Amir Suhail Wani | June 11, 2022
NOT long ago, one Facebook user from the so-called Non-Syed background updated his marital status. He had been betrothed to a Syed girl and no sooner did he put on this update that a Pandora box opened up where people questioned the legitimacy and social consent for this “Syed – Non-Syed engagement”. The fact remains that caste plays an overtly predominant and pervasive role in shaping our social matrix, in generating and maintaining the social hierarchies and acting as base and substructure on which are erected dozens of other patterns of power relationships, social mobility, economic wellbeing and a host of other factors.
Caste system in South Asia in general and in Kashmir in particular, has hardened to such a degree and gained such an acceptance that any deviation there from is seen as no less than a rebellion. We do come across reports and incidents that prompt us to compare Syeds within Muslims with their Brahmin counterparts from Hinduism and likewise the lower tier castes (Also called Arzals) with Dalits and other “untouchables’ ‘ within Hinduism.
The case for caste, particularly in the Muslim context is one of irony and inversion. Muslims, at least the Ashraaf section (Syeds and other elite castes) have paradoxically invoked Islam itself in order to defend their claims to caste-based privilege and have fostered their case for caste by pitching their proximity to the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) and a sort of hidden sense of moral perfection. However, any serious student of Islam knows that idea of caste privilege does not align with Islam at all. The history of Islam and more importantly Quran – its canon doesn’t purport any such ideas, nor does it grant any sanction or legitimacy to such sickening claims, which tend to elevate the status of one individual or one clan over the other based on caste.
How is it then that the religion which stands out in crusading spirit against the caste system went on to be used as the very cushion and bedrock to assert the superiority of Syeds over Non-syeds and has been so invoked in die casting the caste matrix that there seems to be no escape or exit from the system as it exists now.
Here, a few things can be asserted and few reasons can be alluded to which seeded and garnered the caste system in an egalitarian religion like Islam. It is true that Arabs were smitten by their racial superiority in Pre-Islamic times and so much was their sense of superiority heightened that they derogatorily described Non-Arabs as Ajamis. However, the Islamic call to egalitarianism, solely governed by individual piety and God-centeredness was quick to suppress the Arabic arrogance of racial superiority.
It seems now that this suppression was temporary and superficial for the vast majority as we see within the life of Prophet (SAW) and immediately after his death, people started re-invoking caste, clan and tribal centric slogans to gather people around them, to agitate their infernal emotions and to thwart them against one another under these trifling pretexts. With the spread of Islam beyond the geographic contours of Arabia, the missionaries carried with themselves not only the message of Islam, but a sense of Arab superiority too.
This holds true to lesser degree for early Islamic missionaries and more to later missionaries from Persia and central Asia and it were these missionaries who brought Islam to the Indian subcontinent and to Kashmir. These missionaries, mostly belonging to the upper caste as they were with the added element of Syed genealogy inadvertently became the repositories and flag bearers of new faith in new geographies. This fuelled their sense of superiority and no wonder that for long stretches of time, until very recently, they continued to have monopoly over religious, social, political and educational institutions.
The caste consciousness brought with itself an increase of gulf between various castes giving birth not only to elements like psychological superiority but the social issues of out-casting, mistreating and marginalising castes at the lower rungs of caste hierarchy. Researchers argue that the elite Hindu castes like Brahmins and Rajputs, who converted to Islam were also adjusted in the higher echelons of caste matrix and this way, they were able to maintain the perks and privileges their former religion offered them, notwithstanding the egalitarian ideal of Islam.
Having said too much of the histrionics of the caste system particularly with reference to South Asia, we must also sensitise ourselves to the issues emerging from the system of caste hierarchy and investigate a panacea, if any, to the problem.
In their recent article for Kashmir Observer, Tabia Masoodi and Al Misda Masoom depicted how casteism is complicating the issues of marriage in Kashmir. Indeed, the caste system is most blatantly spotted within the institution of marriage. We have seen caste considerations breaking good matches in marriage. While there’s scope for reasoning and reaching a consensus on all matters, caste is a deal breaker in most cases.
To begin with, Syeds, almost invariably, are strongly against Caste-Exogamy and see any “Syed – Non-Syed” marital relationship as deviation which defiles the lineage and brings into it the elements of impurity. This definition of “Non-Syeds” as “The Marital Other” has seen a historical continuity in South Asia, though there is nothing in Quran and Sunnah to lend any legitimacy to this line of argument. Piety, conduct and character are the sole and defining determinants which govern the dynamics of marriage in Islam. Islam leaves out the consideration of caste and the sanctity and religious legitimacy that has been granted to caste in issues of marriage lacks Islamic precedent and sanction. However, caste is a social reality and there is no denying the fact that castes do, to an extent, reflect and govern the modes and mores of an individual and clan.
But to grant to this single fact so much of importance and sanctity that it becomes the sole deciding factor in our marriages and to additionally grant it a religious legitimacy is in contradiction to both the religious and social spirit. Not everything can be substantiated by data and empirical evidence. At times, we have to assign due importance to individual testimonies when the testimonies are too large in number and keep coming from different individuals now and then. It is based on these individual testimonies that one is driven to believe that caste echelons, particularly in villages, play an indispensable role in determining the social acceptance, social mobility and social stature of an individual. There are reports where the masses from so called lower castes are subjected to treatment too close to Hindu version of “Untouchability”. This is despite the fact that the first Muazzin of Islam was a black Ethiopian slave.
This makes one assert that the roots of caste are embedded in our historical and cultural mores and religion is not to be blamed for. Caste system has a strong influence on our ways of socialisation and how our peer groups are formed and the rules that determine the nature of our relationship with our friends, colleagues and peers from other castes.
The issues of caste are equally prominent within Ajlaafs and Arzaals themselves. This is to say that if Syeds conceptualise the entire non-Syed populace as “The Other”, there are subdivisions within “Non-Syeds” themselves which again govern and determine their inter-caste dynamics. If the castes were once affiliated with profession, they have now become hereditary, thereby solidifying and stiffening the matrix further.
Man has been defined as a social animal and this social aspect necessitates that we enter into social relationships with various individuals coming from diverse backgrounds. Caste should not rupture the embankments of society.
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