By Sheikh Umar Ahmad
April 14, 2019
Sheikh as a word in Arabic is a title denoting a political or spiritual leader of a community. It represents an honorific title, as in Saudi who particularly deals with the petroleum oil exports. In Sufism, a Sheikh is considered as a Sufi who is authorized to teach, initiate and guide aspiring dervishes in the Islamic faith. The Sheikh is vital to the path of novice Sufi, for the Sheikh has himself travelled to the path of mysticism. At certain places, it also denotes superiority of a family/group as head of a tribe or a leader in a Muslim community. Sometimes it’s the way an Islamic scholar is addressed. In simple, the word Sheikh voices as chief or wise old man.
The Sheikh clan in gulf countries is regarded as religiously superior, economically sound & placed at top in social hierarchy whereas, at most places in Indian sub-continent, Sheikh Rajputs are considered as the first to embrace Islam. The Saraswati Brahmin, including Mohyals, is believed to have adopted Sheikh as their title upon high caste conversion to Islam. The Kayastha’s adopted Islam as Muslim Kayasth’s that become part of Sheikh Community. Punjabi Sheikh’s are originally thought & traced back to the Arab royals which had come to south Asia to establish Islam and also high caste Hindu converts to Islam. Withstanding all these facts,
Sheikh Clan in Arabian countries or elsewhere in Pakistan, are placed at the top of social, religious & economic ladder. In India, this phrase sounds little unsound as most of the Sheikh’s whether they are the direct descendents of Arab Sheikhs, or in case, they are the Hindu convert’s, except for some few who are enjoying a state of luxurious life, the other’s in the fray are living in absolute misery & penury. There is a social stigma & misconfusion attached with it, that Sheikhs are those only who were in the past or right now repairing shoes (cobblers). Even if the Sheikh’s in India or else in Pakistan are financially sound, they are thought to have descended from the clan of cobblers only, which totally is a biased and irrational claim.
The Kashmiri Shaikhs/Sheikhs on the other hand are placed in the centre of both. They are considered to be a clan of Kashmiri origin found predominantly in Pakistan Punjab and also in India. After the advent of Islam into Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent, a significant number of Hindu Brahmins (of Kashmiri origin) converted to Islam and adopted the title of Sheikh and later migrated to other regions.
In Punjab, they are known as Kashmiri Shaikh. The Kashmiri Shaikhs are predominantly urban and placed at the lower side of social hierarchy. Their economic condition is considered to be in between and those who have stabilized their economy over years are thought to have descended either from the Arab Sheikh’s or negatively perceived as from cobblers. They are no doubt mostly descendents of several of Hindu castes, perhaps in the main of Hill Brahmins, but Islam has wiped out all tribal distinctions and has taken over the majority of population in Kashmir through the interventions of various Sufi saints of the likes of Hazrat Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani, Hazrat Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (Ameer-e-Kabeer) and the likes, having played a significant role in spreading Islam & spirituality in Kashmir.
It is at the time of their visit to Kashmir that much of the local population who were mostly dogra’s converted to Islam. Those who were superior based on their position in the society changed their surnames to Sheikh’s to carry forward their legacy of being religiously superior, economically sound & educationally uplifted. They took up this title to reflect their social hierarchy & to upgrade their status. Amid this transition & conversion, there were also other socially weaker sections of society that were professionally niched to repair shoes, winnows & kangri’s. They were more regarded as watals rather than being Sheikhs. Their Sheikh clan was separate & denoted as mooche Sheikh’s. This way the Sheikh as title reflects both the upper & lower flip of ladder. It includes both the lowest placed Sheikhs as watals & the upper Clans as being religious clerics.
This misnomer of Sheikh being falsely propagated, propagated misinformation through mis-communication which later on misrepresented the Sheikh’s in Kashmir as being weaker, socially senile & economically downtrodden. Some years back, It was very hard to share with somebody about being from Sheikh dynasty. Though the term is now more absorptive & more inclusive in society owing to change of standard of life, otherwise, the fate of lower placed Sheikh’s as minnow caste was hanging in balance and they were ignored in the society.
Even in these times, there is a barrier in between the cobbler’s (Moche Sheikh’s) and the general society which acted as a hindrance in their social, educational & economic upliftment. This thin line of social hierarchism should be reduced and we must adopt more reflexive, rational, biased & be more tolerant towards the core social community so as to develop model society for living in harmony.
We see states have left from these deep social slums & have developed by adopting peace, tranquillity & social equality. We must follow the same to increase the net neutrality in society by working towards curbing irrationality, partiality & casteism. This way only we can develop our standard of humanity not of our life to make this society more inclusive one.
Sheikh Umar Ahmadis a freelance writer & currently DST INSPIRE FELLOW at CSIR IIIM Jammu, (J&K)