How Indian Muslims Remain Caught Up In A Caste System That Goes Against Their Religion

Posted by Nafees Ahmad in Caste, Society, Staff Picks
June 1, 2017

What? Do Muslims believe in the caste system? Which caste do you belong to?

These questions get on my nerves every time they are posed to me. Sadly though, the social stratification of Muslims into numerous castes makes them as heterogeneous as their Hindu counterparts in India.

In his influential book, “The Preaching of Islam”, Arnold argues that Islam’s perception of equality and absence of class prejudice attracted lower caste Hindus towards it. But, over a period of time, as the Arab traders (who brought Islam to India) married local women and their progenies spread, they were assimilated into the local Hindu culture and adopted many of its attributes.

Moreover, the local converts changed their faith but not their cultural traits. That is the reason why the Muslim community still retains many of the Hindu rituals. Therefore, my argument is that Muslims should abandon their traditional ‘un-Islamic’ rituals and embrace progressive values such as scrapping discriminatory caste-classification and promoting values of egalitarianism.

The Muslim community’s adherence to different status categories based on income, occupation and lineage clashes with the radical egalitarianism espoused by the Quran. The community needs to ponder over the reasons which have held it back. Why is it so that it fails to shed its age-old ‘un-Islamic’ traditions which find no mention in Islam? What is holding it back from discarding evils such as the menace of caste, endogamy, dowry, unnecessary lavish weddings and instantaneous divorce? Well, it all boils down to arrogance and hypocrisy.

Sadly, the Muslim society in India remains caste-ridden, in total contravention to the principle of egalitarianism enshrined in the Quran. Islam views equality and egalitarianism as the nonpareil ideals of the Muslim community. The Quran specifies that believers of Islam are all brothers. The Quran lays down a criterion for hierarchy among Muslims in the form of taqwa. The Quran says, “The best of you are the ones who fear Allah the most.” Taqwa, which is an Arabic word used throughout the Quran, fundamentally means doing the things which the Almighty has ordered his slaves to do, and abstaining from those ones They have prohibited them from doing.

Muslims hug each other during Bakr-Id celebrations
Is this the true picture of Muslim brotherhood, or does it hide a darker reality? (Photo by Saumya Khandelwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

This is the primary criterion Muslims should be judged by – but does it exist in practice? No, it does not. Muslims have an ingrained system of caste and hierarchy (for example, the Ashraf and Azlaf categories). Ashraf denotes the noble class (essentially those claiming to be of foreign descent). Not surprisingly, they feel superior to those belonging to the Azlaf category (denoting the not-so-noble local converts). This feeling of superiority is replete with charade and humbug, and goes against the notion of equality, which constitutes the basic tenet of Islam.

In fact, in his historic last sermon, delivered in his last pilgrimage to Mount Arafat in southeast Mecca, Prophet Muhammad said:

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. A white person has no superiority over a black person, nor does a black person have any superiority over a white person – except through piety and good action. Learn that each Muslim is a brother to every other Muslim – and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim, unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.”

Apart from the tenets of Islam, the Indian Constitution also appreciates equality and stipulates it as a part of the fundamental rights. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution underscores the value of equality, and terms it as the fundamental right of an individual, which cannot be abrogated or infringed upon. The right entails that the State shall not deny anyone equality before the law or equal protection of the law.

On the other hand, Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, colour, race, sex and place of birth. Interestingly, the Constitution declares these rights as ‘justiciable‘ – a violation of which can be reported to the apex court. Muslims should take these provisions seriously, cease to look down upon certain castes and do away with social turpitudes such as dowry, endogamy and taking pride in belonging to a so-called ‘noble’ caste.

Endogamy and Liberal Values

In a modern, civilised world, there is no place for endogamy. Endogamy implies marrying into one’s own clan or community.

In Mewat, I tend to see that the majority of Meo Muslims believes in endogamy and resents exogamy. What’s even worse is the fact they don’t even entertain wedding proposals from the same village, even if the girl and boy declare their love for each other. Another caste – the Saifi (Lohar) caste – found in Delhi, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, does not entertain wedding proposals from outside the community.  The same restrictions are in place within the Ansari community which is found in western and northern India.

Due to the advent of modern education, a tiny fraction of the people of these castes have made alliances with other castes. However, they have failed to make any significant impact in the diktats of the caste system, which consequently hasn’t led to the mass adoption of the practice of exogamy.

Islam is a guiding principle for Muslims and sets a benchmark for them. It is based on the notion of equality, gender justice and drastic egalitarianism. It does not seek to create any sort of discrimination among its followers. Moreover, it stipulates that Muslims should abide by the law of the land. And the law of the land requires Muslims to give up all sorts of discriminatory practices, and set an example of practical egalitarianism by abolishing social segmentation among themselves!


Image used for representative purposes only.