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Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 12: Modern Indian Ulema on the Caste Question


By Masood Alam Falahi

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand for


(Part 12 of Masood Alam Falahi's Urdu book Hindustan Mai Zat-Pat Aur Musalman (‘Casteism Among Muslims in India’))


Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 1

URL of Part 1: and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims-Part 1-The domination of-high-caste Muslims that parallels the Hindu case/d/3611

Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 2: Indian Muslim Society in the Shadow of Casteism

URL of Part 2:

Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 3: The Impact of the Aryan Invasion of India

 URL of Part 3:

Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 4: Early Anti-Aryan Movements in India

URL of Part 4:

Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 5: The Origin and Spread of Islam in India

URL of Part 5:

Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 6: : In the Period of ‘Muslim Rule’

URL of Part 6:‘muslim-rule’/d/3636

Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 7: The Role of the Medieval Ulema

URL of Part 7:

Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 8: Firoze Shah Tughlaq’s Reign

 URL of Part 8:’s-reign/d/3656

Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 9: Evidence from the Mughal Period

URL of Part 9:

Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 10: Transformations in the Colonial Period

URL of Part 10:

Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims - Part 11: Hindutva, Gandhism, and the Caste Question

URL of Part 11:,-gandhism,-and-the-caste-question/d/3672



Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and His Justification for Ashraf Hegemony


Alarmed at the prospects of vast numbers of Shudras seeking to escape caste slavery by converting to Islam and Christianity, ‘upper’ caste Hindu leaders launched various movements and organisations to Hinduise them and thereby keep them firmly within, and at the bottom of, the Hindu fold. The ostensible reforms that they engendered or advocated with regard to the rules of caste may not have represented a genuine change of heart at all on their part. Nor were they really radical. They might simply have been well-devised tactics to prevent the Shudras from abandoning Hinduism. This continues to be the case even today. Be that as it may, it is instructive, and, at the same time, deeply shocking, to note that while some ‘upper’ caste Hindu reformers were indeed willing to launch movements to critique some aspects of caste discrimination among the Hindus, and even to criticize some aspects of Hinduism, which itself is based principally on caste, till this very day there has not been a single organised effort or movement with the aim of putting an end to caste and caste-based discrimination and hierarchy among the Indian Muslims despite the fact these social evils have no sanction whatsoever in Islam, if properly understood. It is true that some Muslim intellectuals, including certain ulema, have tried to address this question in their own individual capacity, but it is the terrible fortune of the Muslim ummah that many supposedly great ulema and other Muslim intellectuals, past and present, have not only not done anything to combat these evils but have, directly or otherwise, even gone to the extent of arguing that caste and casteism are, in fact, ‘Islamic’.


Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and the Aligarh Movement


 Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (d. 1898) is regarded as a great Indian Muslim intellectual, reformer, educationist, and Islamic modernist. He was the founder of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, which was later converted into the Aligarh Muslim University. An ardent champion of modern education, he was a passionate supporter of British colonial rule.[i] It is erroneous to imagine, as many do, that he was concerned about the welfare of all, or even most, of the Indian Muslims. The fact of the matter is that he had no concern at all for the pathetic conditions of the vast majority of the Indian Muslims, who were of indigenous Shudra origins. Contrary to popular perception, he was bothered about the welfare of only the so-called ashraf among the Muslims. Moreover, he was firmly committed to preserving and reinforcing caste hierarchy among the Muslims and to the continued domination of the so-called ‘low’ caste Muslims at the hands of theashraf.

Syed Ahmad’s attitude towards the ‘low’ caste Muslims can be gauged from his description of the Revolt of 1857, in which disaffected Muslims played a major role. Syed Ahmad frantically sought to save the ashraf from being blamed for instigating, leading and participating in the Revolt, fearing that otherwise the British would take even more drastic measures against them than they already had. Recognising that the British could not now be dislodged from power, he knew that the fortunes of the ashrafcrucially depended on the goodwill of the British. Hence, he made every effort to convince the British of his claim that the ashraf had little or no role to play in the Revolt, which he blamed entirely on ‘low’ caste Muslims. The Revolt, he argued, was the handiwork of ignorant ‘riff-raff’ (jahils), and not of the Muslim ‘elites’ (ra‘is). In this way, he sought to impress on the British that the ashraf were their loyal servants. At the same time, he repeatedly appealed to his fellow ashraf to remain faithful to the British Raj. Further, he consistently defended ashraf privileges and vehemently denounced demands for equality and self-respect for the ‘low’ caste Muslims. He even sought to instigate the British against the latter by insisting that they were not faithful to the Raj.


In an address to the second convention of the Muhammadan Educational Conference in Lucknow in 1887, Syed Ahmad claimed said that ‘lowly (adna) families’ were ‘not useful (mufid) for the country or for the Government’. In contrast, the ‘nobles (ra’is) of high-status (‘ala) families’, he insisted, were loyal to the British and so ‘are useful to the country and the Government’. He referred to ‘Pathans, Syeds, Hashmis[ii] and Quraishis[iii]’ as his ‘own brothers’ (hamare bhai), ‘from whose blood’, he said, ‘the smell of the blood of Abraham emanates’. He shared their hope that they would be employed in top posts in the British Army, ‘wearing shimmering uniforms’. He assured them that this would happen soon, but for this, he added, they would have to win the favour of the British.  He also advised the Muslim ashraf attending the conference that only through higher modern education could they succeed and progress.[iv]

Syed Ahmad repeated his advice to the Muslim ashraf to remain firmly loyal to the British in an article he penned in the weekly journal The Loyal Mohammadans of India. Therein he claimed, against all evidence, that in the course of the Revolt ‘if any community sided with the British, it was the Muslims. We can in no way support those Muslims who sided with the rebels [...] Their behaviour was detestable. Their participation in this animalistic massacre is simply inexcusable.’[v]


In the above-quoted reference, Syed Ahmad used the word ‘Muslim’ (musalman in the Urdu original), but it is apparent from his other speeches and writings that by this term he meant simply the so-called ashraf.

To defend the ashraf from the wrath of the avenging British in the aftermath of the 1857 Revolt, Syed Ahmad penned a treatise titled Asbab-e Baghawat-e Hind or ‘The Causes of the Indian Revolt’. In it he accused the so-called ‘low’ caste Ansaris, whom he abusively referred to as ‘Julahas’, for ‘being the most active’ in the Revolt.[vi] Ali Anwar argues that the publication of this book in Urdu, and then its translation into English, was a well-designed strategy to convince the British of the claim that the ashraf were loyal to them and that the Muslims who had revolted against them were from the ‘low’ castes.[vii] In this way, Syed Ahmad and his fellow ashraf supporters sought to win the favour of the British, even if this meant instigating the latter against the so-called ‘low’ caste Muslims.


Syed Ahmad’s visceral opposition to the emancipation of the ‘low’ castes, Muslims as well as others, can be gauged by further examining his speech to the second convention of the Muhammadan Educational Conference referred to earlier. In this speech he vehemently opposed the suggestion that members of the Legislative Council be democratically elected because, he argued, in this way ‘ordinary’ people (and this included, in particular, people of ‘low’ caste background, Muslim, Hindu and other) could also be chosen. In this event, he wrote, expressing his horror, such men would ‘address the Viceroy’ and ‘sit at the same table’ as the so-called ashraf. This he regarded as a wholly unacceptable prospect. He insisted that only men from ‘high’ families could have that honour. He argued that membership of the Legislative Council be restricted to those of ‘high’ caste, and that it must not be based on merit or ability for on that basis men of ‘low’ caste might be elected or nominated. As he put it, the Government should reserve the Council only for those ra‘is ‘whom it considers worthy and respectable enough to occupy [the Council’s] seats’.[viii] Dismissing the suggestion that the Government nominate men to the Council on the basis of their merit and capacity, he remarked:


‘In order to sit with the Viceroy in the Council, it is essential that members be respectable (muaziz) men among the most respectable men of the country. Will the ra‘is of our country ever like it if a man of low status (adna darja), even if he has acquired a BA or even an MA degree, rule over them and control their wealth, property and respect? Never! Not a single [ra‘is] will approve of this (Cheers). A seat in the Government’s Council is a very honourable thing. The government is bound not to permit anyone but a respectable person to occupy it. The Viceroy cannot refer to him [a man from other than a ‘respectable’ family] as “My Colleague” or “My Honourable Colleague”. Nor can [such a person] be invited to royal dinners or to royal conventions, where dukes, earls and other very respectable men gather. Hence, the Government cannot at all be blamed for nominating [only] ra‘is [to the Council].’[ix]


Syed Ahmad’s dogged opposition to social equality and to the progress of the ‘low’ castes, Muslims as well as others, led him to fiercely oppose the holding of examinations for the Indian Civil Service simultaneously in India and in England. Had this been allowed, it would have benefitted ‘low’ caste candidates, who, unlike the so-called ‘respectable nobles’ whom Syed Ahmad represented, could not have afforded to travel to England for the examinations. But the prospect of ‘low’ caste people entering the Civil Services was too horrific for Syed Ahmad to tolerate and he vociferously condemned the suggestion that the examinations be held in India as well. His utter disdain for the ‘low’ castes, Muslims and others, is readily apparent in what he had to say in the defence of his position in this regard:

‘It is apparent that in Britain every person, high and low, be he the son of a duke, an earl, a gentleman or a nobleman or the son of a tailor or any family belonging to the lower orders, can equally compete for the [Indian Civil Service] examinations. The Europeans who pass this examination and come here [India] are of both lowly as well as high-status families. You all must certainly believe that people from lowly families are not useful for the country or for the Government [...] But the [civil servants] who come from England are so far from our eyes that we have no idea if they are the sons of lords or dukes or tailors (Cheers), and if [among them] a lowly man rules over us, it is concealed from our eyes [...] But the noble (sharif) communities (qaumen) of India would not like a low-grade [Indian] person, whose roots they know well, to rule over their lives and wealth (Cheers).’[x]


Given Syed Ahmad’s passionate commitment to his fellow ashraf and his fierce opposition to the progress and emancipation of the indigenous Muslims of Shudra origin, it is hardly surprising that the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, also known as the Madrasat ul-Ulum, which he set up in Aligarh was originally meant only for theashraf. As Abu Khalid Bin Saidi comments:

‘It is clear from most of the writings of the late Syed Ahmad Khan that he established the Madrasat ul-Ulum at Aligarh in order to rehabilitate the ashrafclass in the wake of the destruction wrought by the Revolt. That is why till 1947 the character certificate of students graduating from [the college] clearly mentioned: “This person comes from a noble (sharif) family of his district”.’[xi]


Likewise, Abdur Rahman Abid candidly remarks, ‘Sir Syed’s target, through the Aligarh movement, was the ashraf. It was for the ashraf alone that he laid the foundation of the Aligarh college.’ Similarly, Syed Muhammad Hashim Kidwai, a former Member of Parliament who taught for many years at the Aligarh Muslim University, confesses that Syed Ahmad ‘unfortunately did not oppose the conflict (fitna) between the ashraf and the ajlaf’ and, moreover, ‘advised that Western education be limited only to theashraf’.[xii] Echoing this view, the noted French scholar of Indian Muslim history, Marc Gaborieau, mentions that Syed Ahmad insisted on numerous occasions that his college was not meant for ‘Julahas’, or, in other words, non-ashraf Muslims.[xiii]


What these commentators have claimed is undeniably true. Their assertions are reinforced by Syed Ahmad Khan’s speech to the second convention of the Muhammadan Educational Conference in Lucknow in 1887, referred to earlier, where he mentioned, ‘My attention has always been drawn to the issue of the education of my Muslim brethren (meri musalman bhai)’. In the same speech he spoke of his ‘brothers’ as being ‘Pathans, Syeds, Hashmis and Quraishis’[xiv]. Taken together, these statements suggest that as far as he was concerned, only the so-called ashraf were actually Muslims.  


That Syed Ahmad believed in modern education only for the ashraf and not for the other Muslims is also apparent from a speech he delivered at Jalandhar in 1894, where he advocated a limited form of education for Muslim women’s education but mentioned in this regard only ashraf women. Thus, after expressing his opposition to Muslim families sending their daughters to schools, he said:

‘I very forcefully advise that the ashraf should get together and make arrangements for their daughters that should be patterned on the traditional style [of education] that was once in place.’[xv]


To repeat a point already made above, while Syed Ahmad Khan passionately argued for modern, Western-style education for the ashraf, he was forcefully opposed to such education for the so-called ‘low’ caste Muslims, who form the vast majority of the Indian Muslim population. This was because while he wanted the ashraf to prosper under the British, for which modern education was indispensable, he also wanted the so-called ‘low’ castes to remain under the subordination of the ashraf, which was only possible if they continued to be denied access to modern education.


This sharp contradiction in Syed Ahmad’s attitude to modern education and his firm opposition to the emancipation of the ‘low’ caste Muslims through modern education is clearly brought out in the following incident. Once, Syed Ahmad Khan was invited to a function organised by the Madrasa Anjuman-e Islamiya, a madrasa in Bareilly where poor ‘low’ caste Muslim students studied. There, he was presented with an address by the madrasa authorities, wherein the authorities suggested the need for its students to study modern disciplines along with traditional Islamic subjects. In response to the address, he delivered a speech wherein he commented:


‘In your address you have mentioned that we should not hesitate to acquire the knowledge of other communities. Perhaps by this is meant the teaching of English. But, I tell you, with regard to a madrasa like yours, teaching English is a very grave blunder. There is no doubt that there is a pressing need for [knowledge of] the English language and for the teaching of British sciences (angrezi ulum). It is incumbent on the leaders (sardars) and nobility (sharifon) of our community (qaum) to provide higher education to their sons in the British sciences. No one is a greater supporter of the spread of English education and sciences among the Muslims than me. But there is a time and place for everything. I have seen that in your madrasa, located in the courtyard of a mosque [...], there are 75 boys engaged in studying. Given the status (haisiyat) and the class of these boys, it is useless to teach them English. Keep them busy with the old system of [madrasa] education—that is better for them and for the country [...] It would be appropriate if you could make efforts to teach the boys to read and write a bit, some basic mathematics enough for necessary work, and a few small booklets through which they can learn the rules of ritual worship (namaz), fasting (roza) and the simple beliefs of the Muslim religion (musalmani mazhab).’[xvi]


This, in brief, was how the man glorified as the harbinger of modernity among the Indian Muslims, and projected as an intrepid revolutionary, viewed the burning question of caste and caste-based hierarchies and inequalities among the Indian Muslims.

[i] In numerous places in his Asbab-e Baghawat-e Hind, Syed Ahmad refers to the British Raj as ‘our Government’ in order to exhibit his loyalty. In his address to the Muhammadan Educational Conference in Lucknow in 1887 he went so far as to insist:


‘If my good fortune permitted and I became the Viceroy, I assure you that as a very strong Viceroy I would firmly preserve Empress Victoria’s government in India. The virtues that any government ought to possess are exhibited by the British Government.’ (Syed Ahmad Khan, Khutbat-e Sir Syed, [compiled by Muhammad Ismail Panipati], Majlis-e Taraqqi-e Adab, Lahore, 1973, pp. 9-10).

[ii] Muslims who claim descent from the tribe of Banu Hashim, to which the Prophet Muhammad belonged.

[iii] These Quraishis, distinct from Muslims of the Qasai or butcher caste who also call themselves by this term, claim to be descended from the Quraish clan to which the Prophet Muhammad belonged.

[iv] Khan, op.cit., pp.24-27.

[v] Quoted in Ali Anwar, Masavat ki Jang: Pas-e Manzar Bihar ke Pasmanda Musalman, Vani Parkashan Delhi, 2001, p.101.

[vi] Syed Ahmad Khan, Asbab-e Baghawat-e Hind, University Publishers, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, 1958, p. 60.

[vii] Anwar, op.cit., p. 101.

[viii] Khan, Khutbat…, op.cit., p.5.

[ix] Khan, Khutbat…, op.cit., p.6.

[x] Khan, Khutbat…, op.cit., pp. 12-13.

[xi] Abu Khalid Bin Saidi, quoted Ashfaq Mohammad Khan, (ed.) Hindustani Mu‘ashre Mein Musalmano Ke Masail, Patriot Publishers, New Delhi, 1990, p.341.

[xii] Syed Muhammad Hashim Kidwai, ‘A Nikal ke Maidan Mai Dozakhi ke Khane Mai’, Roznama Rashtriya Sahara(Urdu), 30 December, 2001, New Delhi, p.3.

[xiii] Quoted in Dileep Karanth, Caste in Medieval India: The Beginnings of a Re-Examination (

[xiv] Khan, Khutbat…,op.cit., p.3.

[xv] Khan, Khutbat…,op.cit., p. 279.

[xvi] Quoted in Atiq Siddiqui, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Ek Siyasi Muta‘ala, Maktaba Jamia, New Delhi, 1977, pp. 144-45.