Debate: Forget Past Choices of Thinkers, What Can Muslims Do Now to Tackle Caste?

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd correctly stated that Muslim political thinking is, by and large, silent on the inequities of the caste system. But the theological answers to why this was so are trivial and unsatisfying.

In his recent article, “Why Didn’t India’s Muslim Rulers and Thinkers Confront the Inequities of the Caste System?” Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd raises an important question that needs to be addressed thoughtfully to understand where we go from here. Shepherd is correct to state that Muslim political thinking is, by and large, silent on this question. This is in stark contrast to the deeply egalitarian message emphasised in both the Quran and Mohammed’s teachings.

Egalitarianism was important for Islam, especially in its formative moments, because Mohammed was assembling a social and political movement in stark contrast to the existing feudal, descent-based hierarchy that dominated Arab, and particularly Meccan, politics at his time. Many customs – those of praying side by side with whoever was present, shared meals at the breaking of fasts, and the many critical rules of zakat all encoded the theory of equal rights in practice. This was what so impressed Malcolm X on his Hajj, a lived equality that he had not encountered in the racially divided society of the US.

It was a difficult effort, and one whose limitations are only emphasised by Mohammed’s sermon, where he emphasised:

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over a white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”

But these attitudes were deeply entrenched and not so easily removed. In a sharp rebuke recorded as part of the Hadith traditions, Mohammed is said to have told two companions speaking of the families that people were descended from that their breath stank. Nonetheless, fairly quickly after his death, most Muslim regimes became empires based on descent. Many of them claimed “noble” blood for having been descended from Mohammed or his close companions. While retaining the idea of egalitarianism in theory, most Muslim regimes would go on to perpetuate the practice of descent-based privilege and exclusion that Mohammed had preached against.

The theory is not wholly immaterial. The existence of the Mamluk (literally “owned people”) or slave dynasties in India and Egypt could not have happened without this radical egalitarianism – or without the institution of slavery, another entrenched social practice that endured despite the moral push to free slaves as an aspect of good deeds in Islam. Most of these slaves – unlike the members of the Mamluk dynasties – would not have been Muslim. This illustrates one of the fundamental challenges of supposedly universal faiths, in that the universalities stressed in their codes, as in Mohammed’s last sermon, were interpreted largely to apply only to within the faith.

This forms one part of the answer to Shepherd’s question. Muslim theologians were far more interested in adherence to Islamic principles – even in the breach – amongst the ummah, than beyond it. If these practices became part of Muslim practice – as caste has – they could be dismissed merely as “deviations”, not something requiring a comprehensive intellectual challenge, but only a “cleansing” of the faith.

Another part of the answer to Shepherd’s question is given by Al Beruni, whose criticisms of the inequity of the caste system Shepherd quotes. By no means does Islam preach, that though everything comes from Allah, everything is good. Free will means that humans are free to choose their own path, good or bad, and even the best teachings can be corrupted. Al Beruni translated the first Kalima as, “There is no God by God, and Mohammed is his avatar.” This is because there is no concept of prophet in South Asian religions, just as there is no concept of avatar in Mediterranean ones.

The statue of Al Beruni in the United Nations Office in Vienna as part of the ‘Persian Scholars Pavilion’ donated by Iran. Photo: Yamaha5/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Furthermore, the Quran states that God sent messengers to all peoples, thus all people had their ways, even if they might have deviated from the straight and narrow. Al Beruni, and numerous Sufi and other thinkers, saw the Hindu pantheon through this lens, even if not all agreed. This meant that, once again, the inequities of the caste system could be dismissed as a mere deviation, and one not really involving “true” Muslims, not worthy of intellectual rebuttal.

Also Read: Why Didn’t India’s Muslim Rulers and Thinkers Confront the Inequities of the Caste System?

Trivial and unsatisfying answers

But the theological answers to Shepherd’s question are as trivial and unsatisfying as they are easily answered. The more important question is why the political reality of the caste system, something that has left a horrific scar across all communities in South Asia, has been avoided by Muslim politicians and political thinkers. Unlike the ways that caste could be defined as an externality to the religion, the caste system was intrinsic to Muslim polities in South Asia. The unwillingness to engage with its exclusionary, inequitable nature was a choice, with profound consequences that we still live with today.

This choice was, above all, political. Muslim rulers in the north, whether the Sultanate, the Mughals, or the brief interregnum of Sher Shah Suri were interested in power and stability, not revolution or conversion. When Uzbeks passed their code, the Suluk al-Muluk, penned by Fazl-Allah ibn Ruzbihani Isfahani, that marginalised the Shia and other minorities, Jahangir responded by stressing how, in contrast to the Safavid empire and the land of the Uzbeks, under the Mughals “the followers of all religions (adayan-o-mazahib) lived in peace and performed their rites and social practices freely.” These “social practices” included the caste system.

For those at the bottom, the caste system can be seen as a system of three exclusions: from access to religious texts and premises, from education, and from land ownership. In other words, those bearing the cost of this were the ones without power and money. And the Sultans and Mughal emperors were only interested in partnering with the ones that had both. Their wars were fought by those who could take up arms, and funded by those who had land. These were the bedrock of their empire, not landless labourers. And those that chose to convert to Islam to at least avoid some of the social, religious or educational exclusion, brought little wealth or power with them. In fact, until the jizya was dropped, conversion actually represented a drop in revenue as the poll tax for defending the empire no longer had to be paid by those that had converted.

What emancipatory tendencies existed happened despite of, and outside, the control of the courts. As Abhishek Kaicker’s excellent, The King and the People shows, when the Mughals enshrined ‘daulat’, originally meaning ‘grace’, but slowly acquiring the meaning of ‘wealth’ in common usage, as the central ‘gift’ of the Emperor to the people, it made prosperity the central purpose of empire. In time this empowered the lower middle class, who would – in time – go on to assert their own understanding of sovereignty against the understanding of the wealthy and powerful (both Muslim and Hindu). The practices of the – often transgressive – Sufi silsilas would interact with the Bhakti movement, pushing forward progressive leaders like the poet-saint Kabir. In both cases, the political class around Muslim kings had little to gain, and much to lose, by being associated with them.

It is this same focus on the political, on power and access, that explains why post-1857 Muslim thinkers and leaders shied away from caste. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan is an excellent example. For the British, who had emulated the Muslim rulers that they sought to displace, the revolt of Muslim leaders and the participation of Muslim clerics was particularly galling. Their response was unequivocal, with the Jama Masjid turned into a stables, Muslims banned from the imperial capital for a year until they could prove their ‘loyalty’, anti-Muslim tracts proliferated (much of which is now passed as off as ‘history’ by the Hindutva crowd), but most importantly, access to jobs and power was cut off.

The madaris had been the training schools for administrators of Muslim polities. Even Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of the East India Company, set one up. That was now ended. Any access to jobs in British India required British education. For people like Khan, and many of the shurfa that needed to survive, access – or at least reduced hostility – was necessary. The creation of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, which would go on to become Aligarh Muslim University, was a pathway to that. It was a response to British power crushing what was left of any Muslim with the capacity to resist. By definition, this did not include the repressed caste communities, of either Hindus or Muslims.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Photo: Unknown author via The Modern Review, Public Domain

Later, as the push for freedom rose again, and the British further weaponised their policy of divide and rule, the fight was again for the people with influence and those with votes. Voting was restricted to a small set of land-owning elite men until after Independence. While the Congress, after Gandhi’s entry, broadened its appeal to wider participation, the Muslim League – set up later – remained a party of landed elite. With Gandhi’s standoffs with Ambedkar, and the composition of the League being what it was, there was limited space for any Muslim politician and thinker in either party to address the issues of caste, either in confronting Gandhi or Jinnah, particularly by elite men who continued to see caste as an issue external to their community.

After Independence, especially after the trauma of Partition, the remains of the Muslim community mimicked the behaviour of their forefathers with the British after 1857. Unwilling to rock the boat, or jeopardise the limited access some of them had with the system – one almost exclusively dominated and shaped by upper caste men – there was no obvious upside to addressing the issue of caste either within the community or generally. In fact, for the elite Muslims whose greatest source of influence was access to the powers-that-be, to be doorkeepers, it was an excellent excuse not to acknowledge the issue at all. Sadly, the political parties that would lead the Mandal agitation such as the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, would also largely choose elite Muslims as their most prominent representatives, further limiting any incentive for Indian Muslims to become a part of the conversation in the most obvious manner – by addressing how caste has, largely through marriage and dining restrictions – become an important aspect of the Indian Muslim experience.

Also Read: Caste Among Indian Muslims Is a Real Issue. So Why Deny Them Reservation?

While these broad strokes can help answer the questions that Shepherd raises about the choices of the past by Muslim political thinkers, they do not answer the question of what the community can, or should, do now. The most obvious example is the protests led by Indian Muslims in the face of the bigotry of the National Register of Citizens-Citizenship Amendment Act (NRC/CAA) process. The most striking aspect of these protests is that they were not an elite movement, but one led by disparate actors from an emerging educated middle and lower middle class. Shaheen Bagh is not a housing colony of the rich and powerful, but of the middle class, and the lack of municipal services extended to the area is apparent.

Despite the neglect, despite the lack of apparent influence, this housing colony brought the issue of constitutionality, of equality under the law, to the notice of India, to the world. And in the many times that I made my way there, in the grammar of law, the constitution, and morality, the problem of the caste system and its inequities was clearly addressed.

While the Shaheen Bagh protests seem almost mythical in the past, they are an important inflection point for Muslim political articulation in India. For one reason or another, Muslim politics has been deeply inward-looking and elitist for much of the last millennium in South Asia. There are reasons – theological and political, good and bad – for why this has been so. That does not mean it has to remain so.