The muslim castes in India

Muslim tailor. India.

Hindus have their own caste system founded on the degree of ritual purity. But indian muslims have also a hierarchical system ( this goes against the koranic teaching of equality), with professions considered as more or less respectable and “pure”. But the muslim hierarchy is more social and cultural than religious.

On the top, there are the “ashraf”, noblemen who are the descendants of the first invaders who brought Islam to India ( in the XII°-XIII°centuries). Below, the peasants, the breeders and the “respectable” craftsmen like stone carvers, goldsmiths, smiths, carpenters,…all these professions forming the traders of the “bazaar”. Even below, laundry men, alcohol brewers ( some of them are rich), barbers and butchers. Yet the two last have a religious importance. The butcher kill the goats, sheeps, buffaloes,…according to the muslim tradition so the meat is considered lawful for consumption and the barber is traditionally the only one who can perform the circumcision ( an operation that symbolizes the entrance of the young boy in Islam). At the bottom of the social hierarchy, the craftsmen whose profession is despised, that is to say the weavers, the carders, the bracelet manufacturers,… all the professions related to clothing and adornment. In the 30’s, they were the first to criticize the notables parties ( the Congress and the Muslim League) that fought only for the high castes interests. Finally, the “outcasts”, the untouchable muslims : the tanners, the shoemakers, the sweepers. But, contrary to the hindus, muslims don’t feel polluted by touching or being touched by such a person. That doesn’t prevent the high castes to refuse to eat with sweepers and tanners.

In some ways, the muslim community is more attached to the principle of “equality” than the hindus, but this notion has to be relativized. Outside the public space ( the city centres, the mosques, the “bazaar”), there is no place for equality. For example, a muslim man cannot marry a woman belonging to an upper caste than his own. He may marry with an hindu woman if she converts, but a muslim woman cannot marry with a non-muslim man. Many hindus have converted to Islam to escape the hindu caste system. Indeed, the muslim social stratification is less discriminatory.

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