Caste & Muslims

Print edition : May 02, 2014
An interesting perspective on social stratification among Muslims in India.

IT has always been hard for Indian Muslims to acknowledge that a semblance of the caste system exists within the lived tradition of Islam in India. The paradox of belonging to a religion that is premised on the notion of equality and at the same time imbibing local traits which affirm inequality has not been studied sufficiently. T.N. Madan (ed., Muslim Communities of South Asia, 1972) and Imtiaz Ahmed (ed., Caste and Social Stratification among Muslims in India, 1978) did some pioneering sociological work in this area, but it still remains one that needs to be explored. External observers tend to see Muslims across India as a homogeneous community, but in reality, Muslims are segmented into different status categories on the basis of income, occupation, education and lineage.

Unlike the Hindu caste system, where it is easy to discern the stratification, caste identities among Muslims are not defined rigidly, making any study of the prevailing system that much more difficult. The two books under review try to engage with this question by looking at Muslim backward classes and communities on the margins of Muslim society in India.

The most familiar approach to understand Muslim stratification is by dividing the community into ashraf (Muslims of foreign lineage) and ajlaf (local converts). The ashraf are regarded as the superior group and are mainly endogamous, while the ajlaf are considered to be inferior. Some scholars use another category, arzal, to denote Muslims who converted from the lowest strata of Hindu society. In her exhaustive study of Muslim Other Backward Classes, Azra Khanam estimates that Muslim OBCs constitute more than 80 per cent of the total Muslim population. She mainly looks at the ajlaf category, which constitutes the middle category of Indian Muslims. The author establishes the backwardness of Indian Muslims when compared with members of other communities before discussing the politics and history of reservation for OBCs in India. On the basis of extensive field data, Azra Khanam’s work demonstrates that “…although the notion of purity and pollution among Muslims is absent, a certain degree of distance and affinity is found among them on the basis of the cleanliness of occupation, because occupations are hierarchically arranged….” Thus, there is no doubt that there is a need to recognise Muslim OBCs as a separate category and provide them with the commensurate reservation. The author also evaluates the status of Muslim OBCs in terms of the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.

Vinod. K. Jairath has edited an interesting book with the aim of “…filling the gap in empirical studies in sociology and social anthropology in India on the diversity and complexity in Muslim communities”. The essays contained in the book show how marginal Muslim communities on the frontiers of Muslim society in India engage with their Muslim identity. For Jairath, the “embeddedness” of these communities in the larger social structure is important. Muslim communities that have been studied in this book should not be seen as isolated ones.

Among the various communities examined in this work are the Muslim Jatts of Kutch in Gujarat, the Irani Shias of Hyderabad, the Sidis of Gujarat who are Indians of African descent, and the Borewale Muslims of Andhra Pradesh. The working of the All India Jamiatul Quresh, or the “butchers’ association”, is also examined.

In an essay on social stratification among the Muslims of Kerala, P.R.G. Mathur argues that the “…Muslim caste system is part of the overall caste system in Kerala rather than a separate Muslim caste system”. In his essay on the Borewale Muslims of Andhra Pradesh, S.A.A. Saheb not only indicates the presence of social stratification among Muslims but also says that the “…Muslim system of social stratification lacks the ideological basis of the Hindu varna system, and hence it is neither rigid nor elaborate”. The volume also contains essays on the link between Tamil Muslims and the Dravidian Movement, and Muslim perceptions and responses after the Police Action in 1948 in Hyderabad.

The books provide a fresh and interesting perspective on social stratification among Muslims in India.