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Published in the 1-15 Mar 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Khuda Hafiz versus Allah Hafiz: a critique - I
By Mahfuzur Rahman

On a trip from Dhaka to north Bangladesh during my recent visit to the country, I was struck by two phenomena. First, there was something unusual about some of the mileposts along the highway. In many places, as we headed for the Jamuna, they would often have a painted-over strip, a blank. The name of a particular destination has been systematically erased. You guessed right. The blank space, staring ever so briefly as you sped past it, once spelled out Bangabandhu Setu. The sign was gone, moved and painted over, almost certainly at state expense. How amazing, though, that a dumb, blank milepost could still speak volumes!

It is, however, a second phenomenon that I have chosen as the theme of the following paragraphs: many signboards, especially those at the boundaries of local administrative districts, that not so long ago wished Khuda Hafiz to the exiting travellers, now say Allah Hafiz instead. I, of course, never doubted the sincerity of those who put up the slogans invoking God's protection on roads infested with unsafe automobiles and marauding drivers. I am also sure the Supreme Being now being called upon, in fresh paint, to protect the lives of the users of those thoroughfares is the same One whose name used to be invoked on the old signs. Why then the change? Is there something of significance in the changeover, also made at considerable cost, from Khuda Hafiz to Allah Hafiz, just as there is meaning, albeit of a different nature, to the erased milepost signs? Or is this another exercise in triviality in which we as a nation seem to excel? I am not sure, but let us explore.
And, yes, television newscasters now end their news bulletin with Allah Hafiz, invariably on the state-owned TV channel but also on other channels. So do radio broadcasters. Ministers in the present government of the country, as well as other political leaders, never fail to end their speeches with Allah Hafiz. (This, by the way, does not mean my endorsement of Khuda Hafiz either in the public domain.)

A great wave of Allah Hafiz is sweeping Khuda Hafiz not merely off roadside signs and hoardings but from its niches of every description. Say Khuda Hafiz as a parting wish to a friend whom you may have met in the course of normal business of life, and you can now be sure to receive an Allah Hafiz in return. My brother, cousins, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, almost one and all, reel off an Allah Hafiz hot on the heel of my Khuda Hafiz. If my departure after the meeting is somehow delayed by a few moments -- that is, after I have already said Khuda Hafiz, and they Allah Hafiz -- they are likely to take the opportunity to say Allah Hafiz for a second time. This, I suspect, is to nullify my Khuda Hafiz. But wait. There is more to come. A close relative of mine, fully grown though still a bit short of my advanced years, glared at me the other day and solemnly proclaimed: "to say Khuda Hafiz is act of gunah". Five- year olds have returned my Khuda Hafiz with a defiant Allah Hafiz.

And, yes, television newscasters now end their news bulletin with Allah Hafiz, invariably on the state-owned TV channel but also on other channels. So do radio broadcasters. Ministers in the present government of the country, as well as other political leaders, never fail to end their speeches with Allah Hafiz. (This, by the way, does not mean my endorsement of Khuda Hafiz either in the public domain.)

Inquisitive as ever, I asked all and sundry how did such a sweeping change come about. This was met, for the most part, with a shrug and a strange I-don't-know-but- this-is-the-proper-thing-to-do reply. A senior friend of mine told me that this was entirely a political matter. And he was not joking. Astonished, I asked for an elaboration. "Arey bhai", he proceeded to explain, "the Awami Leaguers say Khuda Hafiz; the BNP- wallas say Allah Hafiz. Satisfied?"

Of course I was not satisfied with the answer, even though the politics of the situation did seem to ring a bell. But surely the matter cannot be entirely as trivial as that. I soon promised myself, as well as a few others, that I would go to the bottom of it all. I now proceed to redeem my pledge.

I believe even the most ardent exponent of Allah Hafiz will concede that whether a Muslim says Allah or utter Khuda, he or she means one and the same Supreme Being. This concession is, in fact, not a matter of magnanimity on the part of the Allah Hafizites. It has the force of logic behind it: if by uttering Khuda Hafiz one can lose his Faith, then all the countless millions who must have uttered it in the historical past would have to be considered non-Muslim. A dreadful thought indeed! My ancestors, bless their souls, many of them devout Muslims, were all attuned to Khuda Hafiz. They certainly did not belong to ayyam-e jahilia. There can be little doubt therefore that Muslims mean the same Supreme Being -- I shall be using the term quite often for the sake of neutrality between "Allah" and "Khuda" in the present context -- no matter what name is used for Him. There must therefore be some compelling reason for the rush to abandon Khuda Hafiz in favour of Allah Hafiz. What is it? To start with, is the latter expression more Islamic?

"Allah" is certainly the preeminent name of the Supreme Being to Muslims. But this may come as a surprise to many that the word Allah has pre-Islamic roots. Some defenders of Allah Hafiz are cagey about the pre-Islamic roots of the word even though Allah's greatness certainly does not depend on considerations of etymology of words used to describe or address Him. There is some recognition in the Allah Hafiz camp of the historic connection. Take the following sentences, for example: " The word "Allah" was not unknown to the Arabs before Muhammad (pbuh) (13: 16, 29: 61-63 etc.) They also had knowledge that man was a servant of Allah: this is seen in the name Abd Allah." [Shankhipta Islami Biswakosh, Brief Islamic Encylopaedia, (in Bengali). Islamic Foundation Bangladesh. 1982. Vol. I. p.67. The translation is mine. The numbers in parentheses are those of Qur'ânic suras and verses, respectively.] The Biswakosh also acknowledges that, "According to some linguists the word Allah was derived by adding alif and laam to the word ilah."

This acknowledgement is almost grudging and apologetic. Note the expression "was not unknown", or "according to some linguists". There is also omission of the fact that the pre-Islamic name Abd Allah, quoted above, also happened to be the name of the father of the Prophet of Islam himself. The fact is, it is almost certain that the word "Allah" is of pre-Islamic origin, and was widely used by the Meccans before the advent of Islam. The following is from E.J. Brill's First Encyclopaedia of Islam [ E.J.Brill, New York, 1987, p.302]: "Before Islam. That the Arabs, before the time of Muhammed, accepted and worshipped, after a fashion, a supreme god called Allâh, -- "the Ilâh", or the god, if the form is of genuine Arabic origin; if of Aramaic, from Alâhâ, "the god" -- seems absolutely certain." The Meccan's concept of the Supreme Being was of course, very different from that in Islam. But the word used to denote Him was the same in both and we are here concerned with the word, and there is little disagreement that the two expressions "Allah" and "Khuda" refer to the same Being. 

(To be continued)

Khuda Hafiz versus Allah Hafiz: a critique - II  

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