“Casteism” in South Asian Islam

Today, I am reading Sayyid Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi’s short book, Muslims in India. Nadwi (1914-1999), often known as Ali Miyan, was a renowned Islamic scholar from Lucknow who wrote over fifty books. He was considered a key leader in the Deobandi and Tablighi Jamaat movements. As I read, I am amazed at some of the blinders that he has in this book that prevented him from seeing his own prejudice.

Nadwi wrote that Indian Muslims have a “natural awareness of human dignity and equality” (61). He then elaborated that “Things like social exclusiveness or untouchability are completely foreign to Muslim society.” In brief, Nadwi argued in this book that Muslims stood for complete equality of all and had not fallen into the casteism of Hindus.

However, a few pages later, Nadwi noted two issues in South Asian Islam that are, in essence, caste-related. First, Nadwi noted that marriage among South Asian Muslims occurs only with others of “an equal genealogical status” (68). In anthropology, this is called endogamy, which is a group’s trait to only marry within their own group. The caste system in Hinduism is likewise propagated partly by ensuring that caste members do not marry outside of their caste. One particularly poignant example are the Sayyid, who are something like the Brahman of South Asian Islam.  

In South Asia, the Sayyid function something like the priestly class of Islam. Most believe that Sufi mystics (i.e., pirs) must be Sayyid. Sufi mystics serve as spiritual leaders in South Asian Islam who are mediators between man and God. Therefore, most South Asian Muslims think that only a particular caste of Muslims should be set apart for this vital role. Sayyid are understood to be descendants of the Qureshi Arab tribe, which is the same tribe that Muhammad was from. Therefore, within South Asian Islam, those descended from Muhammad are understood to be a superior caste with special privileges. In fact, Nadwi was Sayyid, meaning that it may have been difficult for him, being from a privileged caste, to see the casteism in his own belief system. Other Sayyids, such as Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan (d. 1898), were famous for their disdain of local converts to Islam, seeing them as second class Muslims.

The second issue that Nadwi noted is seen in this quote,

“The disgraceful treatment meted out to servants by their masters, which is sometimes so outrageous as to reduce the servants to the level of untouchables, is again, a product of the social impulses received from India together with being a mark of the general degeneration that had set in among the Muslims during the declining years of their power (68).”

This quote indicates that many Muslims in South Asia have adopted the South Asian attitude of casteism. Some individuals are privileged above others. In this mindset, the master is of more value than the servant. This mindset has continued in South Asia through the perpetuation of low castes within Islam. For example, Hindu haircutters in South Asia have traditionally been called Nai. When Nai converted to Islam in large numbers, they took the Arabic name Hazzam, while continuing to marry within their own community. If a young man is born into a Hazzam family,  he will also learn the family trade of haircutting. In South Asia, more and more individuals are breaking through the ceiling of their castes through education. However, the basic caste concept persists, even in Islam. In South Asia, many similar groups marry only within their own castes, which are defined by a particular trade. 

What does this mean for Christians who are ministering among the Muslims of South Asia? 

  1. We must not allow the sin of casteism to come into our hearts! We must treat every person with dignity and respect, despite how the society around them considers them. Every Muslim in South Asia, no matter their lineage or status, is created in God’s image. Since they bear God’s image, we are obligated to treat them as our neighbor and equal. We should show all Muslims the love that Jesus displayed when He died on the cross for our sins.
  2. Perhaps the most concrete action we can take to make sure that we do not fall into casteism is to really see the people around us. We should make a practice of looking past people’s jobs and status. We should see their faces and pray for them. As we see them, we will each struggle with questions of how to respond in the face of such great poverty and need. Often, we cannot provide solutions for every need that we see. However, we need to be willing to see the pain and the brokenness around us and bring it to Christ in prayer.
  3. The sin of casteism is alive and well among South Asian Muslims. As Muslims begin to follow Jesus, we must help them to set aside their casteism. 
  4. In Hinduism, those of low caste and untouchables have readily abandoned Hinduism. Some have followed Jesus, while others have become Muslims, Buddhists, or Sikhs historically. In contrast, few Brahman have chosen to follow Jesus. Similarly, it is likely that Muslims of “lower castes,” especially those who have been mistreated by other Muslims because of their status, will be most receptive to the gospel.

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