Monday, July 06, 2009


The Problem of Caste among Indian MuslimsBook Review:
Hindustan Mein Zaat-Paat Aur Musalman (Urdu)
Author: Masood Alam Falahi
Pages: 640
Year of Publication: 2007
Publisher: Al-Qazi, F-A/86, Abul Fazl Enclave, New Delhi 110025
Reviewed By: Mr. Ayub Khan
[Mr. Ayub Khan A freelance journalist based in Toronto, Canada. He is a keen observer of political and social trends in India and abroad. His articles have appeared in The Muslim Observer, IslamOnline, Meantime, The News and other newspapers & journals.
The problem of caste among Indian Muslims is gaining increased scrutiny after a series of political and judicial events–the most recent being the Supreme Court’s notice to the Union government on the status of ‘low-caste’ Muslims of Maharashtra. The traditional response of the Muslim community has been to shove the issue under the rug and charge those who dare to challenge the status-quo as indulging in anti-Islamic activity.
In the past decade, however, attempts have been made to shine the light on this uncomfortable aspect of India ’s Muslim society. Masood Alam Falahi’s ‘Hindustan Mein Zaat-Paat Aur Musalman’ is arguably the most successful of those attempts in providing a comprehensive survey of the problem.
The author has a unique academic background having completed his Alimiat degree from Jamiatul Falah in Azamgarh and his undergraduate degrees in arts and education from Aligarh Muslim University . He is at present pursuing his M.Phil from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi . It is perhaps because of this background that Falahi adopts a multi-disciplinary approach for this book; he approaches it from disciplines as varied as history, Islamic jurisprudence, sociology, anthropology, and politics.
Tracing the origins of casteism to the Aryan invasions in India, Falahi begins with a discussion of its conception in Hindu religion and how it managed to keep a whole swathe of masses under its yoke. So forceful and assimilative was the Brahminical social order that it even scuttled efforts towards reform by egalitarian movements like Buddhism and Jainism. Under such an unjust order Muslim traders brought the liberating force of Islam to shores of India which led to incremental rise in the ‘low-castes’ adopting Islam. The author contends that the Arab invaders who first came were completely free from casteism and believed in complete equality of mankind as clearly elaborated by Islamic teachings. It was only after the non-Arab rulers took over in 995 CE that proponents of the Brahminical social order were able to smuggle their concept of Varn Ashram into the Muslim society. The inroads were made through a sophisticated manipulation of the concept of Kafa’a (suitability and compatibility in marriage) to the extent that it became synonymous with the Varna Ashram.
Some of the early proponents of this new conception were scholars and mystics attached to the court. The once unitary Islamic society now came to be divided into the Ashraaf (Syed, Shaikh, Mughal, and Pathan) and Ajlaaf (Kunjda, Qasai, Nai, Julaha, etc). Those non-Muslims who came from the ‘upper castes’ were classified in the Ashraaf category and those from ‘low castes’ to the Ajlaaf. Among the Ashraaf, Syeds gained the sacrosanct status similar to the ones of the Brahmans. High positions in the government were reserved for them and their writ ran large especially under the reigns of Iltumish and Balban. It was not until 1325 CE when Sultan Muhammad Tughlaq took over that the Syed supremacy was challenged. He brought in reforms by dismissing the old guard and bringing in a group of scholars and administrators associated with the Sufi Shaikh Nizamuddin Awliya. His fairness, justice, and large-heartedness towards all led a large number of natives to convert to Islam.
Muhammad Tughlaq proved to be a thorn in the eye of the Ashraaf and a group among them conspired to eventually oust and kill him thus bringing an end to his reforms. One of his most vocal critics was Maulana Syed Ziauddin Barani who claimed that it was against God’s commandments to appoint the Arzaals to governmental positions and called on the Sultan to consider his religious duty to deny the ajlaf access to knowledge. Branding them as ‘mean’ and ‘despicable’ he urged that anyone found to be teaching them should be punished and even exiled. He also prohibited marriage between the two groups.
The rulers who followed Muhammad Tughlaq revived the concept of Kafa’at in its various formations. It was Shari’ah minded Sufis like Shaikh Abdul Has Muhaddis Dehlawi who fought casteism tooth and nail which again led to the rise in conversions to Islam. It is the contention of Falahi that it was to counter this threat posed to the Brahminical social order that movements like Bhakti, Vaishno, and Sikkhism were introduced. Despite the best efforts of anti-caste Ulema and Sufis the Muslim society was stratified on the basis of caste especially with regards to marriage.
Falahi provides exhaustive quotes from those ulema, Sufis, and movements which supported casteism, the ones which did not, and others who adopted a dualistic approach. Thus, for instance Shah Waliullah Farooqui Dehlavi supported the by then well entrenched concept of ‘Kufu’ eventhough he had no hesitation in inviting a Hindu ox-cart driver to share a meal with him. The driver was impressed by this brotherly treatment and adopted Islam.
Mufti Muhammad Shafi, of Deobandi school who later on became the Grand Mufti of Pakistan, wrote a book titled Nihayat al Arab fi Ghayat al Nasb in which he made several statements which pointed towards the supposed glory and magnificence of Ashraaf and ruled that customary concept of Kufu doesn’t violate any of the Islamic principles. Maulana Ashraf Ali Farooqui Thanwi, Maulana Syed Mehmood Madani, and Maulana Qari Muhammad Tayyab Siddiqui Qasmi approved of Mufti Shafi’s stance and dismissed the critics as those influenced by the West’s God-less ideologies. There was a disturbance in Deoband when this book came out and Mufti Shafi had to take refuge at Darul Uloom from the hostile crowd.
Maulana Ahmad Raza Khan Barelwi was so respectful towards the Syeds that he wrote that even if a charge of theft and fornication is proven against a Syed, the Qazi shouldn’t have the Niyyah of applying the ‘Hadd.’ He claimed that even though Mughal and Pathan are Ashraaf they are not the Kufu of Syeds. He went on to write, “The original good (communities) have good qualities (and manners) and it is the opposite among the razeel. It was due to this that rulers of the past did not allow the Razeel to get too much education. Now see how the barbers and manhars have spread the various forms of fitna by acquiring education…”
Not only the ulema but also the proponents of modern education were not immune from the claws of casteism. Falahi proves with unimpeachable evidence that Sir Syed had only the Ashraaf interests in mind when he started his educational movement. In an address at the foundation laying ceremony of ‘Madrasa Anjuman-e-Islamia’ in Bareli where children from the so-called ‘low-caste’ communities used to study, he said that he finds no use in teaching English to them. “It is better and in the interests of the community that they are engaged in the old form of study… It appears appropriate if you teach them some writing and math. They should also be taught small tracts on everyday affairs and through which they know basic beliefs and practices of the Islamic faith,” he told them.
Masood Alam Falahi’s meticulous pen doesn’t spare anyone and he has discussed the views of almost all religious and ideological schools of thought present in the sub-continent including the Deobandis, Barelwis, Jamaat-e-Islami, Ahle Hadith, and views of high officials of umbrella organizations like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. He also provides a list of series of instances of caste based discrimination in 21st century India which include not allowing the ‘Ajlaf’ from attending mosques, denying burials in the graveyard, not respecting the honor of their women, etc. There is also a an elaborate discussion on the reservations for the backward Muslim communities.
For all his attention to detail, however, Falahi doesn’t define ‘caste.’ It would have been helpful if the difference between class and caste would have been clearly elaborated. In his discussion he casts a net which is too wide which fails to take into consideration that there are regional differences among the Muslims of India. In South India, for instance, caste is not the main criteria in marriage as is evident from a survey of matrimonial columns.
Some of Falahi’s criticism and leveling of charges need further investigation. His treatment of quite a few historical sources indicates a casual approach. For example, he claims that Nasiruddin Chiragh-e-Dilli was involved in the killing of Muhammad Tughlaq without any evidence. Similarly, he categorizes some ulema in the casteist class without offering substantial evidence. He places Mufti Taqi Usmani in this category based on a solitary reference where he joking refered to a ‘julaha.’
His recommendations to wipe out casteism while generally helpful also advocate a radical approach. For example, his absolute insistence on marriage between different communities, abandoning of last names, are impractical and some like the first one might even aggravate the situation.
Despite the drawbacks and irrevent tone Hindustan Mein Zaat-paat aur Musalman should be read by anyone who is interested in removing the un-Islamic concept of casteism among Indian Muslims. The criticism of the revered religious and social leaders should be taken in the right spirit. It is only through a critical self analysis that the community can rise itself out of its current morass.

Masood Alam Falahi ,
Published By
Al-QaziF-A/86, Abdul Fazl Enclave, New Delhi - 110 025,
Mob.09899940791(Sayed Qazi Nafees).
Price: 250.00
Frank admission of caste among Muslims in North India


It is hazardous to review a book which has the ingredients and potentials of opening a pandora’s box. The book by Masood Alam Falahi falls under this category. To consider caste or social stratification in Muslim society is almost a taboo let alone study and follow its ramifications and impacts on society. The credit goes to Falahi to break this taboo and present this malady in all its crude nakedness. Although studies into the reasons for the persistence of Hindu caste structure, particularly among the middle and low caste converts to Islam were, studied in depth with uncertain results for the reason that the Muslim respondents refused to either admit such stratification or took defensive shelter behind Quranic injunctions. The concept of caste among the Indian Muslims with its attending disabilities and social stratification outside the Hindu fold is enigmatic and requires deeper studies. The book is very comprehensive and deals with the subject thoroughly which includes existence of this malady in the semitic religions in its rudiments.
With the advent of Delhi Sultanate, the Muslim society as a state policy adopted the varna cult and thus evolved its own hierarchical caste system in terms of Ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal which later consolidated into Syed, Sheikh, Mogul and Pathans.
Although in the beginning it was a pure artificial stratification conjured up in the courts of Sultanate for purposes of legitimisation which with the passage of time took roots and established itself as a reality. While the former two castes carry with it a pretentious claim the latter two connotes only their ethnic origin. Their respective ashrafiat ends there. The others were rubble and scum. What was most intriguing was the attitude of the historians of the time like Baruni to the present-day revered personalities like Sir Syed, ulemas of the stature of Moulana Ashraf Ali Thanavi and many others who not only condoned such practices but also practiced it.
It was the immigrants from Islamic lands who had monopolised and constituted the superstructure of power with the pretentious claims of Ashraf and the sultanate retained and patronised this social hierarchy for reasons of state craft. The natural fall-out was the formation of a rubble class outside this group. This artificial grouping was a contingency of state craft.
Since then Muslims live in two worlds. One an egalitarian where all are equal, the other the substratum which transcends the egalitarian sphere —an ideal Islam and a compromised Islam.
But the redeeming feature was the South wherein by and large these practices failed to get the required patronisation from the courts of Sultans. As a matter of fact it fell to the lot of the great saint-king Tipu Sultan to break up this conjured up caste hierarchy. His Ahmadi Risala consisting of converts were given the honorific prefix and affix of Syed and Khan to their names and were settled in his garrison towns all over his domain. In his administration the locals were given precedence over the migrants and for which he had to pay for by his life itself.
The one disappointing feature of the book happen to be its concluding chapter which failed to look beyond the Muslim conglomerate. It failed to provide any blueprint of action to break the barriers of religious borders and join hands with identically placed parallel section of the downtrodden and havenots in other societies on a revolutionary platform. The book deserves to be translated in other Indian languages preferably in English.
With the coming into print of the Basic Problem of OBC & Dalit Muslims, a well-guarded secret is out. That their exists large section within the fold of ummah who leads a subhuman status and who in the eyes of their ulemas do not deserve to be counted as Muslims at all. This in spite of projecting Islam as an egalitarian religion with its lofty quranic injunctions. The book has been scholarly edited by A.H. Ansari [Dr. Fazlur Rahman Farooqi Faridi, editor of Zindagi-E-Nau,New Delhi] and the articles have been contributed to this volume by persons of eminence in their respective field ranging from academics to social scientists and political activists. Each of the article contributed is a treat in itself.
The principal role of class and caste in a religious conglomerate is the principal variable in a social structure of the community.
The Indian Muslim society is divided both vertically and horizontally and these divisions determine the society’s interaction between various groups.
It is to be noted that the caste structure obtaining among Muslims, especially in the cow belt, is by and large analogus to the hierarchical principle or a replica of Hindu caste system with all the attending disabilities. This in spite of the egalitarian and lofty Islamic principles of equality. The social structure formalised with an Ashraf caste on the top during the Sultanate period continued unabashedly post-mutiny as well. Its greatest protagonists range from Sir Syed Ahmed to plethora of ulemas including figures like Moulana Ashraf Ali Thanavi.
With India attaining “independence” and in its wake migration of a predominant section of Ashraf to Pakistan leaving behind the less fortunate to tend their own future there appeared a mobility not seen at any earlier time.
The political and social convulsions in Pakistan can be attributed to these Ashraf migrants coupled with the ulema combine are sufficient enough to bring its end sooner than later.
There is a subtle shift in this intercaste and intra-caste mobility as it is providing an impetus for interaction with the parallel categories of caste and class in other religious groups. This happen to be a welcome sign in a pluralistic society. Now the term OBC and Dalit which was earlier being used exclusively in respect of “Hindu caste” is now transformed into a class distinction for the Muslim sections of parallel caste or class. This progressive attitude transcending religious barrier is a welcome sign.
The most welcome feature of the book being its progressive outlook and a blueprint of action in a pluralistic society. The bold and rebellious exposures of the dark niche, the recesses and the cobwebs crowding the minds of the leadership of the community coupled with exposing the hypocrisy of assertion of equality but practicing an attitude of almost untouchability is the welcome feature.
Perhaps it may go a long way in jolting out the political and religious leadership from their smug attitude. Both books are a welcome addition on a subject very rarely traversed.
(In India, caste & Muslims)
Masood Alam Falahi
Al-QaziAbdul Fazl Enclave, New Delhi - 110 025
Ashfaq Hussain Ansari
Serial Publications, New Delhi

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