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Lineage and Caste in Islam
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Shafiullah Anis


(Round Table India and SAVARI have been hosting a series of online talks by activists and thinkers on issues of importance to the Bahujan. This is the transcript of Shafiullah Anis’ talk on June Aug 1st, 2020)


The reason we are discussing this topic is because there is a perception and a kind of unanimity that the caste system among Muslims, especially in the subcontinent, is just a case of imitation of the Hindu caste system. This idea I believe needs to be evaluated and interrogated in detail. On the very same topic I had written a short note on round table India which was titled, “Is Islamic caste system entirely a Hindu influence?”. This talk can be put into the same series of the discussions. Today, I will be talking about the idea of “lineage”  and the value given to the lineage in Muslim societies and in scriptures, which later on became caste system in Indian sub-continent. 


I will not go into the processes as to how lineage transformed into caste. Many people have written about it in detail. What I will talk about majorly today is: how lineage was such an important idea in early Islam, how lineage was understood in Arab society before and after Islam, and so on.


First of all BaqrEid Mubarak!


In the presentation before us, the picture that we see in the first slide, this picture is taken from Wikipedia, and it shows  Prophet Abraham is slaughtering his first born son Ismaeel when he was commanded by God in his dream to do that. And that’s the reason why we are celebrating BaqrEid today. Interestingly, this festival of BaqrEid  and the ritual of Hajj, both were not Islamic innovations, i.e it was not started by Prophet Mohammed after the Prophet received Prophethood at the age of forty. This tradition was an on-going pre-Islamic Arabia in some form. And why was it going on was because people of Najd area, that is the area around modern Saudi Arabia, they believe that they are the progeny, the descendents of Prophet Abraham. And they were from Abraham’s  family, and they followed the very same tradition. This tradition was continued by Prophet Mohammad in Islam. Also, Kabah was a holy place with all the pre islamic belief systems and rituals.

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 Two of these rituals were 1) ‘Qurbani’, imitating the act of sacrifice, which was done by prophet Abraham. 2) and Hajj, which is done at the occasion of Hajj. It is to be noted that Arabs took a lot of pride in the fact they were the progeny of Prophet Abraham. 


However, before i come to that part of the discussion in detail, I would flag four major points around which this talk is centered:


  • Status of lineage in the Arab world (Pre-Islam and in later period). 
  • What is the textual justification of lineage in Islam?
  • How are caste and lineage connected?
  • What is the status of lineage in contemporary Muslim society? 
  • How to resolve the paradox of ‘masawaat’ and hierarchies in Islam?

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So, what was the status of lineage in the Arab world? 

On my screen, if you see, this is the lineage that Arabs used (above image). If you look at the names in blue colour, these are the names of the prophets whom you will find mentioned in Quran, also in Biblical literature. So, you can see Noah, you can see Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Jonah, Aron, Moses and so on. There are basically two lineages, if you look at Abraham on the left hand side, he had three sons – Ismail, Isaac and Madyan. Ismail’s lineage, when you trace on your left hand side, it will go up to Adnan and again further to Quraish, and at the end you’ll see Prophet Mohammed’s name is mentioned in blue colour. This is how the lineage of Arabs gets connected to Abraham or Ibrahim. 


From Isaac on the right hand, we have the other two Abrahmic religions, Christianity and Judaism. And the Biblical prophets are mentioned there. They all come from another son of Abraham, Issac. So, Ya’qub is there, Yusuf is there, Musa, Harun, Aron, Elijah, Shoaib, David, Solomon, Zakaria, Isa – Jesus Christ is there. So, this is a separate lineage starting from Abaraham.


Though Arabs were very proud that their lineage was connected to Abraham, they also had an inferiority complex that in their own lineage, which came from Ismail, they didn’t have any prophet, whereas Isaac’s lineage had many prophets like David, Solomon, Jesus, Moses, Jonah. Isn’t it interesting that even today this record exists in some form and Arabs are able to trace their genealogy  back up to Adam at the top – the first man as per the Abrahamic religions. 


One may ask, how this system worked and how this lineage thing is so well documented?


In the chapter, “Genealogy, marriage, and the drawing of boundaries among the Alids (eighth–twelfth centuries)”, Teresa Bernheimer writes: 


“Apart from the well-known Umdat al-ṭālib by Ibn Inaba (d. 828/1424–5) (828 denotes the number years after the Prophet migrated), many of these works have only recently become available in printed form. Although their focus and aim is rather different, the Ṭālibid genealogies continue and build on the earlier works of Arab genealogy, such as the Jamharat al-nasab by Hishām b. al-Kalbī (d. 204/819), or the Kitāb nasab Quraysh by Muṣab b. Abdallāh al-Zubayrī (d. 236/851). For the later generations, namely from the eighth century onwards, the Ṭālibid works offer a variety of genealogical and historical material rarely found elsewhere.” (p-75)


So, as per Teresa Bernheimer, after the Prophet’s time, Arabs started writing the genealogies of their own families and their own tribe. These genealogies that we see today, it was work which came, like 100-150 years, after the Prophet. But the Arabs always had a fetish when it came to lineage and genealogies. It is said that they even used to keep the genealogies of their horses and camels. And that’s how they had maintained the bloodlines and have recorded them so well.


Now I’ll come to the scriptures and Islamic resources where we find the dimension of lineage mentioned. In one of the very prominent books of the Hadith, Jamia-Tirmidhi, there is a hadeeth narrated by Wathilah bin Al-Asqa, he reports that the Messenger of Allah said: 


“Indeed, Allah chose Kinanah from the children of Isma’il, and He chose Quraish from Kinanah, and He chose Hashim from Quraish, and He chose me from Banu Hashim.”


So, Wathilah bin Al-Asqa is quoting Prophet Mohammed saying that Prophet himself mentioned that he had come from this particular lineage which goes up to Prophet Abraham. And this is a very strong Hadith, and is not considered a weak Hadith. A book of Hadith is not something which you can simply discount that it is not part of Islamic scriptures. Hadiths are next to the Quran and everything we do in Islam, ritually or in practice, most of these things come from either Quran or Hadith. So, this Hadith is also very important where one of the friends of the Prophet is reporting that how the Prophet has talked about his own genealogy and how it was connected to Prophet Abraham. And there is another Hadith which was narrated by Abu Huraira. He says that the Messenger of Allah said:


“People are subservient to the Quraish: the Muslims among them being subservient to the Muslims among them, and the disbelievers among the people being subservient to the disbelievers among them.”


Quraish was the tribe from which Prophet Mohammed had come, and also the most dominant tribe. They were the protectors of the holy Kabah even before Islam. They were the caretakers, protectors of Kabah. The Prophet was born into this family. If we look at the genealogy, we’ll see that Quraish is marked in green? Ten generations before the Prophet, someone called Fuhr was there whose tribe was later on known as Quraish. And this Quraish becomes the dominant tribe and someone who takes care of Kabah. It is to be noted that anybody  who had control over the Kabah, also had control over trade, business, political economy, spiritual economy, almost everything in that area. 


So, what does Abu Huraira say, “People are subservient to the Quraish: the Muslims among them being subservient to the Muslims among them, and the disbelievers among the people being subservient to the disbelievers among them.”


This is a very peculiar Hadith, because, in most of the Hadiths where you’ll find a discussion about bloodline and lineage, it is followed by an advisory that piety is the most important thing. Or being a believer is the most important thing. But in this particular Hadith, Abu Huraira says that if you are Muslim, you’re subservient to Quraish, one particular tribe. And if you’re a non-muslim, a non-believer, then you are subservient to non-believers of the same tribe. The birth based tribal identity becomes the most important criteria for leadership, displacing the piety dimension. This Hadees comes from the Sahih Muslim, one of the most reputed books of Hadiths. Books like Muslim, Bukhari, Tirimidhi have hadiths which people generally don’t question about.


In this context of piety, Abdul Hamid el-Zeini in 1977  wrote about something very interesting about Saadah, plural of Sayyad, the bloodline of the Prophet. 


“According to the Sadah, descent from the Prophet passes on to them a superior knowledge with which they create the content of a system of religious symbols. They believe that their Islam is not a mere interpretation of the Quran or sacred tradition of the Prophet but rather that it is the real Islam inherited from their ancestor, Muhammed. They claim to be not only the mediators between man and God but the direct representation of God’s reality on earth, restoring order to the world and defining the meaning of both nature and ordinary man according to the Word of God. Access to this knowledge is further controlled in a closed system of religious education. Although theoretically such training is open to all social groups by tradition, it is available only to the Sadah or to those whom they consider capable of religious knowledge, the Mashaikh.” 


The Mashaikh here refers to the Sufi sheikhs. We know almost all the Sufis were Sayyads. 


So, what are Sayyads saying as per Abdul Hamid el-Zeini? Unlike Hindu caste system, which actually physically prevented people from entering the temple or reading the Vedas or getting knowledge, here in Islam, getting knowledge is not prohibited, instead they are saying that the spirituality cannot be attained unless you are a descendant of Prophet Mohammed. This is an observation by  Abdul Hamid based on his own research in 1977. I have quoted this part in one of the articles which i had written on Round Table India and one can see more details over there.


These are some of the examples which showed that lineage was important, both in pre-Islamic Arab and and how it was part of Islamic literature, Hadiths, even after that. It is believed that Hadiths were written around 150-200 years after the Prophet.  Not every Hadith was considered accurate while they were recorded. Some of them were collected and then rejected. Whatever Hadiths we have now, be it Bukhari or Tirmidhi or Muslim, they are filtered forms of Hadiths that are prevalent today.  Within the filtered lot, there is enough evidence that the lineage has a very strong emphasis. One should note that there are, indeed, some Hadiths where the lineage is completely discouraged. In those Hadiths it is said that this lineage system is not something that we should follow. But still there are authentic Hadiths which focus on lineage and they are supporting the importance of the lineage. I will go to a few of them which I have come across. Like, in the case of politics, and this Hadith is from Sahih al-Bukhari, again one of the most important Hadiths of Muslims, especially the Sunnis.


It says: Allah’s Apostle said, “This matter (caliphate) will remain with the Quraish even if only two of them were still existing.”


This matter, that means the question of caliphate, the khilafat, the leader of Muslim, the leader of Umma, will remain with Quraish even if only two of them were still existing.  This is a very very strong statement in favour of Quraish, that political leadership will always remain with Quraish. Which in today’s context translates to Sayyad or Sheik, as they claim to have the lineage of Quraish. 


Again it comes in another book also, the Sahih Muslim, that Caliphate will remain among the Quraish even if only two persons are left (on the earth).


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So, all the Muslims outside the Quraish, they don’t have a claim over the Caliphate or the political leadership. Not only in the political front, if you look at how endogamy became a part of Islamic system, Sunan Ibn Majah (Ibn Majah is again a prominent book of Hadith), here again Abu Hurairah, the same person is saying: 


The Prophet said: “A woman may be married for four things: Her wealth, her lineage, her beauty or for her religion. Choose the religious, may your hands be rubbed with dust (ie, may you prosper).”


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So, they’re saying, choose the religious one, but these are the four reasons for which a woman should be sought for marriage. And one important criterion for selection is lineage. 


So, all I have discussed so far, nothing is coming from Hindu scriptures. Nothing is coming from the sub continent. Everything is coming from Islamic fiqh system, Hadiths or the narratives at that time. 


And how it is found today is, if you look at the gravestone of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, you’ll see some names are written in Urdu. This is his lineage. It states how he is connected to Prophet Mohammed’s family, just like the lineage chart I have shown in the initial part of my presentation.

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If you go to Ashraf families, in many families you’ll find such kind of lineage charts, family trees still with them which they have maintained for generations. Recently, one Ashraf I know said to me that he comes from the family of Umar Farooque, the third Caliph, the third leader after the Prophet. “Mai unki 32nd generation ka member hun” (I am the member of their 32nd generation). He claimed how he was a Farooqi and was from the 32nd generation Farooqi from Umar. So, many Ashraf families will still have this lineage system intact in their families. And they have been maintaining it for generations after generations. One such example is of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. 

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Naqeeb – al – Ashraaf (poster above), so this person is claiming himself that he is a lineage authorising body and he has got skills to trace the lineage of people and give the certificate to those who are real Sayyads and not the fake ones. 


On their graduation ceremony, this Avicenna Academy, reads “A traditional and classical ceremony certifying the true authentic lineage of individuals of the blessed family by a certified Nakeeb-al-Ashraaf.” Nakeeb al Ashraaf is someone who can do that authorisation. So there is a whole science, which actually practices maintenance of the lineage, authorising and certifying people ‘that yes you are Sayyad’, ‘No, you are not Sayyad’. ‘whether you belong to Quraish family’, ‘whether you belong to non-Quraish family’ and so on.


Interestingly, this person whose name is Shaykh Atabek Nasafi, this person is not from the sub continent. He is from one of the countries of erstwhile USSR and currently lives in the UK and is doing academic activities related to Islamic Theology. And there is a complete science which exists on lineage.  Even in India, during the slave dynasty, there was Naqeeb-al-Ashraaf. There were offices in the Mughal time. Even in the slave dynasty they used to certify people and only those who were certified Sayyads or Ashrafs were given the job. 


So, this is not a practice that originated in the subcontinent, it was practiced across the world. This Avicenna Academy, I have listened to some of their lectures, and I must say that this person is quite modern. Like, he talks about homoosexuality and says that homosexuality is not condemned.  But when it comes to lineage and the Prophet’s family….. Recently he had commented something on facebook asking “what would you like to have as a quality in your kid?”. So I replied, “I wish my kid was from an Ashraaf or Quraish family.” He came and actually liked that comment. So, this is how the lineage goes on in the Muslim society. So, how is the caste connected to lineage? I’ll deal with that question now.


Now we know that there is a concept in Islam which is connected to lineage, how one is superior, how the leadership can be there, how marriages need to happen taking care of lineage, how the spirituality is connected to lineage. In nutshell, spiritual power  is connected to lineage, political power is connected to lineage. Property, marriage, sexuality, reproduction everything gets connected to lineage. So all the ingredients which are required for productuon or reproduction of caste system was already there in Islam just after Prophet’s time.  


So Ashraf Ali Thanvi, he was one of the grand Muftis of Darululoom Deoband- I think first or second grand mufti. And this is his book, Baheshti Zewar. I have taken this screenshot from his book. This book is recent. 100 or 150 years may be, when this book was written.

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If you read the text in the screenshot, for equality in marriage, it is required to have several factors considered. So, when you’re going for marriage, what you have to look for. 


1) Lineage 2) Islam 3) Piety 4) wealth 5) profession or occupation. 


So in 1400 years, the profession got added in Indian context. And beauty was removed. Muslim and non-muslim was there. But his opinion is that lineage is the first important factor when you are selecting your spouse, your partner. So, what does he say? There has to be equality in marriage. The irony is that they are calling this system ‘kufu’, meaning equal, a system that actually promotes endogamy and  inequality. 


Let’s read out the first part.


Equality in Lineage


1. Equality in lineage is that Shaik, Sayyad, Ansari (an upper caste surname) are equal to each other. In other words, although the status of a Sayyad is more than the others, if the daughter of a Sayyad marries a Shaik boy, it will not be said that she did not marry someone who is of her family relations. Instead, it will also be regarded as if she has married one of her relatives.


2. In matters of lineage, the lineage of the father is considered and not the mother. If the father is a Sayyad, the son is also a Sayyad; and if the father is a Shaikh, the son is also a Shaikh – irrespective of what the mother may be. If a Sayyed marries a woman who is not a Sayyad their son will be regarded as a Sayyad. This son will be equal in status to other Sayyads. Although the son whose father and mother are both from a noble family is respected more, according to the Shariah they will be regarded as relatives of the same social standing.


So, after looking at a few Hadiths and a few shariah literature of recent times, we can see how caste has become a completely justified and codified form of law – legal Shariah law. Reading further, it says:


3. The Mughals and Pathans are regarded as one Nation and are not of the same class as that of the Sayyads and Sheikhs. If the daughter of a Sayyad or Sheikhs gets married with one of them it will be said that she married someone who is of a lower social standing than her. 


And they are not talking about any lower caste. Perhaps in Ashraf Ali’s imagination, only Sheikh, Sayyad, Mughal, Pathans are Muslims. Within this definition of Qaum, they are talking about how to select your spouse, your partner. Such as Sheikhs and Sayyads are almost equal but Sayyads are superior. Mughal and Pathan are not equal to Sayyad. So, the hierarchy within Ashraaf is also being clearly defined and described. Then there is the equality in being a Muslim, whether you’re a Muslim or not, or someone who is an early convert will be superior to the one who converted late etc.  Overall we can say that this lineage part is very well defined. 

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When you look around, we see these kinds of websites. Like this is Jamia, recently around six months or one year back they have started this website only for Muslims. And there is a section on caste. And within the caste, they have written Pathan, Qureshi, Rajput, Rana, Rowther, Sheik, Siddiqui, Sipra, Solangi, Sayed etc.  


And I have looked at the data of one of these more famous matrimonial sites for some research I am doing, I think it was Bharatmatrimony or some similar sites. I collected data of 40,000 profiles. Where around 10,000 were of the girls’, 30,000 were of the boys’. In that data, at macro level, around 70 percent Muslims are writing their caste and seeking matrimonial alliances within the same caste. This is among the elite muslims, those who use online medium, are english speaking, internet savvy, upper class. And almost all of the numerically dominant castes are present there.


Now some more examples. Like there was a discussion going on Twitter where someone said “can a Sayed marry a non-Syed?”. There was a Ulema from another country. He kind of made a sarcastic quote that “someone is asking can a Sayed marry a non-Syed, I think this guy is from Pakistan.” So, he made sarcastic comments on caste in the subcontinent. So one of the persons who commented there, this person is from Malaysia. 

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This person is writing, “Some of sayed and sayida in Malaysia still think their are higher cast.” What I am showing you is not something from the sub continent. And somebody responds, “And they are, of course!”


 This next section which I am sharing now, it was already re-produced by Round Table India in one of the articles. The book is “Sayyids and Sharifs in Muslim Societies – The living links to the Prophet”. This research work was done by a Japanese Professor, Dr Morimoto Kazua. Two examples, which are recent ones I am sharing with you. 


1. Three days after Saddam Hussain was captured by the American troops in a burrow near Takrit, the “Syndic of Sharīfs” (Naqīb al-Ashrāf) of Iraq, named al-Sharīf al-Arajī, held a press conference. The naqīb announced that the investigation by the “Committee of Genealogies“ (Lajnat al-Ansāb) confirmed that the prophetic descent claimed by the deposed president was utterly false. Saddam, he said, had forced genealogists to approve and sign his baseless genealogy. Further, the naqīb stated, Saddam had had a plan to establish the “Niqābat al-Ashrāf” (Syndicate of Sharīfs) and to become the naqīb himself; a plan that was thwarted by the passive resistance of the sharīfs themselves. Al-Sharīf al-Arajī was representing the new niqāba that was established after the collapse of Saddam’s regime, and which held its first meeting two days earlier with the theme, “For the Construction of New Iraq.”


Once Saddam Hussain was captured by American troops, all those Ashraaf upper caste elites came forward and claimed, especially their head Naqib, who was authorized to give the certificate of being a Sayyad, came forward and claimed that Saddam’s lineage was forged and he was not a real Ashraaf. Imagine from the point of view of Saddam. Despite having all the power that he had had, he needed a certificate of being Shareif to become the ruler of that country, Iraq. 


The second case is the case of Danish newspaper cartoon which had published Prophet Muhammed’s cartoons and there was a lot of controversy. So, what happened after that as per the book:


2. Saudi lawyer Faisal Yamani representing eight associations of the Prophet’s descendants from eight countries (Egypt, Libya, Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Palestine and Australia) was seeking to sue the Danish newspaper Politiken on the ground that the reprinting of the cartoons amounted to defamation.


And why were they doing that? They didn’t only claim that the Prophet was defamed. They said Prophet Mohammed is our ancestor and we are his descendants. So, we are the rightful people, we have the right to sue the Danish newspaper for defaming our grand patriarch – Prophet Mohammed. 


Now, I will move to “the” paradox. 


So far we have heard about Islam being an egalitarian religion. Then we get to see all these lineage based casteist things. So, how exactly are the two things coexisting together, egalitarianism and caste. And how the scholars, ulema and everybody resolved this paradox. On one side we say Muslims are equal and on the other hand, we have all these examples, both in the recent past as well as in earlier times that there are stratifications; ideas of superiority based on lineage, and  based on birth. So, how to resolve this paradox. And how did these scholars and Ulema resolve this within themselves? 


I will answer this from an interesting example of Syed Abul Ala Maudoodi – the founder of Jamat-e-Islami as reported  in the book  “Hindustaan mein zaat paat aur musalmaan” by Masood Falahi. In this statement he defends how the two things – egalitarianism and caste – goes hand in hand. 


He says:

  • “Aap khud soch lein ki bejod nikaahon se is Maqsood (intent) ke haasil hone ki kahan tak tawaqqo(expectation) ki ja sakti hai? aur kaun sa maaqool insaan aisa hai jo apne ladke ya ladki ka beyaah karne mein jod ka lehaaz na karta ho? Kya aap “Islami Masawaat” ka matlab yeh samajhte hain ki, har mard ka har aurat se aur har aurat ka har mard se sirf is bina par nikaah kar diya jaae ki woh “dono musalmaan” hain, bina is lehaaz ke ki un mein koi munaasbat paai jaati hai ya nahi?…… 
  • Aqal e aam yeh taqaaza karti hai ki zindaghi bhar ki shirqat wa rafaqat ke liye jin do hastiyon ka ek doosre se jod milaya jaae un ke darmiyaan Aklaaq, Deen, “Khaandaan”, mu’aashrati taur tareeqe, muaashrati izzat aur haisiyat, maali haalaat, saari cheezon ki mumaaslat dekhi jaani chahiye…….. 
  • Aadam ki saari aulaad ke yaksaan (same) hone ka nazariya aap yahan chalana chahenge to laakho ghar barbaar kar denge”


[Translation: You should think for yourself how unequal marriages can be expected to fulfill the intent. And who can be a right person if he marries his son or his daughter and ignores the idea of equality (of status). Do you this that the egalitarianism of Islam means every man and every woman can get married to each other just because they are muslims, without taking care of their compatibilities?

Common sense asks this question that in the matters of sharing life, and for its continuance, those two people who need to be connected with each other, in between them there should be a commonality of nature, religiosity, Khandaan (family status), social and cultural values, respect in the society and status, financial status, everything needs to be carefully equated. 

If you implement the rule that every progeny of Adam is equal in this case too, then lacs of households will get destroyed]


So, this is how equality or egalitarianism was understood by a very recent scholar and politician, Syed Maudoodi. At least he has seen modernity. He knew about egalitarianism being understood in current times and despite that, this is how he justified endogamy. 


And this is how the the paradox of egalitarianism and caste gets resolved in Muslim society. Actually, this reminds me of that quotation from the book 1984, “all animals are equal, some are more equal.” So that is how the Islamic caste system actually works where equality is there, but some are more equal. 


Thank you.


Transcribed by Amarnath Sandipamu.



(1) Comment

  1. Hiya says:

    Dear author,

    Thanks a lot for the brilliant article. Could you recommend some other books on caste in Islam and in Pakistan, or could you give me your mail id so that I can contact you personally? This is a part of my research work, so some help would be great.

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