‘The word Hindu is Arabic. Why don’t they throw it out?’ - Prominent historian Irfan Habib


ODI Debutant
Jul 11, 2015
Post of the Week
Aligarh, India – India’s Hindu nationalist government has removed chapters on centuries of Muslim rule in the subcontinent, including those of the Mughals, from some school textbooks.

The government, led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has also removed references to the contribution of Muslims in the country’s freedom struggle against the British colonial rulers.

In the textbooks revised by a government-run educational body, ancient India has been glorified, often without the support of historical facts.

Historians say the revision of school textbooks is a part of the BJP’s Islamophobic project to deny Muslims their place in India’s history.

Al Jazeera spoke to historian Irfan Habib, a globally renowned authority on Mughal history, to understand the BJP’s project of rewriting history and the impact it will have on knowledge dissemination in the South Asian country – home to 200 million Muslims.

Al Jazeera: Why is the BJP removing Mughal and other Muslim rulers from school textbooks?

Irfan Habib: Well, it’s not only [about] removing the Mughal rulers. They are actually trying to communalise Indian history by either removing or denigrating Muslims. But this is only one part of the BJP project, the other part is not only omission but myth-building.

Al Jazeera: Can you talk about the recent changes in school textbooks in India?

Habib: In the ancient Indian history syllabus recommended by the UGC [University Grants Commission, the body that governs the universities in India], the caste system is omitted from history. It claims Muslims introduced the caste system during the medieval period. Every virtue is to be credited to ancient Indian civilisation.

According to the new draft BA [Bachelor of Arts] history syllabus proposed by the UGC, India is supposed to be the original home of the Aryans. It declares that Aryans went from here to civilise the world.

Historians must prove by establishing facts, they can’t manufacture facts. You can’t create an Aryan race. And this is an insult to Sanskrit, because actually in earlier Sanskrit text, Arya is an area in Iran. Iran is plural of Arya. Actually, Iran means [the land of] Aryans.

Now you make Aryans into a race, like Hitler did. Ancient Iranian and Rig Vedic Sanskrit are very close, they are sister languages. Arya means a very respectable and noble person, it doesn’t mean the race. From there onwards, you see it’s not only anti-Muslim, it’s anti-reason.

Al Jazeera: Can you talk about the Indian knowledge system and how it is being now framed by the Hindu far right?

Habib: I recognise that historical sources are such that they can have a Hindu communal interpretation, Muslim communal interpretation, and you can have a Marxist interpretation.

When the Organiser [magazine published by far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological mentor] published an article saying that Maan Singh built the Taj Mahal, historian Ramesh Chandra Majumdar wrote to them, saying “I won’t read your paper now and you are not entitled to publish any of my articles”. Majumdar came from the Hindu communal school of historians, but nevertheless, he was a professional and did not accept any unproven fact, whether for ancient or medieval India.

Al Jazeera: The Hindu right has always considered the Mughals as outsiders. Now they are also attacking and othering Muslim leaders such as freedom fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and 18th-century ruler Tipu Sultan.

Habib: The exclusion of Azad is anti-Muslim. They don’t want to show that any Muslim was involved in India’s freedom movement.

In case of Tipu Sultan, it is a total reversal of the national issue. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru [India’s first prime minister] and others always had very good words for Tipu. The suppression of the Malabar rebellion by Tipu cannot be justified. But that could be said of almost any ruler of that time. But what he did for Mysore and modernisation of its economy, and his battle against the British colonialists cannot be set aside. I should point out that the Indian History Congress in 1999 published three volumes on Tipu. So, Indian historians are not in agreement with the BJP.

Al Jazeera: Names of cities and roads with Muslim names are being erased. How will it impact public memory about Muslims and their historical heritage?

Habib: They want to destroy public memory. Aurangabad’s original name was Khirki and it was again founded by Muslim Malik Ambar, an African. So Malik Ambar is an outsider because he is an African and he is also a Muslim, hence he can’t be named. You can’t call it Ambarnagar which you should if you are interested in history or you should call it Khirki. But Sambhajinagar [Aurangabad’s new name] makes no sense because Sambhaji never went to Aurangabad.

Taj Mahal is a dollar earner. But they silently promote the popular perception that Taj Mahal was originally a Shaivite temple. The English [colonial rulers] in order to protect the Taj from lightning put up a conductor. Now the BJP and its supporters call the conductor a Trishul [trident, a holy Hindu symbol]. It is this kind of popular misperception that they are making.

Al Jazeera: Why does the BJP want to rewrite history? The project has two aspects: the demonisation of the Mughals and the glorification of the Hindu past. Can you elaborate on that?

Habib: Their aim is to demonise Muslims, including the Mughals. You see, they have a number of problems. Let me spell them out for you. The word Hindu is Arabic. Why don’t they first throw it out? Religion itself is a Semitic concept brought to India, now they [BJP] are trying to shape Hinduism according to it.

In fact, there is no use of the word Hindu in Sanskrit literature until the 14-15th century. And even the Vijayanagar emperors called themselves Hindu Rai Suratran, that is Sultan over Hindu Rai. This is very interesting how the words developed. But here you can see that you are applying to Indian religious history concepts that have come from Islam.

They are applying fantasies like India being the mother of democracy. No historian has admitted that India was the mother of democracy. Rig Veda talks about Rajas, which means tribal chief. Yes, you find mention of democracy in ancient Greece and Rome but never find it in India, you never find it in China, you don’t find it in Iran. I say show me a serious historian of ancient India who has said so.

The Sanskrit name for that period is Mahajanpada, which doesn’t mean democratic republic. It means tribes. No serious historian that I have read – communal or otherwise – ever claimed there was democracy in ancient India. Removing caste system from ancient India is totally denying history.

Hindu is Arabic?

So the word Hindutva has basis in Arabic?



Yes. Hindu is a Perso-Arabic word, coined roughly 1,000 years ago.

It often describes residents of the subcontinent in premodern Persian sources; other times (many think more infrequently), it refers to a vaguely defined religious group.
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Hindustan means land between Himalayas and Indus river. That is how the term was coined historically and anyone lived in that land were called Hindus.
Really informative article. Thanks for posting, it is important that history is preserved and cross-referenced with the current drive to expunge earlier historical records to build a new history which is more favourable to Hindu sensibilites.
The land of Sapta Sindhu (In Sanskrit) is same as Hapta Hindu (In old persian). The languages of Sanskrit and old Persian are extremely similar. Persians called the people Hindu for they lived in the land of Sindhu.

Vedic religion, Mithraism and Zoroastrianism have a lot in common. They were neighbors after all.