Casteism Among Indian Muslims

By M Ghazali Khan and Mohammad Tariq Ghazi

Creating new mischiefs appears to be a favourite pastime for some lot. And the most unfortunate aspect of this is that innocent minds fall prey to the evils of these mischief-mongers. At a time when Muslims are passing through probably the worst period of history, in India and elsewhere, some opportunists are busy fanning and reviving an old curse and are trying to turn it into a big issue. They call it an Arzal versus Ashraf tussle. The individuals making this effort refer to themselves as ‘Pasmanda’ (backward) Muslims.  

There is no denying the existence of the curse of casteism among Indian Muslims, but let it be said that, except in some parts of Bihar where this is a serious problem, it has never been anything more than a hurdle or a barrier in marriages between the so-called Arzal and Ashraf. Neither has it been a prerequisite to becoming a religious scholar; nor an Imam or a Muazzin in a masjid. Yet, some elements in the Muslim community are hell-bent on comparing it with casteism among Hindus. To keep it alive seems to be the political compulsion of some vested interests. They do not want this evil to go away.

The mischief does not end here. In an article, a lady wrote an anonymous article in June 2019 entitled, ‘At Aligarh Muslim University, I Hid my Caste Identity For Five years‘. How ridiculous, shallow and baselessness are the allegations made by the author may be judged from this. She writes, ‘Also, most upper caste Muslims are fair and lower-caste Muslims are not. I am not. My classmates used to indirectly bring that out. Sometimes, they would come to me and ask: “Are you really a Siddiqui?”’

A couple of weeks ago, in one of his regular online lectures, Chicago based scholar, social media activist, blogger and YouTuber, Mufti Yasir Nadeem-ul Wajidi was asked about casteism. Mufti Yasir gave a well-articulated response, making clear with references that casteism among Muslims is a social issue and has nothing to with Islam.

He emphasised that Islam does not believe in the superiority of any individual because of his birth in a particular race or family, but it is piety of individuals that makes them superior in the eyes of Allah SWT. The Qur’an leaves no doubt about it and warns the believers: ‘Human beings, We created you all from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another. Verily the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most God-fearing of you. Surely Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.’ (Al-Qur’an, Surah Al-Hujurat 49: 13)

Mufti Yasir also quoted the famous Last Sermon of the Holy Prophetﷺ in which he said, ‘An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab, nor a white over a black, nor a black over a white. All humans are the issues of Adam and Adam was made of clay…. I am leaving with you the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of his Prophet. If you follow them you will never go astray.’

This enraged some individuals even more, and their attacks on the so-called ‘Ashraf’ became even more vicious. They live in India and must not be unaware of what casteism is. Perhaps to refresh their knowledge, they need to tour Dalit localities and see for themselves what casteism means. Not only in India, but Indians have also taken the caste system with them wherever they went. (To see the intensity of casteism in the UK, please read ‘Caste Supremacists Oppose Anti-caste Legislation in Britain, on this blog).

However, the bitter truth cannot be denied that casteism exists among Muslims in one form or the other. Sadly the argument that is being used to propagate and spread this mischief is the misinterpretation by some Indian scholars of the past of the Islamic principle of Kufu [parity-کفو] between the couple entering into matrimony. These scholars confused this advice regarding compatibility with casteism. As has been said before, the practice of casteism among Indian Muslims is no more than the self-imposed restrictions on inter-caste marriages. However, this is also a fact that with time and with education, statuses are changing, and this inhumane and un-Islamic practice or restriction has started dying.

However, before posting his reply, let me mention a very important name in Indian Muslim history of someone the reference of whom in the community is hardly matched by anyone. The fact that his ‘pasmanda’ Kalal* caste is not generally known; nor does anyone care to find but it, is a solid proof that casteism is not such a big issue for Indian Muslims, nor has it been in the past. This highly revered personality was none other than Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar. Equally pertinent is to mention that the present rectors, Mohtamims, of two world-renowned seminaries, Darul Uloom Deoband and Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulema, Lucknow — Maulana Abul Qasim and Maulana Saeedur Rehma Qasmi — come from the Ansari community. Lest anyone confuses it with the so-called high caste of Hamid Ansari Saheb, please note that they come from the Julaha community.

Tariq Ghazi Saheb’s Rejoinder

Incidentally, neither I remember the debate nor mentioning in it the names of some of the personalities.

However, if the issue is being revived again, this is definitely a political ploy and those trying to revive it may have some monetary, social or political interests in mind.

The first thing is that if this was a religious issue, there would be no justification for Islam making its way outside of Hijaz and spreading all over the world among non-Arabs. A careful study of history and biographies would make it clear that Arab men and women married many non-Arab men and women. The biggest argument that is given to prove why Iran is a Shi’a state is that Shahr Bano, the wife of Hazrat Hussain (RA), was an Iranian, a non Arab, a non-Hashmi. There may be more of such instances. But in this particular case too, no one has ever objected to or criticised Hazrat Husain (RA) — who was not only a pure Arab, a Qureshi, a Hashmi but the direct third-generation descendent of the Prophet Muhammadﷺ — for marrying a non-Arab.

Secondly, during Muslim rule in the South Asian subcontinent, many rulers married local women, and the children born out of such wedlock enjoyed full social and governmental rights. Details of such examples are replete in history books.

Besides India, Ottoman Sultans married—maybe because of a political strategy or being forced by heart — non-Turkic Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Albanian, Hungarian, and Romanian women. And the children born out of these marriages inherited the throne. None of the Turkish or Arab scholar, jurist or Muhaddith, had ever disapproved of these marriages.

Based on this, one would expect those calling themselves ‘pasmandah’ to present from their family history examples of such marriages, after accepting Islam by these communities, with Muslims from Turkey, Iran and Arabia. Finding a positive solution to the issue, if it at all exists, is a Milli necessity. Lamenting over this and referring to oneself as a ‘pasmandah’ will not serve any purpose.  

Thirdly, during the Vedic-Aaryan period, castes were divided following the professions of groups of people. Someone trading in oil was declared a Teli for generations to come, even if he/she was no longer engaged in that profession. A weaver was condemned to be destined to be a weaver for endless generations. There is no doubt that this division was created by the Hindu society. But this begs the question if the millionaire owners of cloth factories or oil mills would also be referred to as ‘pasmandah’.

There was a time when Bata shoe company had an Indian competitor known Carona Show Company CSC. We used to buy our school shoes from CSC. Did the owners of these companies belong to the category of shoemakers, cobblers or other ‘backward’ communities?

There used to be a prominent shop of Chandu Halwai in front of Novelty Cinema in Bombay in our childhood days. His was a millionaire family. Should they or J.B. Mangharam, be regarded as ‘pasmandah’ merely because they used to sell sweets? In Bombay, there used to be the internationally renowned sweet makers Suleman Usman Mithai Wale. They belong to Memon community and were not pasmandah by any definition. I know them personally. Late Suleman Seth and his son Abdul Sattar Seth were very pious, charitable and highly respectable people.

I think the ‘castes’ of many wealthy industrialists, who were involved in such professions that are generally believed to belong to people referred to as ‘pasmandah’, should be used as examples to fight this menace of division. 

Fourthly and lastly, in contrast to the demeaning of different Hindu-Arya-Vedic society professions, an individual’s occupation does not make him low in status. There is a long list of great Muslim scholars who adopted these professions, and no one ever looked at them with contempt for this reason. Imam Ghazali’s family used to make yarn. Interestingly in the academic world, he is known by the name associated with his family business [Ghazali means thread-maker], and hardly anyone knows his real name. 

Let me list a few more highly respected and revered scholars in Islamic history:

Imam Abul Hasan Mawardi: His family used to prepare and sell rose water. [ماء = پانی + ورد = گلاب == ما وردی = گلاب کا پانی بنانے والا[

Shams-ul Aimma Abdul Aziz Halwani: The meaning of his title Shams-ul Aimma is the Sun of Imams. His profession was Halwai. In Arabic he was referred to as Halwani and is known more by this title. Hardly anyone would know his real name, but if you mention him by his title Shams-ul Aimma in a madrasa library, you would be inundated with the number of books he had written.

Imam Abu Bakr Khassaf: He was the Imam of his time and, by profession, a cobbler, i.e., mochi. Another meaning of Khassaf is basket-maker as well.

Imam Shamsuddin Zahabi: A well-known Muhaddith and historian. Instead of his real name, he is known by his profession’s name, a goldsmith i.e. a sunaar. In Arabic zahab means gold.

Abul Abbas Ahmad Qassab:  His very nick name leaves no doubt that he used to slaughter animals and sell meat but was the Sheikh [Islamic scholar] of his time.

Sadly, this did not happen in India. Here, socially the most useless people became highly respectable. An intelligent person cannot accept that the best skilled people are condemned to be of low ranking in social set-up even though well-being of the society is dependent  on their great skills and with which they earn their Halal livelihood. I see this as a psychological problem and have sympathy for them because, even after accepting Islam, they continue to be the victims of this curse. In an attempt to belong to ‘respectable’ sections and earn fake respectability, they adopted Arabic surnames like Ansari, Salmani, Qureshi and Zubairi etc.

Surely associating oneself or one’s family with pious people is not a bad thing. On the contrary, in some cases, this is a source of blessing. But what happened in India is that when the people associated with the noble trade of cloth weaving started referring to themselves as Ansaris, their adopted identity revived their old identity in the society. This did not serve any purpose, and this otherwise humanly respectable section of the Muslim community failed to free itself from the shackles that Aryan teachings had put it in. The same is true about other skilled communities. This is vital that this important section of the Muslim society frees itself from this vortex.

A noptable dac about out time is highly respected person of Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, who was rector (Mohtamim) of Darul Uloom Deoband for none years and is now Shaikh-ul Hadith in the same institution. He is ranked among the world’s 500 most influential Muslims.

I endorse Mufti Yasir Nadeem al Wajidi’s statement that you have attached, emphasising that this is not a religious issue but a social evil. One wonders if a so-called ‘Ashraf’ household brings a daughter-in-law from cobbler families, will this remove the cobbler family’s so-called backwardness? The feeling of being backwards is nothing but a psychological issue. The so-called ‘pasmandah’ individuals who freed themselves from these shackles and gained knowledge became the teachers and leaders of people of Arab, Iranian, Turk and Afghan descents. 

Allama Muhammad Ibrahim Balliavi was the Nazim-e-Talimat (Dean Faculty) of Darul Uloom Deoband. He a teacher of Hakimul Islam Maulana Qari Muhammad Tayyab. Allama Ibrahim belonged to the so-called ‘pasmandah’ gaarha (گاڑھا) community.  

Mufti-e-Azam Hind [grand Mufti of India] Maulana Kifayatullah Dehlawi, also known for his widely acclaimed and popular book Taleem ul Islam on basic teachings of Islam, belonged to the Naai [hair-dresser] community. But he was admired, loved and respected by everyone and was teacher of many Siddiqi and Usmani scholars. Who will dare categorise these great scholars as ‘pasmandah’?

Here I remember one of the best persons that I ever met. Hafiz Abdul Waheed Ansari. He was from district Bijnor in UP and lived in Bombay. He was one of the best and closest friends of my father Maulana Hamidul Ansari Ghazi. He loved me like his own child. In Bombay’s Crawford (Now, Phule) Market’s meat-mutton section, he has a wholesale meat supply business. He used to supply meat-mutton to various restaurants. It was not a bambaiyya seth business. Like an expert butcher, he would personally cut meat pieces and prepare bags for different restaurants.  Once he told me that when he goes to Dhampur (Bijnor) her weaves cloth which was his family business, and when in Bombay, he would engage in meat business like a butcher.

Now ask yourself: was he an Ansari or a Qureshi? He was both. He was a master of two professions, two skills. He was a true Muslim. He proved that as a Hafiz of the Qur’an, who had also attended an Islamic madrasa for a few years, he was a Muslim and as such he was serving the community at large through different skills that he had mastered. He was never ashamed of his professions, and considered these skills as blessings. A great soul, indeed. I pray Allah grant him high station in the Jannat ul Firdows in the company of the most pious people. Ameen.


  [*] Daryabadi, Maulana Abdul Majid, Muhammad Ali: Zaati Diary ke Chand Waraq, Sidq Foundation, Lucknow

Jamaee, Muhammad Abdul Malik, compiled by Masoom Moradabadi, Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar AankhoNDekhiBaateN, Page 71, Khabardar Publications, Delhi.

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