Casteism still exits among Indian Muslims

Being Muslim in India means Syeds spit on Julahas in an 'egalitarian community'

There is no escape from caste in India. Even the Indian Muslim practises it. Mohammed Shabbir Ansari of Jalna, Maharashtra, should know. He founded the All-India Muslim OBC Front, which is leading the battle against Ashraaf or upper-caste discrimination against Ajlaaf or lower-caste Muslims.

Ansari recalls how the "Jamaat-e-Islami and other Muslim bodies would attack me when I said casteism existed among Muslims a decade ago." He says even highly-educated Muslims practise caste. "A syed family from Hyderabad called off my second daughter's marriage proposal once the boy's mother learnt that I belonged to the julaha (weaver's community)," Ansari says.

Ansari's experience illustrates the basic truths in the seminal study "Hindustan Mein Zaat-Paat Aur Musalman" (Casteism in India and Muslims) written by the Lucknow-based scholar Masood Alam Falahi in 2008. Falahi traced the origin of caste practices among Muslims and named the noted ulema who winked at it. He said the caste system took root among Indian Muslims after Qutbuddin Aibak founded theDelhi Sultanate in the 13th century. Sultanate scholars divided Muslims into Ashraaf and Ajlaaf.

The Ashraaf are Syed, Shaikh, Mughal and Pathan and the Ajlaaf are Qasai (butcher), Nai (barber), Julaha (weaver). The very lowest Ajlaafs were Arzaals (sweepers, shoe-makers, etc). Hundreds of years later, the Sultanate's categorization would be given extra legitimacy by respected 20th century clerics such as Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, who extolled the supremacy of Syeds.

In fact, Muslims' caste-consciousness runs so deep Allama Iqbal reprimanded them in a couplet: "Yun to Syed bhi ho, Mirza bhi ho Afghan bhi ho/Tum sabhi kuchch ho batao ke Musalman bhi ho (You are Syed, Mirza and Afghan/You are everything but Muslim)".

The paradox of Muslim casteism can give rise to extraordinary situations. Falahi recalls Muslim speakers asking dalit Hindus in Azamgarh to embrace Islam a few years ago because "everyone is treated equally here. But a man stood up and said 'there might be no castes in Islam, there are castes among Indian Muslims'. The speakers had no answer to that."

Times of India, May 16, 2010


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