A Reading into the Theological Construction of Caste Practices in South Asian Islam

Book: Hindustan Me Zaat Paat Aur Musalmaan (Caste System In India And The Muslims)

Author: Masud Alam Falahi

Year: 2007

Pages: 640

Publisher: Al Qazi, New Delhi.

Review: Arshad Amanullah

“Bhai saheb! My village is completely Pakistan which is surrounded by India”. “What do you mean by India and Pakistan?”, I asked. Only Sheikhs and Syeds live in the village and on the periphery, there are settlements of Kunjras (Green-grocers), Qasais (Butchers), Jolhas (Weavers), Dhuniyas (Cotton-carders), Nais (Barbers),etc”, he replied.
(An excerpt from the book, p: 453).

The discourse (secular/ religious/ both) on the South Asian Muslims has been so ashraf-driven that either it hardly engages, in a pragmatic fashion, the issues of social equality as a tool to put an end to economic and cultural exclusions, or whenever it tries to address them(the issues of social equality), it does so with great rhetoric. Mohammad Iqbal’s verse “Ek Hi Saf Me KharHe Ho Gaye Mahmud-o-Ayaz / Na Koi Banda Raha Na Koi Banda Nawaz” very aptly exemplifies the extent of simplicity and rhetoric the ulama and the Islamists have reduced such a complicated question to. Another limitation which categorizes their narratives on the theme is that they do it to woo the ummat-i-da’wah to embrace Islam, not to radicalize the behavioural aspect of the concept of equality among the believers. Being a narrative of an Islamist alim, though the book under-review also carries some of these limitations and biases, it offers fresh information on the theme and throws a host of questions to ruminate on.

In the light of the insights obtained from years of ethnography on the caste demography of the Indian Muslims, the present volume problematizes the social equality project of textual Islam, especially when the latter negotiates with the strong local societal institutions. That process of theology manufacturing is marked by a constant reproduction of the local societal institutions and hence their perpetuations, is another motif of the book. What enhances its complexity is the academic and ideological location of the author and his approach to the politics of jurisprudence production. To put the book in perspective, one needs to explain briefly the dominant discourse about discrimination and forms of social exclusion among Indian Muslims, before delving into the genealogy of the volume and the saga of its several rejections from the publishers.

Apart from social intercourse, the caste-based discriminatory praxis among Muslims find expressions in at least five forms: khilafat, imamat, kufu/kafa’at, employment and education. Majority of the ulama consider khilafat a prerogative of the descendents of the Prophet while it is only ashrafs who jurisprudentially qualify for the imamat (to lead the prayer in the mosque). Further, the ulama deem the observance of ‘Kufu” mandatory for the islamicality of a marital alliance. Literally meaning eligible/suitable/equal, the kufu in its hermeneutical sense, stands for the following: four castes of the ashrafs (Syeds, Sheikhs, Mughals and Pathans) are generally considered suitable marriage partners for each other, making it a complete endogamous affair while the ajlaf (communities based on professions) can marry only among themselves, not the ashrafs. The arzals (the untouchables) form the socially and physically excluded lot of the Muslim society. Moreover, no Jadidul Islam (new converts to Islam) can marry a Qadeemul Islam (a person whose family has been within the pale of Islam for more than a generation), due to the temporal distance which comes to characterize their association with Islam. The textual Islam (the Qur’an and the Hadiths) does not conceive social organisation of the Muslims in terms of these stratifications however majority of the Indian ulama have been justifying the same in the jurisprudence, through interpretations of the Qur’anic verses which serve their purpose and also with the help of concocted ahadith.

Due to several factors like socio-democratic programmes of the Constitution, secular character of the Indian polity, industrialization-led-intense process of urbanisation, etc, have reduced the occurrence of other discriminatory praxis, however, the institution of Kufu is still violently in practice. It has, thus, continued to come under criticism from the backward caste ulama time and again. In this regard, among others, Mufti Habibur Rahman Azmi’s monograph Ansaab Wa Kafa’at Ki Shar‘i Haisiyat and Maualana Abdul Hamid Nomani’s tract Masla-i-Kufu Aur Isha’at-i-Islam as critiques of the dominant narrative of the Kufu deserve mentioning here. Though Masud Falahi’s book comes to signify the most recent effort in this series of protest writings, it marks a departure from its predecessors in several ways.

A graduate of Jamiatul Falah, Azamgarh, the central madrasa of Jama’at-i-Islami Hind, Masud’s has an insider’s take on Jama’at’s realpolitik and work-culture. In fact, one of the important reasons which prompted him to write the book is the casteist behaviour of the cadres and office-bearers of the Jama’at. (P373). In addition to engaging the issue in normative fashion, he quotes instances from real life of the predominantly ashraf leadership of the Jama’at. “Personal histories, interviews, observations and incidents which the author has been a witness to”(P27-28), thus, constitute a major chunk of the book. On a much larger plane, he applies the same strategy of data-collection to the outstanding ulama of all denominations and prominent religious bodies of Indian Muslims. That is why potential of his book to critique the agenda and vision of the present Muslim religious establishment and Islamist leadership is simply unmatched.

It is against this backdrop, one needs to understand why Jama’at-i-Islami Hind, after three years of dilly-dallying discovered that it could not publish Masud’s monograph and why an Ahl-i-Hadith publisher from the city of Maunath Bhanjan, Uttar Pradesh demanded to remove those portions of the book which offered insights about the caste-driven writings of the Ahl-i-Hadith ulama and practical politics of the present establishment of Markazi Jami’at Ahl-i-Hadith Hind. Interestingly enough, before he found his publisher, Jamia Asaria Darul Hadith, an Ahl-i-Hadith madrasa of Maunath Bhanjan, had started a serial reproduction of some portions from the book in each issue of its monthly magazine Aasar-i-Jadid (from February 2007).

Divided into ten chapters, the timeline of Masud’s narrative starts with the Aryan invasion on India and comes down to the current period. His hypotheses is that the Muslim intellectuals (religious/secular), instead of discouraging the caste-based discrimination among the Indian Muslims, have consciously or unconsciously projected it as an Islamic concept and tinkered with the classical Islamic texts to lend it a jurisprudential sanction. Consequently, it has caused an irreparable damage to the process of Proselytization of Islam in the country. Having realised the gravity of circumstances, some contemporary ulama and intellectuals, in their individual capacity, tried to challenge the islamicality of the caste discrimination. India has yet to witness a movement which has had at the core of its programme: struggle against Caste-discriminations among Muslims.

Masud sees the caste-system of the Muslims as a Brahmanical Conspiracy to indianise Islam (Islam Ka Bharatiyakaran) (P109). This formulation presupposes an egalitarian Muslim society without any element of social exclusion. It also assumes that all of the Indian Muslims at a certain point of history came from outside to this land. Moreover, this reading of the nature and genealogy of the caste praxis among Muslims relegates its association with the power politics within the Muslims to the oblivion. This is a fallacious argument to say the least.

As a logical extension of the Brahmanical Conspiracy Theory, comes Masud’s fascination with the Pollution Theory. The latter posits a binary opposition of the Arabs vs Ajams (Non-Arabs) where Arabs get credit for all merits of Islam/Muslims while Ajams stand convicted for all demerits that crept in the Muslim society. For example, he considers all those Arab invaders who came to India and established their government in the coastal regions of Sindh, as Khalis Musalman (Pure Muslims) and personification of “Islamic egalitarianism”.(P114). This formulation runs contrary to the Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. Moreover, it is well documented that Arab society was highly stratified along the lines of tribes, some of which were considered superior to others. The correspondence between Abu Ja’far Mansur, the Abbasid Caliph and Muhammad bin Abdullah Nafs Zakiya (one of the descendants of Ali) which Masud cited in the book (P 133-134), demonstrates how Arabs had used paternal and maternal lineages to justify their claim to the political power.

One can easily discern from the works of medieval historians like Ziauddin Barney, Qasim Farishta, etc that caste discriminations were widespread during the reign of the early Muslim rulers of India. Masud has reproduced a couple of them to show the role of ulama in providing theological sanction to various forms of exclusion. Interestingly, Fatawa Alamgiri does not offer any critique of the popular understanding of Kufu, despite the fact that it has a detailed discussion on the issue and was compiled at behest of Aurangzeb, the darling of the ulama and Islamists. Likewise, a decree of Bahadur Shah Zafar to recruit 500 men in the Mughal army, clearly specifies that the soldiers should be from only ashraf castes of Sheikh, Syed, Mughal and Pathan “. (P226).

As the book progresses on the timeline, the reader comes to know about Abdul Haq Dehlavi (1551-1645) who interrogated islamicality of the concept of dishonour related to professions (manual), perhaps for the first time in the history of Hanafite Islam in India. He painstakingly researched asaneed (chains of verbal transmission) of the ahadith which were prevalent in disrespect of certain professions and castes, especially Julahas (weavers) and found them concocted. He was followed by several ulama who, though, rose to prominence at different points in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were against the concept of popular Kufu and other forms of caste discrimination.

It is interesting to note that Shah Waliullah (1703-1762) was an ardent advocate of the popular Kufu. He, in his magnum opus Hujjatullahil Baligha, resorted to an athar (a saying of a companion of the Prophet) of Umar, the second caliphate, to substantiate his position and offered a weird interpretation of a Hadith to avoid the latter’s clash with his take on the issue. In a situation like this, it is the hadith which gets preference, rather than an athar. The Deobandi ulama and some of the Ahl-i-Hadith ulama subscribed to the Shah Waliullah’s views on the caste-discrimination as he is supposed to have inspired these two of three denominations of the modern South Asian Muslims.

Nihayatul Arab Fi Ghayaatin Nasab by Mufti Muhammad.Shafi Usmani and Risala Tabligh by Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi are two works which caused a lot of controversy in the early 20th century due to their derogatory remarks against the non-ashraf castes. They, especially Ansaris and Qureshis, staged demonstrations and organised a host of meetings in 1932 in the length and breadth of the country, to register their resistance against creation and publication of the theology of discrimination and hatred. Interestingly enough, classical anthologies of the Hadith like Kanzul Ummal (by Allauddin Muttaqi) from where Thanawi and Shafi have extensively quoted, are replete with ahadith which are all praise for professional groups/communities. The selective amnesia theory alone may furnish the best explanation of this phenomenon.

Masud has shown that efforts to lend theological legitimacy to discriminatory praxis like Kufu have not been monopoly of the Deobandis. The fatawa of Ahmad Raza Khan Barelwi (1850-1920) exude sheer biases against the non-ashraf demography of the Muslim community. Ahl-i-Hadith ulama like Syed Nazir Husain, Siddiq Hasan Khan, Syed Abdul Samee Jafari, etc. have been no different from their counterparts from other two denominations in reinforcing caste-discrimination through their praxis and writings. One wonders that even the backward caste ulama like Mohammad Amjad Ali Ansari, Mufti Kifayatullah Salmani (the first President of Jamiatul Ulama-i-Hind), etc. have issued fatwas in support of the enforcement of Kufu!

What may really come as a shocking discovery to a reader of the book is the following line by Khwaja Syed Hasan Nizami: “Though there is a provision for equality within Islam, Allah has created Julahas to serve the higher caste groups”. Sufism is regarded as the most liberal expression of the proselytizing Islam which has done its best to accommodate local traditions, with due respect to their autonomy, within the master-narrative of Islam. Sufism in India thus, due to its accommodative character, does not only reproduces the social biases but reinforces them as well, as is evident from the advocacy of a form of social exclusion by one of the doyens of the Sufi traditions in India.

In Masud’s narrative-design, theological insights enrich the findings of social scientists so that a wider picture of the dynamics of the caste praxis in the Muslim society can emerge. His borrowings from Ali Anwar, Imtiaz Ahmad, Aijaz Ali, V.T.Rajashekhar, etc, are not just reproductions or paraphrasings, he differed from them or critiqued them on several occasions. Moreover, he also shows occasionally the upfront confrontation between the ulama and the secular intelligentsia. For example, Hasan Ali has studied in his paper “Elements of Caste among the Muslims in Districts in Southern Bihar” the dynamics of caste discrimination in two Muslim-majority localities of Ranchi, Jharkhand. Masud has quoted a statement of Qazi Mujahidul Islam Qasmi, a veteran Deobandi alim, who, differing from findings of Hasan Ali, observed: “The village is familiar to me. I know that so-called backward castes are not discriminated against there while serving the food, making them to sit in different rows”. (P 446-47).

Some ulama question the popular concept of Kufu while they consider the caste location as a deciding factor for other rituals/praxis like imamat, etc. Masud has considered it as a criterion also to understand the casteist undercurrents of the jurisprudence creation. Another interesting theme the book indirectly deals with is the relationship between the caste, the denomination and the region. One can easily discern from the incidents he has mentioned that the caste identity supersedes when it negotiates with denominational and regional identities during the process of forging matrimonial alliances. However, the institution of marriage in the Muslim community as a site for contestations among three levels of social exclusion is an area which needs proper sociological exploration. Another area which calls for the attention of social scientists is the extent to which the observance of Kufu can push the boundary of endogamy. It is doctrinally permissible in Islam to marry first/second cousins however frequency to tie nuptial knots among the first cousins tends to be higher among the ashrafs. The empirical information regarding the dynamics of this aspect of Kufu and its variations across castes, denominations and regions is really thin.

While surveying a couple of apex Muslim organisations of the contemporary India, Masud finds out that despite their claim to be “Islamic” in their social behaviour, the caste has come to categorize their practical politics in a very overt style. As an insider to the Jama’at-i-Islami Hind, he informs that it has been a hostage in the hands of some ashrafs who are extremely castiest in their social outlook (P392). Likewise, content of “Compendium of Islamic Laws”, a volume compiled and published by All India Muslim Personal Law Board recently, betrays an effort on its part to project Kufu and other manifestations of the caste discrimination as intrinsic sections of Muslim theology. The other side of the coin is that this volume is full of passages and references of jurisprudential sources but it does not have citations from the classical texts of Islam (P410).

In short, Masud’s first book makes an interesting reading on the issue of the caste discriminations. One may differ from him on several points he makes and conclusions he draws but the disagreement neither undermines the utility of the tons of information he provides for the future scholars nor does it overshadow the relevance of the questions he raises in the book.

(The review-article appeared in Contemporary Perspectives, Volume 2, No.2, July-December 2008, pp 374-381.).


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