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“All God’s names were slowly deleted from the national memory”

Writing in the Kashmir Monitor, Alia P. Ahmed describes an aspect of Pakistan’s history whose effects still reverberate today:

When “Khuda” became “Allah”

In 1985 a curious thing happened: a prominent Pakistani talk-show host bid her audience farewell with the words Allah Hafiz. It was an awkward substitution. The Urdu word for goodbye was actually Khuda Hafiz (meaning God be with you), using the Persian word for God, Khuda, not the Arabic one, Allah. The new term was pushed on the populace in the midst of military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization campaign of the late 1970s and 1980s, the extremes of which Pakistani society had never before witnessed. Zia overhauled large swathes of the Pakistan Penal Code to resemble Saudi-style justice, leaving human rights activists and religious minorities aghast. Even the national language, revered for its poetry, would not be spared. And yet, though bars and cabarets shut down overnight and women were told to cover up, it would take two decades for the stubborn Khuda to decisively die off, and let Allah reign.

She continues,

Today, Pakistan’s crisis of identity is chronic. A legacy of top-down cultural strangulation has left the national psyche utterly bewildered and deeply scarred. It has also given Pakistanis an inferiority complex – because we are South Asians and not Arabs, we are lesser Muslims. We must compensate. We must try our hardest to become Bakistanis.

Author Mohamed Hanif, in his celebrated debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, says it best: “…All God’s names were slowly deleted from the national memory as if a wind had swept the land and blown them away. Innocuous, intimate names: Persian Khuda which had always been handy for ghazal poets as it rhymed with most of the operative verbs; Rab, which poor people invoked in their hour of distress; Maula, which Sufis shouted in their hashish sessions. Allah had given Himself ninety-nine names. His people had improvised many more. But all these names slowly started to disappear: from official stationary, from Friday sermons, from newspaper editorials, from mothers’ prayers, from greeting cards, from official memos, from the lips of television quiz show hosts, from children’s storybooks, from lovers’ songs, from court orders, from habeas corpus applications, from inter-school debating competitions, from road inauguration speeches, from memorial services, from cricket players’ curses; even from beggars’ begging pleas.”

(Emphasis added – NS.)

8 comments to “All God’s names were slowly deleted from the national memory”

  • Mr Ed

    It’s a form of PC, isn’t it? Only use Arabic names, even if your language has its own names and own mental imagery, suppress them and ignore your culture and history.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Mr Ed,

    Thirty years ago I began to form the idea that the denigration of British culture and patriotism by many “anti-racist” left wingers strengthened the far right. I don’t know enough about Pakistan’s history to make this any more than a guess, but it seems likely to me that General Zia’s “reforms”, suppressing Urdu terms and practices in favour of Arabic, pan-Islamic ones, had an effect similar in principle but far more lethal in practice.

  • Mr Ed


    I think that you have it backwards. The Zia regime was Islamic fundamentalist and he encouraged the growth of the murderous types with his ‘Arabic-ism’, the disappearance of Urdu terms is a consequence of that, not a reaction to it. The reaction is the increasingly murderous acts perpetrated against Christians, Shia and some other Islamic denominations by the fanatics, stoked by Zia and his heirs.

    What Pakistan probably needs is a Sisi as a place to start, rather than be a battleground between socialists and islamists, but like anywhere else, the political landscape is the consequence of the sum of the ideas in people’s heads.

  • A parallel evolution was happening at the same time in Egypt. A coptic friend of mine, attending n upmarket Egyptian girls’ school in lower Egypt (where she was never made to feel unwelcome) can still recall the first time – at the end of the 70s IIRC – when a girl came to school in a chador. It was a ‘bold’, ‘transgressive’ statement against the somewhat-secular pan-arabism officially fashionable at the time, and soon some other girls chose to wear it, then more, until, a few years, later my friend and the two other Coptic girls at the school were the only ones not arriving in somewhat islamic dress. The trend was very far even then from where it is today. The family had a holiday back in Egypt in 2010 (IIRC), during which they walked from the hotel to the beach, her teenage daughter walking ahead while she and her husband followed some yard behind carrying stuff. The daughter was wearing a T-shirt top (adequately all-covering except her arms) and respectable lower-half. On the way the daughter was stopped and lectured by a woman about her immodest dress. My friend was startled; she told me that would not have happened in lower Egypt in 1990 (the year she left).

  • Paul Marks

    The Pakistan of the 1960s was a military dictatorship – but a basically secular one, and with far higher living standards than Fabian socialist India.

    Then came the Buhutto government of the early 1970s – nationalising everything in sight and trying to outdo India in socialism.

    President Zia was seen as liberator from the socialist madness of Buhutto – but he brought his own madness, Islamification.

    Sadly I think it was inevitable – after all was not Pakistan not set up as a Muslim state. The very name means “land of the pure” – meaning that non Muslims are not pure.

    With hindsight the 1950s and 1960s (the good times of Pakistan) were doomed from the start – eventually the Western inheritance of the British Raj would fade.

  • Niall, see here. Blame Saudi money for most of that.

  • Tim Newman (June 7, 2017 at 5:45 am), thanks for the link – that’s an interesting set of photos.

    Those pictures cast an ironic light on the BBC’s eager showing of “The Handmaid’s Tale” at this time. Being forced to wear ‘modest’ dress is one of the heroine’s many tribulations – but in the ridiculous storyline it is of course fundamentalist christians, not fundamentalist muslims, making her do this. The beeb screened it to damn Trump, and any in the UK who feel concern at importing and empowering precisely the people who caused the change these pictures show – and will cause it here when they are strong enough.