In India, when it comes to elections, human rights, or any social welfare scheme, the first thing that has been raised is the caste of Hindus. You just look at the elections that are taking place these days, how Hindus are divided into separate groups and castes and analyzed accordingly.
Some experts talk about Brahmins, somebody talks about Jats, some social experts may preach about the clout of Dalits, whereas few may talk about the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. There is a kind of nefarious propaganda to divide Hindus into various castes to mislead them about their collective identity, that is Hindu.
At the same time, you can observe an evil trend, you will find that the Muslims are considered as a single unit. Be it the media or the political parties, they always take 15-17% of the Muslim vote as a collective block. While the truth is that there is a grave caste-based differentiation among Muslims.
It is said that people used to accept Islam only after being humiliated by the caste system prevalent among Hindus, they still do it today, but the truth is completely different.
Traditionally, it is being understood that Abrahamic religions, such as Islam are egalitarian and do not preach caste or any other form of stratification. Islamic scholars usually cite Prophet Muhammad’s farewell khutbah where he had said, “There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person, except on the basis of personal piety and righteousness.”
The story of an Ethiopian slave Bilal is also cited to buttress this argument. He was the first muezzin of the Islamic world because of his piety and beautiful voice. While it is true that discrimination cannot be traced back to Abrahamic scriptures, as in the case of Hinduism, the existence of caste amongst South Asians (irrespective of their religion) is unfortunately a repugnant truth.
Indian Muslims are stratified into three main castes. At the top of the pyramid are the Ashrafs (the ‘nobles’, who trace their ancestry to inhabitants of the Arab peninsula or Central Asia or convert from Hindu upper castes), Ajlafs (the ‘commoners’, who are said to be converted from Hindu low castes) and Arzals (the ‘despicable’, who are said to be Dalit or lower caste converts).
In short, Ashrafs are the Brahmin equivalent, Ajlafs are the Vaisya equivalent and Shudras, and Arzals are the Atishudras or Dalit equivalents of Islam.
The Hindu Dalits and the Muslim Ajlafs/Arzals are, as they say, united in common grief. Both, the Ranganath Mishra Committee Report and Sachar Committee Report have brought to light several cases of abuse and discrimination that an average Muslim Ajlaf/Arzal faces every day, including untouchability, social segregation, underrepresentation, and limited or no access to education. The old Bahujan movement’s slogan ‘Dalit-pichda eksaman, Hindu ho ya Musalman’ stands vindicated by these reports.
Even in the Census of India, 1901, for the first time, officially recognized such stratification amongst Muslims, listing 133 social groups wholly or partially Muslims. The 1911 Census listed some 102 caste groups among Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, wherein at least 97 of them came from the non-Ashraf category. Today we have more than 300 types of castes groups in Islam.
Ashrafism, Syedism, Zatism, Sharifism, Biradarism, and the Quom System are aspects of the caste system among Muslims in South Asia. Concepts of “Paak” (pure/clean) and “Naapak” (religiously impure/unclean/polluted, which is also used to refer to infidels) are found in South Asian Muslims. The South Asian Muslim caste system also includes hierarchical classifications of Khandan (dynasty, family, or lineage descent) and Nasab (a group based on blood ties/lineage)
Casteism in Islam – A Historic Perspective
After Prophet Muhammad died in the 7th century, there was the war of succession which had families and tribes fighting each other. After this, a determinant for social division in Arab society included being part of the close family of Muhammad (ahl al-bayt). This ahl al-bayt determinant had its presence in Ancient India among Muslims since the 8th century, and then this led to a further hierarchical determinant, which was Arabs versus non-Arabs.
Later on, among non-Arabs, further divisions took place, between Muslims who were converted in early Islamization campaigns (khadim-al islam) and Muslims who converted more recently (jadid-al islam). Today, South Asian Muslims are divided by the aforementioned classifications that have resulted in Arab-origin higher castes (unch zat) and those that are descendants of converts (lower castes/nich zat).
It can be seen here that our politicians, media, and civic society have deliberately kept the caste division among Muslims under wraps. The biggest reason for this is that since independence, the politicians considered Muslims to be their dedicated vote bank, and they always tried to keep their vote bank intact. While on the other hand, they prefer to divide Hindus into the lines of caste to weaken them and make them electorally irrelevant.