Islam’s Lesser Muslims: When “Khuda” became “Allah”

by Alia P. Ahmed

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.

In more recent times, the language wars break out every year during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Before the early 2000s, Pakistanis used a Persianized pronunciation of the word, Ramzan. Slowly, however, the Arabic Ramadan came to take hold – in television commercials and on billboards advertising restaurant deals for the best eateries to break the fast, in magazines and newspapers, in sermons, on talk shows and of course, from the lips of neighbors. Now, Pakistanis were supposed to wish each other Ramadan Kareem instead of Ramzan Mubarak. They no longer performed wuzu, the ablutions required before offering prayer, but wudu. Then, two years ago, the federal minister for religious affairs announced his intentions to make Arabic a compulsory language in school curriculums.

Pakistan has long been torn between its Indo-Persian roots and the cultural imperialism of a much darker strain of Sunni Islam imported from the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. Though it was Zia who, with US and Saudi support, set up madrassahs, or Islamic schools, to fund and train puritanical warriors in preparation for a “jihad” against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, the cultural ramifications of his policies polarize the society to this day.

Badar Alam, veteran journalist and editor-in-chief of Pakistan’s foremost investigative news magazine, The Herald, notes, “As Muslim societies in the post-cold war era are increasingly viewing themselves in terms of very literal interpretations of Muslim history and theology, anything that offers a culturally different point of view is shunned and discarded. Language purification is part of a larger purification. Even in Bangladesh, where pride in the Bangla language is part of the national identity, Allah Hafiz is now a common way of saying goodbye. And Persian, after all, is the language of Shia Iran. In a contest between Shia and Sunni Islam, the Sunnis must prefer Arabic over Persian.”

And of course, Pakistan depends heavily on remittances from Saudi Arabia. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, remittances from the kingdom amounted to $5.9 billion, according to a State Bank of Pakistan report quoted in local newspapers, greater than inflows from any other nation. The UAE followed closely behind at $4.3 billion. What is religion without the money to enforce it?

The intelligentsia, largely, loathe Allah Hafiz. They cling to the vanquished Khuda Hafiz even though it is no longer heard in the streets. They write obituaries for it in the opinion pages. When two such speakers exchange a Khuda Hafiz, an instant understanding is forged: aha, you are also one of the last remaining few. In fact, a proponent of Allah Hafiz once complained in Dawn, the country’s oldest newspaper, “If you dare say “Ramadan Kareem” in front of them, that’s a dead give away to them that you’ve frequented Saudi Arabia a bit too much or you are on [your] way to becoming a “fundo”. They are offended by the “Al” and “Bin” prefixes that we see on the names of roadside [restaurants]…” Take, for example, a roadside juice vendor in Karachi, who runs a stall named “Al-Makkah Juice Center.”

Two years ago, the Arabic obsession took a turn for the ridiculous. On the streets of Lahore, people were noticing vehicles with number plates that read “Al-Bakistan.” And therein lies the absurdity of this linguistic imperialism – the letter P does not even exist in Arabic. (Pepsi Cola, for instance, is spelled “Bebsi” when advertised in the local script in Arab countries.) Later, even the province of Punjab, where Lahore is located, was sacrificed when “Al-Bunjab” number plates reportedly began cropping up. Punjab means “land of the five rivers.” What Bunjab means is anyone’s guess. (Indeed, even Allah Hafiz isn’t properly Arabized – really, it should be Allah Hafidh.) Distinguished Pakistani linguist and academic Tariq Rahman, referencing Pakistan’s founder, commented on the phenomenon, “Plain Mr Jinnah, as he called himself, would be turning in his grave…In fact, I wonder why /p/ and /ch/ are not being abandoned altogether. We may lose our moon (chaand), but we will be better Arabs. Anyone for it?” It is also worth noting that the Pakistani national anthem is written in Farsi. If Pakistan is to truly become a colony of the Arabs, this will have to change.

Yet, in Pakistan’s sad history, none of this is unique. The Arabization of Pakistan is only the latest form of social engineering that it must suffer. In 1947, when Pakistan was born, its leaders inherited an essentially alien land, comprised of a diverse population of ethnic Punjabis, Sindhis, Balochis, Pashtos and Bengalis, each with their own language, customs, culture, and, after Partition, nationalist leanings. Moreover, millions of Mohajirs, or Urdu-speaking migrants from India, spilled into the newly created urban centers, especially in the southern province of Sindh and its capital city, Karachi. Disparate peoples had come together to form a new nation. But while the call for a separate Muslim homeland had been a compelling one before Partition, once realized it proved impossible to govern. Moreover, West and East Pakistan were divided by 1,000 miles of Indian territory. Unity had to be forced on the young country, and its various cultures had to be erased to form a governable monoculture.

Thus, in 1947, Urdu was imposed as the sole national language of Pakistan, disenfranchising its ethnically and linguistically varied population. As Pakistan’s founder, Mohamed Ali Jinnah, famously declared, “one nation, one language, one culture.” All state documents such as currency notes, tickets, money order forms and official documents were printed either in English or Urdu. Not surprisingly, the policy provoked extreme discontent, especially amongst Bengalis, who constituted 56% of Pakistan’s population. In the 1950s, language riots, spearheaded by the Bengalis, broke out across Pakistan, demanding that Bengali be recognized as a national language alongside Urdu. The seeds of ethnic discontent had been sown, and culminated in the civil war that led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. As such, not only the fracturing of Pakistani identity (a tenuous concept at best) but the literal fracturing of the country can be linked to language.

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.”

Photo: Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (C) meeting with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and William Clark in 1982 (Source: Reagan Library via Wikipedia)


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Alia Ahmed

Alia Ahmed is a journalist and editor at the Herald magazine, the investigative monthly of Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English-language newspaper, founded by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. She recently completed an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Previously, she worked for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York.



  1. Why do we make things complicated. It is not about lesser muslims or national language. We should understand that words used in Quran will / should always get preference over words used in national language or any other beloved language. In Quran Almighty refers to himself as ALLAH and not KHUDA period.

  2. A delightful piece of writing. Thoroughly enjoyed it but there are one or two anomalies that should be pointed out. Hafiz is not pronounced Hafidh in Arabic either to my knowledge. Secondly for some reason I do not understand older Pakistani banknotes and stamps did carry some Bengali inscriptions

  3. Interesting. But seems to be more of Pakistan bashing than reality.
    Arabic/Western influence is natural because of all the expats who work in the Arab and Western world . They bring in huge sums of money. They expect to see some of the foods and culture here.
    For example, Shawarma is very common here. It was not known here twenty years ago. Arab origin.
    McDonald’s, Wendy’s etc are American influence.
    American expats also bring huge sums of money.

    Persia/ Iran has not contributed much here lately.
    Culturally or monetarily.

    I also noted Derogatory/stereotypical remarks about Sufis in her article.

    I can write more specially about origin of word Khuda. But I must go to bed.

  4. As Salam o alaikum! We must remember that the change in language eventually brings about a change in thought processes.Should we create a legacy of confusion then..? Our younger generations as it is have immense challenges to be able to compete in this ever progressing times..language should not be the prerogative of any political agendas,which unfortunately it has come to be. Let’s all avoid and discourage the ‘al bakistan’ phenomena slowly creeping up. The article is a beautifully written piece,indeed!
    A proud Pakistani,
    Khuda Hafiz

  5. Allah and important Arabic words were always present in Urdu and Persian but never replaced the beautiful words we always love to use in Urdu including Khuda. Change is inevitable but it must be natural and relate to our long reality of Indo-Persian Culture. When change is artificial and unnatural, it makes people very uncomfortable.

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