Islam is an egalitarian religion, which means that it doesn’t believe in discrimination based on nation, family, caste, creed, race, etc.
In the surah (chapter) Al-Hujrat of the holy “Qur’an”, the following lines are mentioned: “O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honourable of you with Allah (God) is that (believer) who has At-Taqwa. Verily, Allah is all-knowing, all aware.”
The prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is said to have declared:
“There are two things which can lead people to infidelity and disbelief, one is weeping loudly on the dead body and another one is to consider others as low on the basis of their birth (caste).”
In another popular incident, the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, ordered Bilal Habshi RZ (an African slave from Ethiopia) to perform the azaan (call to prayer), from the roof of the Kaaba.
According to the holy “Qur’an”, the founder of casteism is Satan, also known as Iblis or Azazeel. When Allah ordered the angels and jinns (genies) to bow down in front of Adam, peace be upon him, the angels obeyed him, but Iblis refused to do so. When Allah asked him why he refused, he replied asserting his creation (caste) superiority.
The holy “Qur’an” says that Allah questioned him: “What prevented you (O Iblis) that you did not prostrate when I commanded you?”
Iblis responded: “I am better than him (Adam), you created me from fire, and him you created from clay [i.e., earth].”
The nature of fire is to go up and the nature of clay is to go down. This was the argument of Satan. Allah didn’t like his caste-based argument and banished him from paradise.
Allah said: “(O Iblis) get down from this (paradise), it is not for you to be arrogant here. Get out, for you are of those humiliated and disgraced.”
Islam started to spread in north India when Arab Muslims first came to the Indian pensisula in 711 AD (92 AH). Islam also started spreading in south India owing to Muslim traders.
When Islam came to India, many Hindus, especially Dalits and those from Bahujan castes, embraced Islam. Many of them were attracted to a new faith whose teachings were based on equality and brotherhood, given that they were victims of the Hindu caste system and order.
Most Indian Muslims are descendants of Dalit and Bahujan converts, with just a small minority tracing their origins back to Arab, Iranian, and Central Asian settlers and intruders.
Although Islam is a strongly egalitarian religion that believes in equality, the Indian Muslim society consists of several castes–like groups, known as biraderis.
Muslims who claim foreign descent, such as the Sayeds, Sheikhs, Mughals, and Pathans, claim a superior status for themselves as ashraf (noble). The descendants of indigenous converts are commonly referred to as ajlaf (the middle castes) and arzal (Dalits).
During the era of Muslim rule in India, the ashrafs played a very crucial role. They worked as advisors , ministers, administrators, army chieftains, ulemas (scholars) etc. On the other hand, Dalit-Bahujan castes such as the ajlafs’ and arzals’ social and economic conditions didn’t change.
They remained bound to their traditional occupations and continued to work as sweepers, peasants, labourers, vegetable sellers, etc.
Now, casteism is prevalent not just among the Indian Muslims, but across south Asia. For instance, marriage is an area where caste plays a major role in Muslim communities. The majority of Muslims prefer to get married within their own caste group.
Ashrafs will not want their family members to marry ajlafs or arzals, because they believe that their lineage will become impure. Fortunately, things have begun to change for the better in metro cities, but it continues to remain the same in small towns and villages.
The Sachar Committee’s Report (2006) accepted the existence of the caste system among the Indian Muslims. It categorized Indian Muslims into three major categories:
Those who are referred to as Muslim OBCs are a combination of the second and third categories.
Within these three categories, the major sub-castes are as follows:
Ashrafs (Savarna castes): Sayed*, Sheikh, Mughal, Pathan, Muslim Rajpoot.
*The Sayed biradari is highly honoured and their status is equivalent to the Brahmins in Hinduism.
Ajlafs (occupational castes or OBCs): Bhand, Bhathiyara, Faqeer (beggar), Gaddi (milkman), Dhuniya (cotton-carder), Kunjra or Rayeen (greengrocer), Qasab (butcher), Chikwa (a caste who slaughters animals like goat and lamb), Darzi (tailor), Ansari etc.
Arzals (SCs): Sheik Mehtar, Lal Begi, Balmiki, Bans Phoor, Dhanak, Dehi, Ghazi Puri, Rawat, Hanhari or Hari, Hela, Paththar Phoor, Bakhkho, Khatik, Nat, Dhobi/Hawari, Banjarah etc.
According to some reports, only the ashrafs are over-represented in the power structure in India, in both the financial and education sectors. For instance, mainstream political parties largely field ashraf candidates during elections.
Furthermore, when people talk of the victimization of Muslims, they tend to forget or ignore the fact that Muslims are also victimized by other Muslims in the name of caste, which leads to division among the Muslims and also leads to dishonouring the basic tenets of Islam.
As Muslims, we need to stop discriminating on the basis of caste and class. There is a need to encourage inter-caste marriages.
Disclaimer – This article is not intended to bring any dishonour or shame to a particular caste, but to highlight the issue of caste-based discrimination among Indian Muslims.