Caste system among South Asian Muslims

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Although Islam does not recognize any castes, Muslim communities in South Asia apply a system of social stratification. It developed as a result of ethnic segregation between the foreign conquerors (Ashraf) and the local converts (Ajlaf).

Quotes[edit]

  • They were known by the generic term Turks and they insisted on monopolizing all key posts and important positions, and maintaining their racial and exotic identity. This attitude was also shared by their children and children’s children, who though born in India, psychologically felt that they were Turks of foreign stock. On the other hand the foreign Muslims treated the Indian Muslim converts with contempt. … Conversion to Islam did not change their status, and foreign Muslims looked down upon them. The foreigners especially were not prepared to treat them on equal terms at all. To add insult to injury, the chronicler Ziya Barani, a confirmed believer in the racial superiority of the so-called Turks and baseness of the Indian Muslims, recommends:
    “Teachers of every kind are to be sternly ordered not to thrust precious stones down the throats of dogs… that is, to the mean, the ignoble, the worthless. To shopkeepers and the low born they are to teach nothing more than the rules about prayer, fasting, religious charity and the Hajj pilgrimage along with some chapters of the Quran and some doctrines of the faith without which their religion cannot be correct and valid prayers are not possible. They are to be instructed in nothing more. They are not to be taught reading and writing for plenty of disorders arise owing to the skill of the low-born in knowledge…” “The low-born, who have been enrolled for practising the baser arts and the meaner professions, are capable only of vices…” Indeed all neo-Muslims were called by the generic but contemptuous term julaha. Surely all the converts could not have come from the weaver caste, but the word julaha became synonymous with the despised low-born Indian Muslim convert. On the other hand the foreign Muslims (or Turks) “alone are capable of virtue, kindness, generosity, valour, good deed, good works, truthfulness, keeping of promises… loyalty, clarity of vision, justice, equity, recognition of rights, gratitude for favours and fear of God. They are, consequently, said to be noble, free born, virtuous, religious, of high pedigree and pure birth. These groups, alone are worthy of offices and posts in the government… Owing to their actions the government of the king is strengthened and adorned.” On the other hand the “low-born” (Indian) Muslims are capable only of vices - immodesty, falsehood, miserliness, misappropriation, wrongfulness, lies, evil-speaking ingratitude,…shamelessness, impundence… So they are called low-born, bazaar people, base, mean, worthless, plebian, shameless and of dirty birth”. …
    • Ziauddin Barani, quoted from Lal, K. S. (1990). Indian muslims: Who are they.
  • In theory all Muslims are equal; in practice some have always been more equal than the others. Foreign Muslims tried to dominate over Indian Muslims. At the top were the Ulema or the learned, nobles and army commanders. They were all foreigners or descended from migrant Muslims. It was from the Ulema class that the high officers, of government as well as religious institutions were chosen. .... It was through these men that the regime systematized the religious and social life of the Muslim community just as it organized the extension and administration of Muslim dominions in India through the nobility.
    • Lal, K. S. (1990). Indian muslims: Who are they.
  • Turks of pure lineage and Tajiks of noble birth could not tolerate … the tribes of Hind to rule over them.
    • Minhaj Jurjani, quoted from K.S. Lal, Indian Muslims, who are they (2012)
  • In the medieval period, heredity and lineage were taken into account in the selection of officers and nobles, and as far as possible low-born Indian Muslims were not appointed to high offices. Foreign Muslims were generally preferred, not only in the Sultanate of Delhi or the Mughal Empire, but also in the independent kingdoms of Gujarat and Malwa and the Adil Shahi and Qutbshahi kingdoms of the Deccan. ... With this background, it needs no reiteration that, by and large, Muslim administration drew neither on India’s native tradition nor on native manpower and the development of Muslim administrative system and its implementation and execution in India owed much to foreign elements. ... The administration of the Sultanate and Mughal Empire was bureaucratic throughout. Over long periods this administrative system was dominated by immigrants from abroad, mainly West Asia and North Africa and this gave it much of the character of foreign and Islamic rule. Commenting on the list of mansabdars in the Ain-i-Akbari, Moreland says that while about 70 percent of the nobles were foreigners belonging to families which had either come to India with Humayun or had arrived at the court after the accession of Akbar, of the remaining 30 percent of the appointments which were held by Indians, rather more than half were Moslems and “rather less than half Hindus.”
    • Moreland, India at the Death of Akbar, pp.69-70 quoted from Lal, K. S. (1992). The legacy of Muslim rule in India. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. Chapter 4
  • The population of Indian Muslims grew rapidly through enslavement. This rapid growth gave rise to new problems. One was a tussle for power between foreign slave-Amirs and Indian slaves some of whom also attained to the position of nobles.... [Minhaj Siraj describes:] “The Maliks and servants of the Sultan’s Court were all Turks of pure lineage” (Turkan-i-pak) writes he, and Taziks of noble birth (Tazikan-i-guzida was). “Imad-ud-Din Rayhan (who) was castrated and mutilated, and of the tribe of Hind, was ruling over the heads of lords of high descent, and the whole of them were loathing that state, and were unable to suffer any longer that degradation.”... The language of Ziyauddin Barani is not less vituperative. He was a staunch believer in the racial superiority of the Turks and the baseness of Indian Muslims. He recommended that “Teachers of every kind are to be sternly ordered not to thrust precious stones down the throats of dogs… that is, to the mean, the ignoble, the worthless… To the low-born they are to teach nothing more than the rules about prayer, fasting, religious charity and the Hajj pilgrimage along with some chapters of the Quran and some doctrines of the faith… They (Indian Muslims) are not to be taught reading and writing for plenty of disorders arise owing to the skill of the low-born in knowledge… the low-born are capable only of vices… so they are called low-born, worthless, plebeian, shameless and of dirty birth.” ... The fate and fortune of the black Africans was not that good....the majority of them were treated as lesser Muslims.
    • Minhaj Siraj quoted from Lal, K. S. (1994). Muslim slave system in medieval India. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. Chapter 7
  • Muslim ‘community’ in India had remained sharply divided into two mutually exclusive segments throughout the centuries of Islamic invasions and rule over large parts of the country. On the one hand, there were the descendants of conquerors who came from outside or who identified themselves completely with the conquerors - the Arabs, the Turks, the Iranians, and the Afghans. They glorified themselves as the Ashrãf (high-born, noble) or Ahli-i-Daulat (ruling race) and Ahl-i-Sa‘adat (custodians of religion). On the other hand, there were converts from among the helpless Hindus who were looked down upon by the Ashrãf and described as the Ajlãf (low-born, ignoble) and Arzãl (mean, despicable) depending upon the Hindu castes from which the converts came. The converts were treated as Ahl-i-Murãd (servile people) who were expected to obey the Ahl-i-Daulat and Ahl-i-Sa‘adat abjectly. Shah Waliullah (1703-62) and his son Abdul Aziz (1746-1822) were the first to notice this situation and felt frightened that the comparatively small class of the Ashrãf was most likely to be drowned in the surrounding sea of Hindu Kafirs. ... They had to turn to the neo-Muslims. The neo-Muslims, however, had little interest in waging wars for Islam. They had, therefore, to be fully Islamized, that is, alienated completely from their ancestral society and culture. That is why the Tabligh movement was started.
  • Muhammad Tughlaq always preferred foreign Muslims to Indians for appointment as officers. The rebellion of Ain-ul-mulk Multani (1339) during his reign was a symptom of the resentment felt by the India-born nobles against this policy of prejudice.... Foreign nobles looked down upon Indian Muslim nobles, and considered them as ‘lowborn’, although not all foreign Muslims were of high lineage.
    • Lal, K. S. (1992). The legacy of Muslim rule in India. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. Chapter 5
  • “Would our aristocracy like that a man of low caste or insignificant origin, though he be a B.A. or M.A., and have the requisite ability, should be in a position of authority above them and have power in making laws that affect their lives and property? Never! Nobody would like it.”
  • It is true that Balban also made detailed enquiries about the families of all his officers. He refused to grant audience to a low-born officer (Amir-i-Bazariyan) for “granting him an interview would reduce the status of the king in the eyes of the common people and diminish the prestige of the throne”.
    • Lal, K. S. (1990). Indian muslims: Who are they.
  • Muslim ‘community’ in India had remained sharply divided into two mutually exclusive segments throughout the centuries of Islamic invasions and rule over large parts of the country. On the one hand, there were the descendants of conquerors who came from outside or who identified themselves completely with the conquerors - the Arabs, the Turks, the Iranians, and the Afghans. They glorified themselves as the Ashrãf (high-born, noble) or Ahli-i-Daulat (ruling race) and Ahl-i-Sa‘adat (custodians of religion). On the other hand, there were converts from among the helpless Hindus who were looked down upon by the Ashrãf and described as the Ajlãf (low-born, ignoble) and Arzãl (mean, despicable) depending upon the Hindu castes from which the converts came. The converts were treated as Ahl-i-Murãd (servile people) who were expected to obey the Ahl-i-Daulat and Ahl-i-Sa‘adat abjectly. Shah Waliullah (1703-62) and his son Abdul Aziz (1746-1822) were the first to notice this situation and felt frightened that the comparatively small class of the Ashrãf was most likely to be drowned in the surrounding sea of Hindu Kafirs. ... They had to turn to the neo-Muslims. The neo-Muslims, however, had little interest in waging wars for Islam. They had, therefore, to be fully Islamized, that is, alienated completely from their ancestral society and culture. That is why the Tabligh movement was started.
  • In fact, their contempt for the native converts was deeper than that for their Hindu subjects. They had all along looked down upon the native converts as Ajlãf (low-born) and Arzãl (base-born) as compared to the Ashrãf (exalted) which distinctive designation they had reserved for themselves..... It was at this critical juncture that the frustrated fraternity of foreign Muslims took a very strategic step. They started swearing by a solidarity with the native Muslims whom they had despised so far. They let loose on the native Muslims an army of mercenary Mullahs recruited, mostly from their own ranks. These Mullahs went about broadcasting the message that ‘Islam was in danger’, and that ‘Hindus were out to enslave and exploit the Muslim minority’. It was in this manner that the residues of Islamic imperialism managed to ‘merge’ themselves with the native converts, and to present themselves at the head of a strong phalanx pitted against whatever historical forces threatened their unjust privileges. Hitherto, the haughty Ashrãf had stood strictly aloof from the abject Ajlãf and the despised Arzãl. Now all of a sudden the latter became the former’s ‘brothers in faith’. This was a tremendous transformation of the political scene in the second decade of the 20th century.
  • The principle of ranking finds a vigorous application. Those who claim foreign ancestry are the aristocracy, the Ashraf. They have their own ranking: Sayyids, Sheikhs, Moghuls and Pathans. They are divided into subsidiary categories, generally all endogamous. The local converts constitute the plebeian class and are frankly called Ajlaf and Arzal, Arabic words which mean the wretched, the ignoble, the mean, the triflings. … They are further divided literally into hundreds of castes, most of them strictly endogamous.
    • Ram Swarup: Woman in Islam. also quoted in Decolonizing the Hindu Mind (2001) by Koenraad Elst

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