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 mischiefs of these mischief mongers. At a time when Muslims are passing through 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’ (backword) 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 Mozzin in a mosque. 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 Nadeeul 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 race or a family, but it is the piety of individuals that makes them superior in the eyes of Allah SWT. 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.’ (Qur’an, Surah Al-Hujurat 49: 13)

Mufti Yasir also quoted the famous and last sermon of Holy Prophetﷺ in which he said, ‘An Arab has no superiority over non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over Arab, nor a white over black, nor a black over white. All humans are the issues of Adam and Adam was made of clay… I am leaving with you the Book of God 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] 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.

Interestingly, following the publication of an article on this issue in a newspaper a few years ago, this topic was debated on AMUnetwork, an online forum of AMU alumni. Every participant condemned it as a curse and as a social evil. Many provided names of some famous Muslim personalities who came from the ‘Pasmanda’ castes. Their castes never became an issue in them reaching these high positions. They held high positions in various organisations and institutions, including two Ameers of Jamat-e-Islami Hind, late Maulana Yusuf Saheb and Maulana Sirajul Hasan Saheb, both of whom were Ansaris. Canada-based senior journalist and author Tariq Ghazi Saheb’s contribution to the debate was most extensive and interesting.

After coming across the reemergence of this debate on social media, I requested Tariq Ghazi Saheb to write some of the names he had mentioned in his contribution then. Sadly, he does not remember the debate, but he sent an even more interesting and informative rejoinder. For my readers’ interest, I am providing the translation, from Urdu, of his response. However, before posting his reply, let me mention a very important name in Indian Muslim history of someone the reference for whom in the community is hardly matched by anyone. The fact that his ‘pasmanda’ Kalal[*] caste is not generally known to anyone; nor does anyone care to find about it, is 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 rectors of two world-renowned seminaries, Darul Uloom Deoband and Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulema, Lucknow, Maulana Abul Qasmi and Maulana Saeedur Rehman Qasmi, come from the Ansari 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. A careful study of history and biographies would make it clear that Arb 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 Shehar Bano, the wife of Hazrat Hussain (RA), was an Iranian. There may or may not be more of such instances. But in this particular case too, no one has ever objected to or criticised him — who was not only a pure Arab, a Qureshi, a Hashmi but the direct and third-generation descendent of 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 wedlocks 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 — Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Albanian, Hungarian, and Romanian women. And the children born out of these weddings inherited the throne. None of the Turkish or Arab scholar, jurist or Muhaddith, had ever disapproved of these weddings.

Based on this, one would expect those calling themselves ‘pasmandah’ to present from their family history examples of weddings, 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. A waiver was supposed to be destined to be a waiver for 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 would also be referred to as ‘pasmandah’.

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

There used to be a magnificent shop of Chandu Halwai in front of the 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 belonged to Memon community and were not pasmandah by any definition. I knew them personally.

Late Suleman Seth and his son Abdul Sattar Seth were very pious, charitable and highly respectable people. I think the ‘castes’ of such 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 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 a waiver], and hardly anyone knows his real name.

Let me list a few more highly respected and revered scholars in Islamic history:
Imam Abul Hasan Mawrdi: His family used to prepare and sell rose water. [ماء = پانی + وررد = گلاب == ما وردی = گلاب کا پانی بنانے والا[
Shamsul Ulema Abdul Aziz Halwani: The meaning of his title Shamsul Ulema is the sun of Imams. His profession was Halwai. Following Arabic grammar, 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 in a madarsa library, you would be inundated with the number of books he had written.

Imam Abu Bakr Khasaf: He was the Imam of his time and, by profession, a cobbler, i.e., mochi. Another meaning of Khasaf is basket maker as well.
Imam Shamshuddin Zehbi: A well-known muhaddith and a historian. Instead of his real name, he is known by his profession’s name, a goldsmith i.e. a sunaar. In Arabic zehab means a goldsmith.

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

Sadly, this did not happen in India. Here the most useless people became highly respectable. The ones with the best skills, on whose exprtise depended the life of the society, and who worked hard to earn their Halal livelihoods, came to be known as low castes. I see it as a psychological problem and have sympathy for them because, even after accepting Islam, they continued to be the victims of this curse. To belong to ‘respectable’ communities and earn fake respectability, they adopted Arabic surnames names like Ansari, Salmani, Qureshi and Zubairi etc.

Surely associating oneself 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 waving started referring to themselves as Ansaris, their adopted identity revived their old identity in the society. This did not serve any purpose and this respectable section of the Muslim community failed to free itself from the shackles that Arya Samaj 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.

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 each so-called ‘Ashraf’ household brings a daughter in law from cobbler families, will this remove the cobbler families’ backwardness? The feeling of being backwards is nothing but a psychological issue. The so-called ‘pasmandah’ individuals who freed themselves from this shackle and gained knowledge became the teachers and leaders of people of Arab, Iranian, Turk and Afghan descents.

Allama Muhammad Baliavi was the Nazim-e-Taleeemat (Dean Faculty) of Darul Uloom Deoband. He taught Hakeemul Islam Maulana Qari Tayyeb. He belonged to the so-called ‘pasmandah’ gada community.
Mufti-e-Azam Hind [grand Mufti of India] Maulana Kifaiatullah, also known for his widely acclaimed and popular book Taleem ul Islam, used to teach the basics of Islam, belonged to the Nai [hair dresser] community. But he was admired, loved and respected by everyone and had taught many Siddiqi and Usmani scholars. Who will dare categorise these pious people as ‘pasmandah’?

***
[*] Daryabadi, Maulana Abdul Majid, Muhammad Ali: Zaati Diary ke Chand wqrq, Sidq Foundation, Lucknow
Jamai, Muhammad Abdul Malik, compiled by Masoom Moradabadi, Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar AankhoN Dekhi BaateN, Page 71, Khabardar Publications, Delhi.

This article first appeared on ghazalikhan.com

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