Islam in India

Sects and Castes in Islam

Have nothing to do with those who have split up their religion into sects. God will call them to account and declare to them what they have done (Koran 6.159)

“The Children of Israel fragmented into seventy-two sects, and my ummah shall split into seventy-three sects, all of which shall be in Fire save one sect.”

“What is that one, O Messenger of Allah?”

“That (way) which I and my companions are upon.” (A hadith narrated by Tirmidhi)

It is a common misconception that Islam is an ideal religion professing perfect equality and brotherhood of men amongst its adherents. All the equality and brotherhood is only confined to prayer-time, and confined to men alone. Otherwise the divisions among them are innumerable and a violent religion settles all scores violently. From soon after the death of the Prophet there have been murders, bloody wars and tensions amongst various Islamic groups, sects and countries which continue to this day. Pakistan is a very good example of all the problems besetting a Muslim society. For Islam, unity operates only against non-Muslims, in the call for jihad.

It will be useful to understand the following terms before we discuss the subject further

Caste: A system unique to Hinduism in which castes belonging to the four varnas have the following characteristics:
• A caste is endogamous.
•It involves occupational specialisation (this is a unique feature of the caste system).
•Castes are hierarchically ordered.
•Castes have an ideological, religious basis involving restrictions on social intercourse and commensality.

Clan : A group of people related by ancestry or marriage. It is usually a subgroup of other categories like tribes.

Class: A group of persons sharing similar social, cultural and economic characteristics.

Cult: A small, usually recently created, religious organisation, which is often headed by a single charismatic leader and is viewed as a spiritually innovated group.

Denomination: A large group of religious congregations united under a common faith and name and organised under a single administrative and legal hierarchy.

Endogamy: Marrying within the same group or caste.

Ethnic Group A hereditary group within a society which is defined by its members and by others as a separate people, socially, biologically and culturally.

Group A number of persons bound together by common social standards, interests etc.

Sect: A subdivision of a larger religious group which has, to some extent, diverged from the rest by developing some deviating and distinct beliefs, practices etc.

Tribe : A unit of social organisation consisting of a number of families, clans or other groups which share a common ancestry, patron deity, culture and leadership. It is generally a social group, usually with a distinguishing area, dialect, cultural homogeneity and unifying social organistion.

The above terms do not necessarily lead to rigid and cloistered divisions since their characteristics often overlap and interchange. Islam is endowed with all these categories of socio-political and religious arrangements, in one form or the other. Actually the religion originated in Muhammad’s attempt to unify the warring Arab tribes into a single cohesive ummah. That he was himself unsure about the unity on a long term basis is revealed in the above hadith. And, perhaps, he had every reason for his doubts, since Arab society then comprised of several tribes, each warring with the other. These tribes had fierce pride in their traditions and the Prophet himself was no exception. He had said, ‘Allah selected Ishmael from the sons of Abraham, Kinana from the sons of Ishmael, Quraish (Muhammad’s tribe) from the sons of Kinana, Hashim from the sons of Quraish, and He selected me from the sons of Hashim’. Before his death he also declared that his successors will be chosen only from the tribe of Quraish. This tribe, as a result, is the most respected in Islam, and its descendants are known as Koraishis in our subcontinent. Even among the Koreish, rivalry between its various clans has shaped the initial history of Islam. Thus the Omiyad and Abbasid dynasties which succeeded the first four Caliphs, belonged to the families which had opposed the clan of the Prophet in the past and were bitter opponents of the Prophet himself.

The Arab people have been divided according to lineage into three groups:

1. Perishing Arabs. These were the ancient tribes about whose history very little is known.

2. Pure Arabs who originated from the progeny of Yarub bin Yashjub bin Qahtan.

3. Arabised Arabs who supposedly originated from the progeny of Ishmael.

The pure Arabs originated from Qahtan in Yemen and comprised of many tribes which eventually emigrated all over the Arab peninsula and beyond. The Arabised Arabs claim their ancestry to Abraham and Ishmael. As we have seen elsewhere, these claims may very well be fabricated since all traces of pre-Islam civilisation have been obliterated and it has become very difficult to verify them. In fact, Muhammad himself has said, ‘Geneologists tell lies’. Ishmael apparently had twelve sons, the progeny of whom constituted a distinct tribe. Eventually only tribes originating from the descendants of Nabet and Qidar have survived. Each of them eventually got subdivided into numerous tribes who spread all over the peninsula. The Nibetians spread to the north establishing a flourishing civilization. The descendants of Qidar remained around Mecca and broke into several tribes over many generations. One of them was the tribe of Quraish which also eventually branched out in many more tribes and clans, one of which, Hashim, produced the Prophet.

The rise of Islam did not put an end to tribalism in Arabia. Even today, they persist. Thus we have an account of the Arab and Berber tribes which invaded Spain. They conquered the peninsula, not as isolated warriors, but as organised tribal groups. The early Muslim residents of the peninsula settled in tribal or sub-tribal groups and it was a policy of their chiefs to reconstitute their clans in the conquered regions. They lived and fought together. Politically this led to the organization of confederations or alliances for maximizing their own tribal wealth and prestige. This is a zero sum game, for one’s ascendancy is compensated by another’s equivalent decline leading to a more or less permanent conflict. This again leads to unstable coalitions of two parties. This is what happened there and is what is happening to some extent now in our country, only far less violently.

Adding to this tribalism are more divisions in Islam due to the formation of various sects of which we shall mention only the more important ones. The first sect - Kharijites - arose soon after the Prophet’s death when the third caliph, Uthman, was murdered in 656 AD and his successor Ali, bowing to majority opinion, submitted the matter of dealing with the murderers to arbitrators. This sect opposed the decision, claiming that no caliph of Allah should submit the cause of God to the discretion of man. They taught that the Koran was the sole authority over every Muslim (hadith had not been formulated then). They believed that they should revolt against all secular tendencies and indiscriminately killed all unbelievers including those Muslims who did not join them and carried away their property as booty. Ali had to spend much of his time fighting with them since they began to terrorise the Muslim world. This sect did not last too long but set the trend for the formation of numerous sects in times to come, among which the Wahabis sect was very similar in approach as regards fundamentalism and orthodoxy.

Within a hundred years of the beginning of Islam, a more rational approach, influenced by Greek Christian thinking, began to challenge the dogmatic, deterministic nature of traditional Islam. They were initially called Qadariyah because they denied Allah’s preordained destiny and taught that man possessed qadar, the power to determine his own destiny. These ‘free-thinkers’ were later called Mutazilah. Also, the more orthodox among them believed that the Koran was an uncreated Word of Allah. Since He is nirguna, they held His speech to be separate from His being and so the Koran had to be created. Later, even a few Abbasid caliphs supported this group and as a result the orthodox were severely punished. Ultimately the well-known scholar, Al-Ghazzali, in the fifth century after Muhammad, generally opposed these ‘philosophic’ trends, and particularly, this sect. The influence of this sect dwindled and Islam as a result stagnated and any reform or rethinking became impossible. The other important sects during this early period of Islam were the Jahmiyyah who did not believe in eternal hell, the Asharis and Maturidis who set about formalizing the Islamic doctrine, the Batiniyyah who dismiss the entire body of the Sharia as being morally lax, the Rawafids who split again into numerous cults and the Mujassimah who pictured Allah as a man.

The most important Muslim sect is the Shia sect and the Shia-Sunni violent quarrels are a hallmark of the Islamic world. As long as the Prophet was alive, the ummah was united in both the fundamentals and the peripherals, since he had a direct ‘access’ to Allah for all clarifications. But immediately after his death, the first dispute that arose was that of his burial and succession. The latter was inevitable since the Prophet did not have a male issue. His camp was split into two, one influenced by his close associate Abu Bakr and his daughter, Aisha, also the favourite wife of the Prophet, and the other, progeny from his daughter, Fatima and son-in-law and first cousin Ali, i.e. between the camps of the wife and the daughter. The wife scored first. Muhammad was buried in her chamber and Abu Bakr became the first caliph. His two successors were also from his camp. After their death, Ali was nominated by a majority but the other camp eventually murdered him. The feud continued and eventually Ali’s son (and Prophet’s grandson), Hussein, was ruthlessly put to death in the battle of Karbala in 680 AD.

Now Ali’s followers openly separated and formed the Shia sect. They insisted that the caliphs should be nominated only from the Prophet’s family and as a result did not recognise the first three caliphs. This is the most important difference between these two sects. Apart from this, the Shiites hold that the caliph or ‘Imam’ in their terminology, are like other prophets, ‘masoom’ or sinless and therefore should be obeyed in all matters and under all circumstances. They are thus not merely political leaders but also religious leaders and the clergy. As a result, while the Sunnis follow only the last Prophet and the Koran as the two primary sources of Islam, the Shias also hold the Imams as an autonomous source of their religion. Anything that he says, anything that he does and anything he narrates is ‘religion’. Differing from him in any respect is as grave as differing from the Prophet. One may feel that this position helps this sect to modernise itself with time, but unfortunately it is equally fanatic and orthodox. It is estimated that about 20% of Muslims belong to this sect. In Iran they are in the majority but they are also present in the rest of the Muslim world.

The most virulent sect of recent times already referred to in connection with Sufis is that of Wahabis which surfaced in the Arabian peninsula in the eighteenth century under the leadership of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab. In 1806 they conquered Mecca and soon terrorised the Muslim peoples. Shrines, tombs, minarets and other edifices considered as incompatible with Islam were desecrated. They even plundered the treasures of the Prophet’s tomb apart from plundering the Meccan pilgrims and thus causing cessation of the pilgrimage. The Meccan Shaikhs were forced to sign fatwas that they had lived as infidels prior to their ‘reforms’. We have already referred to the fate of Sufis as a very good example of what Muslims can do to each other! Unfortunately the ruling Saud dynasty of Arabia are Wahabites and therefore make covert contributions to Islamic fundamentalist movements and groups around the world today.

We have already referred to the sects of Sufis earlier. Another more recent but important sect is that of Bahais which originated in Iran. In non-Muslim countries, they are considered more tolerant than the rest since they also respect prophets like Buddha and Zoroaster.

Castes in Indian Islam

We have seen so far how Islam immediately after the Prophet’s death, subdivided itself into various sects. All of them are represented in the subcontinent with caste as another special feature. It is difficult to explain how a self-proclaimed egalitarian religion like Islam can accept caste. The Prophet himself, however, suggested that considerations of birth should receive special attention in the instance of marriage (an important feature of the caste system). As a result, Muslim jurists worked out an elaborate system of social grades of birth and descent which basically were :

a. An Arab was superior to a non-Arab

b. Amongst Arabs, all Quraishites were of equal social standing in a class by themselves, and all other Arabs were equal, irrespective of their tribes.

c. Amongst non-Arabs, a man was by birth an equal of an Arab if both his father and grandfather had been Muslims before him, but only if he was sufficiently wealthy to provide an adequate mehr.

d. A learned non-Arab was equal to an ignorant Arab.

e. A Muslim kazi ranked higher than a merchant and so on….

Most of the schools of Islamic theology admitted the importance of the significance of birth except the Malikiites, a great many of whom were Negroes, already considered as inferior by the Arabs! Since gradation already existed in any Muslim society it was not difficult for the faithful to adjust themselves to the local caste system in the subcontinent. The equivalent word used by them was beradari, qaum or jat. In fact Islamization served to reinforce, rather than weaken or eliminate, caste distinctions.

There is of course some difference in both systems in that Muslim religious ideology, unlike the Hindu religion, does not support it, is less elaborate, does not delineate the concept of pure and impure leading to a greater interplay of secular factors like wealth, and there is also no equivalent to the Brahmin caste since Muslim rituals do not demand it. However, the important criterion of hereditary occupational specialization which has distinguished the Indian caste system from other systems elsewhere in the world has been incorporated into Indian Islam. The other criteria of caste, panchayats and internal government are present in both religions.

The two broad main divisions of Indian Muslims are the higher Ashraf and the lower Ajilaf. The Ashraf are further divided into four main groups - Sayyad, Sheikh, Mughal and Pathan. The Ajilaf are similarly subdivided into a large number of sub-groups. It should be noted that these groups or categories roughly correspond to the Hindu equivalent of varna, like Brahmana and Kshatriya. They are further divided into sub-categories as the Hindu Kshatriyas are classified as Suryavanshi and Chandravanshi Kshatriyas. These are further divided into segments charachterised by endogamy and region. Another important similarity is that in the higher Hindu and Muslim categories, hypergamy (marrying off girls into a higher caste) is present, but it is not so in the lower categories of both religions. Another important difference is that the higher categories generally observed purdah, whereas the lower are not so rigid, possibly because of economic constraints. One thing which the Muslim castes lack is the Brahmin or priestly class. Their much revered pirs or spiritual leaders are however drawn from the Sayyads who claim descent from the Prophet’s daughter.

The structure of Muslim society in the subcontinent did not at any time exhibit the Islamic ideal of social equality just as it did not exist in the rest of the Muslim world. An elaborate system of social stratification had been in practice from the very beginning of Muslim rule in India. As mentioned in the previous chapter, greater honour and respect was paid to the foreign ruling class than to those of Indian blood. In fact, many groups invented foreign ancestry for themselves in order to improve their social status. Thus the Sheikh Siddiquis of Allahabad district who were converts from the Kayastha castes today claim to be the descendants of the first caliph, Abu Bakr. This sense of superiority derived from foreign ancestry, is an important criterion of social stratification among Muslims in India.

A casual enquiry about caste will invariably invite the protest that Islam is an egalitarian religion and so Islam does not recognize or acknowledge caste among the faithful. But probe a little deeper and most of the nuances of the Hindu caste system will be found to be present as has been reported by various surveys carried out in different parts of India and published in the above book. The leadership, both social and political, is invariably monopolised by the upper castes and lower castes enjoy little, if any, control over leadership and decision-making. It will be remembered that when in one of the recent elections, the BSP nominated a few Muslims from the lower castes as its candidates in UP, there was much dissatisfaction amongst the so-called upper caste Muslims.

Opponents of Hinduism always point out to untouchability being an unpardonable blot on the religion. Surveys of Muslim societies in various parts of the country have shown that even amongst Muslims, particularly in the rural areas, the upper castes do not share food with the lowest classes like sweepers and also keep away from them in habitation. Equality is only during prayer-time in the mosque. Even here there are often separate mosques for separate sects and castes, particularly in a metropolitan city like Calcutta. There are also separate burial grounds for various sects like the Khojas and even in a burial ground there are often separate areas for the lowest classes. The only difference between Hindus and Muslims as far as caste is concerned, is that while the system is sanctioned in the sociology of Hinduism, it is not so in Islam. In fact superficially, Islam condemns any division between man and man. As a result the Indian Muslims will always deny that they follow the caste system like Hindus because they cannot find a religious sanction for it and they will declare it goes against the basic tenets of Islam.

In the last few decades, Hindu society has changed rapidly and the bonds of castes are loosening, particularly in the urban areas. In fact it may not be surprising that after some time the more orthodox Muslim society will follows a more rigid caste system than the Hindus. Many caste groups in the past from among the Hindus had converted to Islam as a group and still retain some of their old traditions. Hence the presence of castes in Hinduism should not present an insurmountable barrier in a massive shuddhi movement to reabsorb the subcontinent Muslims back into the Hindu society.

The Sufi Orders of Islam, J. Spencer Trimingham, oxford, 1998
• Sufism in India, ‘Vedaparakash’, Vivekananda Kendra Patrika, February 1995, Vol. 24 No. 1
• Awaken Bharata, David Frawley, Voce of India Publications, New Delhi, 1998
• Sufis of Bijapur - 1300-1700, Richard Maxwell Eaton, Princeton, 1978
•The World of Fatwas or the Shahriah in Action, Arun Shourie, ASA Publications, New Delhi, 1995
• Caste and Social Stratification among Muslims in India, Ed. Imtiaz Ahmed, Manohar Publications, New Delhi, 1978

Also read:
Read chapter 11 to 14 of Thoughts on Pakistan by Dr Ambedkar
Khilafat Movement
Muhammad Iqbal
Wahabhi Movement
Aligarh Muslim Movement
History of Urdu

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