Muslim society in India: Dynamics of Sects and Castes

muslim education

This opinion emerged out of my discussions on Caste among Muslims, with my ‘Ashraf’ friends.

In general, Ashraf  Muslims evade ‘Caste debate within Muslim community’, for Caste has no theological recognition in Islam. Nonetheless, the Ashraf having prefix’s like Syed, Khan, Pasha, Mirza, Sheikh, Siddiqui, Farooqui, in their name, argues for the idea of equality in Islam, and blame ‘diffusion of two cultural traditions’ for the formation of ‘social stratification among Muslim community’. These prefix subliminally define their social status. Contrary to their ‘condemnation’ for ‘Hindu caste like features’ in Muslim society, they trace their lineage from Central Asia and Arabian states. Just to mention, the word ‘Ashraf’ originated from the word ‘Sharif’ which means the noble; ‘Ashraf’ is an Arabic word.

In order to elaborate their argument, Ashraf argue that Biraadari (translated as Muslim caste) is not as rigid, and very much flexible in Muslim society, which is very much evident in cases of inter caste marriages. The question comes to my mind, is it enough to deny with the fact that Caste doesn’t exists in Muslim society.

The Caste question in Muslim society goes beyond the Arzal, Ajlaf, and Ashraf division; which further problematize it. The division on Sectarian line blurs the caste differences, and thus becomes critical for the entire debate.

The division further goes down to region, languages, sects, sub-sects, and other such affiliations. Unlike Caste, sects find theological basis in the four main school of thoughts in Islam i.e. Hanafi, Maliki, Hanbali, and Shafi’i. Which further gets divided into sub-sects.

In India, people generally follow Hanafi School, which has sub-sects like Deobandi, Barelvi, and Ahl I Hadith etc. This difference is such deep rooted that every sect has their own mosques, and avoid performing prayer in ‘others’. Hence notion of ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ is applicable in these public spaces too. This difference dictates personal and public life, and sometimes leads to irreversible consequences.

Every sect group having their own interpretation of Islam, consider themselves as rightly guided ones, and all others as deviance. Moreover, they pass verdict who’s true believer and who’s not, and goes on witch-hunting for other’s in the name of Gustakh I rasool and Qabar parast.

Sadly, those who avoid caste debate fails to explain reason for the sectarian divide.

This brings us to the conclusion, that homogeneity of Muslim society is a utopian idea (especially in Indian context). The idea which is floated by the religious class (that is also belongs to Ashraf) to gain social and political mileage.

The same group see caste debate as a challenge to their hegemony, and thus argues that it will break the social fabric of Muslim society. Such naive they are!

I fail to understand how the Caste question, and more precisely political assertion by Pasmanda Muslims will lead to discord and disharmony. Actually Ashraf fears that acknowledging the caste debate will change the political equation (the communal-secular equation). For Ashraf(irrespective of their sects) constitute small percent in comparison to Pasmanda (Ajlaf/Arzal), and are still leading the community. Ultimately this will question Ashraf long held positions, and demand due political representation and social justice by Pasmanda. And it will turn the political stage upside down, which is not acceptable to self-proclaimed leaders of Muslim society. For them, marginalised Muslims are just a matter of table talk. Thus, Ashraf always see caste question as a threat to community’s harmony, and an attempt to defame Islam.

According to Asghar Ali Engineer, on the question of caste as anti/un-Islamic, they are mainly ‘upper’ caste Muslims spokesmen, who claimed that addressing the problems of the ‘low’ caste Muslim communities is an ‘anti-Islamic’ conspiracy to divide the Muslims since Islam has no room for caste. He argues that this denial of internal caste differences among Muslims as means to perpetuate the hegemony of ‘upper’ castes Muslim leaders and the ‘Ulema’ who present an image of Muslims as a seam-less monolith.

Ali Anwar, responding to the charge of dividing Muslims, points out that “far from doing so, we are trying to unite the dozens of Dalit/backward caste Muslim communities who have been kept divided for centuries! We are trying to bring them – Ansaris, Halalkhors, Kunjeras, Kalals, Dhuniyas, Mochis and who knows how many such castes – together on a common platform to voice their demands and concerns. Is this an attempt to divide or unite? You decide. The Pasmanda politics is not directed against Ashraf. Rather, we seek to strengthen and empower marginalised section of Muslim society, enable them to speak for themselves and to secure their rights and justice from the state. We welcome well-meaning people of Ashraf background as well as non-Muslims who are concerned about our (Pasmanda) plight and to join in our struggle.”

He goes on to argue that “so-called Ashraf have kept us divided for centuries by fanning sectarian (Maslaki) differences. Why don’t they put an end to this instead of telling us what to do? Ashrafhave created and magnified these sectarian divisions for their own interests, to run their own little religious and political shops, for which they have not stopped even at promoting bloodshed and hatred. First they should put an end to this sectarian hatred and division which they have created and then talk to us.”

This is a fact that Caste question among the Muslims is always seen through religious lens rather to see it as a sociological fact. Pasmanda constitutes 85% of total Muslim population needs to identify themselves as a distinct section within Muslim society who are highly marginalised. But the debate is always happening around the fundamental question of caste existence. We need go further to this, until then, the debate will not develop further, and the demand for redistribution and representation will not be listened.

P.S: The Muslim society needs do away with sectarian and caste differences, their prejudices and biases. The society needs to recognise the problems of their society, so that, together can fight against greater evils like illiteracy, poverty and backwardness etc.


  1. Ali, “Indian Muslim OBC: Backwardness and Demand for Reservation,” EPW, vol. 47, No. 36, 8 Sep 2012, pp. 74-79
  2. Sikand, “Muslim Dalit and OBCs Conference: A Report”, Milli Gazette Online, 30 November 2005.
  3. Sikand, “Voice of Oppressed: Empowering Dalit Muslims,” Communalism Combat, November 2005, Year 12, No. 12
  4. Alam, “Democratisation of Indian Muslims: Some Reflections”,  Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 38, No. 46 (Nov. 15-21, 2003), pp. 4881-4885
  5. Ali Engineer, “OBC Muslims and Their Problems”, the Hindu, September 12. 1996

Tausif Ahmad, PhD Scholar , IGNOU, New Delhi


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