Caste and Social Hierarchy Among Indian Muslims: M.A.Falahi (Interview)

25-year old Masood Alam Falahi, a graduate of the Jamiat ul-Falah madrasa, is a doctoral student in the Department of Arabic, Delhi University. He has written extensively on the issue of caste and caste-based discrimination among the Indian Muslims, which he talks about in this interview with Yoginder Sikand.

Q: How did you get interested in studying the issue of caste among Muslims in India?

A: I come from a small village in Sitamarhi, in Bihar. I completed my high school education in Maunath Bhanjan in eastern Uttar Pradesh and then went to the Jamiat ul-Falah madrasa in Bilariyaganj, in Azamgarh, for higher Islamic studies. I completed the fazilat course in 1999, and joined the Aligarh Muslim University for my graduation and then did my MA from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. In 1996, when I was the student at the Jamiat ul-Falah, the Jamaat-i- Islami Hind organised an ‘Introduction to the Quran’ week all over Uttar Pradesh, as part of which Jamaat leaders visited non-Muslim localities to tell people there about Islam. They particularly focussed on Dalit localities, and spoke to Dalits about the concept of social equality in Islam. A senior Jamaat leader, Hakim Abdur Rauf, came to a Dalit locality in Bilariyaganj, where the madrasa I was studying in is located, and told the Dalits there that Islam is a religion of equality and is the only solution to the curse of caste and untouchability. If they converted to Islam, he said, Muslims would embrace them. During his speech, a Dalit youth stood up and said, ‘We know Islam is a religion of equality, but your Muslim society is ridden with caste. In this area, and probably elsewhere, too, Muslims do not marry outside their caste. So, if we Dalits become Muslims, who will marry and eat with us?’. This youth’s argument struck me and left me thinking. I knew what he had said was largely true, and so I began reading all I could lay my hands on about the history of the caste system. I also read the works of numerous Indian ulama, who are seen by many of their followers as great intellectuals, people like Maulvi Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi and Maulvi Ashraf Ali Faruqui Thanvi. I was shocked to discover that most of them actually championed the notion of caste superiority based on birth and gave fatwas about this that went totally against the Quran. This they did by recourse to the notion of what in Arabic is called kafaa, using which they set down rules about possible marriage relations between groups whom the ranked hierarchically. Thus, they argued that Muslims of Arab origin (Sayyeds and Shaikhs) are superior to non-Arab or Ajami Muslims, and so while a man who claims Arab origin can marry an Ajami woman, the reverse is not possible. Likewise, they argued, a Pathan Muslim man can marry a Julaha (Ansari) Mansuri (Dhunia,) Rayin (Kunjra) or Quraishi (Qasai) woman, but an Ansari, Rayin, Mansuri and Quraishi man cannot marry a Pathan woman since they considered these castes to be inferior to Pathans. Many of these ulama also believed that it is best to marry within one own caste. All this was completely antithetical to my understanding of Islam, and reading their writings was a total revelation for me. I was shocked to learn how many ulama in India, have wrongly sought to legitimize caste by seeking to provide it with what they falsely claim is Islamic or religious sanction. It is no different from the Hindu case, where religious sanction is provided for caste discrimination and oppression. After reading this literature on caste by numerous Indian ulama I realised that the question put by that Dalit youth to the Jamaat-i Islami leader was almost wholly valid. If Islam has been so wrongly interpreted by such kind of ulama to legimitize caste, which Dalit would want to seriously consider Islam—I mean the version of Islam as presented by these maulvis—as an option? My reading also suggested to me that the problem of caste among Muslims owes not just to Hindu influence but also to the influence of a large section of the ulama, who wrongly see it as part of the Islamic law or shariah. It was shocking to learn how these maulvis have given Islam such a bad name by completely misinterpreting it.

Q: How did you start writing about this issue of caste discrimination among Muslims?

A: On coming to learn how these ulama had wrongly sought to legitimise caste and caste discrimination I felt that it was crucial to write about it. In taking up writing about this issue I was particularly influenced by my respected teacher at the Jamiat ul-Falah, Maulvi Anees Ahmad Siddiqui Falahi Madni, who taught us a paper on comparative religions. From him I learnt how Muslims in India had internalised the logic of caste hierarchy, in part as a result of Hindu influence. But this issue of caste rarely talked about in the Muslim press. Most Islamic papers in India are controlled and edited by such kind of people who have a vested interest in maintaining a complete silence on this issue. Given their narrow training in the madrasas, the ulama are not able to write on such issues even if they want to. Further, for the most part, the Indian ulama have been trained in the Hanafi tradition which, for centuries, has sought to wrongly provide religious sanction to caste-based discrimination as an examination of the works of the Hanafi scholars would reveal. Hence, I felt that I had the moral responsibility to write on this much neglected and hugely controversial issue. So, I began by writing a series of articles in several installments under the title “Hindustan Main Chhoot Chhaat Aur Musalman” (“Muslims and Untouchability in India”) in the Zindagi-i Nau, which is edited by the Aligarh-based scholar Dr. Fazlur Rahman Faridi, a senior leader of the Jamaat-i Islami. Dr. Faridi was kind enough to publish these articles, some of which were very critical of those ulama who have sanctioned caste discrimination.

Q: So, what did you seek to argue in these articles?

A: I sought to provide a historical perspective on the issue of caste and caste-based discrimination among Muslims. I explored the origins of caste in India, the development of the Brahminical religion, which is based on caste, the role of various anti-caste movements, including Buddhism, Sikhism and the Bhakti tradition and the spreading of Islam in India,
especially among the oppressed castes, who were attracted to Islam because of its message of social equality. On the other hand, providing quotations from works which were written in the so-called ‘Islamic’ period of Indian history, I tried to show how Muslim kings, and the Muslim ruling elites more generally, in collaboration with so-called upper caste Hindus, supported the caste system and the oppression of the so-called ‘low’ castes, both Hindus and Muslims. As Mullah Abdul Qadir Badayuni’s “Muntakhab Al- Tawarikh”, Maulvi Sayyed Ziauddin Barni’s “Tarikh-e-Firoz Shahi” and Kunwar Mohammad Ashraf’s “Hindustani Maashra Ahd-e-Usta Main” make amply clear, they refused to allow so-called low or razil castes, both Hindus and Muslims, to be educated or even to enter their courts, which was preserved as a monopoly of the ‘high’ caste Hindus and Muslims. They did not know Islam properly or else did not pay heed to its message of equality. Even Iltutmish and Balban, who were Sultans of Turkish slave origin and so who ought to have behaved differently, refused to allow so-called low caste Muslims to be enter in government services. Numerous intellectuals and ulama attached to the courts of the so-called Islamic state, including such scholars as Barani, Farishta and so on, sought to provide religious sanction for the oppression of the so-called ‘low’ or razil caste Muslims. Barani claimed that God had made the so-called razil castes to serve the so-called ashraf communities. He also said the so-called low caste children should be engaged only in their ancestors’ occupation, and insisted that if anyone dared to give education to them he should be punished. According to Qazi Sajjad Husain’s “Sirajul Hedaya”, the well-known Sufi, Sayyed Jalaluddin Bukhari, also known as Makhdum Jahaniyan-e-Jahangasht, is said to have declared that providing knowledge beyond that of the Quran and the rules of prayers and fasting to the so-called razil castes is like scattering pearls before swine and dogs! He reportedly insisted that other Muslims should not eat with barbers, washers of corpses, dyers, tanners, cobblers, bow-makers and washermen, besides consumers of alcohol and usurers, adducing a fake tradition (hadith) falsely attributed to the Prophet Muhammad to back this argument. These claims are identical to the Brahminical theory that God has made the so-called low castes to slave for the so-called upper caste Hindus, and represent a carbon copy of the Manusmriti, the Bible of Brahminism! This is why I call such ulama who uphold caste discrimination as ‘Manuvadi’, being hardly different from the Brahmins in their attitude towards the oppressed castes. Even the ‘great’ Mughal emperor Akbar, as Abdul Qadir Badayuni reports in his “Muntakhab al-Tawarikh”,declared that if the so-called razil castes were provided education, the foundations of the empire would be shaken. Similar views about the ‘low’ castes are found in the compendium of Hanafi jurisprudence, “Fatawa-e Alamgiri”, compiled under the orders of the Emperor Aurangzeb. The last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was no different. I came across a report in the “Delhi Urdu Akhbar” of May 24, 1857, which says that in the wake of the uprising against the British, Bahadur Shah ordered for the preparation of an army of 500 persons, but specified that they should be only from the so-called ashraf and should not include anyone from the ‘low’ castes! So, the point is that the so-called ‘golden period’ of so-called ‘Islamic’ rule in India, which most Muslim writers never tire of extolling, was essentially the rule of the Manuvadi Muslim and Hindu elites, who dominated and oppressed the so-called low castes, both Hindus and Muslims. Although many rulers and ulama were supporters of caste, some of them were against it. For instance, Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi appointed his slave Ayaz as the governor of Punjab. He also appointed Tilak, a Hindu of the Hajjam or barber caste, as the commander-in-chief of his army and gave him the title of ‘Raja’. Sultan Shahabuddin Ghori appointed his slave Qutubuddin Aibak as his governor in India, and Aibak, in turn, appointed his slave, Shamsuddin Altatumish, as the governor of Gwalior, Bulandshahr and Badayun. Sultan Alauddin Khilji gave many high posts to Sayyeds and other so-called ashraf, but he also gave the post of Chief Justice (qazi ul quzat) to his servant Malik ut Tujjar Hamiduddin Multani and appointed as his Prime Minister Malik Kafur, a convert to Islam from the Burva or Chamar caste from Gujarat. Sultan Mohammad bin Tughlaq, Sultana Razia and Sultan Qutbuddin Mubark Shah Khilji also ppointed so-called ‘low’ castes in top positions.

Q: If many what you call ‘Manuvadi ulama’ in the medieval period of Indian history were almost as stern upholders of caste discrimination as the Brahmins, as you say, then why did millions of so-called low caste Hindus accept Islam?

A: This was probably because caste discrimination has always been less severe among Muslims than among Hindus because it actually has no religious sanction as such in Islam. While caste distinctions are strong among the Indian Muslims, the practice of untouchability is virtually unknown, although the noted historian Kanwar Mohammad Ashraf writes in his “Hindustani Maashra Ahd-e-Usta Main” that many medieval so-called Islamic rulers did not allow to low-class people to enter their courts, or if some did they forbade them from opening their mouths because they considered them to be ‘impure’.

Q: Seeking to provide religious sanction to caste may have been the case with several ‘upper’ caste Muslim writers and ulama in the so-called ‘Islamic’ period. But surely there must have been some change in this position in the period after that?

A: I was just coming to this point. In the latter part of my series of articles in the Zindagi-i Nau I examined the writings of many noted ulama who lived in the colonial period and also of ulama and ulama organizations in contemporary India, such as the Barelvis, Deobandis, the Ahl-i Hadith, the Jamaat-I Islami and the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board. In particular, I focused on how they had treated the notion of kafaa, or social equality for purposes of marriage, and found a surprising near unanimity. Most Barelvis and Deobandis carry on in their Hanafi tradition of using the notion of kafaa to legitimize caste, the superiority of the so-called ashraf castes and the inferiority of the so-called razil castes. The Hanafis are particularly strict in their belief about social standing and, therefore, about kafaa being determined by birth or family (nasb). This is probably because the Hanafi school evolved in Kufa, Iraq, where social inequalities were immense, and which it sought to legitimize. The same opinion is shared by the other Sunni schools of law, such as Shafi and Hanbali, that evolved outside the Arabian heartland. But it is also reported that Imam Shafi and Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal issued a statement against kafaa based on birth. In contrast, the Maliki school stands out as an exception. It does not consider birth as a factor in deciding kafaa, restricting it only to piety, which is the true Islamic criterion. Perhaps this is because Imam Malik, the putative founder of the Maliki school, lived in Medina, the centre of true Islamic learning. The Hanafis still teach this nonsense about birth-based kafaa in most of their madrasas. In my madrasa we were taught that caste is un-Islamic and that we should demolish it, but in Deoband, it seems, students are taught that caste, in the sense of kafaa based on nasb, is ‘Islamic’. This is because what is taught in most of the traditional madrasas in India in this regard is not true Islam, but, rather, the rules of Hanafi fiqh or jurisprudence. This has a very long tradition. The eighteenth century Shah Waliullah, who was one of the leading Islamic scholars in India has produced, and whom all the major Sunni schools of thought in India greatly respect, was also a staunch upholder of kafaa based on birth. In his “Hujjatullah al Baligha” and “Fiqh-e-Umar” he claimed that kafaa is something ingrained in one’s nature and that marrying outside one’s kafaa is more dangerous than murder!. He ignored the numerous instances that Islamic history provides of close companions of the Prophet marrying slaves. The Prophet himself arranged a marriage between his aunt’s daughter Zainab bint-e Jahash and his freed slave Zaid, and between his uncle’s daughter Zuba‘a bint-e- Zubair and Miqdad, a man from a weaver family. The Prophet also married a Jewish slave girl.

Ignoring these examples, Shah Waliullah referred to a tradition attributed to Hazrat Umar, the second Sunni Caliph, according to which Hazrat Umar is said to have remarked that he would stop a woman marrying outside her kafaa if he could. Interestingly, this tradition does not have the name of the narrator attached to it, thus suggesting its doubtful veracity. Staunch Hanafis, the Deobandis remain fierce defenders of the notion of birth-based kafaa. A Pakistani author, Ghulam Mustafa, writes in his book “Tahreek-I Darul Ulum Deoband Aur Musalmanan-i Saharanpur” (‘The Deoband Movement and the Muslims of Saharanpur’) that one of the founders of the Deoband madrasa, Maulvi Qasim Nanotvi, who belonged to the Shaikh caste, declared that God had created only four castes for serving His faith: Syeds, Shaikhs, Mughals and Pathans. Another Deobandi author, Maulana Azizur Rahman Usmani, the first mufti of the Deoband madrasa, claimed that if a woman of a so-called ashraf caste marries a man from a so-called razil caste without the permission of her awlia (close male guardian, such as father, grandfather etc.) the marriage has not actually taken place, and so there is no question of having to bother to seek to break the marriage (faskh-e-nikah). This is mentioned in the compendium of Deobandi fatwas, “Fatawa-e Dar ul-Ulum Deoband” published by the Deoband madrasa. It follows from his argument, though he did not say so explicitly, that children born from such a union are illegitimate and such a couple are adulterers, who deserve to be whipped a hundred times or stoned to death according to Islamic law. Presumably, however, Usmani would have allowed for a ‘low’ caste woman marrying an ‘upper’ caste man without permission of her awlia. This, of course, reflects a Brahminical mentality as well as deeply ingrained patriarchy. Another Deobandi scholar, Maulvi Muhammad Zakariya Siddiqui, chief ideologue of the Tablighi Jamaat, the largest Islamic movement in the world today, wrote in his “Fazail-i Amal” (‘The Virtues of Pious Deeds’), that if a group of Muslims is going on the Haj ( or elsewhere) they should appoint someone as their leader (amir), and that if in the group there is someone from the Quraishi (Sayyed or Shaikh) caste he should be preferred. He also categorised Muslims as ashraf and arzal. He also supported the controversial book on caste “Nihayat al-Arab fi-Ghayat al-Nasb” written by the Deobandi Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmani, who went on to become the first state Mufti (Mufti-e Azam) of Pakistan. In this book, which was supported by numerous Deobandi ulama, Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmani wrote that the four so-called ashraf castes would be looked up with special favour by God on the Day of Judgment. He included in this book an article by a fellow Deobandi, Ahmad Usmani, in which he writes that when the so-called “low” caste people started to study the all kinds of troubles began! Yet another leading Deobandi scholar, Maulvi Ashraf Ali Farooqui Thanvi, spoke in derogatory terms about Muslim weavers. In his “Al-Rafique fi Saway al-Tariq” he made fun of the prayers of weavers. In another book “Waslus Sabab Fi Faslin Nasb”, written by him in support of Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmani’s book “Nihayat al-Arab fi-Ghayat al-Nasb”, he contemptuously referred to the weaver caste as Julahas, condemning them for calling themselves Ansaris (“Helpers”) instead. He argued that this was forbidden as it was akin to changing ones’ nasb or descent by wrongly claiming to be descendants of the Ansars of Medina who had helped the Prophet when he had migrated there from Mecca. To back his claim he invoked a tradition attributed to the Prophet, according to which the Prophet reportedly declared that a person who claims to be the son of anyone other than his father will not enter heaven.

The scholar Shabbir Ahmad Hakeem quotes from another book by Thanvi called “Masawat-e Bahar-e Shariat”, in which Thanvi argues that Muslims should not allow ‘Julahas’ (weavers) and ‘Nais’ (barbers) to enter Muslims’ homes. In his “Bahishti Zewar” Thanvi claimed that the son of a Sayyed father and a non-Sayyed mother is socially inferior to the child of a Sayyed couple. The same thing is also said by Manu in his Manusmriti! In his “Imdad ul-Fatawa”, Thanvi announced that Sayyeds, Shaikhs, Mughals and Pathans are all ‘respectable’ (sharif) communities, and that the oil-presser (Teli) and weaver (Julaha) communities are ‘low’ castes (razil aqwam). He claimed that ‘nau-Muslims’, non-Arab converts to Islam, cannot be considered the kafaa, for purposes of marriage, of ‘established Muslims’ (khandani musalman). Accordingly, he argued, Pathans, being non-Arabs and, therefore, ‘nau-Muslims’, are not the kafaa of Sayyeds and Shaikhs, who claim Arab descent, and, so, cannot inter-marry with them. The first president of All India Muslim Personal Law Board and Vice Chancellor of the Deoband madrasa, Maulvi Qari Mohammad Tayyeb Siddiqui, was also supporter of casteism and wrote two books in support in Mufti Usmani’s book on caste: “Ansab wa Qabail Ka Tafazul” and “Nasb Aur Islam”. True to this tradition of legitimising caste, even today the admission form of the Deoband madrasa has a column that asks for applicants to mention their caste. For many years after it was established, non-ashraf students were not generally admitted in the Deoband madrasa. If somehow such students got admission by hiding their caste and their identity was later discovered they would often be humiliated in order to force them to leave. Because of this, as Shabbir Ahmad Hakims writes in his book “Hiyakat ki Hikayat”, a protest march was held in Deoband madrasa under the leadership of a so-called low caste student from Malegaon.

Even today many Deobandi maulvis continue to defend the position adopted by the pioneers of the Deoband movement on caste. In his “Islahi Khutabat”, Mufti Mohammad Taqi smani, son of Mufti Mohammad Shafi Usmani and former chief Mufti of Pakistan, supports his father’s views and also made fun of the prayer of weavers (Ansaris). A contemporary Indian Deobandi, Maulvi Qari Habeeb Ahmed, claims in his booklet “Islam Aur Taraqqi” (‘Islam and Progress’) that God has made some groups as superior or sharif and others as inferior or razil, and that there is Divine wisdom in this that must not be questioned! His fanciful argument is that if God had made the ‘low’ castes superior they would be filled with false pride and would forget Him. And if God had made the so-called ashraf low they would suffer from an inferiority complex and jealousy, which would undermine their faith in Him! The fourth President of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board and Vice Chancellor of the Nadwatul Ulama, Lucknow, Maulvi Sayyed Mohammad Rabe Hasani Nadvi, permitted the author to publish this booklet after reading it. Similarly, in his “Maasharti Masail Din-e-Fitrat ki Raushni Main”, another contemporary Deobandi writer, Maulvi Muhammad Burhanuddin Siddiqui Sambhali, who teaches at the Nadwatul Ulama, quotes from a medieval Hanafi text, the “Radd ul-Mukhtar” to declare that it is not advisable (makruh) that people who engage in ‘low’ (razil) occupations, such as tanners and fishermen, as well as people afflicted by leprosy, should enter mosques. He claims this is the shariah position, arguing that if such people enter mosques it would cause hardship to others. This book received a foreword by the second president of the All- India Muslim Personal Law Board and former Vice Chancellor of the Nadwat ul-Ulama, Maulvi Sayyed Abul Hasan Ali Hasani Nadvi, after listening to the book from the author.

Q: Are such views limited to the Deobandis alone?

A: No, unfortunately not. These views are held by many ulama of almost all the various Muslim sects in South Asia. Maulvi Ahmad Raza Khan, founder of the Barelvi school, who, while also a Hanafi, was a fierce opponent of the Deobandis, wrote that a teacher must
never hit a Sayyed student. As mentioned in his “Malfuzat”, he fiercely opposed higher education for children from so-called razil caste families. He claimed that four castes, Sayyeds, Shaikhs, Mughals and Pathans, are ashraf and others are razil. Maulvi Ahmad Raza Khan and his son Maulvi Muhammad Mustafa Raza Khan declared that even if a man from a so-called razil family becomes an Islamic scholar he cannot be considered to be the kafaa of someone from the so-called ashraf castes, as the book “Fatawa-e Rizvia” reveals. Hafiz Tabark Husain and Hafiz Deen Mohammad write in the book “Khun-e asawat”(‘Murder of Equality’) that another Barelvi writer, Maulvi Sayyed Hashmat Ali, argued that if a man from a Julaha (Ansari) family marries a Sayyed girl the marriage should be broken. If this is not done the child born from this couple would be illegitimate! Numerous other Indian lama who were not explicitly Hanafi shared these opinions about caste and kafaa. The noted scholar, Sayyed Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-i Islami, claimed in his
“Tarjuman al-Quran” and also in his “Tafhim ul-Quran” that kafaa, for purposes of marital relations, is based on birth (nasb) also. In this he appears to have followed the Hanafi position despite the impression that he, as well as the Jamaat-i Islami, was opposed
to blind imitation (taqlid) of past jurisprudential opinion. Jamaat-i-Islami Hind papers such as “Dawat” and “Radiance” still routinely carry matrimonial advertisements that specify the caste of prospective grooms or brides. When I asked some of those in charge of these papers and other Jamaat members as to why they accept such advertisements, they defended it, saying it was not un-Islamic, although some Jamaat activists are against of this kind of advertisements. Likewise, while the Ahl-i Hadith bitterly opposes the Hanafi school, most followers of the Ahl-i Hadith continue to marry within their own caste. Some Ahl-iHadith scholars, such as Maulvi Miyan Sayyed Muhammad Nazir Husain Muhaddith Dehlavi, one of the pioneers of the Ahl-i Hadith movement, supported the notion of kafaa based on birth, providing support for this from the books of Hanafi fiqh, as mentioned in the book “Fatawa-e Naziria”. A Pakistani Ahl-e Hadith writer, Maulvi Abu Sharahbeel, wrote a book “Halala ki Chhuri” condemning the Hanafis but on the matter of marriage and caste he supported notion of kafaa based on birth and occupation. He also humiliated some so-called low castes by calling them by bad names. Although I don’t know much about them, the different Shia groups, too, presumably hold a similar position on caste, especially since in their notion of the Imam descent from the Prophet plays a key role and so they hold those who claim to be Sayyeds in particular respect and awe. Similarly, the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, which claims to speak on behalf of all Muslim sects, castes and creeds in India, also upholds the Hanafi position on kafaa determined by birth. In May 2001, it
issued a Compendium of what it called ‘Islamic’ laws, mainly related to personal law issues. The Compendium specifically refers to kafaa, and insists that birth, and, therefore, family status, which also includes caste in the Indian context, is a basic ingredient of it. It says that a non-Muslim convert to Islam is of the same kafaa as an ‘original’ Muslim, but in the footnote it says that this applies to Arabs only. Presumably, therefore, according to this bizarre interpretation, an Indian male non-Muslim convert cannot marry a woman from an ‘original’ Muslim (Sayyed and Shaikh) family. Interestingly, the Board suggested that the Indian courts should accept this Compendium to govern Muslim personal law-related issues. Given the Compendium’s sanction of birth-based kafaa this suggestion is quite unacceptable. It would mean giving legal sanction to caste inequality.

Q: Are these notions of caste and caste hierarchy largely limited to the ulama alone? How are they reflected in the wider Muslim society?

A: Notions of superiority and inferiority based on caste are deeply ingrained among most Muslims, particularly in north India, even today. Because of the ways in which Islamic teachings have been distorted to legitimise caste, inter-caste marriages are very rare among Muslims in India. In some places, certain Muslim castes, such as Lalbegis, hereditary
sweepers, and even Ansaris, Rayins, Mansuris and Idrisis and so on are not considered ‘proper’ Muslims by many Manuvadi Muslims. In parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, many Manuvadi Muslims refer to themselves as ‘Muslims’ and to others by their caste names, as
Dhuniyas, Julahas Kunjras, Darzis or Mochis or whatever. The world knows little about the issues of the so-called low caste Muslims of India, mainly because most Manuvadi Muslim leaders choose never to refer to this issue. They are still subjected to various forms of discrimination by the Manuvadis, both Hindus and Muslims. Even today, as newspaper reports reveal, in some parts of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand so-called ‘upper’ caste Manuvadi Muslims do not allow so-called razil caste Muslims to bury their dead in the same graveyards or to eat with them or even to build good houses. Many Manuvadi Muslims would prefer voting for a so-called upper caste Hindu candidate in elections than for a so-called razil caste Muslim. There have been reports of several cases in north India, which I have culled out from different newspapers, of so-called ‘low’ caste Muslim boys and so-called ‘upper’ caste girls who wish to marry each other being killed by Manuvadi Muslims mainly out of caste prejudice, as happens in the case of Hindus as well. There is an almost total indifference on the part of many leading Muslim organisations to this sort of thing. In a sense the problem of caste among Muslims is more complex than among Hindus. There are a number of Hindus of so-called upper caste background who are working with the Dalits in their struggle for liberation, but there hardly any only so-called ashraf caste Muslims who have taken up the cause of the ‘low’ caste Muslims. Hindu fascist groups like the RSS say that they do not follow caste and that they see all Hindus as equal, but of course their actual aim is to preserve caste and Brahminical hegemony. As Giriraj Kishore, head of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, said in the aftermath of the brutal slaying of Dalit youths in Jhajjar, Haryana, in 2002, the life of a cow is more valuable than that of men (Dalits). But, irrespective of their actual beliefs, at least these Hindu fascists verbally declare that they are against caste and make a big show of garlanding the statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar and make a grand charade of celebrating his birthday every year. But many of our ulama do not even pay lip sympathy to the cause of equality. They do not even say that caste is bad and against religion, unlike what the RSS has started doing. Rather, they go to the extent of claiming that it is good and ‘Islamic’, seeking to justify it the name of kafaa. And what is most ironical about this is while the RSS, being followers of the religion that invented caste and that is based on caste, claims that caste is bad, and our ulama who defend caste claim to follow a religion that is totally against social inequality! I know of many people who are involved in various Islamic movements, some of who even fancifully dream of establishing an Islamic Caliphate not just in India but in the whole world, and who claim to be pious Muslims but who, at the same time practice caste-based discrimination towards so-called razil caste Muslims. This is the worst sort of hypocrisy. One of them refused to let his grand-daughter to marry her Ansari lover because of his caste. Another went to the extent of saying that it is not advisable to say prayers behind a ‘low’ caste imam! A third person, who was very poor, had sisters whom he could, for some reason, not get married off. A friend of his sent him a marriage proposal for his sisters on behalf of a very well-educated ‘low’ caste man who was employed in a well-paying job. The father of girls refused the offer because he wanted only so-called ashraf men for his daughters, and in his reply said that he would prefer to feed poison to his daughters than marry them off into ‘low’ caste families!
If ever such people get to establish the Caliphate of their dreams, I assure you it won’t be the Caliphate on the lines of that of the Prophet but, rather, the Raj of Manu!

Q: You claim that the position of ulama who defend caste is un-Islamic, but on what basis do they argue that their position is ‘Islamic’?

A: This is because they confuse Hanafi fiqh or jurisprudence with Islam. Fiqh is a human and historical product, and the rules of Hanafi fiqh on kafaa and numerous other matters evolved in the medieval period to support social hierarchy. I see little difference between some of these rules and the Manusmriti, the Bible of Brahmanism, especially on the
issue of the so-called ‘low’ castes. Those who claim Islamic sanction for birth-based kafaa cannot provide any sanction for this from the Quran or genuine (sahih) Hadith of the Prophet, and so they resort to medieval Hanafi texts and also traditions attributed to the Prophet of weak or doubtful (zaif) authenticity or even downright fabrications (mauzu) for this instead. As the noted Islamic scholar Imam Ibn Hajar Asqalani says in his “Fath ul-Bari fi Sharh al-Sahihi al-Bukhari”, those who base kafaa on nasb or birth cannot adduce even a single (genuine) hadith to back their claim. There is a desperate need for the ulama to abandon rigid conformity to medieval Hanafi law, particularly on the issue of kafaa, and to engage in ijtihad or the reformulating and rethinking of jurisprudence. But this is not really happening in a big way. To cite an example, in 1999 Maulvi Qazi Mujahid ul-Islam Siddiqui Qasmi, one of the best-known Deobandi scholars, the third president of All-India Muslim Personal Law Board and head of the Islamic Fiqh Academy, organized an international conference on ijtihad in Patna. One of the issues discussed at the conference was ijtihad on the question of kafaa, but finally it was decided under Qasmi’s leadership that the Hanafi position on the issue, except the question of kafaa between ‘new’ Muslims and ‘old’ Muslims, was correct and in need of no reform!

Q: But surely not all ulama of so-called ashraf background would uphold the notion of kafaa based on birth?

A: True. I must point out here that these fierce debates about kafaa and the strict observance of traditional kafaa rules for marriage happen almost only in South Asia today. Although there are millions of followers of the Hanafi, Shafi and Hanbali schools of Sunni law, all of which uphold the notion of kafaa based on birth, in other countries as well, they do not follow these rules strictly or seriously. Perhaps they have realised that these rules are not really Islamic. Perhaps it is also because Muslims in South Asia have been heavily influenced by Hindu culture, most of them being descendants of local converts. This stress on kafaa based on birth is much more in north India than in the south, probably because Islam came to south India from Arabia, while in the north it came through the Turks, who were only recent converts to Islam and still followed many hierarchical pre-Islamic Turkish traditions. Another point that I want to make is that not all ulama in South Asia have supported this obscurantist notion of kafaa based on birth. There have been several ulama from so-called ashraf caste families who, through the centuries, have pposed the notion of kafaa based on birth and have bitterly critiqued the institution of caste. Interestingly, many of these were Hanafis themselves, such as Qazi Sanaullah Usmani
Panipati Hanafi, Maulvi Abul Mohasin Sajjad, founder of the Imarat-i Shariah, Bihar, the Deobandi scholars Maulvi Hifzur Rahman Siharvi and Maulvi Sayyed Sulaiman Nadvi, the Ahl-i Hadith scholars Maulvi Abdul Jalil, Maulvi Sanaullah Amritsari and Maulvi Abul Kalam Azad and the noted Jamaat-i-Islami writer Maulvi Sadruddin Khan Islahi. The early nineteenth century leaders of the Mujahidin movement in the North-West Frontier, Sayyed Ahmad Barelvi and Shah Mohammad Ismail Faruqi, also opposed caste distinctions. As this suggests, not all people from so-called high caste families support caste discrimination, although many of them do.

Q: Have ulama of so-called low castes spoken out against what you see as the un-Islamic theory of kafaa based on birth?

A: Yes, a few such scholars have, and so have some scholars of so-called ashraf caste background. But I know of numerous ulama from the so-called low castes who seek to conceal their caste identity and seek to pass off as ‘upper’ caste. Naturally, they would not
want to be seen as opposing the dominant view on kafaa. So, for instance, Maulvi Sayyed Husain Ahmad Madani, the well-known Deobandi leader, is said by some to have been from the Ansari caste, but he claimed to be a Sayyed. I researched his family tree and could not come up with any evidence of his being a Sayyed. He spoke against casteism but unfortunately elsewhere also supported it, and even signed with other persons from the Deoband madrasa an announcement to support Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmanis’ controversial book on caste! Likewise, the eminent Indian Muslim scholars Shah Waliullah Dehlavi and Ashraf Ali Thanvi both claimed to be of Arab origin, descended from Hazrat Umar, but it is likely that they were actually of indigenous Indian descent. Yet, the supported the notion that Muslims of Arab descent were superior to others. Interestingly, Thanvi says that ‘low’ castes claiming Arab origin as Ansaris, Rayeens and Idrisis should produce historical evidence in support of their claims, but at the same time he says
that there is no need to produce similar evidence for ‘upper’ castes in favour of their claims of being of Arab origin. Some other ulama of ‘low’ caste background have so internalised the logic of the dominant Manuvadi ulama on kafaa that they actually uphold it. Thus, for instance, the Deobandi Mufti Kifayatullah, who was from the Salmani (Hajjam or barber) caste, opposed casteism in his “Kifayat ul-Mufti” but also declared that Sayyeds and Shaikhs, both being supposedly of Arab origin, were the kafaa of each other, implying that non-Arab Muslims were inferior to them. Likewise, a Barelvi scholar from the Ansari caste, Maulvi Amjad Ali, also upheld the notion of kafaa based on birth in his famous book “Bahar-e-Shariat”. This view was also voiced by Arshad ul-Qadri, an Ansari maulvi, who was one of the most renowned Barelvi scholars of recent times. Presumably, he had internalised the logic of the Manuvadis despite being of non-ashraf background. It is a different matter that today, after his death, efforts are being made to pass him off as a Sayyed! There could be some more great scholars from so-called ‘low’ caste families who are no more now and who are now being passed off as so-called ‘high’ caste. Take the case of Maulvi Ibrahim Baliyavi, who was an Ansari, but some Deobandi authors are trying to project him as a so-called ‘high’ caste Punjabi and they argue that to call him an Ansari is to insult him! Mufti Kifayatullah Dehalvi, of the Hajjam caste, is now being promoted by some people as a so-called upper caste. I also know a maulvi from the Shekhra caste, which is considered as a ‘low’ caste. When he was known as a Shekhra caste the Manuvadi ulama and people in general did not respect him, but when he started to call himself as an Usmani Shaikh, claiming descent from Hazrat Usman, the third Sunni caliph, he earned the respect of the Manuvadi ulama and also began getting money for his madarsa. And now, he himself has started considering so-called razil castes as ‘low’!

Q: But what about Muslim reformers other than the ulama? What was their position on the question? Have there been any who took up the issue of caste discrimination?

A: Many of these reformers were from the ‘upper’ castes, and almost none took up the caste question with any seriousness. In the early twentieth century ‘upper’ caste Hindu leaders, such as the Arya Samajists and Gandhi, had begun talking about the problems of the Dalits, primarily because they were afraid that otherwise the Dalits would convert to Christianity or Islam and thereby reduce Hindu numbers. But, surprisingly, hardly any Indian Muslim leaders showed any similar concern for the so-called ‘low’ caste Muslims, whose conditions were as pathetic as that of the Dalits. They either ignored the so-called ‘low’ caste Muslims or else actively sought to justify their subordination. For instance, Khwaja Sayyed Hasan Nizami of Delhi, the noted early twentieth century Urdu writer who is hailed as a ‘great’ champion of Islamic reform and tabligh (mission), claimed, in an article he wrote in the Urdu journal “Maulvi”, that Allah had created the ‘Julahas’ (Ansaris) to serve the so-called ashraf. He complained that so-called low caste children were getting government jobs after studying English while so-called ashraf children were being thereby rendered jobless. Hence, he appealed for the government to look into the matter!
But Nizami was hardly alone among the prominent so-called ashraf reformers in having such views. Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan, the founder of the Aligarh movement, hailed as the ‘Father of Muslim India’, thought on similar lines. He was an ardent champion of the supremacy of the so-called ashraf while also passionately supporting British colonial rule. He opposed the entry of so-called razil in legislatures and government employment. As the book “Khutbat-e-Sir Sayyed” reveals, he argued that examinations for the higher government services should not be held in India because that might lead to people from so-called razil castes entering government services and thereby ruling over the so-called ashraf. He also said that the so-called low castes were not beneficial for the government as well as for the country, but that the so-called ashraf were beneficial for both. In the wake of the 1857 Revolt he wrote a book called “Asbab-e Baghawat-e Hind” (‘Causes of the Indian Revolt”), in which he appealed to the so-called ashraf not to oppose the British, suggesting that thereby they would be able to win the favour of the colonial authorities. He sought to convince the British rulers that the so-called ashraf were not involved in the Revolt, and claimed, instead, that it was the ‘Julahas’ (Ansaris) who were behind it, referring to them as a ‘despicable caste’ (bud zaat)! He even went to the extent, as Raziuddin Ahmad writes in his “Aligarh Tahreek”, of claiming that Allah would punish Julahas, Darzis and illiterate Muslims on the Day of Judgment. He opened the Anglo-Mohammadan Oriental College only for the so-called ashraf. He argued that giving English education to ‘low’ class people was not good for them and the country. They should, he believed, be provided only with some booklets to learn basic Islamic beliefs and the rituals of prayer, as the book “Khutba-e Sir Sayyed” reports. In line with Sayyed Ahmad Khan’s views, till 1947 the character certificate issued by the Aligarh College specifically mentioned that ‘This person is from a respectable family of his district’ (‘sayel apne zile ke sharif khandan se taluq rakhta hai’). Till today there is a column asking about the applicant’s caste in the Aligarh Muslim University’s examination form, and, as in most other Indian universities, casteism is rife between the teachers and students and university employees.

Q: Most of the larger Islamic organizations in India are headed by ‘high’ caste people. Have there been any ‘low’ caste leaders of such organizations?

A: Yes, there have been some such people. For instance, Maulvi Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari Madni and Maulvi Shafi Ansari Mubarkpuri, both Ansaris, served as the national president (amir) of the All-India Jamiat ul-Ahl-e Hadith. Maulvi Yusuf Quraishi served as the national president of Jamaat-i-Islami, and this position is today occupied by an Ansari, Dr. Abdul Haq
Ansari. But in other cases so-called ‘low’ caste people have been deliberately kept out of top
positions in such organisations. So, for instance, when the great scholar of Hadith Maulvi Habib ur-Rahman al-Azmi became the national president of the Deobandi Jamiat ul-Ulama-i Hind in 1986, there was a huge hue and cry from Deobandi maulvis and even the noted Barelvi maulvi, Yaseen Misbahi, spoke out against his becoming the president. One Deobandi maulvi wrote that Azmi’s becoming the president of the Jamiat went against the fourteen hundred year-old tradition of Muslim jurisprudence and even claimed that this kind of ‘tragedy’ had only taken place once before, in the ‘un-Islamic’ court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar! When Maulvi Rahmatullah Meeruthi of the Teli (oil- presser) caste, was to become to head of the Tablighi Jamaat, numerous Tablighi and Deobandi maulvis and leaders, including the chief Tablighi ideologue, Maulvi Mohammad Zakaria Siddiqi, a Shaikh, spoke out against this. At last Maulvi Merthi was forced to back down when Maulvi Mohammad Zakariya Siddiqi claimed that he had seen a dream in which he said he saw that someone else, who happened to be a fellow Shaikh, had been appointed as the head of the Tablighi movement!

Q: Today, some Muslim leaders are calling for reservations in government services for all Muslims, while some other leaders, from the ‘low’ castes, demand that such reservations should be given only to those defined officially as ‘Other Backward Classes’ (OBCs), Muslims other than the so-called ashraf. What is your own position on this matter?

A: The demand that all Muslims be considered ‘backward’ and that, hence, all Muslims be provided reservations is being voiced by some people, almost all from the so-called ‘upper’ castes, such as Sayyed Shahabuddin, president of the Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, Sayyed Zafaryab Jilani, founder of Babri Masjid Action Committee, Sayyed Hamid, the former Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University and present chancellor of the Hamdard University, Maulvi Mohammad Shafi Munis a Rangar Rajput and a member of Jamaat-i-Islami of India, and Muhammad Salim Siddiqui Qasmi, a Shaikh and vice-chancellor of the Darul Ulum Waqf, Deoband, and deputy president of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board. Sayyed Zafaryab Jilani has even founded an organization called “Muslim Reservation Movement” for this purpose. On the other hand, OBC Muslim leaders such as Mr. Ali Anwar of the All-India Muslim Pasmanda Mahaz, Mr.Ashfaque Husain Ansari, Mr. Mansoor Alam Kunjra, Mr. Ejaz Ali and others, argue that the reservation should be given only to Muslim OBCs, and are also demanding that Muslims of Dalit background be treated by the state as Scheduled Castes and, accordingly, be given the same rights as ‘Hindu’ Dalits. They very rightly argue that if reservations are provided for all Muslims the so-called upper caste Muslims will capture all the available posts, because they are better off and more influential and also because they do not want us to compete with them.

Q:What sort of response have you received to your writings on the issue of caste among Muslims?

A: When a cat is cornered all it can do is scratch out. A lot number of people, even many so-called ashraf, liked my articles, but, of course, many of them did not. Since they have no convincing answer to give, based on the Quran and genuine Hadith, they respond with abuse. So, when people like us, who critique caste divisions within the Muslim community
and the way in which numerous ulama have sought to legitimize these, speak out, we are falsely maligned as un-Islamic and as allegedly playing into the hands of what are described as the ‘enemies of Islam’. We are even accused of trying to keep caste alive. Some even go to the ridiculous extent of saying we are part of an ‘anti-Islamic’ or ‘Jewish’ conspiracy! They say that we are exaggerating things and that, since Islam preaches equality, there is no caste among Muslims. Our reply is that yes, it is true that Islam preaches equality, but Manuvadi ulama have so misinterpreted Islam as to seek to sanction inequality in the name of Islam. Ask those who say there is no caste problem among Muslims how many people in their families have married outside their castes.

Q: Do you find many ulama-related organizations taking up this issue of caste divisions and discrimination seriously today?

A: Not at all. In fact, there is caste-based discrimination in several of these organizations.
There have been several cases of so-called low caste ulama being denied leadership roles in leading Muslim organizations due to their caste, as I mentioned earlier. Many so-called low caste ulama are harassed by Manuvadi ulama and some actually start believing that their people are actually inferior, as I pointed out. Muslim organizations could have started a mass movement against caste, but they have not, offering the specious claim that they don’t believe in caste and so there is no point in talking if it! When I asked some leaders of reformist Islamic groups, such as the Jamaat-i Islami Hind and the Ahl-i Hadith, that while they routinely launch programmes against various un-Islamic customs why is it that they have never done something similar about the caste problem within the Muslim community, they had no reasonable answer to give. They routinely condemn the Hindus for practicing caste, but yet turn a blind eye to the disease of caste within the Muslim community, even though caste is clearly un-Islamic. The reason why they do so is obvious and needs no elaboration. It is remarkable how, despite fighting among themselves on theological issues and on petty jurisprudential (fiqhi) matters, many so-called ashraf caste Manuvadi ulama of the different sects in India are unanimous on the issue of kafaa based on birth and, therefore, on the claim of the superiority of the so-called ashraf castes. These ulama who sanction caste live off the largesse of the community and have a vested interest in keeping people ignorant about the true Islamic teachings on caste.

Q: What, then, is the solution to the malaise that you describe?

A: I would say that the ulama have a principal role to play in this regard. They need to depart from the medieval Hanafi position on the matter of kafaa and, instead, propagate the true Islamic position, that does not brook birth-based or caste-based discrimination, and according to which the only criterion for deciding one status is one piety or lack of it. No one, irrespective of caste or origin, Arab or non-Arab, deserves special respect on the
basis of birth. The Quran itself says in Surah Hujra, “O mankind ! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that) ye may despise (each other).Verily the most honoured of you
in the sight of Allah is (he/she who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)”. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have declared that there are two things that can lead people to infidelity, and one of these is to consider others as ‘low’ on the basis of their birth, as Imam Muslim cites it in his “Al-Sahih”.

Madrasas should teach this correct Islamic position on the issue, although I think, given the fact that most of them are controlled by Manuvadis, this will probably not happen in the near future. We also need to launch a popular movement to promote mass consciousness about this issue, which is eating into the vitals of our society. Progressive thinkers and activists of so-called ashraf background, too, must join this effort. It is also necessary that so-called low caste people don’t abuse or condemn the so-called ‘upper’ castes as a whole, because many of the latter are against caste discrimination. What we are opposed to is not any particular caste, but, rather, the Manuvadi ideology. So, Muslims must follow the teachings of the Qur’an rather than what the Manuvadi maulvis tell us.

Q: What are your future plans in this regard?

A: I plan to carry on with my research in this sorely neglected field. It is a moral obligation that I owe to my fellow Muslims and non-Muslims as well as to my faith. My understanding of Islam leads me to believe that there can be no room for caste distinctions and that is what I want others to understand. I have prepared two book-length manuscripts on the subject of caste in Urdu. Both are ready for publication. But the problem is of getting a suitable publisher. I am carrying on with my research and, with Allah’s grace, I would like to dedicate my life to working for Islam and for the cause of the oppressed, because that is
what my faith tells me I should do.


  1. The article was worth reading and very much informative. Ofcourse there is no room in Islam for caste discrimination and those who practice this are Manuvadi. They should learn about the tradition (Hadith) of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and open their eyes and hearts to the truth rather than getting influenced by the customs and traditions that were developed in the influence of Hinduism.

    In solidarity,

    Mohammed Ashfaq

  2. M.A Falahi has exposed the role of manuwadi ulemas in perpetuating caste system among Muslims.The manuwadi ulemas and the socalled high caste Muslims want to keep the socalled low caste Muslims backward. It is the reason why the manuwadi ulemas who control the madarsas do not want any reform in the existing syllabus. They oppose the teaching of modern courses in the madarsas where the majority of students belong to backward muslim communities.

  3. Domination is a inherent tendencies of few irrespective of castes.In all period literates and intellectuals are politically and economically ruling class.The quran considers god conciousness"Taqwa" as the standards of faith. Elite interpret the verse of quran as u have been divided into tribe, regions so that u can identify urself as a sense of domination to justify the caste.Today we are questioning upper caste social elites, tomorrow we may have to question the Dalit and OBC elites.(like mayawati and Ansari elites a descendants of ansars of medina)

  4. I salute this man Falahi for his age on side and maturity, wisdom and weight in his arguments...people like you cetainly have the potential to change the course of history...uproot all these "dominating forces" thru education and awareness among poor Muslim brothers...however i know there is no such thing as Ashraf or Arzal or anything of that sort...but we do know that there r lots of our brothers who have been exploited and kept in the dark by certain selfish, self centered groups who also call themselves Muslim ...which is a crude joke,

    Also, people must become aware of sinister designs of these different school of thoughts ...barelvi or, deobandi...these r tools used by thses mullahas no to guide the people like you n me...but stay in control and lead a lavish is high time that we see thru their designs ....and stop them from speaking on be half of the entire quam..

  5. It is a nice presentation . Wondered to know that caste discrimination is rampant in Islam also.One has to appreciate the determination on the part of Falahi to go into the root cause of caste discrimination in Muslim hierarchy. Good luck for this good cause.--VVRao.

  6. Excellent article. I often argued with elders in my family who were a big proponent of caste system within muslims. Jazakallah dr falahi and for publishing this interview.


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