Urdu literature (Urdu: ادبیات اردو, “Adbiyāt-i Urdū”) is literature in the Urdu language. While it tends to be dominated by poetry, especially the verse forms of the ghazal غزل and nazm نظم, it has expanded into other styles of writing, including that of the short story, or afsana افسانہ .
Urdu is a language whose exceptionally complex linguistic and cultural history reflects the special position of Islam in the Indian subcontinent of South Asia. While linguistically related to Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, and the other languages of the Indo-Aryan family (whose classical representative is Sanskrit), Urdu is distinguished by the very high proportion of Perso-Arabic elements in its vocabulary. This Islamic cultural orientation is also reflected in its written form, which uses the Perso-Arabic script with appropriate modifications to mark distinctive Indic features such as retroflex and aspirated consonants.
While its origins elude precise definition, Urdu clearly began in medieval times from a mixture of the local Indian dialects of the Delhi region with the Persian spoken by the Muslim conquerors whose armies rapidly spread the new lingua franca across the subcontinent. Since Persian continued to be the preferred administrative and cultural language of the Delhi sultanate and the Mughal empire, it was only with the collapse of unitary Muslim political authority in the eighteenth century that Urdu came to be cultivated in northern India as a literary language for a courtly poetry that constitutes the classical heritage of Urdu literature.
From the early nineteenth century, when British colonial rule was extended across northern India, Urdu came increasingly to be used also as a written prose language. British policy itself favored the development of Urdu as an official bureaucratic medium, and Muslim writers took ample advantage of the opportunities provided by the colonial state for the production of textbooks, newspapers, and very varied prose writings. It is from this early modern period, when British India was the scene of the most intense debates about the definition of Islam in the modern world, that Urdu became a language of Islamic expression second only in international importance to Arabic.
Throughout the twentieth century Urdu successfully retained this role as an Islamic language while also developing as the medium of a modern secular literature much influenced by English. As an administrative and educational language, however, Urdu has progressively lost ground to modern standard Hindi, the rival Sanskritized language promoted as a replacement for Urdu by Hindu nationalists. Since independence from British rule in 1947, Urdu has thus increasingly become marginalized in its Indian homeland and identified with Pakistan. Although spoken there as a mother tongue only by Muslim immigrants from India and their descendants, Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, where languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, or Pashto have limited regional status only. As such, Urdu has been carried by the Pakistani diaspora to many other parts of the world, including the Middle East, Europe, and North America.