Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims – Part 9


Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims – Part 9: Evidence From the Mughal Period

Continued from here.

Masood Alam Falahi

(Translated by Yoginder Sikand for

[Part 9 of Masood Alam Falahi's Urdu book Hindustan Mai Zat-Pat Aur Musalman ('Casteism Among Muslims in India')]


It is likely that, like the Muslim so-called ashraf, the Brahmins, too, were greatly angered at Sultan Muhammad Tughlaq's patronage of the oppressed caste Muslims. After all, these Muslims, or their forefathers, had once been their slaves. An additional reason, one can surmise, for their probable resentment of the Sultan's policies was that these policies must certainly have made Islam an attractive option for many more Shudras who were desperate to be freed from the yoke of Brahminical tyranny.

At around this time there emerged across parts of India numerous social reformers who bitterly critiqued the caste system and preached an ethical monotheism. Many of them were heavily influenced by Islam. These were the Bhaktas, and the message of bhakti or selfless devotion to the one formless God that they taught was very similar to that of the Sufis. It was not, however, that all the Bhaktas were uniformly opposed to caste and caste-based discrimination. Some of them, particularly those of Brahmin origin, did not denounce caste as a social institution as such. The socially radical potential of the Bhakti movements was further limited by the fact that, over time, many of these were transformed into caste-like groups themselves. From being movements of social protest they soon compromised with the caste system. In this way, Brahminism was able to reassert itself and stave off the challenge posed by the Bhaktas, including those who had been deeply influenced by Islamic teachings, such as Kabir, Dadu/Daud and Nanak.

These movements carried on well into the Mughal era and thereafter. The period of Mughal rule did not witness any noticeable change in the attitude of the ashraf nobility on the question of caste among Muslims. Indeed, it can be said that the compromises that many Mughal Emperors made vis-a-vis the 'high' caste Hindus further reinforced casteist tendencies among the ashraf. This, for instance, was certainly the case with regard to the Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar (d. 1605), who held the Syeds in great regard and even exempted them from capital punishment. He married several 'high' caste Rajput Hindu princesses, as did many Mughal emperors before and after him, who were left to practise their own faith.[i] It is likely that through them various Hindu customs, including caste prejudices, gained even more acceptability among the Mughals and the ashraf associated with their courts. It is instructive to note that while these Emperors and their associated ashraf showed no hesitation in marrying 'upper' caste Hindu women, they regarded inter-marriage with indigenous Muslims of Shudra origin with horror.

The Emperor Akbar is lionised in Indian history school textbooks as an allegedly very 'progressive', 'liberal' and 'enlightened' ruler, but as far as the suppressed castes are concerned he was no less oppressive than his predecessors, both Hindu and Muslim, had been. This is clearly evident, for instance, from the following edict that he issued:

'In the towns, the low-born (arzal) should be prohibited from acquiring education, because if these communities do so, it will lead to great strife (fitna).'[ii]

It is evident from this edict that Akbar believed that if the oppressed castes took to education it would threaten the hegemony of the ashraf, who would regard them as daring to compete with them and as seeking to rise to their level.

Like Akbar, his close advisors and other courtiers, too, were also fiercely wedded to the thoroughly un-Islamic notions of caste and caste-based superiority, as were many supposedly learned ulema of this period. To cite just one instance, the noted historian Abul Fazl (d. 1602), a close confidante of Akbar, is said to have remarked, 'I refuse to regard a statement of a mere confectioner (Halwai), cobbler (Mochi) or skin-seller (charm farosh) as evidence.'[iii]

From all this it is clearly evident that in the period of Mughal rule, as before, the caste system was deeply entrenched among the Muslims and that the oppressed caste Muslims were subjected to various forms of subordination, degradation and oppression. This was reinforced by the vast land grants that successive Mughal Emperors provided to the Muslim shurafa of foreign descent and to 'upper' caste Hindus, completely ignoring the oppressed castes, both Hindus and Muslims, who were not considered at all deserving of such honour. If, in some very rare cases, some 'low' caste people received land from the Mughals, it was because they had succeeded in concealing their true caste identities and in passing off as of 'high' caste status.

Even in the reign of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir (d. 1707), lionised by many Muslims as having supposedly been a very pious Muslim, the conditions of the oppressed caste Muslims remained unchanged. Land, power, and learning continued to be monopolies of the 'upper' caste Hindus and Muslims. As Miyan Mohammad Zain ul-Abidin Shahabadi writes:

'A shift was witnessed at the time of Alamgir (Aurangzeb), but this was largely political. The conditions of the poor remained unchanged. Knowledge, wealth and property continued to remain in the hands of the powerful ruling class and those who had a role in the affairs of the Empire.'[iv]

In fact, Aurangzeb, who is berated by Hindu chauvinists as an alleged 'anti-Hindu fanatic', employed a higher proportion of Hindus (all certainly from the 'high' castes) in the top echelons of his administration than even Akbar, who is seen by many Hindus as passionately 'pro-Hindu'. Like Akbar, he generously patronised many Brahmins by granting them land grants and estates for their temples. One of Aurangzeb's wives was a Hindu Rajput from Udaipur. She was the mother of his son Moazzam, who, in turn, married the daughter of a Hindu Rajput chieftain. It must be noted that throughout his life, Aurangzeb never pressurised either his Hindu wife or his Hindu daughter-in-law to convert to Islam. We have no evidence at all to suggest that even Aurangzeb, that supposedly very committed Muslim ruler, did anything at all for the progress and emancipation of the oppressed caste Muslims. On the other hand, it was under his instructions that a massive manual of Hanafi law, named after him as the Fatawa-e Alamgiri, was prepared, which laid down, in a very detailed manner, elaborate rules of kufu' relating to social hierarchy and inequality based on birth. The Emperor did not find anything at all wrong with this.

The last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar (d.1862) was the son of an 'upper' caste Hindu woman called Lal Bai. He is projected as an ardent Indian nationalist in Indian history textbooks, but he was no less wedded to notions of caste superiority than his predecessors. In 1857, rebellions broke out throughout much of northern India against the British, aimed at restoring effective power to the Mughals. Ironically, as Syed Ahmad Khan, who went to found the Aligarh Anglo-Mohammadan College, claimed, the most active elements in the revolts were 'low' caste Ansari Muslims, who were contemptuously referred to by the ashraf as 'Julahas'. At the height of the revolt, on 24 May 1857, Bahadur Shah Zafar ordered Nawab Syed Hamid Ali Khan to enlist five hundred more people in his army, but, at the same time, clearly specified, as quoted in that day's Dehli Urdu Akhbar, 'These men should be from the noble, good and brave qaums of Shaikhs, Syeds, Mughals and Pathans, and not from the low castes.'[v]

The Divergent Attitude of Some Ulema of the Mughal Period to Caste

Although the vast majority of the ashraf ulema in the Mughal period probably upheld caste distinctions in the name of kufu' and nasb or lineage, there were some brave others who fervently disagreed with them. One such noted and Islamic scholar was Shaikh Abdul Haq Muhaddith Dehlvi (d. 1642), a contemporary of Akbar. He was of the firm opinion that caste, caste-based inequalities and the concept of inferiority (razalat) as being associated with some occupations had no basis in Islam, contrary to the views of many other supposed ulema. He closely examined various reports that were passed off as hadith narratives, which denigrated certain occupational groups, particularly weavers (Ansaris or Julahas in the Indian Muslim context), and found all of them to be fabricated or mauzu.[vi]

Adopting a very contrary position on caste to that of Shaikh Abdul Haq Muhaddith Dehlvi was another Delhi-based scholar, the early eighteenth century Shah Waliullah Dehlvi (d. 1762), who belonged to the Shaikh Faruqi caste. He is regarded as one of the most influential and learned Indian ulema of all times. Yet, instead of opposing and condemning caste, caste-based discrimination and conventional fiqh rules about kufu', he supported them and wrongly sought to provide them with religious sanction. For this purpose, he went to the extent of wrongly interpreting an authentic hadith report that recommends that only a person's religiosity be taken into account in choosing a spouse. In order to buttress this skewed interpretation, he took the help of a saying of doubtful veracity attributed to the Caliph Umar.[vii] Accordingly, he wrote:

"The Prophet said that when someone comes to you with a marriage proposal for a person whose religiosity and morals you approve of then you should [accept the proposal and] marry [that person].[viii] If you do not do so, there will be strife and terrible conflict in the land. I [Shah Waliullah] say that from this hadith it is not proven that one should not take into account kufu' in deciding a spouse. How can this be when inherent in every sort of person is the desire for kufu' [...]?People are of different social standing, and the shariah does not ignore such things. This is why [the Caliph] Umar had said, 'I forbid women [from marrying] anyone except those of their own kufu''"[ix]

Obviously, Shah Waliullah misinterpreted the actual meaning of the hadith report that he quoted to suggest that it called for something the precise opposite of which it actually did. It is evident that this particular hadith simply suggests that if a person approves of a prospective spouse on the grounds of his or her religiosity and morals, he or she must not consider any other aspects, such as the possibility that the person might be poor, ugly or even the offspring of a slave, or that he or she might belong to a so-called low caste.

Opposed to Shah Waliullah's position on caste was a noted contemporary of his, the famous Hanafi scholar Qazi Sanaullah Panipati (d. 1804), who belonged to the Usmani branch of the Shaikh caste. He was a fierce opponent of caste and conventional fiqh rules regarding kufu', regarding these as wholly unwarranted and impermissible in Islam. In contrast to Shah Waliullah, he regarded the authentic Islamic position on kufu' in marriage as mandating only piety and God-consciousness (taqwa) as a criterion for choosing a spouse. He argued that the only factor to take into account in selecting a spouse was his or her piety. 'On the Day of Judgment,' he insisted, 'nothing will be of use other than a person's religion and God-consciousness. He will not be asked about his lineage because then it will not matter who had been the son of whom.' [x]

In his well-known book Mala Budda Minhu, a manual on the principles of Muslim jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) that is taught in many traditionalist madrasas across South Asia even today, Qazi Sanaullah Panipati wrote in praise of labour, citing suitable hadith reports to back his position on the importance of working for a livelihood. He cited the case of the Prophet David (Daud) who, he said, earned his livelihood through his own labour by making coats of mail. [xi] He also stressed that to boast about one's lineage and denigrate that of others was forbidden (haram). 'In the eyes of God', he wrote, 'the most noble is he who is the most God-fearing (muttaqi).' [xii]Likewise, in his famous Arabic commentary on the Quran, al-Tafsir al-Mazhari, he stridently critiqued widespread conventional fiqh rules related to kufu', going so far as to argue that so-called low-caste people, if they possessed knowledge and piety, were of the same kufu' as every so-called sharif or high-born Muslim, including even those who claimed descent from the Prophet.[xiii]

Interestingly, although Shah Waliullah supported conventional rules of fiqh related to kufu' based on caste, his son, Shah Abdul Aziz Dehlavi (d. 1823), a learned Islamic scholar in his own right, considered putative hadith reports that belittled certain legitimate occupations and those who engaged in them as false and as having been fabricated after the demise of the Prophet simply to justify social hierarchy. He believed that at least in the first century after the Prophet these reports did not even exist.[xiv]

Another noted Islamic scholar who protested against caste and caste-based discrimination was Haji Shariatullah (d. 1840), who led the Islamic reformist Faraizi movement in post-Mughal Bengal. His struggle was multi-pronged—against the British and the oppressive 'upper' caste Hindu landlords, on the one hand, and against polytheistic customs, caste and caste-based discrimination among the Muslims of Bengal, on the other. One of the major attractions of the movement for the impoverished classes among the Bengali Muslims was precisely its insistence on radical social equality and its firm opposition to social hierarchy within the broader Muslim community, which Haji Shariatullah regarded as wholly contradictory to the teachings of the Quran. This is why, writes Ubaidullah Fahad Falahi, scholar of Islamic Studies at the Aligarh Muslim University, the Faraizi movement 'spread very rapidly among the peasants, Ansaris, Telis and other marginalised classes'. [xv]

Other leading ulema in the late Mughal and early British colonial period who condemned the pervasiveness of caste and caste-based discrimination among the Indian Muslims included Shah Ismail Shahid (d. 1831), grandson of Shah Waliullah, and Syed Ahmad Barelvi (d. 1831), leaders of the revivalist mujahidin movement that sought to reform the practice of Islam in the country. Citing the Quran and various hadith reports, they argued that these practices were wholly and explicitly un-Islamic and that those who observed or upheld them were doomed to perdition. Shah Ismail deviated from the stance of his grandfather and the position of most of the ulema of the Hanafi school on the question of caste. Instead, following the path of the Prophet, he declared that if a woman who had come of age wanted to marry a man of a caste lower than her (and, hence, not of her kufu', in the sense the term is conventionally understood in the fiqh tradition), she could do so and no one had the right to dissolve their marriage. In this way, he questioned the very basis of caste among Muslims, which is compulsory caste endogamy or marriage within the same caste circle.

These scholars and leaders of mass movements were like bright stars in an otherwise very dark sky. It would not be wrong to argue that, overall, the period of Mughal rule, that lasted till the British overthrew the dynasty in 1857, proved to be a dark age as far as the oppressed caste Muslims (and Hindus) were concerned. To call it (as also the period of the Delhi Sultans that preceded it) as a period of 'Muslim rule', as our history books do, is wholly misleading. This term conveys the enormously erroneous impression that all Muslims were rulers, while the fact remains that the vast majority of the Indian Muslims, even at this time, were from the oppressed indigenous castes and remained almost as subjugated as they had been prior to their conversion to Islam. The misleading term 'Muslim rule' also obscures the fact that although the ruling class in this period consisted of ashraf Muslims of foreign extraction, it also included a substantial number of 'upper' caste Hindus as well.


[i] Abdul Qadir Badauni, Muntakhab al-Tawarikh (Translated by Ehteshamuddin), Munshi Nawal Kihore Press, Lucknow, 1889, pp.306-07.

[ii] Ibid., pp. 356-57.

[iii] Ibid., pp.434.

[iv] Miyan Muhammad Zain ul-Abidin Shahabdi, Waqiat-e Rayin, Yani Sabzi Farosh Biradri Ke Mukhtasar Halat, Jamiat ur-Rayin, Muzaffarnagar, 1974, p.45.

[v] Quoted in Atiq Ahmad Siddiqui, 1857 Ke Akhbarat Aur Dastavez (publisher's name not given), n.d., Azamgarh, p.100.

[vi] Quoted in Muhammad Hayat Sambhali, Rafa' an-Naqab 'An al-Nasab wa'l-Kasab Ma'aruf ba Bahar-e Sana'at wa Hirfat, Qaumi Kutub Khana Press, Bareilly, 1946, pp.69-72.

[vii] Imam Dar Qutni and Allama Albani regard this report as weak because its chain of narrators includes the name of one Ibrahim bin Talha, who, according to Hafiz Muzni, never met the Caliph Umar. Allama Albani adds that another name in the chain of narrators of this report was of one Abdullah bin Rawad, whom the ulema who have specialized in the names of narrators of such reports (ulema-e isma ul-rajal) have not mentioned. Hence, he suggests, this report is weak. The veracity of this report has been doubted by many other scholars who argue that it is incorrect to deduce any rules from it.

[viii] The hadith appears in the collections by Tirmidhi, Ibn Maja and Hakim.

The noted scholars Allama Abdur Rahman Mubarakpuri and Shaikh ul-Hind Mamhud ul-Hasan, elaborating on this hadith, mention that scholars of Hadith have contended that this means that if one does not give one's daughter in marriage to such a man whose piety (din) and morals (ahlaq) are pleasing to him, and, instead, falls into the trap of only being concerned about a prospective groom's lineage and looks, great strife and conflict will follow because, they argue, such things are a cause of strife and conflict. Some people have commented on this hadith report to argue that if one searches only for a rich and influential spouse for one's child, many men and women would be left unmarried, which would lead to adultery and immorality becoming rife as well as bringing shame and dishonour to their guardians and close relatives, which, in turn, would cause widespread murder and bloodshed. (For details, see Abu Isa Mohammad bin Isa At-Tirmidhi, Jami' At-Tirmidhi (vol. 1), Kutubkhana Rashidiya, Delhi, p.128, and Muhammad Abdur Rahman Mubarkpuri, Tuhfat Al-Ahwadhi Bi Sharh Jami' Al-Tirmidhi (vol.4), Dar ul-Fikr, Beirut, n.d., p.205).

In contrast to the majority of the Muslim jurists (fuqaha), this hadith is considered more valid evidence (hujjat) by Imam Malik because it talks of piety as the criterion of kufu', and Imam Malik regarded only this as the basis of kufu'.

[ix] Shah Waliullah, Hujjat Allah al-Baligha (Translated by Abu Muhammad Abdul Haq Haqqani), Asih ul-Matabe wa Karkhan-e Tijarat-e Kutub, Karachi (n.d.), p.362.

[x] Qazi Sanaullah Panipati, Mala Budda Minhu, Kutubkhana-e Imdadiyah, Deoband, n.d., pp.149-50.

[xi] Ibid. P.107.

[xii] Ibid., p.121.

[xiii] Qazi Sanaullah Panipati, al-Tafsir al-Mazhari, vol. 7, Idara Isha'at ul-Ulum, Nadwat ul-Musannifin, Delhi, 1985, p.345.

[xiv] Habib ur-Rahman Azami, Ansab wa Kafa'at Ki Shari' Haisyat, Markaz-e Tahaqiqat wa Khidmat-e Ilmiyah, Maunath Bhanjan, 1999. p.59.

[xv] Ubaidullah Fahad Falahi, Tarikh-e Da'awat wa Jihad Bar-e Saghir Ke Tanazur Mai, Hindustan Publishers, Delhi, 1984, p. 147.


Please read Part 8 of the excerpts here.

[Courtesy: New Age Islam, November 10, 2010]

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