Caste system among South Asian Muslims

Muslim communities in South Asia apply a system of social stratification. It developed as a result of ethnic segregation between the foreign conquerors (Ashraf) and the local converts (Ajlaf), as well as influence of the indigenous Hindu culture. Islam does not recognize any castes.

Historical development

Islam does not recognize any castes,[1] however, by the time it came to Persia and India, the existing divisions in these regions were adopted among the local Muslim societies. The ancient Persian society had a social stratification system analogous to the Indian varna system. The Sasanian society retained this system with some changes, even after the Muslim conquest of Persia in the 7th century. Evidence of social stratification can be found in several later Persian works, such as Siyasatnama of Nizam al-Mulk (11th century), Akhlaq-i Nasiri of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (13th century), and Jam-i-Mufidi (17th century).[2]

The Muslims who came to the subcontinent during the 12th century Muslim conquest of India were already divided into social classes such as priests, nobles and others. Further, a racial segregation demarcated the local Muslim converts from those of foreign origin. The foreigners claimed a superior status as they were associated with the conquerors, and categorized themselves as Ashraf ("noble").[3] Over time, the Indian Muslim society also split on the basis of the existing Hindu caste system.[3] According to M. N. Srinivas (1986), Indian Hindu converts to Islam brought their original caste system to the Muslim society in the region. On the other hand, Louis Dumont (1957) believes that the Islamic conquerors consciously adopted the Hindu caste system.[4]

Ziauddin Barani, the 14th century political thinker of the Delhi Sultanate recommended that the "sons of Mohamed" (i.e. Ashrafs) "be given a higher social status than the low-born (i.e. Ajlaf). His most significant contribution in the fatwa was his analysis of the castes with respect to Islam. His assertion was that castes would be mandated through state laws or "Zawabi" and would carry precedence over Sharia law whenever they were in conflict. According to Barani, every act which is "contaminated with meanness and based on ignominity, comes elegantly [from the Ajlaf]". Barani also developed an elaborate system of promotion and demotion of Imperial officers ("Wazirs") that was primarily based on their caste.[5]

History of research

There are various definitions of the term "caste", and therefore, various opinions on whether this term can be used to denote social stratification among non-Hindu communities. Ghaus Ansari (1960) uses the term "caste" to describe the Muslim social groups with following characteristics:[6]

Beginning in the 19th century, the British scholars of India first catalogued the various Muslim castes:[6]

Nelson's book, in particular, included a whole chapter dedicated to the Muslim castes. In the 20th century British India, a number of works included the Muslim social gropus in their descriptions of the Indian castes. These included H. A. Rose's A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province (1911).[7]

In independent India, Ghaus Ansari (1960) initiated academic discussion over the Muslim caste system. Subsequently, Imtiaz Ahmed elaborated the topic in his Caste and Social Stratification among the Muslims (1973).[8]


Ghaus Ansari (1960) named the following four broad categories of Muslim social divisions in India:[9]

The non-Ashrafs are categorized as Ajlaf. The untouchable Hindu converts are also categorized as Arzal ("degraded").[10][11] They are relegated to menial professions such as scavenging and carrying night soil.[12][13]

In Pakistan, various social groups (called quoms) display a social stratification comparable to the Hindu caste system. The various quoms differ widely in power, privilege and wealth.[14] Both ethnic affiliation (e.g. Pathan, Sindhi, Baloch, Punjabi, etc.) and membership of specific biraderis or zaat/quoms are additional integral components of social identity.[15] Within the bounds of endogamy defined by the above parameters, close consanguineous unions are preferred due to a congruence of key features of group- and individual-level background factors as well as affinities. McKim Marriott adds that a social stratification that is hierarchical, closed, endogamous and hereditary is widely prevalent, particularly in western parts of Pakistan.[16][17][18]


Over the centuries, like other South Asian societies, the Muslim society in the region has evolved into the concept of caste purity and pollution.[19][20] Hence, the low-class (Ajlaf) Muslims in the region have faced other kinds of discrimination. Though religiously, prayer is offered generally in the same mosque, however in the recent years, separate mosques have been enacted by the "untouchable" Muslims against the rest, similar to what Indian Christians have in South India. Also if caste is determined prior to marriage, marriage would be annulled by the Qazi if the couples were from Ashrafs and Ajlams, as intercaste marriage is generally socially forbidden. Also as Hindus have progressed to accept intercaste marriages and visitation & interaction among different caste households is now common, however till today, in many places across South Asia, Upper-caste Muslims restrict themselves to go to a lower caste household for visit, let alone marry. In 20th century India, the upper-class (Ashraf) Muslims dominated the government jobs and parliamentary representation. As a result, there have been campaigns to include the Muslim untouchable and lower castes among the groups eligible for affirmative action in India under SC and STs provision act.[21]

In Bihar state of India, cases have been reported in which the higher caste Muslims have opposed the burials of lower caste Muslims in the same graveyard.[22]

See also


  1. Ghaus Ansari 1960, p. 27.
  2. Ghaus Ansari 1960, p. 29.
  3. 1 2 Ghaus Ansari 1960, p. 30.
  4. Azra Khanam 2013, pp. 115-116.
  5. Das, Arbind, Arthashastra of Kautilya and Fatwa-i-Jahandari of Ziauddin Barrani: an analysis, Pratibha Publications, Delhi 1996, ISBN 81-85268-45-2 pp. 124-143
  6. 1 2 Ghaus Ansari 1960, p. 22.
  7. Ghaus Ansari 1960, p. 2.
  8. Azra Khanam 2013, p. 115.
  9. Ghaus Ansari 1960, p. 32-35.
  10. Ambedkar, Bhimrao. Pakistan or the Partition of India. Thackers Publishers.
  11. Web resource for Pakistan or the Partition of India
  12. Dereserve these myths by Tanweer Fazal,Indian express
  13. Falahi, Masood. "Caste and caste based discrimination s Among Indian Muslims'" (PDF). SAS. Retrieved 5 January 2015.
  14. Fredrik Barth 1960, p. 113.
  15. Barth, Fredrik (1962). E. R. Leach, ed. The System Of Social Stratification In Swat, North Pakistan (Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon, and North-West Pakistan). Cambridge University Press. p. 113.
  16. Fredrick Barth (December 1956). "Ecologic Relationships of Ethnic Groups in Swat, North Pakistan". American Anthropologist. 58 (6): 1079–1089. doi:10.1525/aa.1956.58.6.02a00080.
  17. Zeyauddin Ahmed (1977). The New Wind: Changing Identities in South Asia (Editor: Kenneth David). Aldine Publishing Company. pp. 337–354. ISBN 90-279-7959-6.
  18. McKim Marriott (1960). Caste ranking and community structure in five regions of India and Pakistan.
  19. Azra Khanam 2013, pp. 120-121.
  20. Webner, Pnina (2007). "The Migration Process: Capital, Gifts and Offerings among British Pakistanis". Google Books. Retrieved 30 October 2016.
  21. Asghar Ali Engineer. "On reservation for Muslims". The Milli Gazette. Pharos. Retrieved 2004-09-01.
  22. Anand Mohan Sahay. "Backward Muslims protest denial of burial". Retrieved 2003-03-06.


Further reading

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