In recent years, before the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan/Ramzan, a debate erupts (largely in the English-language media) over the difference between Ramzan, the Urdu spelling at the time, and Ramadan, its spelling Arab. Writers with no language training have claimed without any evidence that the use of the spelling “Ramadan” is a sign of “Islamic radicalism” in India.
In a previous article, I wrote about the political motivations behind the controversy and highlighted the role played by globalization and the contact between Indian languages and Arabic in the Gulf countries, where Indians form a percentage important in the workforce.
There is, of course, more to the month than the spelling controversy. Muslims around the world engage in particular religious practices during this month. A look at Ramzan vocabulary will help to understand not only their practices but also how they affect their social behavior in schools, colleges and workplaces this month.
- The month in which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk is called Ramzan in Urdu, which is the Urdu pronunciation of the Arabic word Ramadan, which literally means “excessive heat”. The Arabic word Ramḍā’, meaning “baked in the sun”, is derived from the same root. The etymology of the Arabic word reflects the hot and dry climatic conditions of the southern Arabian Peninsula, where Islam originated.
Other Indian languages have different words for the month. For example, in Malayalam, which is not influenced by Arabic and Persian, like Urdu, it is called nomb masam – “fasting month”, in addition to Ramsan, a variant spelling of Arabic Ramadan.
There are two reasons why the month is considered holy. First, all adults observe the obligatory fast for the whole month as it is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. Second, it’s also special because the Quran was revealed this month. Therefore, Muslims read the Quran much more this month than any other month, and so you can find them reading the Quran in public places.
- Fasting is called roza, which is an act of worship in which Muslims do not eat, drink or have sex during the day. The word roza in Urdu comes from Persian (not Arabic) which is derived from the word pink which means “day” or “daily”. The original Arabic word in the Quran for roza is sawwhich means abstaining from things, which reflects the act of worship in a more transparent way than the Urdu word roza.
Muslims also refrain from evils such as lies, backbiting and fighting. There is a narration in which the Prophet advised Muslims to politely say, “I am fasting”, if someone insulted them or started a fight. Here the phrase refers to the broader sense of abstaining from evils in general. In Malayalam, the word for fast is nomb or vratham, borrowed from Sanskrit.
- At sunset, Muslims gather in mosques and other places to end their day of fasting and have their first meal, called iftar/iftari in Urdu. Although both words come from Arabic, Arabs use future, word derived from the same root. In some Bihari dialects, the word is roj-kholia which means “something on which you break your fast”. The word combines the Persian word pink with the Indian word kholna.
Unlike Urdu, in Malayalam the word for the evening meal is nomb thura, literally “the opening of the fast”, which is not borrowed from Arabic or Persian. As iftar is a form of prayer, Muslims can be seen rushing home to join their families for the evening meal. Hosting Iftar parties has become a common event in many political circles in India, which aims to form alliances and solidarity.
- After Muslims break their fast at sunset, they offer evening prayers. Later at night, they offer a special prayer called taraweeh, which only takes place during Ramzan. This prayer is rather long and done in congregation, so it is not surprising to see large numbers of Muslims gathering in mosques at night. In many Muslim neighborhoods, the mosques and surrounding businesses become quite festive at night, especially after prayers.
- After this prayer, Muslims go back to bed and get up at dawn for their last meal before starting their fast the next day. Many Muslims may stay up all night and go to bed after the morning meal. This meal in Urdu is called sehri, derived from the Arabic word sahara, meaning “breaking dawn”. The Urdu word sehri in Arabic means “magical”, which shows how the word has undergone semantic change in the Indian context.
- At the end of the fasting month, Muslims are required to pay alms to the poor called zakat al-fitr also known as fitra in South Asia. The amount of zakat must be paid in kind and is calculated based on an Arabic system of measuring dates and grains called saa’a, which translates to two and a half kilos of local produce or its equivalent. Charity should be paid before Eid celebrations.
While the benefit of fasting is limited to the person observing it, the fitra affects society. The purpose of almsgiving is to ensure that the poor do not go hungry and to share the festivities of Eid Al-Fitr with others. The most striking cultural icon of Eid among South Asian Muslims is sweets made from sewaiyyan, vermicelli. The word comes from the Sanskrit Śamita, meaning “rice powder”, which changed to samia in Prakrit.
North Indian Muslims begin the Arabic month of Ramzan/Ramadan by observing the Persian roza and end it with the celebration of Arabic Eid sharing the Sanskrit-derived sewaiyyan with Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Rizwan Ahmad is Associate Professor of Sociolinguistics at Qatar University. He tweets at @rizwanahmad1