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Caste division among Muslims In India.

Vinod Kumar



Taken from chapter "Social stratification among Muslims in India"  by Zarina

Bhatty from the book "Caste -- its twentieth century avatar" by M N Srinivas,

Viking, New Delhi, 1996, pp 249 - 253. Muslims in India are sharply divided into two categories, Ashrafs

and non-Ashrafs. The former have a superior status derived from

their foreign ancestry. The Ashrafs, or those who claim a foreign

descent, are further divided into four castes, Sayyads, Shiekhs,

Mughals and Pathans, in that order of rank. The non-Ashrafs are

alleged to be converts from Hinduism, and are therefore drawn from

the indigenous population. They, in turn, are divided into a number

of occupational castes.

In Kasauli the term 'zat' equivalent to 'jati' in the Hindu caste

system, is used to refer to caste, and the Ashrafs and non-Ashrafs

are collectively referred to as 'oonchi zat' (high caste) and 'neechi

zat' (low caste) respectively. Interactions between the oonchi zat

and neechi zat are regulated by established patron-client relationships

ofthejajmani system. The patrons, who belong to the oonchi zat,

are referred to as thejajmanis, and the clients, comprising the various

occupational castes of the neechi zat, as kamin. The kamins, who

are attached to the dominant Ashraf lineage in a hereditary

relationship, provide specialized services to its members for

customary payments in cash or kind. The kamins are provided house

sites by their jajmans and can also get land on lease from thejajmans

for cultivation.

Like the Ashraf castes, which are ranked hierachically, the non-

Ashraf castes also relate to each other in a hierarchical manner. In

their case the superiority or inferiority of a caste is determined by

the relatively pure or impure nature of the occupation associated

with each. The dominant lineage of the Kidwais enjoys a uniformly

superior status to all the non-Ashraf castes. The Kidwais claim to

be Sayyads but the other Ashraf castes of Kasauli doubt the

authenticity of their claim, and believe that Kidwais are a sub-caste

of Sheikhs. The Kidwais' claim to Sayyad ancestry is however not

openly challenged because of their economic superiority. The non-

Ashraf castes exhibit a duality in their status, as each caste is superior

or inferior to other non-Ashraf castes but always inferior to Ashraf


Among Kasauli Muslims, the first and foremost criterion for

grading non-Ashraf castes was the degree of impurity or pollution

implicit in the nature of their occupation. In addition, there was

another related criterion, viz. physical proximity of a non-Ashraf

caste to Ashraf castes while performing services for them. Mirasis

(singers) were thus higher than Nais (barbers), and both higher than

Dhobi (laundrymen). Mirasis were higher than Nais because Mirasi

women sat among Ashraf ladies to sing and singing had no polluting

connotation. Women of the Nai caste who massaged Ashraf women

and Nai men who cut hair performed services in physical proximity

to the Ashraf caste but were rated lower than Mirasis because both

services were regarded as impure. On the other hand, the Dhobi not

only washed dirty clothes, which was a polluting occupation, their

services did not require physical proximity to the Ashrafs and hence

they were still lower in the caste hierarchy.

Things are not only impure or pure, but some things are more

impure than others. In the course of practising their traditional

occupation, castes which habitually handle very impure things are

lower in status than those which handle things which are not so

impure. These ideas hold good for the non-Ashraf castes in Kasauli.

Human secretions (particularly nightsoil), dead animals and animals

eating filth (pigs), are regarded as the most polluting, and occupations

associated with them occupy the lowest rungs in the caste hierarchy.

These castes are also regarded as unclean. In their case, group

pollution also attaches to individual members of the caste.

Consequently, physical contact with individuals of these castes is

avoided not only by Ashrafs but also by non-Ashrafs. Among the

Muslims, if a person accidentally touches an individual of an unclean

caste, the former must purify himself by a simple bath, particularly

prior to performing a religious function like saying 'namaz', reading

the Koran or entering a mosque. There is a difference here between

Muslims and Hindus, and it lies in the fact that, unlike among Hindus,

no elaborate rituals are prescribed for Muslims for purifying

themselves in the event of physical contact with an individual from

an unclean caste.

A person can be polluted not only by touching an individual of an

unclean caste but also by coming in contact with an impure substance.

Among Muslims all human secretions are 'naiis' or oollutine. Thus

a woman during her periods is 'najis' irrespective of her caste and

must abstain from saying 'namaz', ritual fasting, entering a holy

place or partaking food on which the 'fateha' (Koranic verses) have

been recited. A man and woman are both 'najis' after sexual

intercourse. If a child wets a person he (or she) becomes 'najis'.

Here again 'nijasaf, the state of being 'najis', is removed by having

a bath. A distinction is made here between personal pollution caused

by contact with human secretions and group pollution related to an

occupation which involves direct physical contact with human

emissions and waste, as in the case ofDhobis or Bhangis. Personal

pollutioin is not transferred to another person whereas a person

belonging to an unclean caste like the Dhobi or Bhangi can pollute

others by touch.

Frederick Barth approximates the Swat 'Quorns' (social groups)

to Hindu castes. He considers a 'Quorn' to be too rigidly separated

to be described as class. He also asserts that Swat Muslims practise

a ritual-based system of social stratification, for Swat Quorns who

deal with human emissions are ranked the lowest (Barth 1969).

Bhattacharya in his study of Bengal (India) Muslims also claims

that the concepts of purity and impurity exist among them and are

applicable in inter-group relationships, as the notions of hygiene

and cleanliness in a person are related to the person's social position

and not to his/her economic status (Bhattacharya 1978).

Status differentiation implicit in the caste system finds expression

in restrictions on marriage and eating together. In Kasauli caste

endogamy is strictly adhered to, both among Ashrafs and non-

Ashrafs. The four Ashraf castes are divided into two endogamous

groups. Sayyads and Sheikhs inter-marry with a tendency towards

hypergamy and so do Mughals and Pathans. Marriage alliances

between Ashrafs and non-Ashrafs are still inconceivable and not a

single instance of this is known to have occurred in living memory

in Kasauli. In another predominantly Muslim village in the same

district, a marriage did occur once between a non-Ashrafman and

an Ashrafgirl. But social disapproval was so persistent and intense

that the couple was forced finally to migrate to Pakistan. In another

district married a Muslim woman as a second wife. She was alleged

to have belonged to the Dhobi caste. She was treated well by the

husband who, in terms of clothes, jewellery, etc., provided for her

equally (according to Koranic instructions as he understood them),

but she was never socially accepted by the Ashrafs. On ceremonial

occasions she had to retire to her quarters before mealtime, as Ashraf

ladies would not eat with her. It was also understood that children

born of her would not get Ashraf spouses, and as a matter of fact,

they did not.

Ashrafs and non-Ashrafs do not eat together in Kasauli. Between

the two endogamous subdivisions of Ashrafs there is no restriction

on eating together, but their interaction is so limited that, in practice,

it rarely occurs.

Caste in Kasauli represents a cluster of statuses  social, political,

economic and ritual. The last, in conjunction with social and

economic status, has been dealt with in some detail on account of

the controversy that centres around it. The political aspect of caste

finds expression through the institution of the caste panchayat (a

committee of elders) and a well-entrenched concept of biradari

(literally, brotherhood).

Each non-Ashraf caste in Kasauli has a caste panchayat which

regulates both intra-caste and inter-caste (among the non-Ashrafs)

interactions and personal conduct. Caste panchayats have the right

to settle disputes relating to property or personal matters, such as

petty theft, boundary encroachments on individually owned land,

divorce, disputes over dowry and the custody of children. Caste

panchayats are also empowered to punish, the punishments ranging

from fines to expulsion from the biradari. The latter, which is an

extreme punishment, is referred to as stopping hukka-pani, which

amounts to barring the offender from sitting and eating with fellow

caste members, and further includes a severe economic sanction

which prevents the offender from following the caste occupation.

The concept of biradari and caste panchayat are almost

inseparable as the economic and political solidarity of a caste is

expressed through the biradari and is regulated through the

panchayat. Thus there is, for instance, a Julaha (weavers) biradari

or a Kasai (butchers) biradari, neither of whom admit into their fold

weavers or butchers who may professionally perform their functions

but do not belong to the Julaha or Kasai castes. Such persons or

families continue to belong to the biradari of their origin  a fact

that stresses the strict caste basis of biradari.

Hamza Alavi ( 1976), in his study of villages in the Punj ab province

of Pakistan, refers to biradari as having apolitical dimension because

one can be expelled from it. But he attributes greater significance to

the expression of kinship solidarity through the biradaris because of

the inclusion in biradaris of both maternal and paternal kin who are

engaged in the same occupation. In Kasauli too, each caste being

endogamous, biradaris, by virtue of caste endogamy, are composed

of both maternal and paternal kin. But, besides safeguarding caste

solidarity, biradari panchayats also play a well-defined political role

in regulating personal conduct with the help of established biradari

norms, and in dealing with inter-biradari matters.

In Kasauli, Ashrafs too have biradaris  the Sayyad biradari or

the Sheikh biradari, for instance  but these exist mainly to define

the boundaries of their caste, for there are no panchayats. Biradari

solidarity, however, is expressed on ceremonial occasions, when all

members of the biradari are invited. Keeping the honour of the

biradari is as important as it is among the non-Ashrafs. In the absence

of a panchayat, an Ashraf biradari does not have an organ for

expressing collective disapproval let alone punishing those

committing offences against the caste code. Nor are disputes resolved

by the biradari, with the result that they are taken to the law courts.

Thus it was found that Kasauli Muslims functioned on a caste

basis, each group or sub-caste being endogamous, and membership

of the group being determined by birth. Further, all groups were

hierarchically arranged, the hierarchy being determined by ancestry

and by the nature of the occupation associated with each group.

Conformity to the system was ensured by exerting economic and

political pressure through caste panchayats, and caste solidarity was

maintained through biradari sentiments. Relations and interactions

between the two major segments of the society  Ashrafs and non-

Ashrafs  were governed by the jajmani system.