Reviews: Caste System In India And The Muslims (Hindustan Me Zaat Paat Aur Musalmaan)
Book: Hindustan Me Zaat Paat Aur Musalmaan (Caste System In India And The Muslims) Author: Masud Alam Falahi Year: 2007
Review: Arshad Amanullah
"Bhai saheb! My village is completely Pakistan which is surrounded by India". "What do you mean by India and Pakistan?", I asked. Only Sheikhs and Syeds live in the village and on the periphery, there are settlements of Kunjras (Green-grocers), Qasais (Butchers), Jolhas (Weavers), Dhuniyas (Cotton-carders), Nais (Barbers),etc", he replied. (An excerpt from the book, p: 453).
The discourse (secular/ religious/ both) on the South Asian Muslims has been so ashraf-driven that either it hardly engages, in a pragmatic fashion, the issues of social equality as a tool to put an end to economic and cultural exclusions, or whenever it tries to address them(the issues of social equality), it does so with great rhetoric. Mohammad Iqbal's verse "Ek Hi Saf Me KharHe Ho Gaye Mahmud-o-Ayaz / Na Koi Banda Raha Na Koi Banda Nawaz" very aptly exemplifies the extent of simplicity and rhetoric the ulama and the Islamists have reduced such a complicated question to. Another limitation which categorizes their narratives on the theme is that they do it to woo the ummat-i-da'wah to embrace Islam, not to radicalize the behavioural aspect of the concept of equality among the believers. Being a narrative of an Islamist alim, though the book under-review also carries some of these limitations and biases, it offers fresh information on the theme and throws a host of questions to ruminate on.
In the light of the insights obtained from years of ethnography on the caste demography of the Indian Muslims, the present volume problematizes the social equality project of textual Islam, especially when the latter negotiates with the strong local societal institutions. That process of theology manufacturing is marked by a constant reproduction of the local societal institutions and hence their perpetuations, is another motif of the book. What enhances its complexity is the academic and ideological location of the author and his approach to the politics of jurisprudence production. To put the book in perspective, one needs to explain briefly the dominant discourse about discrimination and forms of social exclusion among Indian Muslims, before delving into the genealogy of the volume and the saga of its several rejections from the publishers.
Apart from social intercourse, the caste-based discriminatory praxis among Muslims find expressions in at least five forms: khilafat, imamat, kufu/kafa'at, employment and education. Majority of the ulama consider khilafat a prerogative of the descendents of the Prophet while it is only ashrafs who jurisprudentially qualify for the imamat (to lead the prayer in the mosque). Further, the ulama deem the observance of 'Kufu" mandatory for the islamicality of a marital alliance. Literally meaning eligible/suitable/equal, the kufu in its hermeneutical sense, stands for the following: four castes of the ashrafs (Syeds, Sheikhs, Mughals and Pathans) are generally considered suitable marriage partners for each other, making it a complete endogamous affair while the ajlaf (communities based on professions) can marry only among themselves, not the ashrafs. The arzals (the untouchables) form the socially and physically excluded lot of the Muslim society. Moreover, no Jadidul Islam (new converts to Islam) can marry a Qadeemul Islam (a person whose family has been within the pale of Islam for more than a generation), due to the temporal distance which comes to characterize their association with Islam. The textual Islam (the Qur'an and the Hadiths) does not conceive social organisation of the Muslims in terms of these stratifications however majority of the Indian ulama have been justifying the same in the jurisprudence, through interpretations of the Qur'anic verses which serve their purpose and also with the help of concocted ahadith.
Due to several factors like socio-democratic programmes of the Constitution, secular character of the Indian polity, industrialization-led-intense process of urbanisation, etc, have reduced the occurrence of other discriminatory praxis, however, the institution of Kufu is still violently in practice. It has, thus, continued to come under criticism from the backward caste ulama time and again. In this regard, among others, Mufti Habibur Rahman Azmi's monograph Ansaab Wa Kafa'at Ki Shar'i Haisiyat and Maualana Abdul Hamid Nomani's tract Masla-i-Kufu Aur Isha'at-i-Islam as critiques of the dominant narrative of the Kufu deserve mentioning here. Though Masud Falahi's book comes to signify the most recent effort in this series of protest writings, it marks a departure from its predecessors in several ways.
A graduate of Jamiatul Falah, Azamgarh, the central madrasa of Jama'at-i-Islami Hind, Masud's has an insider's take on Jama'at's realpolitik and work-culture. In fact, one of the important reasons which prompted him to write the book is the casteist behaviour of the cadres and office-bearers of the Jama'at. (P373). In addition to engaging the issue in normative fashion, he quotes instances from real life of the predominantly ashraf leadership of the Jama'at. "Personal histories, interviews, observations and incidents which the author has been a witness to"(P27-28), thus, constitute a major chunk of the book. On a much larger plane, he applies the same strategy of data-collection to the outstanding ulama of all denominations and prominent religious bodies of Indian Muslims. That is why potential of his book to critique the agenda and vision of the present Muslim religious establishment and Islamist leadership is simply unmatched.
It is against this backdrop, one needs to understand why Jama'at-i-Islami Hind, after three years of dilly-dallying discovered that it could not publish Masud's monograph and why an Ahl-i-Hadith publisher from the city of Maunath Bhanjan, Uttar Pradesh demanded to remove those portions of the book which offered insights about the caste-driven writings of the Ahl-i-Hadith ulama and practical politics of the present establishment of Markazi Jami'at Ahl-i-Hadith Hind. Interestingly enough, before he found his publisher, Jamia Asaria Darul Hadith, an Ahl-i-Hadith madrasa of Maunath Bhanjan, had started a serial reproduction of some portions from the book in each issue of its monthly magazine Aasar-i-Jadid (from February 2007).
Divided into ten chapters, the timeline of Masud's narrative starts with the Aryan invasion on India and comes down to the current period. His hypotheses is that the Muslim intellectuals (religious/secular), instead of discouraging the caste-based discrimination among the Indian Muslims, have consciously or unconsciously projected it as an Islamic concept and tinkered with the classical Islamic texts to lend it a jurisprudential sanction. Consequently, it has caused an irreparable damage to the process of Proselytization of Islam in the country. Having realised the gravity of circumstances, some contemporary ulama and intellectuals, in their individual capacity, tried to challenge the islamicality of the caste discrimination. India has yet to witness a movement which has had at the core of its programme: struggle against Caste-discriminations among Muslims.
Masud sees the caste-system of the Muslims as a Brahmanical Conspiracy to indianise Islam (Islam Ka Bharatiyakaran) (P109). This formulation presupposes an egalitarian Muslim society without any element of social exclusion. It also assumes that all of the Indian Muslims at a certain point of history came from outside to this land. Moreover, this reading of the nature and genealogy of the caste praxis among Muslims relegates its association with the power politics within the Muslims to the oblivion. This is a fallacious argument to say the least.
As a logical extension of the Brahmanical Conspiracy Theory, comes Masud's fascination with the Pollution Theory. The latter posits a binary opposition of the Arabs vs Ajams (Non-Arabs) where Arabs get credit for all merits of Islam/Muslims while Ajams stand convicted for all demerits that crept in the Muslim society. For example, he considers all those Arab invaders who came to India and established their government in the coastal regions of Sindh, as Khalis Musalman (Pure Muslims) and personification of "Islamic egalitarianism".(P114). This formulation runs contrary to the Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class. Moreover, it is well documented that Arab society was highly stratified along the lines of tribes, some of which were considered superior to others. The correspondence between Abu Ja'far Mansur, the Abbasid Caliph and Muhammad bin Abdullah Nafs Zakiya (one of the descendants of Ali) which Masud cited in the book (P 133-134), demonstrates how Arabs had used paternal and maternal lineages to justify their claim to the political power.
One can easily discern from the works of medieval historians like Ziauddin Barney, Qasim Farishta, etc that caste discriminations were widespread during the reign of the early Muslim rulers of India. Masud has reproduced a couple of them to show the role of ulama in providing theological sanction to various forms of exclusion. Interestingly, Fatawa Alamgiri does not offer any critique of the popular understanding of Kufu, despite the fact that it has a detailed discussion on the issue and was compiled at behest of Aurangzeb, the darling of the ulama and Islamists. Likewise, a decree of Bahadur Shah Zafar to recruit 500 men in the Mughal army, clearly specifies that the soldiers should be from only ashraf castes of Sheikh, Syed, Mughal and Pathan ". (P226).
As the book progresses on the timeline, the reader comes to know about Abdul Haq Dehlavi (1551-1645) who interrogated islamicality of the concept of dishonour related to professions (manual), perhaps for the first time in the history of Hanafite Islam in India. He painstakingly researched asaneed (chains of verbal transmission) of the ahadith which were prevalent in disrespect of certain professions and castes, especially Julahas (weavers) and found them concocted. He was followed by several ulama who, though, rose to prominence at different points in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were against the concept of popular Kufu and other forms of caste discrimination.
It is interesting to note that Shah Waliullah (1703-1762) was an ardent advocate of the popular Kufu. He, in his magnum opus Hujjatullahil Baligha, resorted to an athar (a saying of a companion of the Prophet) of Umar, the second caliphate, to substantiate his position and offered a weird interpretation of a Hadith to avoid the latter's clash with his take on the issue. In a situation like this, it is the hadith which gets preference, rather than an athar. The Deobandi ulama and some of the Ahl-i-Hadith ulama subscribed to the Shah Waliullah's views on the caste-discrimination as he is supposed to have inspired these two of three denominations of the modern South Asian Muslims.
Nihayatul Arab Fi Ghayaatin Nasab by Mufti Muhammad.Shafi Usmani and Risala Tabligh by Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi are two works which caused a lot of controversy in the early 20th century due to their derogatory remarks against the non-ashraf castes. They, especially Ansaris and Qureshis, staged demonstrations and organised a host of meetings in 1932 in the length and breadth of the country, to register their resistance against creation and publication of the theology of discrimination and hatred. Interestingly enough, classical anthologies of the Hadith like Kanzul Ummal (by Allauddin Muttaqi) from where Thanawi and Shafi have extensively quoted, are replete with ahadith which are all praise for professional groups/communities. The selective amnesia theory alone may furnish the best explanation of this phenomenon.
Masud has shown that efforts to lend theological legitimacy to discriminatory praxis like Kufu have not been monopoly of the Deobandis. The fatawa of Ahmad Raza Khan Barelwi (1850-1920) exude sheer biases against the non-ashraf demography of the Muslim community. Ahl-i-Hadith ulama like Syed Nazir Husain, Siddiq Hasan Khan, Syed Abdul Samee Jafari, etc. have been no different from their counterparts from other two denominations in reinforcing caste-discrimination through their praxis and writings. One wonders that even the backward caste ulama like Mohammad Amjad Ali Ansari, Mufti Kifayatullah Salmani (the first President of Jamiatul Ulama-i-Hind), etc. have issued fatwas in support of the enforcement of Kufu!
What may really come as a shocking discovery to a reader of the book is the following line by Khwaja Syed Hasan Nizami: "Though there is a provision for equality within Islam, Allah has created Julahas to serve the higher caste groups". Sufism is regarded as the most liberal expression of the proselytizing Islam which has done its best to accommodate local traditions, with due respect to their autonomy, within the master-narrative of Islam. Sufism in India thus, due to its accommodative character, does not only reproduces the social biases but reinforces them as well, as is evident from the advocacy of a form of social exclusion by one of the doyens of the Sufi traditions in India.
In Masud's narrative-design, theological insights enrich the findings of social scientists so that a wider picture of the dynamics of the caste praxis in the Muslim society can emerge. His borrowings from Ali Anwar, Imtiaz Ahmad, Aijaz Ali, V.T.Rajashekhar, etc, are not just reproductions or paraphrasings, he differed from them or critiqued them on several occasions. Moreover, he also shows occasionally the upfront confrontation between the ulama and the secular intelligentsia. For example, Hasan Ali has studied in his paper "Elements of Caste among the Muslims in Districts in Southern Bihar" the dynamics of caste discrimination in two Muslim-majority localities of Ranchi, Jharkhand. Masud has quoted a statement of Qazi Mujahidul Islam Qasmi, a veteran Deobandi alim, who, differing from findings of Hasan Ali, observed: "The village is familiar to me. I know that so-called backward castes are not discriminated against there while serving the food, making them to sit in different rows". (P 446-47).
Some ulama question the popular concept of Kufu while they consider the caste location as a deciding factor for other rituals/praxis like imamat, etc. Masud has considered it as a criterion also to understand the casteist undercurrents of the jurisprudence creation. Another interesting theme the book indirectly deals with is the relationship between the caste, the denomination and the region. One can easily discern from the incidents he has mentioned that the caste identity supersedes when it negotiates with denominational and regional identities during the process of forging matrimonial alliances. However, the institution of marriage in the Muslim community as a site for contestations among three levels of social exclusion is an area which needs proper sociological exploration. Another area which calls for the attention of social scientists is the extent to which the observance of Kufu can push the boundary of endogamy. It is doctrinally permissible in Islam to marry first/second cousins however frequency to tie nuptial knots among the first cousins tends to be higher among the ashrafs. The empirical information regarding the dynamics of this aspect of Kufu and its variations across castes, denominations and regions is really thin.
While surveying a couple of apex Muslim organisations of the contemporary India, Masud finds out that despite their claim to be "Islamic" in their social behaviour, the caste has come to categorize their practical politics in a very overt style. As an insider to the Jama'at-i-Islami Hind, he informs that it has been a hostage in the hands of some ashrafs who are extremely castiest in their social outlook (P392). Likewise, content of "Compendium of Islamic Laws", a volume compiled and published by All India Muslim Personal Law Board recently, betrays an effort on its part to project Kufu and other manifestations of the caste discrimination as intrinsic sections of Muslim theology. The other side of the coin is that this volume is full of passages and references of jurisprudential sources but it does not have citations from the classical texts of Islam (P410).
In short, Masud's first book makes an interesting reading on the issue of the caste discriminations. One may differ from him on several points he makes and conclusions he draws but the disagreement neither undermines the utility of the tons of information he provides for the future scholars nor does it overshadow the relevance of the questions he raises in the book.
(The review-article appeared in Contemporary Perspectives, Volume 2, No.2, July-December 2008, pp 374-381.).
2. Book Review: The Problem of Caste among Indian Muslims
Hindustan Mein Zaat-Paat Aur Musalman (Urdu) Author: Masood Alam Falahi
Reviewed By:Mr. Ayub Khan
The problem of caste among Indian Muslims is gaining increased scrutiny after a series of political and judicial events–the most recent being the Supreme Court's notice to the Union government on the status of 'low-caste' Muslims of Maharashtra. The traditional response of the Muslim community has been to shove the issue under the rug and charge those who dare to challenge the status-quo as indulging in anti-Islamic activity. In the past decade, however, attempts have been made to shine the light on this uncomfortable aspect of India 's Muslim society. Masood Alam Falahi's 'Hindustan Mein Zaat-Paat Aur Musalman' is arguably the most successful of those attempts in providing a comprehensive survey of the problem. The author has a unique academic background having completed his Alimiat degree from Jamiatul Falah in Azamgarh and his undergraduate degrees in arts and education from Aligarh Muslim University . He is at present pursuing his M.Phil from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi . It is perhaps because of this background that Falahi adopts a multi-disciplinary approach for this book; he approaches it from disciplines as varied as history, Islamic jurisprudence, sociology, anthropology, and politics.
Tracing the origins of casteism to the Aryan invasions in India, Falahi begins with a discussion of its conception in Hindu religion and how it managed to keep a whole swathe of masses under its yoke. So forceful and assimilative was the Brahminical social order that it even scuttled efforts towards reform by egalitarian movements like Buddhism and Jainism. Under such an unjust order Muslim traders brought the liberating force of Islam to shores of India which led to incremental rise in the 'low-castes' adopting Islam. The author contends that the Arab invaders who first came were completely free from casteism and believed in complete equality of mankind as clearly elaborated by Islamic teachings. It was only after the non-Arab rulers took over in 995 CE that proponents of the Brahminical social order were able to smuggle their concept of Varn Ashram into the Muslim society. The inroads were made through a sophisticated manipulation of the concept of Kafa'a (suitability and compatibility in marriage) to the extent that it became synonymous with the Varna Ashram. Some of the early proponents of this new conception were scholars and mystics attached to the court. The once unitary Islamic society now came to be divided into the Ashraaf (Syed, Shaikh, Mughal, and Pathan) and Ajlaaf (Kunjda, Qasai, Nai, Julaha, etc). Those non-Muslims who came from the 'upper castes' were classified in the Ashraaf category and those from 'low castes' to the Ajlaaf. Among the Ashraaf, Syeds gained the sacrosanct status similar to the ones of the Brahmans. High positions in the government were reserved for them and their writ ran large especially under the reigns of Iltumish and Balban. It was not until 1325 CE when Sultan Muhammad Tughlaq took over that the Syed supremacy was challenged. He brought in reforms by dismissing the old guard and bringing in a group of scholars and administrators associated with the Sufi Shaikh Nizamuddin Awliya. His fairness, justice, and large-heartedness towards all led a large number of natives to convert to Islam. Muhammad Tughlaq proved to be a thorn in the eye of the Ashraaf and a group among them conspired to eventually oust and kill him thus bringing an end to his reforms. One of his most vocal critics was Maulana Syed Ziauddin Barani who claimed that it was against God's commandments to appoint the Arzaals to governmental positions and called on the Sultan to consider his religious duty to deny the ajlaf access to knowledge. Branding them as 'mean' and 'despicable' he urged that anyone found to be teaching them should be punished and even exiled. He also prohibited marriage between the two groups. The rulers who followed Muhammad Tughlaq revived the concept of Kafa'at in its various formations. It was Shari'ah minded Sufis like Shaikh Abdul Has Muhaddis Dehlawi who fought casteism tooth and nail which again led to the rise in conversions to Islam. It is the contention of Falahi that it was to counter this threat posed to the Brahminical social order that movements like Bhakti, Vaishno, and Sikkhism were introduced. Despite the best efforts of anti-caste Ulema and Sufis the Muslim society was stratified on the basis of caste especially with regards to marriage. Falahi provides exhaustive quotes from those ulema, Sufis, and movements which supported casteism, the ones which did not, and others who adopted a dualistic approach. Thus, for instance Shah Waliullah Farooqui Dehlavi supported the by then well entrenched concept of 'Kufu' eventhough he had no hesitation in inviting a Hindu ox-cart driver to share a meal with him. The driver was impressed by this brotherly treatment and adopted Islam. Mufti Muhammad Shafi, of Deobandi school who later on became the Grand Mufti of Pakistan, wrote a book titled Nihayat al Arab fi Ghayat al Nasb in which he made several statements which pointed towards the supposed glory and magnificence of Ashraaf and ruled that customary concept of Kufu doesn't violate any of the Islamic principles. Maulana Ashraf Ali Farooqui Thanwi, Maulana Syed Mehmood Madani, and Maulana Qari Muhammad Tayyab Siddiqui Qasmi approved of Mufti Shafi's stance and dismissed the critics as those influenced by the West's God-less ideologies. There was a disturbance in Deoband when this book came out and Mufti Shafi had to take refuge at Darul Uloom from the hostile crowd. Maulana Ahmad Raza Khan Barelwi was so respectful towards the Syeds that he wrote that even if a charge of theft and fornication is proven against a Syed, the Qazi shouldn't have the Niyyah of applying the 'Hadd.' He claimed that even though Mughal and Pathan are Ashraaf they are not the Kufu of Syeds. He went on to write, "The original good (communities) have good qualities (and manners) and it is the opposite among the razeel. It was due to this that rulers of the past did not allow the Razeel to get too much education. Now see how the barbers and manhars have spread the various forms of fitna by acquiring education…" Not only the ulema but also the proponents of modern education were not immune from the claws of casteism. Falahi proves with unimpeachable evidence that Sir Syed had only the Ashraaf interests in mind when he started his educational movement. In an address at the foundation laying ceremony of 'Madrasa Anjuman-e-Islamia' in Bareli where children from the so-called 'low-caste' communities used to study, he said that he finds no use in teaching English to them. "It is better and in the interests of the community that they are engaged in the old form of study… It appears appropriate if you teach them some writing and math. They should also be taught small tracts on everyday affairs and through which they know basic beliefs and practices of the Islamic faith," he told them.
Masood Alam Falahi's meticulous pen doesn't spare anyone and he has discussed the views of almost all religious and ideological schools of thought present in the sub-continent including the Deobandis, Barelwis, Jamaat-e-Islami, Ahle Hadith, and views of high officials of umbrella organizations like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. He also provides a list of series of instances of caste based discrimination in 21st century India which include not allowing the 'Ajlaf' from attending mosques, denying burials in the graveyard, not respecting the honor of their women, etc. There is also a an elaborate discussion on the reservations for the backward Muslim communities.
For all his attention to detail, however, Falahi doesn't define 'caste.' It would have been helpful if the difference between class and caste would have been clearly elaborated. In his discussion he casts a net which is too wide which fails to take into consideration that there are regional differences among the Muslims of India. In South India, for instance, caste is not the main criteria in marriage as is evident from a survey of matrimonial columns. Some of Falahi's criticism and leveling of charges need further investigation. His treatment of quite a few historical sources indicates a casual approach. For example, he claims that Nasiruddin Chiragh-e-Dilli was involved in the killing of Muhammad Tughlaq without any evidence. Similarly, he categorizes some ulema in the casteist class without offering substantial evidence. He places Mufti Taqi Usmani in this category based on a solitary reference where he joking refered to a 'julaha.' His recommendations to wipe out casteism while generally helpful also advocate a radical approach. For example, his absolute insistence on marriage between different communities, abandoning of last names, are impractical and some like the first one might even aggravate the situation.
Despite the drawbacks and irrevent tone Hindustan Mein Zaat-paat aur Musalman should be read by anyone who is interested in removing the un-Islamic concept of casteism among Indian Muslims. The criticism of the revered religious and social leaders should be taken in the right spirit. It is only through a critical self analysis that the community can rise itself out of its current morass.
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