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Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims – Part 7

Caste and Caste-Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims – Part 7

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

Continued from here.

Masood Alam Falahi

(Translated by Yoginder Sikand for

[Part 7 of Masood Alam Falahi‘s Urdu book Hindustan Mai Zat-Pat Aur Musalman (‘Casteism Among Muslims in India’)]


Following the end of the short-lived Arab rule in western India, the Muslim dynasties that followed and ruled vast parts of India for some five hundred years all strictly upheld and enforced the Brahminical law of caste. In this entire period, the overall conditions of the oppressed castes who had converted to Islam remained pathetic. Because of this, the pace of conversion of the oppressed Shudras to Islam slowed down considerably. For many ‘low’ caste people who witnessed the Muslim rulers so passionately upholding caste divisions and discriminations, conversion to Islam no longer appeared as a means for social liberation. They saw no difference in their oppression and degradation under the Brahmins and that of ‘low’ caste Muslim converts. In this way, the caste-conscious Muslim rulers proved to be a great stumbling block in the further spread of Islam in India.

The reign of Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq (d. 1351), who ascended the throne of Delhi in 1325, was somewhat different in this regard. He is said to have been a pious Muslim, an Islamic scholar in his own right. He was, so it is said, very regular in his prayers and had even memorised the entire Quran. At first, like most Muslim rulers of Delhi before him, he appointed large numbers of ‘high’ caste Muslims, especially those of foreign birth or descent, to top posts and bestowed on them vast estates and land grants. At this stage, he ignored the needs and interests of his own indigenous Indian subjects, Muslims as well as Hindus. However, later in his reign the Sultan developed sharp differences, to the point of enmity, with many of the foreign so-called ashraf elites whom he had earlier so lavishly patronised. The reason for this, as Kunwar Mohammad Ashraf writes, was that these foreigners had come to India simply to feather their own nests, to acquire as much wealth as they could and then quickly return to their countries. Therefore, their loyalty to the Sultan was always doubtful. Many of them were not interested in posts that would require them to stay on in India for what they considered was an excessively long period. Even those few who chose to settle down in India were motivated only by the desire for personal aggrandisement, not for promoting the prosperity of the country or for improving the functioning of the state’s administrative apparatus.[i]

It is likely that the transformation in Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s attitude and policies towards the foreign so-called ashraf was also influenced by his personal piety, which might have made him unwilling to accept patently un-Islamic customs, practices and beliefs widespread among many so-called ashraf, such as those related to caste. His commitment to Islam is evident, for instance, from his patronising of pious ulema, his reverence for genuine Sufis, and for his opposition to wrongful and un-Islamic innovations or biddat. This is said to have won him the opposition of many ‘worldly’ mullahs and fake Sufis, who thrived on promoting a wide range of un-Islamic beliefs and practices.

With a noticeable shift in the Sultan’s policies towards the so-called ashraf nobility, a number of revolts broke out in different parts of his kingdom, spearheaded by disgruntled so-called ashraf, which were supported by corrupt mullahs and Syeds and fake Sufis, who, too, were from the so-called ashraf class. This further reinforced the Sultan’s opposition to the so-called ashraf, and he crushed their revolts with severity. Kunwar Mohammad Ashraf explains:

‘Following this, Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq lost all faith in the foreigners and was forced to reconsider his policies. He now had no expectations from foreigners or people of foreign extraction. […] He had experienced the foreign Muslims, and they had proved a failure as far as the kingdom was concerned. Now, only one alternative remained—and that was to try the local, Indian people themselves, irrespective of religion and race. That is why towards the end of his reign he adopted a very democratic approach in administrative matters.'[ii]

In accordance with this new policy, the Sultan took the bold step of confiscating all the land grants and other privileges of the foreign self-styled shurafa, including ulema and so-called Sufis, who had led or participated in revolts against him. These men were staunch supporters of the thoroughly un-Islamic institutions of caste and ashraf hegemony. The Sultan went even further and appointed a large number of Muslims from indigenous oppressed caste backgrounds to very senior positions in the civil service and the army. He bestowed the title of qawwam al-mulk on Kannu, a Hindu servant of Rudradev, ruler of Telengana, who had converted to Islam, and appointed him governor of Multan. Later, he gave him the exalted title of khan-e jahan and made him deputy ruler of Gujarat. He granted the title of aziz ul-mulk to Azizuddin, a recent convert to Islam from the ‘low’ status Kalal caste, and appointed him governor of Dhar.[iii] He appointed an indigenous Indian Muslim, Nusrat Khan, also known as Shihabuddin Sultani, as governor of Bidar.[iv] Yet another ‘new Muslim’ (nau musalman), from the Baqqal (also known as Rain or Kunjara) caste of vegetable sellers was named governor of Zaffarabad and Awadh. One can cite many more such instances of the Sultan’s policy of patronising Muslims of Indian origin, converts from among the Indian people, most of who were of oppressed caste origin. In this way the Sultan exemplified the Islamic commitment to social equality, which had been eclipsed by earlier Sultans who were firmly committed to the hegemony of the so-called ashraf and to the subordination and degradation of the oppressed castes. It is likely that the Sultan’s favourable policies with regard to the nau musalman also helped in the spread of Islam among the oppressed Shudras.

It appears that, like many other so-called ashraf, a sizeable number of fake Sufis and ulema of foreign descent associated with the royal court were incensed with the Sultan’s changed policies vis-a-vis the ashraf, on the one hand, and the indigenous, oppressed caste Muslims, on the other. They were of the firm belief that the latter had no place in the court at all, and were always on the lookout for ways to expel them from there. This section of Muslim religious professionals had lost all commitment to Islam, their major concern being to curry favour with the rulers so that they could gain power and accumulate wealth. So greedy and hungry for worldly pleasures were they that they showed no hesitation in deliberately misinterpreting the Quran and the Hadith to please the rulers. As Amir Khusrau, a noted disciple of the famous Chishti Sufi Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya, and a contemporary of Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq, remarked:

‘The respect for the ulema in society is purely formal and ritualistic […] If one’s respect and standing in society is determined by one’s qualities, then without any fear of contradiction it can be safely said that ordinary people are a thousand times better than the ulema class […] The Qazis are totally ignorant of Islamic laws and simply incapable and unfit for any responsible post in the government. They have no knowledge and no sort of skill or capacity. Whenever a tyrannical Sultan ascends the throne, they assist him. In their own personal lives they openly act against religious rules.'[v]

Ziauddin Barani: A Casteist Mullah and His Anti-Islamic Ways

Ziauddin Barani, a Syed, was one of the noted historians of the period under discussion. He was the author of the Fatawa-e Jahandari and the Tarikh-e Firoze Shahi, both of which he wrote in order to flatter the rulers of his time. He himself admitted that, together with other ulema, he sought to flatter the Sultan and pander to his desires, and that in order to enrich himself he deliberately interpreted the Quran incorrectly and quoted traditions of doubtful authenticity. Repenting in his later life for his sins, Barani very candidly admitted:

‘We who deny the favours of God, who had read a bit and acquired some knowledge, which is a means for respect and honour, became victims of hypocrisy out of greed for worldly pelf. We were among those close to the Sultan but we did not speak the truth in front of him on the matter of inflicting punishments that are against the shariah. Fearing our life, which is sure to go one day, and scared of losing our wealth, which is one day bound to finish, we were scared of him and regarded it convenient not to speak the truth before him and remain silent on the matter of punishments that violate the shariah. In the greed to acquire his closeness and an exalted status, we agreed with him and assisted him in acting against the laws of the faith and recited narrations of dubious authenticity in front of him. I do not know if others also behaved in the same way as I did. As a result of what I did and said, now, in my old age, I have become debased, stricken with calamities and without any helper, dependent on others, and stripped of honour. This is my state in this world. I have no idea what my condition will be in the life to come and what all punishments I will have to suffer.'[vi]

Both of Barani’s books are replete with scurrilous abuses against oppressed caste people who embraced Islam on their own volition. Barani describes them as ‘despicable’, ‘mean’ and ‘low-born’, and contrasts them with his own Syed family, which he praises as ‘high-born’, ‘extremely respectable’, and as ‘revered by the entire world’. He boasts that they were ‘so highly knowledgeable, God-fearing and pious that their qualities are beyond description’. He even claims that members of his family were able to perform miracles (karamat).[vii]

Barani was a staunch defender of the caste system, for which he wrongly sought to provide Islamic legitimacy. Thus, he argued:

‘From the very beginning of Time itself, positive and negative characteristics have been distributed among, and allotted to, human beings. The actions and thoughts of human beings are determined by the commandment of God. When the All-Powerful God produces some good or bad in a human being, He gives him the capacity needed to express that particular good or bad quality. This capacity is hereditary, and because goodness is given to those who adopt good professions, they have been called as of high status, free-born, pious, religious, and of superior lineage. Only such people and groups deserve posts and positions in the government of the Muslims. No benefit can be had in this world through helping the despicable and low-born progress. Because to act against the will of the Creator of the Universe is to have no care for the future, one should not be deceived by the low-born, for their merits are false, not genuine.’

To justify the wholly un-Islamic notion of caste and ethnic superiority in the face of Islamic teachings to the contrary, Barani did not hesitate to distort clear Quranic commandments about human equality. Thus, for instance, he linked the Quranic verse ‘Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you’ (49: 13) with the so-calledashraf and contended:

‘Sacredness is the right of the ashraf. Hence, if any person is pious it must certainly be that he has ashraf elements in his ancestry. But if it is proven that he is low-born then his holiness is only show. If in the eyes of God Qasais, Julahas and the sons of shopkeepers have greater respect, it is truly a matter of shame.’

Further, he says:

‘Sultans, Sufis and Sufi shaikhs are superior to everyone else, and their status is equal to that of the prophets. The high-born advisors of the Sultans can understand those secrets that God has kept concealed in the Hidden Tablet (lauh-e mahfuz).’

Barani insisted that rulers must not provide any opportunity for the oppressed castes to advance, claiming that this was against the Divine will. He advised rulers to forbid the ‘low’ castes from acquiring knowledge thus:

‘The ruler must keep low-born Muslims away from education. If anyone dares to give them education he must be punished. And not just that, such a person must be sent into exile.’

It was not only in denying the oppressed caste Muslims knowledge and education that Barani echoed the Brahmin Manu. Like Manu and other Brahmin defenders of the caste system, Barani also insisted that every person must adopt the occupation of his father, that is to say his hereditary caste occupation. Thus, he laid down:

‘Every person must be compelled to follow the occupation of his ancestors.'[viii]

Quite expectedly, Barani was vociferously opposed to Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s changed policy towards the indigenous Muslims, particularly those from the oppressed castes. For him the Sultan’s appointing such Muslims to high posts was nothing short of anathema, and he minced no words in castigating the Sultan for this. Thus, he complained that the Sultan had appointed the ‘low-born’ Aziz Khumar, a man from the Kalal caste whose ancestral profession was making liquor, in-charge of Dhar and the whole of Malwa. He was upset that to ‘bolster his power and glory’ the Sultan had provided him with ‘many hundreds of thousands of tankas’. Aziz Khumar, he wrote, had been told ‘that the root of all strife and conflict are the nobles’ and, hence, that if he suspected any of them he was free to finish them off. Barani alleged that Aziz Khumar, whom he calls ‘the son of an adulteress’, was surrounded by numerous ‘despicable and low-born men’, and that he was ‘puffed up with pride’. He accused him of killing 80 ashraf umara or nobles in Dhar after accusing them of fomenting revolt against the Sultan. When the Sultan heard of this, he was, so Barani claimed, so pleased that he sent Aziz Khumar a special robe and fine horses, and ‘ordered that everyone should send letters full of love to him and praise his dastardly act.'[ix]

Barani further rued that the Sultan had similarly patronised and raised numerous other ‘despicable’ men, Muslims of Shudra origin, to high posts, such as Najayya of the caste of professional singers, Aziz Khumar’s own brother, a certain Firoze of the Hajjam or barber caste, Miknah of the Tabbakh or baker caste, Masud Khumar, Ludhiya of the Baghban or Mali caste, and ‘several other such low-born people’. To many of these, Barani lamented, the Sultan gave vast land grants and ‘raised their status above that of the nobles’. Barani noted, with no attempt to conceal his anger, that the Sultan ‘granted his closeness’ to Shaikh Babu Naik, whom Barani contemptuously referred to as ‘that son of a Julaha’ (julaha baccha). He mentioned that the Sultan granted the post of diwan-e wazarat to Pira of the Mali caste, whom he termed ‘the lowest of the low and the most despicable of all the despicable in all of Hind and Sindh’. He appointed Kishan Bazran, whom Baran described as ‘the most lowly of the low-born’ as governor of Awadh, and Maqbal, slave of Ahmad Ayyaz, whom Barani decried as ‘in his looks and his character a cause of great shame for all slaves’, as governor or Gujarat. Barani also complained that the Sultan ‘did not consider the high-born worthy of entering his court’.[x]

Sultan Muhammad Tughlaq’s Assassination and the Conspiracy to Replace Him With Firoze Shah Tughlaq

The so-called ashraf nobility, who were fanatically wedded to caste and ethnic superiority, were, as I have mentioned above, incensed with Sultan Muhammad Tughlaq for appointing oppressed caste indigenous Muslims to top posts in his kingdom. Faced with this very grave threat to their hegemony, they plotted to get rid of him.

The noted historian Maulana Akbar Shah Khan Najibabadi writes that in 1346-47 the Sultan dismissed numerous ashraf umara, led by Qutlagh Khan, from their posts, suspecting them of being disloyal and finding them guilty of much financial impropriety. This led to great dissatisfaction in the ranks of the umara across the country, which was further exacerbated by the fact that the Sultan had appointed several oppressed caste Muslims in the place of the senior administrators whom he had dismissed.[xi] Thereupon, a group of ashraf umara, led by Qutlagh Khan, hatched a conspiracy to kill the Sultan. A key actor in the plot was Firoze Shah Tughlaq, whom the conspirators later appointed as Sultan after they succeeded in their mission, and who, in gratitude, richly rewarded them in return. Interestingly, Syed Ziauddin Barani was also a key member of this coterie. Qutlagh Khan also managed to rope in the Chishti Sufi Syed Khwaja Nasiruddin Awadhi (more popularly known as Chiragh-e Dehli or ‘the light of Delhi’) as the spiritual guide of the conspirators. Besides him, there were various other self-styled ulema, Sufis and other self-styled ashraf in this band of traitors. Following Qutlagh Khan’s death, the conspirators turned to Syed Nasiruddin for advice and guidance. They also tried to win over some Hindu rulers to their cause, and sent out emissaries to various parts of the country in order to stir rebellion against the Sultan. When revolt broke out in the open in Gujarat, the Sultan hastened there with a large army. Taking advantage of his absence from Delhi, Syed Nasiruddin began making preparations to appoint Firoze Shah Tughlaq to the throne of Delhi.

When the Sultan learned of this, he sent his very close confidante, Ahmad Ayyaz, to Delhi and ordered him to bring the conspirators, including some self-styled ulema and Sufi shaikhs, as prisoners before the royal army. It is possible that the Sultan would have ordered the execution of Firoze Shah Tughlaq and Syed Nasiruddin, but he died the very day these men were brought before the army.[xii] It is rumoured that the Sultan was poisoned to death by the conspirators, who then manoeuvred to put Firoze Shah Tughlaq on the throne.

Mullah Muhammad Qasim Farishta

As mentioned earlier, Razia Sultana had, in the brief spell of her reign, appointed a former Abyssinian (habashi) slave named Qutbuddin Yaqut as her Prime Minister. Incensed with her patronising of what they considered a ‘low-born’ man, the ashraf nobles rose up in revolt, finally succeeding in killing her. Commenting on the fall of Razia, the Mughal period historian Mullah Muhammad Qasim Farishta has this to say:

‘There is no need to ponder much on the cause of the fall of Razia. Ever intelligent person can easily understand why this happened. Razia’s fall was because Yaqut habashi went beyond the bounds in his power and influence. It is obvious that a mere habashi had absolutely no right to be the amir al-umara of Delhi. How can a despicable man have any relations with the most powerful person in all of Hindustan?'[xiii]

Farishta’s ethnic and caste prejudices, which he shared with Barani and others of his ilk, are also clearly apparent in his discussion of Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s patronising of the nau musalman, the oppressed caste indigenous Muslims. His description is almost identical to that of Barani. He refers to Aziz Khumar as ‘low-born’ and ‘despicable’ and laments that the Sultan’s appointing him to the post of governor of Dhar and lavishly rewarding him for slaughtering dozens of umara that led to the ‘low-born’ defying the authority of the shurafa. He expresses his unconcealed horror of the ‘low’ born becoming close advisors to the Sultan, taking the place that he believed was rightfully that of the foreign shurafa. He attributes all this to the fact that the ashraf nobles refused to obey the orders of the Sultan, which led the Sultan to turn to the ‘low-born’ instead in the belief, as he puts it, that ‘slavery is inherent in the very nature of the low-born, and so they would regard the commandments of the Sultan as those of God Himself and unhesitatingly obey them.'[xiv]

The Attitude of the Ulema in General

The vast majority of influential ulema or Muslim clerics in the period of ‘Muslim rule’ were from the so-called ashraf castes, and it is an undeniable fact that only a very small minority among them were not supporters of social divisions based on caste and ethnicity. Indeed, it would not be wrong to say that most of them were staunch upholders of caste hierarchy. In fact, some scholars claim that all the ulema of this period were supporters of caste discrimination. For instance, Muhammad Umar of the Department of History at the Aligarh Muslim University argues:

‘The establishment of the Delhi Sultanate witnessed the emergence of a new Muslim society in India. Because Muslim thinkers at this time were supporters of the division of society on ethnic lines, under no circumstances would they have welcomed the possibility of the Islamic concept of equality being put into practice between the foreign Muslims and those of indigenous origin.'[xv]

Likewise, another historian, Ishwar Topa, writes about the ulema or Muslim clerics of this period:

‘Islamic commandments were sacrificed for the sake of appeasing the rulers […] The ulema miserably failed in explaining the social rules of Islam in a readily understandable fashion for the people. They had no understanding of India and its problems. They presented Islamic ideals in a distorted theoretical way. They were not the sort of men who could express and promote Islam as a force for fashioning humanity on proper lines. They were the Brahmins of Islam, who exercised a monopoly on the interpretation of the religion. Not only this, they also concealed the true teachings of Islam from the public. They failed in presenting Islam as a constructive force that could unite as brothers the caste-ridden Indian people. As [supposed] missionaries of Islam, they were despicable examples of humanity.'[xvi]

Syed Ziauddin Barani and Muhammad Qasim Farishta were separated by period of more than 200 years but yet they shared identical views about caste, both being utterly contemptuous of the nau-musalmans of the oppressed castes. They held the same views about Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s patronising of the oppressed castes, which was, by all counts, a truly Islamic policy but one which they fiercely condemned. They both supported the disgruntled ashraf who revolted against the Sultan precisely for this Islamic policy and finally succeeded in killing him.


[i] Kunwar Mohammad Ashraf, Hindustani Ma’ashra Ahd-e Wusta Mai (vol.1) (Translated by Qamruddin), National Book Trust, New Delhi, pp.128-29.

[ii] Ibid.,p.129.

[iii] Akbar Shah Khan Najibabadi, Aina-e Haqiqat Numa (Muslim Salatin-e Hind Haqiqat Ke Aine Mai), Shaikh ul-Hind Academy, Deoband, 1997, p.579.

[iv] Ibid., , p. 540.

[v] Ashraf, op.cit., , pp.137-38.

[vi] Ziauddin Barani, Tarikh-e Firoze Shahi (Translated by Syed Moin ul-Haq), Urdu Science Board, Lahore, 1983, pp.664.

[vii] Ibid., p.510.

[viii] Quoted in Abdul Hamid Numani, Masla-e Kufu’ Aur Ishaat-e Islam, Madrasa Ihya ul-Ulum, Vaniyambadi, 1995, pp.5-6.

[ix] Barani, op.cit., pp.714-15.

[x] Barani, op.cit., p. 716-17.

[xi] Najibabadi, op.cit., p.580.

[xii] For details, see Abdul Qadir Badauni, Muntakhab al-Tawarikh (Translated by Ehteshamuddin), Munshi Nawal Kishore Press, Lucknow, 1889, pp.146-74.

[xiii] Muhammad Qasim Farishta, Tarikh-e Farishta (Translated by Abdul Haye Khwaja), Matkaba-e Deoband, Deoband, 1983, p.262.

[xiv] Ibid., pp. 443-44.

[xv] Muhammad Umar, Hindustani Tehzib Ka Musalmano Par Asar, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi, 1975, p.87.

[xvi] Ishwar Topa, quoted in Ashfaq Mohammad, Hindustani Mu’ashre Mein Musalmano Ke Masail, Patriot Publishers, New Delhi, 1990, p.340.



Please read Part 6 of the excerpts here.

[Courtesy: New Age Islam, November 8, 2010]