Caste system among Muslims
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Religious, historical and sociocultural factors have helped define the bounds of endogamous groups for Muslims in South Asia, the Middle East and other parts of world. There is a preference for endogamous marriages based on the clan-oriented nature of the society, which values and actively seeks similarities in social group identity based on several factors, including religious, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal/clan affiliation. Religious affiliation is itself multilayered and includes religious considerations other than being Muslim, such as sectarian identity (e.g. Shia or Sunni, etc.) and religious orientation within the sect (Isnashari, Ismaili, Ahmedi, etc.). Both ethnic affiliation (e.g. Sindhi, Baloch, Punjabi, etc.) and membership of specific Biraderis or Jat/Quoms (see Jatis) are additional integral components of social identity. Within the bounds of endogamy defined by the above parameters, close consanguineous unions are preferred due to a congruence of key features of group- and individual-level background factors as well as affinities.
Middle East & North Africa
Caste systems in North Africa include the Tuareg social stratification. The Tuareg population resides mostly in Libya, Niger, Mali, Morocco and Tunisia. Traditional caste relationships have continued in many places, including the institution of slavery.
Al-Akhdam also known as Al-Muhamasheen, "the marginalized ones" is a social group in Yemen, distinguished from the majority by its members' Negrito-like physical features and stature. They are considered to be at the very bottom of the societal ladder and are mostly confined to menial jobs in the country's major cities.
In South Asia
Sources indicate that the castes among Muslims developed as the result of close contact with Hindu culture and Hindu converts to Islam. Religious scholar Yoginder Sikand elaborates that the caste system among Muslims was not due to the "influence of Hinduism among a previously 'pure', 'uncontaminated' Muslim caste but rather to "the continued impact of Hindu beliefs and customs on the converts who still remained within a largely Hindu cultural universe and retained many of its associated beliefs and practices".
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. Barani 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. Barani 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 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 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.
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 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.
Some data 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. 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."
Castes in India
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 caste include Kunjra, Dhobi and Halalkhor. The upper caste Muslim caste include Qureshi,Ansari, Syed, Pathan, Turk, Sheikh and Mallik. Genetic data has also supported this stratification.
The report commissioned by the government of India and released in 2006, documents the continued stratification in Muslim society.
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.
Stephen M. Lyon of University of Kent has written about what he calls "Gujarism", the act of Gurjars in Pakistan seeking out other Gurjars to form associations, and consolidate ties with them, based strictly on caste affiliation.
Some Muslim scholars have termed the caste-like features 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 casteism.
Some scholars theorize that the Muslim Castes are not as acute in their discrimination as that among Hindus. Dr B. R.Ambedkar argued otherwise, writing that the social evils in Muslim society were "worse than those seen in Hindu society".
Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, 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 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 Qur'anic literalism of scripture among Indian Muslims that led them to keep the Muslim Caste system rigid and discriminatory. He decried against the approval of Shariah to Muslim castes.
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