Since caste was around before Islam arrived, how did Muslim clerics, scholars and rulers view it? After Islam came to India, the only writer who discussed the caste question was Alberuni in the 11th century
The dais at BJP’s Pasmanda Conference in Lucknow on October 16, 2022. Photo: By arrangement.
Last month, the South Asian Institute of Columbia University organised a seminar on ‘Afterlives of Babri Masjid: Thirty Years Later’. I made a presentation at that seminar on ‘Post-Babri Anti-Caste Movement: A New Awakening in India’.
In my abstract I said the following:
“The anti-caste movement of post-independent India has changed the track of Indian democratic discourse in the post-Babri context. I wroteWhy I am Not a HinduandPost-Hindu Indiain that context only. Though the anti-castemovement included the minorities in its agenda, the Muslims did not participate in that discourse. Muslim intellectuals remained caste blind, leaving the Dalit/OBC/Adivasis to defend themselves. Over a period of 30 years, the Dalit/OBC/Adivasis realised that caste and untouchability have destroyed their intellectual and organisational abilities to fight against Brahminism. Organised religions like Indian Islam and Christianity virtually left them to the mercy of highly English-educated and globalised Brahminic forces. This situation helped the post-Babri Hindutva forces attract them into their fold and gradually turn them into their vote bank. But at the same time a huge anti-caste ideology was developed by the post-Mandal Dalit/OBC/Adivasi intellectuals and political activists by foregrounding Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar and so on. Thissituation has created an anti-caste global ideological mobilisation. However, the future of Indian democracy and the question of a caste-free egalitarian India is still uncertain.”
After my presentation, some scholars questioned the relevance of discussing the role of Muslim intellectuals and Indian Islam’s history at a time when they are facing persecution in India. This concern was expressed even by American intellectuals working on India and other South Asian societies. While a Muslim scholar, Khalid Anis Ansari from Azim Premji University, made a presentation about the presence of caste among Indian Muslims and the ongoing oppression of Pasmanda Muslims by upper-caste Muslims, a few scholars expressed disappointment – arguing that this is not the time to raise caste discrimination within Indian Muslims as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party are trying to exploit that division.
However, I believe it is important – even amidst the current political atmosphere – to discuss the role of Muslim intellectuals in Indian caste civilisation. This discussion is important to understand the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi problem as well as the Muslim minority problem, so that the Muslim intelligentsia realises what the Shudra/OBC and Dalits find problematic about their relationship and history.
After the BJP came to power in 2014, there has been an intense debate about the relationship between the OBCs and Muslims, as the OBCs are seen supporting the BJP electorally and communally.
There is also a view that the OBCs participated in the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. It is true that without OBC support, the BJP could not and cannot win elections as they are winning now. Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented himself as an OBC from Gujarat; perhaps that has also added to the BJP’s OBC mobilisation. Does it mean that the OBCs – as the historical Shudra agrarian and artisanal communities – hate Muslims? There is no evidence to support the claim that the Shudras have some theoretical or cultural antipathy towards Muslims. Whatever anti-Muslim writing there is in India has come so far from Brahmin or other Dwija writers and ideologues. The writings of V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar are evidence.
This debate raises another question which is equally important – about the relationship between the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi and Muslim? What was the historical role of Muslim rulers, writers and civil-spiritual intellectuals on the abolition or annihilation of caste after Islam as a religion took root in India? Did Muslims scholars and writers treat caste and human untouchability – which existed much before that religion arrived in India – as a system that could not be accepted in the world Allah created? Because Islam believes that everything – good and bad – is the creation of Allah. According to their understanding, nothing comes into existence or goes out of existence without Allah’s sanction. In that case, what about the caste system and untouchability that constructed an un-universal inequality, oppression and human degradation?
Since this system was around before Islam arrived, how did Muslim clerics and scholars view it? We would have been able to understand their view if only they had written something about it during the last 1,400-odd years of Islam’s existence in India. Unless scholars express themselves, either by writing or by preaching, even rulers will not know what to do with the system. However, it is clear from known history that India’s Muslim rulers – including the greatest of all, Akbar – did not open schools for educating the Shudras/Dalits and Adivasis. Even in kingdoms like Hyderabad, where Muslim rulers held state power till 1948, there is no evidence that mass education was provided to the Shudras/Dalits/Adivasis until some social reformers demanded such education in the Urdu language for those communities. Even then, only a handful of Shudra/Dalit/Adivasis were taught basic reading and writing skills in Urdu and Persian in Hyderabad state.
Persian and Urdu education was spread more among the Dwija castes like Brahmin, Kayastha, Khatri, Bania and Ksatriya in the whole of India, who had a Sanskrit education background. Muslim rulers and scholars also maintained caste barriers. Why? Is it because the rulers and scholars came from upper caste conversion, or is it because Islam as a religion failed to understand the evolution of the caste system and refused to study its relationship with divine creation and work out a scientific ideology to abolish that system?
In Brahminic history, caste and untouchability were practiced and written about as divinely ordained. The divine objects of the Shudra/Dalit/Adiavsis and the Dwijas differed in many aspects. But Muslims believed in one Allah. The question therefore is: what is the understanding of Muslim scholars about the relationship between Allah and caste system? Was it created by Allah as a positive and humanly necessary institution or was it created by humans?
There is a definite understanding of the relationship between men and women in relation to Allah’s creations. There is also an understanding about slaves and masters and relations between races and Allah. At the time of Prophet Mohammad’s life, all those categories of human society were present in all countries. But caste and untouchability were not there in any other nation except in South Asia, more so in the Indian subcontinent.
After Islam came to India, the only writer who discussed the caste question was Alberuni in the 11th century. Namit Arora writes,
“The four-fold varna system made a deep impression on Alberuni. He notes that members of each varna are forbidden to dine with members of other varnas. Below them are ‘people called Antyaja, who render various kinds of services’ and live outside the towns and villages of the four varnas. Then there are people called Hadi, Doma, Chandala and Badhatau, who ‘are not reckoned amongst any caste [and] are occupied with dirty work, like the cleansing of the villages and other services… In fact, they are considered illegitimate children; for according to general opinion they descend from a Shudra father and a Brahmin mother as the children of fornication; therefore, they are degraded outcasts’.”
Alberuni also disagreed with the Brahmanical view of human purity and pollution, which is the key notion for sustenance of human untouchability in India. Purity and pollution had huge implications to production. Way back in the 11th century, he said that Islam does not accept such ideas of human purity and pollution. What happened to this understanding? Why did Muslim scholars fail to educate Muslim rulers on abolishing caste and untouchability through legal firmans? The abolition of caste would have been possible even without resorting to conversion.
Many Muslim scholars are now saying that conversion did not kill caste practices within Indian Islamic society. What would have been a better way of abolishing caste practices? If such ideas were put on the record by Muslim scholars, Muslim kings may have agreed to make changes.
The fact is that Muslim scholars did not do any intellectual work to create anti-caste awareness among themselves and also among the Other – the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasis. Instead, till the post-Mandal realisation that without reservation the Pasmandas too would not progress came about, they did not talk about the caste system at all.
Unlike among the Shudra/OBC/Dalits, there was no focused spiritual denial of education for Muslim lower castes. Yet there is a caste distinction between the upper caste converts and the Shudra/Dalit converts. Where does the problem lie? In Hindu Brahminsm, there is a stated scriptural and practical forced denial of the right to education to the productive castes. The Shudra/Dalits did not fight because of divine fear, which was injected through the karma and punarjanma (rebirth cycles) theories. But what sustained caste in Indian Islam?
Among Indian Muslims, there were scores of English-educated intellectuals from the early days of the freedom struggle. Such modern English educated Shudra/Dalits were few and far between. Until Ambedkar emerged, nobody diagnosed the roots of caste from among them in a scientific manner. Muslim scholars claimed the presence of scientific enquiry in their intellectual history. The Brahminic intellectuals, whether modern English educated or classical Sanskrit or Persian educated, refused to study the roots of caste and work out abolitionist solutions because that would go against the ethics of Brahmanism.
Among Muslims, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817–1898) promoted English education around the same time when Brahmins, Banias, Kayastas and Khatris started learning English and studying in England in the 19th century. Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Allama Iqbal (both of whom were upper-caste converts) and many other Muslims were educated in English in England. Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia taught the Muslim youth in English medium from their early days. The Indian Muslim community had the intellectual resources to undertake studies on the caste system. Even after Ambedkar put the question of caste on the national map, not a single Muslim intellectual studied caste from the point of view their own religion and proposed a serious solution to the question. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was totally silent about it in his writings.
This historical background brings us to the question: who is at fault? How can the Shudra-OBCs/Dalits who had no educational resources like Muslim intellectuals find a solution to Muslim backwardness, poverty, unemployment and casteism among them? Even now, Muslim intellectuals do not engage themselves with the much bigger problem of caste and untouchability. Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi intellectuals need to raise these questions.
Kanca Ilaiah Shepherd is political theorist, social activist and writer. His books include God As Political Philosopher: Buddha’s Challenge Brahminism, Why I am Not a Hindu and Buffalo Nationalism.