Language is a Grandmother: The Long and Torturous Death of Urdu in America

میری اللہ سے بس اتنی دعا ہے راشدؔ
میں جو اردو میں وصیت لکھوں بیٹا پڑھ لے

Allah, my final prayer is this:
If I write my will in Urdu, would my son read it?
                     even stars shed
Laila and Majnun!
                     didn’t you tear for Mustafa: tell the truth?
sky-shattered to trail the moon            as peers            as they stand in one row
                    Muhammaduna Muhammaduna

Jibril, Mikail, Azrail, Israfil: With what face will you now circle the Ka’bah?
Come, tawaf around Mustafa. How will you produce
another flute? Leap away, the Prophet is
                   Muhammaduna Muhammaduna
                                       - صالح

When I was a boy of no more than five years old, my mother, in a palette of dark floral shalwar kamīz, would drop me at the plaster-and-brick apartment complex of my grandmother, as she completed her undergraduate education, in a spit of sunny mornings, in Fremont, California. On an even darker floral Persian-Hyderabadi carpet, with tumbleweed hair, I would spend my days, the air drenched with heat, sleeping, rolling, thrumming, lying flat on the ground, watching my nani engage her time in activities of Urdu: phone calls with her friends, her sisters-in-laws, my own mother, and the flickering noise of a variety Urdu shows on satellite Pakistani TV channels: QTV, ARY Digital, and newscasters. In utter truth, I understood almost nothing of the Urdu blazing forth on her tongue, even when she beckoned me with “idhar āō!” or “come here,” or when she coined her own affectionate Hyderabadi term of endearment: saaleh-khan, produced from the Mongolian-Mughal “khan,” meaning regent.

Now, two decades later, I marvel at her ability to dance between a purer Deccani, a dialect indigenous and spurred by the Golconda king Qū Qūlī Quṭub Shāh, founder of Hyderabad, with his marriage of Telugu and Persian, later mixed with Marathi– and a formal Pakistani Urdu; sometimes her noun-plurals would be the wāwnūn, birthed in northern India, and the alif-nūn plural of the Deccan (larkān and larkōn are common distinctions between the two dialects), depending on her audience. Indeed, her litanies, various Quranic chapters (sūrahs Muhammad and Yasin), and prophetic invocations, were almost always translated into Urdu in her handy adhkār pamphlets. (I am remiss that I never thought to ask her where she collected such a vast miscellany of ʾadhkār, ʾawrād, adʿiyah). Frequenting her apartment during my days of ḥifẓ, or Quran-memorization, I had no idea what I was paying attention to at the time, as she beefed me up with a constellation of smoking paratha-egg combinations and grated tamatē kī chutney. She passed away only a few months ago on the last day of Ramadan—Allah cradle her with light and beauty in Barzakh.

She emigrated to America in the early 1970’s, right before the split of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and at the crescendo of Nehruvian socialism in India. In many ways, her life is a metonym for the long and arduous life of Urdu in America. When she housed herself and her family in a gentle suburb of Chicago in the early 70’s, the very small pocket of Hyderabadi-Muslims that assembled in the northern suburbs, and in the city, would converse wholly in Urdu. The fact that my grandmother had passed nearly fifty years in America, a rarity for most Muslim-American South Asian diaspora, and never picked up English is a testament to the entrenched-ness of Urdu within these very communities, not only in its infancy, but throughout Urdu’s arc, and her sloping hills.


darwish says khuda is hidden in the letters of A-H-D
why are you still here? come barzakh waits for your ruh

where are the caravans headed? i see— no life
that pakistani guide— what’s his name? i feel his ruh

you held home with prophets- why did you forget
a world of arwaah where prairies praise the prophet’s ruh

all rumis, all ghalibs, all bayazids, all mutannabis
imprison me where land spells palestine into ruh

the custodian of the ka’bah barricades saaleh: that’s okay
i’m on the road to where i dream Iqbal’s candle-blowing ruh

When I converse with Muslims, across the gamut in America: Afghan, Lucknowi, Bengali, Pakistani (Punjabi or Muhajir or Sindhi), Gujarati, Iranian, I am often struck of how poorly Urdu has been preserved on the tongues, flesh, of Pakistani-Indian Muslims—those in whose ancestry Urdu is their primary language. Despite renewed resurgence of Muhammad Iqbal coteries and seminars in coffee shops, Masjid events, YouTube productions, and even on the minbar, very little uptick on the revival of Urdu as a civilizational language has emerged. How did this come to pass? What cultural, sociological, and linguistic developments have underscored this development? Pressingly, how do we halt this great stride towards the death of Urdu? Should we allow the march towards renewal (tajdīd)? Bāt yei hain kē Urdū shanāsī kisī kō jōsh-u kharōsh nahīn. The wince-inducing and justified immigrant platitude of “I can understand but I can’t speak,” is most commonly heard from the Muslim South Asian diaspora.

Why does everything sound so much sadder in Urdu?
                                                                                      — Fatima Mirza
ہر چیز در اردو چرا رنجیدہ تر در آمد   گوش ما را

In the 19thcentury, the Muslim reformer Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, longtime friend and correspondent of the towering logician and theologian Mawlānā Qasim Nānotwī, who himself was the founder of Dar ul-Ulum Deoband, which arguably has spurred, in raw statistics, the highest amount of Urdu publications, to print and lithograph, across India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, gathered with various Muslim educators and Mawlanas, to discuss the education crisis of Muslims in Victorian India. Muslims, although having ruled India for the past 600 years, were lower-employed in the civil service—may be attributed to the British paranoia of Muslim disloyalty—and less educated than their Hindu peers. What had led to this, despite the fact that Muslims in India had fostered a culture of learning and text-production, in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, far superior to many of their sister cities in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, and Tunis? Mughal kings Akbar, Jahāngīr, Shāh Jahān, Aurangzēb, and Shāh ʿĀlam’s many, many sanads, farmāns, nishāns—grants– to the upliftment and patronage of education across the Mughal realm are testament to the facticity of this.

 I evade terms like ‘decline’ or ‘fall’ as civilizations rotate more than they fall, as the Quran teaches us: wa tilka al-ayyām nudāwilha bayn al-nās.

             And those are the days we rotate amongst people

One common argument, proffered to the British supervisors, was that the English education imposed onto Muslims that allegedly addressed their spiritual and civilizational needs was vanishingly inferior to that of the Mughal one (we can think of the Dars-i Niāmī): where Muslims were expected to master Arabic, Persian, Urdu, logic, philosophy, Greek medicine, theology, Hanafi legal theory; now they were demanded to devote most of their time to reading tomes of Roman and Anglo-Saxon history, with superficial training in Urdu and Persian, and Marghinānī’s Hedaya, in English translation. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, citing Shāh ʿAbd al-Azīz’s fatwa, the son and heir of the Mughal polymath Shāh Walīullāh, where he legislated it lawful for Muslims living under British colonialism to learn, study, and write in English, in his Persian Fatāwā-i ʿAzīzī—that Muslim Indians had no issues studying English at in a broader landscape. Khan and the Mawlānās emphasized the study of Persian and Urdu for Muslim children, both female and male, and their symbolic status as the tongues of Muslim India. Although Sir Syed and the Mawlānās present—and if the British copy editor is correct, it seems there were dozens of maulvīs—could have easily legislated for English to replace Urdu and Persian in this British educational forum, the ulema present and Sir Syed championed the devastating need for Urdu for Muslims in Hindustan.

پردهٔ غنچه می‌درد خندهٔ دلگشای تو
ای گلِ خوش نسیمِ من بلبلِ خویش را مسوز
bud-veils cut the heart-consuming laughter of yours
o’ pleasant-breeze-rose of mine! put to flames your own nightingale- don’t!
                                                         -- Hafez-i Shirazi, Divān

A Persian grant by Mughal Bādshāh Akbar, devoting state funds to Madad-I Maʿāsh, a form of Mughal Waqf, for Islamic learning

Determining a date for the genesis of Urdu has proved moderately challenging for Urdu literary theorists. Scholars as vast as Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Altaf Hussain Hali, Francis Prichett, Sheldon Pollock, and Mawlānā Shiblī Noʿmānī have all commented on this topic—most agree it was sometime in the 18th-century, as that is the first moment we see the word Urdu deployed as a descriptor of a language, by Amroha-born and Lucknow-dying poet Ghulam Hamdānī ‘Musḥafī,” or one connected to the Mushaf— who composed many odes, romances, and lyric verses. Various appellations were used prior “Rekhta,” from the Persian verb rēkhtan, to pour; Hindavi, from Hindu, drawn from the Arabic grammar rule where one adds the wau to show nisbah, as in samā (heaven) to samāwī (heavenly), “language of Hindus”; “Hindi,” from the same rule but with a regular noun, the language of Hind; Dehlavi, from Delhi; or Dakhini, related to the Deccan. In popular Pakistani understanding, and within Pakistani textbooks, the misconstrued notion of Urdu as lashkarī, or military-barracks-tongue, has dominated minds and tongues for decades. 

However, as Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, the leading and recently-deceased Urdu literary theorist and linguist of recent memory, tartly, and discursively, explained, pouring through British dictionaries of Hindostanee, Urdu dictionaries, and kulliyāt of various 18th-century Urdu poets, the idea that Urdu was birthed in the military is a markedly false one. This emerged from a British Orientalist notion, no stranger to us, where Muslims are vociferous military trespassers, possessed of sexual virility, seeking to emasculate unsuspecting Hindu men and women. The truth, Faruqui proposes, is that the longer phrase, Zabān-i Urdū-yi Muʿallā, or the “Language of the Sublime Camp,” was more a metonym of the city Shahjahanabad, now Delhi. That is: the language of Urdu was simply the lingua for the city of Delhi and its environs—the maddeningly dazzling interaction of Braj Bahsha, proto-Hindi, Persian, Arabic, and much, much more. Although the Mughals maintained Persian as the language of scholarship, bureaucracy, epistolary communication, Masjid and fount epigraphs, Urdu began to shine through the cracks of Hindustani-Persian, even as Mughal sovereignty and methods of power fractured into smaller principalities— Hyderabad, Lucknow, Bengal, Mysore, Kabul–we may invoke the emergence of Syro-Aramaic in Palestine, during the heyday of Greek and Latin in the Roman Empire. 

هر که حرف لااله از بر کند
عالمی را گم بخویش اندر کند
فقر جوع و رقص و عریانی کجاست؟
فقر سلطانی است رهبانی کجاست؟
whoever who studies “la ilaha
he pours the cosmos into himself
sufism of hunger, whirls, nakedness- where?
sufism of monarchy! monasticism- where?
- Muhammad Iqbal Lahōrī, Javednama

During the arcs and arches of the 18th and 19th centuries is where Urdu becomes idealized, as a lingua poetica, or sukhan, creative of only grief-fueling poetry, and laments that mourn the torments and nāz of the minbar-eyebrow lover. Poetry is where language finds its highest and most ethereal expression and form, as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot so affectingly taught us, and it is Urdu’s both misfortune and luck that it was identified poetically—in a singular fashion. And the Urdu poets who blossomed in this period, from Ārzū, Ẓawq, Inshā, Saudā, Hālī, Mīr Anīs, Dabīr, Mīr, Āzurda and Dard, who sparked an efflorescence of Urdu at the loftiest level, allowing Urdu, despite political fragmentation, and seismic spams fracturing the purposiveness of the language as a functioning language, to have breath and nafas. This, I believe, permitted it to prosper as long as it has. The instability, the possibility, of each hemistich, miṣra, its parallelisms, its allusions, its caesura, its Quranic allusions, the mazmūn āfrīnī, and khayal, from the mirror, to the tresses of black hair, to prophet Yusuf’s exile, to Farhad’s rock-slicing, to the ṣūrat-gar, unleashed Urdu as a language prepared to rival any contemporary language in rhetoric, poetic possibility, and metaphysical thought—having incorporated the civilizations of Turko-Persian, Indo-Sanskrit, and Arabo-Islamic. Regrettably, under this canopy is where Urdu has been misconstrued—especially in the diaspora—as a language of poetry, and nothing else—a notion that has received potent pushback by academics in South Asian studies (we may think of professors SherAli Tareen and Ryan Perkins), where Urdu, as a lughah ʿilmiyyah, dominated and constructed the public sphere—one may think of Mawlānā Qāsim’s Āb-i Ḥayāt and Muftī Ṣadr al-Dīn Azurda’s fatāwā as singular symbols of this emerging discourse, where lithographs, newspaper clippings, gramophones shined floodlights on Urdu—any discussion of Urdu’s journey in America must recall this intellectual discourse, and its attendant desiderata for a genuine meditation on Urdu and its afterlife.

Over the past fifty years of Urdu in America, two major institutions were responsible for the endurance of Urdu’s blood in America: grandmothers and masājid. If time is a mother, then language is a grandmother—and reckoning with both is crucial to any essayistic exploration of the life and death of Urdu. At least one of the two must live on for Urdu to continue to have oxygen in this god-loving land.

صوفیاں در وطن سفر نکند
درد اندر سفر  وطن مراست
Sufis do not journey inside their homeland
Dard on a journey- that is my homeland!
- Khwaja Mīr Dard

Across the complex of my grandmother, near a Jack-in-the-Box and a pebbled trailer parking lot, was my home-Masjid, built of brick and mortar-stone, and an awning that resembled the colors of a sycamore. My first memory of a Masjid was here. Green was the defining color of its architectural ethic, with some rosemary splashed across the carpet design, floral. The first season of tarawī that I encountered was in winter, where fasts were short, and dinners long. Sometime in the late nineties, our community recruited a Muftī from Western Ghats, on the far-end of the Deccan plateau, the same region where Tipu Sultan governed and twice-repelled British invasions, to the shock of British shareholders sitting in a Westminster Abbey boardroom. The new Mufti was no older than 25 when he arrived. His first year with our community was only leading the vigil-night prayers, and no lectures. In the second year, he arrived again– this time permanently. He delivered the post-tarawih bayan in, what everyone told me—I, only five– as spectacular Urdu. I knew not a word of Urdu then, and my father would bring my older brother and I to lectures, for the barakah. Urdu, in the cracks, in the fissures, of family discussions, in my Indian-Hyderabadi family or my Pakistani-Karachi khāndān, felt a relic, a complex of ruins, breathed only out of respect to the elder-elders (buzurg-i buzurgān), and for family back home—a vanishing candle about to be snuffed amid the rise of a true dawn (sub-i sādiq). Very few children and teenagers spoke Urdu in my burgeoning community of Deccanis and Muhajirs—although many parents interlaced Urdu and English in their conversations with their children, they responded only in English– or grunts of approval or denial. Words like sālan, chappal, dastarkhān, bhaigan were readily understood, if only because their English equivalents were not acoustically pleasurable. In many ways, if not all, the arrival of the now-resident Mufti sparked a urmat, a sanctity, a sanctification, for Urdu—a cold, shivering nostalgia, a reckoning.

His lectures could cite Abū Nuʿaym al-Isfahānī, the mythic and mystic muaddith, Quranic exegesis from Mamluk mutakallim Fakhr al-Din Rāzī and Ottoman Iraqi Shihāb al-Dīn al-ʾĀlūsī; fatāwā from Ibn ʿĀbidīn, Ibn Nujaym, Mullā Niẓām al-Dīn; a sharp recollection of Hadith from Tabrēzī’s Mishkāt al-Maṣābīh and Sunan of Ibn Mājah (not excepting the Saīhayn of course); and vignettes from Urdu poets: once he spent fifteen minutes unravelling the poetic implications of Muhammad Iqbal’s Eik Pahār aur Gulehrī; and historical incidents that varied from the Tughlughs to  the Niẓāmshāhīs. The synthesis of knowledge, to a great deal, electrified the gathering, as did his selection of highly Persianized language: Perso-Arabic phrases like ravān davān, wabāl, jā bajā, sa’ādat, bihisht, bar waqt, dānishmandī, bar khilāf, ba-juz, kīmiyā, navāzish, haysiyyat, zawq, ān, lam yazal, mīrī, faqr-o fāqah, farmāye, wairangī, kuhan were deployed in his lectures, to ever-increasing crowds. At some level, mustawā, the wonder was rooted in the fact that the audience could not believe that they were witnessing the entire sweep of Islam—in Urdu.

I imagine, and sometimes shudder, on how important, how warm to the senses, this Urdu must have been for the recently-emigrated aunties and uncles: to hear, to inhale, words perhaps only their grandparents showed them, as children, in pre-Partition India, that somehow, despite the Anglicization of the world, greed for material wealth, the frigid fear of state surveillance, the tehīb-i musulmānī, the civilization of Islam, symbolically represented in Urdu, where blood and ancestors trembled for paighām-i payambar, was alive and had flesh, off the coast of the Pacific. 800 years of Islam in India need not die—is what I interpreted from the elder uncles, kurta’d up, as they rocked, weeping, the Urdu unfurling before them, emphasizing tazkiyah, isāb, isbah, tarbiyah, khawf az khuda, khawf az nafs, and, most consequentially, being left ashed in the aftermath of the gorgeous Prophet. I don’t know how to describe the emotive energy these lectures possessed other than the word ayrat—and how to unveil to what extent his Urdu lectures symbolized to the listeners, to my father.


I longingly crumpled in no-existence: عدم 
did you ever think the moth would live

another life- isn’t that why we trot rivers over the Oxus
Timur is not returning, won’t throw another garden

festivals are but when you sit me next to you
minstrel: Lahore and Kabul can’t breathe anymore

drown me in the blaze of Hijaz, I’ll 
stand so mountainly and it won’t be for long

ill say: we did it! we chuckled! the qawwali
claps and says two-three Arabic hikayeler, sözler

green dome sparkles so cloudfully to every dirt father
cornered: saaleh! who taught you so much grief?

Despite the spur by Masjids in America to corporatize themselves, that is, make them more profitable, often under slogans and uncreative WhatsApp posters of “Program for Youth” or “Fiqh and Basketball,” our Masjid, by its decision to stick to an Urdu-speaking scholar, because of his knowledge—a radically anti-capitalist act, in blanched defiance of markets and social trends—ensured some preservation of Urdu and a reckoning with our past and civilization within, and across, a very distinct Islamic idiom of South Asia, ostensibly besieged in all quarters. That decision, I interpret more than two decades later, has paid off to create a culture of learning, of valuing the premodern past, of fostering intellectual nourishment, as opposed to glamorized once-a-year-events that, more often than not, leave us with very little dividends. Evidenced by the bald fact of the number of seminary-trained scholars produced in our community– in ratio to other Muslim demographics– our masjid, though in no way perfect, could at least show something to offer after two decades of services and scholarship. I believe this was because Urdu, having safeguarded the intellectual thrust of Islam, paved a smoother and quicker path to the tradition: it grounded the values of wahy into the listener, without the person erupting into metaphysical confusion– more so than, say, a Latinate language would be able to.


sprawled on yourself- i can’t believe you
rose frightened clouds cannon-ing poetry on
you transported to konya and na man behooda kucha o bazaar mi gardam
mevlevi rumi hanafi mufti and sufi later and poet in the beginning
“jannat jannāt are our grave— moon-faced insan, salat salat salat— wine!”
trusty jibreel says: you wish to witness mustafa? and you do not namaaz

dust-free— free of the desert Jibril walks to the holy prophet, as an Arab

Confidantes of the Prophet, his own shadows, whisper
dare this beduoin address the Prophet with his mother-given name only Allah has the right
“Tell me Muhammad of the Din”
sing this brackish bedouin away! Muhammad is the Din!
“That you see your Rabb and He sees you”
(Yes, the Prophet uses relative clauses but he is absolute) 
Tell me Muhammad what are the Markers of Judgement”
does a desert-dweller think he now knows eschatology
“That a mother will birth her slave-master”
who is this man? why does he ask what we cannot! 
“And another marker?”
the reason-for-why-both-worlds-came-into-existence prophecies:
“barefoot desert-bare Arabs compete in bearing out lofty towers”

“Umar, son of Khattab, do you know him?”
No, sultan of two-worlds
“That was Gabriel.” 

Sahih Muslim

When our Masjid first opened its door, there were handily numerous masājid that offered their liturgical services in Urdu in northern California. Today, that number has dwindled to almost nothing, as more and more ulama-graduates have returned from their study-abroads, in Pakistan and India and South Africa, holding all their halaqas and masjid-halls in English. Whereas before there was a constant anxiety that the amorphous category of “youth” would not be able to relate and connect to Islam, and her beauty, if sermons and lectures did not occur in English, that same anxiety has twisted into something more frightening, as the roster of youth attendance in Masjid has not emerged as optimistic as originally conceived. What gives? That is to say: Despite the wholesale metamorphosis to English-only programs, Muslim millennials and Gen Z have still not crowded sacred spaces, and meaningful Urdu has slowly started to vanish from the South Asian diaspora. (Every month there seems to be a new wince-inducing Pakistani merch brand with a stock Urdu phrase.) Under the canopy of this discussion, I think of my grandmother, who, as I mentioned earlier, never took to English, would walk by aid of a stick or a shopping cart to the Masjid, for the sole purpose to hear the Urdu-shattering bayāns of our resident-Mufti. To put it more forcefully, the Urdu of our Masjid spiritually nourished her for two decades– the Urdu that rippled across our Masjid speakers resurrected new Islamic life in my grandmother and splashed her with spiritual sustenance when little presented itself to her amid the cornered wastelands of America. I think of how the Urdu of the bayan must have evoked her days as a toddler in Hyderabad, when her mother held her hand to jumʿah or Eid namāz, and a similar register of Urdu contained of āyāt and ahādīth swiveled on the microphone. 

And isn’t this the mission of the gorgeous Prophet? That no one should be left from the door of khudāwand-i ʿazīz and dargāh-i risālat ma’āb? That the spiritual and emotional needs of every congregational member are labraiz-i jām? I think how the holy Prophet—may joy cradle his beautiful soul in Madina—devoted so much time to the elders of his town: Abu Sufyan (r), Abū Jahl, Abū Lahab, ʿAbbās (r), Ḥamza (r). Of course, one may argue that these figures spearheaded the community, also recognizing that three of them were his own paternal uncles. 

Once may propose this was an imagining of a Masjid geography—as Masjid al-Nabawi before it– that could simultaneously attend to the metaphysical needs of our youth and, might I say it, the grandmothers who have nothing else but their mother-tongue, who only know the gorgeousness of the Prophet in the life-sentences, the sentences of life, of when their father hoisted them on their lap, seventy years ago. And in his presence if mention of the Prophet of Madina were to crop up: the baby-girl, who had only ever witnessed, had only loved, her father as a stern and unforgiving face, a sharp voice; that same father now bowed his head, almost kneeling, eyebrows flaring, and whispered: allah. sarkār pe hazāron salām bheyjey; the girl, a grandmother now, mouthing the salawāt seven decades later, and two oceans away. Her own grandson, named after a prophet, watching his grandmother, who watched her grandmother. Fumbling to mouth it: allāhumma sallī ʿala sayyidinā Muammad. Twenty years later, he, still remembers the way his grandmother voiced salutations.

What I suppose I am asking: How did our Masjid serve as a repository, a mecca, of memory and joy, for the young and old?

Strolling with my māmū, in South Fremont, lattes in hand, the sun freckled on elms and pines, we stumbled into an octogenarian Pakistani uncle, born and raised in British Madras. We exchanged a few words, about his travels to Hyderabad, his time as an air-force pilot in the Pakistani military. Upon leaving, he said bohōt khūshī huwī tum sē milkar. I responded with: mērī sa’ādat. My joy. We were walking. He halted. He peered straight into the flesh of my eyes, crunching his eyebrows. He then shook his head, once. Then, twice. What a word, sa’ādat. What a word! If only people knew; if only people knew. Kāsh kē lōgōn kō mālūm hōta! May your days be bright, my boy


Ferried into Urdu from Persian, during Mughal rule, and rooted in Arabic: sa’adah. sa’ida yas’adu, min bāb samiʿa yasma’u. Joy. Unvarnished, blazing, translucent, transcendent joy. 

The Quran uses it in verbal form, in sūrah Hūd. 

And as for those who were joyful, so in paradise they shall be, as long as the heavens and earth remain!”

Abed, flesh of my grandmother, curious, looked at me, asking: What did he mean?

“Urdu is our [Muslim]
greatest contribution to India. It is thousand
times more valuable than the Taj Mahal. We are
proud of its Indian-ness and are not willing to
change it for Arabian-ness or Persian-ness.”
-- Mohammad Hassan Askari (Taqsim ke Ba’d, After Partition)

In the year 1525-1526, the first Mughal, and last-Timurid (in Central Asia), king, Muhammad Zahir al-Din Babur, crossed the deadly Khyber Pass, not for the first time, and interacted with local Indian leaders in Punjab. He notes in his striking memoir, Vaqāiʿ that he understood nothing of the tongue “Hindi,” and so had a translator interpret his Persian to the local populace. Over the course of two-three centuries the Mughal brass would be forced, almost taking Babur’s above incident as an allegory of translation, to reckon with the indigenous languages, despite how much they sought to preserve the repute of Persian in India. The third-final Mughal king, Shāh ʿĀlam II, composed a whole divan in a local Indian dialect. When we discuss the need for Islam to contend with local values, expressions, idioms, and cultural artefacts, we may perhaps find no better expression than, first, the holy Prophet’s ability to translate and express the Quran, carried from the long-written Law-i Mafūz, into a temporal dunyā, and then, secondly, into the value systems of the Ismaʿīlī Arabs and Musta’rabs—following these two cosmic is the civilizational construction that emerges: Whether that’s Wāris Shāh writing Heer Ranjha or Abul Qāsim Firdawsī penning the Shāhnāmeh or Yūnus Emre composing Turkish ghazals modeled on Quranic themes or Shams al-Dīn Tabrizī swept in the didactic parables of Mawlānā.


babur on camels away from 			      my aramgah anguished for me
bows his head to andijani ached dust   	      my Prophet i lost 
samarkand samarkand 				      abandoned you
							        Prophet  wept:
 i was turned from my mecca-			kin quraysh-tears not for me
and how would you have forgot 		babur how tulip-pigeons
sporting the desert of 				        life and grief 
when mecca's muqaddas 			khak birthed by my

and as hindustan will kneel before		        you like scarlet sage gemstones
today mahmud and ayaz rise			        in one row the eagle's sinks to rise
you wept memory of samarkand		i wept mecca and the letter mim
how dungeons hunted you			how i cornered into-with siddiq 
when the third one is allah			babur you were alone- no rafiq
today i take you to rafiq				        al-'ala al-'ala al-hakim al-qadir
exile to mulk to kingdom			musa to yusuf to suleyman to dawud
here my babur here my joy			grip the shirt of Yaqub: cure 
blindness of India's idol				        assemblies howling at my lovers
here you will resurrected			by my life held by hands of life-giver
life-taker idol-shatterer				        to lose samarkand to succeed mahmud

torch-summer in new york		where i first found the turk qalandar
nerede nerese kuja, kuja			        night and day i think your kabul grief
could be a forever-poem		        man be gunaham to bud gumani- ahmad zahir
brown airplanes soar across		        to build a fort that will earthen babur
abrar messaged sorry i am		absent: are you reading the baburnama
mariam too felt babur:			        will you recite tarawih in my home

kabul, kabul do you know
kabul, kabul do you sleep
kabul, kabul, you dream
of kabah, gilded onto violets
babur sings on a mecca-hill


This is discussed in wonderous clarity by Quṭb al-Dīn Aḥmad Shāh Walīullāh, perhaps the most celebrated Muslim intellectual of South Asia, (after him would unshakably be Muhammad Iqbal and ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq Dihlawī and ʿAbd al-Qādir Bēdil). Shāh Walīullāh, born in Mughal Delhi, to a family connected to the Mughal aristocracy of intellectuals—his father was on the committee for codifying Hanafi law and legislation—in a well-known tale, journeyed to Hijaz, spending more than a year in Madina and Mecca, reciting, assembling, listening, researching, scrutinizing, assessing, surveying the matn and sanad and rijāl of Hadith. In the Nampalli archive of Hyderabad, a collection of Persian-Urdu poetry attributed to Shah Waliullah exists, entitled Khumais. How much did proto-Urdu did Shah Waliullah speak in the Hijaz? Did he converse with other Hindustanis in the Hijaz? When he passed Bāb al-Salām, splayed before the ʿUthmānī Mihrāb, did he convey the salām to the holy-Prophet in Urdu or Persian or Arabic? He gives no answers in his Al-Durr al-Thamīn or Waṣiyyatnāma. Yet, there exists little doubt that Shāh Walīullāh is paradigmatically concerned with language, translation, and interpretation. Indeed, his translation of the Quran into Persian is among the first we know of in the Subcontinent, and incontestably, the most popular of the Persian translations of India. What did it mean for a Mughal Indian to travel to Ottoman Madinah and contend with the Arabic of revelation, of values, of civilization, lorded over, serviced by the sons of Selīm Yāvuz and Bayazīd Yildirim? How did he feel about his language, the language of Urdu, amidst all this?

In passages interwoven throughout alTafhīmāt al-Ilāhiyyah, al-ujjat Allah al-Bālighah, Anfās al-Ārifīn, he movingly discusses his experiences with various Bedouin groups and Arab practices of Islam in Ottoman Arabistan: for example, in a chapter discussing the prophetic report “man lam yataghanna bi al-qurān fa-laisa minnā.” Whoever doesn’t melodiously recite the Quran is not from us. He afterwards unfurls his encounter with Arab Bedouins humming nashīds in the mountains of Mecca, and how that shaped his interpretation and practice of the hadīth. In this milieu Shāh Walīullāh conceptualized notions of translation from ʿālam al-ghayb into ʿālam al-shahādah, and then into the cultural practices of Arabs—answering questions like, Why did Allah reveal the Quran in Arabic? Why were some pre-Islamic practices like awāf and ʿAqīqah preserved in Islam? Why were cultural habits of the Prophet (joy on his beautiful soul), who was Arab, defined as the standard for ʿAmal, Sunan al-Hudā and al-Zawāid– for all people to come? In fact, these passages, in ujjat Allah, were so intellectually moving to Mawlānā Shiblī No’mānī and Muhammad Iqbal that they both translated it; Noʿmānī in Urdu and Iqbāl in English, in their ʿIlm al-Kalām and Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, respectively (might I add that Iqbal’s translation was the first translation of a passage from Hujjat Allah into English?). I mention all this to say that the act of translation into language is shatteringly crucial—and that this very act of a quadruple translation: from the Law-i Mafūz to the Prophet’s heart, from his heart of beauty to the Arabs, and from an Arabo-Islamic civilization into Persian, and from there, the final caravanserai: the language of Urdu. Might we say that Urdu still has traces of that sacrality, of malakūt, as Taha Abderrahmane demands, tarjamat al-ʾibdāʿ, where Urdu would enchantingly fit Taha’s paradigm of critical translation, and ontologically different to what Taha laments as uncritical translations of Enlightenment ideas into Arabic by secular Arabs. Urdu, as a linguistic orchard, decided what fruits and flowers would blossom in its garden.

اگر چہ اردو شکر است
طرزِ گفتارِ دری شرین تر است
Even though Urdu is so sugary
Dārī is so much sweeter
- Muhammad Iqbal, Asrār-i Khudī, Secrets of Self

Across the 80’s and the 90’s the language prevailing in Pakistani and Indian Muslim households was, in broad brushstrokes, Urdu; suburbs as various as Lombard and Glen Ellyn, with Hyderabadis; Saratoga and San Ramon, with mostly-Karachi emigres; suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, with Hyderabadis and Lahoris, were still preaching and stumping in Urdu; Orange County was hosting Pakistan Independence Day festivals, replete with Urdu-studded events. Even organizations like APPNA, Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America– if one browses through their conference event and program flyers for the past few years, they will notice physicians performing and promoting Urdu on the schedule. Indeed, it is in this era, where the population of Urdu-inheritors more than tripled—according to PEW, the fraction of Indian-Pakistani Muslims in America is a mighty 30%– and where Urdu was not thought-about deliberately, as a tongue to be ma, except in rare circumstances. (I remember an acquaintance from college, originally Texan, telling me that once she spoke English at her home, and her father sat her down and said, You know in this household we only speak Urdu. Her Urdu is unsurprisingly excellent.) 

Almost all millennials of these families encountered a motley of Urdu, whether through Shahrukh Khan films, their masājid, or their grandmothers—some became more fluent than others, depending on a variety of factors (like whether the grandparents lived at home, or the frequency of watched Hindi movies). But simmering in this moment was that South Asian Muslims began to think about Islam’s construction and ideation very intentionally—whereas before, masjids like Islamic Foundation in Villa Park and SBIA in San Jose had served a desperate life-circle of jumʿah, eid, janāzah, nikāh, maktab, now Masjids were rethought of as expanding community centers— unfailing to mention that Black masjids, through the Nation and others, had achieved this exceptionally, decades earlier. Masjids in this era, especially those lorded over by Indian-Pakistanis, knew on a fundamental level that their masjid would never be seen as a masjid-qua-masjid unless they adopted English programming—and a new trend developed where Urdu was dispatched with in the Muslim public sphere: conferences like ISNA, ICNA, RIS, MSA West did not believe it prudent to the goals of Muslim North America to host any Urdu lecture (the exception being RIS’ invitation to Mawlānā Tariq Jameel), and scarcely any would conclude that a poor decision—despite the fact that many of the organizers, attendees, and lecturers were of Urdu-heritage. 

At home, and to a great deal, at dāvats, the same aunties and uncles, continued to river life into Urdu. If the work-place, restaurants, and now the masjid would no longer offer a forum for Urdu, then in the shared communal space of post-Eid dāvats, birthday parties, iftars, high-school graduations, bismillahs, hifz-graduation programs, engagements, valīmas, mehndīs, māyuns, manjas, Urdu still possessed tremendous sway, highlighting the matter-of-fact reality that grandmothers were dramatis personae at these events, and because of their insistence on Urdu, it demanded Urdu-inheriting millennials to reckon with Urdu as a still-living language, if at least during the photo sessions and garland-hanging and methai-stuffing scenes. Whether one grew up in a Tablighi or an Aligarh family, they experienced a form of this; it did not matter if your grandfather preferred Abul Kalām Azād or Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan or Mawlānā Ilyās Kandehlawī.

Many will remember the sharp childhood nostalgia of walking into a brightly-lit house, usually before Maghrib in the summer, and after ʿIsha in the winter, of their fathers cloistering themselves with other like-minded uncles, their mothers trailing into the “ladies section” (the same idiom of the masjid and the home seemed to have blurred into each other); the boy or girl hoping for a playmate of similar interests (usually class played a tremendous role here). Because the child was speaking only English at school—seven hours of English, and more if they were being baby-sat– English naturally outdueled Urdu in what was an easy contest. It also highlighted the fissures in these dāvats between English and Urdu: that another child, with the same texture and the same-syllabled name, could speak English—very little can undermine what this interaction symbolized to the prepubescent boy or girl: the comfort of English. But, what it also underwrote was that Urdu crowded, dominated these spaces—how often a boy snoozed to sleep on his father’s lap, the assembly lit up by only Urdu, half-full Styrofoam chai cups with black mixer-straws abounding? Even if these spaces matured into bisected assemblies, where the aunties spoke in Urdu, and their daughters carved their own expanses defined by English, it still represented the preserved life of Urdu, with the cold recognition that Urdu was not heady enough in the sons and daughters to evoke that pealing laughter, contained in Urdu, of their parents, so often unleashed in these event joys—and that Urdu’s joy would not linger or prosper in the next few decades.

مانع وحشت خرامی ہائے لیلیٰ کون ہے
خانۂ مجنون صحراگرد بے دروازہ تھا
Who obstructs Laila from wandering around in the wilderness?
The house of Majnun, desert-wanderer, had no door?
– Mirzā Ghālib

My grandmother, having moved here in the late 60’s, and having the comfort of two younger brothers and a younger sister, was able to sketch the miniature communal identity of premodern Muslim life in her home, so thoroughly known and explicated in the battered Medinas of Rabat, Tripoli, Benghazi, towards physical manifestation, with her three siblings, and an ever-increasing wave of first-and-second cousins. There was no serious Masjid culture in Chicago, in the 70’s and early 80’s, and so for a Hyderabadi Muslim, home and religion twinned and translated to olfactory-sweeping food and a shared repository of memories, with inter-textures, interspersions of bismillah and alhamdulillah (and the occasional brave uncle to pray maghrib in the corner). My mom tells me how my nani would cook up clouds, storms, of biryani and nihari; haleem that evoked their dead-mother’s concoctions in Hyderabad, where if you quizzed an invitee: did he attend for the food or the company, he would fumble answering. My nani, in those moments, moments where Urdu became a home, a way to escape the dominance and superiority of English, from the workplace to the gas station, would subtly eye the visages of her younger brothers and sister, aching for a flashed smile, a nostalgia, for their mother who had slipped her arms with death when they were teenagers, an interaction that was phenomenally underlined by Urdu. As if only steaming food and language could unlock gushing-forth childhood. And when the smile arrived for the Āpa, older sister, the twelve-hours of nihari-production were vindicated, my nani restarting the anticipation for the next dāvat.

In those days of Hyderabadi Chicago, those days of memory-nurturing, the joy that splintered across the room made everyone forget that it was Lake Michigan overhead and not the Moosa River, as if it were the genesis of the British Social Clubs in Hyderabad, of the 1820’s, a precursor to the modern dāvat and where fancy-titled Muslim and Victorian gentlemen exchanged courtesies, ādāb.

In this environment, Urdu dominated over all else, and paradoxically English was frowned upon—my mom tells me to respond in anything other than āp in 70’s Chicago could immediately invite stares, the pronoun “you” unable to possess any pretension of adab. Beneath Urdu, adab structured the ethical discipline and morals demanded of my mother and her peers—even if parents sought for their children an exclusively English education. The akhlāq passed down from mother to mother would not be foreclosed, and how else was that illustrated but in language? Urdu ensured the longevity of akhlāq ferried from Hyderabad—in those fissures it also peremptorily asked my mother and her siblings to reckon with Urdu as a language to perform themselves with their māmās and māmīs. How a pronoun, āp, fostered, set alight, so much order and meaning, amid the rivulet fumes of bhaigan and haleem. Urdu was a crucial condition for the unfurling of family love and a rooting of khāndānī inter-textuality in the 1960’s counter-culture of America.

In a recent conversation with Zahed, a practicing lawyer, housed in Chicago, hailing from a Hyderabadi family, and who can toggle between Deccani Urdu and Algerian Arabic, we discussed the preservation of Urdu. Perhaps even more striking, his child, only two-years old, can also “code-switch” between North African ʿāmiyya and Urdu phrases, he tells me. As optimistic as his own Urdu fortunes may seem for his legacy, he coldly predicts, “I think Urdu is dying, and not like someone who just received a cancer diagnosis. Urdu is taking its last breaths, and its family members are discussing of whether to take it off life support.” The moment we live in, he implies, is perhaps not too disanalogous with Native American languages—with only a handful of truly native speakers, what is the course of action? “Desis aren’t seen as cool,” he continues, “and people think Muslim is just being Arab. (They conceptualize) American as only white and black culture, so a future Muslim-American identity, to them, is a mélange of Arab, Black, and white.” We don’t need to follow this model. “Look at any well-integrated American community, they have retained vestiges of their culture,” he says.

Many Masjids maintain they are race-and-language blind, that a Masjid is an “abode of Allah,” antithetical to notions of any one culture– which might do more damage than social utility. Following, perhaps, the neoliberal American diversity projects and the broader corporate vision of CocaCola, Masjids, inadvertently, are expediting the snuffing out of Muslim cultures. By suggesting we are all American at a Masjid, the platitude does more to neglect the who-ness of everyone— that each is connected to a composite, undying culture. And further, no space is culture-neutral, culture-absent, except that a culture of aggressive capitalism seems to intrude— we may conjure up images of certain Masjids acting more like corporations than places of ʿibādah, replete with the same noxious atmosphere of self-aggrandizing boards and no accountability. It remains true, however, that for Muslims of multiple stripes to interact, a common tongue is necessary, and that will remain English—there is no escaping this fact. And Masjids should and must lecture, counsel, build in English. But does this mean that every single Masjid in America must be only English-driven, and every single lecture must be conducted in English, for a meeting of Muslim cultures in the West? Did not Urdu come about precisely because Afghans, Turks, Indians, Persians, Yemenis, emigres in India, lived their language, put it into the décor of their shared destinies, alongside others in Hindustan, provoking the rise of Urdu? May a new language emerge that acknowledges the colorfulness of all Muslims in America? And, if so, what would that look like?

This is of course not suggesting that Masjids should abandon efforts to ensure that Black Muslims, who make up the biggest proportion of Muslim America, and the first to raise the call of tawīd in this land, feel more welcome and celebrated within Masjids, which demands an emphasis on English. But rather can this interaction happen without desis self-erasing, in encounters respectful and meaningful to all Muslim heritage?

When I have brought up the issue of Urdu heritage to Muslim uncles, of various stripes, they have complained: “We tried. Hum nē kōshīsh kī. We spoke Urdu with them at home, and as soon as they entered kindergarten, Urdu didn’t remain on their tongues.” Children couldn’t speak a phrase, they say, after concentrating so much time in English-only environments. I have heard this from more than a dozen uncles, between Chicago and California, and it provokes a question: Why were Urdu diaspora children failing to learn more pointedly than other diasporas? I asked Zahed why didn’t he forget. He responded his parents “were very militant” about Urdu—they did not cease to converse in Urdu with their children, despite the billowing winds, typically triggering the erasure of language. Because he was the eldest child, Zahed explains, his parents gave him no choice but to converse in Urdu with them. He and his siblings grew up around their grandparents, and conversation with them would only be in Urdu; speaking English with his nāni and nānā, or dādī, felt sacrilegious.

Zainab, a Kashmiri born in California, whose father escaped Srinagar in the asphalt black of the night, in 1947, towards Muzaffarabad—Azad Kashmir, she emphasizes– will rarely ever respond to an aunty in English—a feat becoming less and less common. Her Urdu is strong, despite the fact her family actively boycotted watching Bollywood movies—one of the most common ways for a child of diaspora to pick up their language– for its complicity in the Indian occupation of Kashmir. 

When I told her about my intention to write this essay, mentioning the title, she acidly remarked: “Was Urdu ever alive in America (for it to die?)” By life, she explains to be an intellectual, literary culture of book-production, of journals, of salaried editors, of a passing-down of poetic and novelistic heritage, locations like Pak Tea House in Lahore where Sa’adat Hassan Manto and Ismat Chugtai discussed fictional realism, or Dāirat al-Ma’arif in Hyderabad, where thousands of books were translated from Arabic and Persian into Urdu—an Islamic project that is rivalled only by the Arabic translations of Syro-Greek texts (Taha Abderrahmane and Mawlānā Shiblī Noʿmānī are heavily critical of the vagaries of this Greek tarjuma). Sure, many children-of-the-language have heard some couplets from their parents of Iqbal, Ghālib, and Mīr, but were they ever taught this language systematically in America? Were the bayt, the miṣraʿ, the maqṭaʿ, ever broken down piecemal, as a modern creative-program might do to James Baldwin or Sylvia Plath—literary investments that abounded amongst Muslim families inside homes, just a hundred years ago? Were weekend classes offered to teach such to our children and adults? (Curious to note that many of my friends who have let Urdu prosper are those who were exposed to the genre of naʿts in their childhood.) Any investments, economic or intellectual, made? Were essays of Ḥālī, Ashraf ʿAlī Thānwī, Jaun Elia, Mohammad Hassan Askari ever instructed to daughters and sons of Urdu? When Ghalib said ka’bah kis mun se jāogē, Ghalib/ magar tum ko sharam nahīn ātī hain, the expressions, pulsating through this maqta’— were they ever bequeathed, explicated? Mushāiras have been hosted in Chicago and Houston and New York but were those hosted for its life (zindagānī), or for last-breaths? I have seen many Muslim households with a smattering of Urdu texts—why were they never taught to their children?

An ever-increasing conviction that Urdu would not last any longer– might as well clean the bones out.

A Delhi courtesan adorned to madness, weeping Ghalib.
                                                        - Adeeba Shahid Talukder (City of the Beloved)

In a lecture at a Balkan Masjid in Chicago, Mufti Amin, perhaps the longest serving native English-and-Urdu Mufti of North America, and an expert in Ibn ʿArabī, Shāh Walīullāh, and Quranic exegesis from Rāzī to Shāh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, delivered a roundtable talk on the āyah of sūrah Ibrāhīm to a mélange of various scholars and muftīs across Chicago: “And we do not dispatch a Prophet except with the lisān (may be translated as language, idiom, expression) of his own people.” 

Recalling his mastery of Shāh Walīullāh, he called to attention how the gorgeous-Prophet translated the values of the heavens, the malakūt, to the Arabs: Quraysh or Bedouin, plunderer or merchant, vagabond or Banū Muzaina. He dovetailed this with the fact that Mawlānās must reckon with English, literarily, academically, idiomatically, if they cherish any potential for the growth and beauty in Islam in America—while also reckoning with how English has violently replaced indigenous tongues in horrifying and bloody sequences. The reality is that the language of not only Muslim-America, but also Muslim-Brits, Muslim South Africans, Muslim Guyanese, is decidedly English. Indeed, for many years, Masjids, such as in Devon, were not inclusive of non-Desi Muslims, which led to a fracturing and a separation for more extensive Muslim collaboration. But also remembering: did these masjids even have the financial capital to hire English-speaking scholars? The capacity of a Masjid is constrained by, well, economic resources and privilege. 

Mufti Amin reminded us that to “represent Islam” in a culturally-aware, linguistically-aware fashion was, theologically, a sunnahtawān gūyīm kē sunnat-i buzurgtarīn ast! Electrified by his presentation, all sorts of thoughts assembled, as I was then studying Persianate history and culture in Iran and Central Asia: I recalled Mawlānā Rūmī’s status amongst Muslims, Sunnī, Shīʿī; non-Muslim, if only because of his ability to poetize Islam from the Quran, the Sunnah, the Saābah, the Ahl al-Bayt, the Sufi legacy of Bayazīd Bisṭāmī, and the madhab of Abū Ḥanīfah. Imagine if Rūmī had decided not to write in Persian, in the language of his people, a language that united Muslims from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean to the Oxus, even in the thirteenth-century? In fact, we even have partial poems extant of his poetry in Greek—there is little doubt that Mawlānā Rūmī understood this verse insofar as Mufti Amin did. What if Amīr Khusrō did not compose in Hindavi? What if Sultān al-Awliyā Niẓām al-Dīn al-Dehlawī did not engage the Hindu pundits? What if Bulleh Shāh didn’t write his kāfīs in Punjabi? Would Sikhs value Muslim Punjabi literature as they do today? Would Islam be as rich as it is today? Would we even have the same number of Muslims today? And couldn’t we say that Bulleh Shāh, Mawlānā Rūmī, Yūnus Emrē, Qāẓī Nazrul Islam were following a sunnah? The sunnah of translation? 

آتے ہیں غیب سے یہ مضامیں خیال میں
غالبؔ صریر خامہ نوائے سروش ہے
These ideas visit my imagination from the Ghayb
Ghalib! The scratching of pens is the breath of angels

All of this is to say: is the preservation of Urdu even necessary in America, part of our desiderata, for the beauty of Islam to prosper in America? I can’t say. Does Islam encourage the preservation of language for the sake of language? It certainly does not discourage it. As Mawlānā Bilal, a teacher of Saīh al-Bukhārī in Chicago and a translator of Arabic and Urdu, acutely remarked once: Why does the focus on English demand we abandon Urdu?  That is, for Urdu speakers in America, if they want to shift their primary mode of engagement to English and Arabic, does it conclude the wiping-out of Urdu? Or can we act with more ingenuity as Muslims in Madras did, who amplified the voice of Urdu and Persian, without discrediting either?

پارسی گو گرچه تازی خوشترست  عشق را خود صد زبان دیگرست

Speak Persian! Even though Arabic is so much more wonderful
Blinding love has a hundred other languages!
                                        - Mawlānā Jalal al-Din Rumi, Masnavī

My older sister has three kids: asmā all found in revelation, in the Quran and the muarraf previous scriptures. On a seasonably breezy post-ʿAsr afternoon, we are walking to the park, on hills that curve down into the Bay. I wonder about Urdu for her children—will they speak, I ask her. She says, how do I teach them? Do you have a curriculum for children? They do exist, but how accessible are they for native English-speaking children? Are there classes at our Masjid? Do we have a cultural center for these classes? Do they teach basic grammatical structures, like the difference between the subjunctive (zannī mustaqbil, as we learned in Madrasa) and the irrealis (hotā and hogā)? Urdu-speaking Muslims have lived here for more than five decades, and not one indigenously-made children’s curriculum exists. I know a handful of Urdu picture books are available; certainly, many advanced grammar books abound, beginning with East India Trading Company grammar manuals for officers (successors of Warren Hastings).

She tells me, proudly, her eldest can phonetically read Arabic fluently—an Iraqi ustāzah was brought in, and she’s soaring through revelation, through the bell-like wahy that leapt to the holy flesh, the muqaddas zubān, of the gorgeous-Prophet. My own father, fluent in Urdu, also chooses to speak to his grandchildren, exclusively, in English. I say something in Urdu to my niece, and she crouches before her mother, grabbing my sister’s shirt, curling her face: Mama, what is he saying?

I think: is this how language dies? Have I witnessed the death of a language? Our ancestors have spoken Urdu since at the least 18th century—between Hyderabad, Karachi, Delhi, and it is no mystery that the chances of my niece being fluent in Urdu are closer downward than upward. Does it matter? I wonder: is this how Muslim families felt in Hyderabad, when the seventh-Nizam, Mehboob Ali Khan, descendant of Mir Qamaruddin Khan, general of Aurangzeb, originally from Shaybanid Samarqand, decreed that Urdu would replace Persian, in the late nineteenth century, Indo-Persian arriving to a screeching halt. Of course, Persian didn’t die there and there, but sometime in the 1920’s-1930’s a moment emerged where only a fraction of Muslims in Hyderabad could read Persian. Persian had been in Hyderabad longer than Urdu had been in the world—did Hyderabadi or Lahori Muslims feel anything when Persian was snuffed, crushed out? 

What does it mean to witness the death of a language? How tragic that my grandmother, whose own parents witnessed the drying-out of Persian in India, had to witness the dying-out of Urdu in America. Still, I am grateful that my grandmother was able to see the joy of great-grandchildren, and that, because of Islam, she could at least share the Islamic idioms of salam and alhamdulillah, which is to say, the gorgeous names of God, with her par nawāsiyān; she and her great-granddaughter sang salātullāh salāmullāh, joy, joy, ʿalā rasūlillāh, upon the Prophet of God. The beauty-memories of her own mother salām-ing on the Prophet, fakhr-i jahān, pride of both universes, in Nizāmī Hyderabad and British Ajmer, so many decades ago—the same totems of joy she witnessed from her great-granddaughter, through a shared Islamic idiom, transcending the death of language. And doesn’t Allah teach us that nothing shall remain, save His countenance? Save His magnificence? Save His light? Allah Nūr al-Samawāt wa al-Ar/ Kullu shayin hālikun illā wajhah

درد در کوچہاچہ می نالی
نالہ در کوہسار می باید
Dard, why do you weep in the streets?
Come and weep in the mountains
- Khwaja Mir Dard

Bahadur Shah Zafar, last Mughal king, last Taimūrī king, last Changēzī king, last Barlās king, descendant of Mumtaz Mahal and Nur Jahan, who sought to devote his life to the crumbling of monarchy of Sālaīn-i Taimūriyya, only realizing that Queen Victoria, and her Indian scribe, had already assumed that role, and so, instead, turned to the next-best occupation: poetry. Did he know of his ancestor’s Gūr-i Amīr of Samarqand? Did he realize he would be the last, of Timur, of Mirān Shāh, of Sulṭān Abū Saīd Mirzā, of ʿUmar Shaykh Mirzā, of Bābur? Agha Shahid Ali, the great Kashmiri-English poet, once wrote a poem on him, after he exited a King Lear play. I have trans-created some portions here.

I think of him, the last Muslim monarch of India, huddling with his sons in the Maqbara of Humayun, not too far from crypt of the slain-brother, Dārā Shukoh, right across Nizamuddin, where Mawlānā Ilyās Kāndehlawī projected a whole new metaphysical Delhi across the world, a world I am son of. I remember how when the British, after cannoning Delhi gates and Hanafi Muftis, they found an old Muslim man—the monarch—with sons, which is to say, signs of God. The British commander yanked him from his sons. The father, the pādshāh, weeping blood, saying: take my life instead, my sons are so young, they are only mirzas, princes. I am an old man. How much is my life worth? And how a British colonel, in seething craze, dragged two Mughal princes, not even twenty, stripped them naked, despite protests from crowd, despite pleas from the farishtay, and shot them dead with rifles, their bodies unable to crumple to the ground, because Delhi had paused gravity out of urmah for the last sons of Babur. Alongside a gate their ancestor Shah Jahan had built, shāhī khūn bikhrē huwē, royal blood splattering the aghast populace, the Jinns of Delhi weeping for their caretaker-family of three hundred years. 

The death-angel, ʿAzraīl, grimacing, silent. His warm shimmering hands gripping the souls of Bahādur’s sons, gentling them: Our home is Paradise

منزلِ ما فردوس است

The princes well on their way to meet Ja’far ibn Abī Ṭālib, as shuhadā.

And those are the days we revolve among people 

Bahādur Shāh Ẓafar, poet in Persian and Urdu, monarch of nothing, they say, never ceased writing Urdu poetry, ghazals, death, even as he was dragged, chained, to Burma.

Sanurīhim Āyātinā fi al-Āfāq wa fī Anfusihim. 

In sūrah Ibrahīm, near the end of the sūrah, where Allah quotes the elderly Prophet Ibrahim, invoking duʿāh for his sons: Allah make my sons pray! rabb ijʿalnī muqīm al-ṣalāt wa min zurriyatī. 

The sūrah opens to the final rukūʿ, after a duʿāh of a father for a son, the same sunnah Bahādur Shah exhaled for his sons as the British colonels grabbed them– this āyah begins:

And do not consider for a moment, Prophet of God, that Allah is a stranger of what the oppressors enact. He only delays them for a day when eyes shall be left glazed, struck. Tashkasu fīhi al-abṣār.

Just a few days before this cold execution, the brother of Mirzā Ghālib, Mirzā Yusuf, said to suffer from schizophrenia, during the Mutiny, wandered outside, perhaps to look for his brother-poet.

Gunned down by a British captain.

Mirzā Ghālib, turning over his brother’s gun-shot body.

اے خداوندِ جہان  یہ بندے فرعون سے بڑے ستمگر! بیماریون کو بھی نہیں چھوڑتے

His hands splattered with his dead brother’s blood, howling Urdu.


in a country of prophets, i saw you kneeling on the sky
isn’t it funny how after you chased the dunya she- khiyānat!

never turning back to ask you: are you okay?
white kurtas and black thobes— i’m in death-parastī!

loving you was the least important event
after all, didn’t yūsuf leave yāqub all alone?- azmāyish!

to be beautiful, to be dead, to be warm
khidr came by and said: i’m still here, don’t- ravish!

forget that I made sure you’re alive
all these moments I: the tussle between mūsā and hārūn- 

afsūn! is there anything more beautiful than you
saaleh can’t seem to remember history anymore- afsōs!

Have Hindustani Muslims ever recovered from these moments of violence towards the symbols of Urdu? 

جو یہ کہے کہ ریختہ کیونکے ہو رشک فارسی
گفتۂ غالبؔ ایک بار پڑھ کے اسے سنا کہ یوں
If someone objects: How could Urdu be the envy of Persian?
Recite one verse of Ghalib and say like this!
– Mirza Ghalib

In Ramadan, in April, one night, the air frigid, I drove down after tarāwī to meet two Hyderabadi friends, who were both born and raised in Hyderabad. We, like many Muslims in Chicago, searching for a pre-sehri spot in the suburbs, arrived at Qahwa House—one friend ironically calls it the “holiest place in America.” As our chai was being brewed, I asked them about their prognosis, their forecasting, of Urdu in India. One of them, hailing from an old-guard and a politically active Hyderabadi family, noted how in his own lifetime he has seen the evisceration of Urdu in Hyderabad (he was raised there and visits annually). Where he remembers, as a boy, multiple family members coming together and being able to write, read, unravel Urdu literature, and where, as a college student in Hyderabad, they would read Urdu newspapers, now, he says, the alāt of Urdu in India amongst ordinary Muslims are degenerating (not to mention their very lives) into an unused language. Where Mir Osman Ali Khan, the last Nizam of Hyderabad, had devoted millions of pounds to the learning and patronage of Urdu, Indian Muslims are now unable to provide that same degree of funding for the upkeep of their language, leading to a disorganized, disconcerted battle for restoration efforts.

Younger Hyderabadi Muslims are texting each other in romanized Urdu, the wealthier Muslims are educating their children entirely in English, in Protestant and Catholic schools named after European saints, and the impoverished are seeking the same. I ask him, as a native of Hyderabad, what hopes he has for Urdu in Hyderabad? For a revival of culture, literature, education, where Urdu-speakers in India might feel comfortable to ignite a new wave of zest for Urdu. He says other than in madrasas the likelihood of that is close to nothing. He qualifies his statement: “I say this as a Hyderabadi who adores Urdu literature, who has nurtured my American-born kids in Urdu, who is as crestfallen of this reality as you are. But this is the truth—Urdu will not last in India or anywhere else.” 

The behemoth of English will not be satiated, until it swallows everything else in its wake. Of course, he reminds me, Urdu will remain as a spoken language for quite some time. But as Zainab had said—the life of language depends on so much else: often speaking is the final front. When I was touring Samarqand, to my delight, I found that Muslims in Samarqand still spoke a dialect of Persian, despite the Soviet policy to impose Uzbek, as a way to foster nationalism and wipe out pan-solidarity elements with countries like Iran and Afghanistan. It was tragic that the Tajiks in the street of Samarqand were not privileged with a venue to properly study Persian, as their fore-mothers and forefathers did, only a few centuries ago. Yet the language had endured in defiance of an aggressive Soviet project of erasure.

I think, if Urdu can’t survive in Hyderabad, what chances does it hold to survive here? I was reminded by an article by a Pakistani columnist: “The Lost Verse: Why is Iqbal Going out of Fashion?” where the author laments a similar fate in Pakistan—the fatalism of Urdu in Pakistan. The Pakistan he remembers where young Pakistanis could recite a whole litany of Iqbal poetry with correct pronunciation is no longer. He twins the decline of Urdu in Pakistan with the decline of Iqballiyat. The inability of a standardized Pakistani discourse to define basic Urdu grammar vis-à-vis its words: it is afṭār or ifṭār? Is it marẓ or maraẓ, is it mubarakabād or mubarikabād, is vaqfa masculine or feminine? What’s the difference between and hōga? Can ba-rāh-i rāst be used in a context other than journalism? Describing how this confusion leads to a smattering disavowal of Urdu for younger children seeking to make sense of their national language, the columnist advances the shattering fact that “given this ethos, it is small wonder that a typical college student in Pakistan cannot even read the title pages of Iqbal’s poetic collections.” We may ask—if a median American college student were unable to read the title pages of Emily Dickinson or The Federalist Papers, what would be the assessment of the condition of English in America? Of its death? More study should be done into this, as my essay labors to only comment on what seems to be a general attitude towards Urdu across her motherlands. Before I conducted my first nikah, I reached out to a long-serving Imam in the Bay Area for basic officiating tips, who had performed more than five-hundred marriages across two decades. He wryly mentioned how many Pakistani brides and grooms ask if they can say ‘qabūl hain’ during the matrimonial proceedings. When he questioned them on what they thought this phrase meant, they said “We’re not sure, we saw it on Tik-Tok.”

Reading this essay, one may be led to believe that Urdu has all but vanished in America. This is, of course, not the case. Throughout universities in America, there is a remarkable amount of university professors like Mehr Afshan Faruqi, Muzaffar Alam, Gregory Maxwell Bruce teaching specialized Urdu readings; undergraduate students enrolling in Urdu classes; graduate students writing dissertations about Urdu literature, on the Progressive Writer’s Movement, or feminist themes from Urdu literary celebrities like Kishwar Naheed, Ismat Chughtai or Qurratulayn Hyder. Mīr Anīs’s Marsiya is still performed across Shi’ī masjids in America—some of the best Urdu composed in Indo-Muslim history, and many of them offer systematic Urdu instruction. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Is Karam Karōn Kaisay Adā is still peaking on Spotify’s most-listened-to-playlists. PSAs will occasionally host a mushaira with second-generation Pakistani students. Indeed, many young Indian Muftis in America are still able to read Urdu fluently, pouring through dense Urdu volumes—Ahsan al-Fatāwā, Imdād al-Fatāwā, Fatāwā-i Maḥmūdiyyah, the equivalent of abstruse American legal texts. Efforts like these have not paused despite a colossal wind to speak in English, write in English, read in English, think in English, raise one’s kids in English, dress in English. (I cannot help but be reminded of Antiguan American novelist Jamaica Kincaid’s passage on the Anglicization of her Angola: “The English disliked themselves so much they couldn’t help but to turn everywhere else into English.”) For that struggle alone, the Indian-Pakistani community in America must be applauded. Ali Sethi’s performance of khabar-i taḥayyur-i ʿishq—written by an 18th-c. Mughal Deccani poet—is tremendously popular despite the ornateness and the elevated register of the language. But is it enough?

اے درد ازیں بزم اگر باخبری 
بیہودہ چرا ہر طرف می نگری 
اے درد اگر قرب خدا می خواہی 
دور از خود ونزدیک بدلہا باشی
Dard! In this assembly if you are no stranger
Why do you foolishly look everywhere else?

Dard! If you want to be close to God
Be away from yourself-- close to hearts
- Khwaja Mir Dard

اب خیر۔ اسی مقالے میں انگریزی کی تحریر حد تک پہنچی ہے، لوگ شاید یہ کہ سکتے ہیں یہ کس طرح کا بندہ ہے وفاتِ اردو پہ رورہا ہے اور انگریزی ہی میں لکھ رہا ہے! بس میری امید و تمنا یہ تھی کہ از وسیع القدر لوگوں کو یہ شناسائی ہو جائے کہ ہماری تہذیب و تمدن عدم کی طرف رسا ہونے والی ہے اور جب کسی قوم کی ثقافت سر حدِ بربادی کے قریب آجائے تو یہ ایک طرح سےاسکی موت ہے, کیا موتِ تہذیب موت ِانسان سے بہتر ہےیا بدتر ؟ اور میں خوب جانتا ہوں زوالِ اردو بالکل ایسی مکتوب چیز ہے جو کہ طوفانِ نوح بھی نہیں روکسکتا بالخصوص در امریکا۔ کیا ہمارے مسلمان یہاں مسلمانی تمدن کو محفوظ کرنے کے لئے آئے ہیں؟ حتما لا! بلکہ وہ ایک نئی ثقافت قائم کرنے کے مقصد سے آئے ہیں اور ہمیشہ یہی سلسلہ رہا ہے از تاریخ ،یعنی مسلمانوں نے ہمیشہ ایسا ہی کیا ہے شرق تا غرب۔ جب تیموریوں نے ھنہدوستان کو فتح کرلیا تو انکو یہ خدشہ ہوا کہ کیا ہماری زبان یعنی ترکی فنا ہو نے والی ہے؟ حالانکہ ہمیں سلطان اورنگزیب کا ایک خط ملتا ہےجسمیں آنحضرت اپنے فرزند سے توبیخ فرمائی ہے کسلانِ فرزند را از تعلم ِترکی ۔ شہزادہ نے شکایت کی کہ مجھ پہ ترکی سیکھنی کیوں لازم ہے؟ کیا ہم ترکستان میں زندگی بسر کر ہے ہیں اے پدرِ عالی؟ بہر حال اہمترین نکتہ یہ ہے کہ جس طرح امتزاجِ زبانان درھند ہوا اردو میں ،عبر اللغات، سہ صد سال کی کوشیش ہے جو بہت مشکل سے وجود میں آتا ہوتاہے ،اور دوبارہ شاید نہیں آئیگا ،اسی بات پہ میرا غم ہے جہاں بالکل مساوات تھی مسلمانی زبانوں کے درمیان جہان مسلمانوں عزت الحضارة کی بنیاد پہ انہونے ایک زبان قائم کی بلکہ ایک نئی دنیا کو قائم کیا از اخلاقِ نبویہ ، اقبال کی وہ شاعری پڑھی؟ جب وہ سفر و قصر کر کے اندلس سے واپس ہو تے ہوے جزیرۂ صقیل سے انکا گزر ہوا اور حیرت انگیز نظم لکھی بمضمونِ اُس زمانہ کے افسوس میں جس وقت عرب اور بربر مسلمانوں کی رایتِ مبار کہ کو لہرایا، بیا بیا می خوانم تا بگوشت می رسد سرودِ رفتۂ مسلمانی:

رو لے اب دل کھول کر اے دیدۂ خُوننابہ بار
وہ نظر آتا ہے تہذیبِ حجازی کا مزار
زلزلے جن سے شہنشاہوں کے درباروں میں تھے

رنگ تصویرِ کُہن میں بھر کے دِکھلا دے مجھے
قصّہ ایّامِ سلَف کا کہہ کے تڑپا دے مجھے
مَیں ترا تُحفہ سوئے ہندوستاں لے جاؤں گا
خود یہاں روتا ہوں، اَوروں کو وہاں رُلواؤں گا


حضرتِ اقبال جہاں تک میں نے پڑھا ہے ،انہونے اس طرح کی گریہ کنی اور عاطفیہ کہیں قلمبند نہیں کی حتی کہ شکوے میں “رنگ تصویر کہن میں بھر کے دکھلادے مجھے” یہ ایسا مصرع ہے جس سے قاری میں ایک شورش پیدا ہوتی ہے اور اس پر یہ افکار و تفکیر ِاقبال عیاں ہوتی ہے کہ اقبال کا منہجِ اصلاحی، اسلامی تاریخ کے دارومدار پر ہے، اور مسلمانوں کو چاہئے جہاں تک ہوسکے وہ بھی تھوڑا سا افسوس کریں تفکر کے مقصد میں، نہ صرف قبض النفس سے، علی کل حال ہم تاریخ فراموش مردم نہیں! بنابریں اسی سلسے میں دوسری ثقافت قائم کرو جو کہ ہندوستانی مسلمانی تھذیب سے ہزار درجہ بہتر ہو! کیا سلطنتِ عثمانیہ یا سلطنتِ تیموریہ میں یہ مشروع نہیں تھی؟ کیا انہوں نے اپنی تاریخ کو بھولا؟ بگوئید! بگوئید اگر اللہ نے مجھے توفیق دی تو یک مقالہ را مے خواہم نوشت اسی مضمون پر ۔ میری خواہش اور طلب ہے کہ مردم اس کو پڑھ لیں اور یہ تدبر ہو جائے کہ ایک زمانہ میں ہمارا بندوبست ہندوستان میں کیا تھا اور

ناظرین کی نظر میں یہ ہوجائے کہ یہ چیز قابلِ حفاظت ہے یا نہیں

اور اگر اردو انکے نزدیک قابلِ حفاظت چیز نہیں ہے تو بڑے غور سے سوچیں کہ کیسے رہیں گے اللہ کا خلیفہ بر زمین زیر اسمان مؤتمنين على انفسنا وعلى غيرنا كما ورد في منهج طه عبد الرحمن المجدد المغربي از مدينة الجديدة )بجنوب دار البيضاء) بمطلب کہ اللہ نے ہمیں امانت دی ہے اور ہم نے میثاقِ ازلی کو دشتِ ازل میں قبول کرلیا اور یہ ترجمۂ ازلی کو اسی دنیا میں ابتداء ً از نص قران و سنت استنباط کر کے دیگر زبان میں ظاہر کرنا ہے۔ اردو کا کمال یہ ہے کہ وہ مفاہیم اور مقاصد از ذکرِ بالا ہوچکی ہیں، شرقی دنیا کو روحانیت و معنویت دیدی ہیں آباء و اجداد نے یہ قربانی بدوش رکھی یعنی انہو نے اخلاقِ روحانیہ از حیاتِ پیغمبر کو اولا ً اپنایا اور اِن قیمِ اخلاقیہ کو تکوین کیا بر صفحاتِ تاریخ،و بر مجتماعاتِ عالمِ قبل از استعمار۔ اور یہ بات باعثِ مسرت اور تسلی بخش ہے کہ مسلمانوں نے اس سے زیادہ پر مشکل کام سر انجام دیا ہے

بہر حال جس طرح عربی شعراء قصیدوں کی ابتدائیہ میں پہلے خرابات کا ذکر کرتے ہیں، اب خرابات کا مترادف اردو ہی بن گئی ہے

حضرتِ مولانا جلال الدین رومی فرماتے ہیں:

مردہ بُدم زندہ شُدم، گریہ بُدم خندہ شُدم
دولتِ عشق آمد و من دولتِ پایندہ شُدم


مردہ ہوا زندہ ہوا، رویا ، مسکریا میں

دولت عشق آئی اور مظبوط ہوا میں

دیدم حسن و سعادت را بتشخیصِ اصل روبروئے ہمہ و ز حسن می پرسم کہ حسنِ پیغمبر بہ اردو یا بہ فارسی ز ترجمۂ ملکوتی چہ زیبا تر باشد؟ خندیدہ و پرسخ را داد کہ اے زبون! اسرارِ ازلی این ست گفتم چیست؟ گفتا بیائید بیائید کہ از در و دارِ سلطان خوگر نمی شدی گفتم قلعۂ خدا کجاست گفتا در حبابِ آینۂ شمع گفتم ایا ہوایِ منزل می داشتی گفتا ہمرایہم بطریقِ منزلِ ما کہ کبریا ست

As my Hyderabadi friend alluded to earlier, Urdu is still prospering in medreses in the South Asian milieu and this fact should not escape anyone. I can only write this essay as a third-generation South Asian, because of my time in a medrese where I was compelled to contend with Urdu as a civilizational language to graduate, with awareness of the fact that few can pack up and journey to an Urdu medrese and study the Dars-i Niāmī.

Serious mention of Muhammad Iqbal has been evaded here, which may sound absurd and banal, while also confessing that his ghost haunts all Muslims seeking to carve a relationship with Urdu, incessantly provoking us to look back.

biyā, biyā, ba-guzashtagān rā be-bīn

A crucial point yet still must be unfurled related to Iqbal and Urdu: It is an irreconcilable tragedy that Iqbal’s Urdu Shikwa, perhaps one of the finest specimens of global, if not just Muslim, literature, is not taken seriously as such by wide swathes of Muslims, both Desi and non-Desi– unincorporated in Muslim learning, both at the medrese and university. I can and am demanded to say that his poem is a singular spur to pen this essay. The absence of Shikwa is an acute loss for Muslims laboring to pull themselves of the dregs of modernity, in a manner that is consistent with their epistemic, historical, and literary values—if only because Iqbal lived his whole life to insinuate a solution, through poetry and philosophy (nor am I saying his path is the only, as many do). Sure, one may be able to translate it, but kam faqada bi al-tarjuma! Hal tarjumah al-Mutanabbī yaqūmu maqam al-Mutanabbī? Kallā. So many Pakistani Muslims raised in the fifties and sixties, despite the overwhelming assault of liberal-secular modernity, and free-market consumerism, in some sense, still possessed pride of a rich Islamic tradition because of their encounter with Iqbal in secondary school, as I observe from my great-uncles. A pride that feels vanishing today. 

Transcreation of Hazrat-i Iqbal’s Shikwa:

howl with laughter

“Muslims are: departing!”
from      Granada      Jerusalem      Kashmir Delhi

how they grin
to see the Ka’bah’s children vanish
the idols say:

Look at them!
they recited hymns on the road to Madina

for an Arab Prophet
on lettered camels
the Quran
furled in their arms
they ride off into dust the idols continue
may we never see them again
the ka’bah is ours

                 we mutter
           Allah are you pleased with your Tawhid spilled out?
           It seems you stopped caring for your oneness long ago

Once, in South Africa, during a class on Fawāid-i Makiyya, a treatise on Quranic Tajwīd, our Ustādh, a reciter with a sonorously booming voice– despite his double-bypass surgery– sporting a pair of aviator glasses and a chest-long beard, in the middle of a lecture on tajwid principles, gazed at us and suddenly flitted his eyes down, maple-brown long-board desks before us. He steered off into a memory his teacher recollected to him of when, dreaming, the gorgeous-Prophet appeared. And Shaytan may not impersonate me in the world of dreams, declared the-pride-of-both-worlds. His teacher only spoke Urdu and Arabic, and in the dream, our ustadh said, the Prophet conversed in Urdu to him—as a way of honoring him in his mother-tongue. 

Isn’t that what the holy-Prophet enacted on earth: speak to people in their mother tongues? Anzil an-Nās Manāzilahum, as it is related mawqūf, from our mother Aishah.

Our Qārī spoke in hollowed gaps, as if the memory would be erased if he unraveled it any faster. He didn’t expect us all to believe it. He had devoted his life to the Quran, to the qira’at, to tajwid, everything from the Quranic variants to the methods of waqf to the knowledge of narrators– so talented he was that Muslims would drive across South Africa to hear his recitation, near Johannesburg. That the holy-Prophet could have spoken Urdu in the world of dreams, alam al-mithal, was his most sacred memory—I’ll never forget it. The way he rocked while delivering this memory to us, it was as if he was thinking: My Prophet, my beauty, my blazing light, you didn’t need to speak in Urdu, why did you take the trouble? We have not deserved you in Arabic or Urdu. In Nāsūt or Jabarūt. May our breaths– sacrificed for you. Our tongues for you. How overjoyed I am to know that you see us Urdu-speaking Muslims. For you, for your beauty, for your life, for your sīrah, for your sariyyah. The past eight hundred years were for you in Hindustan—may her next eight hundred be for you, too!

محمدِ عربی آبروی هر دو سراست
کسی که خاکِ درش نیست خاک بر سرِ او
Prophet of Arabia is the sanctity of both worlds
who can become the dust at the Prophet’s door?
the dust is on his head
- Hilālī Chughtai, Qaṭaʿāt (epigraph on Wazir Khan Mosque, in Lahore, Pakistan)

The gorgeous Prophet & the tongue of Urdu.

پیغمبر اور زبان اردو۔ در عا لم المثال،  اس سے زیادہ کیا زیباتر ہوسکتا ہے؟

How else do we understand the uncountable number of naats?

I ask Zahed: “What will it take to preserve Urdu in America?” He unfurls a systematic hierarchy, wherein he details the sociology and history of language vis-à-vis Urdu-speaking emigres in America, splitting generations into 1, 2, 3, and 4. The first generation, arriving in America after the 1965 Immigration Act, signed by Lyndon B. Johnson, conversed in Urdu with all—the geography of their lives was in Urdu: they slept, dreamt, and thought in Urdu. Generation Two, the next generation—whose focus began to gradually shift to English—learned Urdu as their primary language, but existed in a liminal stage: with parents, with cousins, with siblings, with māmūs and khālas, puppus and tāyas, with their most intimate friends–Urdu served as the bedrock, even the azaleas, of their life; only professionally and in school did they speak English. The subsequent generation, Generation Three, those born in America, rarely spoke Urdu, if at all. And if they did, the conversations were exclusively with their grandparents, or sisters and brothers of their grandparents, or with family back home—“never with friends or siblings.” But, otherwise, their lives, for all intents and purposes, were English-dominated. This is the largest demographic of the Urdu-inheriting generation, and where the last battle line will be drawn. Concerning this final front, Zahed believes, “Generation 4 has the deck massively stacked against them. Parents, Generation Three, don’t speak Urdu to their children, because they don’t think it’s well worth the effort—especially when their own Urdu isn’t that great.” 

Is there a force of nature that may rescue Urdu in America—a last lifeline? With a tinge of defeat, he responds: “Urdu has so much working against it. If (Urdu-heritage millennials) commit to speaking Urdu exclusively in the household, and if cultural exposure can be introduced through Urdu literature, hope may yet prosper.” By this I understand him to mean some sort of weekend classes, where a roster of Urdu literary figures are presented; co-ops, where children may be encouraged to learn with a host of attractive incentives, in their own freedom.  But his final point struck hard: “We (i.e., the millennials) have to learn Urdu.” Adult-learning, as parents, is seen with some form of shame—for reasons that are not yet clear to me. Perhaps we have earmarked a stage in our life for classroom-learning, and crossing that is seen as a failure? If parents are not willing to submit to the fact that their Urdu can and may be improved, hope for a child’s Urdu ability will most certainly suffer. Quranic Arabic, being the language of revelation, disparate from the idioms spoken by Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, and Moroccans, will continue to occupy the attention of Urdu-heritage Muslims—rightfully so, Zahed emphasizes. Can we expect a child to spend time on Urdu, Arabic, and English in their homes—especially as more and more Muslim parents shift to co-op learning and homeschooling (perhaps this may serve as an impetus and not a deterrent)?  To ask that a mother (and this responsibility will disproportionately fall on the mother) or a father impart two, sometimes three, languages to a child—how sensible and practice is it, in a world riven by late-stage capitalism? At what point do we recognize that a language had had its evolution, conceding its wonderous arc in history, and that resisting it is delaying the cold inevitable? 

ہر دم کہ چنین میروم از یاد خود اکنون
اے درد! مگر وعدہ فراموش من آمد
Every breath I depart, erasing my memory
O Dard! My promise to forget arrived
- Khwaja Mir “Dard”

Once, after jummah, rolling through Chicago suburb landscape after another, pruned pine and glen trees peppering the landscape, I sat in the back of an evening-black jeep with Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, whose article, “Islam and the Cultural Imperative” is perhaps the first paradigmatic essayistic exploration of this question, serving as a crucial intervention on the fostering of Muslim culture in America and the totems of Muslim life. I lifted my voice so he could hear me, relaying that I would be visiting Pakistan (for my first time) in the following weeks, piercing slightly forward. “I plan to visit Muhammad Iqbal’s grave in Lahore—how should I approach the ziyārah of his mazār,” I asked.

Arching towards me, he said, in a voice as gentle as a ray of light: You should make duah for him at his grave. How much he accomplished for the Ummah in Urdu. How much he wrote for us in Urdu.

His words aloft, lilting, amid the snow-ness of his robes.

گر نبودی کوشش احمد تو ہم
می پرستیدی چو اجدادت صنم
if not for the struggle of the Prophet Ahmad
you would be worshipping idols like your ancestors
- Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi (Masnavi)

Why should Urdu be preserved? Does anything of value lay in the fragments of the archive besides poetry? For many Muslims in America, it would be for the single goal of accessing the lyrical and lilting qawwalīs and raags of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, his gharāna, or peer-qawwalists of his genre, such as the Sabrī Brothers, or even lofty vocalists like Mohammad Rafi, Mehdi Hassan, and Noor Jahan—the poetry of Faiz and Iqbal, naturally, continue to haunt the journeys of all self-discovering Urdu-inheritors in America. The literary and musical arts have retained tremendous value amongst Urdu-inheritors across the globe. If the 1947 Partition Archive taught us anything, it is that grandmothers and grandfathers, their myths, stories, and sagas continue to provoke the curiosity and, might I say, the sacrality, of their grandchildren. The bohemian Pakistani curator and singer, ajrak-d or pashmina-d out, skipping between Brooklyn and Lahore, are promoting Urdu-inflected constellations, galleries, Manto fiction, and Mehdi Hassan raags. Urdu, a core substructure of their art, will continue to remind those of their literary and artistic heritage, within the galaxy of Urdu—Shahzia Sikander’s art is a potent panacea for those anxious of their premodern past; Aroof Aftab’s “Mohabbat” is a nostalgically wry Urdu moodboard, dragged through in atmosphere.  The truth is that the beauty of Nusrat and the Sabri brothers, that is, their compositions, lyricism, and giddiness, won’t ever translate to English, and Urdu is a desperate dar-u dīwar, a darbān, to inhale those mysteries. 

As any Barelvi, Deobandi Ālim, or NELC-student focussing on South Asia will spotlight, the intellectual work advanced by South Asians in Urdu is flatly unrivalled in the past two centuries. Mawlānā Shiblī Noʿmānī and Mawlānā ʿAbd al-Ḥayy Lucknowī stand out as towering human intellectuals of the 19th century—whose brilliance deserves to be counted amongst the highest humankind has to offer: Mawlānā Noʿmānī for his sweeping reading of kalām (ʿIlm al-Kalām), Persian literary theory (Shēr-i ʿAjam and his sawāniḥ of Rūmī, Mīr Anīs, Dabīr, Faizī, and Shams Tabrēz), Sīrah, legal history of the Ḥanafī madhab, Mughal politics, and, truly, so much more. Mawlānā Lucknowī, who may be regarded as the successor of Ottoman muftī Ibn ʿAbidīn (had he finished his Siʿāyah) and Shāh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, and perhaps the last Muslim to write in a premodern juristic supra-commentary manner, and in whom twelve centuries of Hanafī legal thought crystallized. That he was a brilliant legal philosopher of the highest order. This is no small matter—were elite Urdu-knowing Muslims in Lahore and Hyderabad introduced to these two scholars, there is little doubt that Islam, in the landscape of an intellectual civilization, may be taken more rigorously as a pantheon of ideas, instead a recurring penchant of scions of wealthy families to attend college and root themselves in whatever new emerging Western intellectual trend, be it Foucault, Karl Marx, or Martha Nussbaum. Mawlānā Lucknowī’s Ghībat Kyā Hain? is a fusion of Ghazalian ethics and psychology, Rumi poetry, and meta-critiques of sociology of the rising public spaces within colonial India—a series of essays that perhaps only Walter Benjamin and Virginia Woolf may rival in the modern world, in terms of interdisciplinary synthesis, and the wide-eyed wonder of their ability to compose sentences, without compromising intellectual thought (Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History is highly evocative of Mawlānā Lucknowī’s ability to compress abstruse philosophical thought into flowing sentences).

بے لشکر وفوج پادشاہی کردیم
بر مسند فقر کبرائی کردیم
اے درد بدولت فقری اینجا
در کسوت بندگی خدائی کردیم
troop-less, army-less, we acted as monarchs
on the throne of faqr we enacted majesty
O Dard! since the joy sufism is here
in the cloak of servants we exhibited sacrality
- Khwaja Mir Dard

On an early October afternoon, the foliage already overtaking sunlight in a battle of yellow, I sat down with Mawlānā Bilal Ansari, a senior faculty member at Darul Qasim College, an advisor to Khalil center, a towering figüre of Ḥadīth in America, whose interests range from curricula, pedagogy, pastoral care. If that’s a mouthful, it’s because one is dazzled by his wide-ranging expertise in divergent fields. Many pursuits of intellectual Muslim America are projects in which Mawlānā Bilal was critical to its formation: reintroducing Islam as a discursive plain by which to engage mental health, resurrecting Hadith as a site of critical study; full-fledged annotated translations (his translation of Mughal scholar ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq Dehlawī’s study on the theory of hadīth); redesigning curriculua for Muslims of all ages. A son of Chicago, he exceptionally wears a cheerful face, dressed in flowing black robes, evoking a Timurid chapkan—with a Victorian collar (minus its buttons, as the sherwānī would have). 

A few weeks ago I had shown him some Persian and Urdu manuscripts that were grievously untouched in Indian libraries—we were shocked that commentaries of Mullā Jīwan’s famous legal theory text, fatāwā of Shāh Walīullāh’s son Shāh Rafīʿ, hundreds of manuscripts and shurū of Rūmī and Saʿdī, tafsīrs, Urdu lexicons of Arabic, of Persian, of Chagatai Turkic were listed, unpublished and mostly unknown, in this catalogue. Not too long before that I had chanced on Salar Jung Library’s catalogue, where thousands of texts were collected in a digitized roster of sixty years ago; commentaries on Taftāzānī, Jurjānī, Rāzī, Ghazālī, Muḥibbullāh al-Bihārī abounded. This fact before Mawlānā Bilal, we discussed why Islamic institutions in America were not funding foundations to research, annotate, and publish these incredulous manuscripts. Indeed, it will take someone with a Dars-i Niāmī background, Arabic Persian and Urdu (and some Braj Bhasha), to unfurl the plurality and possibility of these texts. The equivalent of South Asian Muslims letting these texts live with khāk-i zulm is if a trove of Greek commentaries were found on Aristotle or medieval books on the legal philosophy of British Common Law and were classicists to pay no attention—yet many Muslim Americans, expressive and announcing of their zeal for the turāth of Islam, would rather pour millions into ventures that relate to neoliberal media representation or expansion of mega-Masjids, with Walmart-style parking lots. 

Mawlānā Bilal shared an anecdote of well-heeled Muslims, where they were debating where to invest north of seven figures—a million dollars—and one suggested the Masjid buy out the properties nearby. In the spur of that moment, Mawlānā Bilal proposed donating the funds to human capital, where Muslims may be trained to research, annotate, and publish across all fields of Islam; children’s curricula, translations of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s approaches to epistemology, mental and spiritual health; writing back against Hindutva narratives; setting up academic chairs for Muslims to devote themselves to the full intellectual arc of Islam, and, especially, the South Asian turāth. In this vein, Mawlānā Bilal decided to start a foundation, receiving investments from interested Muslim donors in Chicago, devoting resources to these incipient, budding projects. To my knowledge this is the first of its kind in the West, independent of governmental think-tanks, beyond the left or right, neither within the libertarian Tea Party, nor socialist programmes, nor spurred by secular book-keeping—but a venture vertical with the arwāḥ. 

نے گا اقبال کون ان کو ، يہ انجمن ہی بدل گئی ہے
نئے زمانے ميں آپ ہم کو پرانی باتيں سنا رہے
Who will listen to you, Iqbal? the festival has died!
in this new age, you’re telling us these old myths?
- Muhammad Iqbal

A few weeks ago, I was flying from Dallas with a colleague of mine, Kamran, cloaked in a dark red kurta. A lawyer based in Chicago, his ancestors, of the same tribe as Babur and Timur, Barlas, migrated from Samarqand to present-day Sialkot, where his bloodline has retained the name Mirzā, from amīrzādeh, or son-of-the-king. We are discussing Urdu, planed for Chicago, after visting ALIA in Dallas, a new program, emerging out of a former Synagogue, where the study and exposure of Urdu have received new life, by a married couple with explosive energy for ifāzat-i Urdū: curriculums, paid staff, coloring books, stories, events, for children to adults—all in Urdu. I was crestfallen learning of it, if only because I wished it had began twenty years ago. Fa-inna law taftau bāb al-shayān. On the plane, Kamran mentions his own upbringing with Urdu, his father hailing from the same town where Muhammad Iqbal was born. We both wonder at Urdu’s rise and fall, its madd-o jazr, its rotation, in America, and exhale the fatal question: 

Are we witnessing the death of Urdu in America?

The plane leaping over Lake Michigan, a galaxy of lights blazing beneath us. The pilot announcing: We will be landing in Chicago in twenty minutes.

I think of my nānī, who had landed in this very city of Chicago more than fifty years ago, on a flight from Karachi, my mother cradled in her lap. I think how the first words my mother spoke in America to her mother were words of Urdu.

I think of how, only a few moons ago, on a cheery Ramadan night, after tarāwī, my grandmother, losing her memory, somehow thumbed through and eyed my number scrawled, slashed, in a stray notebook, in California, calling me on that alone-night. It would be my last conversation with her, before she fell into a coma and journeyed to the ākhira, two weeks later. I remember how she started the call with, mērī jān, tum kab āōge? Eid kē liyē āōegē? I’ve been thinking about you so much. Please, move back home, saaleh-khan, the questions hollowed into the screeching April wind of the 290 thoroughfare. How those were the last words she spoke to me, how those must have been the first words she spoke to me, in Chicago, twenty-eight years ago.

How, on the day of Eid, I namāz-led, imam’d, the congregation of her funeral, my chest to hers, in a dust-brown cardboard box, as the Hanafi jurists legislate, an explosion of blue tarp spread behind us. How, when I was only a year-old, my mom deposited me into her arms, in Chicago. How she must have put my baby-chest parallel to her face when we shared a bed in Elk Grove, amid floral blankets and white cotton sheets of only a two-hundred thread-count, in the mid-nineties. How in our sepia-color pictures we are grinning as vast as the chānd, nawāsah aur nānī. 

How the word imām, leader, is derived from the word umm, mother, in Arabic. How “to mother” in Arabic means to be an imam, to lead. How the gorgeous Prophet mothers us back home.

How my grandmother’s baby brother slipped into an irreparable coma, amid a snowstorm, not even fifty. And how my grandmother tucked me, as a baby, clinging to her chest, to visit her dying brother, shot down with grief on red fabric hospital chairs, almost daily, consoling us in Urdu, her grandson and her brother. Both!

Sobbing in Urdu for her baby brother in an American hospital, so far from Hyderabad

 so far from her mother, so near her mother

How when I read Iqbal’s Shikwa, many years later in Madrasa, the rhythms of Iqbal lamenting to Allah of the ummah unraveled as home to me, as my grandmother sobbing to Allah about the slow red death of her baby brother, the crushing death of the ummah.

How, when I finished memorization of the Quran, she, ablaze with joy, extending her hands onto my Saudi daffa jubba, cradling me, like how she would stroke my mother, like how when I was a yowling baby, curled around her, pillow-cased by her protection, saying shābāsh, mera bacha, shābāsh

Shābāsh, from Persian: Shād, joy, Bāsh, be!

Be joy.

How, the day before I departed for medrese in South Africa, she, reclining on our jet-black couch, looked me straight in the face and said: Mein tujhko bohot yad karongi. I will remember you so much. How I wasn’t sure what she said then. How, later on in that year, forced to improve my Urdu, during one simmering afternoon, in a township near Johannesburg, it struck me what she meant. And I suddenly thought of her, in a dusty airless brick-walled darsgah, in a white kurta. I, you, a lot remember, will. Mein tujhko bohot yad karongi

How she couldn’t resist celebrating her two baby brothers, though she had already cross-beamed eighty—their brilliance, their akin-ness to Bollywood movie actors. How when she would list out her favorite memories of them as babies, teenagers, in Hyderabad; the way they ate samosas during Ramadan childhoods, how one of her baby brothers once challenged a teacher for mistake-ridden grading in Tulsa, Oklahoma. How proud she was to report that tale. As if that act, for my nani, served to justify how Hyderabadi Muslims were a force to be reckoned wherever they migrated. That Hyderabadi Muslims wouldn’t stop shining in the world, as if to make good on their promise to the heirs and Mir Bakshs of Shah Jahan.

 My nani recounting her baby brother’s defiance; As if they were guryas, dolls, in her hands. How she couldn’t put the dolls down. How she would say their names, stressing their alif, their vowels, in a Dakhani flair, suggestive of the sky. I thought: Could an older sister love her younger brothers this much? What sort of civilization produces such love? Was it really just Urdu?

How she never met her eyes with her brothers, out of undying love, out of unfettered adoration, out of the sanctity of the raḥm muallaq bi al-ʿarsh, the womb-relationships suspended on the Throne-of-God, as Bukhārī relates to us– akhlāq the Sūfīs and Muftīs had nurtured in Hindustan.

How, once, my mother’s father crumpled on the bathroom floor, she only 13, and my grandmother didn’t know what to do but call her brothers, howling in Urdu, in the asphalt-black of an icy Chicago night. How the doorbell rang. How my mother opened the door, and her two mamus, towering on the doorstep, black trench coats dancing around them, beating back wind, snow striking the earth, surged inside. How my grandmother could do nothing but sob in Urdu for her husband, her palms parceled, cracking, on her face, solaced, gentled, by two baby brothers.

How, three decades earlier, her father ordered those two baby brothers to the side, in a colony of Hyderabad, his eyes freezing their frames to impregnable mināras, and said, Sambhālō tumāhrē behen amrīkā mein.

Take care of your older sister in America.

How she came to learn that I and her baby brother’s son had grown close. How her face glistened when she would ask how Abed was. The joy of her blood and her brother’s blood somehow finding their way to each other, after companioning each other in ʿālam al-arwāḥ How, when her baby brother was brought home to Mallepalli, she, only six, must’ve bounced up and down, voicing his name, in purple awe. The gratitude-giver. The same way her great-granddaughter, Maryam, slashes in excitement for her little brother. How, in Nizāmī Hyderabad, she must have held her baby brother so carefully, hardly knowing that, seventy years later, sattar sāl ke baʿd, his son would unleash to her grandson so much joy. How that joy revealed her joy. 

How she was born in Hyderabad, during the reign of Mīr Osmān ʿAlī Khān. How she then moved to Karachi, with forbidding in-laws. Then, back to Hyderabad, where the Nizams, Aʿlā Hazrat’s, bloodline had concluded, all their rubies and Rolls Royces vanishing into British air. How she then emigrated to Chicago. And, finally, to sun-unleashing California, overlooked by saint-like mountains, passing into the country of unseen, barzakh. Lowered into sparkling dust a few hundred feet from her husband. How the soil of Fremont was used to mold her in the ghayb. How the Mughal poet Khwaja Dard, meaning grief, said sufis have no homeland—their journey to God is their homeland. 

How Khwaja Dard, the master of grief, of Mughal Delhi, named his tariqah the Muhammadis, replete with Ibn Arabi, Ahmad Sirhindī, sama suggestive of khayal and dhrupad. How I forgot to tell my nani this. 

How she witnessed the death of her mother, near the crypt of Moʿīnuddīn Chishtī, barely twenty. How her mother had showed violet-like affection to her. How, although she was on the last-breaths of her life, she was gifted great-grandchildren to love her back, to peer into her eyes, shorn of the barren dunya, upright on the blazing fitrah, saying,

“You are my mother.”

How great-grandchildren gave her touch, pressed their faces in her face, when children and grandchildren were now too old to cradle her. How perhaps that touch evoked her own mother, those years ago in Mīr Osmān ʿAlī Khān’s Hyderabad, aʿlā hazrat.

How to be addressed as a mother is the most shattering fact of this vile world. To be addressed a mother by children, by grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It’s almost as if Allah was saying to her: I stripped you of your mother. But I will make you a mother for generations. The barakah of Moinuddin Chishti, khwaja-i khwājgan.

How my mother said my nani saw a phantom of her mother before she died: annīma, ab mulaqāt ho jāyī gī, thodī dayr intizār karain. sattar sāl yādgār rahay āp kī yahān. pūra qissa sunāongī. 

How Allah in the Quran designates the Prophet ummī, from the word umm, mother. How being a mother is a sunnah. The Prophet is motherly, Allah says. How the gorgeous-Prophet compared the love of Allah vis-a-vis creation to a mother, and not a father.

How when my parents were both working, she would drive over in a sun-burnt Toyota Corolla to our elementary school, ferrying my three older sisters and me back home, sometimes with fish-fillets in hand. How all four of us grinned, with our fallen-out teeth, to see our nānī, the windows unable to be anchored down.

How when her legs abandoned her, she would drag them to the Masjid, for every tarāwī, limping, on the wings of the malāikah, or, as the Indo-Persian poets would say, qudsiyān, grabbing onto the bar of a Safeway cart, for dear ever-life. How when my older brother first lead tarāwī, she labored to walk a wee bit faster to the Masjid, thanking God for a grandson who had memorized her beloved’s revelation. How she lingered in the Masjid, a grin as vast as a sand pillar in Damascus.

How when she remembered her father: bava, as loud as a whisper, she, still trembling, as if was he was still alive before her, lowering her eyes out of itirām. Khāshiʿa Abṣāruhum, in surah Qalam.

How, only a few months before her death, our entire family had assembled outside her dead baby brother’s grave, in Elmhurst, and she refused to step outside the van to join us before his crypt, resisting to walk to his etched gravestone and preferring to halt in the van. How perhaps she knew she would leap before him in the ruh so very soon—what need was there to gaze at granite stone and hear humming grass?

How, during Ramadan, my mother called me:

Nani sees the ghosts of you and Samiha gliding across her room.

How the worlds were collapsing in each other: ʿālam al-ghayb, ʿālam al-barzakh, ʿālam al-arwā, ʿālam al-mithāl, ʿālam al-shāhadah. How our nānī had held me and my sister in her arms, when the world was splitting before her eyes, witnessing the death of her baby-brother and husband within a staggering sixteen months. How she still held strong through her grandchildren. How she was gifted strength through her oft-repeated litany, Yā Nūr-i Muammad. O Light of Muhammad. How I told her to cling onto that wird, that word, on an austere December evening.

How the last moments we shared were pouring over grayed-out photographs of her sister’s wedding in Hyderabad, and Mohammad Rafi’s Sau Saal Pehle Mein Tumse Pyaar Tha.

I loved you a hundred years ago

How she had spent more than two decades with three of her siblings in Chicago, jetting through suburbs on the weekend and through the weekdays, because an American work-week could never undermine the blood and affection of four Muslim siblings from Hyderabad. How those moments she delivered to and with her two baby-brothers, cooking sizzling pots of biryani and nihari, how her zubān-i ʿishq was a cuisine that Aurangzēb’s daughter, Zēb un-Nissā, would’ve loved. How in their gatherings of these four Hyderabadi siblings Urdu ruled; how Urdu fostered love, comfort, giddiness, normalcy, how it engendered life. Rāz-i Zindagānī.

How Urdu was birthed in Delhi and Hyderabad out of love, out of joy.

How, three centuries later, four Muslim siblings, in shiveringly-frigid Chicago, only ten years after the assassination of shahīd Malcolm X, could still feel the flesh, the warmth, of that encounter of Islam and Hindustan.

bāz āmadīm bāz gashtīm ey ʿishq, ey jānān

we have returned home, we have come back, o love, o soul

How she was splayed on a hospital-bed in Fremont, California, the same montane town where she dispatched hundreds-of-thousands of salawat on the gorgeous-Prophet in Medina. 

How she never resigned herself from Urdu, the language of the sublime camp of Delhi.

How I stood in front of her, resting my right palm on her warm forehead, soft as azaleas and violets, reciting Sūrah Yāseen, her most treasured sūrah, hoping the Arabic of wahy that landed on huzur’s tongue would melt in her blood-cells, her mitochondria, gentling her into a cosmic shifā.

How once I visited my grandfather’s sister’s apartment, on the bottom floor, facing my nani’s second-floor complex, to discuss my journey to Hyderabad, to visit ancestors in the Yusufain Dargāh. How my mother’s phuppu, my grandfather’s sister, fed me simmering keema and rice. And how when my nani learned, she stood and cooked me a plate of keema, her favorite food, almost eighty, as if she couldn’t tolerate anyone else feeding her grandchildren keema, as if keema was an act of the womb, an act riven with spirituality.

Keema, from the Chugtai Turkic Qiymaq: to mince, dice up, crumble

How I and her baby brother stood hovering above her gurney, after an all-Urdu khatam al-Quran duʿāh in our awning-and-brick Masjid—by far, her dearest Urdu experience year after year– our resident Muftī, wailing for maghfirah and bihisht in Urdu. Where, even if you had broken your tawbah a thousand times, Allah was still there for you, in Urdu– he wept, on sea-green carpet coughing out thorns. How her adored experience at the khatam duʿāh was finally experienced by her baby-brother– the very night she lay unconscious. 

Jazallahu ʿannā sayyidunā Muammad ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam. Allah reward the Prophet on our behalf, how grateful we are for the holy Prophet, khudawand, Muftisahb thundered in Urdu, on laylat al-qadr, the farishtay somehow weeping too.

How, once, during my days of memorizing the Quran, after jumʿah, I dashed into the ladies section of our Masjid, and she was the only one left. I sprinted to her, my arms on her legs, her dupatta blanketing us on us. “Nani, let’s go home,” I whined. 

Wait a little, my child. I am going to read Sūrah Muammad. 

تھوڑ ی دیر انتظار کرو سورہ محمد پڑھ لونگی

How I and her baby-brother, after the khatam, ascended the elevator in the hospital, and approached her sliding glass-door. How we both whispered in Urdu to her, in those final moments, in the ICU. How her baby brother, drew his face smack-parallel, breakneck, neck-breaking, to her face, and murmured in Urdu:

It’s me, your little brother, Apa. Mein hun Apa

How, when she heard this, on that linen-sheet bed, she was shocked to seventy years ago, when in Hyderabad, he stood upright on the dirt-road facing their house, and he saw his sister trudging home from school, squealing, It’s me, Apa. It’s me. Mein hun. How she must have thrown her arms around him.

To be a brother and a sister for 78 years, in Urdu.

Blood rushing to her eyes, the tubes impeding emotions from her shimmering face. How she desperately wanted to hold him, touch his face, as she did 78 years ago in Hyderabad, where she stood sentinel over her newly-born brother, hushing him with meri teri hifazat hamaisha karungi.

How, when I told Abed this, I saw him tear up, for only the second time in my life.

How, after counsel to not pull the plug, she battled awhile longer, which allowed, through the descending amr of Allah, for her burial to be on Eid, for thousands to pray for her maghfirah. For a wizened old lady from Hyderabad.

In front of God we are all crumbled dust: He elevates whomsoever He so chooses.

How after the janāzah, an eighty-year old nephew of her dead husband, grandson of Zahiruddin Ghatala, limped to me, saying, shuddering with tears, “You know your nani was a second mother to me?

How, when her husband died in a nursing home, only some months after baby brother’s death, she stood in a Hayward graveyard, her three children unable to deal with this much grief from Allah. How when she spun around ever slightly, her other baby-brother was right there, his eyes on the ground, faithful to the promise to his father— sambhālo tumahre behen amrika mein– unable to cease thought of his mother near Moinuddin Chishti’s sepulcher. How when she was lowered into the same orchard-grass graveyard, twenty-eight years later, her baby brother was upright, present, hands folded across his chest—having now made good on his promise to his father, sixty-years ago, for sixty years.

How, when Ghazali heard an old Persian lady sighing, he said: “Ah! To have the Imaan of a grandmother from Nishapur!” How I wish he heard my grandmother’s faith, her breath. What would he have said then?

How when I journeyed to Madina, from Lahore, and although I wasn’t supposed to be able to visit the rawdah, inner sanctum, the disenchanted Saudi guard saw something hopeful in my eyes and allowed me to pass through : ṭalab wāḥid law samaḥta. One request if you could be gracious. How, when I stepped past the leafy green Ottoman epigraphs, only some feet from the world-shattering gorgeous Prophet, the very first thing I did was offer two rakats of nafl for my nānī, kneeling to God that He make her beautiful with firdaws, that he make her beautiful with the gorgeous-Prophet.

How she loved, exhaled Madina. How her last years were of only Urdu naats.

How the spot where Shāh Walīullāh studied Saḥīḥ. al-Bukhari and the Muwaṭṭa of Imam Malik was only a few feet away from me. How the memory of the slain Mughal king Farrukhsiyar cast onto the streets of Delhi must have cropped in his mind occasionally, he barely a man, as he leapt from haddathanā to akhbaranā, from Shihāb al-Dīn Zuhrī to Hassan al-Basri to Shaʿbī. How did Shāh Walīullāh stand when he neared the grave of his ancestor, sayyidunā Umar?

How, sometimes, I wonder if Āminah, mother of the Prophet, ever told him about his nānī—what knowledge did he have of her? The mother who gave us the mother of the final Prophet.

How once when she was alone in the haram, someone thieved her purse, with her passport and all her cash. How she settled, splayed before the Ka’bah, her hands, aloft, curved like a broken bowl, pleading Allah if she could just please go home, in her mother-tongue. How she must have said, I love your sanctuary but my grandchildren are also my sanctuary. How the thief returned the purse to her with her passport inside. How Allah sent her home, summoning her back to the Hijaz some years later. How Samiha and I wandered the streets of Madina, witnessing a man pushing his elderly mom on a wheelchair, in front of the gumbad-i khazrā, the earthy green dome, and how we, tortured, that we could never wheelchair her in the country of Madina.

Alā inn-awliyā allah lā khawf ʿalayhim wa-lā yazanūn.

How the mother’s mother will almost always inherit in Islamic law, mīrāth. As if to say, the grandmother was always there for you in life, so, after death, you two shall remain. What if Islamic inheritance-law is also a metaphor for our relationships in this world? 

How Shāh Walīullāh, the penultimate narrator of grief and Islam in Hindustan, discussed the nasamah, different from the ru, the spirit that rose-petals throughout our body, pressed and stamped within the cells of our blood, our liver, our organs, and how I witnessed her nasamah slowly migrating to the next world.

How at her funeral, her body in a sunnah lahd, six-feet underneath, in farishtahgān-white robes, I announced that my nānī’s mother, my great-grandmother, must have loved the Prophet so much, she named her daughter Muhammadi, of Muhammad. How on Judgement-day it will be proclaimed: Arise! All those named Muhammad! Step into Paradise, out of joy of Muammad. Jibrāīl-i Amīn: a flash of wings and tasbī.

How it will be mostly men, rising from dust. How my grandmother will be a singular woman on that day, for her name.

How Iqbal concluded Jawāb-i Shikwa

کی محمد سے وفا تو نے تو ہم تیرے ہیں
یہ جہان چیز ہے کیا؟ لوح وقلم تیرے ہیں
If you’re faithful to Muhammad, then Allah is yours
What is this cosmos? The Pen and Tablet are yours!

How I witnessed that she was faithful to the gorgeous-Prophet. How I weep that Allah is hers now.

How Abed and her eldest son—two māmūs– were the last to touch her body. How she would’ve been overjoyed to know this. Two grandsons of her parents, Ghulam and Tahira, engulfing Muhammadi’s body, topsoil everywhere. How I hope the angels, witnessing the janāzah and jināzah, soared to her mother in Barzakh, and conveyed to my great-grandmother that her grandsons buried her daughter, in blazing Urdu, the two grandsons shifting her face to the qiblah, the ka’bah, the aram.  Somehow we were. In the aftermath of the gorgeous Prophet.

How she couldn’t wait to attend Abed’s wedding in Istanbul, for her baby-brother. How the final event she attended in her life was the nikah of the last unmarried child of her baby brother.

How when Iqbal streamed by Sicily, retreating from London and Granada, he was pierced, stabbed, daggered by country-grief. How he could have poetry-written in English, Persian, or Arabic, to mourn the last flames of Muslim Sicily. But he landed on Urdu to express his grief. As if to say that only Urdu retained the grief-capacity to articulate the tremors Iqbal suffered, as he sailed through the Mediterranean, towards the Suez Canal. How that must have amplified the pain for Iqbal.

How could he turn a language of love into a language of mourning—funerary rites?

O’ Sicily! I shall deliver your gift to Hindustan
I weep here, O’ Sicily, I will make others weep too.

How in the Hadīth collection of Nasaī, the Prophet-of-joy said that when a mumin soul, a ruh, a nasamah, separates from their body, it leaps to their already-dead family, their khāndan, outside Paradise. How a soul-exchange—a rūhānī guftagū– then unfolds. How they ask for the tales of the goings-on of earth. How I hope my nani will tell her baby-brother, her mother, her father of how my and her life, fluvially, that is, two rivers surging across mountain valleys, merged into each other—of poetry, of family myths, of khandānī sagas, how I couldn’t halt thinking of them. 

How when we hear Paradise lies underneath the feet of your mothers, we often only think of the command in life, but never in death. What if the gorgeous-Prophet meant for us to sit at our mother’s and grandmother’s tombs, after death, by their feet, and weep sūrah Yaseen

Mam bʿathanā min al-marqadinā—who resurrected us from our tombs?

Salām qawlan min al-rabb al-raīm. Joy! Peace! A word from the mercy-scattering Lord.

Qīl al udhkhul al-Jannah. It will be announced: Step into Paradise. 

Yālayta Qawmī yaʿlamūn. If only my people knew

How I couldn’t stop thinking, What does it mean to lose somebody who gifted you a mother?

How she was exhausted from the breathing of angels

How history neither repeats nor rhymes but rotates

How Urdu means “army” in Turkish but is besieged on all fronts, unable to shield itself 

How nani also origins in Turkish, nene

How when I paused at Iqbal’s mother grave in Sialkot, I crested my hands into duah for my nani 

How dil means heart in Urdu, but language in Turkish. 

To have a dil is to be possessed of a heart and a language

How tragic that saaleh could never remember Urdu—but the promise to unremember had already arrived

How I will tell Babur that the language of Hindustan became Türkçeyin sözu Urdu

How I will only ever weep Urdu on the mountains, never on the streets

How the cliffs understand the angel-grief of Urdu 

How I wept my grandmother on the streets, so near Mission Peak, towering mountains of Fremont

How Iqbal will come to learn that I slandered Urdu to the world, ghammāz

How I hope this essay will be a pilgrim’s bell, a bāng-i darā, for Urdu

How Urdu on its last lifeline, its final bloodline

How Allah, al-Wahhāb, so adored Urdu to waterfall it with his Prophet’s love

How Urdu is a sign of Allah, wa min āyātihi khalaq al-samawāt wa al-ardh wa ikhtilāf alsinatikum

How Urdu a language of love

How Urdu a language of mourning

How Urdu a language of grief

How Urdu became a language of death

How I witnessed the death of Urdu in America

How Urdu revolved amongst the seasons of Islam

How my nani’s life is a metaphor for Urdu in America

How I witnessed the death of my grandmother

How I may only narrate all this because of Urdu

How my final duah, my weeping prayer, to Allah is that my children shatter reading Iqbal’s Urdu

How the last words Iqbal breathed were in Urdu

How we’re all journeying home, to Urdu

How we’re all journeying home, to our grandmother

How we’re all journeying home to our mother, the world-shattering Prophet

How Urdu became my grandmother

How I will remember you so much, nani

Mein ap ko bohot yad karunga

How when I journey into Barzakh, into death and the beforelife, I will read this before your ruh

How I yearn the same touch you landed on me when I was memorizing the 28th juz in 2003

How we hope the gorgeous Prophet has already visited to you there

How I am sure you will give my salam to him

Al-Nabī al-Ummī

The unlettered Prophet

The motherly Prophet

And those are the days we revolve amongst people:

Nani, Can you hear me? Is it warm where you are? Do you need any pillows? Do you remember your mother? It’s me. I have many last things, many first beginnings, to cradle you with, to confess to you—a confetti for us all. I want it to be warm where you are, where I stand, where you lay on your ash-leather couch, head parallel to the heavens, the samāwāt, hands toggling through a tasbih, breaths containing names of khudā: all ninety-nine of them! Can I tell you a story? A qissa? A hikaya? A kahānī! How strange is it, Nani, that kahānī sounds so much like kehna in Urdu, as if to say every moment we breathe we are storytelling? Asātīr al-awwalīn. Or asātīr al-akhīrīn. What’s the difference between a mother and a nani? Are you warm? Can you let me touch your face? I don’t remember it. Do you remember when you used to touch my face and feed me keema, beckoning me, adoring me, with Urdu?

Has the gorgeous Prophet spoken to you in Urdu yet?

If not, can you tell him, our sarkār-i do ālam, our mīr-i arab, our ān-hazrat, our shah-i do jahān, our effendim, that all the promises he made for the ummah have proven to be true?

And those are the days we revolve amongst people

اگر زمانہ ماں ہے تو زبان نانی ہے

اگر زمانہ مادر است زبان وسخن مادرِ بزرگ باشد

لو كان الزمن أُما ًفاللغة جدة

Eğer zaman anne olsa dil nenedir

Language is a Grandmother

Photo Credit: Hyderabad, 1850. Credits: Mehdi Saajid

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

Mulla Saaleh Baseer

Mullā Saaleh Baseer completed his Dars-i Niẓāmī in South Africa, and earned his bachelor’s in History from Columbia University. He earned a master’s at the University of Chicago in Mughal political-legal history while completing his iftā at Darul Qasim College. He is currently a PhD student at Harvard University in the Department of History.

2 thoughts on “Language is a Grandmother: The Long and Torturous Death of Urdu in America

  1. I blame arab supremacy in masjids. All they do is trash Desi scholars. I was at masjid one night. We had a visiting Shiekh from Pakistan with us for Isha. All the Arabs prayed Isha and left before the bayan. Disrespectful. The Shiekh spoke English also.
    Arab katheebs trash on Islamic scholars from the sub continent saying everything biddah all the time. No respect and desis have internalized our inferiority that our arab brothers spew out.

  2. I am not Pakistani or South Asian but I have respect for the beautiful culture and poetry. There’s a lot of beautiful poems and information here, I really liked the one about the Hadith of Jibril. It’s quite sad to learn the heritage is endangered, may Allah protect and preserve it

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