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National Law Institute University

Casteism in Islam

Submitted to: Submitted By: Hirak Mukhopadhyay

Bir Pal Singh Roll No: BA.LL.B. 2008 – ‘76’

Assistant Professor Enrolment No: A-1026

As part of Sociology - II


The text reported in the project is the outcome of my own efforts and no part of this
report has been copied in any unauthorized manner and no part in it has been incorporated
without due acknowledgement.

The Indian caste system describes the system of social stratification and social
restrictions in India in which social classes are defined by thousands of endogamous
hereditary groups, often termed jātis or castes. Within a jāti, there exist exogamous
groups known as gotras, the lineage or clan of an individual. Endogamy within a gotra is
permitted and alternative mechanisms of restricting endogamy are used (e.g. banning
endogamy within a surname). The Indian caste system involves four castes and outcasted
social groups.. Castes systems in India and caste like groups--those quintessential groups
with which almost all Indians are associated--are ranked. Within most villages or towns,
everyone knows the relative rankings of each locally represented caste, and people's
behavior toward one another is constantly shaped by this knowledge. Castes system in
India are primarily associated with Hinduism but also exist among other Indian religious
groups. Although generally identified with Hinduism, the caste system was also observed
among followers of other religions in the Indian subcontinent, including some groups of
Muslims and Christians .Muslims sometimes expressly deny that they have castes--they
state that all Muslims are brothers under God--but observation of Muslim life in various
parts of India reveals the existence of castelike groups and clear concern with social
hierarchy. Historically .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. 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]

To study the caste system prevalent amongst Indian Muslims and its effect on the Muslim


1: To study the origin of caste system of Muslims in India.

2: To study the 3 castes of the Muslim caste system i.e. Ashraf, Ajlaf & Arjal.

3: To study the effect of the Muslim Caste system in the Muslim society and the entire
society as a whole.

Secondary Data - Doctrinal Method


1) The caste system amongst Muslims may have originated due to the influence of
Hinduism on Islam

2) Lower Caste Muslims may have to face restrictions similar to lower Caste Hindus.

Most studies of caste in India deal with the classical Hindu caste system or with its
present forms among the Hindus. Since caste is the basis of the Hindu social order and is
written into the Brahminical texts, studies of caste have been largely Hindu-centric.
Following from this, the existence of caste-like features among non-Hindu, including
Muslim, communities in India is thus generally seen as a result of the cultural influence
on these communities of their Hindu neighbours or of Hinduism itself. However 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. The vast majority of the Indian
Muslims are descendants of converts from what is today called 'Hinduism'. Earlier,
Individual conversions to Islam were rare. Rather, typically, entire local caste groups or
significant sections thereof underwent a gradual process of Islamisation, in the course of
which elements of the Islamic faith were gradually incorporated into local cosmologies
and ritual practice while gradually displacing or replacing local or 'Hindu' elements. 1
However some part of Hindu culture was retained. Hence, even after conversion to Islam
marriage continued to take place within the original caste group. This is how Muslim
society came to be characterized by the existence of multiple endogamous caste-like
groups. Many of the converts retained several of their local, pre-Islamic beliefs and
practices. It was thus not the influence of Hinduism among a previously 'pure',
'uncontaminated' Muslim community as such, but, rather, the continued impact of Hindu

Ikram, S. M. (1964). "The Interaction of Islam and Hinduism". New York: Columbia University Press.
beliefs and customs on the converts who still remained within a largely Hindu cultural
universe and retained many of its associated beliefs and practices2



Scholarly writings on caste among Indian Muslims generally note the division that is
often made between the so-called 'noble' castes or ashraf and those labeled as inferior, or
razil, kamin or ajlaf. The ashraf-ajlaf division is not the invention of modern social
scientists, for it is repeatedly mentioned in medieval works of ashraf scholars
themselves.Along with these two castes,there exists another caste i.e. Arjals that is unique
to the caste system of Muslims in India

ASHRAF: The Ashraf or the noble class includes all descendants of foreign
Muslims(Arabs, Persians and Afghans etc) and also converts from upper class Hindus
.Like the higher Hindu Castes they considered it degrading to engage in menial labour or
to handle the plough3. The Ashraf castes includes Sayyads, Sheikhs, Mughals and
Pathans. all four noble castes permit interdining, but commensality with the lower castes,
consisting of groups descended from Indian converts, is not allowed.

a) Sayyads: Just as Brahmins are at the apex of the Hindu social structure. Sayyad
(meaning Prince) are placed at the top of the Indian Muslim Social Structure. Persons of
this caste use the word Mir or Sayyad before their name.

Singh Sikand, Yoginder.Islam And Caste Inequality
Among Indian Muslims. Hamdard University. 2006-10-18.

Ahmad Imtiaz (13 May,1978 ):”Ashraf and Ajlaf categories In Indo Muslim Society”:
Economic and Political Weekly, New Delhi
b)Sheikh: Literally Sheikhs means the chief or the head. Sheikhs are counted after the
Sayyads. Generally, the sheikhs are the religious teachers of Islam. Among the sheikhs
there are several subcastes like Usman, Siddiqui and Ansari etc.

c)Mughal: The Mughals are so called due to the country of their origin,Mongolia.They
use the surname Mirza after their name.Amongst the mughals there are several subcastes
such as Uzbeg,Turkman etc.

d)Pathan: Ancestors of Pathans came from Afghanistan.They use the surname Khan after
their proper names.amongst Pathans there are several subcaste such as Afridi,khalil Lodhi

AJLAF: Ajlafs are Muslims who have converted from the lower caste Hindus. Ajlaf
means 'wretches' or 'mean people': They are also called Kamina or Itar, 'base' or Rasil i.e.
'worthless'. These include various functional castes such as weavers, oil pressers, Tailors
etc. Each Ajlaf caste has a traditional occupation, which may or may not be practiced
today. It is usually by this occupation that each caste is known. The distinction between
Ashrafs and Ajlafs corresponds closely to the Hindu division of the community into
Dwijas or caste born of twice born rank which comprised of various classes of Aryan
invaders. The Ajlafs came from lower class the Hindus and continued with their previous
occupations. There was no significant improvement in their social and economic status.
However there was an exception. There were many Rajputs who converted to Islam under
the fear of the sword or due to greed of Money or Prestige. Since, amongst them, the idea
of higher and lower castes was deeply embedded ,they maintained the same attitude after
converting to Islam. They kept their relations confined to equal or higher caste Muslims.
They included castes like Tomar, Chandel, Chauhan etc.
The line between Ashrafs and Ajlaf castes corresponds to that between the upper three,
“twice-born” varnas in the Hindu system (Brahmins, kshatriyas, and vaishyas) and the
sudras and untouchables beneath them.

ARZAL:The term "Arzal" stands for "degraded". The Arzal group of Muslims was first
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”4. They are relegated to "menial" professions such as scavenging
and carrying night soil. Though the Muslim Saints considered all humans to be equal, one
may find untouchability prevalent amongst the Muslim Society, However Untouchability
is more of a religious Character not social. Hence it is less rigorous than found amongst
Hindus. The lowest of among the Muslim communities is a "Muhajir". They are mainly
assigned the position of a laborer and looked down upon by the Ashraf.The Arzals are
further subdivided into Bhanar, Kasbi, Lalbegi, Halalkhor, Hijra, Maugta and Mehtar.

Interaction and Mobility

The Ashrafs and non-Ashrafs are collectively referred to as 'oonchi zat' (high caste) and
'neechi zat' (low caste).Interactions between the oonchi zat and neechi zat are regulated
by established patron-client relationships of the jajmani system.The patrons, who belong
to the oonchi zat, are referred to as the jajmans, and the clients, comprising the various
occupational castes of the neechi zat, as kamin.Like the Ashraf castes, which are ranked
hierachically amogst themselves , the non-Ashraf castes also relate to each other in a
hierarchical manner. In their case the superiority or inferiority of a caste is determined by
the relatively pure or impure nature of the occupation associated with each. The dominant
lineage of the Kidwais enjoys a uniformly superior status to all the non-Ashraf castes.
The Kidwais claim to be Sayyads but the other Ashraf castes of Kasauli doubt the
authenticity of their claim, and believe that Kidwais are a sub-caste of Sheikhs5.However
In most cases it is not the ancestry but the first and foremost criterion for grading non-
Ashraf castes is the degree of impurity or pollution implicit in the nature of their
occupation.In addition, there was another related criterion, viz. physical proximity of a
non-Ashraf caste to Ashraf castes while performing services for them6. Mirasis (singers)
were thus higher than Nais (barbers), and both higher than Dhobi (laundrymen). Mirasis
were higher than Nais because Mirasi women sat among Ashraf ladies to sing and singing
had no polluting connotation. Women of the Nai caste who massaged Ashraf women and
Nai men who cut hair performed services in physical proximity to the Ashraf caste but
were rated lower than Mirasis because both services were regarded as impure.On the
other hand, the Dhobi not only washed dirty clothes, which was a polluting occupation,
their services did not require physical proximity to the Ashrafs and hence they were still
Social Stratification Among Muslims in India by Zarina Bhatty(http://www.anti-
lower in the caste hierarchy.Things are not only impure or pure, but some things are more
impure than others. In the course of practising their traditional occupation, castes which
habitually handle very impure things are lower in status than those which handle things
which are not so impure. physical contact with individuals of these castes is avoided not
only by Ashrafs but also by non-Ashrafs. Among the Muslims, if a person accidentally
touches an individual of an unclean caste, the former must purify himself by a simple
bath, particularly prior to performing a religious function like saying 'namaz', reading the
Koran or entering a mosque. However There is a difference here between Muslims and
Hindus, and it lies in the fact that, unlike among Hindus, no elaborate rituals are
prescribed for Muslims for purifying themselves in the event of physical contact with an
individual from an unclean caste.7Status differentiation implicit in the caste system finds
expression in restrictions on marriage and eating together. Normally endogamy is strictly
adhered to, both among Ashrafs and non- Ashrafs8.Between the two endogamous
subdivisions of Ashrafs there is no restriction on eating together, but their interaction is so
limited that, in practice, it rarely occurs. This Muslim version of the increased attention to
purity and piety among aspiring Hindu castes that sociologist M. N. Srinivas called
“Sanskritization” is often called “Islamization” by analogy.

Ambedkar,Bhimrao .Pakistan or the Partition of India. Thackers Publishers.

Current position of lower caste Muslims in India:

Since Independence, India has achieved significant growth and development. It has also
been successful in reducing poverty and improving crucial human development indicators
such as levels of literacy, education and health. The Indian Constitution provides Indian
Muslims their due right as citizens of India. Muslims have as equal an opportunity as is
available to other Indian citizens with regard to leading a life of dignity and equality and
observance of their religious practices. Besides the Constitutional provisions, there are
number of other directives that safeguard the religious and cultural practices of Muslims.
Freedoms to practice their faith on a daily basis and to celebrate their religious festivals
are some of the facilities Muslims enjoy along with their counterparts of other religions.
However there are indications, however, that not all religious communities and social
groups have shared equally the benefits of the growth process. Among these, the
Muslims, the largest minority communities in the country, constituting 13.4 per cent of
the population, are seriously lagging behind in terms of most of the human development
indicators. The Sachar committee9 was the first of its kind to undertake a data-based
research on the Muslims in India.
The main aim of the committee inter alia was:

1: In which States, Regions, Districts and Blocks do the Muslims of India mostly live?
2: What is the geographical pattern of their economic activity, i.e. what do they mostly do
for a living in various States, Regions and Districts?
3: What is their relative share in public & private sector employment? Does it vary across
States and what is the pattern of the variation? Is the share in employment in proportion
to their population in various States? If not, what are the hurdles?
4: What is the proportion of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) from the Muslim
community in the total OBC population in various States
5: Does the Muslim community have adequate access to education and health services,
municipal infrastructure and, bank credit provided by Government public sector entities?

The Sachar committee put a lot of analysis about the Indian Muslim with "statistical
reports" based on information from government agencies, banks, Indian Minority
Commission, NSSO, different state governments and its agencies
.The Main findings of the report were:

1: In the field of literacy the Committee has found that the rate among Muslims is very
much below than the national average

2: Substantially larger proportions of the Muslim households in urban areas are in the less
than Rs.500 expenditure bracket.

3: The presence of Muslims has been found to be only 3% in the IAS, 1.8% in the IFS
and 4% in the IPS.

4: Most of the variables indicate that Muslim-OBCs are significantly deprived in

comparison to Hindu-OBCs. The work participation rate (WPR) shows the presence of a
sharp difference between Hindu-OBCs (67%) and the Muslims. The share of Muslim-
OBCs in government/ PSU jobs is much lower than Hindu-OBCs.

5: 25 per cent of children of Muslim parents in the 6-14 year age group have either never
attended school or have dropped out.

Apart from its findings, the committee also helped in removing certain misgivings
about Indian Muslims. Some of them were:

1: Only four per cent of Muslims students actually go to madrasas primarily because
primary state schools do not exist for miles. Therefore, the idea that Muslims prefer
madrasa education was found to be not true

2: That Muslims wherever spoken to complained of suffering the twin calumnies of being
dubbed “anti-national” and of being “appeased”. However, the Indian Muslim community
as a whole had never indulged in anti-national activities and the conditions borne out by
the committee's findings clearly explained that no "appeasement" had taken place.

3: In private industry like the BPO industry, Muslims have been able to do well and find
employment in large numbers. However this is restricted to large companies mainly.

The Main Recommendations of the Sachar committee were:

1: Mechanisms to ensure equity and equality of opportunity and eliminate discrimination.

2: An Equal Opportunity Commission should be constituted to look into the grievances of

the deprived groups

3: The UGC should evolve a system where part of the allocation to colleges and
universities is linked to the diversity in the student population.

4: Form an autonomous Assessment and Monitoring Authority to evaluate the extent of

development benefits

5: The real need is of policy initiatives that improve the participation and share of the
Minorities, particularly Muslims in the business of regular commercial banks.

6: Provide financial and other support to initiatives built around occupations where
Muslims are concentrated and have growth potential.


Some Muslim scholars have termed the caste-like features in Indian Muslim society as a
"flagrant violation of the Qur'anic worldview." Other 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 Qur'an and Sharia to
justify casteism10.Mr B.R Ambedkar was the most prominent crticizer of the Muslim
Caste System and said the rather than improving the existing social Conditions of the
lower caste people who had converted to Islam in search of a better life,the Islamic Caste
system was worse than the Hindu Caste System and the social evils in Muslim society
were "worse than those seen in Hindu society" 11.He argued that there was no social evil
which is found among the Hindus and is not found among the Muslims. He 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 but worse in numerous ways".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. He condemned the Indian Muslim Community of being
unable to reform like Muslims in other countries like Turkey did during the early decades
of the twentieth century.Islam in South Asia historically has been unable to avoid the
impact of class and caste inequalities. As for Hinduism, the hierarchical principles of the
Brahmanical social order have always been contested from within Hindu society,
suggesting that equality has been and continues to be both valued and practiced in


Yoginder Singh Sikand, Caste in Indian Muslim Society

Ambedkar, Bhimrao: Pakistan or the Partition of India. Thackers Publishers.

Jalal,Ayesha0: Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia:Cambridge University Press