. Of course, these experts must be fully knowledgeable of Arabic as well as English and, of course, Urdu and Persian. Why Persian? Well, Urdu has many words derived from Persian and it is important to separate the Arabic words from the Persian words. Here I must admit that in Pakistan it might be difficult to find people with such multi-lingual expertise.
It is, however, imperative that such an ‘advisory’ commission be formulated urgently that has experts in all appropriate languages. It must then recommend correct pronunciation and appropriate transliteration of Arabic words with the equivalent of zed as used in Urdu and in Pakistani English. Unfortunately, most Pakistanis are not that well educated to start with and on top of it are extremely susceptible to religious ideas. The problem I foresee is that once the government of the Islamic Republic starts the ‘dee-ification’ of the names and other words with the zed sound, things could get out of hand.
After all, not all words with the zed sounds as we pronounce them in Urdu are incorrect. But once this trend starts off, before we know it, every Zed sound, whether it should be or not, might get changed by the religiously inclined into a Dee sound. Nawaz and Shahbaz just might become Nawad and Shahbad, and poor Hamza Shahbaz could be hit by a double whammy and become Hamda Shahbad. Even the venerable ‘Allah Hafiz’ so much preferred by the truly pious might become ‘Allah Hafid’! Shudder, shudder!
All this leads us to another problem. The commission I mentioned above, as commissions are wont to, will not limit itself just to the words with the zed sound. It will indeed expand its mandate and try and ‘correct’ all the Arabic words that are presently mispronounced and improperly transliterated into English. After all, the venerable Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami under correct Arabic pronunciation will become Jamaa-e-Islami, and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa will become Jamaa-ud-Dawa. And what about the call to prayer, is it Azan or Adhan or the ritual ablutions, Wuzoo or Wudhu? So perhaps we better leave things be.
Frankly, I have great fondness for Urdu and I am used to the way we pronounce most of these words as they have been for as long as Urdu has been spoken in these parts. And I am also quite used to transliteration into English according to the normal Urdu pronunciation. In my opinion, most if not all of these words have been absorbed into the Urdu language and have become a part of spoken Urdu and we should probably leave them as they are.
The basic concept should remain that transliterations into English follow the way that name is pronounced by the person with that name or the way a particular word is pronounced in a particular country. I still remember an Iranian resident in my department many years ago. He spelled his name ‘Ghodsi’ and also pronounced it quite that way. Eventually, I figured out that his name was what we would call ‘Qudsi’ but there is no Q equivalent in Persian so Ghodsi is what he called himself and that is what I called him too.
But all that sounds much too reasonable. Clearly the creeping hodgepodge Arabicisation of Pakistan is a matter of some concern. As it is, whenever I say ‘Khuda Hafiz’, I have this feeling that the person I say it to might suddenly jump up, grab me by the neck and start beating me up. It is possible that over time we will see some of the words I have mentioned above change from the presently accepted pronunciation into the Arabic style. This could create problems.
My fear is that we just might start seeing confrontations between those that call it Ramadan and those that call it Ramzan as well as those that prefer ‘Wudhu’ over ‘Wuzoo’ or ‘Adhan’ over ‘Azan’. With possible allegations of impiety flying around, an already tense religious environment could get worse. So perhaps it might be worthwhile that Arabic origin words in Urdu that relate primarily to religious topics be pronounced in the Arabic way. The only problem is that once we start down that road, where do we stop?
Syed Mansoor Hussain has practised and taught medicine in the US.