Caste discrimination that affects millions of Muslims in India

You might be wondering: how can there be caste discrimination among Muslims when Islam is a casteless faith with an emphasis on egalitarianism[i]? Well, that’s a good question. Islam does not recognize any hierarchy based on birth or ancestry. The Quran says: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.” (49:13)

However, the reality is that many Muslims in India have adopted the caste system from Hinduism and practice it in their social and religious life. There are three broad categories of Muslims in India: Ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal. Ashraf are those who claim to be descendants of foreign invaders or upper-caste Hindu converts. They consider themselves superior to other Muslims and enjoy privileges in terms of education, wealth and political power. Ajlaf are those who belong to lower-caste Hindu converts or indigenous Muslim communities. They are mostly artisans, traders and peasants. Arzal are those who are considered untouchable by other Muslims. They are mostly scavengers, sweepers and leather workers.

These categories are not fixed or uniform across India. They vary from region to region and sometimes even within the same region. But they have a significant impact on the lives of millions of Muslims who face discrimination, oppression and exclusion based on their caste identity.

One of the most marginalized groups among Muslims in India are the Pasmanda Muslims. Pasmanda means “left behind” in Persian. It is a term used by Muslim associations to define themselves as communities who are historically and socially oppressed by caste. Pasmanda Muslims comprise about 85% of the Muslim population in India. They include both Ajlaf and Arzal Muslims.

Pasmanda Muslims have been fighting for their rights and dignity for decades. They have demanded reservation in government jobs and education as well as recognition as Scheduled Castes (SCs). They have also challenged the dominance of Ashraf Muslims in Muslim politics and representation. They have formed various organizations and movements to voice their concerns and aspirations.

One such organization is the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind (JUH), which is one of the oldest and largest Muslim bodies in India. The JUH has recently filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking SC status for Dalit Muslims. The significance of this petition is that it is the first time ever that a Muslim body in India has explicitly admitted to the presence of a caste system among Indian Muslims. The JUH has become the first Muslim body to accept caste-based Pasmanda Muslim identity of community members.

The petition seeks to grant SC status to Dalit Muslims so that they can benefit from reservation in government jobs and admission to educational institutions. This move is seen as another step towards the Indianization of Islam and quite contrary to the teachings of Prophet Muhammad who emphasized the equality of the human race.

The petition has sparked a debate among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Some support it as a progressive and pragmatic step to uplift the oppressed sections of the Muslim community. Others oppose it as a divisive and un-Islamic move that will further fragment the Muslim community.

What do you think about this issue? Do you think caste discrimination among Muslims is a reality or a myth? Do you think reservation for Dalit Muslims is justified or not? Do you think Islam is compatible with caste or not? Share your views in the comments section below.

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[i] the doctrine that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.

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