Was Untouchability in India Created by Islam?

Kancha Ilaiah andMohasina Anjum Ansari


Unouchability is a major social issue in India, even in the modern times. In the recent past it had also become an international issue. In 2001 at the United Nation’s Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia, held at Durban, a major discussion on caste and untouchability in South Asia took place. Several Indian organisations were pleading with the UN to recognise human untouchability as a problem of international importance like racism. But the Government of the National Democratic Alliance, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, did not allow it to become part of the UN agenda. However, modern Dalit intelligentsia is doing its best to make it an international issue so that a global network would mobilise every resource to abolish this inhuman Hindu practice.

Quite ironically, after the BJP came to power at the Centre in May 2014, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, headed by the Brahminic forces, opened a new discourse that untouchability in India was an Islamic creation and such a social system did not exist before Islam settled down in India. To this effect, the RSS-sponsored writings are coming out and a systematic campaign is taken up to blame the Indian Muslims for this historic evil that existed in India for millennia.

This paper examines the nature of Indian society based on Alberuni’s writings in the early 11th century; it was he who had recorded many aspects of the Indian society as they were in operation by the time the Islamic culture was settling down in India. No Hindutva scholar can argue that there was a systematically recorded social history in India before Alberuni’s. It is a known fact that Alberuni was a multi-discipline scholar who did an honest job of recording his contemporary social relations in India.

Before we examine the writings of Alberuni, specifically in relation to the caste culture of 11th century India, it is imperative to examine the position of Prophet Mohammad about social inequalities. After all, the Indian Islamic institution-building also took place based on the Quraanic principles and Prophet Mohammad’s teachings.

We also want to clear the myth that Islam came to India through the Muslim invaders like Muhammad bin Qasim, who invaded India in 715. But actually Islam came to India with a Kerala Sudra king, Cheraman Perumal, on his own going to Prophet Mohammad in around 622 and embracing Islam. Thus Cheraman Perumal was the first Muslim of India, like Prophet Mohammad was the first Muslim of the world. We have a living history of the the Cheraman Jum’ah Masjid still in existence in Methala, Kodungallur Taluk, Thrissur district built in 629.(1) Islam spread in Kerala and other parts of South India much before Muhammad Qasim and others came here. Cheraman Perumal’s conversion was not a forced conversion, but it was completely choice-based, that involved pains taking voyage from India to Saudi Arabia, in search of new knowledge and spiritual liberation.

 Prophet Mohammad delivered his last sermon fourteen hundred years ago. A critical issue that he puts before the human beings of all nations is as follows:

“O people! Your God is one and your forefather (Adam) is one. An Arab is not better than a non-Arab and a non-Arab is not better than an Arab, and a red (i.e. white tinged with red) person is not better than a black person and a black person is not better than a red person, except in piety.”(2)

Neither the Quran nor Prophet Mohammad approved caste-based gradation of human societies, nor did they anywhere indicate human untouchability could be practised. Islam played a key role in abolishing idol worship in the world, whereas Hinduism practises idol worship as its core religious belief even now. Islam has a concept of one Allah, one book (Quran) and one place of worship (mosque) for all the human beings irrespective of their caste, creed, colour and class. Equality is one of the essential tenets of Islam. Unlike the Rig Veda and Bhagvad Gita, the Quran does not accept unequal creation of human beings, nor does it accept work-based discrimination. The Quran in Surat An-Nisa 4-1 says:

“O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women. And fear Allah, through whom you ask one another, and the wombs. Indeed Allah is ever, over you, an Observer.”(3)

[3:195] Their Lord responded to them: “I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you male or female - you are equal to one another.”(4)

The Quran perhaps borrows the theory of equal creation of human beings from the Bible that makes in its Genesis clear that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (27).”(5)

In both the Bible and Quran the story of creation does not give any scope for caste-based gradation of human societies. Whereas the Rig Veda and Bhagvad Gita gave such a scope quite clearly.

As the above Quranic dictum tells, human equality is an embedded principle in Quranic teachings, whether in India or elsewhere. The Quranic teachings are not nation-specific, they are universal.

…so far nobody could unearth the spiritual validation of textual evidence or practice of human untouchability in Islamic civil societies. Now the RSS is out with its imagination and tries to construct a caste cultural history within the Islamic ethos itself.

On the contrary, as we show in this paper, in ancient Hindu spiritual texts, which were claimed to have been written hundreds of years before even Islam as a religion came into existence, commanded the society to practise human untouchablility. What is repeatedly said in the Manudharma Shastra is too well known to be commented upon. It is also known that the Rig Veda and Bhagvad Gita themselves prescribed for definite practice of untouchability. Yet the RSS chose to claim that caste-based untouchability is a creation of Indian Islam; hence this needs to be refuted with serious research.


The RSS’ New Theory: Vijay Sonakar Shastri, one of the RSS functionaries, released his three books, namely Hindu Charmakar Jati, Hindu Khatik Jati and Hindu Valmiki Jati. The forewords of these books claim that ‘Shudras’ were never untouchables, according to the Hindu scriptures. It was only after the “Islamic atrocities” during the medieval times that the untouchables, Dalits and Indian Muslims emerged.

The BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has attributed the genesis of Dalits, tribals and other marginalised groups to Muslim invasion in medieval times. Three RSS functionaries have reportedly expressed such views in forewords to the above mentioned three books released recently by the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat.

 In his foreword, Bhaiyyaji Joshi, Bhagwat’s number two in the RSS order, reportedly says the ‘shudras’ were never untouchables, according to the Hindu scriptures. It was only after the “Islamic atrocities” during the medieval times that the untouchables, Dalits and Indian Muslims emerged. A subtle campaign to spread such a theory among Dalits/OBCs has been launched by various wings of the Sangh Parivar…


Untouchability in Hindu Scriptures: It is a known fact that a large number of lower castes and tribes got converted to Islam in the late medieval and early modern period, whereas the conflict between the Brahminic and the Dalit bahujan communities is millennia old. The Rig-Veda was said to have been composed in 1500-1200 BCE. In the Rig Veda the creation of caste/Varna system was mentioned in no uncertain terms.

Purusha Sukta: (The Hymn of God), Rigveda says:

brahmano asya mukhamaseet | bahoo rajanya: krta: |

ooru tadasya yad vaishya | padbhyam shoodro ajayata || 12 ||

[That when the Gods divided the Creator (Purusha), the Brahmana was his mouth; the Rajanya (Kshatriya) was made his arms; the Vaishya was his thighs; and the Sudra sprang from his feet.](6)

This indicates that the caste system is there in the Hindu scripture. This divine creation theory tells us that the Hindu God (in whom the RSS believes) created the Indians into different unequal Varnas/castes. This led to justification of inequability and later for creation of human untouchability too. Once a group of human beings believe in the unequal creation by God that very belief can take them to any level of degradation of human beings. The RSS does not want to address this fundamental question.

The next main Hindu scriptures that established the Brahminic ideology quite firmly are the Upanishads. They were said to have been composed around 788-820 BCE. The Upanishads (Chandogya Upanishad) declare that those whose conduct is pleasant here will enter a pleasant womb of a Brahmin, Kshatriya, or Vaisya; but those of stinking conduct will enter a stinking womb of a dog, swine, or outcaste.(7) The fact that the Upanishads used the notion of outcaste shows that there were outcastes by the time they were written…

The Bhagvad Gita has clearly mentioned different castes and their position in the society. A careful reading of the Gita would show anyone that it fully supports the enslavement of Shudras and OBCs, a process initiated by the Rig Veda itself. (Ilaiah, 2014) (8)

The caste system and untouchability existed in India for millennia. In the 6th century BCE, Gautama Buddha laid the foundation of Buddhism, During Buddha’s own lifetime caste and untouchability existed quite categorically. The Buddha Sanghas also made efforts to abolish untouchability. But they succeeded only in a limited way. In the Madhura Sutta (84) of Majjhimanikedya (II 4.4) and in the Assalayana Sutta (93) of Majjhima (II 5.3), the brahamanas claim to be of superior caste (bradhmano seftho verno) and the rest are of inferior caste (hino annovanno) the brahmanas claims to have fair complexion (sukko vanno), while others are dark (kanho); the brahmanas are said to be pure. The Sangha system did not allow, as much as possible, the caste system to be operative within, but outside the Sanghas, in the general society, it was fully operative.

In Assaldyana Sutta of the Majjhima (II 149) and the Madhura Sutta, Majjhima II 87, the Buddha refutes the claim of higher caste to superiority. He was totally against this caste system by birth; his faith was on good deeds.(9)


Al-Beruni’s Study: ‘Al-Beruni’s India’, which is a translation of the Arabic book “Tarikh Al-Hind” written by Al-Beruni Abu Rihan Muhammad ibn Ahmad, is the first major history text that tells about the nature of the caste system by the 11th century. He accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni to India and stayed here for many years, chiefly in the Punjab region. He studied Sanskrit and translated into it some works from Arabic… His studies on Indian society and the caste system are based on participatory observations.

The untouchability in India, discussed by Sonaker, was found by Al Beruni in the early 11th century. According to him, “The Brahmins teach the Veda to the Kshatriyas. The latter learn it, but are not allowed to teach it, not even to a Brahmin, the Vaisya and Sudra are not allowed to hear it, much less to pronounce and recite it. If such a thing can be proved against one of them, the Brahmins drag him before the magistrate, and he is punished by having his tongue cut off.”…

Al-Beruni has explained how four castes were divided in India and what kind of practices were in existence. He says: “The Hindus call their castes varna, that is, colours, and from a genealogical point of view they call them jataka, i.e., births.”(10)

I. The highest caste are the Brahmana, of whom the books of the Hindus tell that they were created from the head of Brahman. And as Brahman is only another name for the force called nature, and the head is the highest part of the animal body, the Brahmana are the choice part of the whole genus. Therefore, the Hindus consider them as the very best of mankind.

II. The next caste are the Kshatriya, who were created, as they say, from the shoulders and hands of the Brahmana. Their degree is not much below that of the Brahmana.

 III. After them follow the Vaisya, who were created from the thigh of Brahman.

 IV. The Sudra, who were created from his feet. Between the latter two classes there is not a very great distance…

He then goes to talk about the untouchables. He says: "The people called Hadi, Doma (Domba), Candala, and Badhatau (sic) are not reckoned amongst any caste or guild. They are occupied with dirty work, like the cleaning of the villages and other services. They are considered as one sole class, and distinguished only by their occupations."(11)…

…Al-Beruni describes several cultural practices of different castes. He talks about various day to-day cultural practices like how people sit, how they eat, live and behave in the society and in public places. And he felt that those practices were totally against the practices of Muslims of his own country.

He says: "Customs of each of the four castes, when eating together, must form a group to themselves, one group not being allowed to comprise two men of different castes. If in the group of the Brahmana there are two men who live at enmity with each other, and the seat of the one is by the side of the other, they make a barrier between the two seats by placing a board between them, or by spreading a piece of dress, or in some other way; and if there is only a line drawn between them, they are considered as separated. Since it is forbidden to eat the remains of a meal, every single man must have his own food for himself; for if any one of the party who are eating should take of the food from one and the same plate, that which remains in the plate becomes, after the first eater has taken part, to him who wants to take as the second, the remains of the meal, and such is forbidden."(12)

Regarding the changing of the duties and practices of a person from his caste to other Al-Beruni explained the miseries or punishment given to the person. There was no scope for changing the caste or duties. "If anybody wants to quit the works and duties of his caste and adopt those of another caste, even if it would bring a certain honour to the latter, it is a sin, because it is a transgression of the rule." (13)

Al-Beruni’s account informs us of the practice of untouchablity of the Hindu social system that was multi-layered. Though the RSS ideologues are trying to explain away the practice of untouchability merely in relation to Dalit castes, it operated historically between Varna and Varna also…

The RSS ideologues do not want to engage with the existing body of language on the Indian social structure, written by both Indian and foreign scholars... They do not know the works of medieval scholars like Al-Beruni. They do not even engage severally with their own spiritual texts… But the RSS itself is headed by such upper castes who do not want serious social reforms within their own religious system. Instead they are constructing new theories that untouchability is a creation of Indian Islam. This is nothing but a historical fallacy. They cannot win an ideological battle based on fallacies and myths. Their imagination cannot become history.


1. Ilaiah, Kancha (2004), ‘Hindustan vs India’ in Asian Age, 9 January, 2015.

2. The Last Sermon (Khutbah) of Prophet Muhammad,, accessed on 9-3-2015.

3. Quran, Chapter 4 surat Al-nisaa (The Women) Ayat 1

4. Quran, Chapter 3 Surat Al-Imran Ayat: 195

5. Bible, genesis (1:27)

6. Raghavan, Geerpuram Nadadur Srinivasa (2009), Discovering the Rigveda, Gyan Publishing House, p 72.

7. Kapoor, Subhod (2002), Encycleopedia of Vedic Philosophy, Genesis Publishing Ltd., p. 111.

8. Ilaiah, Kancha (2004), ‘The Gita and OBCs’ in Asian Age, 9 January, 2015.

9. Krishna, K. (1986), ‘Buddhism and Caste System’, The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Fairfield, USA. Vol: 9, No. 1.

10. Sachau, E (1910), Alberuni’s India vol I. Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner & Co. Ltd., London, p 100.

11. Ibid., p 101.

12. Ibid., p 102.

13. Ibid., p 103.

Prof Kancha Ilaiah is the Director, Al Beruni Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. Dr Mohasina Anjum Ansari is a Research Assistant at the same centre.

To read the full article, please refer to the Mainstream, New Delhi, LIII:43 October 17, 2015

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 April 2016 on page no. 11

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