Although casteism is not very deep-rooted and also varies regionally, its prevalence among Muslims is a matter of concern. Caste among Muslims is less common in South India. Growing up in a South Indian Muslim culture, I had no encounter with casteism among Muslims in my day to day life. The only time caste was mentioned was during matchmaking for weddings. Enquiries for the clan/biradari of the bride or groom were made for compatibility. However, emphasis was more on the financial and educational compatibility. With passing time, the mention of caste has been reduced to a mere formality.
But in North India, the situation seems to be different. Casteism is very common in certain regions, especially in Bihar and West Bengal. In Bihar, the Sheikhs, Pathans and Sayeds have been reported to look down upon other Muslims likes Ansaris and Quraishis. In 2003, there was a news item which described how there were separate graveyards based on caste. While this appears shocking, many Muslims in Bihar dismiss the news as an exaggeration of the situation. West Bengal has a Muslim population of around 27%. In the state, Muslims are broadly divided into upper-castes or Jajmans and the lower-castes or Kamins. Social interactions between the two strata are minimal, especially in rural areas. On the positive side, despite casteism, people from different clans pray together in the local mosque without any discrimination. Both the Jajmans and the Kamins have free and equal access to the mosque.
Historically casteism was present from the pre-Mughal era. Muslims were divided into two main groups: the Ashrafs (nobles) and the Ajlafs. While the Ashrafs mostly consisted of foreign Muslims who migrated to India; the Ajlafs were natives who converted to Islam. The Ashrafs include Sayyads, Sheiks, Mughals and Pathans. The Sayyads were considered as the descendants of the Prophet, hence highly respected and were usually Islamic scholars and teachers.
Ironically, in his last sermon, which is quoted in Sahih al-Bukhari(narrated by Abu Huraira), the Prophet himself had said: “O, people! Indeed your Lord is one, there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, nor of a white over black.”
Following the Prophet, we can say with some certainty that whoever practices caste discrimination among Muslims is deviating from the teachings of the Prophet. Many Indian Muslims believe that caste is more of a social phenomenon. They think that people confuse clan with caste. However, the Sachar Committee report says that Muslims are divided into four major groups:
- Ashrafs, who trace their origins to foreign lands
- Upper caste Hindus, who converted into Islam
- Middle caste converts with a decent occupation
- Converts from the erstwhile untouchable castes like the bhangi, chamar , mehtar and halalkhor
An analysis of this caste categorization shows that it is based mostly on occupation than on birth.
Although surnames like Sayed, Khan and Sheikh are used by Muslims, they don’t indicate hierarchy. Caste system in Islam is not as rigid as in other faiths. The caste markers are commonly employed for identifying biradaris or clans. For example, if one is a Sheikh, it is assumed that the ancestors were of foreign origin and were mostly traders. Similarly, Pathans are assumed to be of Afghan origin and were mostly warriors. Qureshis were native converts whose ancestors were associated with the animal trade. Initially marriages within the biradari were encouraged but with the passage of time, inter-biradari marriages have become common. People started looking out for social and economic compatibility more than compatibility of clan.
After the Mandal Commission report, the government decided to give reservation to the Dalits and the OBCs. Many lower caste Muslims such as Qureshis, Ansaris, Dhobi Muslims, Idris, Halal Khor, Julahas, Gujars, Telis are accorded the OBC status and, hence, are eligible for reservation. The benefit of reservation has made Muslims declare their caste openly. Since most in these categories are still economically backward, many Indian Muslims stick to caste markers to avail the benefits of reservation.
Dr. Kouser Fathima is a Bangalore-based dentist who writes on issues concerning women, especially Muslim women. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @drkf_18