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Published in the 1-15 July 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Book Review

Muslims and caste issues

By Mohammad Ayub Khan

The Milli Gazette Online

Book: Islam, Caste and Dalit-Muslim Relations in India (2004)
Author: Yoginder Sikand
Pages: 127
ISBN: 81-88869-06-6 (PB)
Global Media Publications, New Delhi

Islam calls for uncompromising social equality of all humanity. Race, color, caste and ethnic origin have no value in Islamic understanding of things — piety being the only determinant. This, however, has not stopped the Muslims from adopting un-Islamic practices of social discrimination. Caste differences within the Muslim society are more apparent in the sub-continent than anywhere else. The book under review claims to ‘explore various dimensions of the caste question among Muslims in India.’ 

The first chapter provides the development of caste in the Indian Muslim society. It was historically divided in the ashraf or the ‘noble’ and ‘respectable’ castes and the ajlaf or the ‘inferior or lowly castes.’ Sikand argues that to the medieval scholars, ‘Muslims of Arab, Central Asian, Iranian, and Afghan extraction were superior in social status to local converts. This owed not just to racial differences, with local converts generally being dark-skinned and the ashraf lighter complexioned, but also to the fact that the ashraf belonged to the dominant political elites, while the bulk of the ajlaf remained associated with ancestral professions as artisans and peasants, and as such were looked down as inferior.’ (p.22). This claim is supported by references to a translation of a singular text of Ziauddin Barani, a courtier of Muhammad bin Tughlaq. 

Barani’s Fatawa-i-Jahandari, essentially a treatise on political theory, emits a racist attitude towards the natives of India and promotes the supremacy of the ashraf. He advised the Sultan to consider his religious duty to deny the ajlaf access to knowledge, branding them as ‘mean’ and ‘despicable.’ Relying on this solitary text Sikand makes this far-fetched claim that Barani’s views were shared by many of his contemporaries. However, no proof is provided to support this allegation. If these assertions are indeed true to the extent claimed then how does one explain the almost century long rule of the ‘Slave Dynasty’ in India ? As on many other significant questions on this topic Sikand is silent on this and ignores the ‘Slave Dynasty’ to the extent that it is not even mentioned once.

The book deals with considerable length on the all-important issue of inter-case marriages and the concept of kafa’a (suitability and compatibility in marriage). For this he relies on the comprehensive tract written in Urdu on the topic by Maulana Abdul Hamid Nu’mani, a senior leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e- Hind. Nu’mani has forthrightly brought to light, in no unambiguous terms, the internal hypocrisy of the community which claims to be belonging to a universal brotherhood while at the same time shunning marital relationships with fellow Muslims. He deconstructs the widely misunderstood concept of Kafa’a and decisively proves that it has no basis in Islam. He also does not hesitate to criticize the revered ulema like Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi and Maulana Ahmed Raza Khan Barelwi whose views on kafa’a contradicted that of the Qur’an and Sunnah.

Chapter 2 provides an insight on the Dalit (‘low caste’) Muslims, their leadership, the formation of the All India Backward Muslim Morcha and the assertion of their rights. This chapter provides context to the current debate over reservations for Muslims in India. The Dalit Muslim leaders argue that instead of giving reservations to the Muslim community as a whole, they should only be given to the backward classes among them. Other Muslims object to this suggestion calling it divisive.

The book also covers briefly the Dalit attempts to free themselves from the Brahmanical caste oppression by converting to Islam, the Muslim mission to them and calls for Dalit-Muslim unity in the face of rising right-wing Hindutva nationalism. The case of the leading Dalit intellectual Rashid Salim Adil who converted to Islam and has successfully integrated into the larger Muslim society is a classic example of what could happen if Muslims demolish the artificial walls of caste that they have constructed around themselves. Adil is married into a family of Syeds. His children are also married into well off Muslim families and their ‘taint of their having once been ‘untouchable’ has disappeared.’ (p.83)

The fourth chapter is a review of the writings in the radical journal Dalit Voice. Here Sikand gives undue importance to writers with exotic names and suspect identities, whose outbursts contribute nothing at all to the development of Dalit-Muslim unity. The critiques include that of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Tablighi Jamaat and the custodians of the Sufi shrines. It is a fact that all of these organizations are lacking in creating intra-Muslim brotherhood terms of speaking out against oppression on the Dalits. Far from alleviating the prevailing situation the militant rhetoric of the writers of Dalit Voice offers nothing substantial and instead create even more disunity. One writer calls the Ulema as the ‘progeny of iblis’ and appeals to the Muslims to stop reading their literature at once. (p.98). 

The last section of the book titled ‘Liberation and the Plurlaist Predicament: A New Islamic Vision,’ offers nothing instructive except for incoherent statements like: “This new understanding of Islamic (sic) departs from traditional Islamic theology on several important counts. Firstly, in contrast to traditional Islamic theology, it is inductive in its methodology and contextual in its approach, in that it emerges from reflection, in the light of the Qur’an, on the actual context in which oppressed Muslims find themselves confronted with.’ (p.114)

There is no denying that the evil of casteism continues to exist among Indian Muslims and will destroy the community if it is not addressed as a top priority issue. But there is also positive change setting in. Just a glance through the matrimonial columns in the newspapers will now show that education and job security are more important for prospective candidates than caste. Organizations like Jamiat Ulema have also launched several initiatives in addressing the issue. These include the organizing of communal meals where Muslims and Dalits (non-Muslims and Muslims) eat from one large plate. It is interesting to note that Sikand had earlier written an article on this communal meals phenomenon but for some unknown reason haven’t even mentioned it in the book. While concentrating on extremist and marginal proponents of Dalit-Muslim unity he ignores the saner voices of Dalit intellectuals and leaders like Udit Raj of the Indian Justice Party. Similarly, the work of Muslim leaders of recent past like Bahadur Yar Jung finds no mention. To Sikand’s materialist theory influenced vision painful but curable cankerous sores appear as terminal cancer requiring radical surgery. He cuts and pastes the Brahmanical caste structure on the Muslim society, which while being influenced by the former has its own dynamics. In short Islam, Caste and Dalit-Muslim Relations in India is an important and path breaking but disjointed collection of essays which provide an incomplete and partial analysis of the topic. «

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