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Debunking Myths

Do Muslims have Caste?
By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj

Caste is known as ‘biradari’ among Muslims in India.

Whether we like it or not, biradries came into existence due to conversion of certain Hindu castes to Islam in medieval ages.

Ideally Islam does not support any distinctions and discrimination among people. Race, colour, language and origin should not matter in a Muslim society. Historically, no system of classification has received religious legitimacy in Muslim society. Egalitarian thrust of Islam is often cited in support of rejecting caste or casteism. But far from this ideal position, the Muslim society has always harboured shades of social hierarchy. Notions of certain holiness or lowliness of sections of people due to their education, occupation, social status have been prevalent all through the history. If not caste, Muslims do have caste like features.

Caste has certain distinctive characteristics e.g., 1- being pure or impure by  birth, 2-hierarchy (ascending order of holiness and descending order of lowliness), 3-endogamy (marrying within confines of a social group), 4-untouchability (prohibition on social intercourse), 5-specified occupations etc.

Muslims, of course, did not practice untouchability or forced segregation of certain sections which placed them in terrible disadvantage. But they do show divisions on the basis of sect, being high and low, endogamy, and occupations etc.  Caste is therefore known as ‘biradari’ among Muslims in India. Whether we like it or not, biradries came into existence due to conversion of certain Hindu castes to Islam in medieval ages. For example, chapparband, chik, phulera, kunjra, rayin, julaha, dhunia, vanjara, gaddi, gujjar, laddaf, madari, mali, badhai, bhatiyara, dhobi, mochi, rangrez, teli, ghanchi, kalaigar or sikkalgar, dafali, takara, etc were communities transferred to Islam.

Origin too mattered in determination of social strata among Muslims. Generally, Sheikh, Syed, Mughal and Pathan are categorized as upper caste Muslims in the Indo-Gangetic basin. They are considered of foreign origin. Such identification extends to even communities in peninsular India. For instance, among Konkan Muslims, the descendants of Arabs are known as Jamaatis while the converts from local Hindu folk (e.g., Mahigirs or Daldis) are deemed to be lower in social order. @

The Mandal Commission report 1980 which listed 3,743 groups of socially and educationally backward castes included several such groups from religious minorities which were excluded from Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) category.& Several states have included a host of Muslim communities into reservation category.  So it cannot be said that Muslims are a seamless community.  They do have classification. It owes itself to birth ascribed social hierarchical divisions with occupational immobility restricting them to ancestral arts, crafts and manual work enjoying low esteem, causing cultural deprivation of the bulk of Muslims of indigenous origin.* The social and occupational divide is more prominent among North Indian Muslims where castes are broadly classed under Ashraf, Ajlaf, and Arzal groups. In South India they are more in the nature of class which is based on economic status. And it is in three South Indian states of Karnataka, and Kerala that Muslims have been given exclusive reservation under the overall Backward Class reservation while in Tamil Nadu, Muslims as a whole have been included in the MBC category.

There are three arguments on reservation for Muslims:

The Hindu right says since Islam is based on equality, hence Muslims should not be accorded reservation. Indeed, it is a back-handed complement to Islam or Muslims from quarters overtly inimical to them. Second it bases itself on the fear that reservation for Muslims would revive separatism among them, an apprehension borne out of the separate communal electorate of pre-1947 India. Both are purely advanced for denial of a privilege which Muslims deserve due to their poverty and low social status. First should be countered with the fact that caste like features are found among Muslims and social biradries and economic class are fact of life.  Second, separatism breeds on territorial basis and it is absent with context to Muslims as they exhibit uneven spatial dispersal.

But a section of Muslims themselves is genuinely anxious of social divisions among Muslims becoming prominent in the event of reservation being accorded on the basis of caste. Such anxieties are invalid. The socially depressed Muslim biradries, far from separating from Muslim mainstream, seek their identification with the ummah with names such as Idrissi (for darzi), Quraishis (after Prophet’s clan),  Sulaymanis (for ironsmiths), Mumins (for weavers or Julahas) etc.

Evidently, caste may be alien to Islam, but caste or biradries are a reality that cannot be wished away. Though caste does not exist in it rabid form, the Muslim community is clearly stratified into several groups which seek social prestige or position in conformity with their origin or occupation. More than anybody else, Muslims should primarily target debunking such myths the absence of which has often pushed them into indulge in fantasies.

Notes and References

* Harjinder Singh, Caste among Non-Hindus in India, 1977

+ Even in Karnataka where Muslims were accorded four per cent reservation in Government jobs and educational places, Muslims belonging to 33 caste groups were placed under group I category along with some groups of Hindus.

& The Mandal Commission which went into the social and educational backwardness of the the communities, declared over 80 Muslims groups to be backward and thus categorized half of the Muslim population as backward. According to the data used, Muslims constituted a little over 8% of the 27% OBC population; backward caste Muslims were over half of the total Muslim population of 11.2%; and those specified as backward included groups such as weavers, oil crushers, carpenters and dhobis. In a major policy shift the Mandal Commission made provisions for reservations for these groups. Various states were directed to implement these provisions with the proportion of reserved positions that would go to them left to state governments to decide. (Ref. : Zoya Hasan, Reservation for Muslims,

@ Omar Khalidi, Konkani Muslims: An Introduction,

(The writer can be reached at

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