Caste system among South Asian Muslims

Muslim communities in South Asia apply a system of religious stratification.[1] It developed as a result of ethnic segregation between the foreign conquerors/ Upper caste Hindus who converted to Islam (Ashraf) (also known as tabqa-i ashrafiyya[2]) and the local converts (Ajlaf) as well as the continuation of the Indian caste system among local converts.[3] Non-Ashrafs are converts from Hinduism.[4] The neologism Pasmandas include Ajlaf and Arzal Muslims, and Ajlafs' statuses are defined by them being descendants of converts to Islam and are also defined by their pesha (profession).[5]

The Biradari System is how social stratification manifests itself in Pakistan, and to an extent also India.[6] Ashrafism, Syedism, Zatism, Sharifism, Biradarism, and the Quom System are aspects of the caste system among Muslims in South Asia.[7] Concepts of "paak" (pure/clean) and "naapak" (religiously impure/unclean/polluted, which is also used to refer to infidels[8]) are found in South Asian Muslims.[9] The South Asian Muslim caste system also includes hierarchical classifications of khandan (dynasty, family, or lineage descent) and nasab (a group based on blood ties/lineage).[5]

Historical developmentEdit

While egalitarian Islam does not recognize any castes, only socio-economic classes,[10] when it came to Persia and India, the existing divisions in these regions were adopted among the local Muslim societies. Evidence of social stratification can be found in several later Persian works, such as Siyasatnama of Nizam al-Mulk (11th century), Akhlaq-i Nasiri of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (13th century), and Jam-i-Mufidi (17th century).[11]

After Muhammad died in the 7th century, there was the war of succession which had tribes and families fighting each other.[5] After this, a determinant for social stratification in Arab society included being part of the close family of Muhammad (ahl al-bayt).[5] This alleged ahl al-bayt determinant had its presence in ancient South Asia among Muslims since the 8th century, and then this allegedly led to a further hierarchical determinant, which was Arabs versus non-Arabs.[5] Later on, among non-Arabs, further divisions took place, between Muslims who were converted in early Islamization campaigns (khadim-al islam) and Muslims who converted more recently (jadid-al islam).[5] Today, South Asian Muslims are divided by the aforementioned classifications that have resulted in Arab-origin higher castes (unch zat) and those that are descendants of converts (lower castes/nich zat).[5]

The Sultans during the Mughal Empire were all high caste .[5]

The Muslims who came to the subcontinent during the 12th century Muslim conquests on the Indian subcontinent were allegedly already divided into vocation based social "classes" , including priests, nobles and others. Further, a racial segregation demarcated the local Muslim converts from foreign origin Muslims . The foreigners claimed a superior status as they were associated with the conquerors and categorized themselves as Ashraf ("noble").[12] Over time, the Indian Muslim society also allegedly split on the basis of the existing Hindu caste system.[12] According to M. N. Srinivas (1986) and R.K. Bhattacharya, Indian Hindu converts to Islam brought their original caste system to the Muslim society in the region.[13] On the other hand, Louis Dumont (1957) believes that the Islamic conquerors consciously adopted the Hindu caste system "as a compromise which they had to make in a predominantly Hindu environment."[14]

Ziauddin Barani, a 14th century political thinker of the Delhi Sultanate, recommended that the "sons of Mohamed" (i.e. Ashrafs) be given a higher social status than the low-born (i.e. Ajlaf). His most significant contribution in the fatwa was his analysis of the castes with respect to Islam. His assertion was that castes would be mandated through state laws or "Zawabi" and would carry precedence over Sharia law whenever they were in conflict. According to Barani, every act which is "contaminated with meanness and based on ignominity, comes elegantly [from the Ajlaf]". Barani also developed an elaborate system of promotion and demotion of Imperial officers ("Wazirs") that was primarily based on their caste.[15][16]

Historically, many Muslims from the julaha or weaver caste began to identify as "Ansaris", the butchers as "Quereshis", and the sanitation and bhishti caste Muslims as "Sheikh".[17]

The Muslim concept of kafa'a/kufu/kafa'ah, which ulama use to support endogamy, provides a justification for South Asian Muslim caste practices.[18] Kafa'ah is hereditary.[5]

Ashrafization and SyedizationEdit

Ashrafization, (analogous to Aryanization or Rajputization) includes adopting upper caste Muslims' practices to achieve social climbing.[19]

Caste AssociationsEdit

Another type of Ashrafization is the establishment of caste associations to promote a community's interests and for, especially, social support.[5] These anjuman ('forum', 'society') are commonly termed jama'at (جماعت ; 'congregation', 'group', 'community'), replacing in the associations' names the use of zat, which signifies 'birth or origin group'.[5] The Khoja caste, who are Ismaili Shias found particularly in Karachi and Sindh, are prominent in this regard.[5] Other prominent Muslim caste associations are those of the Memons and the Bohras in Sindh and Gujarat.[5]

History of researchEdit

There are various definitions of the term "caste", and therefore, various contested opinions on whether this term can be used to denote social stratification among non-Hindu communities .(e.g Hindu Varna or British Raj classification). Ghaus Ansari (1960) uses the term "caste" to describe the Muslim social groups with following characteristics:endogamy within a given social group, hierarchical gradation of social groups, determination of the group membership by birth, and, in some cases, association of an occupation with the social group.[20]

Beginning in the 19th century, Western Indologists first catalogued the various Muslim castes:[20]

  • Henry Miers Elliot's Supplement to the glossary of Indian terms (1844), later amplied into Memoirs on the history, folk-lore, and distribution of the Races of the North Western Provinces of India
  • John Charles Williams's The Report on the Census of Oudh (1869)
  • Denzil Ibbetson's Census Report of Punjab (1883), later adapted into Panjab Castes
  • John Nesfield's Brief View of the Caste System of the North-Western Provinces and Oudh (1885)
  • Herbert Hope Risley's Tribes and castes of Bengal (1893)
  • William Crooke's The tribes and castes of the North-western Provinces and Oudh (1896)

Nelson's book, in particular, included a whole chapter dedicated to the primarily British Raj Indologist derived neologism of Muslim "castes". In the 20th century British India, a number of works included the Muslim social groups in their descriptions of the Indian castes. These included H. A. Rose's A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province (1911).[21]

In independent India, Ghaus Ansari (1960) initiated academic discussion over the neologism of Muslim "caste" system. Subsequently, Imtiaz Ahmed elaborated the topic in his Caste and Social Stratification among the Muslims (1973).[22]

About 1915, Mirza Muhammad Hassan Qatil wrote about the four firqa (classes) of the Ashraf.[23] He describes how people are considered to be paji (contemptible) in the following occupations: elephant caretaking, bread business, perfume business, and businesses in bazaars.[23]

Syedism, Ashrafism, Biradarism, Zatism, Sharifism, Arab Supremacy, and DivisionsEdit

The neologism Syedism (or Sayedism) is considered to be a system of social inequality among South Asian Muslims.[24] Syedism involves the belief that Syeds (or Saiads/Sayyads/Saiyeds) have a more authentic grasp on Islam and all social and political matters.[9] Zat is sometimes considered a broader category than Biradari. In Pakistani Punjab, being relatives is the main criterion to comprise a Biradari. The ranking, from highest to lowest, of Ashraf castes is the following: Syed, Abbasi and Mughals

Ghaus Ansari (1960) named the following four broad categories of Muslim social divisions in India:[25]

There is a hierarchy among Ashrafs that is determined by the degree of nearness to Muhammad and which country they originate from; accordingly the Syeds (who trace descent from Fatima, Muhammad's daughter) have the highest status[27]

The non-Ashrafs are categorized as Ajlaf. The untouchable Hindu converts are also categorized as Arzal ("degraded").[28][29] They are relegated to menial professions such as scavenging and carrying night soil.[30][31]

B.R. Ambedkar, citing the Superintendent of the Census for 1901 for the Province of Bengal, mentions that the Ajlaf primarily include:

  • Cultivating Sheikhs, and others who were originally Hindus but who do not belong to any functional group, and have not gained admittance to the Ashraf Community, e.g. Pirali and Thakrai.
  • Darzi, Brahmin, Jolaha, Fakir, and Rangrez.
  • Barhi, Bhalhiara, Chik, Churihar, Dai, Dhawa, Dhunia, Gaddi, Kalal, Kasai, Kula Kunjara, Laheri, Mahifarosh, Mallah, Naliya, Nikari.
  • Abdal, Bako, Bediya, Bhal, Chamba, Dafali, Dhobi, Hajjam, Mucho, Nagarchi, Nal, Panwaria, Madaria, Tunlia.

For the Arzal, the following castes are mentioned by the Superintendent of the Census: Bhanar, Halalkhor, Hijra, Kasbi, Lalbegi, Maugta, Mehtar.[32]

In Pakistan, various social groups (called quoms) display a social stratification comparable to the Indian caste system. The various quoms differ widely in power, privilege and wealth. Both ethnic affiliation (e.g. Pathan, Sindhi, Baloch, Punjabi, etc.) and membership of specific biraderis or zaat/quoms are additional integral components of social identity.[33] Within the bounds of endogamy defined by the above parameters, close consanguineous unions are preferred due to a congruence of key features of group- and individual-level background factors as well as affinities. McKim Marriott adds that a social stratification that is hierarchical, closed, endogamous, and hereditary is widely prevalent, particularly in western parts of Pakistan.[34][35][36] The numerically and socially influential tribes in Pakistani Punjab includes the agricultural tribes of Arain, Awan, Jat Muslim and Gujjar as well as Rajput.[6][37]

In Nepal, the castes of Muslims rank differs according to the criteria applied.[38][39]

In India the Ajlaf comprise Qureshis, Ansaris, Saifis, and other groups of lower occupation.

The majority of ulemas (theologians/doctors of the law) are part of the Syed, and many Ashrafs are businessmen, landowners, and traders.[citation needed][5]

A "marriage circle" can be formed over an area, over which a zat panchayat (caste council) can have the authority, and where marriage alliances occur.[citation needed][5]

A Syed's status is sometimes based more on male descendants and hypergamous marriage than bloodline purity.[5]

The early Turks had subdivisions.[40]

In the Rasum-i Hind, a textbook that was compiled by Master Pyare Lal in 1862, the four firqa (or subdivisions of the Ashraf) are explained, and nasl (lineage/pedigree) is elaborated:[23]

  • The ancestors of the Mughal caste are said to be descended from the Biblical Noah.[23]
  • The ancestors of the Pathans are said to be Israelites from when Solomon was alive.[23]

In the ruling class of the Mughal Empire, Muslims were classified as native Hindustani, Afghan, Turani, and Irani.[23]

Pakistani PunjabEdit

Zamindars, Kammis, and the Seyp SystemEdit

Zamindars, which are landowning class, and Kammis, which are service providing castes, are status groups that are caste based that are found in a hierarchical system in Pakistani Punjabi villages.[41] Kammi Quoms and Zamindar Quoms are rigid birth-based groups that are based on parentage occupations.[41] In the Seyp System, which is contractual labor, the Kammis provide labor and services, and they receive favors, food, money, crops, and grains.[42] Zamindars are considered to be a dominant caste, and leaders in the village and people who dominate affairs of the village tend to be Zamindars.[42] Social, political, and economic affairs of the village are dominated by Zamindar Quoms in Pakistan, and land is controlled by Zamindar Quoms,[42] while Kammi Quoms are socially marginalized and discriminated.[43] Inter-Quom endogamy is found between Kammi Quoms and Zamindar Quoms.[44] Ancestral land ownership and a parentage job being cultivation are what Punjabi Pakistanis ascribe to the Zamindar status.[45]

"Zamindars", in modern-day Pakistani Punjabi villages, typically refer to a Quom that owns land and has an occupation of agriculture - Zamindari.[46] There are some castes that are higher than the service providing castes and below the landowning castes.[47]

Caste endogamy is found in Pakistan, with members of a Quom tending to marry within the Quom.[48] In the rural parts of Pakistani Punjab, the lack of marriages between Kammi and Zamindar Quoms is vital to the caste system.[48] Kammis include artisan, laborer, and service providing Quoms (such as barbers, cobblers, and carpenters).[49]

A Kammi woman remarked how:

"Even if a Kammi acquires 100 acres of land, he remains Kammi and Zamindars will always consider him lower. A Zamindar who owns one acre of land would think "if a Kammi has bought 2 acres, so what after all he remains a Kammi". They do not accept us as equals."[50]

Quoms are highly influential in marriage practices.[49] However, different Zamindar Quoms sometimes intermarry, and this may constitute a Biradari.[51] A large majority of Kammis perform daily wage labour or low ranking tasks.[52]

A study in a Pakistani Punjabi village found that in the Seyp (contractual relationships) between a Zamindar (landholding) family and Kammi (artisan castes) families, Kammi families give goods and perform services to the Zamindars, which give the Kammis grain; the Kammi families also perform some customary and ritual tasks - for example, the barber cooks in the Zamindar's house on special events and does circumcision.[53]


People also exhibit loyalty to their Quoms in elections.[49] In Pakistani Punjab, Biradaris are the sole criteria in local bodies' elections.[54] There are more Zamindars than Kammis in Pakistani Punjab.[51] Including because of the high financial costs of running in an election, Kammis do not generally run in elections.[55]


There are around 35 Muslim castes in Bengal.[56] Muslim society is historically divided into 3 large groupings in Bengal, with the Sharif/Ashraf at the top, followed by the Atraf (low-born), and with the Arzal or Ajlaf at the bottom.[56]

Other Muslim castes historically do not associate with Arzal castes.[57] Lower castes historically are not allowed to enter mosques or be buried in the public burial ground.[57]

Marriage PracticesEdit

In 1902 in the "Imperial Gazetteer of India", the following was written:

"...a Sayyid will marry a Shaikh's daughter but will not give his daughter in return; and marriages between upper circle of soi-distant [sic] foreigners and the main body of Indian Muhammedans [sic] is generally reprobated..."[58]A


Sharifism refers to the special status given to claimants of prophetic nasab (also qarabah), which means "closeness", or being descended from Muhammad, Muhammad's Quraysh tribe, or Muhammad's family.[59]


Many Ashrafs do not recognize Arzal Muslims as part of the Muslim South Asian community (millat) and think they should not be part of liberation processes.[5]


Over the centuries, like other South Asian societies, the Muslim society in the region has evolved into the concept of caste purity and pollution.[60][61] Hence, the low-class (Ajlaf) Muslims in the region have faced other kinds of discrimination. In 20th century India, the upper-class (Ashraf) Muslims dominated the government jobs and parliamentary representation. As a result, there have been campaigns to include lower social classes among the groups eligible for affirmative action in India under SC and STs provision act.[62]

An analysis of Muslim representation in India's Lok Sabha found that of the roughly 400 Muslim representatives from the 1st to the 14th Lok Sabha, 340 were Ashraf, while 60 were Pasmanda (meaning oppressed/marginalized); Pasmandas make up 85% of India's Muslim population and Ashrafs 15%.[24]

Some scholars say that Ashraf Muslims are over-represented in government-run institutions for minorities (including Aligarh Muslim University).[24]


In India's Bihar state, higher caste Muslims have opposed lower caste Muslims being buried in the same graveyard.[63][64]

Another practice that has been noted includes the existence of separate burial grounds.[24]


A study in a Pakistani village found that a caste-like hierarchy exists in the Muslim community of the village. The sweeper group is ranked the lowest. The other Muslim communities do not allow the sweepers to touch the cooking vessels of the upper ranking groups of Muslims.[65]

Racial and historicalEdit

Medieval Ashraf scholars mentioned that Muslims of Afghan, Iranian, Arab, and Central Asian origin were superior while local converts were inferior.[66] This was due not only to racial differences with local concerts generally being dark skinned and Ashrafs being lighter skinned, but also due to Ashraf being the dominant political elite, while the majority of Ajlaf were associated with ancestral professions as peasants and artisans which were looked down upon as inferior and demeaning.[66]

Based on classical literature, particularly the Fatawa-i-Jahandari written by Turkish scholar Ziauddin Barani, a leading courtier of Muhammad bin Tughlaq (Sultan of Delhi), caste divisions were recommended among Indian Muslims. Barani warned the Sultan not to educate the lowborn and that they are not allowed to mingle with the superior race.[66]

Barani also explained at one point how Turkish sultans discriminated against Muslims of local descent.[40] He explains how Iltutmish discriminated against low birth Muslims by letting go 33 of them from the government.[40] Additionally, Iltutmish appointed Jamal Marzuq to the post of Mutassarif of Kanauj; Aziz Bahruz disagreed due to low birth status, which resulted in Marzuq no longer being the Mutassarif.[40] Low born people were not allowed to be in the post of mudabbiri or khwajgi, and they also could not be eligible for an iqta recommendation.[40]

Balban prevented low-birth people from being in important offices, and he also criticized how Kamal Mohiyar was selected for mutassarif of Amroaha.[40] A letter by Sayyid Ashraf Jahangiri explains how Balban thoroughly researched the ancestry of every single one of his government servants and officers; he had genealogists meet in Delhi to ascertain these ancestries.[40]

Tughlaq had a policy of giving "preference to foreign born Muslims in administration and government" and "systematically ignored the claims of Indian Muslims".[40] Sayyid Ashraf Jahangiri explains how:

"The Sultan went to the extent of offering the most responsible and distinguished offices of the kingdom — for instance those of a Wazir, a Dabir, a military commander, a judge, a professor of theology, or a Shaikhul-Islam — to almost any foreigner of some learning. Foreigners coming to India were collectively known as 'the Honourables' (A'izza)"[40]

Historians and Urdu writers (including Masood Alam Falahi) have explained how discrimination of Ashraf Muslims towards lower caste Muslims and Dalit Muslims was often disguised under claims of class and "khandaani" (family line) values among Uttar Pradesh Muslims.[17]

See alsoEdit



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A.^ This source used gets the quotation from the following source: E A Gait, 'Census of India' 1901: Bengal Report 6 (1), Bengal Secretariat Press. 1902, p 439; the description in 'Imperial Gazetteer of India', v. 2, pp 329

Further readingEdit