Caste system among Muslims

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Contrary to Qur'anic worldview and Islamic teaching in general, some Muslim communities around the world still apply a system of social stratification that has similarity to the caste systems.[1][2]

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. This phenomenon however, does not appears in many other muslim regions like in South East Asia. 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 (Ithnā‘ashariyyah, Ismaili). Both ethnic affiliation (e.g. Sindhi, Baloch, Punjabi, etc.) and membership of specific Biraderis or Jat/Quoms (see Jātis) 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 and North Africa[edit]

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.[3][4][5][6][7][8]


In Algeria, Desert Berbers and Arabs usually have a rigid caste or class system, having social ranks ranging from nobles to an underclass of menial workers (commonly ethnic Africans).[9]


Main article: Al-Akhdam

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.[10] 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.[11]

In India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal[edit]

Sources indicate that the castes among Muslims developed as the result of close contact with Hindu culture and Hindu converts to Islam.[1][2][12][13] 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".[13]

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.[14]

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.[15] 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 or Shah."[16] However, other scholars, such as disagreed with this thesis (see criticism below).


In some parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, the Muslims are classified as Ashrafs, Ajlafs and Arzals.[17] Ashrafs claim a superior status derived from their aristocratic ancestry.[18] 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 and Arzal 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 aristocratic 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].[19] His most significant contribution in the fatwa was his analysis of the castes with respect to Islam.[19] 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.[19]

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]".[19] 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.[13] Barani also developed an elaborate system of promotion and demotion of Imperial officers ("Wazirs") that was primarily on the basis of their caste.[19]

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.[20][21] The term "Arzal" stands for "degraded" and the Arzal castes are further subdivided into Bhanar, Halalkhor, Hijra, Kasbi, Lalbegi, Maugta, Mehtar etc.[20][21][22] 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.[23][24]

Interaction and mobility[edit]

Main article: Jajmani system

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'. 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.[14]

Some data indicates that the castes among Muslims have never been as rigid as that among Hindus.[15] The rate of endogamous marriage, for example, is less than two thirds.[15] 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."[16]

Castes in India[edit]

Some Indian, Pakistan, Bangladeshi and Nepali 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.[25]

Some of the backward or lower-caste Muslim caste include Kunjra, Dhobi, Halalkhor, and Kalal (so called ranki involved in the profession of wine selling and making.) The upper caste Muslim caste include Mughals, Qureshi, Pathan, Muslim Rajput, Turk, Sheikh, Khan, Syed, Rizvi, Biradri and Malik.[14] Genetic data has also supported this stratification.[26]

The report commissioned by the government of India and released in 2006, documents the continued stratification in Muslim society.

Castes in Pakistan[edit]

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.[27] These Muslims practice a ritual-based system of social stratification. The Quoms who deal with human emissions are ranked the lowest.[27]

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.[28]

Criticism of the system[edit]

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.[29]

Some scholars theorize that the Muslim Castes are not as acute in their discrimination as that among Hindus.[13][15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Islamic caste." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 18 Oct. 2006
  2. ^ a b Burton-Page, J., Hindū, Encyclopaedia of Islam. Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel and W. P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2006. Brill Online.
  3. ^ Anti-Slavery International & Association Timidira, Galy kadir Abdelkader, ed. Niger: Slavery in Historical, Legal and Contemporary Perspectives. March 2004
  4. ^ Hilary Andersson, "Born to be a slave in Niger", BBC Africa, Niger
  5. ^ "Kayaking to Timbuktu, Writer Sees Slave Trade, More", National Geographic.
  6. ^ "The Shackles of Slavery in Niger". ABC News. 2005-06-03. Retrieved 21 October 2013. 
  7. ^ "Niger: Slavery - an unbroken chain". Retrieved 21 October 2013. 
  8. ^ "On the way to freedom, Niger's slaves stuck in limbo", Christian Science Monitor
  9. ^ Oxfam by 'ethnic Africans' it is meant negro
  10. ^ Lehmann, Hermann (1954). "Distribution of the sickle cell trait" (PDF). Eugenics Review 46 (2): 113–116. PMC 2973326. PMID 21260667. Retrieved 5 August 2012. 
  11. ^ Robert F. Worth, "Languishing at the Bottom of Yemen’s Ladder", New York Times, (February 27 2008)
  12. ^ Muslim Caste in Uttar Pradesh (A Study of Culture Contact), Ghaus Ansari, Lucknow, 1960, Page 66
  13. ^ a b c d Singh Sikand, Yoginder. "Caste in Indian Muslim Society". Hamdard University. Retrieved 2006-10-18. 
  14. ^ a b c Anand Mohan Sahay. "Backward Muslims protest denial of burial". Retrieved 2003-03-06. 
  15. ^ a b c d Madan, T.N. (1976). Muslim communities of South Asia : culture and society. Vkas Publishing House. p. 114. ISBN 978-0-7069-0462-8. 
  16. ^ a b Ikram, S. M. (1964). "The Interaction of Islam and Hinduism". Muslim Civilization in India. New York: Columbia University Press. Retrieved 2007-06-12. 
  17. ^ Asghar Ali Engineer. "On reservation for Muslims". The Milli Gazette. Pharos Media & Publishing Pvt Ltd,. Retrieved 2004-09-01. 
  18. ^ Aggarwal, Patrap (1978). Caste and Social Stratification Among Muslims in India. Manohar. 
  19. ^ a b c d e Das, Arbind, Arthashastra of Kautilya and Fatwa-i-Jahandari of Ziauddin Barrani: an analysis, Pratibha Publications, Delhi 1996, ISBN 81-85268-45-2 pp. 124-143
  20. ^ a b Ambedkar, Bhimrao. Pakistan or the Partition of India. Thackers Publishers. 
  21. ^ a b Web resource for Pakistan or the Partition of India
  22. ^ Gitte Dyrhagen and Mazharul Islam (2006-10-18). "Consultative Meeting on the situation of caste in Bangladesh" (PDF). International Dalit Solidarity Network. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-08-03. Retrieved 2007-06-12. 
  23. ^ Dereserve these myths by Tanweer Fazal,Indian express
  24. ^ Falahi, Masood. "Caste and caste based discrimination s Among Indian Muslims’" (PDF). Retrieved 5 January 2015.  External link in |website= (help)
  25. ^ Social Stratification Among Muslims in India by Zarina Bhatty
  26. ^ Gene Diversity in Some Muslim Populations of North India Human Biology - Volume 77, Number 3, June 2005, pp. 343-353 - Wayne State University Press
  27. ^ a b Barth, Fredrik (1962). "The System Of Social Stratification In Swat, North Pakistan". In E. R. Leach. Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon, and North-West Pakistan. Cambridge University Press. p. 113. Retrieved 2007-06-12. 
  28. ^ Stephen M. Lyon. "Gujars and Gujarism: simple quaum versus network activism". University of Kent at Canterbury. Retrieved 2007-05-31. 
  29. ^ Yoginder Singh Sikand, Caste in Indian Muslim Society

Further reading[edit]

  • Ahmad, Imtiaz (1978). Caste and social stratification among Muslims in India. New Delhi: Manohar. OCLC 5147249. 
  • Ali, A.F. Imam (September 1993). Changing Social Stratification in Rural Bangladesh. South Asia Books. ISBN 978-81-7169-267-5. 
  • Sikand, Yoginder (2004). Islam, Caste and Muslim Relations in India. Global Media Publications. ISBN 81-88869-06-6. 
  • Ali, Syed (December 2002). "Collective and Elective Ethnicity: Caste Among Urban Muslims in India". Sociological Forum 17 (4): 593–620. doi:10.1023/A:1021077323866. ISSN 0884-8971. 
  • Ahmad, S. Shamim; A. K. Chakravarti (January 1981). "Some regional characteristics of Muslim caste systems in India". GeoJournal 5 (1): 55–60. doi:10.1007/BF00185243. ISSN 0343-2521. 
  • Berreman, Gerald D. (June 1972). "Social Categories and Social Interaction in Urban India". American Anthropologist 74 (3): 567–586. doi:10.1525/aa.1972.74.3.02a00220. ISSN 0002-7294. 

External links[edit]