Why Muslim rulers and ulema didn’t confront the caste issue

Muslim rulers and ulema couldn’t have confronted the caste inequality since Islam as a religion of equality is as much a new narrative as it being a religion of peace. Historically it’s been about supremacy and conquest

Ibn Khaldun Bharati January 26, 2023 17:44:03 IST
Why Muslim rulers and ulema didn’t confront the caste issue

Caste system exists in the Muslim society as much as it does in the Hindu society. AFP

“The unfortunate impression throughout the world (has been) that while the Hindus were grovelling in the mud of these social evils and were conservative, the Muslims in India were free from them, and as compared to the Hindus were a progressive people. That such an impression should prevail, is of course surprising to those who know the Muslim Society in India at close quarters.” Thus spake Ambedkar in “Pakistan or the Partition of India”, an inconvenient book for the official secularists, but no less revealing than the canonical Annihilation of Caste.

Therefore, it’s surprising when an Ambedkarite like Kancha Ilaiah Shephard wonders: Why Didn’t India’s Muslim Rulers and Thinkers Confront the Inequities of the Caste System?

One may ask, could they? If yes, why? The default answer would be — because they were Muslims. The presumption being that Islam, supposedly the religion of equality, should have inspired its followers to remove social inequalities and establish an egalitarian system. Understandably, Kancha Ilaiah is disappointed in Muslim rulers and thinkers for not living upto the Islamic ideal, or what he imagines it to be.

Caste is considered essential to Hinduism since the fourfold division of society, the Varna system, is traced to the Purusha Sukta hymn of Rig Veda. But, the Varna is theoretical. The real, functional division of society into myriad castes (jati) has no scriptural basis. Yet caste has come to be regarded as synonymous with the Hindu society.

On the other hand, the Muslim community, though as caste-ridden as the Hindu, is imagined egalitarian. The caste stratification of the Muslim society is ignored, in both academic and socio-political discourses, since it is not derived from the scriptural authority of Islam. Caste being Indian, and Islamic scriptures being Arabian, couldn’t reflect each other. But to ignore a reality because it has no explicit sanction in the community’s holy book, could only be ideological in motivation. It can’t be said to be an empirically validated proposition.

In the book mentioned in supra, Ambedkar adds, “Take the caste system. Islam speaks of brotherhood. Everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste. Regarding slavery nothing needs to be said. It stands abolished now by law. But while it existed much of its support was derived from Islam. If slavery has gone, caste has remained.”

Having made this point Ambedkar proceeds to quote from the Census report to show the division of Muslim society between two broad categories — Ashrāf and Ajlāf.

“Ashrāf 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. 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.”

Like all people, Muslims too have an ideal view of their religion and society, but an egalitarian utopia hasn’t been a part of it. Such an ideal view of Islam and Muslim society has been a creation of the early 20th century. It was conceived by those who dreamt of a classless society. These radical leftist intellectuals from high castes, keen as they were on addressing the caste inequalities in Hindu society, needed a handy reference for comparison and contrast. Thus, the textual idealism of Islam was set up against the real situation of the Hindu society. The Muslims were too happy to internalise this flattering image of them without having done anything to deserve it.

One of the reasons for the lack of reform initiatives in Muslim society has been the ideological denial of their existential reality. Caste is one such. But then, they have been goaded into this denial by the textual-ideal view of Islamic egalitarianism which so fascinated the left-liberal intellectuals that they didn’t care to check if the textual idealism had any reflection in contextual reality.

MN Roy, the founder of the Communist Party of India, played a pioneering role in popularising Islam as a doctrine of justice and equality. In his book, The Historical Role of Islam, after presenting a glowing account of the Muslim rule in India, he uncritically quotes from orientalist EB Havell’s The History of Aryan Rule in India, “Those who did so (embraced Islam) acquired all the rights of a Mussalman citizen in the law courts, where the Quran and not Aryan law and custom decided dispute in all cases. This method of proselytism was very effective among the lower castes of Hindus, especially among those who suffered from the severity of Brahmanical law with regard to the ‘impure’ classes.” Elaborating this thesis on conversion, Roy adds, “If the sociological programme of Islam found support of the Indian masses, it was because the philosophy behind that programme was better than the Hindu philosophy, which had been responsible for the social chaos from which Islam showed a way out for the masses of the Indian people.” It should be interesting to juxtapose Roy’s views with historical evidence.

The Muslims came to India as invaders and stayed here as conquerors. They established their rule on the twin foundations of racial and religious superiority. Though the two complimented each other, race was the mainstay of supremacy while religion provided its ideological framework. The change of religion didn’t entitle one to power and position or social mobility as the converts to Islam were soon to learn.

Ziauddin Barani, the preeminent historian of the Sultanate period, approvingly cites several instances of racial discrimination against Indian Muslims in his book Tarikh-e Firoz Shahi. He relates how, Nizam ul Mulk Junaidi, one of the high courtiers of Sultan Iltutmish, was dismissed from service when it was discovered that his grandfather had been a Julaha, that is, of the weaver caste. The same book attributes these words to Sultan Balban, “I know that God has blessed me with one characteristic, and that is that I simply cannot tolerate a low-born razil occupying any respectable position, and whenever I see such people my blood begins to boil. I cannot employ the son of a low-born or incapable person in the administration of my kingdom, which has been given to me by God. I cannot grant him any service or land grant.”

In his book on statecraft, Fatawa-e Jahandari, Barani provided a better religious rationale for social hierarchy than Manu Smriti ever could. He says, “When the All-Powerful God produces some good or bad in a human being, He gives him the capacity needed to express that particular good or bad quality. This capacity is hereditary, and because goodness is given to those who adopt good professions, they have been called as of high status, free-born, pious, religious, and of superior lineage. Only such people and groups deserve posts and positions in the government of the Muslims. One should not be deceived by the low-born, for their merits are false, not genuine.”

With an interpretive sleight of hand, he brings in the Quran to corroborate his contention. From verse 49:13, “Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you”, he infers the supremacy of his caste-class-race in the following words, “Sacredness is the right of the ashrāf. Hence, if any person is pious it must certainly be that he has ashrāf elements in his ancestry. But if it is proven that he is low-born then his holiness is only a show. If in the eyes of God Qasais, Julahas and the sons of shopkeepers have greater respect, it is truly a matter of shame.” Therefore, he adds, “The ruler must keep low-born Muslims away from education. If anyone dares to give them an education he must be punished. And not just that, such a person must be sent into exile.”

Barani’s exposition, mutatis mutandis, could be said to be the template for the social basis of the centuries-long Muslim rule in India. The high borns were the foreign conquerors and the low borns the vanquished Indians. The ruling class had to be foreign. Throughout the Muslim rule, till about the mid-18th century, about three-quarters of the upper ruling class continued to be of foreign origin. So much so that the families of the founders of the succession states were recent arrivals.

The Muslims had conquered India for their own sake. They hadn’t taken the trouble for the betterment of Indians, more particularly for freeing the masses from the ‘tyranny’ of caste. They found an elaborate system of hierarchy and placed themselves at the top of it. If anything, they exacerbated the evils of caste by adding an element of racism to it.

Therefore, the view popularised by intellectuals like M. N. Roy that conversion to Islam happened mainly because people from lower castes wanted to escape the oppressive caste system needs to be revisited.

The conversion did happen for various reasons ranging from conviction, coercion, temptation and persuasion. But there is scant evidence to show that lower castes embraced Islam to be free from the Hindu caste system. Instead, there is plausible ground to surmise that the backbreaking extortion of Jizya might have played a considerable role in it.

If for argument’s sake, one were to accept that conversions were an escape from caste discrimination, the question arises, what happened to those who converted? Did anything change for them — their caste, their social position, their occupation, and the stigma attached to that? With whom did they become equal — the Muslim ruling class or the Hindu upper castes? The answer is, none. They remained in the same social position as they had been, with the same discrimination as they earlier suffered. Had it not been so, there wouldn’t be any Muslim low caste today.

While attributing conversions to the caste oppression, one must also consider why the majority of Hindus, mostly lower castes, didn’t convert to Islam. The reason was, well, caste. Before religious or national identities were created, caste was one’s main identity. Caste honour had to be protected at all costs, and no bigger calamity could befall one than the loss of caste as a result of transgressing the caste code. Every caste had its own pride and didn’t really see itself as inferior to others. Therefore, it was next to impossible for an individual to convert to another religion, and defect from the caste. Sometimes, groups converted if caste and its concomitants — identity, honour, occupation and endogamy — could be preserved. They converted and retained their caste.

Islam has no problem with caste.

In the long history of Islam in India, there has never been a fatwa or a theological argument against it. Instead, the Islamic scholars developed the concept of Kufu, a matrix of socio-economic compatibility in which caste had the central place. The ulema targeted the Hindu religion — its pantheistic conception, polytheistic expression, idol worship and pagan rituals, but they never criticised the caste system.

In any case, for criticism of caste, the Hindus were self-sufficient. The Bhakti movement, which preceded the Sufi movement by a few centuries, did address caste and threw up saints like Kabir, Ravidas and Tukaram. The Sufis did not address caste, and had no such leading lights from low castes.

The fact is that Muslim high castes treated the low castes, both Hindu and Muslim, in the same manner as the Hindu high castes did. If some castes were treated untouchable by Hindu high castes, so were they by Muslim high castes. In the vast amount of Islamic literature produced in India, there is not a word against the caste system. Islam was not invoked to judge it because it was not considered wrong from the Islamic point of view. One wonders what would be the ruling if a fatwa were sought regarding caste even today.

The vast masses of the low caste Muslims who constitute about 80 per cent of the Muslim community today, were not even considered a part of the community till about a century ago. The poet Allama Iqbal taunted his Muslim audience for not being good Muslims in these words: Yuń to Syed bhi ho, Mirza bhi ho, Afghan bhi ho; Tum sabhi kuchh ho, batao to Musalman bhi ho (यूँ तो सैयद भी हो, मिर्ज़ा भी हो, अफ़ग़ान भी हो; तुम सभी कुछ हो, बताओ तो मुसलमान भी हो). The taunt would lose its sting if the names of the Muslim high castes were to be substituted with low castes’.

The low-caste Muslims became the Muslim community only in the late 19th century when the census determined their identity, and the expanding franchise brought them into the electoral fold and made them a part of a religiopolitical community. Before that, the ashrāf called them by the appellation, Hinduan-e Kalima-Go, that is, the Hindus who recited the Kalima, the Muslim profession of faith.

Kancha Ilaiah Shephard should know that if Muslim rulers and ulema didn’t confront the inequities of caste, it was because Islam as a religion of equality is as much a recent narrative as Islam as a religion of peace.

Ibn Khaldun Bharati is the pen name of a student of Islam who looks at Islamic history from an Indian perspective. He tweets at @IbnKhaldunIndic

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