Sources indicate that the castes among Muslims developed as the result of close contact with Hindu culture and Hindu converts to Islam. Those who are referred to as Ashrafs are presumed to have a superior status derived from their foreign Arab ancestry, while the Ajlafs are assumed to be converts from Hinduism, and have a lower status.
When Hindus converted to Islam, they often did not adhere completely to Islamic principles, retaining many Hindu practices with them. One of these Hindu characteristics was the caste.
Yoginder Sikand has asserted that while the influence of Hindu social mores on the Muslims might partially explain the continued salience of caste among them it does not fully explain how the Muslims of the region came to be stratified on the basis of caste in the first place. He has said that the claim that Muslim castes were “entirely influenced by Hinduism” is “based on the untenable assumption feet of a once pure, radically egalitarian Muslim community in India later coming under the baneful impact of Hinduism”.
In some parts of South Asia, the Muslims are divided as Ashrafs and Ajlafs. Ashrafs claim a superior status derived from their foreign ancestry. The non-Ashrafs are assumed to be converts from Hinduism, and are therefore drawn from the indigenous population. They, in turn, are divided into a number of occupational castes.
Sections of the ulema (scholars of Islamic jurisprudence) provide religious legitimacy to caste with the help of the concept of kafa’a. A classical example of scholarly declaration of the Muslim caste system is the Fatawa-i Jahandari, written by the fourteenth century Turkish scholar, Ziauddin Barani, a member of the court of Muhammad bin Tughlaq, of the Tughlaq dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate. Barani was known for his intensely casteist views, and regarded the Ashraf Muslims as racially superior to the Ajlaf Muslims. He divided the Muslims into grades and sub-grades. In his scheme, all high positions and privileges were to be a monopoly of the high born Turks, not the Indian Muslims. Even in his interpretation of the Koranic verse “Indeed, the pious amongst you are most honored by Allah”, he considered piety to be associated with noble birth. Barrani was specific in his recommendation 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. In the Fatwa-i-Jahandari (advice XXI), he wrote about the “qualities of the high-born” as being “virtuous” and the “low-born” being the “custodian of vices”. Every act which is “contaminated with meanness and based on ignominity, comes elegantly [from the Ajlaf]”. Barani had a clear disdain for the Ajlaf and strongly recommended that they be denied education, lest they usurp the Ashraf masters. He sought appropriate religious sanction to that effect. Barrani also developed an elaborate system of promotion and demotion of Imperial officers (“Wazirs”) that was primarily on the basis of their caste.
In addition to the Ashraf/Ajlaf divide, there is also the Arzal caste among Muslims, who were regarded by anti-Caste activists like Babasaheb Ambedkar as the equivalent of untouchables. The term “Arzal” stands for “degraded” and the Arzal castes are further subdivided into Bhanar, Halalkhor, Hijra, Kasbi, Lalbegi, Maugta, Mehtar etc. The Arzal group was recorded in the 1901 census in India and are also called Dalit Muslims “with whom no other Muhammadan would associate, and who are forbidden to enter the mosque or to use the public burial ground”.They are relegated to “menial” professions such as scavenging and carrying night soil.
Some South Asian Muslims have been known to stratify their society according to Quoms. These Muslims practise a ritual-based system of social stratification. The Quoms who deal with human emissions are ranked the lowest. Studies of Bengali Muslims in India indicate that the concepts of purity and impurity exist among them and are applicable in inter-group relationships, as the notions of hygiene and cleanliness in a person are related to the person’s social position and not to his/her economic status. Muslim Rajput is another caste distinction among Indian Muslims.
Some of the backward or lower-caste Muslim communities include Ansari, Kunjra, Churihara, Dhobi and Halalkhor. The upper caste Muslim communities include Syed, Sheikh, Pathan, Khan and Mallik. Genetic data has also supported this stratification.
The Sachar Committee’s report commissioned by the government of India and released in 2006, documents the continued stratification in Muslim society. In January 2008, an organization called Akhil Maharashtra Muslim Khatik Samaj filed a Public Interest Litigation, demanding caste-based reservations for Muslims in India, based on the recommendations of the Sachar Committee.
Interaction and Mobility
Interactions between the oonchi zat (upper caste) and neechi zat (lower caste) are regulated by established patron-client relationships of the jajmani system, the upper castes being referred to as the ‘Jajmans’, and the lower caste as ‘Kamin’. Upon contact with a low-caste Muslim, a Muslim of a higher zat can “purify” by taking a short bath, since there are no elaborate rituals for purification. In the 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.
Unlike the Hindu caste system the caste system found amongst Muslims was never rigid and could move from a caste to another. An old saying also goes “Last year I was a Julaha (weaver); this year a Shaikh; and next year if the harvest be good, I shall be a Sayyid.” There is also data that indicates that the castes among Muslims have never been as rigid as that among Hindus. The rate of endogamous marriage, for example, is less than two thirds.
In the setting of a mosque, any caste indications were overlooked by Islamic ideals of brotherhood and equality.
Castes in Pakistan
The social stratification among Muslims in the “Swat” area of North Pakistan has been meaningfully compared to the Caste system in India. The society is rigidly divided into subgroups where each Quom is assigned a profession. Different Quoms are not permitted to intermarry or live in the same community. These Muslims practice a ritual-based system of social stratification. The Quoms who deal with human emissions are ranked the lowest.
Lower castes are often persecuted by the upper castes. A particularly infamous example of such incidents is that of Mukhtaran Mai in Pakistan, a low caste woman who was gang raped by upper caste men.
Stephen M. Lyon of University of Kent has written about what he calls “Gujarism”, the act of Gujjars in Pakistan seeking out other Gujjars to form associations, and consolidate ties with them, based strictly on caste affiliation.
Many Muslim scholars have termed the caste-like features in South Asian Muslim society as a “flagrant violation of the Qur’anic worldview.”. However, a few Muslim scholars tried to reconcile and resolve the “disjunction between Qur’anic egalitarianism and Indian Muslim social practice” through theorizing it in different ways and interpreting the Quran and Sharia to justify casteism.
Babasaheb Ambedkar was extremely critical of the Muslim Caste System and their practices, quoting that “Within these groups there are castes with social precedence of exactly the same nature as one finds among the Hindus”. He was critical of how the Ashrafs regarded the Ajlaf and Arzal as “worthless” and the fact that Muslims tried to sugarcoat the sectarian divisions by using euphemisms like “brotherhood” to describe them. He was also critical of the precept of literalism of scripture among Indian Muslims that led them to keep the Muslim Caste system rigid and discriminatory.
Pakistani-American sociologist Ayesha Jalal writes, in her book, “Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia”,that “Despite its egalitarian principles, Islam in South Asia historically has been unable to avoid the impact of class and caste inequalities.
The Muslim caste system is used as a votebank in Indian states with large Muslim minorities such as Uttar Pradesh, where the Indian National Congress Minister of Human Resource Development Arjun Singh noted “Muslims should get reservation under the backward category (OBCs) besides a separate quota for Dalit Muslims”