Every year, as the holy month of Ramadan begins and our social media feeds light up with crescent and lantern decorations, we find ourselves, with depressing regularity, embroiled in the “Ramzān” vs “Ramaḍān” debate. The crux of the matter is this: should Urdu speakers adhere to the rules of their language and pronounce the name of the holy month as “Ramzān”? Or should they adopt a faux Arabic pronunciation and say “Ramadān”? I argue that the traditional Urdu pronunciation is not only valid but also more authentic.

The pronunciation “Ramzān” is deeply rooted in Urdu, supported by centuries of both literary and everyday usage. Let’s focus on the popular, or awāmī, aspect of this issue. Millions of people in South Asia and around the world have, over generations, spoken of their experiences during this holy month—discussing fasting, worship, pre-dawn meals, communal iftars, and social activities with loved ones and neighbors. Throughout these conversations, they consistently used the term “Ramzān” to describe this special period of Muslim worship and celebration. Are we to ignore these authentic, lived voices and the cultural heritage they represent?

Moreover, the pronunciation “Ramzān” is not a “mistake” but has a well-established phonological genealogy. According to some accounts and supported by evidence from qāfiyah rules (verse-end rhymes in the Perso-Arabic and later Urdu tradition), early speakers of New Persian did in fact pronounce the emphatic Arabic phonemes, such as the sound represented by the letter ض (ḍād) in “Ramaḍān,” similarly to native Arabic speakers (Kurdish speakers in Iraq and Iran still pronounce some Arabic emphatics, most noticeably ḥāˀ). The ض (ḍād) was memorably and informatively described by the Persian Arabic grammarian Sibawayh. Over time, however, these complex Arabic sounds underwent simplification and merged with their nearest equivalents in Persian. When Urdu borrowed Arabic vocabulary through Persian, it naturally adopted these Persian pronunciations that had evolved organically in the usage of the people. Therefore, in pronouncing “z” in “Ramzān,” Urdu speakers are maintaining a direct link to that original Arabic phoneme, which is in fact distinct from its pronunciation in most modern Arabic dialects (for example, in my native Bahraini Arabic dialect, ḍād has become an emphatic version of the voiced dental fricative /ð/, represented in English by “th” in “then”).

This unique sound ḍād was considered so distinctive that Arabic itself was nicknamed lughat uḍ-ḍād, meaning “the language of ḍād.” This uniqueness comes with its own set of challenges. Ask any Arabic teacher, and they will tell you that the emphatic series of phonemes, which include ع (ˁayn), ح (ḥāˀ), ط (ṭāˀ), and ص (ṣād), is notoriously difficult—if not impossible—for non-native speakers to master. How can our zealous phonological reformers expect non-Arabic speakers to “correctly” pronounce “Ramaḍān,” especially since the likely result would be a “plain” “d,” similar to the vanilla “d” in the customary English pronunciation?

What seems to escape our eager phonetic prescriptivists is that this debate is fueled by a colonialist form of representation, specifically the idiosyncrasies of the English-Latin alphabet. If we simply adhered to the Urdu-Arabic script, the word رمضان (Ramaḍān) would look identical across Arabic, Urdu, and Persian. Perhaps then our all-knowing mavens would be less ready to legislate pronunciation. Aside from the unfortunate metastasis of Romanized Urdu throughout social media, even affecting as august an institution as the BBC, the “d” vs “z” distinction that English imposes upon native representation is an unsavory reminder of colonial meddling in Eastern languages—a sordid history we needn’t delve into here.

Who’s to say which words should revert to their “original” Arabic pronunciation, and which may be “allowed” to retain their historical Urdu pronunciations? Should all Arabic loanwords with “ḍād” switch from “z” to “d”? What about other emphatics like ط (ṭā), ص (ṣād), ع (ˁayn), and ح (ḥā)? Even more concerning, what about vowels? Surely we cannot allow Hindustani to replace Classical Arabic vowels with its own “provincial” vowels?

From a religious perspective, it’s understandable that experts like imāms or qāriˀs should pronounce Arabic prescriptively, especially when reciting or quoting the Holy Quran. But why impose such specialized knowledge and praxis on the ām ādmī, the common man, within the sphere of profane usage? Why create a dynamic that give imbues pronunciation with power, establishing a shibboleth that further marginalizes the downtrodden?

Within our Islamicate cultures, diversity is our strength. Our shared vocabulary is an outer ẓāhir, or exterior, reflecting a ṭin, or interior, of a beautifully complex set of common yet distinct sentiments, experiences, and hopes. As a native Arabic speaker, I deeply appreciate the delightful phonological diversity of our Muslim siblings worldwide, from the Caribbean to South Asia to Southeast Asia. Neither native speakers like myself nor benighted prescriptivists have the right to impose their ilmgīr (Perso-Arabic علمگير, “knowledge-restrictive”) views on historically authentic phonological forms.

 

 

 

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