Identity in a low-caste Indian Muslim Community – A Critical Study

Image Credits – Mohammad Febri Adiawarja

Islam’s solid claim of equality and brotherhood falls weak when you notice the aged concepts of biradari and casteism. Here the division is based on ethnic origin and descent. In all honesty, castes are not a part of Islam’s dictionary but when it expanded its branches in India (and Persia) it soaked in the cruel caste system too. Some keywords that followed Muslims to South Asia are paak which means pure/clean and napak which is the exact opposite of paak and in simple words refers to an infidel.

A hierarchical classification of khandan (dynasty, family, or lineage descent) and nasal (group based on blood ties and lineage) was seen (and is still followed) on the basis of the Biradari System. Persian works such as Siyasatnama of Nizam al-Mulk (11th century), Akhlaq-i-Nasiri of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (13th century), and Jam-i-Mufidi (17th century) talk about this social stratification. It all began when Muhammad died in the 7th century which resulted in a war of succession. Tribes and prominent families were fighting amongst themselves because they all wanted to be the closest family of Muhammad (ahl al-bayt). It was a crucial hierarchical determinant of the Arab society which bifurcated the population into Arabs and non-Arabs. The earliest traces of this Ahl al-Bayt in India can be found in the 8th century. Non-Arabs were further divided into-

Ashraf-Ajlaf – Dichotomy Issue

At present, the South Asian Muslims are divided into Arabs – unch zat/higher caste and descendants of the converts– nich zat/lower caste. A vertical casteism is seen where Ashrafs, unch zat Muslims are on the top followed by Ajlaf and Arzals, who unfortunately are a mocked part of the nich zat. Ashrafs, according to Ahmed, were the undoubted descendants of foreign Muslims (Arabs, Persians, Afghans, etc.) and converts from upper-class Hindus (Hindu Rajputs). These descendants were (or were associated with) foreign conquerors who converted people to Islam (also known as tabqa-i-ashrafiyya) and hence claimed a superior status.

The Muslims that came to India in the 12th century were already divided into social classes which included priests, nobles, etc. Here, internal distinctions were already present. Different hierarchical positions are recognized according to the country of origin and the degree of nearness to the Prophet. Syeds trace their descent directly from the Prophet’s daughter Fatima and are highest in the status of honour (analogous to Hindu Brahmins), followed in order by the Sheikhs, Mughals, and Pathans. Pasmandas include the Ajlaf and Arzal Muslims. These form the non-Ashraf community, who are all converts from Hinduism, usually lower castes. An Ajlaf’s status is demoted by them being the descendants of converts to Islam and also by their pesha (profession). It includes various functional castes such as the weavers, cotton-carders, oil-pressers, barbers, tailors, etc. as well as converts of originally humble castes, serving castes, and the untouchables.

In 1960, Ghaus Ansari named four broad categories of Muslim social division in India-

  • Ashraf- claim foreign origin descent, e.g., Sayed, Sheikh, Mughal, and Pathan.
  • Converts from Hindu upper castes, e.g., Muslim Rajput.
  • Converts from other Indian tribes, for example, Darzi, Dhobi, Mansoori, Gaddi, Faqir, Hajjan (Nai), Julaha, Kabaria, Kumhar, Kunjra, Mirasi, and Teli.
  • Converts from untouchable castes (Musalis), e.g., Bhangi.

On the other hand, The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 categorized the Indian Muslim into three categories-

  • Ashrafs- those without any social disabilities
  • Ajlafs- that equivalent to Hindu Other Backward Castes (OBC)
  • Arzals- that equivalent to Hindu Scheduled Castes (SC)

Discrimination against the Indian Muslim behind the veil of Equality

Indian Muslim
Image Credits – Mariam Apd El-Nasir

Islam places itself under the egalitarian banner, i.e., it does not believe in discrimination based on caste, creed, nation, race, family but from the ethnic segregation explained above it’s interesting to see what’s going on behind this thick veil of brotherhood. Since the dawn of civilization, men in power have treated their subordinates in the most degrading manner possible and Dalits and people from the Bahujan community are living examples. Victims of the Hindu caste system were attracted to Islam and its ideologies of equality and brotherhood. But did it change their condition in society? No.

In the vertical casteism seen in non-Indic religions, they still occupy the bottom-most position. Their names have changed, their traditions have changed, even their god has changed but they still remain the miserable outcasts, untouchables of South Asia. Islam entered North India in 711 AD (92 AH) through invasions and in the South through trading. With it came to its power groups who proliferated Islam in India. Race and pride of birth mingled with the already existing social stratification and gave rise to more discrimination on the grounds of one’s family ancestry. Positions of status and authority were assigned to members of families who either originally accompanied invading armies or descendants of the original immigrants.

Early Turkish Sultans treated Muslims of local origin contemptuously (Barani). Founder of Delhi Sultanate, Iltutmish dismissed 33 persons from government service because they were of low birth (Ajlaf and Arzals). Later, on the recommendation of Nizam- ul-Mulk, Jamal Marzuk was appointed as the Mutassarif of Qannauj but Aziz Bahauz objected to his appointment on the ground of his low birth. Iltutmish not only canceled his appointment but instituted an inquiry into the genealogy of Nizam- ul-Mulk himself. Later it was revealed that the Wazir belonged to a weaver family and as a result lost the confidence of the Sultan. No low-born person was allowed to be recommended for the iqta or appointment to the post of khwajgi or mudabbiri. Balban too followed the footsteps of his predecessors and dismissed all the low-born people from all the important offices.

One such Kamal Mohiyar, an Indian Muslim was selected for the post of Mutassarif of Amroaha by his courtiers for which they all were sharply rebuked. Balban made thorough inquiries about the families of all his officers and government servants (from the letters of Sayyid Ashraf Jahangiri). Ziauddin Barani (Turkish scholar, leading courtier of Muhammad bin Tughlaq) in his classical literature Fatawa-i-Jahandari wrote that caste divisions were ‘recommended’ among Indian Muslim. According to his recommendation only “the sons of Muhammad’, i.e., Ashrafs be given a higher social status than the low-born Ajlafs.

He also developed an elaborate system of promotion and demotion of Imperial officers (Wazirs) based on their caste. He further warned the Sultan to not educate the lowborn and not let them mingle with the superior race.  Tughlaq had a policy of giving preferences to foreign-born Muslims in administration and government and systematically ignored the claims of the Indian Muslim. Ashraf Jahangiri wrote, The Sultan went to the extent of offering the most responsible and distinguished offices of the kingdom- for instance those of a Wazir, a Dabir, a military commander, a judge, a professor of theology, or a Shai khul- Islam- to almost any foreigner of some learning. Foreigners coming to India were collectively known as ‘the Honourables’ (Aizza).

Popular belief says that it was the Hindu caste system that polluted the Indian Muslim society when conversions began to take place but Louis Dumont contradicts that it was the Islamic conquerors who adopted the caste system as a compromise which they had to make in a predominantly Hindu environment.

The society was divided into the original ones (those of a foreign ethnic origin) and the converted (forcefully or for material gains) ones. This distinction manifested at the local level too where each of these broad categories was further divided into a number of smaller units. Various Muslims maintained distance amongst themselves even in the same city. Internal grouping was prevalent but remained ignored by many historical sociologists. Even medieval historians acknowledged the distinction between foreign and Indian Muslim only. Inter-caste Muslim relations were not examined closely by earlier sociologists.

According to Ahmed, social stratification at the local level is very complex and the population is divided into many social groups which are analogous to Hindu castes. Dr. Aftab Alam in an interview said, concepts of purity and impurity; clean and unclean caste- exist among Indian Muslim. The Sachar Committee Report along with the Ranganath Mishra Committee Report accepted the existence of a caste system among Indian Muslim. They enlightened us about the several cases of abuse and discrimination an average Ajlaf/Arzal faces every day that includes social segregation, untouchability, limited or no access to education, and underrepresentation.

Ajlaf and Arzals- Just like Icarus

Muslim Invaders

Chuhras or the Bhangis converted from Hinduism to Islam and were known as Musalis. They adopted Muslim names, started observing Ramadan, and buried their dead. Even after undergoing such an extreme transition, they still continued their traditional caste work and as a result, they were barred from the entrance of Mosques and never allowed to go past the outside steps to Muslim religious places. But since then, times have changed and some practices became less rigid but still, they feel discriminated against in holy places. Ashrafs do not recognize Arzal Muslims as a part of the Muslim South Asian Community (millat). They firmly believe that Arzals should not be part of the liberation process.

As a result, a major chunk of the upper caste people has maintained a distance from them.  These Dalit Muslims don’t even receive invitations and if by chance they do get an invite, they are either seated separately and served food on a different plate or in some more extreme cases, allowed to eat only after the upper-caste people are finished. Even educational institutions segregate students and make them sit in different rows in class and during lunch break as well. 

In Bihar, such Muslims are not allowed to bury their dead in the same graveyard as their upper-caste brothers. They either go to a different graveyard or in a few cases find some empty space in the neglected corners. The plight of marriage institutions is the same too. Biradaris form a very integral part of the Muslim community. Endogamy is the common route undertaken by many and because of that Indian Muslim tend to marry within their own biradaris. During the Muslim rule, Ashraf worked as advisors, ministers, administrators, army chieftains, ulemas (scholars), etc. whereas the Dalit-Bhujans remained bound to their traditional occupations and continued their work as sweepers, peasants, labourers, vegetable sellers, etc. Ashraf will not want to form kinship ties with Ajlafs and Arzals in fear of polluting their lineage.

This never-ending saga of superiority and purity is still seen in small towns and villages. Times have changed but the age-old beliefs are still retained. The Sunni School of Jurisprudence places lineage as a very important and higher signifier in the hierarchical classification. For them, Arabs are superior to non-Arabs (Ajami) Muslims. Quraysh are the highest of the Arabs followed by Hazrat Ali’s descendants and a learned non-Arab is equal to an ignorant Arab; Qazi (Muslim judge) or Faqih (a Muslim jurist theologian) ranks higher than a merchant and a merchant than a tradesman.

A person whose lineage traces back to an untouchable, a social outcast is still going to be treated like one in the future. Dalits thought that their plight would be heard or their social standing would upgrade. Religion is fluid. You can worship any god you want and change your name on papers but the shadows of your social identity, caste in this case will haunt you till the end of time.

Like Icarus, they chased the burning dream of equality but forgot that even though times can change but the in-grained need for power in our DNA will never let it happen. For one section of the society to feel powerful and wear the crown bearing the gems of superiority, the other needs to bear the brunt of servitude. Our dear Ajlaf and Arzal brothers and sisters burnt their wings trying to chase this dream and plunged back into the mushy grounds where they still remained the untouchables. A tag that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Legal Contentions – Casteism between Indian Muslim

The term Scheduled Caste was coined by the Government of India (Scheduled Caste) Order, 1936 which refers to those groups that were known as depressed classes till then. After Independence, the Constitution of India in the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order No. 19 of 1950 in its Paragraph 3 states, Notwithstanding anything contained in paragraph 2, no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu (the Sikh or the Buddhist) religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste. This means that apart from Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists, no person practicing any other religion can claim to be a scheduled caste and use the benefits that are provided for such people.

Both the Orders, 1936- latently and the 1950- patently, made an assumption that caste was only unique to the Hindus. Though certain Indian Muslim castes are recognized as Other Backward Classes (OBC) under the 27% quota the 1950 Order has still blocked pathways for many others. Reservations in many institutions are still not available to many Ajlafs and Arzals even though they face the same amount of discrimination and missed opportunities. According to Ejaz Ali, 75% of the present Indian Muslim population comprises Dalit Muslims. From 1st to 14th Lok Sabha, there were 400 Muslim representatives. 340 belonged to the Ashrafs and the rest were the marginalized Pasmandas. Ashrafs have always been overrepresented and are part of the political elite. 

Records of the Constituent Assembly show that our Founding Fathers worked under the assumption that non-Hindus are not corroded from the caste hierarchies. Major Muslim issue at the time of independence was only limited to a separate electorate for Muslims and their inclusion in the backward classes (later known as the OBCs). The Supreme Court remained non-committal on the issue. Courts held that an individual’s caste would cease to exist upon conversion to a religion like Islam since non-Indic religions don’t recognize the cruel caste system and as result, the concept of Scheduled Caste will not apply to them. But a belief that caste is a Hindu phenomenon since the caste system derives legitimacy from Hindu religious texts, has dominated the thinking of governments and academia since the colonial period (Prashant K Trivedi).

A major shift was seen in the 1970s, wherein in Arumugam v. S Rajgopal the Supreme Court adopted a “distinct interpretation” and ruled that caste does not cease to exist but is rather “eclipsed” upon conversion. In Soosai v. Union of India, 1985, the Supreme Court accepted that the shadow of caste continued to loom even after conversion. In January 2020, the Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde made observations that the social exclusion of Christians and Muslims from the Scheduled Caste requires consideration. Here the old Bahujan Movement slogan Dalit pichda eksaman, Hindu ho ya Musalman rings true. Prejudices are found in all the major religions all across India (Parsis are an exception) and therefore everyone bearing the title should be given protection by law so that they can prosper under the watchful eyes of the constitution just like their Hindu outcast counterparts.


Untouchability and Islam rarely team up in socio-political discussions. Even though Islam does not recognize caste, promotes equality and egalitarianism, Muslims are victimized by other Muslims in the name of caste and biradari. In Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi, the main character Mir Nihal, a proud Sayed, warns his son Asghar that marriage with a lower caste girl, Bilqeece is against their social dignity. What happens later in the story depends on whether you decide to read the novel or not but the ongoing tussle between the social classes has put an unexpected full stop on many gossamer stories. The severity is less now but the concept of superiority is still alive in the 21st century.

Hindu SCs and OBCs are given protection under the law but what about their Muslim incarnations? They too face discrimination but they have it worse because with the identity of a Chuhras they also bear the brunt of being a Muslim. In the words of the Prophet, There are two things that 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). The words of wisdom are often ignored and instead, people are going through their ancestry to find how close they are to the holy man forgetting that it’s not the blood that makes you closer to him but the bond you share with him through your prayers and good deeds.  

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