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Caste system among South Asian Muslims

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).

Historical developmentEdit

Islam does not recognize any castes,[1] but, 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).[2]

The Muslims who came to the subcontinent during the 12th century Muslim conquests on the Indian subcontinent were already divided into social classes such as priests, nobles and others. Further, a racial segregation demarcated the local Muslim converts from those of foreign origin. The foreigners claimed a superior status as they were associated with the conquerors, and categorized themselves as Ashraf ("noble").[3] Over time, the Indian Muslim society also split on the basis of the existing Hindu caste system.[3] According to M. N. Srinivas (1986), Indian Hindu converts to Islam brought their original caste system to the Muslim society in the region. On the other hand, Louis Dumont (1957) believes that the Islamic conquerors consciously adopted the Hindu caste system.[4]

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.[5][6]

History of researchEdit

There are various definitions of the term "caste", and therefore, various opinions on whether this term can be used to denote social stratification among non-Hindu communities. Ghaus Ansari (1960) uses the term "caste" to describe the Muslim social groups with following characteristics:[7]

  • endogamy within a given social group
  • hierarchical gradation of social groups
  • determination of the group membership by birth
  • in some cases, association of an occupation with the social group

Beginning in the 19th century, the British scholars of India first catalogued the various Muslim castes:[7]

  • 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 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).[8]

In independent India, Ghaus Ansari (1960) initiated academic discussion over the Muslim caste system. Subsequently, Imtiaz Ahmed elaborated the topic in his Caste and Social Stratification among the Muslims (1973).[9]


Ghaus Ansari (1960) named the following four broad categories of Muslim social divisions in India:[10]

The non-Ashrafs are categorized as Ajlaf. The untouchable Hindu converts are also categorized as Arzal ("degraded").[11][12] They are relegated to menial professions such as scavenging and carrying night soil.[13][14]

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.[15] 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.[16][17][18]

In Nepal, the castes of Muslims rank differs according to the criteria applied.[19][20]


Over the centuries, like other South Asian societies, the Muslim society in the region has evolved into the concept of caste purity and pollution.[21][22] 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.[23]

In Bihar state of India, cases have been reported in which the higher caste Muslims have opposed the burials of lower caste Muslims in the same graveyard.[24][25]

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.[26]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Ghaus Ansari 1960, p. 27.
  2. ^ Ghaus Ansari 1960, p. 29.
  3. ^ a b Ghaus Ansari 1960, p. 30.
  4. ^ Azra Khanam 2013, pp. 115-116.
  5. ^ Das, Arbind, Arthashastra of Kautilya and Fatwa-i-Jahandari of Ziauddin Barrani: an analysis, Pratibha Publications, Delhi 1996, ISBN 81-85268-45-2 pp. 124-143
  6. ^ Sikand, Yoginder (2003), Sacred Spaces: Exploring Traditions of Shared Faith in India, Penguin Books India, pp. 7–, ISBN 978-0-14-302931-1
  7. ^ a b Ghaus Ansari 1960, p. 22.
  8. ^ Ghaus Ansari 1960, p. 2.
  9. ^ Azra Khanam 2013, p. 115.
  10. ^ Ghaus Ansari 1960, p. 32-35.
  11. ^ Ambedkar, Bhimrao. Pakistan or the Partition of India. Thackers Publishers.
  12. ^ Web resource for Pakistan or the Partition of India
  13. ^ "Dereserve these myths - Indian Express". Retrieved 2017-09-30.
  14. ^ Falahi, Masood. "Caste and caste based discrimination s Among Indian Muslims'" (PDF). SAS. Retrieved 5 January 2015.
  15. ^ Barth, Fredrik (1962). E. R. Leach (ed.). The System Of Social Stratification In Swat, North Pakistan (Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon, and North-West Pakistan). Cambridge University Press. p. 113.
  16. ^ Fredrick Barth (December 1956). "Ecologic Relationships of Ethnic Groups in Swat, North Pakistan". American Anthropologist. 58 (6): 1079–1089. doi:10.1525/aa.1956.58.6.02a00080.
  17. ^ Zeyauddin Ahmed (1977). The New Wind: Changing Identities in South Asia (Editor: Kenneth David). Aldine Publishing Company. pp. 337–354. ISBN 978-90-279-7959-9.
  18. ^ McKim Marriott (1960). Caste ranking and community structure in five regions of India and Pakistan. Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute.
  19. ^ Nagendra Kr Singh, Abdul Mabud Khan (2001). Encyclopaedia of the World Muslims: Tribes, Castes and Communities, Volume 1. Global Vision Pub House. p. 1124. ISBN 9788187746072.
  20. ^ Marmaduke William Pickthall, Muhammad Asad (1978). Islamic Culture - Volume 52. p. 207.
  21. ^ Azra Khanam 2013, pp. 120-121.
  22. ^ Webner, Pnina (2007). The Migration Process: Capital, Gifts and Offerings among British Pakistanis. ISBN 9781472518477. Retrieved 30 October 2016.
  23. ^ Asghar Ali Engineer. "On reservation for Muslims". The Milli Gazette. Pharos. Retrieved 2004-09-01.
  24. ^ Anand Mohan Sahay. "Backward Muslims protest denial of burial". Retrieved 2003-03-06.
  25. ^ Ahmad, I., 2010. Can There Be a Category Called Dalit Muslims?. STUDIES IN INEQUALITY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE, p.79.[1]
  26. ^ Hastings Donnan (1988). Marriage Among Muslims: Preference and Choice in Northern Pakistan. BRILL. pp. 51–56. ISBN 978-90-04-08416-2.


Further readingEdit

  • Ahmad, Imtiaz (1978). Caste and social stratification among Muslims in India. New Delhi: Manohar. OCLC 5147249.
  • Ali, A.F. Imam (September 1993). Changing Social Stratification in Rural Bangladesh. South Asia Books. ISBN 978-81-7169-267-5.
  • Sikand, Yoginder (2004). Islam, Caste and Muslim Relations in India. Global Media Publications. ISBN 978-81-88869-06-0.
  • Ali, Syed (December 2002). "Collective and Elective Ethnicity: Caste Among Urban Muslims in India". Sociological Forum. 17 (4): 593–620. doi:10.1023/A:1021077323866. ISSN 0884-8971.
  • Ahmad, S. Shamim; A. K. Chakravarti (January 1981). "Some regional characteristics of Muslim caste systems in India". GeoJournal. 5 (1): 55–60. doi:10.1007/BF00185243. ISSN 0343-2521.
  • Berreman, Gerald D. (June 1972). "Social Categories and Social Interaction in Urban India". American Anthropologist. 74 (3): 567–586. doi:10.1525/aa.1972.74.3.02a00220. ISSN 0002-7294.