Arabic in India – an overview

Following is the keynote address delivered by MG editor at the two-day National Seminar on Arabic Literature in India, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi on 6 February 2013

I welcome the initiative to hold this important two-day National Seminar on Arabic Literature in India and feel honoured to be invited to deliver the keynote address at the inaugural function of this important literary occasion.

Arabic, as a language, came to our south-western shores long before the advent of Islam. It was the language of the Arabs who frequented this region for trade on their way to Southeast Asia and China. After the advent of Islam fifteen centuries ago, Arabs continued this relationship with parts of India. As a result of these contacts and inter-marriages two distinct ethnic groups, Mapillas of Malabar and Labbais of Tamil Nadu, came into being.

Some Arabs known as “Nawa’it” (sailors), settled in the Konkan area, especially in Bhatkal. With the passage of time they stopped speaking Arabic and now use a dialect of the Konkani with a mixture of Arabic, Persian and Urdu. Limited contingents of Yemeni mercenary soldiers were imported by rulers like the Nizam of Hyderabad. Their descendents still live in Hyderabad and other parts of the erstwhile Nizam state. They no longer speak Arabic but many retain their Arab surnames and some still maintain contacts with their clans back in the Yemen.

While the Arab traders, mostly Yemenis and Basris, arrived and settled in the south peacefully, Muslim Arabs invaded Sindh in the north and established a short-lived enclave in 711 CE which lasted for a few decades and ended abruptly due to the Arabs own internal problems. Thereafter, Islam came to India in a big way in the tenth century. With Muslims, came their religious language, Arabic, though Persian was the language of the administration although major Indian Muslim ruling dynasties were of Turkic origin.

Arabic was not propped up by Muslim political power while Persian was. Hence, Persian disappeared quickly after the fall of the Muslim rule but Arabic remained and gained more strength over the years.

Islam slowly spread in all parts of India but Arabic remained only as the religious language of the Indian Muslims. While rulers and elites used Persian, common Indians continued to use their regional languages but each and every Muslim had some knowledge of Arabic and used some Arabic words and phrases in his/her daily life, especially while performing Islamic rituals. Every Muslim memorised some short surahs of the Holy Qur’an to be able to offer prayers.

During the early Islamic period, Sanskrit works were translated into Arabic, like Kalila wa Dimna which is a translation of Panchatantra. It is still taught in many Indian madrasahs as a literary text due to its very high class literary language and style.

 With the passage of time, Arabic words spread to all Indian languages in varying degrees. Some Indian languages like Tamil (Arwi), Malyalam (Mapilla), Gujarati (Lisan al-Da’wat), Punjabi, Konkani, Sindhi, Kashmiri (Purik), Pashto and Urdu, adopted the Arabic script with some additions and modifications to suit the local needs. Even Sanskrit was written in Arabic for a short while in the nineteenth century (Tahera Qutbuddin, “Arabic in India….”, Journal of the American Oriental Society. 127.3 (2007), p. 334). Though some of these languages have now discarded the Arabic script, Pakistani Punjabi, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Pashto and Urdu still use the Arabic script. Meters of the Urdu poetry too are Arabic.


Arabic words in Indian languages

Thousands of Arabic words have been borrowed by Indian languages over the centuries. Following are a few examples of Arabic words found in many Indian languages: ‘Adalat (justice, court), ‘Aql (wisdom), Din (religion), Duniya (world), Fasad (corruption), Fursat (opportunity), Ghazal (poetry of love), Ghusl (bath), Haj (Pilgrimage), Haji (Pilgrim)

Haq(right), Haqiqat (reality, fact), Hikmat (wisdom), Iman (belief, faith), Inqilab (revolution), ‘Ishq (love), Jahannam (hell), Jannat (Paradise), Kafan (shroud), Kitab (book), Lazzat (pleasure), Majlis (sitting), Makan (place, house), Maqam (station), Matam (mourning), Maut (death), Nazm (poem), Qabr (grave),Qalam (pen), Qarar (verdict or agreement), Qasam (oath); Qasida (poem) ; Risala (message, magazine); Sadaqa (alms), Salam (greeting), Sharab (wine but originally meaning ‘drink’), Shaytan (satan),‘Umr (age), Wa’da (promise), Wafa (loyalty), Wajib (mandatory), Yaqin (certainty), Zalim (oppressor), Ziyarat (visit), Zulm (injustice) (Tahera Qutbuddin, op. cit, p.327f).

Not just Arabic words, even Arabic phrases and expressions are frequently used by Indians, especially Muslims, likeInsha Allah, Masha Allah, Jazakallah, Subhanallah,Alhamdulillah, Lahaul or Lahaul wala-quwwat [illa billah], Astaghfirullah, Na’udhu billah. etc.



Arabic inscriptions are found on epitaphs, dedications and ornamentations on tens of thousands of historical monuments, madrasahs, mosques, coins etc across the country (See, for instance, works of Qeyamuddin Ahmad, Ziyaud-Din Desai and Asoke Kumar Bhattacharya etc.).


Arabic manuscripts

There are hundreds of public and private libraries and innumerable private collections across India which treasure hundreds of thousands of Arabic manuscripts, many of which were brought from Hijaz, Yemen, Iraq and Egypt etc over centuries. Some of the famous Indian libraries which treasure rare collections of Arabic manuscripts are Raza Library in Rampur, Maulana Azad Library of Aligarh Muslim University, Kutub Khana-e-Nasiriyah in Lucknow, Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute of Tonk, Jamia Saifia Library in Surat, Pir Muhammad Shah Dargah Library of Ahmedabad, Khuda Bakhsh Library in Patna, Library of the Asiatic Society in Kolkata, Salarjung Museum Library, State Central Library and Kutubkhana Sai’idiya in Hyderabad and many others. Each of them has thousands of Arabic manuscripts.



Under the Muslim rule and to meet the needs of the Muslim population and the administration, Maktabs and Madrasahs came up in all areas since the tenth century CE. These were usually attached to big mosques where Arabic texts of religious nature were the main subjects with some additions like philosophy and logic which, too, had Arabic texts. These madrasahs were mostly State-founded. After the 1857 Indian revolt against the British colonial rule, private madrasahs sprang up in all parts of undivided India.

These madrasahs followed an Arabic curriculum which included Qur’an, tafsir, Hadith, Fiqh etc. Changes were made over the years to adopt new books and subjects. Today, most madrasahs follow a modified version of Dars-i-Nizami which was prepared by Mulla Nizamuddin (d. 1748 CE) on the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb. This curriculum is mostly based on books by Arab and Persian authors, but works by some Indian authors like Mulla Jiwan of Amethi (d. 1718 CE), Muhammad Zahid Al-Harawi (d. 1700 CE), Mulla Mahmud Jaunpuri (d. 1651) and Shah Waliullah al-Dihlawi (d. 1762) were also included. In recent times, books by modern Indian authors like Maulana Abul Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi have been added to the madrasa curriculum.

Today, some of the big madrasahs outside the Arab world are found in India, like Darul ‘Uloom at Deoband, Darul ‘Uloom Nadwatul ‘Ulama of Lucknow, Jamiatul Falah of Bilaryaganj, Madrasatul Islah of Saraimir, Jamia Darussalam of Omerabad (Tamil Nadu), Markazi Darul Uloom of Varanasi, Jamia Saifiya of Surat and many more.

Today, according to an estimate, in India we have around 33,000 madrasahs, all of which to some degree teach Arabic language as well as religious texts in Arabic though the medium of instruction is mainly Urdu. There are hundreds of special madrasahs for memorisation and tajwid of the Holy Qur’an.

Arabic language and literature are also offered at dozens of modern universities and hundreds of government and private colleges across India. Jamia Millia Islamia occupies the pride of place as the most energetic and authentic centre for teaching modern Arabic in India.


Outstanding Arabic works authored by Indians

During these past fourteen centuries of the existence of Islam in India, Indians not only studied and memorized Arabic texts but also authored some of the most authentic and respected texts in Arabic and Islamic studies. I may mention here only a few:

Majma’ Bihar al-Anwar fi ghara’ib al-Tanzil wa Lata’if al-Akhbarby Muhammad Tahir al-Fatni (d. 986H), a commentary of the hadiths of the six Sahih compilations;

Tuhfatu’l-Mujahidinby Zain al-din al-Ma’bari (d. after 991H/1583 CE),

Tafsir al-Rahman wa taysir al-Mannanby ‘Ali’ al-Din Al-Maha’imi (d. 1431);

Zafaru’-l Walih bi-Muzaffar wa ‘alihby Abdullah ibn ‘Umar al-Nahrawali (d. 1020H/1611CE),

Musallamuth-thubut in Usul al-Fiqh by Muhibullah ibn ‘Abd al-Shakur al-Hanafi al-Bihari (d. 1119 H);

Taju’l-’Arus fi sharh al-Qamusin ten volumes by Sayyid Murtada ibn Muhammad al-Bilgirami al-Zabidi (d. 1205H), one of the most important Arabic dictionaries;

Subhatul Mirjan fi athar Hindustanby Ghulam ‘Ali Azad Bilgirami (d. /1200H/1785) in praise of India. He has made a great name in Arabic poetry.Al-Sab’ al-Sayyarah, the collection of his Arabic poems, is in seven volumes. He is known as “Hassan al-Hind”).

Sawati’ al-ilham, a uniquetafsir using only undotted Arabic words, by Emperor Akbar’s court poet Fayzi (d. 1595);

Mashariq al-anwar al-Nabawiyah, a most popular compilation of Hadith by Hasan Al-Saghani [Chaghani] of Lahore (d. 1262);

Kanz al-’ummal fi sunan al-aqwal wa’l-Af’al, an encyclopaedic subject-wise collection of Hadith which is still popular, by ‘Ali Al-Muttaqi (d. 1568);

Hujjatullah al-Balighahof Shah Waliullah Al-Dihlawi (d. 1762);

Al-Fatawa al-Hindiyahcompiled by a group of scholars at the behest of Emperor Aurangzeb (d. 1760);

Al-Tafsir al-Mazhariby Qadi Thana’ Allah al-Panipati (d. 1225H),

Izhar al-Haqq and Izalatu’l-awhamby Rahmatullah al-Kiranwi (d. 1309H),

Mu’jam al-mu’allifinin 60 volumes by Mahmud Hasan Khan al-Tonki (d. 1366/1947 CE), a biographical dictionary of authors upto year 1350H;

Nuzhatu’i-Khawatir wa Bahjatu’l-masami’ wa’l-nawazir(most extensive biographical record of Muslim personalities ever attempted) by Sayyid ‘Abd al-Hayy al-Hasani (d. 1341H);

Jami’ al-’Ulumby ‘Abd al-Nabi ibn ‘Abd al-Rasul al-Ahmadnagri (d. 12th century H), popularly known as Dustur al-’Ulama’, a dictionary of Islamic sciences;

Kashshaf Istilahat al-Fununby Muhammad ‘Ali al-Thanawi (d. after 1745 CE), another dictionary of Islamic sciences;

Fath al-Bayan fi maqasid al-Qur’anand 55 other books in Arabic by Siddiq Hasan al-Qannauji, Nawab of Bhopal (d. 1889 CE);

Nizamul Qur’an, Al-Im’an fi Aqsam al-Qur’anand Jamharatu’l-Balaghah etc., by Hamidu’din al-Farahi (d. 1349H),

Madha khasira al-’Alam bi inhitat al-Musliminby Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Hasani Nadwi (d. 1999);

Samt al-la’ali, a commentary on Al-Amali of Abu ‘Ali Qali, by ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Maimani (d. 1978).

I may add here the book Al-Islam Yatahadda by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan which has been one of the most popular books in the Arab world during these past four decades. Though it was written originally in Urdu, it was translated into Arabic by an Indian.

These are only a few examples out of hundreds of original Arabic works by Indian authors which are indispensable for Islamic scholars all over the world.

Of special mention here is that Indian scholars took great care and pain during the last two centuries to serve Hadith, teaching, compiling, explaining and commenting on this vast treasure. The great Egyptian scholar Sayyid Rashid Rida, editor of Al-Manar, had said in his introduction to Miftah Kunuz al-Sunnah, “Had it not been for the interest of our brethren the scholars of India in the sciences of Hadith in this age, these sciences would have disappeared from the Eastern countries as they were already weak in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Hijaz since the tenth Hijri century…”

Indian scholars have made some extraordinary contribution to the discipline of Hadith literature like ‘Awn al-Ma’bud fi sharh Sunan abi Da’ud by Muhammad Shamsul Haqq al-’Azimabadi (d. 1329 H),  Badhl al-Majhud fi sharh Sunan Abi Da’ud by Khalil Ahmad al-Saharanfuni (d. 1346H), Tuhfatu’l-Ahwadhi fi sharh sunan al-Tirmidhi by Abd al-Rahman al-Mubarakfuri (d. 1353H), Fath al-Mulhim fi Sharh Sahih Muslim by Shabbir Ahmad Al-’Uthmani (d. 1396H), Awjaz al-Masalik ila Sharh Muwatta’ al-Imam Malik by Muhammad Zakariya al-Kandhlawi (d. 1402H/1982 CE) etc… This tradition is being carried forward by the scholars of Darul ‘Ulum Deoband (established 1866). Darul ‘Ulum Nadwatul Ulama at Lucknow (established 1894) emphasised on Arabic language and this remains its distinguishing point to this day. A third trend was to emphasise on reading and understanding the Holy Qur’an and this was pioneered by Maulana Hamiduddin Farahi (d. 1930) who wrote his unique tafsir Nizamu’l-Qur’an in a refreshing Arabic language and style and authored simple and useful books on Arabic grammar and other subjects. This tradition is carried forward by Madrasatul Islah and Jamiatul Falah.

Most of the Arabic works authored in India are on religious themes but there are also works on philology, poetry, philosophy, history, travel, biography, belle-lettres, medicine and mathematics, etc.


Arabic in India after Independence

After Independence in 1947, free India was quick to gauge the importance of Arabic language as a bridge to connect with the Arab world spanning from the Gulf to the Atlantic which had great geopolitical and commercial relevance for India. As a result, new Arabic departments were opened in dozens of universities and hundreds of colleges across India. Cultural exchange with the Arab countries has been encouraged, a cultural and literary Arabic journal, Thaqafat’ul-Hind is published since 1957 by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations in addition to a number of Arabic magazines and newsletters published by Indian missions in the Arab world. In addition to this, dozens of Arabic magazines are published by various Muslim organisations and madrasahs in India, some of which, like Al-Ba’th al-Islami, have a high reputation. Arabic books are also regularly published in India. These are mostly of religious texts, but also include works on poetry, literature and history etc.

India is also an important centre of Arabic publishing. Hyderabad’s Da’iratul Ma’arif al-’Uthmaniyah (established by the Nizam State in 1888) edited and printed hundreds of rare Arabic manuscripts. Scholars in the Arab world remain forever grateful for its services. It still survives as part of the Osmania University of Hyderabad. Bhiwandi/Mumbai’s Al-Dar Al-Qayyimah, a private publishing house, also published many Arabic books which became popular in the Arab world. Deoband in north India remains an important centre of Arabic publishing catering to the needs of the vast network of Arabic madrasahs in the Subcontinent.

This is only a bird’s eye-view of this vast subject. I have limited myself to Arabic though Persian and Urdu scholarship in India has been highly influenced by Arabic language and works. I am sure scholars will treat this subject with more details and specific studies during the next two days of this important seminar.