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Old Monday, February 08, 2010
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Post Urdu in Punjab

Where, when and how was Urdu born? This is the question to which a convincing answer has so far not been found. The genesis and development of Urdu has been a bone of contention amongst scholars since long and with the passage of time a virtual jungle of theories has grown out, through which finding the way is very difficult.

Some scholars surmised that Urdu was an offshoot of ‘Brij bhasha’ or the dialect spoken in the Brij area (districts surrounding Agra and Mathura). Others say Urdu has its origin in ‘Khari boli’ (a dialect called so because most of its words ended with an ‘a’ sound and it differed from other dialects such as Brij, Qannauji and Avadhi etc in which most words ended with an ‘o’ sound and as opposed to ‘khari’, or standing, boli each of these dialects was called ‘pari’, or lying, boli). Some believe that Urdu was born in and around Delhi and the dialects of adjoining areas, such as Rajasthani and Haryani, have influenced it. Yet there are some theories that suggest that Sindh or Punjab or Deccan is the cradle of Urdu. There are some abstruse theories as well, such as Urdu is not an Aryan language but a Dravidian one and was born in the South India and not in the North. Another improbable theory suggested that Urdu was a ‘lashkari zaban’ or ‘camp language’ and it was born in the Mughal era as Mughal troops consisted of people who spoke different languages and Urdu came into being as an inter-language.

However, what seems most probable in the light of linguistic research and what apparently has a kind of consensus, too, among the modern linguists is the theory that Urdu has its origin in a Prakrit known as Shaurseni. It was an unrefined vernacular dialect akin to Sanskrit and was spoken in the area known as Shaursen. Later, it spread to other regions and with its regional varieties became a kind of sub-continental lingua franca.

This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why almost every major region of Indo-Pakistan subcontinent has a claim to be Urdu’s cradle or to have played some role in its origin or development. Even Gujarat (not Pakistani town but the Indian province), which seems to be an unlikely contender, rightly claims to have had the earliest recorded samples of Urdu literature. It is very likely that Urdu was born in Northern India but Urdu literature was first committed to writing in the South, especially in Gujarat where some earliest literary pieces were written, even before Deccan that has a claim to be the first to have done so.

Now the question is which one of the myriad sub-dialects developed itself to take the place of the language that had numerous names before it was finally called Urdu. Among the notions that were and are still considered to hold some water is the one that says Urdu was born in Punjab and a dialect spoken in Punjab at that time is Urdu’s mother. Hafiz Mahmud Shirani in his well-known work ‘Punjab mein Urdu’ (1928) premised that Urdu was born in Punjab after Punjab was taken over by the Ghaznavids. Sherani has very clearly mentioned that there were some others too who had suggested the theory before him and it included Grierson and Sher Ali Sarkhush. Grierson had some suggestive ideas in his ‘Linguistic Survey of India’ (1916) and Sarkhush in his ‘Tazkira Ejaz-i-Sukhan’ (1923) had expressed similar views. But Shirani was the first one to put it across in a detailed and logical way, though many scholars have their reservations about this theory of Shirani’s and drawn their own conclusions. But it has been a topic of heated debates for long and was very popular until some other theories were put forward by scholars like Masood Husaain Khan and Shaukat Subzwari.

Let me sum up first what Shirani has said about Urdu and its genesis in Punjab: Sindh was the first territory of India conquered by Muslims in 8th century AD. Probably they did not adopt any local language there but after the conquest of Punjab in the late 10th century AD during Ghaznavid era Muslims stayed in Punjab and before conquering Delhi they had lived in Punjab for about 200 years. During this period in Punjab, Muslims must have used a language to communicate with the locals and to run the affairs of government and trade. Muslims must have brought this language with them from Punjab to Delhi after its conquest in the year 1193. We do not know for sure what language or dialect was spoken in Delhi before the advent of Muslims. It was probably Brij or Rajasthani. Urdu has striking similarities with Punjabi as far as grammar and phonetics are concerned. The language from which Urdu emerged was neither Brij nor Haryani. It was a language spoken in and around Delhi and Meerut. Later, it intermingled with the language brought in from Punjab by the Muslims and the by-product was Urdu.

Interestingly, Mohiuddin Qadri Zor was at that time in London and was carrying out research on Urdu’s origin and had independently reached at the same conclusion as Shirani’s but while agreeing with Shirani that Urdu was born in Punjab, Zor said in his ‘Hindustani lisaniyaat’ (1932) that the language spoken in the vast region between north-western India and Allahabad including Punjab in the 12th century AD was very similar with the one spoken in and around Delhi and it had developed much before Muslim conquest of Delhi. It then developed into two different dialects, one of which was Punjabi and the other was ‘Khari boli’. In other words, he believed that Punjabi was not Urdu’s mother but its sister.

Masood Hussain Khan was the first to object to this theory of Sherani’s. He said Shirani had ignored the dialects spoken in and around Delhi and that his statements about Haryani were contradictory. As for Punjabi’s grammatical and phonetic similarities with Urdu, Masood Khan said there were certain dissimilarities as well and many similarities were common among other languages and dialects too, such as Bengali, Gujarati, Haryani and Khari boli. Others that criticised Shirani for his theory of Urdu’s genesis in Punjab are Shaukat Sabzwari and Gian Chand Jain.

Here, for want of space, it is not possible to go into details about the objections raised by these scholars but the fact is that Shirani was the first to jolt the old and unscientific notions about Urdu’s origin and it was his theory after which a serious and based-on-linguistics study of Urdu began. Shirani had an amazing command over Persian and the classical literature of Urdu and Persian. Shirani sort of had in tatters the research works of a great scholar like Shibli Naumani when he described Shibli’s misconceptions about Persian poetry and some of the events traditionally believed to be true. Shirani was the first to expose the inaccuracies of Muhammad Husain Azad’s classical work ‘Aab-i-Hayat’. He also unearthed the ‘fake’ portions of Divan of Zauq that were added by Muhammad Hussain Azad when he edited the divan. Shirani challenged the old and ill-founded notions such as the belief that ‘Khaliq Bari’ was written by Ameer Khusrau by editing it and proving otherwise (though the issue is still unresolved and scholars such as Mumtaz Hussain, Afsar Amrohvi and Jameel Jalibi believe that the versified dictionary named ‘Khaliq Bari’ belongs to Khusrau). What helped Shirani was not only his vast knowledge and command of the languages but his added insight came from a startling acumen of reading the old manuscript and telling instantly about its period, calligraphic style, make of paper and even the calligrapher. This was one of the skills he got during his stay in London. Hafiz Muhammad Mahmud Khan Shirani was born on October 5, 1880, in Taunk. His ancestors belonged to the Afghan tribe named Shirani which had come to India with Mahmood Ghaznavi and had stayed back in Taunk. Having memorised the Holy Quran at an early age, Shirani took admission in Lahore’s Oriental College where he was to teach later. Here he obtained some degrees in oriental learning and was sent to England in 1904 for higher education. But in 1906, his father died and financial problems prevented him from getting further education. He found a job at a library and began research on Islamic history at British Library and India Office Library. In 1909, he got a job at London’s Luzac & Company which, in addition to publishing, dealt in rare manuscripts and antiques. Perhaps his stay in London was the most important among the formative years of Shirani. When he returned to India in 1913, the World War-II broke out and he could not go back. Finally he came to Lahore in 1921 and joined Islamia College next year. In 1928, his services were acquired by the Oriental College from where he retired in 1940.

Hafiz Mehmood Shirani died in Taunk on February 15, 1946.
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