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Social Stratification Among
Muslims In India

By Salil Kader

15 June, 2004

Islam entered India almost immediately after its birth in the 7th century A.D and made its way into different parts of the country. In the south it entered through the present day state of Kerala situated on the Malabar Coast (1) in South India (Bahauddin, 1992: 18). Its carriers were the Arab traders who had been involved in trade activities with India even before the times of Prophet Muhammad (praise be upon him). During their numerous voyages to the Malabar region, the Arab traders established matrimonial relationships with the local women and had many progeny from these marriages. This resulted in the spread of Islam to different parts of the region. Many Sufi saints accompanied these traders and under the influence of their preaching and the attraction of an egalitarian faith many local people, mainly from lower classes, converted to Islam (Kurup, 1991: 80). A major factor to be borne in mind here is that Islam's first step on Indian soil was not, as many would like to believe, riding on the wave of the sword. In the North, Islam came along with the invasion of Muhammad bin Qasim, a general of Yusuf bin Hajjaj, the governor of Iraq during the Umayyad period. (Lal, 1984: 12-17). This was followed by the many invasions of Muhammad Ghori and Mahmud Ghazni, both interested merely in the enormous wealth and riches that India offered. The two were never interested in occupying and ruling the land of India. Their main focus was to plunder, pillage and transfer as much wealth as possible to their respective capitals since this was crucial for them to maintain their large armed forces and entourage used in their frequent military campaigns.

The history of Islam in India is well over a thousand years old today. It has blended beautifully into the background of its adopted land and contributed immensely to the formation of a composite Indian culture and the building of the Indian nation. But this Islam and its practitioners are not a homogeneous entity as is widely believed. In fact there is a great deal of diversity in the manner in which Islam is practiced and perceived throughout India. This is hardly surprising considering the facts that Islam in India is almost as old as the faith itself and that its followers in different regions of the country represent a myriad of cultures. In this process of adapting to the variety of cultural milieus, Islam has acquired many hues and should not be considered as a monolithic entity. Nevertheless, Muslims in India have responded well to the challenges of living as a minority in a religiously plural society. But this process of assimilation into the Indian society has not been an easy one and the challenges that Muslims of India face today continue to exist with the constantly shifting national and international state of affairs.

Social Stratification as Internal Challenge:

For purposes of better understanding, the challenges that confront the community today can be categorised into external and internal challenges. The external challenges are those, which emanate from factors that exist outside the community. The most important among these factors would undoubtedly be the Muslims of India being constantly viewed as 'fifth-columnists' harbouring 'extra-territorial loyalties' and a 'pro-Pakistan sentiment.' Despite having contributed to just about every sphere of life - be it sports, politics, movies and music, fine arts or literature - Muslims are still questioned about their role in the growth and development of India. The accusations of perfidy and disloyalty against the Muslims originate largely from the constituents of the Sangh Parivar like Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party. These allegations need to be rebutted by the community, unitedly and in a systematic, logical manner. However, that could be the subject matter for another essay. This article intends to deal with an internal challenge that threatens to debilitate the community be striking at its very roots. The threat being referred to here is the caste-based discrimination practised by certain sections of Muslims in India.

The Holy Quran says,
"O mankind! We (God) created you from a single pair of male and a female; and made you into peoples and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous among you…
(The Holy Quran, Surah al-Hujuraat, verse 13)

This verse makes it quite clear that though Islam accepts differentiation based on gender and tribe, it does not recognise social stratification. But in reality, the Muslim community remains diversified, fragmented and as caste-ridden as any other community of India (Alam, 2003: 4881). In fact the levels of stratification witnessed within the Muslim community of India totally negate this Quranic edict. Imtiaz Ahmad's seminal work, Caste and Social Stratification Among Muslims in India (1973) and more recently, Ali Anwar's Masawat ki jung: Pasemanzar Bihar ka Pasmanda Musalman (2001) in Hindi have convincingly demonstrated the reality of caste among Indian Muslims. However, it should be acknowledged that this discriminatory practice among Muslims, observed more in North India than South India, is not as much pronounced, oppressive and widespread as amongst the Hindus. But that is hardly comforting. The fact that discrimination based on caste lines exists within the Muslim community of India is cause enough for consternation.

Most Indian Muslims are descendants of 'untouchable' and 'low' caste converts, with only a small minority tracing their origins to Arab, Iranian and Central Asian settlers (Sikand, 2003). Muslims who claim foreign descent assert a superior status for themselves as ashraf or 'noble'. Descendants of indigenous converts are, on the other hand, commonly referred to contemptuously as ajlaf or 'base' or 'lowly' (Zainuddin, 2003). Going by this classification, an overwhelming 75% of Muslim population of India would fall into the ajlaf category (Anwar, 2001). But conversion to the egalitarian faith of Islam has not helped their cause. The ajlaf continue to be discriminated against by the Muslim upper caste (Sahay, 2003).(2) The ill treatment meted out to the lower and backward caste Muslims has led to a movement for recognition of the lower caste Muslims or 'Dalit Muslims' as Scheduled Castes, on par with the lower castes in the Hindu society (Sikand, 2003). The leaders of this movement have demanded reservations for 'Dalit Muslims' based on the concept of positive discrimination enshrined in Article 341 of the Indian Constitution, which authorises the President to declare certain castes as Scheduled Castes for special benefits (Diwan, 1979: 370). At the same time, one of the leaders of this movement Dr.Ejaz Ali, rather curiously, protested the denial of burial rights to lower caste Muslims in Bihar by stating that it was 'against the basic tenets of Islam' and that there was 'no basis of caste in Islam' (Sahay, 2003). There is a slight contradiction here. If Dr.Ejaz Ali accepts the Islamic teaching that there is no basis for caste in Islam, on what grounds then does he talk about a 'lower caste' Muslim and consequently, reservations for them?

While there is no denying the fact that the despicable custom of discrimination on the basis of a person's birth is prevalent in the Muslims of India, demanding a separate identity and other benefits based on caste is no panacea for this iniquity. This move is fraught with great danger. It will only end up providing another dimension to the already existing divisions within the community. Aren't schisms based on Shi'a-Sunni, Deobandi, Barelwi, Ahl-i-Hadith, Jamaat-i-Islami etc., enough that we are now seeking to create categories like 'dalit Muslim' and 'forward caste Muslim'? Matters have reached a position where an organisation called the All India United Muslim Morcha led by Dr.Ejaz Ali has gone ahead and proposed a unique 'give-and-take' formula for securing job reservations for Muslims while at the same time solving the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid tangle. Dr.Ali has proffered the handing over of the disputed land at Ayodhya to Hindus in return for removing religious restrictions from Article 341 of the Indian Constitution to include dalit Muslims in the scheduled caste category! It is a fact that all Muslims are looking for a lasting and peaceful solution for the Ayodhya problem, but this kind of 'bargaining' does nothing more than reflect the unreservedly myopic view that Dr.Ali and his supporters have with regard to the issue. From where does Dr.Ali derive the legitimacy of bartering away the sentiments of 130 million Muslims? What if after this 'deal' the VHP demands Mathura and Kashi?

A duplication of the social stratification based on caste being practised by the Hindu community of India, is the last thing that the Muslims of India need. History has great lessons for us. The V.P.Singh government implemented the proposals of the Mandal Commission, which recommended reservations in government jobs and educational institutions based on caste. This was followed by large-scale pro and anti-Mandal demonstrations all over the country, largely involving the student community. While the reservations provided succour to many belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, it also sharpened the already existing divide between the caste Hindus and dalits This was so because many persons belonging to upper castes, who could qualify only based on merit, felt that the reservations had further reduced their chances of securing jobs or seats in educational institutions.(3) The animosity, fuelled by centuries of discrimination faced by dalits and the recent reservation policy where the caste Hindus felt short-changed, is quite visible even to the undiscerning eye.

Now lets look at a hypothetical situation where the reservation system is replicated within the Muslim community of India. To begin with castes that deserve to be categorised as 'dalit Muslims' need to be identified. This process, in my opinion, would present a scenario where a set of Muslims, especially those coming from south India would either say that they are not 'dalit Muslims' or would express their inability to identify the caste they belong to for the simple reason that they don't have a caste. A few other perplexing situations would be thrown up. How would, for example, a Muslim from Kerala with no caste, react to his fellow 'dalit Muslim' from Bihar getting a job based on his caste? It would be nothing short of a shock for the Malayalee Muslim who shares his reverence for Allah, his Friday namaz, and belief in Islamic tenets with the Bihari Muslim but still finds that he is different from him (the Bihari Muslim) because he doesn't have a 'caste' - something which has no religious sanction at all! But most importantly, it would become the cause of much heartburn for those 'casteless' and so-called 'non-dalit' sections of the Muslim community, who would be ineligible to use the benefits of the reservation policy, as they do not meet the caste criteria laid down to avail this privilege. Assuming that caste based reservation is extended to Muslims too, it is bound to cause further fragmentation within the community.


The bitter truth that the community needs to square up to is that caste stratification, howsoever blasphemous, is a reality of the Muslim society in India. This obnoxious practice cannot be wished away. The community has to set its face against it and the only way to fight this inhuman practice is direct action - a jihad against anyone practising, promoting or legitimising caste-based stratification. It is here that organisations like the Jamaat-i-'Ulama, Jamaat-i-Islami and the Tablighi Jamaat are required to intervene and undertake awareness programmes aimed at breaking through not just the primitive mindsets but also the social barriers created in the name of caste. The 'ulama and madaris have to play their part in enlightening the Muslim masses about the 'un-Islamicness' of caste system being practised by them. Theirs is the voice most keenly heard in areas where this practice exists in reality. The dichotomy between the extreme egalitarianism advocated by the Holy Quran and its practice by Muslims of India needs to be emphasised. Moreover, this state of affairs is not only un-Islamic but also detrimental to the prosperity and security of the Muslim community in India. These fears are very real. Under these circumstances, the response of the Muslim community of India to this test should be one that reflects its maturity and age; a response that exhibits the collective wisdom of the community and the noble teachings of the Holy Quran and the Prophet (pbuh).

A common refrain heard from many quarters of the Muslim community in India is: 'Islam khatre mein hai' (Islam is in danger). Amazingly the danger to Islam is more from its followers than its detractors. Muslims who have strayed from the path of Islam and failed to comprehend its essence are proving to be the real threat to Islam. The Muslims of India have gained the dubious distinction of sustaining a highly prejudiced and devious system of social stratification, which is nowhere to be found in the rest of the Muslim world. The community would do itself a great favour by purging this evil from within its character.

1. The region called Malabar, also the south-west coast in Kerala, is an Indianised form of ma'bar which in Arabic means passage. Since the Arab traders passed through that region often, it came to be known by that name.

2. The reported incidents of backward or lower caste Muslims being denied entry for burial in graveyards by the upper caste Muslims forcing the lower caste Muslims to bury their dead outside the graveyard!

3. Interestingly it is not just caste Hindus who feel affected by the reservation policy. There is no separate criteria within the reservation system to treat Christians and Muslims who do not have castes. The fact that a lot of Christians and Muslims come from extremely poor backgrounds, sometimes even lower than dalits, does nothing to change their fortunes. They have to compete in the 'open category.' It is in situations like these that a review (perhaps at the risk of starting a civil war in the country) of the caste based reservation policy becomes imperative; a reservation based on economic criteria seems a more just solution.

Ahmad, Imtiaz (ed) (1973). Caste and Social Stratification among the Muslims. Delhi. Manohar
Alam, Anwar (2003). Democratisation of Indian Muslims. Economic and Political Weekly, XXXVIII (46) November 15.
Anwar, Ali (2001) Masawat ki Jung: Pasemanzar: Bihar ka Pasmanda Musalman (in Hindi). New Delhi. Vani Prakashan.
Bahauddin, K.M. (1992) Kerala Muslims - the long struggle. Kottyam. Sahitya Pravarthaka Co-op society.
Diwan, Paras (1979) Constitution of India. New Delhi. Sterling Publishers.
Kurup, K.K.N. (1991) The Sufis and religious harmony in Kerala. in A.A.Engineer (ed) Sufism and Communal Harmony. Jaipur. Printwell
Lal, K.S. (1984). Early Muslims in India. New Delhi. Books and Books.
Sahay, Anand Mohan (2003, March 6). Backward Muslims protest denial of burial. News report in Retrieved on October 30 2003, from
Sikand, Yoginder (2003). The 'Dalit-Muslims' and the All India Backward Muslim Morcha. Qalandar, September. Retrieved November 12 2003, from

Salil Kader is Doctoral Researcher, Department of History,University of Hyderabad. He can be contacted at