Samina Mishra is a documentary filmmaker and writer based in New Delhi, India, with a special interest in media for children. Her films include Two Lives, The House on Gulmohar Avenue and Stories of Girlhood. Her published work for children includes Hina in the Old City, The Magic Key series, and The Goat That Got Away.
Some months ago, I was chastised by a woman for saying “adaab,” instead of “assalamaleikum,” the latter being the “the proper Islamic greeting” in her opinion. I grew up as a Muslim and learned to say “adaab” when I met someone and “khuda hafiz” when we parted ways. Originating from a North Indian Islamicate high culture, “adaab” as a form of greeting was imbued with a certain class hierarchy. It was a familiar greeting even in many elite non-Muslim households in North India. Among many other Muslim populations, the Arabic greeting “assalamaleikum,” meaning “may peace be upon you,” was also used. But there was no formal dictum about the usage while I was growing up and there could be overlaps.
So, as a child, I often replied with an “adaab” to someone who came in saying “assalamaleikum” and it was not considered inappropriate. As for “Allah hafiz” (“may God keep you safe”), I did not hear the term until about a decade ago. The word “khuda” originates from Persian, but because it is used in other languages too, it can be seen as a more embracing word for God than Allah in the South Asian context. Thus, although they emerge from a specific North Indian Muslim culture, “adaab” and “khuda hafiz” have had a more inclusive history.
Today, these terms are being given up by many Muslims in India from different class backgrounds in favor of the more unambiguously Islamic “assalamaleikum” and “Allah hafiz.” For those of us who seek to draw attention to the complicated greys that lie between the uncompromising blacks and whites, this notion of unambiguity is naturally problematic. But in this trajectory of change from “adaab” to “asalamaleikum” and from “khuda hafiz” to “Allah hafiz,” there are other stories about why people group around markers of identities, about what gives people a sense of security and comfort, about what creates new groupings.
In the context of “adaab” and “khuda hafiz,” what are these other stories?
In the course of a two-year research project on Muslim women in parts of Uttar Pradesh, a state with one of the largest concentrations of Muslims in India (and with a total population more than half that of the US), I heard voices that wove a narrative of exclusion. A dynamic young woman, founder of an NGO to help poor and dalit Muslims, spoke of how she does not tell people her real name while traveling on trains because she is looked at with suspicion. A college teacher spoke of a workshop in which participants were asked to introduce themselves by talking about their biggest fears and one woman shared that she feared her son marrying a Muslim because they are dirty. A government officer spoke of her colleagues admonishing her for having offered the use of her flat during her neighbor’s wedding, since the groom was a Muslim man from Azamgarh, a town notorious for sending out “Muslim criminals and terrorists.”
Human beings choose a variety of groupings—around class/caste/religion, schools, football teams, movie stars, work ethics, fashion statements, job aspirations. Usually, we are able to move between these different groupings and are not forced to adopt one as a singular representation of us. But these stories point to the fact that sometimes walls are erected that present the groupings as a rigid natural order of things instead of the constructions that they are.
When we are confronted with these walls–in the form of a veil, a riot, or a separate greeting code–we should ask whether they were built to serve those on the outside or those on the inside. And what of those who wanted windows instead of walls? Continuing to say “adaab” and “khuda hafiz” is my way of acknowledging that while there is a wall, it can have an open window.
If you speak Urdu/Hindi, do you prefer to use adaab, khuda hafiz, or Allah hafiz? Does each phrase have distinct differences for you? Do you feel like your identity has ever been “walled” in by society? Please share your thoughts below.