06- Islam in India- Society and Culture

   Having studied the history of Islam in India, we shall now see how this religion has operated in this country, a country where Hindus today constitute around 80% of the people [only in divided India, not including Pakistan and Bangladesh which were parts of India before 1947, and more importantly, were so when Islam first invaded India in Thane near Mumbai in 636-37 AD]. Islam in India is better understood when studied with reference to the global Islamic context wherever necessary. This chapter therefore is rooted in and elaborated upon ‘The Religion of Islam’.

This chapter covers the following aspects of Islamic society in India :

  1. Sufis
  2. Fatwas
  3. Position of women
  4. Sects and Castes

   The treatment of these subjects is introductory and readers may also find the delineation inadequate. But it is hoped that more and more real [and non-apologist of Islam] scholars like Arun Shourie (1941-), the late Sitaram Goel (1921-2003) and the late Shri Ram Swaroop (1920-1998) will take up the task that they have all undertaken and fulfilled so courageously – to study and analyze the theology of Islam and Christianity and how they operate, in countries where they constitute the majority and in countries where they constitute a minority.

   More scholars should study the world-view of these two religions – not only how they operate within themselves but also about what happens when they intersect with deeply differing world-views, cultures and religions.


   Sufism has always been undeservedly extolled and glorified by naïve Hindus, even Hindu intellectuals, who have not cared to critically analyse its real role in this country. Some scholars including the then President of India K R Narayanan [was President of India between 1997 to 2002] have gone to the extent of claiming that Adi Shankaracharya’s  (The date of birth Adi Shankaracharya is widely debated, and thought to be around 500 BC and not 788 AD as is often stated. It seems that his times were clearly before there could have been any influence of Muslim Sufis on his work) advaita has been deeply influenced from his contacts with Sufis!

   The name ‘Sufi’ referred to Muslim ascetics who clothed themselves in coarse garments of wool (suf). There have been mystics in every region and religion and those in the Arab world in pre-Islamic days were in all probability influenced by Hindu mysticism, and Buddhism (it should be remembered that Central Asia was wholly Buddhist then).

   With the advent of Islam with its rigid esoteric and fanatic tenets, the movement must have initially functioned underground. Later on compromises with Islam would have been made and mysticism brought under the Islamic fold. But these compromises killed the essential spirit of mysticism. The orthodox ulema never reconciled with the free spirit of inquiry but at the same time could not control the mystic and spiritual yearning in individuals, whenever it happened to find intense public expression. Thus, there has always been an uneasy resignation of the mind and intellect with regard to the severe persecution of Sufis under fanatic rulers, particularly Shias. The Sufis adopted Islamic terms described later in their spirituality and it is a pity that this movement, originating from Hindu spirituality, has been misused later to convert Hindu people to a fanatic creed [Islam].

   The adjustment was done very subtly. Advantage was taken of the fact that it is very difficult to be convicted of heresy in Islam where judgment on a man’s interior motive is reserved to God and man’s judgment is based largely on a person’s action. An individual was condemned only when he introduced innovations in religious law or repudiated it. Consequently, the Sufi leaders stressed that their religious practice was fully in line with sharia and their writings are choked with hadiths justifying it! In order to make themselves more respectable, the authority of the Sufi masters was traced right back to one of the first four ‘rightly-guided’ caliphs to different aspects of the Sufi path! But due to these compromises, Sufism could never spontaneously flower and gain depth, and most Sufi organizations only helped their rulers in extending the scope of Islam. The true Sufis have mostly functioned in seclusion.

The three Stages of the Growth of Sufism in India

   Trimingham1 has studied the social order of Sufis extensively and classified their evolution in three stages. The first is khanagah (rest-house or dharmashala), or the initial stage. During the reign of the Abbasids in the eighth century, individuals tired of opulence of the rulers and the dogma of the ulema, dropped out of society and became wandering monks. This was truly the golden age of Sufism with emphasis more on love of God and spiritual affinity with God than on fear of God. There was a loose master-disciple bond, but no structured organization as such.

   Two important schools arose, the Junaidi – named after Abul-Qasim al-Junaid (d. 910 AD) and Bistami–named after Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d. 874 AD). The Junaidi school was the more orthodox, largely conforming to the Islamic dogma, sober and moderate and thus more acceptable to the orthodox and he came to be regarded as ‘the Shaikh of the Way’. The Bistami school on the other hand was characterized by ecstasy, rapture and intoxication and hence discouraged.

   From about the thirteenth century, the second phase, tariqa, meaning ‘the path’ or ‘method’, was started with the establishment of mystical schools that began to coalesce around one or another master. Mystical techniques gradually crystallized into structured school of thought, in which the method, consisting of a structured set of spiritual exercises, had to be learnt and mastered.

   During this phase the principle of the transmission of the method from one Sufi to another became explicit, resulting in the formation of spiritual lineages or silsilas (chin) that corresponded to each school and which could be traced back to the founder of each school. A guru-sishya relationship was now formally formed with greater systematization, differentiation and specialization among the various schools. Manuals of rituals were now produced as guides for the director and his students. The power of the Word of God in Koran was stressed and orthodox rituals were invested with esoteric significance. The founders, many of them professional jurists, clung to the externals of Islamic practice and based their invocations solidly on the Koran. This won them the seal of approval from the ulema and also enriched the devotional life of the ordinary Muslim.

   The thirteenth century was also an age of extreme disturbance and change as the non-Muslim [nominally Buddhist] Mongol hordes swept across central Asian Muslim states. Hence wave after wave of Muslim refugees including Sufis fled to those parts of the Muslim world which were relatively remote from this danger. Among these were Anatolia in the north-west and Hindustan in the south-west. Many Sufis found a new home within the jurisdiction of the Turkish sultanate of Delhi.

   Sufis in India, during this period were influenced by the vibrant Hindu ethos of the country and through them, Islam acquired the dimension of a holy-man religion. The Sufis and the gentle, seemingly mystical Islam acquired an aura of holiness around them which attracted gullible Hindus to them. There were two categories of Sufis in the country, those associated with khanaqahs and the wanderers.

   The former, were in a special sense, the focal points of Islam – centers of holiness, fervour, ascetic exercises and Sufi training. Contrary to the corresponding Arab institutions, the Indian khanaqahs grew up around a holy man and became associated with his tariqa or method of discipline and exercises. Two main tariqas were formed – that of Muinaddin Chishti (d. 1236 AD) and his follower, Qutb ad-din Bakhtiyar Kaki, or Ajmer and of Suhrawardi.

   They acquired such fame that they began to matter in the political and religious calculations of the ruling authorities and under them, khanaqahs sprang up everywhere, the majority without definite ascriptions. Wandering dervishes for whom they formed centers for training, meeting and hospitality were numerous and acted as cultural agents in spreading and stabilizing Islam in India during this period.

   Another significant development took place in the history of Sufism because of the Mongol invasion between the period AD 1219-95. Muslim Asia was subjected to the domination of non-Muslim rulers and Islam was displaced from its position as state religion. During this period the Sufis became, for the people, the representatives of the religion and were also responsible for the eventual conversion of Mongols to Islam. Indians should perhaps ask themselves why the Hindu religion never attempted to accomplish the Hinduisation of successive Muslim and Christian invaders!

   Even after their death, the shrines in honour of the sufi saints, and not the mosques, became the symbol of Islam for Iranians, Tartars and Turks. Thus Timur was nominally a Sunni but offered high respect and veneration for saints and their shrines, many of which he built or restored. His descendant, Babar, introduced the Naqshabandi order in India. Thus, with this kind of State support and patronage Sufis gained a grudging respectability from the ulema in the world of Islam.

   The third phase, taifa or cult-association, began from the fifteenth century. Direct communion with God was replaced by the veneration and even worship of a pir or Master who now occupied the position of a spiritual intermediary between the disciple and God. They also became hereditary, particularly in India, as blood replaced merit as the chief criterion of succession.

   Barakat, the intangible capacity of a saint to wield spiritual power and to attract devotees, was transmitted not only to a saint’s descendants (pir-Zadas), but also to his tomb. These tombs, in India called dargahs, generally replaced khanaqahs as the physical structure upon which the Sufi movements were based. Sufism now became more a devotional than a mystical movement and hence very popular among all sections of the people including impressionable Hindus, for attaining worldly desires.

   This phase witnessed the introduction of astrology, magic, belief in talismans and charms and other superstitions as means of preserving the flow of barakat from the saint. As Trimingham sums it up, if Sufis in the khanaqah phase surrendered to God, and in the tariqa phase to a method of discipline, in the taifa stage they surrendered to a person, the barakat possessing saint of whose cult they were members. But this development contributed to the decline of Sufism as a mystical path to god-realization. Spiritual insight atrophied and the Way became paved and marked. Except perhaps in Iran, Sufi writings ceased to show any real originality.

   None of the orders in India could escape being influenced by their religious environment. Many branches became highly syncretistic, adopting various pantheistic thought and antinomian tendencies. Many practices were taken over from the Yogis-extreme ascetic disciplines, celibacy and vegetarianism. Wanderers of the qalandari type grew in numbers. Local customs were adopted; for example, in the thirteenth century the Chishtis paid respect to their leaders by prostrating themselves before them with their foreheads touching the ground. The Indian Qadiri sheikhs now extend very far the process of compromise with Hindu thought and custom.

   The nineteenth century saw two major developments in the Sufi orders. The first was caused by the rise of the fundamentalist Wahabi movement which stressed a return to the simplicity of a mythical unadulterated Islam. They rejected any sort of intermediaries between man and God and as a result they destroyed the tombs of several Sufi saints in their regions of influence. Also extreme decadence had set in the Sufi orders and some of the reformers now stressed that the purpose of their spiritual practices was union with the spirit of the Prophet, rather than union with God. This change has been termed by some as Neo-Sufism and has affected the basis of their mystical life.

The Effect of Sufism On Hindus And Hinduism

   Vedaprakash2 has analysed the role played for Islam by the Sufis. As stated above, the Sufis in India found great acceptability among the Hindus and they were respected for their deportment, dress, use of Hindu terminology and for the manner in which they generally conducted themselves. They even adapted and adopted Hindu methods to make their cult attractive.

   It was propagated that the Atharva Veda was faithfully practiced by them. Their ‘Rishi Movement’ was an integral component of the process of Islamisation that started in the Kashmir valley in the wake of the introduction of the Sufi orders from Central Asia and Iran in the fourteenth century. In general they used their spiritual clout for converting Hindus without immediately changing their culture, i.e. externally they would be Hindus, but internally they were Muslims (crypto-Muslims) following all Hindu practices. This can be illustrated by the Bengali Muslims’ love for their language and culture, the Benaras Sunni community’s belief in various Hindu practices, Hindu laws of inheritance applicable to Khojas, and Puthi literature. The latter in fact contained many allegorical puranas and terminology. In one such book, Muhammad is considered as one of the Avataras, and Ali is worshipped as the tenth avatar in the Dasaavatara of Vishnu and the Imams are held to be his incarnation in turn.

   Even the conversion ceremonies were accompanied by Hindu practices and symbols like distribution of vibhuti and flowers and substitution of Ganga water for the Meccan Zam Zam water. The following terms common to Sufis all over the world and most probably borrowed by Sufis originally from Hindus, were used stressing their similarity to Hindu concepts.

Fikr Dhyana

Zikr Smarana or Japa

Voral Zikr Bhajan

Wird Manana

Shuhud Final stage of dhyana

Tasbih Mala or rosary

The following Sufi terms were used for their equivalents for the various Hindu stages of spiritual progress.

Talab Yearning for God

Ishq Love for this attainment

Marfat Enlightenment after realization

Fana Surrender

Tauhid Experiencing Allah permeating all

Hairat Ecstasy attained at the sight of Divinity

Fukr Wa Fana Moksha or Nirvana

   According to ‘Vedaprakash’ only about 20% of the Indian Sufis were truly secular and spiritual in their outlook and had true respect for the Hindu religion and spiritualism. The rest, with the connivance of the Muslim rulers, only swindled the gullible Hindus. They have been the most fundamentalist, fanatic and extremist in their attitudes, behaviour and encounter with Hindus. Many Sufis served in the government and received free lands and donations apart from every assistance that government office could provide for their roles as ambassadors and spies.

   The Chistiyya were the patron saints of Muslim rulers and Shaikh Abdur-Rahman Chisti advocated that the Chishtiyyas were the sole protectors of the King and Islam. Many in their order have been glorified for leading the Muhammadan armies and for acting as spies. The Shattariyya, Shaikh Abdullah marched with his disciples dressed as soldiers from Central Asia to Bengal to convert Bengali kafirs, that is, the Hindus. Ahmed Sirhindi (1564-1624) had written many letters to the rulers to wage jihad against the kafirs. The Sufi Nizamuddin Awaliya actively participated in jihads against the local people. Shaikh Nasirid-Din-Muhammad (d. 1356) advocating government service for Sufis and jihad has quoted:

“The essence of Sufism is not an external garment

Gird up your loins to serve the Sultan and be a Sufi”

   Many famous Hindu temples were taken over and converted into khanaqas and popular Hindu festivals were transformed into Muslim ones. The Sufis first occupied places near the temples, and then slowly began entering these temples to ultimately convert them into their places of worship. And soon, under some pretext the temple would be partly or fully demolished and the idols destroyed. Muslim rulers of the time connived with the Sufi saints in the whole process, often using force against the Hindus.

   Frawley3 categorizes the Sufis into ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’. We have seen the conservative category above. The liberal, mostly recent converts from Hinduism were tolearant and non-political, and although they had only recently cut off their umbilical cords from Hinduism, they too had been tainted by the stain of intolerance. Thus although Chistis are considered liberal, they considered themselves to be patron saints of the intolerant Muslim rulers of India and actively promoted conversions. The famous Sufi saint, Nizamuddin Auliya had blessed and prayed for victories of the most ruthless of invaders, Allauddin Khilji.

   The Naqshabandi and Suhrawardi orders too were extremely intolerant. They criticised Akbar and helped Aurangzeb to murder his older brother Dara, a fine scholar, deeply influenced by the Vedantic thought. Both Ahmad Sirhindi and Shah Waliullah, reputedly two of the most intolerant among the Sufis, belonged to the Naqshabandi school. In fact the latter conspired with Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan to invade India since they were worried about the rising Maratha power. Muhammad Iqbal, the twentieth century Muslim poet in undivided India who provided the poetic and philosophic inspiration for the creation of Pakistan, was a great admirer of both.

   Eaton4 , studied the role of Sufis from the 14th to the 18th century in the kingdom of Bijapur in the Deccan plateau. He concludes that the stereotyped conception of medieval Indian Sufis as pious and peace-loving mystics lovingly preaching Islam among Hindus was grossly inaccurate and declares that the Sufis actually played very active social and political roles. The hagiographic literature studied by Eaton describes the period when the first group of Sufis entered this region in the beginning of fourteenth century as being the ‘chalk of dawn’ of Islamic civilization in the Deccan. In the same literature they are also pictured as militant champions of Islam waging jihad in a Dar-ul-Harb, slaying countless Hindu infidels against overwhelming odds and, more often than not, being themselves slain in the process.

   The first ‘Warrior’ Sufis to arrive in Bijapur were around 1318 AD when Malik Kafur raided the South although traditions say that some had penetrated even earlier. They generally accompanied the invading armies and themselves were often professional soldiers. There being no established tradition of urban Islamic culture at that time, this category of Sufis could not relate to any court or ulema. Indeed, in one sense, they functioned as the ulema. Being the sole representatives of Islam, accompanying the armies, they declared and thereby legitimized the jihad against non-Muslims.

    Early Islam was defined and sustained by the fear of Hell. Since death as a result of fighting a jihad was the surest passport to Paradise, it probably came about that in the early days, the Muslim faithful including their religious leaders, undertook religious warfare or jihad, particularly on the frontiers as their primary religious duty. It should be noted that this was a phenomenon noticed on all frontiers of Islamic territories and the Arabic word ‘ribat’ (equivalent to khanaqah in Persian), which originally signified forts or fortified lines, came to mean for the Sufis, hospices for religious life.

Sufis In Bijapur

   Once Muslim power was firmly established through the Bahamani kingdom in 1347 AD, this class gradually disappeared. Now the more established and sophisticated orders like the Vhisti and Shattari made inroads into the plateau. Initially they were established in the power centers of Gulbarga and Bidar, but after the dissolution of the Bahamani empire, they gradually migrated to Bijapur whose power was firmly established around the middle of the sixteenth century.

 The evolution of Sufis in Bijapur has been summarized by Eaton in the following table which compares the characteristics of the different categories of Sufis and their pattern of behavior from the Bijapur records, as the fortunes of this kingdom first waxed and then waned.

Attributes Warrior Sufis Reformist Sufis Literati, Mystical Literati, Popular Landed Sufis Dervish Sufis
Period 1275-1350 1575-1650 1500-1700 1650-1700 1650-1700 1650-1725
Relation to court







Relation to Ulema







Relation to Islam







Relation to non-Muslims Hostile Indifferent Accommodating Accommodating Hostile Accommodating
Affiliation by order None Qadiri, Shattari Chisti Chisti Qadiri, Shattar None
Affiliation by Class Foreigner Foreigner Deccani Deccani Deccani Deccani
Residence n.r. Urban Rural Rural Urban Rural
Literary Language Persian, Dakhni

n.r. : Not relevant

   The first powerful Sultan, Ali I, was a Shia and hence Sunni Sufis were discouraged from establishing themselves.

   But during the reign of the Sunni ruler, Ibrahim II (1580-1627), reputed to be more liberal by disposition, a great many Sufi orders came into being. The Sultan, a contemporary of Akbar, attempted to blend the best of Islam and Hinduism. This drew flak from the Sufis who still retained close ties with the Arab Mid-East and who sought to redirect the Sultan from what they considered his aberrant ways. Although these reformist Sufis could not influence him, they certainly were partly responsible for the nature of his successors, who were rigidly orthodox and fanatic about their faith.

   The genuinely mystic among the Sufis confined themselves to their khanaqas, indifferent to the politics of the court, and composed mystical literature both in Persian and the local Deccani Muslim dialect. The compositions were mainly in Deccani and it was around this time that saw the beginning of the decline of the kingdom. This phase began around 1650 AD and ended in 1686 when Aurangzeb annexed the kingdom which ultimately resulted in the total eclipse of this state.

   By this time the khanaqas were converted into tombs or dargahs of pirs, the master Sufis, and attracted a great many devotees. In this taifa stage, in order to win the loyalty of the hereditary pirzadas or descendants of the pirs, who commanded a significant following, large tracts of land were donated by the royalty creating the landed Sufi class which lived by the glory of their ancestors. This category of Sufis became increasingly more intolerant and there were many Hindu-Muslim riots as a result of this ‘army of prayer’.

   As a reaction to these developments, there now arose in large numbers another significant class, the Dervish Sufis or majzub who were nonconformists, much like the hippies or the ‘flower children’ of the West in the 1960s. These were addicted to wine and bhang which lifted them to heights of ecstasy. This amounted to withdrawal from society and Eaton terms this phenomenon as ‘a return full circle to the point from which that evolution first sprang’ in Iraq and Khurasan. They were more tolerant of the Hindu society around them and in fact, adopted many of its practices.

   The above discussions based on standard sources shows that the Sufi movement is quite complex. Hindu scholars will have to study it in depth in order to assess its actual impact on the Indian society.


   The Sharia has to be continuously interpreted to deal with new situations as and when they arise. Problems of life, belief and faith, and issues of law which confront the believer are answered by the rulings or fatwas issued by the ulema, the competent authorities in Islam. Arun Shourie5 has extensively studied the fatwas issued by the Indian ulema on varying issues – social, religious and even political. These ‘fatwas’ are compiled in several volumes for future reference by the local clergy. There is no question that arises in the mind of the faithful about life and living, which is not dealt with in the Koran, or the sunnah of the Prophet or the law books.

   They clearly reveal the mindset of the ulema and the mindset which they seek to instill and perpetuate in the community. In turn the questions asked reveal the concerns of the community. An intellectual analysis of these fatwas may throw light on the concerns of the faithful and their problems; the fatwas would also throw light on the manner adopted by the ulema to deal with these concerns and problems. Such a study may be revealing as it will explain the Muslim psyche when it lives in a land where it constitutes a religious minority.

   Shourie has taken up the following five popular collections for analysis:

1. Fatwa-i-Rizivia, popular amongst Barelvis who constitute the majority of Indian Muslims.

2. Kifayat-i-Mufti, Mufti Kifayatullah ke Fatawi, of the founder of the Jamiat-ul-Ulama-i-Hind.

3. Fatawa-i-Ulema Dar al-Ulum, Deoband, the well known religious institution, known for its anti-West and anti-modern position.

4. Fatawa-i-Ahl-i-Hadis, having a large following amongst the ‘aristocracy’.

5. Fatawa-i-Rahimiyyah, proclaimed from Rander, Gujerat and followed by a large number of Indian Muslims settled abroad.

   The first example he gives of the ulema’s power and influence is that of the Ali brothers with whom Gandhiji was associated during the khilafat movement in the early 1920s. Initially they spoke of him as a saint and paid him high tributes.

   But soon under the pressure of the ulema, they declared, ‘However pure Mr. Gandhi’s character may be, he must appear to me from the point of view of religion inferior to any Mussalman though he be without character’ and ‘Yes, according to my religion and creed, I do hold an adulterous and a fallen Mussalman to be better than Mr. Gandhi because… to consider one’s creed as superior to that of every non-Muslim is the duty of a Mussalman’.

   Even prominent Muslims like Maulana Azad and Zakir Hussain have not been spared from the wrath and intimidation of the ulema to whom they had to ultimately submit.

   And what is the mind-set of the ulema? To quote Shourie,

   “The earth is stationary. The sun revolves around it. The stars are stationary, hung as lamps by Allah to guide travelers, and to stone the Devil. To believe anything contrary to all this is to betray the Faith. Men are the masters. Each may keep up to four wives at a time and as many concubines ‘as the right hand holds’. The wives are fields which the husband may or may not “irrigate” as he will. The husband can bind them to obeying the merest whim on pain of being divorced. If he is still not satisfied, he can throw them out with one word. Upon being thrown out they are to be entitled to a bare sustenance – but only for three months, and nothing at all beyond that. To see any inequity in this, to demand anything more for the women is to question the wisdom of Allah, it is to strike at Islam. To urinate while standing, to fail to do istinja in the prescribed way, to fail to believe that the saliva of a dog is napaak, and his body paak – these are grave sins. To ask for the well-being of a Kafir, be he ever so saintly, even upon his death, to fail to believe that a Muslim, be he ever so sinful, is better than a kafir, be the latter ever so virtuous is kufr itself.”

   And fatwa after fatwa from various schools has been quoted by Shourie to illustrate these verdicts and to uphold many ‘truths’.

   Moreover the ulema directly or indirectly control every mosque, seminary, Urdu press and madarsa. Foreign funds flow freely to them. Their hold has been tightened by the premise which has been dinned into every Muslim – that Islam (like Communism and Nzaism) does not concern itself merely with matters of the spirit, but that it encompasses every detail of life, even the most private of the private. The faithful have internalised the notion that even such matters are religious matters and this gives the ulema their tremendous hold over the Muslim faithful.

   Thus a Mufti writes that even as doctors have to examine the most private parts of their patients, the spiritual physicians starting from the Prophet too have described and explained in detail all the directives and propositions concerning devotion, social affairs and even ritual cleansing of the human body. Thus Islam regulates the totality of life. Thus, Muslims, conditioned to this submission are all the more ready to follow the directives of that authority even on public and political issues.

   Clearly these rules and theories formulated in eighth century Arabia have long become outdated due to advance in time of science and society. But the custodians of the faith have always been concerned about how if once the habit of questioning starts it would be very difficult to keep the faithful under their thumb. This anxiety has prompted the ulema to ensure that nothing, but nothing is examined. Accordingly, this has become the hallmark of this faith. The quest, as pointed out by Ram Swarup (1920-1998) in another chapter, has never been an inward-directed one and all emphasis has always been on the external.

   From the beginning, the doctrincs of Islamic theology have suffered the charge of Isrueiiyat which means, that the revelations given to the prophet were mere recycling of Jewish and Christian legends. Hence from the days of the Prophet himself there has been the anxiety to always make sure that they were different, to show that they were different and to insist that they are different. Thus the Prophet changed the Qiblah from Jerusalem to Mecca. He also said that one who lives like another qaum, shall be taken to be of that qaum, and dealt with accordingly.

   The Prophet had paid such minute attention to being different that he decreed not only on the attire and the deportment of the faithful but even on their eating habits – that if non-Muslims keep the mustache and shave the beard, Muslims should trim the mustache and grow a beard, and that since saffron clothes were worn by pagans, Muslims should not wear them, and also that if Jews and Christians of the time did not dye their hairs, Muslims should dye theirs and that meat in the plate was not to be sliced with a knife as the Christians did, but was to be bitten by teeth.

   And so, the fatwa volumes display almost a paranoid obsession about the tilak on the foreheads of Hindu men and women and the cry of Jai. And if cows are holy to Hindus they have to be slaughtered by Muslims. A Fatwa-i-Rizivia emphasises that if the Hindu asks that cow-killing be stopped on account of his religious point of view, then it is not right for Muslims to stop killing the cows. In Hindustan (India) cow slaughter is an act that greatly glorifies Islam. Also, if you agree to their proposition (of not killing cows) you will be strengthening their false religion and doing so is not permissible in Sharia although Maulana Ahmed Riza Khan has acknowledged that he has not ‘as yet’ been able to sight any reliable Hadith which reports the Prophet himself as having eaten the meat of the sacrificed cow.

   We have seen elsewhere that the Koran declares all non-Muslims to be kafirs and that they are so as per Allah’s command. Only if for some opportune reason – when it is not for the need of the Din, and when it is not confined to the extent required by that need alone – a person, knowing some persons to be kafirs evades calling them kafirs, in that circumstance he is a sinner but not a kafir himself. However, if he actually thinks that calling a kafir a kafir is wrong and contrary to civilised etiquette, then he puts a blemish on the Holy Koran, and that is certainly kufr. Fatwa after fatwa emphasises this and is strongly critical of Muslims even paying homage to the Mahatma (Gandhi) and the Lokamanya (Tilak) on their death. The example of the Prophet himself who refused to intercede even for his mother [Amina, who died when he was 6 years old] and guardian uncle who did not accept Islam, is cited.

   There are rules as to when to accept and when not to accept gifts from kafirs. Even the moderate Mufti Kifayatullah rules only conciliation and peace to the extent that religious injunctions and the character, respect and honour of the religion are maintained to the Muslim’s satisfaction. Of course the ulema do not yield even this much. They repeatedly stress that the kafirs are people to be despised for their rejection of Islam, and also that they are intrinsically, inherently, and incorrigibly untrustworthy. Declares Mufti Kifayatullah, if a Muslim doctor says that the patient can be saved only by taking an alcohol based medicine, one may take it, but not if a non-Muslim doctor says so. These rules say that Sarva-dharma-samabhava (equal respect for all religions) shouted from the rooftops by leaders and secularists are utterances of kufr, a person who has such beliefs and teaches such beliefs is not a Muslim but an infidel and an apostate and Muslims should keep away from him rather than listen to his infidel utterances.

  It is not as if thinking and progressive Muslims are unaware of the inadequacies and outdatedness of Muslim law. Reformers like Maulana Azad, Iqbal and Hamid Dalwai have stressed the importance of reason and sought to distinguish between Din and Sharia. Thus a distinguished scholar like A.A. Fyzee writes, “It must be realised that religious practices have become a soulless ritual…the time for heart-searching has come. Islam must be reinterpreted or else its traditional form may be lost beyond retrieve… it will be found that certain portions of the Sharia constitute only an outer crust which enclose a kernel – the central core of Islam – which can be preserved intact only by reinterpretation and restatement in every age and in every epoch of civilisation…The conventional theology of the ulema does not satisfy the minds and outlook of the present century.”

   Another scholar, Prof Tahir Muhammad has written, “The existence of so many schools of Muslim law in India and, more than that, the insistence of the followers of each of these schools to stick exclusively to the doctrines of their own school, lead to the conclusion that what is applicable in India under the banner of ‘Muslim personal law’ cannot be equated with the revealed or inspired tenets of the Islamic religion….It is unwise for the Muslims of India to shut their eyes to the tremendous progress in the fields of personal law and succession made even in several Islamic countries. A unified, codified and modernised law of personal status now operates in a large number of countries where Muslims constitute overwhelming majorities. In India, the Muslims have to live in the company of a dominant non-Muslim majority and other co-minorities, all of whom are now governed by largely modernised and codified personal laws.”

   Prof. Tahir also edits a journal which provides information about changes that are constantly being made in the ‘eternal’ and ‘immutable’ Sharia in country after country.

  The ulema of course oppose vehemently to such kufr. To even ask ‘What is the Sharia or Does anyone go by Sharia today?’ is kufr. And even one single deed of kufr makes one a kafir, they warn. Many fatwas of every school declare this unmistakably. The consequences of kufr are horrendous, indeed a non-Muslim can scarcely imagine them. No one from the community – not even one’s closest relatives – can maintain any sort of relationship or contact with the person. His marriage stands dissolved – his wife and children are immediately placed out of his reach. In the final instance the ulema can pronounce one to be an apostate and the penalty for that is death.

   Not only should the Koran be obeyed to the letter, the ulema alone have the competence to state what the Koran means. Even an honest query to seek understanding of any discrepancy in Sharia invokes a stern admonition : laymen ought to stay clear of the subtleties of law, they should leave these to the experts. Infact, it is the very ambiguity which gives gross and absolute power to the ulema. They can use the Sharia as readily to yield one result as to yield its opposite. Shourie illustrates with the law on divorce to show how completely hollow is the claim that the Sharia is a clear and definite Code and how completely hollow is the claim that it is an eternal and unmutable code. This is the reason why the ulema not only fight back every attempt to replace religion based personal laws by a common civil code but also why they fight back every attempt to codify the Sharia itself.

There are three distinct features of the Koran which we have seen in the chapter on religion which give the ulema the quality of ambiguity that they need. They are :

1. The verses of the Koran are not arranged chronologically

2. They are not arranged or grouped by subject

3. There are no universally accepted rules about the proper way of reading the verses – for instance, whether a verse has to be read by itself or in association with other verses which, though occurring in other parts of the Koran, bear upon the same subject. The problem is compounded by abrogation or cancellation of passages.

   Then there is the problem of putting different constructions of a Arabic verse. Thus, the following verse (4:12) on inheritance has been translated by Yusuf Ali as:

“If the man or woman

Whose inheritance is in question

Has left neither ascendants nor descendants

But has left a brother

Or a sister, each one of the two get a sixth; but if more than two, they share in a third….”

Maulana Azad renders the same lines as follows :

“And if the man or woman who leaveth the heritage have neither parents living nor children but hath a brother or sister, either shall have a sixth, and if more than one, they shall have alike in a third…..”

   The ‘Rampur’ rendering in Urdu used widely in North India puts these lines as:

   “Aur agar aise mard ya aurat ki miras ho, jiske na baap ho, na beta, magar uske bhai ya bahan ho, to unme se har ek ka chhatha hissa aur agar ek se zada hon to sab ek-tihayi mein sharik honge….”

   Where Yusuf Ali read ‘ascendents’, and Maulana Azad read ‘parents’, Maulana Fath Muhammad sees only ‘baap’ that is ‘father’. Where Yusuf Ali read ‘descendents’ and Azad read ‘children’ the Maulana sees only ‘beta’ that is ‘son’! Thus if a person is survived only by a daughter or grand-daughter, each version of the reading will treat them differently.

   The latitude which the hadith afford for ambiguity and arbitrariness is even wider: some hadiths occur in some collections and not in others. And sometimes, the words are different in different collections of the same hadis. Again some hadis are rejected as unreliable by some jurists and held as reliable by others. And often there is no agreement on the relevance of a hadis to the question at hand. The law books makes this freedom of interpretation even more complete! And nowhere is this better illustrated than in cases that concern talaq or divorce.

  Thus, “Zaid told his wife, ‘if you enter the house, talaq’. He avers that he did not intend talaq, that he spoke the words only to frighten her. She enters the house. Is she divorced?” Yes, rules Mufti Kifayatulla. On the very same page is another case where the husband says that to frighten the wife he said, ‘If you go to the house of Khalid, then our relationship will end.’ She goes to Khalid’s house surreptitiously. But the husband says that he had not intended either talaq or separation, that he had spoken the words only to frighten her. Does she stand divorced? No, rules the Mufti since the husband did not intend talaq and because the word ‘talaq’ had not been used.

   So what has happened in practice is that mere expediency and the whimsical utterances of sundry Muftis have become law, and that which was clearly and unambiguously law eternal – in that it was specified in the Koran itself – has been circumvented throughout by expedients.

   But how can we blame the ulema for the ambiguity and arbitrariness when the Koran itself suffers from the same defects? Appendix A lists a number of ayats which the ulema take as their supreme commands. Then how is it possible to blame them for following what has been ordained to them? All the double standards employed by them between the believers and nonbelievers can be traced to this source (Koran) as well as to the Sharia.

   We are shocked by the single-minded concern of the ulema – their obsession with the minutiae of the prophet’s life in their service of Islam, with their obsession with stamping out, and doing in of all ‘rivals’ to Islam and Allah, their frenzied preoccupation in ensuring that no Muslim retains any residual regard, to say nothing of veneration for any entity other than ‘Allah’ – intolerance, verbal and physical violence in their relationship with non-believers. All these flow from Allah’s overriding concern that we worship Him, and none but Him. He goes to most extraordinary lengths to remind us of His power and glory. Thus, for instance, He visits afflictions on a people to humble them, next He sends them a prophet so that they may believe in Him; and when they don’t believe in the prophet (and this too, it must be remembered, happens by His decree!) he wreaks the most terrible vengeance on them!

   To Hindus with the breath-taking understanding of the nature of Brahman and their understanding of time, it is not easy to understand why Allah, who, if he is God and is therefore self-sufficient in all respects, is so obsessed about puny little man, on puny little earth, in this puny little solar system, in this little bit of a universe, acknowledging His greatness. And even if this is His sole concern, surely He can find an easier way of having man acknowledge His greatness. Why does He not instil veneration directly into man’s consciousness rather than by adopting these circuitous and painful routes? There is no answer to this in the Koran or in the Bible, both of which speak of the same God. Both demand fear and not love from their adherents.

   It is of the very essence of totalitarian ideology that it enforces its right to regulate the totality of life. But this totality itself becomes one of the reasons for the eventual collapse of such systems as has happened recently in the Soviet Union. The very comprehensiveness boomerangs. Thus every act of even simple defiance like urinating while standing in a public urinal, undercuts the authority of the Sharia. More importantly, even small differences over the minutest matters provoke violent controversies in different schools of the ulema. One can witness the invectives hurled at each other by their warring factions. Thus one fatwa-i-Rizvia declares, ‘And among these Kafirs too there are gradations. One hard kind of basic kufr is Christianity; worse than that is Magianism; worse than that is idolatry; worse than that is Wahabiyat; and worse than all these is Deobandiyat’.

   And the deathly struggle between various sects of Islam is there for all the world to see. Another consolation is that the world of today is different from the world of the Prophet, making the ulema’s ideology totally inappropriate. It also makes it impossible for Muslims to live peacefully in a mixed society. Given time, this ideology too will collapse as surely as communism did. The Hindus have to give this process a helping hand in the subcontinent to speed it up in their own interest.


   Since the fatwas discussed above give an indication of the mind of the clergy, who control the behavior of Muslims so totally, we shall start with Shourie’s findings on fatwas issued in India on women. For example, Maulana Ahmad Riza Khan warns, “When excited a woman is a hundred times more passionate than man…. a woman is mom ki naak (the white hot tip of the candle), baalki raal ki pudiya (a tight little packet of inflammable resin), balki barood ki dibiya (a packet of explosives). If she is ever brought near a spark (of temptation), it will cause an explosion. She is defective in reason as well as in faith. And by nature she is crooked. And in lust a hundred times more passionate than man. When the effect of bad company ruins men permanently, what is one to say of these delicate bottles which with the slightest knock break into smithereens. This nature (of theirs) is proved from several hadis.”

   Ibn Warraq writes that when Egyptian women demanded representation in their Parliament, the ulema from within Egypt’s Al-Azhar university promulgated a fatwa in 1952 condemning this attempt. They pointed out that (1) women did not possess enough intellectual force, (2) women, because of their femininity, are exposed to dangers that could lead them to abandon reason and propriety, (3) according to Abu Bakr, when the Prophet heard that the Persians had made the daughter of Chosroes their queen he exclaimed, “never will a people who trust their affairs to a woman succeed”, (4) failure inevitably follows on the appointment of a woman to a public post, (5) Islamic law accords to a woman’s testimony only half the weight of a man’s, (6) according to the Koran, ‘men decide for women in view of the fact that God has given preference to the former over latter’, (7) God obliges men to be present in the mosque on Fridays and to conduct the holy war, but not women, and (8) public posts were attributed by Islamic law only to men fulfilling certain conditions.

   The above two fatwas largely summarise Islam’s legal position on women irrespective of what the apologists claim – that no other religion has given as high a place to women as Islam, and that no body of law has given them as many rights as the Sharia. Yes, at the time of marriage, a woman is given mehr which in theory is her own: in fact, it is customary to have the bride renounce it on the nuptial night itself and for this there is sanction from Allah Himself (Koran 4.34); and there is something repulsive about the word – ujoor – itself, for it signifies hire paid for the use of the woman.

   Yes, a daughter is entitled to a share, but it is half that of a son. A woman’s evidence is to count for one-half of that of man. And more than the legal position it is the attitude towards women that is reprehensible. But why blame the ulema alone? Both the Koran (see Appendix A) and the Hadis have looked down upon women as mere sex-objects. The anti-woman misogynist sayings of Ali, the Prophet’s first cousin, son-in-law and the fourth caliph are worth noting :

 ‘The entire woman is an evil, and what is worse is that it is a necessary evil’.

 ‘You should never ask a woman for her advice because her advice is worthless. Hide them so that they cannot see other men…. do not spend too much time in their company for they will lead you to your downfall’

 ‘Men, never obey your women… When alone, they forget religion and think only of themselves…. Even the most virtuous among them is of easy virtue’

 And to a man teaching a woman to write: ‘do not add evil to unhappiness.’

   And how can you blame Ali when the Prophet himself has declared that upon touring Heaven and Hell he saw that women are the ones who constitute the majority in Hell, and:

 ‘After me I have not left any affliction more harmful to men than women’ [Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 33]

 Explaining why the evidence as well as inheritance of women is worth only half of men, ‘is because of the deficiency of a woman’s mind’ [Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 6, Hadith 301]

 ‘Whenever a man is alone with a woman, the devil makes a third’, for, ‘a woman advances in the form of a devil and retires in the form of a devil’ [Sahih Muslim, Book 8, Hadith 3240]

 ‘They are your fields of cultivation, if you wish to irrigate them do so, or if you desire otherwise, keep them dry’ [Quran 2:223]

 ‘A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife.’ [Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 11, Number 2142]

Sahih Muslim (4:1039)“A’isha said [to Muhammad]: ‘You have made us equal to the dogs and the asses’ These are the words of Muhammad’s favorite wife, complaining of the role assigned to women under Islam.

To read some more, open this link

   Muslim leaders and intellectuals may even acknowldege some inequities in Muslim law but will also claim that the position of women was considerably humanised when compared to ‘pre-Islamic institutions’. Is this true? This is absolute nonsense.

   In this context it should be remembered that Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, although a widow, was a prosperous trader before the advent of Islam. Muhammad, in fact, began his career as her employee and later married her. This would not have been possible unless women in general enjoyed considerable freedom. The Bedouin women worked and fought alongside their husbands. They were neither cloistered nor veiled. Segregation was totally impractical. In fact the Prophet’s aunt, Hind, reproached him for having imposed obligations on women that he had not imposed on men. Muslim writers have simply exaggerated the old practice of burying unwanted girl babies.

   In Christianity the anti-woman sentiments have been traced to the first woman, Eve, succumbing to Satan’s temptations and causing humanity’s downfall. In the Koran, however, her name is not even mentioned, no account is given of how she was created (from Adam’s ribs as per the Biblical account) and she is not accused of being the first to succumb to Satan’s temptation in eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. The hadiths fill in all the details and give her the name, Hawwa. Scholars suspect this to be a typical example of ‘israiliyyat’ i.e. Bibilical Jewish and Christian traditions on which early Islam depended so much.

   Nevertheless, there are sentiments degrading to and insulting of women in all the Muslim scriptures, including the Koran. Women are considered inferior to men even in Creation because they were created as an afterthought, for the pleasure and repose of man. Although the Koran does not speak of Eve as harshly and in as condemnatory a tone as the ‘Old Testament’, that the basic nature of the woman is guile, treachery and deceit is illustrated in the Koranic version of Joseph’s seduction by his employer’s wife. The female sex is further maligned and made the object of repudiation by Allah’s attack on the female deities of the polytheists. The rules promulgated by Allah in the Koran for women on marriage, divorce, evidence giving and inheritance are blatantly man-centric and even anti-woman. The hadith and sharia add further fuel to the fire. We shall see below more such instances of inequity.

   The very conception of marriage in Islam is a break from the formerly held beliefs about this institution – it is merely a contract, and a pretty one-sided contract at that. The Arabic word for marriage is ‘nikah’ or coition. There is a complete absence of the feeling of association, partnership (saha-dharma-charini) or companionship which characterise the Hindu’s conception of marriage. As a Muslim jurist put it, marriage for a Muslim male is ‘the contract by which he acquires the reproductive organs of a woman, with the express purpose of enjoying it.’

   The converse, of course, is not the case; the reproductive organ of the husband is not exclusively reserved for his wife! The Koran decrees that a man can have up to four wives at a time along with female slaves his right hand possesses. [Quran 4:3, 4:24, 23:1-6, 33:50, and 70:30] A wife cannot legitimately ask her husband to satisfy her sexually – she can only demand that she be fed, clothed and housed. Once the marriage is consummated the woman has no rights whatsoever for divorce. Obedience to him is a must.

   The inequality between men and women in matters of giving testimony or evidence is obvious from ‘…. and call to witness, among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not (at hand) then a man and two women….. (Quran 2:282)’. This injunction states expressly that if a man is available to offer witness, then women should be dispensed with, totally; and that if it becomes necessary to call upon women to offer evidence, then a woman’s worth is only half of that of man. And again, the Prophet did not accept the testimony of women in matters of marriage, divorce and hudud (serious crimes). It follows then that were a man to enter an all-women’s abode and were to assault or physically abuse them, he would risk nothing since there would be no male witnesses to testify against him!

   In a case where a man suspects his wife of adultery or denies the legitimacy of the offspring, his testimony is worth that of four men. Sura 24:6 says, ‘If a man accuses his wife but has no witnesses except himself, he shall swear four times by God that his charge is true, calling down upon himself the curse of God if he be lying. But if his wife swears four times by God that his charge is false and calls down His curse upon herself if her husband’s charge be true, she shall receive no punishment’.

   Appearances to the contrary, this is not an example of Koranic justice or equality between the sexes. The woman indeed escapes being stoned to death but she remains rejected and loses her right to the dowry and maintenance, whatever the outcome of the trial. Also, a woman does not have the right to charge her husband in a similar manner. For a Muslim marriage to be valid there must be a multiplicity of witnesses. For Muslim jurists two men form a multiplicity but not two or two hundred or two thousand women.

  When a man dies, his sons will get twice the share of his daughters, and the wife only one-fourth. If he has more than one wife, they will all share the same one quarter that one wife is entitled to. For maintenance after divorce, she is eligible to be maintained by the husband who has rejected her, for only three months, as is well known from the now infamous Shah Bano case of 1985. Not just life on earth, but even Koranic paradise is male-centered!

  The two most obnoxious practices in Islam which have invoked criticism even from the ‘secularists’ [i.e. Indian apologists of Islam, Leftists] quoted in another chapter are triple talaq and purdah. The latter has become a symbol for servitude in the struggle of Muslim women for liberation. Muslim jurists have declared:

1. Her dress must cover the entire body except the face and hands.

2. The robe must not be too fine or elaborate.

3. It must be of thick material and not transparent.

4. It must not cling tightly to her body; it must be loose.

5. It must not be perfumed.

6. It must not resemble any kind of man’s wear.

7. It must not resemble the clothes of unbelievers.

8. It must not be ‘luxurious’ or glamorous or of too great a value.

   And of course all this only if she comes out of the house. Although sura 33:33 orders only the wives of the Prophet to stay at home, the conservatives have applied it to all women. There are very stringent rules regarding circumstances under which alone a woman can venture out.

   Although the Prophet has declared that ‘Allah did not make anything lawful more abominable to Him than divorce…. Of all the lawful acts, the most detestable to Allah is divorce’, in practice the position is just the opposite. The jurists have repeated this counsel but at the same time they have given unlimited power to the husband over his wife. Should he decide to use it, no one, and no consideration can save the wife. He can irrevocably throw her out:

1. If he utters talaq once in each of three periods of purity, i.e. the periods between three menstruation.

2. If he utters it thrice in one breath.

3. If he utters it with some adjuncts even once.

   The talaq can be pronounced to the wife directly to her, or through others, in front of witnesses or with no witness present, orally or in writing. So complete is the power of the husband that even if he pronounces it in rage or in an inebriated condition, it is enough to reject the wife and separate her from her family. Even then the rule is so rigorously enforced that even if the husband wants to withdraw from his action he cannot do so for according to another rule spelt out by the Koran, they cannot remarry unless the poor wife marries another man, consummates the second marriage, and gets the second husband too to divorce her!

   Maulana Ahmad Riza Khan has compared nikah to a mirror and talaq to a rock that breaks it. Whether the rock is thrown at the mirror willingly, or under compulsion, or even if it accidentally falls out of the hand, the mirror is broken.

   The lesson being that though a thing be undesirable, even detestable, if done thoughtlessly, or with deliberation, it takes effect and has far-reaching consequences. Many reformers have suggested that one way to dilute the power of the triple talaq is to have the bridegroom agree to forego this power by making it a part of the marriage agreement itself. The ulema disagree; the power is Allah-given and cannot be subject to any such agreement. Thus if a husband who has so agreed yet gives talaq, it shall be fully effective although the action is reprehensible.

   There is another nuance to talaq – conditional divorce. Four aspects of this category of talaq are particularly noteworthy.

1. With a pronouncement of conditional divorce the husband can reduce the wife to a condition of absolute and craven submission; she must either do what the husband has ordered or she is automatically and instantly thrown out.

2. The husband can make the divorce contingent upon events over which the wife has absolutely no control at all.

3. In determining the outcome, far from being consequential, the wife has next to no locus standi.

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4. Shourie has illustrated this category of talaq by citing a number of fatwas from various authorities. As an example : “Zaid says to his wife, ‘If you go to your father’s house, you will stand divorced’, and she goes there after her father dies. She stands divorced, because the father’s house remains her father’s house even after his death. And a husband tells his wife, ‘if you do such and thus, all my wives are divorced’. The wife does what the husband has forbidden. Not only she but all the other wives who had nothing to do with this are also divorced!”

   In this connection it should be remembered that what were expedients have become law, what was clearly and unambiguously law eternal – in that it was specified by the Koran itself – has been circumvented throughout by expedients. The Sharia as we know it today is less a genuine compilation of laws from the Koran, and more an accumulation of expedients. Let us set aside for the moment the question of Uniform Civil Code, let the sharia be so codified that there is no ambiguity. And yet wheneever there is a call to take a second look at some of the provisions in the sharia with regard to women, the ulema resists it fiercely.

   And everyone is put on the defensive by the ulema which declares that the Sharia is Allah-given, and therefore eternal and unalterable! That the rules have changed over time is evident from the question of talaq. Even the Koran and the Prophet have, on occasion, disapproved of the triple talaq being pronounced in one breath (Koran 2.228-232). Yet over time, this is the manner in which it is most frequently pronounced for casting away unwanted wives. So much hairsplitting has gone into this such as – are three THREE, or, is three ONE ?

   Considering the first question, is the wife out when the husband has pronounced the word ‘talaq’ thrice in one go? Is she out if he has pronounced it, not all at the same time but on different occasions during the ‘same period of purity’ i.e. in the same interval between the wife’s menstrual courses? What if he has had intercourse with her during this period? Is the talaq to take effect if it has been pronounced during the time she is in her menstrual course? Each school has its own interpretation and each can cite an hadis or an ayat in support of their respective positions. The debate rages on.

   The second question can be illustrated by, ‘If a husband pronounces talaq once but says that he intended three, shall it count for one pronouncement and thus be a revocable divorce, or three pronouncements and thus be irrevocable?’, and, ‘if the talaq is pronounced thrice in one go, or during one period of purity, does it count for one pronouncement and thereby remain revocable, or does it count for three and thereby become irrevocable?’ Again the same Koranic verses are quoted along with different hadiths with different interpretations. An inconvenient hadis can always be rejected as unreliable or weak!

   The measure of a society’s civilisation is the position it accords to its women. If this indeed be the criterion, Islamic societies have far to go.


“Have nothing to do with those who have split up their religion into sects. God will call them to account and declare to them what they have done” (Koran 6:159)

“’The Children of Israel fragmented into seventy-two sects, and my ummah shall split into seventy-three sects, all of which shall be in Fire save one sect.’

‘What is that one, O Messenger of Allah?’

‘That (way) which I and my companions are upon’.” (A hadith narrated by Tirmidhi).

   It is a common misconception that Islam is an ideal religion professing perfect equality and brotherhood of men amongst its adherents. All the equality and brotherhood is only confined to prayer-time, and confined to men alone. Otherwise the divisions among them are innumerable and a violent religion settles all scores violently. From soon after the death of the Prophet there have been murders, bloody wars and tensions amongst various Islamic groups, sects and countries which continue to this day. Pakistan is a very good example of all the problems besetting a Muslim society. For Islam, unity operates only against non-Muslims, in the call for jihad.

It will be useful to understand the following terms before we discuss the subject further.

Caste: A system unique to Hinduism in which castes belonging to the four varnas have the following characteristics :

1. A caste is endogamous.

2. It involves occupational specialisation (this is a unique feature of the caste system).

3. Castes are hierarchically ordered.

4. Castes have an ideological, religious basis involving restrictions on social intercourse and commensality.

Clan: A group of people related by ancestry or marriage. It is usually a subgroup of other categories like tribes.

Class: A group of persons sharing similar social, cultural and economic characteristics.

Cult: A small, usually recently created, religious organisation, which is often headed by a single charismatic leader and is viewed as a spiritually innovated group.

Denomination: A large group of religious congregations united under a common faith and name and organised under a single administrative and legal hierarchy.

Endogamy: Marrying within the same group or caste.

Ethnic Group: A hereditary group within a society which is defined by its members and by others as a separate people, socially, biologically and culturally.

Group: A number of persons bound together by common social standards, interests etc.

Sect: A subdivision of a larger religious group which has, to some extent, diverged from the rest by developing some deviating and distinct beliefs, practices etc.

Tribe: A unit of social organisation consisting of a number of families, clans or other groups which share a common ancestry, patron deity, culture and leadership. It is generally a social group, usually with a distinguishing area, dialect, cultural homogeneity and unifying social organisation.

   The above terms do not necessarily lead to rigid and cloistered divisions since their characteristics often overlap and interchange. Islam is endowed with all these categories of socio-political and religious arrangements, in one form or the other. Actually the religion originated in Muhammad’s attempt to unify the warring Arab tribes into a single cohesive ummah. That he was himself unsure about the unity on a long term basis is revealed in the above hadith. And, perhaps, he had every reason for his doubts, since Arab society then comprised of several tribes, each warring with the other.

   These tribes had fierce pride in their traditions and the Prophet himself was no exception. He had said, ‘Allah selected Ishmael from the sons of Abraham, Kinana from the sons of Ishmael, Quaraish (Muhammad’s tribe) from the sons of Kinana, Hashim from the sons of Quaraish, and He selected me from the sons of Hashim’. Before his death he also declared that his successors will be chosen only from the tribe of Quraish. This tribe, as a result, is the most respected in Islam, and its descendants are known as Koraishis in the Indian subcontinent [India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, even Sri Lanka and Nepal].

   Even among the Koraish, rivalry between its various clans has shaped the initial history of Islam. Thus the Omiyad and Abbasid dynasties which succeeded the first four Caliphs, belonged to the families which had opposed the clan of the Prophet in the past and were bitter opponents of the Prophet himself.

   The Arab people have been divided according to lineage into three groups :

1. Perishing Arabs. These were the ancient tribes about whose history very little is known.

2. Pure Arabs who originated from the progeny of Yarub bin Yashjub bin Qahtan.

3. Arabised Arabs who supposedly originated from the progeny of Ishmael.

   The pure Arabs originated from Qahtan in Yemen and comprised of many tribes which eventually emigrated all over the Arab peninsula and beyond. The Arabised Arabs claim their ancestry to Abraham and Ishmael. As we have seen elsewhere, these claims may very well be fabricated since all traces of pre-Islam civilisation have been obliterated and it has become very difficult to verify them. In fact, Muhammad himself has said, ‘Geneologists tell lies’.

   Ishmael apparently had twelve sons, the progeny of whom constituted a distinct tribe. Eventually only tribes originating from the descendants of Nabet and Qidar have survived. Each of them eventually got subdivided into numerous tribes who spread all over the peninsula. The Nibetians spread to the north establishing a flourishing civilization. The descendants of Qidar remained around Mecca and broke into several tribes over many generations. One of them was the tribe of Quraish which also eventually branched out in many more tribes and clans, one of which, Hashim, produced the Prophet.

   The rise of Islam did not put an end to tribalism in Arabia. Even today, they persist. Thus we have an account of the Arab and Berber tribes which invaded Spain. They conquered the peninsula, not as isolated warriors, but as organised tribal groups. The early Muslim residents of the peninsula settled in tribal or sub-tribal groups and it was a policy of their chiefs to reconstitute their clans in the conquered regions. They lived and fought together.

   Politically this led to the organization of confederations or alliances for maximizing their own tribal wealth and prestige. This is a zero sum game, for one’s ascendancy is compensated by another’s equivalent decline leading to a more or less permanent conflict. This again leads to unstable coalitions of two parties. This is what happened there and is what is happening to some extent now in India too, only far less violently.

   Adding to this tribalism are more divisions in Islam due to the formation of various sects of which we shall mention only the more important ones. The first sect – Kharijites – arose soon after the Prophet’s death when the third caliph, Uthman, was murdered in 656 AD and his successor Ali, bowing to majority opinion, submitted the matter of dealing with the murderers to arbitrators. This sect opposed the decision, claiming that no Caliph of Allah should submit the cause of God to the discretion of man.

   They taught that the Koran was the sole authority over every Muslim (hadith had not been formulated then). They believed that they should revolt against all secular tendencies and indiscriminately killed all unbelievers including those Muslims who did not join them and carried away their property as booty. Ali had to spend much of his time fighting with them since they began to terrorise the Muslim world. This sect did not last too long but set the trend for the formation of numerous sects in times to come, among which the Wahabis sect was very similar in approach as regards fundamentalism and orthodoxy.

   Within a hundred years of the beginning of Islam, a more rational approach, influenced by Greek Christian thinking, began to challenge the dogmatic, deterministic nature of traditional Islam. They were initially called Qadariyah because they denied Allah’s preordained destiny and taught that man possessed qadar, the power to determine his own destiny. These ‘free-thinkers’ were later called Mutazilah. Also, the more orthodox among them believed that the Koran was an uncreated word of Allah. Since He is nirguna, they held His speech to be separate from His being and so the Koran had to be created.

   Later, even a few Abbasid Caliphs supported this group and as a result the orthodox were severely punished. Ultimately the well-known scholar, Al-Ghazzali, in the fifth century after Muhammad, generally opposed these ‘philosophic’ trends, and particularly, this sect. The influence of this sect dwindled and Islam as a result stagnated and any reform, or rethinking became impossible.

   The other important sects during this early period of Islam were the Jahmiyyah who did not believe in eternal hell, the Asharis and Maturidis who set about formalizing the Islamic doctrine, the Batiniyyah who dismiss the entire body of the Sharia as being morally lax, the Rawafids who split again into numerous cults and the Mujassimah who pictured Allah as a man.

   The most important Muslim sect is the Shia sect and the Shia-Sunni violent quarrels are a hallmark of the Islamic world. As long as the Prophet was alive, the ummah was united in both the fundamentals and the peripherals, since he had a direct ‘access’ to Allah for all clarifications. But immediately after his death, the first dispute that arose was that of his burial and succession. The latter was inevitable since the Prophet did not have a male issue.

   His camp was split into two, one influenced by his close associate Abu Bakr and his daughter, Aisha, also the favourite wife of the Prophet, and the other, progeny from his daughter, Fatima and son-in-law and first cousin Ali, i.e. between the camps of the wife and the daughter. The wife scored first. Muhammad was buried in her chamber and Abu Bakr became the first caliph. His two successors were also from his camp. After their death, Ali was nominated by a majority but the other camp eventually murdered him. The feud continued and eventually Ali’s son (and Prophet’s grandson), Hussein, was ruthlessly put to death in the battle of Karbala in 680 AD.

   Now Ali’s followers openly separated and formed the Shia sect. They insisted that the caliphs should be nominated only from the Prophet’s family and as a result did not recognise the first three caliphs. This is the most important difference between these two sects. Apart from this, the Shiites hold that the Caliph or ‘Imam’ in their terminology, are like other prophets, ‘masoom’ or sinless and therefore should be obeyed in all matters and under all circumstances. They are thus not merely political leaders but also religious leaders and the clergy.

   As a result, while the Sunnis follow only the last Prophet and the Koran as the two primary sources of Islam, the Shias also hold the Imams as an autonomous source of their religion. Anything that he says, anything that he (Imam) does and anything he narrates is ‘religion’. Differing from him in any respect is as grave as differing from the Prophet. One may feel that this position helps this sect to modernise itself with time, but unfortunately it is equally fanatic and orthodox. It is estimated that about 20% of Muslims belong to this sect. In Iran they are in the majority (as in 2-3 other countries) but they are also present in the rest of the Muslim world.

   The most virulent sect of recent times already referred to in connection with Sufis is that of Wahabis which surfaced in the Arabian peninsula in the eighteenth century under the leadership of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab. In 1806 they conquered Mecca and soon terrorised the Muslim people. Shrines, tombs, minarets and other edifices considered as incompatible with Islam were desecrated. They even plundered the treasures of the Prophet’s tomb apart from plundering the Meccan pilgrims and thus causing cessation of the pilgrimage. The Meccan Shaikhs were forced to sign fatwas that they had lived as infidels prior to their ‘reforms’. We have already referred to the fate of Sufis as a very good example of what Muslims can do to each other!

   Unfortunately the ruling Saud dynasty of Arabia are Wahabites and therefore make covert contributions to Islamic fundamentalist movements and groups around the world today.

   We have already referred to the sects of Sufis earlier. Another more recent but important sect is that of Bahais which originated in Iran (which is regarded as non-Islamic by other Muslims). In non-Muslim countries, they are considered more tolerant than the rest since they also respect prophets like Buddha and Zoroaster.

Castes in Indian Islam

   We have seen so far how Islam immediately after the Prophet’s death, subdivided itself into various sects. All of them are represented in the subcontinent with caste as another special feature. It is difficult to explain how a self-proclaimed egalitarian religion like Islam can accept caste. The Prophet himself, however, suggested that considerations of birth should receive special attention in the instance of marriage (an important feature of the caste system). As a result, Muslim jurists worked out an elaborate system of social grades of birth and descent which basically were6 :

a.  An Arab was superior to a non-Arab

b. Amongst Arabs, all Quraishites were of equal social standing in a class by themselves, and all other Arabs were equal, irrespective of their tribes.

c. Amongst non-Arabs, a man was by birth an equal of an Arab if both his father and grandfather had been Muslims before him, but only if he was sufficiently wealthy to provide an adequate mehr.

d. A learned non-Arab was equal to an ignorant Arab.

e. A Muslim kazi ranked higher than a merchant and so on…..

   Most of the schools of Islamic theology admitted the importance of the significance of birth except the Malikiites, a great many of whom were Negroes, already considered as inferior by the Arabs! Since gradation already existed in any Muslim society it was not difficult for the faithful to adjust themselves to the local caste system in the subcontinent. The equivalent word used by them was beradar, qaum or jaat. In fact Islamization served to reinforce, rather than weaken or eliminate, caste distinctions.

   There is of course some difference in both systems in that Muslims religious ideology, unlike the Hindu religion, does not support it, is less elaborate, does not delineate the concept of pure and impure leading to a greater interplay of secular factors like wealth, and there is also no equivalent to the Brahmin caste since Muslim rituals do not demand it. However, the important criterion of hereditary occupational specialization which has distinguished the Indian caste system from other systems elsewhere in the world, has been incorporated into Indian Islam. The other criteria of caste, panchayats and internal government are present in both religions- Hinduism and Islam in the Indian subcontinent.

   The two broad main divisions of Indian Muslims is the higher Ashraf and the lower Ajilaf. The Ashraf are further divided into four main groups – Sayyad, Sheikh, Mughal and Pathan. The Ajilaf are similarly subdivided into a large numjber of sub-groups. It should be noted that these groups or categories roughly correspond to the Hindu equivalent of varna, like Brahmana and Kshatriya. They are further divided into sub-categories as the Hindu Kshatriyas are classified as Suryavanshi and Chandravanshi Kshatriyas. These are further divided into segments characterised by endogamy and region.

   Another important similarity is that in the higher Hindu and Muslim categories, hypergamy (marrying off girls into a higher caste) is present, but it is not so in the lower categories of both religions. An important difference is that the higher categories generally observed purdah, whereas the lower are not so rigid, possibly because of economic constraints. One things which the Muslim castes lack is the Brahmin or priestly class. Their much revered pirs or spiritual leaders are however drawn from the Sayyads who claim descent from the Prophet’s daughter.

   The structure of Muslim society in the Indian subcontinent did not at any time exhibit the Islamic ideal of social equality just as it did not exist in the rest of the Muslim world. An elaborate system of social stratification had been in practice from the very beginning of Muslim rule in India. As mentioned in the previous chapter, greater honour and respect was paid to the foreign ruling class than to those of Indian blood. In fact, many groups invented foreign ancestry for themselves in order to improve their social status. Thus the Sheikh Siddiquis of Allahabad district [in Uttar Pradesh, India] who were converts from the Kayastha castes today, claim to be the descendants of the first caliph, Abu Bakr. This sense of superiority derived from foreign ancestry, is an important criterion of social stratification among Muslims in India.

   A casual enquiry about caste will invariably invite the protest that Islam is an egalitarian religion and so Islam does not recognize or acknowledge caste among the faithful. But probe a little deeper and most of the nuances of the Hindu caste system will be found to be present as has been reported by various surveys carried out in different parts of India and published in the above book. The leadership, both social and political, is invariably monopolised by the upper castes and lower castes enjoy little, if any, control over leadership and decision-making. It will be remembered that when in one of the recent elections, the BSP [a political party of so-called lower caste Hindus of India, mainly present in the state of Uttar Pradesh] nominated a few Muslims from the lower castes as its candidates in UP, there was much dissatisfaction amongst the so-called upper caste Muslims.

   Opponents of Hinduism always point out to untouchability being an unpardonable blot on the religion. Surveys of Muslim societes in various parts of the country have shown that even amongst Muslims, particularly in the rural areas, the upper castes do not share food with the lowest classes like sweepers and also keep away from them in habitation. Equality is only during prayer-time in the mosque. Even here there are often separate mosques for separate sects and castes, particularly in a metropolitan city like Calcutta. There are also separate burial grounds for various sects like the Khojas and even in a burial ground there are often separate areas for the lowest classes.

   The only difference between Hindus and Muslims as far as caste is concerned, is that while the system is sanctioned in the sociology of Hinduism, it is not so in Islam. In fact superficially, Islam condemns any division between man and man, among the believers, though it explicitly divides mankind as believers and unbelievers. As a result, the Indian Muslims will always deny that they follow the caste system like Hindus because they cannot find a religious sanction for it and they will declare it goes against the basic tenets of Islam, though in reality more casteism is practised in the Indian Muslim society, than in the Indian Hindu society.

  In the last few decades, Hindu society has changed rapidly and the bonds of castes are loosening, particularly in the urban areas. In fact it may not be surprising that after some time the more orthodox Muslim society will follows a more rigid caste system than the Hindus. Many caste groups in the past from among the Hindus had converted to Islam as a group and still retain some of their old traditions. Hence the presence of castes in Hinduism should not present an insurmountable barrier in a massive shuddhi movement to reabsorb the subcontinent Muslims back into the Hindu society.


1. The Sufi Orders of Islam, J. Spencer Trimingham, oxford, 1998.

2. Sufism in India, ‘Vedaprakash’, Vivekananda Kendra Patrika, February 1995, Vol. 24 No. 1

3. Awaken Bharata, David Frawley, Voce of India Publications, New Delhi, 1998

4. Sufis of Bijapur – 1300-1700, Richard Maxwell Eaton, Princeton, 1978

5. The world of Fatwas or the Shahriah in Action, Arun Shourie, ASA Publications, New Delhi, 1995

6. Caste and Social Stratification among Muslims in India, Ed. Imtiaz Ahmed, Manohar Publications, New Delhi, 1978.

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