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Published in the 16-31 Aug 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Zaat and Biradari

Can I ask you a question:

  1. About when were the 4 Muslim society classifications Syed, Shaikh, Mugal, Pathan formulated and by whom?

  2. Are these classifications still defined in a formal or informal manner, and by whom? AIMPLB?

  3. What are the names of Muslim zaats that are currently defined by any Muslim or govt body? Which of them fall under the OBC category?

  4. Could you tell me the names of the persons who head the organization of the so called lower zaat Muslims in UP, Bihar?

Kaleem Kawaja, Washington DC 

Editor: Before I reply to the questions according to my limited knowledge, let me clarify that this issue of biradari-based politics and use of their outfits for political purposes is a game started by political parties starting with the Congress. The latest such outfit, Backward Muslim Morcha of Dr Ejaz Ali of Patna, was backed by the BJP; he came out openly in support of the BJP during the last elections.

It seems these things started during the Tughlaq period and took clear shape during the Mughal period. Since these so-called "biradaris" or "zaats" have no basis in Islam, these remain informal though faqihs exploited it taking advantage of the Hanafi doctrine of kufu (equality of the status of the bride and bridegroom) which is thought necessary for a correct contract of marriage. But as far as I can understand, the status on the basis of zaat is not permanent: if a certain person of a supposedly lower zaat acquires knowledge, status and wealth he automatically joins the higher zaat people and intermarries with them. There are dozens of zaats based on profession like dhunia, julaha, bhangi, mallah, teli, lohar, hajjam and so on and these get reservation in many states under OBC category. Ansaris [julahas] have their Momin Conference which is quite old and has branches in many places. Other zaats like Saifi [lohar], Salmani [hajjam] mansoori [dhunia], Qureshi [qassab] etc too have organisations but these are localised and weak as far as I know.

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