History of Urdu
by Sanjeev Nayyar on 31 Aug 2017 8 Comments

This article is an attempt to trace the origins of Urdu and its development in India starting with the advent of Mughal rule (Persian-Arabic-Turkish were used by earlier rulers) and ending in 1947.


1526 to 1707: Proto-Urdu


Mughal rule began with Babar in 1526, but started moving southwards after the death of the zealot, Aurangzeb in 1707.


The word Urdu derives from the Turki word, Ordu, “a military camp”. The language as we now know it had not come into existence during this period. Instead it was a product of the dialect used by Muslims who ruled over Deccan and South India from the 14th century awards. The literary speech arising out of it, known as Dakhni or Southern Speech, may be traced back to the 15th century. It’s use was limited to the Deccan and South India and was used in literature by the Muslims of these regions who were less influenced by the local Hindu spirit of the dialects and languages of North India than other Muslims living in North India.


This difference becomes clear from the fact that the Perso-Arabian script was used in the Deccan, from almost the beginning. Gradually the literature increasingly came under foreign influence in the sense that it became more and more Muslim and Persian in its attitude. However, it continued to retain till the end of the 17th century, a good deal of Indian vocabulary.


The chief centers of Dakhni literature were Gujarat, Golconda, Bidar, Bijapur and Aurangabad. It was patronized by amongst others Qutb Shahi Sultans of Golcondo, one of whom, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, was a gifted poet. One of his courtiers wrote a romantic poem whose theme was the love of this king, than a prince, for a Telegu Hindu girl named Bhagwati, whom he later married. The city built in her honour was named Bhag-nagar and subsequently renamed with her Islamic name Haider-Begum. This became the city of Hyderabad. Various other poems were written by many rulers.


Dakhni literature flourished up to the end of the 17th century, but declined after the conquest of the Deccan and South India by Aurangzeb. By the first half of the 18th century, the mantle of Dakhni fell to the newly rising Urdu speech of Delhi into which this colonial form of a North India speech virtually merged and Urdu became well established with its present name by 1750.


The Persian literature produced during the heyday of Mughal rule exercised tremendous influence on the formation and shaping of regional literatures, especially those cultivated by Muslims. One of the results was the evolution of literary Urdu. Other sister languages modeled on the Persian tradition are Punjabi, Pushtu, Sindhi, Baluchi and Kashmiri, all of which use the Persian script.


1707 to 1815


The period from the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and the Third Maratha War in 1818 was eventful as it witnessed the end of Muslim rule, the rise and fall of the Maratha Empire and the foundation of the British Empire in India.


Post-Aurangzeb, the status of the Persian language faced a challenge as a result of the collapse of the central authority of the Muslim rulers and the emergence of Urdu as the potential lingua franca of the country. However, it was not until 1837 that Persian ceased to be official language of India. Urdu came only with the establishment of British rule over Punjab.


Delhi and Lucknow were the two centers of influence.


The Urdu poets of Delhi wrote under the influence of Wali (1667-1707), were partial to Iham, which was at that time practiced in Persian and Hindi, especially in Dohas. The language continued to be in a fluid state. The rules of grammar and spelling were not cared for, Urdu poets also did bother about Radif and Wafiyas as the Arabic and Persian poets did. Many poets helped the Urdu language grow namely –


Shah Hatim (1699 to 1787) a leading poet at the time of Muhammad Shah, was closely connected with Ihami poetry. But he joined the reformers of his time and made a selection of his poetry and called it Diwan Zadeh (1757). Along with others, Hatim brought about many learned and academic changes in Urdu language and poetry. They believed in and insisted on using loan words from Arabic and Persian in the original sense with original spellings. Subsequently, it became fashionable for the then and future writers to follow their dictates, ie, increased used of Arabic / Persian in Urdu.


Mirza Muhhammad Rafi Sauda (1713 to 1780) is considered the greatest quasida and satire writer of Urdu. In his social satires he castigates the social, political and moral vices of his age.


Another notable poet wasWali Muhammad Nazeer (1740 to 1830). Many others gave shape to the language and poetry of Lucknow.


As a language Urdu took birth during this period. Both Arabic and Persian contributed significantly to Urdu. As the religio-ethical and socio-economic health of the Muslim community came to be adversely affected by the weakening of imperial authority, the intelligentsia felt the need to revitalize Muslim morale by means of religious reforms. Arabic became the natural medium for fulfilling the requirements of religious rethinking among Muslims in the early 18th century. When the British came to India they realized the need to communicate in Urdu, and set up an Urdu center at Fort William College, Calcutta, to teach British employees the language. The college helped promote Urdu too.


1818 to 1905


Between 1818-1905, Urdu developed into a language of expression for religious and philosophic thoughts. An Urdu translation of the Koran was made as late as 1791. Now Urdu became popular and replaced Persian as the language of the educated masses. In 1837, Persian was replaced as the official language of India.


Urdu poetry upto the fourth quarter of the 19th century was just a reflexion of Persian poetry. Nothing but a few common words, inflexions, postpositions and verbs were in Hindi. The Urdu poets thought and wrote in terms of Persian poetry, the references were things, events and ideas of Persia and Arabia. They used names of Persian flowers, all the little streams of Persia, its towns and provinces, its hills and mountains, but never mentioned an Indian flower, river, mountain or town, much less an Indian hero. It was an absolute and deliberate shutting of their eyes to all great things of their own country, the soil of which, according to a great Urdu poet, was napak or impure.


But Muslim dominance over India had begun to wane, demoralizing them. To rejuvenate them, Islamic influence was reinforced by taking the local dialect Hindi and marrying it with strong Persian - read Islamic - influence.


Muhammad Nazir of Agra (1740 to 1830) composed his poems on Persian themes but also on subjects relating to Indian life in a language that was not very Persianised and was also the language of Hindus. The great poets of the pre-modern period include Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1806 to 1905) and Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq (1789 to 1894). Ghalib was the most popular. He was a Sufi and a mystic who wrote in Persian and Urdu and inaugurated literary history and criticism through his letters. He is generally regarded as the greatest poet of Urdu before the modern age because of his human sympathies and his Sufi feel for the ultimate Reality.


Lucknow and Rampur became the centers of Urdu literature in the 19th century.


The Aligarh Movement by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan gave rise to modern Urdu literature towards the end of the 19th century. His greatest contributions were his letters and historical work Asaru-s-Sanadia. The Aligarh movement made Muslims more conscious of their Islamic rather than their Indian heritage and instilled in them the concept of Pan-Islamicism.


Syed Ahmad Khan gave birth to the Pan-Islamic movement in India; the Khilafat Movement by Gandhi united Indian Muslims as never before; and Muhammad Iqbal cemented the concept in the minds and hearts of the sub-continent’s Muslim. Thanks to the Aligarh movement, a number of Muslim Urdu prose writers, historians and essayists came to the forefront. There were several prominent Hindu writers of Urdu too.


As time passed, Urdu came to be seen as the language of Muslims. Muslim leaders appearing before the Hunter Commission (1883-1890) in Bengal demanded separate arrangements for primary education of Hindu and Muslim children and insisted on Urdu as medium of instruction even in a province like Bengal where 99% Muslims were ignorant of that language. Their spoken language had always been the medium of instruction but the decline of Muslim power in India had to be reinforced with a Pan-Islamic identity. Even in 1947 and thereafter, Bengali and not Urdu was the most widely spoken language.


The Urdu press flourished during this period and the majority of Hindu organs of North India at the beginning of 1861 were edited by Hindus.


Muhammad Iqbal (1873 to 1938) was largely responsible for popularizing Urdu amongst Indian Muslims, by consolidating the efforts of his predecessors. He was comfortable in Persian and Urdu. His doctrine went counter to the quietism and acceptance preached by traditional Sufism. It was a rather militant doctrine of action, of fight to achieve an ideal placed before man, and this ideal was of primitive Islam which in Iqbal’s opinion was preached by the Prophet – to select the narrow path of shaping one’s destiny and forging ahead, heart within and God overhead.


This doctrine of action made Iqbal the great leader of Indian Muslims. His two longer poems Shikwa (complaint) and Jawab-i-Shikwa (Reply to the Complaint) are looked upon as the gospel of Muslim revivalists who wanted separation from India in both spirit and political rehabilitation. These poems complain to Allah about the adverse circumstances in which Indian Muslims had fallen, and give the remedies prescribed by God for Muslim uplift. His poems cemented the thought that Urdu and Islam in India were synonymous.


The British, Urdu, and Hindi


Urdu became the dominant language of education and administration with British rule over Punjab, that is, after 1849 (Maharaja Ranjit Singh died in 1839). Until 1857, the Muslims hated the new rulers, Christians, for snatching away their power, but after 1857, Sir Syed Ahmad made Muslims realize that it was in their interests to support the Christians (British). The British too realized the importance of having Muslims on their side and using them as a counter to Hindus. Hence they decided to support the Muslims by making Urdu the official language of Punjab. Undivided Punjab had more Muslims than Hindus and included modern day Punjab on both sides of the present border, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.


The Arya Samaj led the movement for revival of Hindi. Its founder, Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1875), used to communicate in Sanskrit till he met Brahmo Samaj leader, Keshub Chandra Sen, who stressed the importance of using a popular language. Dayanand choose Hindi. As the Arya Samaj had strong roots in Punjab, Hindi became Arya Bhasa there. Subsequent Samaj leaders carried on the movement for usage of Hindi.


The eighth of the ten principles of the Arya Samaj exhorts the Arya to endeavor to diffuse knowledge and dispel ignorance. In Punjab and the United Provinces, the Samaj did excellent work. No single organisation could claim to have as many schools for boys and girls as the Samaj. For boy’s education there were two types of colleges, one affiliated with the Government University and other independent of official control.


The Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College was started at Lahore in 1886. A number of educational institutions were opened in Punjab and modern day Uttar Pradesh. By 1914, the Samaj had the largest number of institutions in Northern India and probably the second largest in the country. For girls, the Samaj maintained a large number of schools and colleges.


The impact of the Arya Samaj can be seen in the adoption of Hindi as a language of administration in Rajputana and UP. Dayanand wrote all his works in Hindi or Sanskrit. Under the persuasion of Sir Pratap Singh, several states of Rajputana adopted Hindi script for official work. It was adopted as an alternative medium of administration in UP early in the 20th century.


The emergence of the Arya Samaj in North India led to the resurgence of Hindi. Arya Samaj schools and colleges in North India were used to promote Hindi. The Arya Samaj made Hindus proud of their past and revived their confidence levels. It made them shun foreign influence, understood as Urdu. This single decision of using Hindi enabled the Arya Samaj to grow beyond Punjab, whereas Sikhism restricted itself to using Gurumukhi as a medium of communication.


Urdu vs. Hindi


An essay on the Aligarh Movement noted, “What complicated matters further was the Hindi Urdu controversy originating from a movement by the Hindus of Kashi in 1867 to replace Urdu by Hindi and the Arabic script by Nagari”. It must be mentioned that a similar movement for the use of Hindi was started in Punjab by Swami Dayanand Saraswati. These movements convinced Syed Ahmed Khan that Hindus and Muslims could never join whole-heartedly together and the differences would only increase in the future. Nawab Mulk said “Although we do not have the power of the pen, our hands are still strong enough to wield the might of the sword”. (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan series)


Another Hindi Urdu controversy erupted in 1900. In United Provinces, all petitions to the court were to be written in Urdu. The Hindus protested and forced the government to pass an order on April 8, 1900 that Government offices and law courts should also entertain petitions written in Hindi in Devanagari script, and that court summons and official announcements would be henceforth be issued in both Hindi and Urdu. As Muslims protested this lowered the prestige of Urdu, the matter got politicised and led to a worsening of Hindu Muslim relations. This decision and the reversal of the partition of Bengal in 1905 made Muslims realize the need to counteract the political organisation of Hindus, read Congress. On December 30, 1906 the All India Muslim League was formed at Dacca.


Urdu got caught in the Hindu Muslim crossfire that got accentuated after the Khilafat movement. When Hindus insisted on use of Hindi, the League denounced it as a sign of Hindu domination and would not think of cooperating with the Congress unless Urdu was made the national language in place of Hindi, though Urdu was nothing but a Persianized dialect of Hindi. Its script is Persian and grammar is of Hindi. The Congress could not face the League onslaught and mooted a compromise: a new hybrid language half-Hindi half-Urdu, named Hindustani, was sought to be created, which Congress accepted in place of Hindi.


The bottom-line is that Indian Muslims derive strength and a sense of identity with Islam by the use of Urdu.



History and Culture of Indian People, Vol. 7 to 11, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

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