Dialogue October- December, 2007, Volume 9  No. 2


Caste in Medieval India: The Beginnings of a Reexamination1


Dileep Karanth*





“Who says India says caste, or so it seems.” So wrote J. C. Heesterman in his essay “Caste , Village and Indian Society”,2 underlining the centrality of the problem of caste in India. Heesterman points out the word caste started out meaning something like “tribe” or “race”, but in the nineteenth century it came to mean something very specific, a specifically Indian phenomenon. “Caste began to loom large, until it became in our century a shorthand expression for Indian society at large: Indian society is caste.”

       The inequalities of the modern caste system and the fissures in Hindu society resulting from it are too well-known to need elaboration. The caste system is so pervasive that it has become a feature of life of all religious groups that live in India. At least, that was the case when first contact with Europeans took place. Thus it is not surprising that caste and Hinduism have often been equated. Sir Denzil Ibbetson wrote of the “popular and currently received theory of caste” (which he would go on to challenge) as consisting of three main articles:

(1)   that caste is an institution of the Hindu religion, and wholly peculiar to that religion alone;

(2)   that it consists primarily of a fourfold classification of people in general under the heads of Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra.

(3)   that caste is perpetual and immutable, and has been transmitted from generation to generation throughout the ages of Hindu history and myth without the possibility of change.3


*Dileep S. Karanth is alecturer at the Deptt. of Physics, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Kenosha, USA. His doctorate was solid state physics in addition to physics, he takes interest in Indian history, Indian music, linguistic and foreign languages. 



Caste in medieval India and the “social liberation” theory


       The state of society and social stratification in medieval India is of necessity harder to understand than that of modern India. Since Hindu religious texts are usually studied to get information about “classical” India, that is India before Hindu society came into very direct contact with others such as the Islamic society, the source materials for caste in medieval times are usually the chronicles of history, whose focus is not on social conditions but on the notable personages and momentous events of history. The vast corpus of historical materials can, of course, still be used to get much information about the caste structures within Indian society. However, an examination of this material has been coloured by the assumption that the most important consideration in the Indo-Islamic encounter was the caste system, and that Islamic conquests in India were specifically motivated by an urge to eliminate caste from Indian society. The evolution of castes in medieval India is often pieced together by looking at the state of castes in what we may call ‘modern India’ (by which we mean here India as the British ethnographers found or thought it to be).                                                        

The existence of caste within Hindu society is easy to explain – mention of caste exists in scriptures, and manuals of social behaviour. Caste in Hindu society persists in modern times; the institution of caste must have continuously existed since ancient times. The existence of caste in medieval times thus needs no demonstration. In modern times, the caste system, or at any rate, a caste system, exists even among Indian Muslims. But as many a scholar does, its genesis is ascribed solely to Hindu influence:

      The Muslim caste system is a result of Hindu influence; the Indian Muslims have acquired the system, …, from the Hindus through constant and continuous culture contact; the system of caste groupings itself resulted in the concept of social distance between the two communities, the Hindus and the Muslims.4                                                        

 It is often assumed that there was no place for a concept related to caste in Islamic society, and hence any caste-like structures in Indian Muslim society must be the result of accretions or borrowings from the ambient Hindu society, or customs inherited from pre-Islamic times. The background for this sweeping claim can to a large extent be explained by the observations of Marc Gaborieau. In his book, Ni Brahmanes Ni Ancêtres, the author presents his detailed findings, after several years of field work in Nepal, studying the Curaute, a caste of bangle-makers.                                                                                                                   

Writing about the dominant trend in British ethnography, Gaborieau claims that the British took a simplistic view of castes and presented Hinduism, taken as a whole, as inherently hierarchical in structure, as opposed to Islam, taken as a whole, taken to be inherently egalitarian.5,6 Any elements of hierarchy in Islamic society is taken to be a relic from Hinduism, just as Ansari has done in the quote above. This idea has become very strongly rooted in the literature on caste. This idea has been championed particularly by Muslim scholars in the 19th century, as they defended their faith against criticism by Western scholars. The basic thrust of these arguments was that far from bringing about forcible conversions as accused of by the British, the Muslim conquerors carried out peaceful conversions, notably by means of the Sufis. The chief reason for its success would have been the particular attractiveness of Islam, as an egalitarian faith, for the lower castes especially the untouchables. The cities and qasba established by the new conquerors would have been spaces of liberty; they would have permitted the most disfavored people to rise in the social hierarchy, by opening new economic outlets.

      Gaborieau points out that the best example of this theory is the book by Arnold, The Preaching of Islam, for which the author collaborated with two influential Indian Muslim thinkers, Sayyid Ahmad Khān (d. 1898) and Shiblī Nu‘manī (d. 1914). The book, which was written in Aligarh and was first published in 1896, says among other things: “A Hindu will naturally be attracted by a religion which receives everybody without discrimination” (Arnold, 1965, 291-291); and: “It is this absence of class prejudice which constitutes the real force of Islam in India and which allows it to win so many converts from Hinduism” (pp. 118-119).

      In Arnold’s book we clearly see the formulations of a theme that had been or would be elaborated by many other scholars, such W.W. Hunter7 and James Rice. In the context of conversions to Islam in Bengal, Rice wrote that the Islamic armies “were welcomed by the out-cast Chandals and Kaibarrta.”8


       An extreme formulation of this thesis can be found in the writings of Mohammad Habib. He is said to have “used the principles of Dialectical Materialism to explain the role of Islam in India and world history.”1 One of Habib’s quotes sums up the idea that medieval Muslim rule in India involved considerations of urban labour, and the preference of Indian workers for the new religious law:

       Face to face with the social and economic provisions of the Shari 'at and the Hindu Smritis as practical alternative, the Indian city-worker preferred the Shari‘at. And the decision of the city worker was decisive.10

      The conquest of Delhi by Mu‘izz al-din ibn Sam Ghuri, who dethroned Prithviraj Chauhan was explained as “a revolution of Indian city labour led by the Ghorian Turks”.11 But the real target that is aimed at in the words “Hindu Smritis” becomes clear when Habib offers an explanation for the spectacular military success of the Ghurid Turks in displacing the Hindu Rajputs as masters of Delhi, and ultimately of the Indo-Gangetic plain:

The Ghurian conquest of Northern India, when all factors are kept in mind, can be explained by one fact only – the caste system (emphasis added) and all that it entails; the degeneration of the oppressor and the degeneration of the oppressed, priest-craft, king-craft, idol-worship with its degrading cults, the economic and spiritual exploitation of the multitude, the division of the people into small water-tight subcaste groups resulting in the total annihilation of any sense of common citizenship or of loyalty to the country as a whole.12 

        Habib’s ideas specifically targeting the caste system have not only been amplified by writers such as Nizami and Irfan Habib, but have also acquired legitimacy, based on repetition if not on substantiation.13 

    The theory of “social liberation” or “urban revolution” is often invoked especially in constructing the history of parts of the subcontinent which have Muslim majorities, such as Punjab, Sindh, Kashmir and Bengal. This idea has become one of the cornerstones of historiography in the new states of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and in Kashmir.  Any qualifications or modifications to this theory will thus call into question the received histories of Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, spanning over a period of more than a millennium. 


Caste among Indian Muslims

      In the face of numerous claims for the absence of caste in Islamic

societies, it could be expected that modern Muslim society in India would be free of inequalities sanctioned by birth. However, it turns out that such is not at all the case. No less a man than Dr. B. R. Ambedkar took cognizance of the existence of castes even in Muslim Bengal.14 Quoting the Superintendent of the Census for 1901 for the province of Bengal, Ambedkar noted:

     “The conventional division of the Mahomedans into four tribes – Sheikh, Saiad, Moghul and Pathan – has very little application to this Province (Bengal). The Mahomedans themselves recognize two main social divisions, (1) Ashraf or Sharaf and (2) Ajlaf. Ashraf means ‘noble’ and includes all undoubted descendants of foreigners and converts from high caste Hindus. All other Mahomedans including the occupational groups and all converts of lower ranks, are known by the contemptuous terms, ‘Ajlaf’, ‘wretches’ or ‘mean people’: they are also called Kamina or Itar, ‘base’ or Rasil, a corruption of Rizal, ‘worthless’. In some places a third class, called Arzal or ‘lowest of all,’ is added. With them no other Mahomedan would associate, and they are forbidden to enter the mosque or to use the public burial ground.

     “Within these groups there are castes with social precedence of exactly the same nature as one finds among the Hindus.15

    Bengal would become the seat of intense political activism and lobbying in the years after Ambedkar wrote these words. Caste would become a much talked-of political commodity, politicians would campaign for the loyalties of the masses, the province would go on to be partitioned, and  yet even as late as 1973, caste would be an abiding feature of Bengali Muslim life. M.K.A. Siddiqui, who contributed an essay16 to an important book on the caste phenomenon among Indian Muslims,17 points out that there are several caste groups among the Muslims in Calcutta. Siddiqui discusses several different ways in which inequality manifests itself – restrictions on commensality, hypergamy, pollution by contact, etc. He divides the castes into three categories. The castes in any one category can accept food from the others in the category, but not from castes in lower categories.

    The Dafalis who work as priests for the Lal Begis, or the Qalanders who sometimes live in their neighbourhood, refuse to accept food or water from Lal Begis.18

    The groups are descent groups, “with or without occupational specialization”. For example, the Lal Begis (who roughly correspond to the Bhangi caste in Hindu society) are generally regarded as unclean on account of their humble occupation – “they often experience difficulty in getting their dead buried in the common Muslim burial ground.” Hypergamy is widely practiced in the highest category, meaning that women from lower castes can be married into the higher castes (Sayyad and Sheikh), but not vice versa. The children of these mixed marriages are called “Sayyadzada” and “Sheikhzada” respectively. They do not attain the full status of their fathers, and are expected to make alliances with people of their status.

       Siddiqui regards the emphasis on birth as not being sanctioned by scripture, which he says, wiped out distinctions of colour and race. However, as Islam spread to distant lands, social stratification resulted as a result of historical developments and adjustments made to local traditions. Kinship with the Prophet became a new criterion of nobility. Siddiqui discusses a few other aspects of the caste structure, and, significantly notes that “the founders of the [Sufi] mystic orders belong exclusively to categories that claim foreign origin. Most of them are Sayyads.”                                                                                                                   

The situation in Bengal was similar to that in central regions of India, as shown in studies by Zarina Bhatty19 and by Imtiaz Ahmad. Bhatty studied the case of a village Kasauli in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and found the village society to be deeply caste-riven. At the top of the hierarchy was a lineage of Sayyads, and a subcaste of the Sheikhs, namely the Kidwais. These were the only Ashraf castes in the village. Elsewhere in India, the Ashraf castes include Sayyids, Sheikhs, Mughals and Pathans. These are communities claiming descent from population groups hailing from outside India. Bhatty points out that all four noble castes permit interdining, but commensality with the lower castes, consisting of groups descended from Indian converts, is not allowed. Also Sayyads and Sheikhs intermarry, but marriages between Sayyads and Sheikhs on the one hand, and Mughals and Pathans on the other, are not socially acceptable. In the village of Kasauli, there are eighteen other castes, consisting of groups defined by occupation. Closely linked to occupation is a notion of pollution, depending on the materials handled by persons following the occupation. A kind of hierarchy is defined, with castes which come into proximity with the Ashraf regarded as higher.

     Nats, who skin dead animals and make drums, find a place close to the bottom of the scale while Julahas and Darzis are at the top end. Dhobis, who must wash soiled clothes, are closer to the Nats than to the Julahas.20

    Bhatty discusses the interesting case of a divide in the musician community. The Mirasis who perform for the higher Ashraf castes, are regarded as superior to the Nats, who perform the same social functions, but for the public at large. The Mirasis have adopted the dress of the Ashraf, and have learned to speak Urdu, while the Nats converse in the local dialect. Thus the Mirasis have improved their social standing by the imitation of and association with the upper castes, who set the norms for the whole society.

        In his article on the Siddique Sheikhs of Uttar Pradesh, Imtiaz Ahmed informs us of the various considerations taken into account when determining hierarchy within the status group called the Sheikhs. There are at least four of them:

a)     affiliation with an Arab tribe.

b)    descent from a person of Arab origin who is known to have close ties to the Prophet.

c)     relationship to a place in Arabia or Persia.

d)    descent from someone who is said to have entered India along with the early Muslim armies.

According to Ahmed, the Sheikh subgroups emphasize their foreign origin and links to some Islamic personage of repute. The groups who claim to be descended from the Prophet’s own tribe, Quraish, are regarded as the highest. Then follow the descendants of first Caliph, Abu Bakr Siddique. Next in rank are those who count the next two Caliphs, Usman and Umar among their ancestors. They are followed by descendants of the close friends and associates of the Prophet. Descendants of other Persians or Arabs who may have come with the Muslim armies are ranked last.

As for the Siddique Sheikhs studied closely by Imtiaz Ahmed, they have only recently been ‘recognized’ as descendants of Abu Bakr. Their Kayastha Hindu antecedents are quite well established, and their striving for recognition as Ashraf is a phenomenon quite well known all over India. Ahmed points out that the circumstances of the Siddique Sheikhs’ conversion is not known, but after conversion to Islam,

     they were allowed to retain their traditional occupation as land recordkeepers, a fact which is also attested to by the fact that the members of the caste also served as patwaris well after the annexation of the area by the British. (emphasis added)

      Ahmed makes some other very interesting observations about the Siddique Sheikhs:

      Convert groups to Islam are generally characterized as New Muslims and they are looked down upon by the social groups which are known to be descendants of foreign sources or who have succeeded in eliminating the stigma of recent conversion. This gave rise to certain differentiations in the adjustment of the Sheikh Siddiques after their conversion to Islam in the different villages. In villages that were largely or predominantly Hindu, the Sheikh Siddiques were excluded from the framework of interaction with the Hindu castes but they continued to enjoy a somewhat superior status as a Muslim group. But in villages where there were numerous other Muslim groups of superior status, the Sheikh Siddiques were not merely excluded from the social hierarchy of Hindu castes, but were also relegated to a somewhat lower position even within the hierarchy of Muslim castes.

      The continued prestige of the Siddique Sheikhs in their native villages even after conversion can probably be explained by the fact that they were already a community which enjoyed prestige among the Hindus. After all, they were allowed to retain their prestigious occupation as land recordkeepers. But in Muslim-dominated villages, the Siddique Sheikhs commanded little prestige among the Muslims, since they were not Ashrāf. This is an example of conversion from Hinduism which has obviously not been motivated by a desire to escape the disabilities of the Hindu caste system.

     Ahmed’s observations regarding the inferior status of “New Muslims” seems to be applicable widely in India. We find confirmation of this generalization in places as far removed from Uttar Pradesh as the Moplah-dominated regions of Kerala. The hierarchies in Moplah society have been studied by Victor D’Souza.21 He reports that there are five distinct sections among the Moplahs:  Thanghals, Arabis, Malbaris, Pusalars and Ossans. The Thangals who are at the top of the pyramid, are a small group of people who trace their descent to the Prophet, through his daughter Fatima. The term Thangal is a respectful term of address, usually applied to Brahmins in Kerala. The Arabis are a group of people mostly concentrated in Quilandy (a town north of Calicut), who are descendants of Arab men and local women, but who have preserved the memory of their descent. The association of the Arabis with Arabia entitles them to a respect in Moplah society second only to that of the Thangals. The Malabaris also claim descent from Arabs, but they are those who followed a matriarchal system – the so-called “mother-right” culture. As for the Pusalars and the Ossans, D’Souza writes:

       The so-called Pusalars are converts from among the Hindu fishermen, called Mukkuvans. Their conversion took place relatively late. Because of their latter conversion and their low occupation of fishing they are allotted a low status in the Moplah society. The Pusalars are spread all along the coastline of Kerala and they still continue their traditional occupation of fishing.

     The Ossans are a group of barbers among the Moplahs and by virtue of their very low occupation they are ranked the lowest. Their womenfolk act as hired singers on social occasions like weddings.

         The hierarchies in Moplah society also show a tendency to accord the highest place of honour to the Sayyads, and lowest place to new converts and despised groups, such as barbers. The motive for conversion could hardly have been the keen desire to escape the disabilities of the Hindu caste system. This point has also been made by Richard Eaton, who noted that the lower castes in India could hardly have been familiar with the writings of Rousseau or Jefferson, and thus possessed of a notion of the fundamental equality of all men. Also, for the larger part of the Hindu-Muslim encounter, Muslims have judged Hindu society on theological grounds, not on social grounds, contrasting Hindu polytheism with Islamic monotheism.22 The realities of Indian Muslim society flatly contradict claims such as the one made by the renowned Islamic thinker, and rector of Nadwatul Ulema, Shiblī Nu‘manī:

     If an Asiatic converts to Christianity, he does not obtain the rights (huqūq) of the European community (qaum), even though he may have the same religion; even on the plane of religious  rights, he cannot be equal (ham-sar) to the Europeans. In contrast, the “communitarian identity” (qaumiyyat) of the Muslims is not bound to the country, nor to the race (nasal), nor to lineage, nor to any other criterion – it is only bound to religion. Whether one is Persian (‘ajamī), Indian (hindī), European or Asiatic, as soon as one enters the Muslim community, by the sole fact of conversion, one immediately (daf‘atan) becomes the equal (barābar) of other Muslims in rights: As soon as he has pronounced the profession of the faith, a tanner (Camār) can take a place in the first row in the mosque, thus putting himself on a rank equal to that of the [Ottoman] Sultan ’Abd   al-Hamid Khān; the Sultan cannot then claim to dislodge him from that place (cited in Shams-i-Tabrīz Khān, 1983, 58-59).23

       Gaborieau points out that this ideal picture of Muslim society fails to correspond with reality. Nu‘manī aimed to fight Western scholars with their arguments. He wished to show that while conversion to Christianity did not guarantee the Asiatics racial equality with Europeans, such was not the case within Muslim society. Muslim society, in Nu‘manī’s romantic view, was even ahead of the Christian West. However, Gaborieau points out that equality did not fall to the lot even of Nu‘manī himself:                                    

 His immense learning was recognized the world over: but he lacked any mystic aura. Most importantly, he was descended from converts; and what is worse, his lineage lacked prestige locally. He was a pseudo-Rajput, in fact, from an obscure caste of peasants. He was perfectly conscious of this stigma. This is what led him, like Iqbal, to overemphasize learning and the role of Islam, and to be extremely determined to exact the mark of respect due to him in the capacity of scholar. He never succeeded in gaining admittance into the intellectual and religious establishment of the day. He was not able to establish himself in the two prestigious institutions where he taught, (Aligarh and the Nadwatu’l-‘ulamā’ of Lucknow) which had been founded by genuine Sayyids and were populated with Ashrāf; in both cases he had to resign (Metcalf, 1982a, 340-342).24   


 As we have seen before, scholars such as Ansari regard manifestations of societal inequality within Islamic society as an inheritance from Hinduism. In regions where the demographics have not shifted in favour of Islam, the influence from the ambient Hindu society on the Muslim minority is indeed strong. However, the practice of segregating the lower castes has continued in regions where Hindu political power, and possibly Hindu demographic preponderance, has long vanished. As discussed before, in the case of Bengal, castes like the Lal Begis have been discriminated against long after the majority of the population turned Muslim.    Matters were hardly different at the other end of the Indian subcontinent, in Baluchistan. The Census Superintendent of Baluchistan wrote in 1931 that members of the Chuhra caste or tribe, who identified themselves variously as Hindu Balmiki, Hindu Lal Begi, Musalman Lal Begi, Musalman Balashai, Sikh Mazhabi or simply as ‘Chuhra’ were ‘without exception … not allowed to drink from wells belonging to real Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs’ and were ‘not permitted to enter their places of worship’.25                                         

      The disabilities inflicted on the lower castes in Kerala’s Muslim (and of course Hindu) society also continued in the Laccadive Islands, after the islands’ link with Hindu society had been severed. The caste hierarchies prevailing in the islands have been studied in some detail by Leela Dube, one more contributor to the book edited by Imtiaz Ahmed. The aristocracy, called Karnavars are descendants of Nambudiris and Nayars. They are also referred to by the respectful appellation, Koya, which means a religious dignitary. It was this class that monopolized land- and boat-owning. The Malumis or Urukkars formed the sailor-caste, and the Melacheris (literally, tree-climbers) formed a class of serfs, who earned their livelihood by “plucking coconuts, tilling their lords’ lands, rowing their boats.” The number of castes or classes varied from island to island, some places having four instead of three. One island, Agatti, was regarded as a Melacheri island.                                                         

 In view of evidence such as has been adduced above, Gaborieau argues that a hierarchical ordering is quite characteristic of Islamic society. He points out that Hindu society is not unique in holding some occupations in ritual opprobrium:


 The influence of the Indian context is often invoked to explain the opprobrium suffered by the barber, the weaver, the butcher, the tanner, the sweeper26, etc. These are professions stigmatized as being low and even impure. The last two are even regarded as untouchable. But this interpretation is short-sighted: the Hindu ideology only confirms prejudices formerly more widespread spread throughout the world. The tanner who handles animal carcasses is universally detested; the Hajjām who is the scarifier (and, among the Muslims, the circumcizer), as well as the barber are looked down upon in the Talmud as well as under the Sassanians, among Hindus and among Muslims. The contempt towards weavers also dates to remote times. Here we are dealing with traditions which date back to prehistoric times and can be found very different civilizations (for all these questions, see the important documentation analyzed by Brunschvig, 1962, 46-57.) This fact demolishes the contrary argument according to which Islam in India is supposed to have rehabilitated the depressed castes – the professions which are cited as examples, the barbers, weavers, and tanners, are precisely those whose inferior status is most explicitly affirmed in the Islamic tradition. The stereotypes attached to them in India are widely attested in Islam and in the most ancient traditions: the barber is greedy and arrogant; the weaver – wretched, stupid and treacherous. The conversion to Islam of those who practiced these professions unquestionably opened for them new economic outlets – and this is precisely the reason for their conversion; their conversion in no way improved their status.27           

In addition to the material already available in the literature, Gaborieau brings to the discussion the results of his own long years of field work in Nepal. He has seen Muslim Curautes redoing their ritual ablutions if they happened to touch a [Muslim] untouchable by mistake. He has also studied the phenomenon of ritual uncleanness associated with some professions, and social hierarchy based on profession, at work in Muslim society. One of his examples concerns the Kashmiri Muslims in Nepal who pass for Ashrāf. Periodically, these high born Muslims send for a barber from India, at great expense. However, the barber becomes wealthy, and turns his back on the profession in favour of something more respectable. He refuses to perform circumcisions, and the need for another barber is acutely felt. A new barber is sent for, and he is despised in turn; he faces the same stereotypes, and the cycle is repeated. The stereotypes, applied to barbers and weavers, are an old Islamic tradition.  


While individual social mobility is attested, collective mobility is virtually impossible, because there is a kind of “barrier” separating the Ashraf castes from the artisan castes:                                                          

Nowhere have I sensed this barrier as strongly as in my field work in Nepal. The oldest Ashrāf of Kathmandu, the Kashmiri, traditionalists and devoted to the cult of the saints, totally refuse all socially significant transactions with other Muslims of low status from the valley, who are collectively called Hindustānī and who are recruited from various artisan castes. At the most they sometimes accept, under the rubric of hypergamy, some of their daughters as secondary wives who are never any more than concubines. A primary marriage would be unthinkable. The Kashmiris have always been opposed, even in multiple proceedings in front of Nepalese tribunals composed of Hindus, to having common mosques and even a common cemetery with the Hindustānī. This is a clinching argument when we remember that the total number of Muslims in the valley does not ever exceed twelve hundred persons. The Hindustānī may well be reformed, instructed in religion and devout, they can never cross the barrier (Gaborieau, 1977a, 52-54).28                                     

Gaborieau’s studies of conversions into the Muslim Curaute caste contradict the theory that conversion has taken place in India selectively from the lowest orders. The Curaute admit conversions into their caste from Hindus of higher castes such as Chettri and Gurung. But they do not accept untouchables into their caste.

      Indeed even conversion effected by the Sufis does not seem to wipe out the stigma of untouchability. Gaborieau points out that the Ashrāf monopolize the so-called orthodox Sufi brotherhoods (bā-shar’), as opposed to the “heterodox” brotherhoods (be-shar’) who are relegated to the level of the lowest castes (Gaborieau, 1986c)29and also that the heterodox brotherhoods are lower than and subservient to the former, so much so that the musicians (qawwāl), who pronounce the mystic chants (qawwālī) and play the drum, are in fact untouchable musicians (as in the Hindu temples) even though they claim affiliation with a Sufi order. The heterodox Sufis and these musicians are relegated to the far corners of the shrines dedicated to Muslim saints.30                        

During his fieldwork in Nepal, Gaborieau found that the membership in the orthodox Sufi brotherhoods was restricted to the Ashraf. Rural artisans of low rank did not even know of the existence of the orthodox brotherhoods, since they only dealt with intermediaries like the Madari. The situation was identical in the Sufi hospices of Bihar, as indicated by the research of another scholar (Lehmann).31                                              

 A caste-like phenomenon exists in the Punjab with the Chishtis forming a hereditary clan, controlling not only the tomb of their ancestor Baba Farīd-ud-dīn (d. 1265) at Pak-pattan, but also the lands and the cultivators surrounding it.32 Clan members had justified their hypergamous codes of marriages even in front of British courts. The noted historian Richard Eaton rejected these claims as being contrary to Islamic tradition, and as reflecting the influence of the ambient Hindu culture. Gaborieau, however, points out that such hypergamous traditions are completely in consonance with worldwide Islamic practice. According to Gaborieau, Robert Brunschvig (1962, 55) had long ago compared the laws of the Manu Smriti to Islamic tradition:

      If a young girl likes a man of a class higher than her own, the king should not make her pay the slightest fine; but if she unites herself with a man of inferior birth, she should be imprisoned in her house, and placed under guard. A man of low origin who courts a maiden of high birth deserves a capital punishment. (Laws of Manu (VIII, 365-366))

       Following Brunschvig, Gaborieau claims that this law is exactly that which the dominant Hanafite tradition of jurisprudence would require,33 as has been spelled out on in the famous compendium of the Moghul period titled Fatāwā-i-‘ālamgīriyya. The idea that a woman can only marry a man of equal or higher status has been upheld as late as the twentieth century by scholars even of the eminence of Ashraf ‘Alī Thānawī (d. 1943). The marriage of a woman to a man of lower status can be annulled by the family’s request, or by a zī’s judgment.                             

Gaborieau calls for a frankness in studying the phenomenon of caste in Indian Muslim society. The Muslims who entered did not seem to be shocked by the institution of caste, and if they were not shocked by it, it must be that they were not unfamiliar with such arrangements themselves. Even writers such as Ansari who trace the caste inequalities in Indian Muslim society to Hindu influence, admit however that Islam was not egalitarian when it entered India.

       The ideal of equality among Muslims was practicable only in the then prevailing conditions of Arabia. In the course of the expansion of Islam and its contact with other complex cultures the democratic forms of political organization and social equality within the community gradually disappeared.34

    Ansari then traces the origin of caste to the “Indo-Iranian community”. He declares that though “Islam proclaimed the message of equality and universal brotherhood”, “the established and deep rooted institution of social segregation in Persia” eventually won out.

       Even the reputed Muslim scholars of Persia, like Nasīr-ud-Dīn at-Tūsī preached the division of society; his classification of society remained the same as it was during the Sasanian period. In his book, Akhlāq-i-Nasīrī (which was finished shortly before the fall of the Caliphate), at-Tūsī considers that each of the social classes should be kept in its proper place. A seventeenth-century work, Jāmi-i-Mufidi, again retains the same four-fold division of society, but it puts forward a slight change in giving precedence to warriors at the top and reducing the relative rank of priests to that of second in the hierarchy. In addition to these philosophers, the noted statesman of Persia, Nizam-ul-Mulk, in his Siyasat Nama, instructs his subordinates to maintain the people in their proper ranks.35                                                                                                    

The idea of social hierarchy, Ansari says, had already become part of Islamic society by the time it entered India in the twelfth century. Over the centuries attitudes only hardened, until at last even untouchability entered Islamic society. The plight of Muslim untouchables is described by Ansari in moving detail:

     A Bhangi, either Muslim or non-Muslim, is not permitted to enter a mosque no matter how clean he may be at the time. Although in theory a Muslim Bhangi or Chamar is allowed to offer his prayer[s] in a mosque, but in usual practice their entrance into such pious places as mosques and shrines of Muslim saints is socially disapproved and thus it is resisted. Even if they could get into a mosque or shrine, provided they have had a bath and are dressed in clean clothes, they do not usually proceed beyond the entrance steps. In contrast to the Hindu caste system, Muslim Bhangis are allowed to learn the Quran, but they are not expected to teach it.                                                                                            

It is a common practice observed in almost all the households of Ashrāf, Muslim Rajputs, and the clean occupational castes, that Bhangis, either Muslim or non-Muslim, are generally served food in their own containers. If they do not have their own bowls they are served in clay pots which are not again used to serve clean caste members. Bhangis are given water to drink in such a way that the jar does not touch even their lips.36                                                                                                                                         

However Ansari does not explain how caste structures in India can be attributed to Hindu influence alone, if Muslim society had also stratified into hierarchies, before Islam’s advent in India.                          

 Several such problems in the literature need explanation. Gaborieau again offers perspective:

     ... While we have good contemporary studies of Hindu untouchables, no work was done on Muslim untouchables during the colonial period. The absence of work on this key point deserves reflection. This refusal to consider the reality is understandable on the part of Muslim scholars; the problem of untouchability clashes against their ideological convictions on the ecumenical character of Islam. And what is more, any conversion even of untouchables involves burning political complications. On the part of western researchers, this omission is less excusable: I regard it as a manifestation of the prejudice according to which Muslim social order must necessarily obey a different logic than the Hindu social order, and also by the illusion of believing that the enumeration of castes is done from top down, whereas in reality it happens from the bottom up, starting from the untouchables.37        

 Gaborieau also explains that advent of Islam did not spell the demise of hierarchical structures in Indian society. The Muslims allowed the hierarchical structures to remain, and were not even shocked by it; not only that, they occupied the apex of the pyramid (in the form of the Ashraf castes), without otherwise undermining it.38                                                     

As an example from the 1921 census, we can look at the caste-wise break-up of the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities in the northwestern province of Punjab. It will be seen that the very lowest castes (Chamars (leather-workers) and Chuharas (scavengers/sweepers) did not convert to Islam at all.

Major Castes Common to Hindu/Muslim/Sikhs in Punjab (Census of India Punjab 1921, Part II, p. 132.)39

         Caste                                                        Religion

                                Hindu                    Muslim                   Sikh

         Jat                  10,35,405               25,82,495                18,22,881

         Rajput           4,49,251                 2,18,319                  32,579

         Gujjars          1,51,959                 4,65,676                  -

         Saini              66,359                    -                               52,888

         Kamboh        -                             76,829                     64,194

         Khatri            3,90,253                 -                               61,234

         Arora            5,91,230                 -                               1,16,175

         Sunar            77,251                    28,798                     -

         Tarkhan        1,61,833                 3,12,125                  1,39,327

         Kumhar         1,55,879                 3,83,952                  -

         Lohar            83,385                    2,17,459                  -

         Nai                 1,06,720                 2,18,319                  32,579

         Jhinwar         2,15,210                 36,720                     48,456

         Julaha           56,593                    5,79,404                  -

         Chamar         9,52,329                 -                               1,61,862

         Chuharas      6,89,662                 -                               40,345


Other difficulties with the “social liberation theory”


      The idea that the lower castes have preferentially converted to Islam as an escape from caste oppression has led to the overlooking or under-emphasis of many observed facts:                                                                             (i) If the lower castes had changed faith in order to seek relief from oppression, there would be no question of them continuing to honour their oppressors, the upper castes, after conversion. Yet there are several instances of the converted people continuing to be deferential to the upper castes, especially the Brahmans. As an example we may take the observation made by an early missionary in Bengal, during the first half of the nineteenth century. The missionary was informed by the headman of a Muslim village “that Muhammad was a Bengali, born in the house of a Brahmin.”40 The spiritual and social prestige of the Brahmans clearly persisted even after the conversion of the population to Islam.

   (ii) The existence of Hindu customs among the converts has been widely reported, as in the book Qanoon-e-Islam, by Jafar Sharif, written in the first half of the eighteenth century. The mention of the existence of several peculiarly Indian or Hindu customs prevalent among the Muslims of India is not in itself surprising, but sometimes it gives evidence of the continued attachment of the converted lower castes to the unconverted upper castes. As one example we may cite the case of the prevalence of astrology among Indian Muslims. Whereas upper Muslim castes used the services of a Muslim astrologer to cast horoscopes for marriage, the lower Muslim castes (like the Bhat, Dafali and Gujar) employed pandits for making horoscopes and also for prescribing auspicious days for ceremonies.41 

    (iii) Several high caste converts have continued not only to retain their pre-conversion privileges, but also to insist on it, and enforce it on the lower castes, whether the latter converted or not. Such is the case with the Muslim Meo Rajputs, as studied by Raymond Jamous. The Meos regard themselves as a high caste, and this claim is admitted by the rest of the society, which is partly Muslim. In Meo villages, some of the ‘service castes’ (kamin jati), low in status, consist of Muslims. Among them are barbers, washermen, bards and funeral priests or fakirs. Others like potters, jewelers and untouchable groups are Hindus. The high caste Meo maintain separate residential quarters and cemeteries from the lower caste Muslims. Here we see all the stereotyped arguments flounder against the facts: the most influential converts are upper-caste; the lower castes who have converted have not been raised in status; the very lowest castes, most susceptible to oppression, have not converted at all.42   


(iv) While the disabilities suffered by the so-called ‘lower castes’ among the Hindus is well-attested historically, the claim that their conversions always entailed an improved status in the new society they entered into, is a matter of conjecture. Sometimes it is contradicted by known historical facts, as in this excerpt from James Wise’s account of the Muslims of east Bengal:

      the Bediyas were outcaste Hindus thirty years ago [ca. 1850], but a Mulla now ministers to them, circumcision is practised, the Ramzan fast is kept up and the regular prayers offered up; but they cannot enter the public mosque or find a place in the public graveyard. From a social point of view they are still aliens with whom no gentleman will associate or eat. The treatment of the Chandal by the Sudra is in no respect more rigorous or harsh than that of the Bediyas by the upper ranks of Muhammadans.43

Caste as reflected in medieval chronicles


      It has been argued before that the medieval historical chronicles do not specifically focus on the problem of caste, since they are not the works of sociologists or ethnographers, and since their purpose is to report on historical events, and the deeds of the personages they are centred upon. Yet it is often possible to glean much information about the relative positions of the castes, and their reasons for participating in the often turbulent events in the manner that they did. To the extent that anything can be said about caste at all, the facts totally contradict the dominant theory of “social liberation”, as enunciated by Habib and Nizami.        In the early days of the Sultanate in Delhi, during the reign of Qutb al-dīn Mubārak Khaljī, a Hindu of the ‘low’ Parwārī caste named Khusrau Khan (presumably after conversion to Islam), rebelled against the king, deposed him and ascended the throne, to the joy of the Hindu masses, as recorded by  contemporary Muslim historians.44 The Parwārīs profited from a general revolt which spread to some members of the Hindu nobility as well. They reinstated the privileged position of the Brahmans, for the limited period they were in power. Interestingly, the poet Amir Khusrau confirms that the Hindu noblemen who rebelled against the king had Chandals and Meos among their retainers.45 Thus, to the extent that Amir Khusrau’s work can be regarded as historically sound, it actually supports the contention that the lowest castes were among those who opposed Muslim rule.                                                                                                              

 Foreign travelers visiting India in medieval times have left behind some observations, which do not support the contention that Indian Muslim society was immune to considerations of caste. Bernier’s remark bears this out: “No one marries but in his own trade or profession; and this custom is observed almost as rigidly by Mahometans as by the Gentiles… Many are the beautiful girls thus doomed to live singly, girls who might marry advantageously if their parents would connect them with a family less noble than their own.”46                                                                   

When the most enduring of Muslim empires in North India was finally challenged, caste considerations did play a role, but not one that the dominant theory of “social liberation” would suggest. During the Sikh rebellion, after the death of the tenth spiritual preceptor, Guru Gobind Singh Dev, the mantle of leadership fell upon Banda Bahadur, whose cause became a magnet not only for the Jat peasantry, but also for members of such lower castes and untouchable groups as scavengers and leather-workers.47

    The Sikh rebellion was a dramatic testimonial to severe disaffection in the provinces of north India. …The Muslim chroniclers all decry the ascendance of low-castes or even untouchable Hindus to positions of power (emphasis added).

                Earlier medieval historians writing in Persian do not seem to take account of the differences within Hindus society. The only caste to be mentioned specifically is that of the Brahmans, though they are mentioned in their capacity as religious leaders among the Hindus. Occasionally, however, the other castes are mentioned, but rarely in a favourable light, as in the case of “the proselytization programme of Shāh Walī-Allāh [which] only included the leaders of the Hindū community. The low class of infidels, according to him, were to be left alone to work in the fields and for paying jizya. They, like beats of burden and agricultural livestock, were to be kept in abject misery and despair.”48


Comparison of Caste Structures in Hindu Society and other societies


        Even scholars who admit that there are castes in Muslim society in India sometimes try to emphasize that it is somehow “different” from caste in Hindu society. Thus, for example, Lelyveld in his book Aligarh’s First Generation introduces the concept of sharīf Muslim. He argues that “it would be a mistake to define the ashrāf (people who are sharīf) in terms of birth”. But having said that, he immediately goes on to say:

      One usually acquired sharāfat by birth, however; if acquired in some other way, one’s identity was quickly redefined in the vocabulary of honorable descent, which implied new bonds of kinship.49

There is a reluctance to admit that castes in Muslim society also depend on birth, or are justified on grounds of birth/heredity. Similarly, the Bangladeshi sociologist A.K. Nazmul Karim claims that “although there were caste tendencies among the Bengali Muslims, those would never become rigid castes on the Hindu model, because of the greater fluidity of the Islamic system.” But elsewhere he himself admits that the ashrāf classes in Bengal “tried their utmost to maintain their caste-pride by practising a sort of endogamy among themselves and by abstaining from interdining or mixing on equal terms with the lower classes.”50 It was only after loss of power and privilege under British rule that they agreed to intermarry with the members of the rising Muslim middle class in order to maintain their standing in society.

    In some parts of Nadia, Jessore, Bakerganj, Dacca and Faridpur (these are all Districts in East Pakistan), lower classes would sometimes marry [in]to better class families on account of the prosperity of one and the poverty of the other. When these unequal or ghair kufv marriages take place, lower classes would assume such titles as Munshi, Mulla, Biswas, Jawardar, and are sometimes called Atraf Bhalamanus or ‘an Atraf made a gentleman’.”51

(Karim also traces the practice of permitting the marriages of women only to men only higher kufv (social status) to a Hadith of the Prophet. If this is indeed the case, it cannot be ascribed to Hindu influence.)52 


Thus, the breakdown of caste notions in Muslim communities is probably because of the small size of nuclear Muslim communities which had to abandon caste notions in order to survive. Such adaptation is shown by expatriate Hindu communities in Mauritius, Guyana or Trinidad53. But even within India, population groups outside their traditional homeland become more relaxed in their caste practices. This was noticed by Sir Denzil Ibbetson already in 1881:

     Isolation from their fellows in a land of strangers binds them together in closer union. The Púrbi is a Púrbi to the people of the Panjáb, and nothing more; and in many cases this looseness of classification spreads to the people themselves, and they begin to class themselves as Púrbi and forget their original divisions.54 

In order to make a fair comparison, Hindu societies in India should be compared to Muslim or other societies in their traditional homelands, and not to immigrant groups adapting to extenuating circumstances in other lands.


Caste in the Islamic World


    We have already seen from the examples of the Ashraf’s practices regarding marriage, or admittance to mystic brotherhoods, etc., the Ashraf also retained their own stereotypes and prejudices which cannot be traced solely to Hindu influence. But that is not the whole story. Even if the caste structure was largely a relic from the pre-Islamic past, new castes also sometimes came into existence. The Maratha Bugtis in Balochistan are an interesting case of what may be a caste forming even under Islamic rule. Theirs is a clan claiming descent from Marathas captives of war brought back by members of the Bugti tribe, who served the armies of Ahmad Shah Durrani (Abdali) after the fateful battle of Panipat.

       In time they underwent ‘Bugti-ization’and became Muslims. Although for all practical purposes they may now be considered Bugtis, and are even in the forefront in education and employment, they were once considered little better than bonded labour. They could not own or buy land. Up to two generations ago they could be ‘bought’ for twenty or thirty rupees. Their women were fair game for Bugtis.

      The Maratha Bugtis took jobs as unskilled labourers, which their tribal overlords disdained. Over the years they have come to occupy higher positions, and their prosperity is resented by the Bugtis.55 It is interesting to note that this caste-like phenomenon has endured for more than two centuries, even in a region largely devoid of Hindus.      

     The Maratha Bugtis were not alone in their position as a group living in the Islamic world, with their inferior position determined by heredity. To pick an example unrelated to the Indian subcontinent, we might consider the case of the Haratin56 or Harratin of southwestern Morocco and Mauritania who are “a socially and ethnically distinct class of workers”. They are descended from slaves, but are now serfs, “without the privileges of freedom”.                                                                     

 The facile practice of regarding all hierarchies in the Islamic world as a substratum from pre-Islamic societies does not stand up even to the slightest scrutiny. Hierarchies (in other words, castes) exist even in places like Yemen and the rest of the Arabian peninsula. Charles Lindholm suggests that even “a cursory reading of Middle Eastern ethnography” would reveal the existence of caste phenomena:

… the Marri Baluch are called a caste society by their ethnographer (Pehrson 1966). As among the Pathans, the Baluch clearly mark off the lower orders of serfs, gypsies, smiths and musicians, while the group leader is regarded with religious awe as a being apart and holy. In Persia, the agricultural peoples of Kirman are divided into named endogamous groups within the framework of what looks very much like the Hindu varna system of priest/warrior-clerk/farmer. Once again, there is a set of polluted castes (English 1966). A similar situation is found in South Yemen, where the Brahmin-like holy men outrank among mediate hierarchic endogamous groups, bounded at the lowest level by a set of despised ‘Untouchables’ with whom commensality is not permitted. The ethnographer (Bujra 1971) has no qualms about calling this a caste society.57

       A sociologist who studied social stratification in Iran in the twentieth century reported that in Kirman city there was a group ranked even lower than unskilled labourers, whose status is not only humble but defiling because of occupation or birth. Butchers, barbers, washers in public baths, leather tanners, privy cleaners, night soil collectors, and street scavengers are members of this lowest class. The Gypsies, for instance, are not allowed to touch food or water before use by other members of town society, despite the fact that they are Muslims, nor are they encouraged to settle in Kirman. Intermarriage with Gypsies or others of the defiled class is considered repugnant by elite and commoners alike. In some cases it is expressly forbidden.58                            

 As a perusal of the informative entry on “Bedouin” in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica59 reveals, Bedouin society in twentieth-century Arabia was also divided into various groups. While the nomads have been settled after the formation of the modern states, the societal hierarchical and patriarchal structure has been retained. The Bedouin tribes were classified on the basis of the species of animal on which they depended. Camel nomads were highest in prestige. They were spread on extensive territories in the Sahara, Syrian and Arabian deserts. Sheep- and goat-herding nomads, rank below, and live closer the cultivated zones in Jordan, Syria and Iraq. The noble tribes are proud of their ancestry, and are divided into “Qaysi” (northern Arabian) or “Yamani” groups. In addition to the noble elements, the Bedouin society also includes vassal tribes, which are “ancestorless” (i.e., tribes whose heredity is not prestigious). These groups are subservient to the noble tribes and include professional groups such as artisans, blacksmiths, entertainers, etc.                                                                                                                

Caste-like phenomena are attested in other regions of the Arabian peninsula, even among the sedentary populations. Paul Dresch has studied the situation in Yemeni tribal society at the beginning of the twentieth century60. He observes that two groups of people are widely regarded as not belonging to the tribe, but are still endowed with rights and obligations. The first of them is the Sayyids – a group claiming descent from the prophet, and the dīs. (The dīs are also a group defined by heredity. While elsewhere in the Islamic world the title dī refers to judges, in Yemen it only denotes a member of this class, whether judge or not. The dīs or mashaykh are also said to be descended from the Prophet Hud. The mashaykh do not enjoy as much prestige as the Sayyids.61) Below the tribesmen rank the ‘weak’ people (dua‘fā) (sing. da‘īf). Weak people have no prestige. They include people of various trades, some respectable and some not so respectable.

       Artisans and merchants in the traditional towns tend to be highly organized into castelike guild groups that are ranked largely according to the nature of their craft. In many areas those who ply so-called respectable trades are sharply differentiated from the bani khoms, or sons of the five, practitioners of the five despised trades of barber, bloodletter, butcher, bath attendant, and tanner. In the Hadramaut artisans who handle clay, such as masons and potters, also fall into the despised group, as do sweepers, fishermen, and some others, depending on locality. Poor farm laborers also occupy a low status, but it is higher than those of the despised crafts.

      The akhdam, in many areas the lowest group, are so isolated from society that they have been compared with the untouchables of India. Found especially along the Tihama coast and in southern Yemen (Sana) but also in the Hadramaut, they are often distinguished socially by their negroid appearance and often follow the despised trade of sweeper. The akhdam appear to be descendants of slaves, although not all former slaves occupy such degraded positions. Slavery existed in the territories of the Aden Protectorate until the 1930s and persisted in Yemen (Sana) until 1962.62

      It would thus seem that the practice of forming hierarchical structures is a phenomenon, quite widespread even outside India. In fact, not only hierarchies, but the specific practice of untouchability is attested in Burma and Japan. The idea of pollution by contact is attested in Qajar Iran, to cite but a single example.63 An exhaustive comparative study of all the different phenomena that are usually subsumed under the notion of caste is yet to be undertaken. Homo hierarchichus is not endemic only to India; Homo sapiens everywhere has mostly been Homo hierarchicus.                                                                                                 The exclusive identification of caste with Hinduism has caused the situation in Pakistan and in Indian Muslim society to be largely neglected. Several important facts have gone virtually unnoticed. Gaborieau points out that Syed Ahmad Khan, spearhead of Muslim thought in the Indian subcontinent in the last century, was an Ashraf working for the welfare of the Ashraf. He used to say that his Aligarh college was not for weavers. The Muslim League’s social program was copied off the Congress’ program, and made no radical improvements. The Congress however, has been labeled a baniya party, and that is how it has been portrayed to generations of Pakistani students. Land reforms in Pakistani Punjab (1959, 1972) have not been as successful as in Indian Punjab, and large landholders still have a disproportionate share of the land.64 A human rights commentator points out that Bhutto’s land reforms were ‘cosmetic’, because landowners had been previously warned to transfer their lands to their family members.65 This has not provoked the public outrage that it should have. The same commentator also points out that the ulama have not campaigned for the eradication of feudalism. Thus, even in the year 2002 the situation seems to be no different from that which obtained in the early forties, when the peasants of Punjab and especially of Sindh were

“under the spell of the pirs,” and “had imbibed the doctrine of taqdir (fate) from the constant preachings of the pirs”, … whose message was “He is low forever because God has made him so.””66

       The advent of Islam has not automatically ensured equality. Indeed, the example of former Prime Minister Bhutto shows that inequality continued to be rampant. Bhutto’s family owned, according to his own admission, hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Sindh and for generations.67 His ancestor Sheto had obtained tax exemptions and other benefits, including the title of khan, from Aurangzeb.68 Populists such as Bhutto have been able to get away with the rhetoric of musāwāt (equality)69, which he held out in his electoral promises, while doing nothing to promote social reform. It was left to the outspoken Dr. Ambedkar to point out that responsibility of fighting the iniquities of the caste system on the subcontinent devolve equally on Muslim and Hindu:

    The existence of these evils among the Muslims is distressing enough. But far more distressing is the fact that there is no organized movement of social reform among the Musalmans of India on a scale sufficient to bring about their eradication. The Hindus have their social evils. But there is this relieving feature about them – namely, that some of them are conscious of their existence and a few of them are actively agitating for their removal. The Muslims, on the other hand, do not realize that they are evils and consequently do not agitate for their removal.70          

The situation has changed much since the days when Dr. Ambedkar wrote these words. The battle against inequality on the subcontinent, however, is far from won. There is every indication that the battle will yet prove to be long and costly. As a very first step, it is hoped that intellectuals will rise up to examine the institution of caste, in all its manifestations, with an unbiased mind. The whole of Indian history of this past millennium, and that of the three modern nations India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, is awaiting reexamination.




1 This study is the result of a survey of scholarship. The author claims no originality, as the reader can see from the many quotes. A reexamination of the problems of the caste system has long been underway. The author’s intention here is merely to collect some basic information in one place, as background for some articles in the future. 

   The casual reader no less than the specialist will notice that the word caste is used throughout in a loose sense. Following Gerald Berreman (in Structure and Function of Caste Systems , in Japan’s Invisible Race: Caste in Culture and Personality, George de Vos and Hiroshi Wagatsuma (eds.), University of California Press, Berkeley, 1966) we have defined a caste system as

a hierarchy of groups in society, membership in which is determined by birth. We have not examined very minutely whether the principle governing caste relations are based, for instance, on notions of purity/pollution, or occupation. Problems such as a precise definition of ‘caste’, the question whether the Ashrāf are really a caste, or a comparison between notions of purity and pollution among Hindus and among other religious groups, will be discussed in future articles.

2 J.C. Heesterman, The Inner Conflict of Tradition The University of Chicago Press, 1985.

3 Caste in the Punjab, From the Census Report of the Punjab, 1881, by Sir Denzil Ibbetson, K.C.S.I.

4 Muslim Caste in Uttar Pradesh (A Study of Culture Contact), Ghaus Ansari, Lucknow, 1960, Page 66.

5 Ni brahmanes ni ancêtres: Colporteurs musulmans du Nepal , Marc Gaborieau

, Nanterre, Société d’ethnologie  (It must be pointed out that there have been several British scholars who did not take this view. Sir Denzil Ibbetson is one. Gaborieau ’s point is valid broadly speaking. )

6 The first major population census conducted by the British, in 1872, divided Indian society into four classes: Aborigines, Aryans, Mixed, and Muslims. The Hindus were explicitly divided into three different categories. In the next census (1881), Aborigines and those of mixed Aryan-aborigine descent were lumped together. This tended to emphasize divisions among Hindus, and ignore those in Muslim society. A common heading used in the official surveys and education reports was  “Caste if Hindu, otherwise religion.” (Aligarh’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India, David Lelyveld, Princeton University Press, 1978, p. 14).

7 See, for instance, Sir W.W. Hunter, “The Religions of India”, The Times, (London), February 25, 1888.

8 Dr. James Wise, “The Muhammadans of Eastern Bengal”, J.R.A.S.B , (Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1894), No. 1, p. 32.

9 State and Culture in Medieval India , K.A. Nizami, 1985, p. 36.

10 Introduction  to Elliott & Dowson’s History of India, Vol. II, (reprinted with Introduction by Professor M. Habib and Supplement by K.A. Nizami), Cosmopolitan Publishers, Aligarh, 1952, p. 32.

11 Introduction , op. cit., pp. 12-13.

12 Politics and Society During the Early Medieval Period: Collected Works of Professor Mohammad Habib, Vol. One, ed. K.A. Nizami, 1974, People’s Publishing House, p. 155.

13 Nizami repeats the same arguments in his later book Religion and Politics in India During the Thirteenth Century (2002), for example, in Chapters II, III and IV.

14 In addition to Ambedkar, the Bengali thinker Rezaul Karim has drawn attention to the plight of the Muslim depressed classes, and to the fact that “aristocratic” Muslims opposed the discussion of these underprivileged groups when it was raised in the Bengal Council by Moulvi Abdus Samad, M.L.C. (For India and Islam, Rezaul Karim, Chuckervertty, Chaterjee & Co., Ltd., 1937, p. 49).

15 Pakistan or The Partition of India , B. R. Ambedkar, Thacker & Co., Ltd., Bombay, pp. 218-219

16 Caste among the Muslims of Calcutta, M.K.A. Siddiqui, in Caste and Social Stratification among the Muslims, Imtiaz Ahmad (ed.) (see next footnote).

17 Caste and Social Stratification among the Muslims, Imtiaz Ahmad (ed.), Manohar, 1973

18 M.K.A. Siddiqui, in Caste and Social Stratification among the Muslims …

op.cit. , pp. 149-150.

19 Status and Power in a Muslim Dominated Village of Uttar Pradesh, Zarina Bhatty, in Caste and Social Stratification among the Muslimsop.cit.

20 ibid., p. 95.

21 Status Groups among the Moplahs on the South-west Coast of India, Victor S. D ’Souza, in Caste... op.cit., pp. 45-60.

22 Eaton, R.M., The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 , University of California Press, 1993, p. 117.

23 Gaborieau, op. cit., p. 266.

24 Gaborieau, op. cit., p. 378.

25 Quoted in Caste in India: Its Nature, Function, and Origins by J.H. Hutton, Oxford University press, 1963, p. 219.

26 In Pakistan many Christians from farming communities became landless after independence, and had to become sweepers by profession. This has caused them to be further stigmatized, indicating that dignity of labor is not yet widely upheld, even though the region is nearly devoid of Hindus. (Religious Minorities in Pakistan

, Dr. Iftikhar H. Malik, 2002, Minority Rights Group International, p. 12)

27 Gaborieau, op. cit., p. 370.

28 Gaborieau, op. cit., p. 383.

29 Gaborieau, op. cit., p. 378.

30 Gaborieau, op. cit., p. 354.

31 Marc Gaborieau, Les Ordres Mystiques dans le sous-continent indien: Un  point de vue ethnologique , p. 124, in Les Ordres Mystiques dans l’Islam: Cheminements

et situation actuelle, A. Popovic & G. Veinstein (eds.), Editions de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris.

32 Ni brahmanes ni ancêtres: Colporteurs musulmans du Nepal by Marc Gaborieau,

Nanterre, Société d ’ethnologie  p. 291, 356. Gaborieau also gives us the example of the Nizami clan, which manages the tomb of Nizâmu’d-Dîn Auliyâ’. This clan claims descent from and intermarries with high-born Sayyid. The clan has inherited the mystique and sanctity attached to the founder of the hospice. (Gaborieau, op. cit., p. 375). It appears that the phenomenon of Pirs and Pirzadas is caste-like, in that sanctity and prestige are inherited by birth. In Caste in India , J.H. Hutton gives the example of Pir Pagaro in Sindh, who is a “hereditary religious leader descended from a family which entered Sind with the Arabs in AD 711.”

33 Gaborieau, op. cit., p. 356.

34 Ansari, p. 28.

35 Ansari, p. 30.

36 Muslim Caste in Uttar Pradesh (A Study of Culture Contact ), Ghaus Ansari, Lucknow, 1960, Page 50.

37 Gaborieau, op. cit., p. 393.

38 Gaborieau, op. cit., p. 387, p. 415.

39 Tradition versus Modernity: A Study of the Failure of Muslim Peasant Leadership in Punjab, Raghuvendra Tanwar, Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, Vol. XL, July 1992, Part III, p. 284.

40 Wylie, M., Bengal as a Field of Missions, p. 318. Quoted in British Policy and the Muslims in Bengal 1757-1856, Azizur Rahman Mallick, Bangla Academy, Dacca, 1977 (Second Edition), p. 8.

41 Jafar Sharif is quoted by Blunt, in The Caste System, pp. 201-2, quoted in turn in Muslim Caste in Uttar Pradesh , Page 53, Footnote 1.

42 The Meo as a Rajput Caste and a Muslim Community, Raymond Jamous, (pp. 180-201), in Caste Today,  C.J. Fuller (ed.), Delhi, Oxford Unversity Press, 1996, p. 182.

43 Footnote 117, quoted in Conversion to Islam, Nehemia Levtzion (ed.), New York, London, 1979, p. 95.                                                                        

 44 Baranī, 412. Quoted in Studies In Islamic Culture In The Indian Environment ,Aziz Ahmad, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 95-96.

45 Tughluq Namah  of Amir Khusrau, Majlis-i-Makhtutat-i Farsi, 1933.

46  Travels in India , p. 259.

47  The Mughal Empire , John F. Richards, Cambridge University Press, 1993, Pp. 256-258.

48 Hujjat, I, p.257. Quoted in Shāh Walī-Allāh and His Times, Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, Ma’rifat Publishing House, Canberra, 1980.

49 Aligarh ’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India, David Lelyveld, Princeton, 1978, p. 29.

50 Changing Society in India and Pakistan: A Study in Social Change and Social Stratification, A.K. Nazmul Karim, Oxford University Press, Dacca, 1956, p. 142.

51 Maulvi Abdul Wali, “Ethnographical Notes on the Muhammedan Castes of Bengal”, Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay , Vol. VII, p. 108. (Quoted in Changing Society in India and Pakistan, op. cit., pp. 127-128.

52 Changing Society in India and Pakistan, op. cit., p. 118.

53 For the case of Trinidad, see for example, East Indians in the West Indies, Arthur and Juanita Niehoff, The Olsen Publishing Co., Milwaukee, 1960, page 98.

54 Punjab Castes, Sir Denzil Ibbetson, First Reprint (1974), pp. 11-12.

55 Marginality and Modernity: Ethnicity and Change in Post-Colonial Balochistan , Paul Titus, (ed) , Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1996, pp. 54-55.

56 “Haratin”  http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=40019

57 Charles Lindholm, Paradigms of Society: a critique of theories of caste among Indian Muslims, Archives Européennes de Sociologie, Vol. XXVI, 1985, Number 1, pp. 131-141. (The work of the ethnographer Bujra referred to can be found in The Politics Of Stratification, Abdalla S. Bujra, Oxford, 1971.)

58 City and Village in Iran: Settlement and Economy in the Kirman Basin, Paul Ward English, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1966, p. 78

59 The New Encyclopædia Brittanica, Volume 2, 15th Edition, 1985, Page 40.

60 Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen, Paul Dresch, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989, p. 117.

61 Area Handbook For The Yemens, Richard F. Nyrop, et al., 1977, p. 74.

62 Area Handbook For The Yemens, Richard F. Nyrop, et al., 1977, p. 77.

63 Iran and the Muslim World: Resistance and Revolution, Nikki R. Keddie, Macmillan Press Ltd, 1995, p. 147.

64 Pakistan: Nationalism without a Nation?, Christophe Jaffrelot (ed.), Manohar, New Delhi, 2002, pp. 59-60.

65 Religious Minorities in Pakistan, Dr. Iftikhar H. Malik, 2002, Minority Rights Group International, p. 7.

66 Politics in Pakistan: The Nature and Direction of Change, Khalid B. Sayeed, Praeger Special Studies, 1980, p. 7

67 Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, A South Asian View (Washington, D.C..: Embassy of Pakistan, n.d.), p. iv, quoted in Political Leadership and Institution-building Under Jinnah, Ayub, and Bhutto, by Khalid B. Sayeed, in Pakistan: The Long View, Edited by Lawrence Ziring, Ralpha Braibanti and W. Howard Wiggins.

68 Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan: His Life and Times, Stanley Wolpert, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 3-4.

69 Political Leadership and Institution-building Under Jinnah, Ayub, and Bhutto, by Khalid B. Sayeed, in Pakistan: The Long View, Edited by Lawrence Ziring, Ralpha Braibanti and W. Howard Wiggins, p. 259.

70 Pakistan or The Partition of India, B. R. Ambedkar, Thacker & Co., Ltd., Bombay, p. 223.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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