History of Urdu

1707 to 1947       

1707 to 1815 - This period starts with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and ends with the Third Maratha War in 1818. It was an eventful period in the sense that it witnessed the end of Muslim rule, the rise and fall of the Maratha Empire and the foundation of the British Empire in India. In fact volume eight is named The Maratha Supremacy. If you want an answer to why was the volume named so, please go the history section and read Maratha Supremacy in the 18th century. In the post-Aurangzeb period, 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, which later became the dominant language of education and administration, 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 pets did. There were many poets who helped the Urdu language grow namely –

Shah Hatim (1699 to 1787) a leading poet time 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 the 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. Another was Mirza Muhhammad Rafi Sauda (1713 to 1780) who is considered as the greatest quasida and satire writer of Urdu. In his social satires he castigates the social, political and moral vices of his age. There was another notable poet Wali Muhammad Nazeer (1740 to 1830). 

There were a number of poets who gave a shape to the language and poetry of Lucknow. I am not getting into too much of detail about them.

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 the imperial authority, the intelligentsia felt the need to revitalize the Muslim morale by means of religious reforms. And Arabic became the natural medium for fulfilling the requirements of religious rethinking among the Muslims in the early part of the 18th century. This could also explain the influence of Arabic on Urdu. When the British came to India they realized the need to communicate in Urdu, which is why they set up a Urdu center at the Fort William College Calcutta to teach British employees the language. The college helped promote Urdu too.

1818 to 1905  - The origin of the literary language, now known as Urdu, in the 18th century from the local dialect of Delhi has been discussed in the paras above. Another development during this period was the emergence of Urdu as a literary language. It was born in the military camps from the Hindi Khari Boli during the later Mughal period. It was between 1818 to 1905 that Urdu developed into a language of expression for religious, 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. It was only in 1837 that 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 in it 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 use names of Persian flowers, all the little streams of Persia, and its towns and provinces, its hills and mountains but they never mention an Indian flower or an Indian river or mountain or town, much less an Indian hero. It was an absolute and deliberate shutting of their eyes to all the great things of their own country, the soil of which, according to a great Urdu poet, was napak or impure.

As referred to above, Muslim dominance over India had begun to wane. They had got demoralized because of that. In order to rejuvenate them the Islamic influence had to be reinforced. One of the ways was to take the local dialect Hindi and marry it with a strong Persian read Islamic influence. I wonder why they could not derive strength their motherland i.e. Hindustan.

Muhammad Nazir of Agra (1740 to 1830) was a remarkable Urdu poet who composed his poems on Persian themes but also all sorts of subjects relating to Indian life in a language that was not very Personalized, which is also the language of the Hindus. Among the great poets of the pre-modern period were Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1806 to 1905), 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 gave rise to modern Urdu literature at the beginning of the fourth quarter of the 19th century. His greatest contribution were his letters and historical work Asaru-s-Sanadia. The Aligarh movement made the Muslims more and more conscious of their Islamic rather than their Indian heritage and instilled in them the concept of Pan-Islamicism. I maintain that Sir Syed Ahmad gave birth to the Pan-Islamic movement in India, the Khilafat Movement by Gandhi united the Indian Muslims like never before and lastly Muhammad Iqbal with his poetry cemented the concept in the minds and hearts of the sub-continent Muslim. Thanks to the Aligarh movement a number of Muslim Urdu prose writers of eminence, historians and essayists came to the front. There were several prominent Hindu writers of Urdu too.

As time passed by Urdu came to be seen as the language of the Muslims, part of their an Islamic baggage, an example. Evidence given by Muslim leaders before the Hunter Commission (between 1883 to 1890) in Bengal demanding entire separate arrangements for the primary education of the Hindu and the Muslim and insisting upon Urdu as a medium of instruction even in a province like Bengal where 99 % of the 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. One is however, not sure how long it will be the case.

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

Muhammad Iqbal (1873 to 1938) referred to in the essay on Wahabi movement was also largely responsible for popularizing Urdu amongst Indian Muslims. Actually speaking he only consolidated the efforts laid down by his Muslim brothers before. 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-Shikwah (Reply to the Complaint) are looked upon as the Mein Kampf of Muslim revivalists in India who were for separation from India in both spirit and political rehabilitation. These poems give in the form of a complaint before Allah about the adverse circumstances in which the Indian Muslims had fallen, and the sequel given the remedies prescribed by God for Muslim uplift. So his poems in Urdu cemented the thought in the sub-continent Muslim mind that Urdu and Islam in India were synonymous.

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