Is it common for Muslim in India to speak Malay, Thai, Indonesian?
February 5, 2008 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Is it common for Muslim in India to speak Malay, Thai, Indonesian as opposed to or in addition to Arabic?

I am hoping to get an understanding of different Muslim population in various Asian regions (mideast, India, and south east Asia). I am guessing there have to be some differences, like the language, but they all seem to use same Arabic alphabet. So how common is it for a person in India (I understand most Muslim population in India are likely to be Pakistani who tend to speak Urdu) to be able to speak Thai, Malay and/or Indonesian. Is there a high number of population in India that speaks more than one of the following languages: Thai, Malay, and/or Indonesian?
posted by notsogirliegal to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't know about India or Pakistan, but in Sri Lanka there are some Muslims whose native language is Tamil.
posted by lungtaworld at 9:42 AM on February 5, 2008

I think the question is less Do they speak Arabic? and more Do they speak Thai, Malay, and/or Indonesian?, which I suppose would have something to do with intra-Islamic migration.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:01 AM on February 5, 2008

i don't think many muslims in india speak arabic as their first language. they probably speak the regional tongue first, and then the educated ones who have attended a madrasa might also know arabic.

it's analogous to jews and hebrew...only israelis speak it every day. for everyone else, it's just a ritual language.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:23 AM on February 5, 2008

I think the question is less Do they speak Arabic? and more Do they speak Thai, Malay, and/or Indonesian?, which I suppose would have something to do with intra-Islamic migration.

I think it has more to do with the poster not knowing much about the subject. Thailand, for instance, is not an Islamic country; only around 4 percent of the population is Muslim, and I doubt many of them have wound up in India. I don't think the poster realizes that India has well over 100 million Muslims (fourth most in the world) and they don't use the Arabic alphabet at all (except for religious purposes)—those who are literate use the same writing systems as the others in their region (Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, etc). Muslims are not some undigested lump of aliens in India, they are an inextricable part of the population, speaking the same languages and sharing the same culture as their neighbors.
posted by languagehat at 10:39 AM on February 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have a Muslim friend whose parents are from India. He was born in the US, and of course is fluent in English. Here's what he told me one time about his other language:
In a nutshell, my sect, the Dawoodi Bohras, actually traces its origin from Fatimid Egypt, to Yemen, and then across the Arabian Sea to Gujarat, India. So my community is about 95% people of Gujarati origin. Since Gujarat was literally at the crossroads of the silk trade, Indians from Gujrat settled worldwide, from Kenya to Hong Kong (and of course in modern times, emigrated to the West). So my community today is interesting in that we are all (mostly) ethnically Indian. The language of Gujrat, Gujarati, is basically our mother tongue, but over the centuries it’s vocabulary has increasingly been Arabicized (though the grammar and majority of every day words remain the same). The language is also written in the Arabic/Persian script (the latter includes certain consonants like “p” which do not exist in Arabic, but are needed in Gujarati). This hybrid is called “Lisan al-Dawat” (Language of the Mission), or “Dawat ni Zaban” which means the same thing, except that “Zaban” is the original Gujarati word for “language” and “lisan” is the arabic word.

All Bohras like me speak Lisan al Dawat, though with varying accents/levels of arabization. Almost all speak English as well, though Bohras living in France also speak French, those living in HK also speak Chinese, those living in Kenya also speak Swahili, etc. So I am merely bilingual whereas many in my community are trilingual (or more).

As far as actual Arabic goes, only those Bohras involved in the clergy (especially those attending the two major seminaries in Surat, India and in Karachi, Pakistan, collectively known as Al Jamea tus Saifiyah) speak it as fluently as our native tongue(s). However every Bohra can read Arabic, because of the Qur’an. I can read Arabic reasonably well, though I do not understand it (apart from certain vocab words in my everyday use). The level of Arabic penetration is increasing in our community, but that's a multigenerational effort that began in earnest about a hundred years ago. I expect that my grandkids will probably speak Arabic from childhood and my daughter will probably learn it as a young adult if not earlier, whereas it will be hard for me to pick it up unless I do a formal language course.
I gather that it's the norm for Indian Muslims to not really be able to speak Arabic.

(I understand what he means when he says he can read Arabic but doesn't understand it. I can read Latin out loud, and someone who understand Latin will understand what I say, but I myself won't understand it. I know how the pronunciation works, but I don't understand the vocabulary or grammar.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:49 AM on February 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

You may be interested in this:

posted by iam2bz2p at 11:51 AM on February 5, 2008
posted by iam2bz2p at 11:51 AM on February 5, 2008

I don't know about India, but you did say that you are interested in Muslims in Asia. In Malaysia, it is very common for Muslims to speak Malay and English in addition to Arabic, with maybe a few Chinese words thrown in too.
posted by arcticwoman at 2:13 PM on February 5, 2008

There is a fairly large population of Muslims in Kerala who speak Malayalam (the regional language of the southern Indian state of Kerala) who are known as Moplah Muslims. So I guess in general Muslims of India speak the regional language and sometimes Urdu as well. Few speak Arabic and none that I know of speak Malay, Thai or Indonesian. Also I know this has been mentioned before but please don't refer to Muslims in India as Pakistani. It is a very touchy issue with Hindu nationalists trying to smear Muslims who have lived in India for generations as pro-Pakistani. India has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world.
posted by peacheater at 5:23 PM on February 5, 2008

Your question doesn't make any sense at all. First off, "different Muslim population" do not use "same Arabic alphabet", except sometimes in the Koran, etc, but across all of Asia- no way. "Most Muslim population in India" are certainly not foreigners and certainly not from the next country over. I have never met an Indian, north, south, or anywhere, who spoke Thai, Malay, etc etc. I have met a few people in India who speak some Arabic as a result of having worked in the UAE or somewhere, but absolutely not as a mother tongue. I wonder what gives you the idea that "a high number of population in India" would speak any of these languages, let alone Thai. As languagehat says, this is a case of a very confused poster, and as such no answer is really possible given the confused question.
posted by baklavabaklava at 6:24 PM on February 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Let me perhaps make it clear(er): Indian Muslims speak Urdu, and/or regional languages including English, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, etc. Indian Muslims are not Pakistani. People who live in Pakistan are Pakistani.

Indian Muslims don't speak Thai. People in Thailand speak Thai. If you are interested in finding Muslims who speak Thai, they are located in southern Thailand, not India.

Indian Muslims don't speak Malay (Bahasa Malaysia). Some Malaysian Muslims may be ethnically South Asian (i.e. "Indian"), but most are Tamil and thus more likely Hindu.

Indian Muslims don't speak "Indonesian" (Bahasa Indonesia). Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world and there are hundreds of languages. The overarching 'linker' language is Bahasa, which is not spoken by the majority of the population.

Your interest in the difference between the various Muslim cultures of Asia is sure to take you in interesting intellectual directions and I commend this avenue of inquiry. Certainly Islam as lived in Asia is different 'on the ground' than it is in the Middle East. And there are Muslim populations throughout Southeast, Central and south Asia (including Burma, Philippines, China, etc.), so it's worthwhile to understand the definitions of where and what you're talking about.

My first recommendation is that you get yourself a map of the region so that you can be clear about where country borders begin and end, and where various language groups reside. Then start again with the questions and I'm sure people will come forward with superb and detailed answers.
posted by Mrs Hilksom at 7:31 PM on February 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Nthing languagehat, Mrs Hilksom, and baklavabaklava. This is an utterly confused and weird question.

Urdu's written in Arabic, but it's Urdu, not Arabic that they're speaking. Until quite recently, Malay was written in Jawi (Arabic script slightly modified), but again it's Malay and not Arabic. I grew up Muslim so I learnt how to read the Quran, but I don't understand a word of it unless someone gives me a translation. There are Islamic madrasahs and special schools here that teach Arabic (the spoken language) as part of the curriculum, but it's not particularly common. My family's Bangladeshi, so they know Bengali - but again, not Arabic.

Unless the particular Indian in question has some connection to Malaysia, Thailand, or Indonesia, there's absolutely no reason for them to know and speak those languages. India has hundreds of languages on its own; the Muslims there are likely to know the language of that region.

Islam is a religion much like Christianity is. It's not a race.
posted by divabat at 7:45 PM on February 5, 2008

Another factor here that may be a source of confusion. It may well be true that a lot of them use something that looks a lot like Arabic (or Persian) for their written form. But that doesn't mean that they know Arabic, or that their languages are derived from Arabic or related to it.

It's like how we use something a lot like the Roman alphabet, but don't speak Latin. And that same essential alphabet, with some local variation, is used by the French, the Spaniards, the Germans, the Danes, the Dutch, and a lot of other groups. All those languages are different, and most are mutually incomprehensible. If I look at written French, I recognize the characters (most of them, anyway, not counting all the vowels with weird symbols above them or the "c" with the hook underneath it) but that doesn't mean I know French.

My friend Aziz says that his people, the Bohras, use the Persian variant of Arabic writing. But what that means is that somewhere back there they borrowed the script in order to write their own language, which is not Arabic and not related to Arabic. Gujarati is part of the Indo-European group, whereas Arabic is a Semitic language which is more closely related to Amharic and Hebrew.

(As he says, they use some Arabic vocabulary. But we English speakers use a lot of Romance vocabulary. Despite that, English is a Germanic language, and Aziz's "Lisan al Dawat" is still fundamentally Gujarati, and thus Indo-European.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:41 PM on February 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

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