Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 5

The Origin and Spread of Islam in India

By Masood Alam Falahi

(Part 5 of Masood Alam Falahi's Urdu book Hindustan Mai Zat-Pat Aur Musalman (‘Casteism Among Muslims in India’))

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)

For Part 1 Go to:

Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 1


For Part 2 Go to: Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 2


For Part 3 Go to: Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims – Part 3

For Part 4 Go to: Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims – Part - 4


At a time when in India, as in many other parts of the world, social hierarchy, inequality and oppression were at their peak, with a large section of humanity, such as the Indian Shudras, being treated as worse than animals in the name of religion, the Prophet Muhammad began his mission in Arabia. The core of his message was the oneness of God. ‘Say: "He is Allah, [the] One’, the Quran exhorts the Prophet to announce to the world. Another central aspect of the divine message the Prophet was commissioned to preach was the oneness and ontological equality of all human beings. Thus, the Quran declares, ‘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 you may despise each other]. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is [he who is] the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted [with all things]’ (49: 13). The Prophet very explicitly announced, ‘An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor has a non-Arab any superiority over an Arab. Nor has a black man any superiority over a white man or a white man over a black man except by the criterion of God consciousness (taqwa). All of you are from Adam, and Adam is from dust.’ This message of social equality is a central pillar of the Islamic dawah or missionary call. It was, undoubtedly, one of the major factors for the powerful attraction that Islam exercised and for its rapid spread, in a matter of just a few years, across the Arabian peninsula and beyond.

The first Muslim converts in India were a result of the influence of Arab traders. This dates back to before the first Muslim conquests of the region. These and consequent conversions must be seen in the light of the fact that by this time Brahminism had succeeded in completely extirpating Buddhism from India and in bringing back the Shudras into the Hindu fold as slaves, subjecting them to horrendously cruel forms of oppression. It is a well-known fact that the Arab traders, Sufis and some Muslim conquerors embraced the oppressed Shudras. Many of them kept Shudras in their employ. In many cases, as has been documented for Malabar, they took charge of the children of impoverished Shudras, and reared them as Muslims, showering on them love and care. Many Shudras, particularly the Untouchables, were overwhelmed with this behaviour of the early Muslims, which was a reflection of Islamic teachings. Consequently, they began converting to Islam in droves. After becoming Muslim they were often treated by the Hindus as of equal status as the other Muslims, certainly above that of the unconverted Shudras. This further promoted conversions to Islam among the Shudras. Immigrant Muslims did not hesitate to marry their women, and this helped further improve their social standing. The Mapilla, Labbai and Navayat Muslims of south India are products of such unions.

In addition to the oppressed castes, people from other castes also converted to Islam, often as a result of even minor infractions of the rules of caste, which resulted in their immediately being expelled from their castes. The process of the spread of Islam in India was greatly facilitated by the role of pious Sufis, ‘friends of God’ (awliya-e Allah), whose message of love, fraternity, and equality exercised a powerful influence on vast numbers of Indians, particularly from the oppressed castes, attracting them to Islam.

Conversion to Islam among the Shudras was thus, to a large extent, due to social factors, especially the appeal of egalitarianism that is so central to Islam. As the noted Indian Muslim historian Shaikh Muhammad Ikram writes in his Ab-e Kausar:

‘An additional, and very important, factor for the spread of Islam in India were Islamic teachings about social equality, which held out a call for freedom and progress for the low castes [...] If a list is drawn of low caste people who, after embracing Islam, rose to be appointed as generals in the armies [of Muslim rulers] and governors of provinces [under Muslim rule] [...] one will realise the importance of this central factor in the spread of Islam [in India].’[i]

The same point is made by T.W. Arnold in his acclaimed book ‘The Preaching of Islam’, where he asserts with respect to Bengal that:

‘To these poor people—fishermen, hunters, pirates, and low-caste tillers of the soil, Islam came as a revelation from on high. It was the creed of the ruling race. Its missionaries were men of zeal who brought the Gospel of the unity of God and the equality of men in its sight to a despised and neglected population [...] It brought in a higher conception of God and a nobler idea of the brotherhood of man. It offered to the teeming low castes of Bengal, who had sat for ages abject on the outermost pale of the Hindu community, a free entrance into a new social organisation [...] It is this absence of class prejudices which constitutes the real strength of Islam in India and enables it to win so many converts from Hinduism.’[ii]

[i] Shaikh Muhammad Ikram, Ab-e Kausar, Idara-e Saqafat-e Islamia, Lahore, 1964, p.385.

[ii] T.W.Arnold, The Preaching of Islam, Adam Publishers and Distributors, Delhi, 1997, pp.279-91.


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