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That there should be caste among Muslims seems like a contradiction. Islam, having originated as the ideological basis for the political unification of the Arab tribes, teaches that all believers are equal in the eyes of God. In the Koran the following verse is revealed to Mohammed when some new converts question his choice of an African follower to call the people to prayer:
O Mankind! We have created you from male and female and have made you into peoples and tribes that you may know one another; truly, the noblest among you before God are the most pious among yourselves.... (49:13)
If Muslims believe that it’s piety, not birth, that counts before God, how can they recognize congenital distinctions of caste? And how can caste exist outside of Hinduism, with no karma or dharma, no vedas or brahmins?
The answer is the caste system is not just an ideological formation. It’s a basic institution of Indian society (which historically included Pakistan and Bangladesh), rooted in the material relations of production on which that society is founded. Muslims in India do not make up a separate society with their own political economy. They live in the same villages as Hindus and traditionally participate along with them--as patrons or clients--in the pre-capitalist systems of labor extraction that caste grows out of. These old productive relations have weakened since the 1960s but they cannot be swept away without a thoroughgoing agrarian revolution and the building of an egalitarian socialist society. Until that happens, the villages--where three-fourths of all Indians live, with a majority of the rest linked to their “home village” by family ties and hereditary custom--will continue to cultivate and spread the bacillus of caste like a hundred million Petri dishes.
Like their Hindu, Sikh, and Christian neighbors, Muslims in India are born into endogamous, hereditary, and for the most part occupationally specific groups ranked according to their relative ritual purity--castes by almost any definition. Just as Indian Muslims speak a language (Urdu) that derives from Sanskrit with Arabic and Persian accretions, they practice a variant of the Hindu caste system that gets its ideological sanction from Islamic sources.
And you can find such sources without looking too far. The egalitarian ideals of Islam (like those of its progenitor, Christianity) contradict people’s actual life not just in India but in any existing society. There is no record that these ideals were ever generally put into practice anywhere. Mohammed left existing hierarchies within converted tribes intact; the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet presuppose that Muslims keep slaves.
From the beginning, those in the Islamic world who could trace their genealogy to Mohammed (who said, “There are no genealogies in Islam”) and even to his tribe partook of nobility. Islamic jurisprudence later codified this notion and generalized it into the principle that, with certain specific allowances for wealth and learning, the longer Islam has been in your family or tribe or ethnic group, the higher your status.
It is this principle that is invoked to explain the basic division between high and low Muslim castes. Islam spread to India through invaders from established Muslim societies in the Near East and Afghanistan. The great mass of Indian Muslims, however, descend not from these conquerors, but from sections of the indigenous population who converted under their influence during the centuries of their rule. So those castes said to trace their lineages to the invaders, and therefore to have had Islam in their families for a longer time (this traditional ulamic distinction conveniently coinciding with reputed descent from the old foreign-derived ruling classes) are called ashraf (literally, “noble”). The other, inferior castes--the ajlaf (“lowly”)--are supposed to descend from the native converts. Seventy-five per cent of Muslims are born into ajlaf castes.
The line between ashraf and ajlaf castes corresponds to that between the upper three, “twice-born” varnas in the Hindu system (brahmins, kshatriyas, and vaishyas) and the sudras and untouchables beneath them. Nothing analogous to the phenomenon of “uppercaste sudras”--wealthy, landowning sudra castes like the kammas and reddis of Andhra who are treated as high-ranking despite their low varna--seems to exist among Muslims, probably because a prospering ajlaf caste can in time more easily move up to ashraf status.
The ashraf castes are broken down into four categories for purposes of ranking: Sayyads, Sheiks, Mughals, and Pathans. Like the four varnas of the Hindu system, these are not castes (in the sense of jatis) but ways of classifying castes according to a theoretical hierarchy. Into each category thousands of individual local endogamous castes are assigned a place.
The highest castes are those said to descend directly from Mohammed through his daughter Fatima and Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam, called the Sayyads (literally, “princes”). Next come the Sheiks (“chiefs”)--castes outside the Sayyad category who nonetheless trace their origin to the Arabs, the people among whom Islam first spread. Castes within the next two categories are those reputed to derive from further outside the historical center of the Muslim world. Since their ancestors would presumably have had less time to practice Islam, these castes, while still ashraf, have relatively lower status. The Mughal castes are supposed to have descended from the invaders who founded the Mughal dynasty (who were actually a mixture of Central Asian peoples, but who fancifully claimed descent from Genghis Khan and the Mongols), while the Pathan castes trace their origin to the Pathan (now called Pashtun) tribes of Afghanistan.
Despite these claims, the four ashraf categories are not ethnic groups. The Sayyad and Sheik castes, for example, do not speak Arabic or follow Arab customs. Whether any of them have actual genealogical links to the Near East is open to question. Caste rankings among Muslims are not based on a caste’s historical origins--which can rarely, if ever, be known--but on the social consensus about those origins, and thus ultimately on relations of political and economic power.
That the ashrafs claim extra-Indian descent doesn’t mean they see themselves as any less Indian. Frank S. Fanselow writes of a large ashraf community he studied in the Tamil town of Kayalpattnam:
In relation to wider Indian society, Kayalpattnam Muslims identify themselves as Indians. Precisely because of their claim to a non-Indian ethnic origin, they strongly identify themselves politically as Indians. During the Indo-Pakistan war, funds were raised by the town’s population ‘in support of the national defense effort’ and its guest book proudly exhibits signatures from the visits of the former President R. Venkataraman and late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
The Islamic principles of social ranking that justify caste among Indian Muslims do not account for it. In no society outside of the subcontinent have Muslims ever been so rigidly and elaborately stratified by descent. Why do Muslims practice caste there and nowhere else? The cultural influence of neighboring, numerically dominant Hindus is sometimes put forward. But unless you explain why this influence worked so powerfully in this way but not in every way, that kind of answer simply replaces the question “why do Muslims in India have caste?” with “why are there Muslims in India?” For the basis of caste among Indian Muslims you have to look beyond culture alone to the underlying relations of production.
In villages, the ashrafs are typically the dominant Muslim landowners. (There are also poor ashrafs, just as many high-caste Hindus are poor.) It is conjectured that most ajlafs started out as low-caste Hindu service castes in places where the dominant landowning caste was Muslim and over the generations adopted Muslim customs as group in emulation of their superiors. Traditionally the lower-caste families in a village, whether Hindu or Muslim, would be bonded by hereditary obligation to the family of the uppercaste landlord (or, in earlier systems, to the village as a whole), to whom they were required to provide specialized services (as barbers, potters, carpenters, vegetable-sellers, and so on) for customary compensation or none at all. These days the dominant household’s patronage is often replaced by cash payment, and some of the traditional services have recently been supplanted by modern industry. Many of the low-caste artisans who remain in the villages are now reduced to impoverished smallholders and unskilled laborers. This new condition has not made them any less dependent on uppercaste landowners.
Each ajlaf caste has a traditional occupation, which may or may not be practiced today. It is usually by this occupation that each caste is known, or rather the name of the occupation and that of the caste that practices it is the same word: they are weavers, butchers, oil-pressers, candy-makers, bangle-sellers, acrobats, laborers, beggars, scavengers, and so on. While all Hindu castes, including the higher ones, have occupations assigned to them--brahmins are traditionally priests, kshatriyas military and political elites, vaishyas merchants--the ashraf Muslim castes do not. This marks a difference from the Hindu system, although, as Imitaz Ahmad points out, in practice people from higher Hindu castes can also take up a different occupation more easily. Brahmins today are as likely to be doctors or engineers or sociologists as priests.
The Muslim service castes are ranked like Hindu castes according to the relative ritual purity of their occupation--with tailors above washermen (who deal with bodily dirt) and washermen above the caste that skins animals to make drums (who deal with dead things). All of this is strikingly similar to Hindu caste ranking, despite the fact that notions of purity and pollution have no place in the Islamic ideological tradition. According to one report, even though Muslims have no taboo against eating beef, a butcher who deals only in mutton is ranked higher than one who deals in mutton and beef.
Another factor goes toward determining the rank order of Muslim castes: how close the performance of their occupation places them to the dominant caste. Zarina Bhatty cites the example in one village of two castes whose occupation is to entertain with singing and female dancing. Both castes do the same thing, but the one whose job is to entertain the ashraf landlord families is higher than the other, whose members sing and dance for one and all. This principle is unknown among Hindus. In this way the Muslim system, whose ideological cloak is flimsier, may reflect its basis in class relations more transparently.
Among Muslims as among Hindus, castes are organized locally on the basis of caste brotherhood (biradari). Those born into another caste, even though they may be on the same social level and practice the same occupation, are excluded from this brotherhood. Each brotherhood is normally governed by a committee of elders (panchayat) that has the power to settle disputes within the caste. It punishes members who break caste and dishonor the brotherhood, the worst punishment being expulsion, which traditionally entailed not only social ostracism but the loss of one’s livelihood.
Although any marriage outside of one’s caste goes against the norm, among ashrafs it is easier to marry into another caste that falls within the same category (Sayyad, Sheik, Mughal, or Pathan), and it’s easier for Sayyads and Sheiks to intermarry than for a member of one of these two higher categories to marry into a Mughal or Pathan caste. Marriages between ashrafs and ajlafs are naturally highly taboo: Zarina Bhatty, in a paper published in 1996, reports that “[m]arriage alliances between Ashrafs and non-Ashrafs are still inconceivable and not a single instance of this is known to have occurred in living memory” in the village she studied.
In general, marriage between people of different castes is more common among ashrafs than ajlafs. This has sometimes been cited as a difference between the Muslim and Hindu systems, but Imitaz Ahmad points out that intercaste marriage is exceptional in either system, and that among Hindus it is also more likely to occur among the higher castes. Such matches are usually attempts by the bride’s family to raise their status by marrying into a caste higher than their own (what sociologists call hypergamy), and, just as you need money to make money, you need status to raise your status.
Ajlaf castes often follow restrictions on taking food from or eating together with each other according to notions of ritual purity. Ashraf castes will usually eat with each other, but in most places they will not eat with ajlafs. David Mandelbaum cites an incident reported in 1962 by Zarina Ahmad that took place in a village in Lucknow district:
One of the guests at a wedding in an Ashraf family was a woman of the manihar, bangle-seller jati [caste] who had just returned to the village after a long absence. Her husband had prospered; she wore expensive clothes, and, not being recognized as she came in, she was seated at a table with Ashraf ladies. In the middle of the meal, one of the Ashraf women recognized her; the other women ‘at once stood up and refused to sit at the same table with the manihar woman. It caused a lot of embarrassment, but the manihar lady had to sit and eat on the floor.’ In their precipitous, upright act these Muslim ladies were doing what Hindu ladies of high jati would also do in like circumstances.
Ajlaf castes that happen to prosper and get some surplus land usually try to raise their rank by becoming more religiously orthodox. This Muslim version of the increased attention to purity and piety among aspiring Hindu castes that sociologist M. N. Srinivas called “Sanskritization” is often called “Islamization” by analogy.
The biggest step in starting down this road is the veiling and secluding of the women of the caste: “As soon as a lower class Muslim makes money, he puts his women in purdah (a practice observed only by the Ashrafs), starts going to the communal prayers in the mosque and goes to Mecca for pilgrimage” (Zarina Ahmad, cited by David Mandelbaum). Purdah is a sign not only of orthodoxy and female chastity, but also of wealth: women locked up at home can’t go out to work and have to employ servants to get their housework done. Women’s oppression in India is closely linked to the caste system. Among Muslims as among Hindus it gets worse for women, ironically, the higher up the caste scale you go. At least until you get to the very highest and richest castes, which in most places, following an opposing trend of Westernization, have started allowing their women to get educated and take professional jobs in order to raise their value in the marriage market. Mandelbaum nicely describes these high-caste Muslim women’s way of life as combining “Islamic precepts, Ashraf manners, and modern mores,” while observing that “[t]hese elite standards are beyond an ordinary Muslim villager’s knowledge and certainly beyond his reach.”
In the end, a rising Muslim caste is likely to start claiming that they are after all descended from a foreign line. The next step is to try to get their girls married into established ashraf castes, hoping by and by to secure their claim to the point where they’re in a position to receive girls from these castes as well.
“We used to be butchers and now we are Sheiks,” a common joke goes. “Next year if the harvest prices are good for us, we shall be Sayyads” (Mandelbaum). While this timetable needs to be stretched out by at least a generation or two, it is often said to be easier for a Muslim caste than a Hindu caste to rise. Among Muslims, according to Mandelbaum, “[s]ecular power is brought to bear more quickly and forcefully in gaining higher rank.”
In either system, of course, castes are not supposed to be able to rise, and one that does is seen as getting away with something. But, in practice, once a formerly ajlaf caste comes to be generally accepted as ashraf, who can say it is any less genuinely so than other castes who claim that status? Or that the foreign descent of those other castes is any more firmly established, just because it’s been accepted longer? Between 1901 and 1931 the number of people who said they belonged to Sheik castes (a status commonly claimed, like that of kshatriyas among Hindus, by castes trying to move up) went up by over 150 per cent, which is of course well above the natural rate of increase. As an ancient Hindu text teaches, “The origin of seers, rivers, great families, women, and sin cannot be found out.”
For Hindus and Muslims alike, the really hard part of rising is the material prerequisite: for an oppressed low caste to acquire surplus land.
While the caste practices of Muslims reveal the workings among them of the principles of purity and pollution, these ideas--which seem to be psychologically necessary to the functioning of a caste system--have no place in their expressed ideology. Without this conscious reinforcement, the social restrictions that depend on these principles tend to be less rigid than they are among Hindus. The Muslims’ legitimation of caste--unlike the Hindus’, which emerged organically from its social roots--is a makeshift. It doesn’t fit perfectly. Here it pinches and here it is a little loose.
Although ashrafs in most places do avoid eating with ajlafs, an ashraf man may do so if he chooses without fear of losing caste or other formal penalty such as a high-caste Hindu might face. Among Muslims personal pollution (which you get from doing impure things like having sex, menstruating, giving birth, emptying your bowels, and touching dead bodies or human waste) is not, like permanent pollution (which makes you unclean by the caste you have been born into), transmissible by touch. If an untouchable touches you, you need to do something purify yourself, but (unlike among Hindus) if a menstruating woman from a clean caste touches you, you don’t. Muslims have no prescribed way to purify themselves after doing something unclean. Since there are no elaborate rituals for this purpose like there are among Hindus, they have to make do with simply washing or saying a namaz. The castes at the top of the Muslim system, the Sayyads, have no special ritual status or role like the brahmins do--they’re noble but not charismatic.
Caste among Muslims is felt least of all in strictly religious contexts, where the countervailing influence of the scriptural tradition is at its strongest. All Muslim men in a village (except, sometimes, the untouchables) pray shoulder to shoulder in a line inside the mosque. A low-caste man who manages to get a religious education can become a mullah.
Muslims normally deny there are castes among them. At most they’ll admit that caste is practiced by some other Muslims in the next village, or perhaps in the poorer sections of their own village, who are not real Muslims like they are. Frank S. Fanselow in a study of several Muslim communities in Tamil Nadu tries to explain why this is so. Since colonial times the caste system has been seen as the hallmark of Hinduism. And from the time of the independence movement, and increasingly since the 1980s, Hindu and Muslim have become important and mutually exclusive social identities. These two modern perceptions have come together to produce “the basic, logical equation that one cannot be a real Muslim and have caste.... Hence to ask whether Muslims have caste is equivalent to asking whether Muslims are Hindus.” So the Muslim denial of caste is not a collective case of bad conscience, it’s a simple assertion of communal identity in the current ideological context. That despite this denial Muslims do have caste shows how artificial these new, airtight communal identities are.
Fundamentalism has been spreading among Indian Muslims in recent decades, led by Islamizing middling castes, in part as a response to the rise of Hindu nationalism. Zarina Bhatty wonders why, since this revival aims at “making the Muslim--individual and community--visibly more Muslim” by flaunting what distinguishes them (the call to prayer, religious observances, the enforcement of traditional personal laws, religious education in madrasas), it has not attacked the practice of caste. She suggests that “having been adopted and endogenized, the social order has become normative and a part of Indian Muslim tradition”: the caste system has become so natural a part of Muslim life in India that its contradictions with scriptural Islam are by now invisible. But it’s not necessary to speculate this far--the high-caste and aspiring high-caste social base of fundamentalism doesn’t question the current caste-based order because it has a basic class interest in letting it be. In fact, as Imtiaz Ahmad points out, “Islamizaton serves to reinforce rather than weaken or eliminate caste distinctions.”
The extent and severity of untouchability among Muslims is variously reported and probably differs more from place to place than among Hindus. Where untouchable Muslim castes exist, other Muslim castes--including clean ajlaf castes--avoid touching them, eating with them, or taking food from them. In many places they are not allowed to go into mosques and cannot be buried with clean Muslims. Like other untouchables, they have the most ritually impure traditional occupations, from removing dead cows from the road to carrying off human shit in a basket. Any caste, Muslim or Hindu, that is treated as untouchable by one community will be treated like that by everyone in the village. This is one of many ways in which the Muslim and Hindu caste systems are functionally integrated, so that it might be more precise to say that Muslims participate with Hindus in a common South Asian system, regulating themselves independently within it.
Those who would like to see ajlaf Muslims get reserved seats in public universities and government jobs according to their proportion in the total population--like those constitutionally granted to Hindu untouchables (dalits)--call the ajlafs "dalit Muslims" or "Muslim dalits." These terms are a little misleading, as the ajlaf communities include those equivalent to clean Hindu backward castes as well as to untouchable ones. Even strictly untouchable Muslims have since 1950 been denied reservations by law, along with untouchable Christians--the government wants to discourage untouchables from leaving Hinduism for a faith that accords them even nominal equality. Untouchable or not, the great majority of Muslims are oppressed by uppercaste Muslims and Hindus on the basis of caste.
And all Muslims are aligned in casteist thinking with low castes and untouchables for eating beef. Although probably the worst atrocity to come out of the recent RSS/BJP "cow protection" campaign so far occurred when five untouchables were lynched in front of police because of a rumor that they had killed a scavenged cow they were skinning, the campaign itself is principally aimed against Muslims.
Although there are fewer studies of caste in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population is Muslim, its prevalence among Muslims there is well documented. David Mandelbaum cites three studies of villages in the Punjab and Sindh made around 1960. In one of these villages “[a] child learns the caste it belongs to from the time it begins to speak and tells it when he gives his personal name;” in another “[t]he first question to be asked from a visitor is about his caste.” In the same year Fredrik Barth published a classic study of an interesting variant of caste practiced in Northwest Pakistan. In this system only a handful of polluted castes at the bottom and the very highest caste at the top are differentiated according to ritual purity, with interaction among all others regulated by shame and privilege. When a man from a high (that is, landowning) caste loses all his land in this region, his sons do not inherit his caste and slip into the tenant-farmer caste. In 1979 Pieter Streefland published a study of a segregated “sweeper” caste in Karachi that is one of several treated as untouchable there.
In studies published between 1983 and 1993 of several villages in Bangladesh (whose population is 83 per cent Muslim and 84 per cent rural) A. F. Imam Ali has found both Muslims and Hindus there to be elaborately stratified by caste. According to a report in the Indian Express (September 20, 2000), Hindu untouchables in the capital city of Dhaka are employed for the most part in the most menial and despised occupations: household servants, pig-breeders, street vendors, rickshaw-pullers, and several thousand of them as municipal cleaners earning just over a dollar a day.