Islam is a religion founded on equality as a basic teaching of Prophet Muhammad. The Quran does not contain any verse which can be interpreted to justify any kind of discrimination within Islam. Islam has its holy places like Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. The Middle East Arab world, Africa, some countries of Europe and south Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia harbour some of the largest Muslim populations. Islam has 1.8 billion adherents all over the world.
Occurrence of a practice resembling caste discrimination among Muslims has been recorded in the Indian subcontinent—primarily India. However, it is seen as seeping into Pakistan and Bangladesh also. Research on such caste stratification was extremely hard, as a lot of Indian Muslims blatantly denied any such practice. Anthropological studies also have lacked much content on Muslims of India outside of their cultural practices that put the limelight on their religious identity in opposition to Hindus (Nasreen Fazhalbhoy, 1997). Tarek Fatah, Pakistan born Muslim journalist, writer, activist and founder of Canadian Muslim Congress has said in a 2017 episode of his Hindi talk show “Fateh pe Fatwa” that Muslims in India tend to deny the existence of such a caste system among them publicly, because being a minority makes them defensive of admitting their faults. This is a highly subjective opinion. However, it does help us put forward an argument of existence of a caste system within the Muslim community in India. However, it is blatantly hidden as Islam does not justify discrimination, and this is a major clause in Indian Muslims positioning their religion vis.a.vis Hinduism at a higher mental footing.
The Varna system exists among the Hindus that have shastric allusions.Brahmin, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras are not just occupational divisions, but connotations of purity and pollution which provide for curtailment on social intercourse. In India, Muslims are divided into Ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal. These are not theological categories finding sanction in Islam, and do not hold weightage in any other country outside of the Indian subcontinent. As ‘caste’ or any other discrimination is forbidden in Islamic religion, Indian Muslims claim that these divisions are not rigid, but they only function as names of tribes. Or, they claim that these divisions do not serve as rigid blockades on social intercourse. However, the reality is that these divisions find a very big role to play in life chances, circumstances, opportunities and the treatment meted out.
‘Ashraf’ Muslims are those that claim to be of Arabic ancestry, of the invaders who entered India in the medieval period. They are identified by the prefixes ‘Syed’, ‘Pathan’ or ‘Siddiqui’ before their names. ‘Ajlaf’ Muslims constitute the converts from other religions (largely Hinduism) to Islam after Arabic invaders had set foot on the country. ‘Arzal’ Muslims are those who got converted from Dalit Hindu castes and still continue to engage in occupations like dhobi, shoemaker, and largely menial jobs. There are about 133 sub-castes among Indian Muslims which can broadly be categorized into these three categories. Ashraf Muslims account for only 15-20% of India’s population and 80-85% of Indian Muslims fall under ‘Ajlaf’ or ‘Arzal’ categories (Azra Khanam, 2013).
There is a strict non-tolerance of intermarriage between these groups, so these are effectually endogamous divisions. Repeatedly in interviews of Maulanas and of common people, majority Muslim respondents in Tarek Fateh’s show reiterated that there is no caste in Islam, that there is complete brotherhood and fraternity among them and these categories of “Ashraf” “Ajlaf” and “Arzal” are purely theoretical categories to trace ancestry and do not have a bearing on living circumstances or social intermixing. Most of the respondents repeatedly emphasized that only Hinduism has such a system. However, some respondents and the intellectuals invited on the show gave examples of discrimination they experienced in daily life including Tarek Fateh himself being an ‘Ajlaf’.
There are some practices that are similar to Hinduism’s purity and pollution. One is having separate donation boxes in Masjids for Ashrafs and other categories to make sure that alms given by an Ashraf can be used to help any category of Muslims, but alms given by a backward category person is only used for their own help and not for Ashrafs. There were verbal accounts of Maulanas disallowing converts to add Syed to their name because they weren’t Ashraf by birth. This discrimination was said to be amplified in rural areas more than the Old Delhi. There was a precedent cited by a respondent in the aforementioned show that in rural UP, there exist separate masjids for separate categories. Eating together is not at all observable.
The presence of such a caste-like discrimination corroborates with the fact that Dalit Muslims [Muslims converted from Dalit Hindu castes, (Saba Naqvi, 2006)] are counted under the OBC category (Other Backward Classes) as of 2006 recommendations made by Sachar panel. They are eligible for reservation, and a separate category of MBC (Most Backward Classes) has been created for them. This is significant to prove that despite conversion to Islam, their generational exclusion and deprivation has not been changed.
Most significantly, education has been a monopoly of mainly Ashrafs since pre-independence period. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, pioneer of Muslim education in India and founder of Aligarh Muslim University faces criticism from current day Muslims for having only envisioned education for Ashrafs and having said in a speech that Arzal Muslims do not need to be educated (only a verbal accusation, no confirmation).
So, the first major intervention needed is in the discourse, as a strong power nexus exists within knowledge creation due to which Ashrafs are the only Muslims producing discourse about Muslims in India. Secondly, in relation tot he remedies, from the public policy aspect, educational and political empowerment needs to be created for the ‘backward’ Muslims who have been in the same oppressed jobs for generations. Reservations in educational institutions and constituencies could be one option. ‘Dalit Muslims’ should be accrued the same advantages as given to Hindu Dalits. This outlook needs to be changed. Equally underprivileged and oppressed communities should not be harboring hostility towards one another based on difference in the religion, as this takes the focus away from the oppressor in both cases.
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