The caste system of social hierarchy is a phenomenon not unique to just the Hindus of South East Asia, but is seen in many other religions and communities in the continent. Often ignored by the media and Muslim leaders, there is wide scale discrimination present in Muslim society between two factions- Ashraf and Ajlaf.
The Muslim society divides itself into two categories- The decendendents of Arab or other invading groups (also called ‘Ashraf’) and the local converts (known as ‘Ajlaf’). Though the Qur’an doesn’t mandate the creation of such groups, these terminologies emerged when the Islamic invaders from the west attacked and conquered portions of the Indian subcontinent, and converted local Hindus at the tip of the sword. Apart from this divide, there exists a Hindu varna-system among the Ajlaf category of Muslims, which is based on the caste they/their family belonged to before converting to Islam (eg- Muslim Rajputs).
On top of the Muslim caste hierarchy lie the Syeds, who are considered to be the direct descendants of Islamic prophet Muhammad. The Syeds have traditionally married within their caste and usually don’t marry someone outside of their community (for example, the Pathans). The Syeds are believed to be descendants of Husayn Ibn Ali, the grandson of Islamic prophet Muhammad, while the descendants of Hasan Ibn Ali (brother of Husayn) are called ‘Shareefs’. The two communities are often at the forefront of Muslim social hierarchy and are very influential in Islamic society.
At the bottom of the Muslim society are the Pasmandas of the Ajlaf category, who comprise of ‘Shudra’ and adivasi converts. Persion word for ‘those who have fallen behind’, the Pasmandas are the most discriminated group within Indian Muslims. Comprising of 85% of the total Indian Muslim population, the Pasmandas are politically the least represented group within the Muslim community in India.
Online news portal Firstpost published an article by Ajaz Ashraf in 2019, who spoke about the rampant discrimination against the Pasmanda community amongst Indian Muslims. According to Ajaz Ashraf, around 7,500 MPs were elected between the First and the Thirteenth Lok Sabha. Of them, 400 were Muslim and only 60 of the Muslim parliamentarians were from the Pasmanda community. The Ashrafs, though just 2.01 percent of India’s population, represented 4.5% of the seats between the First and Thirteenth Lok Sabha.
There have been several reports of discrimination against the Pasmanda community by upper caste Sharifs. According to the same Firstpost article cited above, writer Ajaz Ashrah witnessed that there were separate ‘lottas’ of drinking water for the Dalit Halalkhors (sweeper caste) and Mehtar castes in Muslim dominated areas. Similarly, there was clear discrimination in mosques where the upper caste muslims prayed in the front rows while the lower caste muslims prayed in back rows. In some places, Dalit Muslims are not allowed to access public burial grounds reserved for the Ashrafs.
Islam, as a religion, has also resorted to such discrimination when the topic of ‘Caliphate’ arises. According to the Hadith, only a member of the Quraysh tribe (to which Mohammed belonged) could be the Islamic caliph. This is a sharp contradiction to the carols of ‘equality between believers’ the Qur’an brags of in its verses.
The Print has also accepted the existence of a caste system in Muslim society, though hilariously denouncing the caste system as a “Brahminical disease” in the first line of its article while referring to caste system amongst Muslims. The Print alleges that members of the Ashraf community hijack the politics of Muslim society during elections by declaring votes towards them as an Islamic duty, and taunt the Pasmanda members who stand as candidates.
On the 1901 caste census in British India, Dr BR Ambedkar had opined, “The Muslims do not realise that these are evils and consequently do not agitate for their removal. Indeed, they oppose any change in their existing practices”. (Ref: Pakistan or the Partition of India, pp. 218-223)
Ambedkar had further stated, “Everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste. Regarding slavery nothing needs to be said. It stands abolished now by law…But if slavery has gone, caste among Muslims has remained…There can thus be no manner of doubt that the Muslim Society in India is afflicted by the same social evils as afflict the Hindu Society”.
This proved that Dr BR Ambedkar was not a fan of the Indian Muslim community, and had realised that the caste system was rampant amongst them as well. This played a pivotal role in his decision to adopt Buddhism as the standard faith for his Dalit followers.
In 2016, the BBC had published a report on the ‘untouchable’ Muslims. According to the report, when “Dalit Muslim” respondents were requested to share their experiences inside homes of upper-caste Hindus and Muslims, around 13% of them reported having received food/water in different utensils in “upper-caste” Muslim houses. Similarly, 8% of “Dalit Muslim” respondents report that their children are seated in separate rows in classes and also during school lunches.
At the time of writing, the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz is at the forefront of politically mobilising the lower caste Muslims in North India. There have been several chants of equality by the lower caste Muslims against the Syedist patriarchy that is practised in Muslim society.
Despite the rampant discrimination, negligible political representation and strategized alienation from Muslim society, the plea for help by the lower caste Muslims is left unanswered by the largely upper-caste Muslim political organizations, and shall soon be eliminated if the lower caste Muslims stand up to the Ashrafs.