All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over an Ajami nor does an Ajami have any superiority over an Arab; also a White has no superiority over a Black nor does a Black have any superiority over a White, except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.Footnote 1
Scriptural evidence is often provided to negate the normative basis of a conception of stratification and hierarchy within Islam. Furthermore, in lieu of this proclaimed absence of a notion of hierarchy, citations from the Quran, various traditions of the ProphetFootnote 2 (narratives of his companions) or developments that took place during the early years of Islamic rule are cited to highlight masavat (equality) as a driving force that led to the spread of Islam across continents. Practitioners of Islam, however, have always had to confront the various forms of regional and social differentiations that characterise Muslim societies. These social differentiations reveal tensions in the discourse on the practice of Islam as (Muslim) authors deploy the normative tradition of Islamic egalitarianism to rationalise social inequalities and hierarchies.Footnote 3 Indeed, several practices and conceptions from within the lexicon of the IslamicateFootnote 4 world reflect an engagement with notions of hierarchy and social stratification as practiced by Muslim communities.Footnote 5ʽIlm-al nasab (the science of genealogy) is one such practice whose origins lie in pre-Islamic Arab society but which continues to shape and justify social stratification in contemporary Muslim societies.Footnote 6
Despite the early existence of texts justifying social hierarchies among Muslims from within the Islamic tradition, in South Asia colonial ethnographers and later social scientists designated the Hindu caste system as the ‘framework’ or the ‘environment’Footnote 7 within which to understand the emergence and practice of social stratification among the Muslims of ‘Hindustan’.Footnote 8 Indian social scientists first debated caste among Muslims in the 1960s with regional studies subsequently being conducted by sociologists and anthropologists in the 1970s and 1980s.Footnote 9 Early anthropological studies relied on colonial accounts and census records to suggest that notions of hierarchy among Muslims in India owed their origins to the Hindu caste system even though Muslim and Hindu social stratification systems differed in their essence. Later, sociologists partly revised this claim, arguing that social stratification among Muslims did include many practices similar to the Hindu caste system. They relied on ethnographic studies to show that the practice of endogamy and hierarchy among occupational specialisations was common to both Muslims and Hindus. However, they continued to claim that social stratification among Muslims differed on two significant points. First, stratification among Muslims did not advocate the practice of ritual pollution, and, second, Islam did not provide any scriptural and religious reasons for a systematic basis for hierarchy and stratification among its believers.
This article seeks to re-open these debates and to contribute to the study of hierarchy and stratification among South Asian Muslims by historicising the notions of hierarchy studied by sociologists and anthropologists. Ethnographic studies from the 1960s to the 1980s took note of hierarchy-based practices performed by Muslims but they did not always trace their normative or scriptural justifications. By looking closely at the historical evolution of key terms and notions of hierarchy articulated by South Asian Muslims, the aim here is to throw light on the conception and practice of social stratification among Muslims—foregoing, in the process, overemphasis on the Hindu caste system as the sole reference point for all formulations on caste among Muslims.
The debate on hierarchy among Muslims in the subcontinent should be viewed against the backdrop of the Islamic reform movements in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Hindustan.Footnote 10 The broad objective of these Muslim reformers was to advocate a pure Islam, rooted in scriptural tradition of the Quran and Hadith, calling for the islah (reform) of all rasam o rivaj (customs and traditions), which they regarded as bidʽat (innovation). A significant part of the leadership of social and religious reform movements came from Sayyid or sharif backgrounds, and they articulated a set of conceptions regarding what it meant to be virtuous or pious, civilised or uncivilised, sharif (respectable) or razil (lowly).Footnote 11 Often the practices regarded as bidʽat were seen as being associated with the Ajlaf (lit. the lower order) Muslims. The ʽulama made copious use of citations from the Quran or various Hadith traditions in order to rationalise and justify social hierarchy.Footnote 12 Hence, writings on ʽilm al-nasab produced in nineteenth-century Hindustan need to be read in the light of this reformist impulse.
This article accordingly highlights tensions between the normative egalitarian principles of Islam and Muslims’ social practices through a study of three tarikh texts that were produced in a single qasbah town,Footnote 13 Amroha, in the Rohilkhand region of the United Provinces.Footnote 14 These tarikh texts, authored by Sayyid men from Amroha, narrated the qasbah's history by deploying ʽilm al-nasab as the primary mode of recounting the past. In the process, they provide us with an insightful analysis of the system of stratification and conceptions of hierarchy as envisioned locally and during the period in question. While these texts quote Islam's normative egalitarian traditions, they nevertheless justify social hierarchies on the basis of Islamic references;Footnote 15 and all three texts highlight that while historical enquiry was motivated by the principles of nasab, the function attributed to genealogy evolved over time.
The first section of this article examines two tarikh texts produced in the late nineteenth century that taken together mark the transition in Amroha from history-writing focused on the family to something that more resembled social history. The first text, Ai'nah-i Abbasi (1878),Footnote 16 authored by Maulvi Hakim Muhib-i Ali Khan Abbasi, provides an account of the genealogy and history of the Abbasi Sayyids of Amroha. The primary function of genealogy here was to narrate the history of a particular family and establish claims of genealogical descent on their behalf. By contrast, the second text under study, the Tarikh-i Asghari (1889)Footnote 17 authored by Sayyid Asghar Hussain Naqvi, presents a more comprehensive account of the history of the people of Amroha. It includes an ethnographic description of the qasbahs’ various muhallahs’ (localities) and discusses the lineage of each of their important inhabitants, thereby broadening the scope of ʽilm al-nasab writing.
By the early decades of the twentieth century, discourses on ʽilm al-nasab had come to reflect contestations for power and prestige played out in the qasbahs’ political arena. The second section of this article therefore focuses on this later period, when local social competition tested existing claims based on genealogy. It traces the life and writings of Mahmud Ahmad Abbasi who worked closely with some of the leading literary figures at Aligarh and later produced a three-volume history of the qasbah. Abbasi's work incorporated colonial sources and ‘modern’ methods to narrate Amroha's social history. And in the volume dedicated to nasab, genealogy functioned as a tool to establish and legitimise social hierarchies among Amroha's Muslim inhabitants at a time when these hierarchies were being bitterly contested.
When reading these three texts, we have to bear in mind the social and material context of their production. History-writing in Amroha was primarily a Sayyid occupation, and Sayyids wrote passionately on the significance of lineage and descent. Their publications became the basis on which they legitimised their claims to a superior status among local Muslims, whose town Amroha was often described as a qasbah of the sadat (pl. of Sayyid). These Sayyid authors deployed conceptions of hierarchy that evolved during the colonial period, based on notions of race, ethnicity, respectability and nobility, occupational distinctions and narratives referring to the history of early Islam. In effect, by writing on genealogy, they provided their own definitions regarding who could claim to be an ‘authentic’ Sayyid and what defined Sayyid-ness in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Hindustan.
ʽIlm-al nasab in Amroha: from family to social history
History-writing was a well-established genre in Arabic and Indo-Persian literature before it developed its vernacular Urdu form. Works on the history of Hindustan were first composed in the early thirteenth century and were still being reproduced, adapted, translated or annotated in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the enduring relevance of such texts for nineteenth-century historians can be gauged from the availability of translated versions and the frequency with which these works were cited as historical sources in the various Amroha tarikhs under scrutiny here.Footnote 18 These texts not only provided a historical background to nineteenth-century tarikh works but some of their ideas and concepts also made an impact on style, genre conventions and content.
Historical works in Urdu first began as translations and adaptations of Persian historical works and later formed an important genre of prose-writing in the vernacular language.Footnote 19 History-writing in Urdu retained, experimented with, and re-adapted the typical forms of Indo-Persian and Arabic literary traditions.Footnote 20ʽIlm-al nasab was one of the important components and sources of Muslim historiography that was deployed for various purposes.Footnote 21 In its broadest sense, nasab is “a way of making sense of and shaping the past”,Footnote 22 with the aim of developing a historical consciousness for communities based on a sense of common descent.Footnote 23 Such communities have been the central organising category for Muslim societies across the world. Claiming an affiliation to the ahl-i bait (Family of the Prophet) or Sayyid status, whether fictitious or otherwise, has been the most widespread way for communities to support their moral and material objectives with genealogical credentials.Footnote 24
The ‘roots’ of this interest in genealogy can be traced back to pre-Islamic Arabian Bedouin society, and it continued to dominate medieval Muslim societies as an ‘invented tradition’ that sought to narrate an Islamic past to garner social status and prestige.Footnote 25 Szombathy points out that the importance ascribed to genealogy and matters of descent in medieval Muslim societies was mainly for political ends and specifically to distinguish Arabs from non-Arabs or to claim a Sayyid descent.Footnote 26 Hence, communities of common descent created synchronic and diachronic connections between families by tracing them back to their common origins. These connections were built through genealogies that were flexible and adaptive. Genealogical records, as Pernau argues, should be read as claims to social status rather than documenting biological status. Social status could be altered through the acquisition of a reputation for erudition and piety, as well as genealogical claims of descent from the Prophet. In the late nineteenth-century north Indian environment, communities of common descent were ultimately political communities, defined by a combination of both status and origin.Footnote 27 Even for groups with non-Arab or non-Sayyid descent tracing their lineage back to the Prophet's Quresh tribe or to the Ansar community in order to derive a Shaikh status was a way of upgrading their social standing and prestige. Szombathy uses the term “genealogical parasitism” to describe this broad tendency of lower status groups to deploy the ‘patchwork’ of an Arabic genealogical chart to claim a superior social position among their contemporaries.Footnote 28
In Amroha, ʽilm al-nasab attracted several Sayyid practitioners who produced tarikh texts written in Urdu, outlining the qasbah's history—distinctly local in its content—and deploying nasab as a central mode of narrating the past of the town and its inhabitants. Yet nasab also evolved into a kind of social history based on accounts that increasingly reflected the social contestations produced by the changing material context of local qasbah politics. This evolution of history writing and its relation to ʽilm al-nasab was reflected in the tarikh texts produced in Amroha from the late nineteenth to the early decades of the twentieth century.
The first tarikhs written in Amroha during this period were authored by Sayyid men, primarily as family histories providing the genealogical lineages of important men of their family, but often including famed men belonging to other prominent families of the qasbah as well. The Ai'nah-i Abbasi (1878)Footnote 29 is considered one of the first of these Amroha tarikhs and is representative of the family history genre, being primarily an account of the nasab of the Abbasi Sayyids of Amroha.Footnote 30 Its author Muhib-i Ali Khan Abbasi (1827–1906), an Abbasi Sayyid and hakim by profession, was well-versed in Persian and Arabic and could boast of knowledge of tibb (Unani medicine). Briefly during the 1857 Rebellion, he administered Amroha on behalf of the Nawab of Rampur and was bestowed with the laqb (title) of Khan for his services.Footnote 31 Another qasbah tarikh that was published a decade later, the Tarikh-i Asghari (1889),Footnote 32 differed from the conventional model of family history by incorporating a comprehensive social history of the qasbah in its structure. Its author Syed Asghar Hussain Naqvi (1822–1925) was a resident of the Mohalla Guzri. Born into a Sayyid family, his ancestors included important mansabdars Footnote 33 during the Mughal rule of Akbar and are mentioned in other tazkirahs and tarikhs.Footnote 34 In 1867, he contributed to the reconstruction of the Ashraful Masjid in the muhallah Shafat Pota and was an important member of the committee responsible for mosque welfare.
Thus, the authors of both texts were embedded within the Sayyid milieu. Thanks to their education, they were well-versed in Persian and Arabic. Both associated themselves with the vestiges of pre-colonial India. Khan was part of the Nawab of Rampur's administration and Naqvi was an important representative of the Mughal state's mansabdars. The tarikh texts that they composed and the sources that they used to narrate the qasbah's past reflected their own positions of power and linguistic knowledge.
The AiA begins by narrating the brief history of various Islamic prophets and other virtuous figures from the common pantheon of stories and tales derived from Islamic history. Khan considered his khandan (family)—the Abbasi Sayyids of Amroha—as the ahl-i bait and traced their lineage to Hazrat Abbas, considered to be the founder of the Abbasid Caliphate.Footnote 35 The AiA offers a detailed account of the genealogy of the Arabic tribe of the Banu Hashim to establish a link between the Abbasis of Amroha to the rulers of the Abbasid Caliphate. A brief history of the Abbasid Caliphate is narrated to highlight the importance of the ahl-i bait, Sayyids and Abbasis during their rule. Quoting several sources, Khan emphasises the prominence given to the kin of Hazrat Abbas by appointing them in key administrative positions during the life of the Prophet, Umayyad and Abbasid rule, and in Hindustan during the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal periods.Footnote 36
According to Khan, the earliest forefathers of the Abbasis of Amroha were two brothers, Maulana Math and Maulana Babban. Khan traces the lineage of his khandan to Maulana Math's son Lala Muhammad, who he claims was born in the Punjab. While Khan admits that the name is a Hindi one, he underlines that Maulana Babban was a muezzin (reciter of the call to prayer) at the Emperor Akbar's court of Agra.Footnote 37 The two brothers Babban and Math moved to Amroha and worked as muʽallims (teachers) of the prince. They were granted mu‘afi (revenue free) lands, the rights to which continued to be passed on to their descendants.
Compared to the AiA, the TiAs is more comprehensive in terms of its scope and length. Structurally it is divided into two broad thematic parts. The first is the historical section where Naqvi draws on a number of sources to establish basic historical facts about Amroha, while the second is ethnographic, describing various aspects of the qasbah as he saw them in their contemporary light. The historical part of the work accordingly provides geographical and demographical details about the qasbah. It narrates its history found in the common sources of Indo-Persian historiography on the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal rule, but significantly it also includes historical details from the colonial government gazetteers and records. The second part of the text incorporates a discussion of important customs, traditions and festivals celebrated by the inhabitants of Amroha, including the great festivals of Eid, Diwali, Shab-i Barat, Dusehhra, Holi, Muharram and others, as they were celebrated in Amroha in Naqvi's time. He also paints a description of the qasbah's main religious sites, notably nine major dargahs and several important mosques.
Differences in the structure and content of the two texts also appear in the nature of the sources that they cite. The debate on history in the vernacular places emphasis on style, genres and sources used in vernacular historical texts.Footnote 38 The original text of the AiA has no footnotes, annotations or a separate document under the title of makhiz-i talif (bibliography).Footnote 39 Various sources reoccur occasionally throughout the text, but are mostly paraphrased or provided without any proper citations. At the end of the volume, Khan simply lists his makhiz (sources) as the following historical works: Rozat al-sufa, Tarikh-i Firishta, Waqkidi, Rozat al-ahbab, Kitab al-ansab, Muntakhab al-tawarikh and ʽAin-i Akbari.Footnote 40
The TiAs uses all of the classic literature that the AiA cites. However, in addition, the TiAs also quotes extensively from colonial sources, such as the early Gazetteers covering divisions of the North-Western Provinces and contemporary census figures, to provide factual details regarding the geography and demography of Amroha.Footnote 41 At the end of this volume, an appendix is attached with a list of 144 mansabdars at Amroha, which includes their names, the quantity of mansabs and the ruler whose patronage they enjoyed.Footnote 42
Naqvi mentions that the qasbah's sadat had been awarded revenue-free lands under the patronage of various rulers ever since Firoz Shah Khilji, and these continued into the nineteenth century. Their claim was commonly accepted and also observed in the land settlement reports prepared by colonial officers, who acknowledged that in Amroha more than half the land had been revenue free for the sadat since Firoz Shah Khilji's time.Footnote 43 However, once the British began collecting and re-assessing land revenue in the region, the land settlement efforts became a cause of concern for the mu‘afidars. Naqvi accordingly points out that from 1801 to 1833, owing to change in revenue policies, the mu‘afidars faced troubles in relation to the confiscation of some of their mu‘afi land.
The reasons for such troubled relations with the colonial authorities were described in detail in the 1881 land settlement report, which stated that the Sayyids of Amroha were the largest propertied class but that they had their own set of shortcomings:
Owing to their dislike of engaging in any trade or of cultivating their lands themselves, and to their increasing number and expensive habits, the Saiads [sic] have, as a rule, became involved, and owing to the different constitution of society under our rule, they have also lost much of their former position and influence.Footnote 44
Naqvi points out that that land settlement efforts were accompanied by the coming together of several mu‘afidars of Moradabad District, from the tehsils of Bachraon, Bijnor and Amroha, to form associations to struggle for their rights.Footnote 45 Finally, it was Sir John Stratchey (1823–1907), the Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces, whom Naqvi thanked for intervening and ensuring that the rights of the mu‘afidars were secured.Footnote 46
For the purpose of analysis, two aspects of each of these tarikhs are significant. For the AiA it is the resolution of the tension between notions that value the prominence of ahl-i bait and egalitarian ones that value piety as the highest virtue. As far as the TiAs is concerned, the most striking aspect of this volume is its treatment of genealogy which is elaborated through an ethnographic account of the muhallahs of Amroha.
Nasab or genealogy has a complicated status within Muslim social thought. As noted earlier, as a principle it is often denied value with regard to the egalitarian spirit of Islam. Even a text like the AiA, which is primarily a reflection on the significance of nasab, is unable to begin the discussion without a disclaimer—that belonging to an important lineage such as Hashmi or Qureshi is not as important for Allah as zati sharafat (personal piety).Footnote 47 This is substantiated by an Arabic quote that reads “for Allah only he is respectful who is pious”.Footnote 48 However, several instances are described to stress the importance of nasab; specifically the following Hadith is invoked:
Allah has given all the virtues to the sons of Hazrat Ismail and among their offspring, all virtues to the Quresh, from among the Quresh, all virtues to the Banu Hashim and from among the Banu Hashim, all virtues to me.Footnote 49
Thus the prominence placed on the ahl-i bait is derived from this Hadith tradition. Banu Hashim was the tribe of the Prophet and within this subgroup can be found the ahl-i bait, defined as the family of the Prophet. It is the ahl-i bait who can claim the title of a Sayyid and, thus, as a logical extension of this Hadith—which states that the Banu Hashim is superior to all others—it is claimed that Sayyids are superior to all other Muslims. This claim is reflected in the construction of a distinction between the sadat and the shurfa (pl. of sharif). Khan describes Amroha as a qasbah of the sadat and asserts that the shurfa are fewer in number than the sadat. Footnote 50 He points out that, counted together, there are 700 families of both sadat and shurfa who receive mu‘afi or jagir (revenue free) patronage, but that it is belonging to the ahl-i bait that grants a special status for the sadat which the shurfa do not possess.
However, given the fact that there were several families in Amroha apart from the Abbasis who could claim descent from the Banu Hashim clan or the ahl-i bait and through this a Sayyid status, the distinction between various Sayyid families also became important. It was in this context that piety as the criteria for virtuousness overrode nasab. While some could claim to be the ahl-i bait, piety—conforming to the narrative of the egalitarian spirit of Islam—would establish who among the Sayyids was most virtuous.
While the AiA emphasises the importance of the ahl-i bait and produced a genealogical account that was in the form of family history, the TiAs narrates a genealogical history of the qasbah through an ethnographic description of its various muhallahs. It also includes a description of all local Muslim families, moving beyond Sayyids to include Ashraf (lit. the nobles) Muslims as well. Indeed, its most significant aspect is the way in which it lays out the genealogy and lineage by way of an account of the muhallahs. The discussion of the qasbah at the level of the muhallah represents a step towards the localisation of genealogy itself. As each muhallah is described through the various important men who resided there, this is followed by a brief mention of their genealogical lineages. The deployment of muhallahs for the description of the qasbah and its important men was not radically new, as an emphasis on urban ethnography was also a component of the tazkirah tradition. Sunil Sharma discusses how the tazkirah can also take the form of an urban ethnographic account, dwelling on nostalgia or boasting about the golden years of an Islamic past.Footnote 51 But in the TiAs the discussion of the genealogical lineage of important men is categorised on the basis of muhallahs, an approach that seems unique when compared with other tarikh works produced in Amroha at the time.
Muhallahs in Amroha featured a dominant family or group of families, but also often included other working class communities living adjacent to the dwelling of the important families. Naqvi lists c. 51 muhallahs in Amroha—Shafat Pota, Bhangi Tola and Danishmand, to name just a few.Footnote 52 It is worth noting here that Naqvi uses the Ashraf-Ajlaf distinction to point to various Muslim social groups. Often he also mentions non-Muslims who inhabit various muhallahs. Naqvi's corpus is thus exceptional as it provides a history of the qasbah through an ethnography of the local muhallahs, offering key insights into local history and events.
By the twentieth century the social landscape had significantly altered, with non-Ashraf Muslim social groups forming their own associations and organisations and becoming an important element present within towns and cities across the United Provinces. Genealogy remained the central mode of narrating the past, but it now had to confront social and material transformations and so took up a form that was based on contestations and refutations.
ʽIlm-al nasab as Contestation: Social Stratification in Amroha
Mahmud Ahmad Abbasi was born in Amroha in 1885, the same year that the Indian National Congress was founded. He not only witnessed the highs and lows of many significant movements, struggles and processes of nation-building, but actively contributed to the corpus of historical works focusing on the Muslim past.Footnote 53 These works were shaped by the needs and challenges faced by Sayyid and Ashraf Muslims over the course of the twentieth century in north India. His three-volume series on the history of Amroha is marked by a passion for rigour, precision and objectivity. Yet his writings more often than not offended representatives of local Muslim communities, whether Sayyid or Shaikh, Shia or Sunni, Julaha (weavers) or Qasab (butchers).
Reflecting back on his childhood Abbasi attributes his passion for knowledge about the lineages of his ancestors and the lives of notable ʽulama and Sufi saints to the ʽilmi mahaul (intellectual milieu) of his sharif household. Abbasi was born in a Sayyid family whose lineage was said to go back to Prophet Mohammad's uncle, Hazrat Abbas (ibn Abd al Mutallib), the progenitor of the greatly revered Abbasid dynasty.Footnote 54 After completing his school education in Amroha and owing to the demise of his father, Abbasi was sent to Bareilly and eventually to Lucknow for the pursuit of further studies. The grand city of Lucknow introduced the young Abbasi to a world of knowledge and wisdom, enabling encounters and friendships with the foremost Muslim intelligentsia of the time whose members frequented the erstwhile capital of Awadh.Footnote 55 In his account of his days in Bareilly and Lucknow, Abbasi writes that he would consume a vast number of historical works in various libraries without any sense of time passing by. He specifically mentions devouring the literature of the Aligarh school and especially reading every page of Sayyid Ahmad Khan's writings published in the journal Tahzib al-akhlaq.Footnote 56 During his time in Bareilly, Abbasi was also introduced to the poet litterateur Altaf Hussain Hali who duly encouraged and motivated him, inquiring of his well-being through regular letters.Footnote 57 At Hali's request in 1907, Abbasi joined the office of the All-India Muslim Educational Conference (AIMEC) where he worked continuously for 14 years in various posts, such as Personal Assistant to Aftab Ahmad Khan, Literary Assistant, Assistant Secretary, or Superintendent Head of Office.Footnote 58
Abbasi's autobiographical account is a set of reflections, notes and observations of a historian commenting back on the trajectories of his life. His biographical story represents the journey of a Sayyid Sunni Muslim hailing from a qasbah town, who shared a wide network of Sayyid and Sharif solidarities available across various towns and cities in the United Provinces that moulded his thoughts and ideas.Footnote 59 The reformist movement in Aligarh, for instance, was a distinct milieu that shaped and captured the imagination of several generations following its emergence in the late nineteenth century. Besides being well acquainted with some of its leading men, as Abbasi's biographical journey reveals, his works are marked by the discourses taking place at Aligarh. In his intisab (dedication) of the TiA, Abbasi reflects on the task of writing about a period spanning a vast historical time and calls out to future generations to take note of their ancestors and their past. While the TiA was primarily a historical work that narrated the past, Abbasi was concerned about issues that were shaped by the discourses in Aligarh—the future of the qaum (community) and its taraqqi (progress).
In the Muqaddima (prologue) of the TiA, Abbasi elaborates on the temporal aspects of the life of the qaum, the intertwining of the hal (present) with the mazi (past) and the mustaqbil (future). The life of the qaum is described in distinct stages, from bachpan (childhood) to javani (adolescence) to budhapa (old age), with each stage being marked by taraqqi (progress) or tanazzul (decline). Abbasi acknowledges the revolutionary advances made in the nineteenth century by his predecessors and places his work within the framework and terminology that characterised that of the reformers of Aligarh.
The eyes of the slumber induced people of the East are getting dazzled by the great works and inventions of science of the people of the West. By witnessing the civilised people, the people of Hindustan have been awakened in matters of civilisation, culture and society, such that even in the matters of faith and belief, a revolution is spreading. By following civilised people, rather the spirit of imitation, has moved from the realm of ideas to practice. In these circumstances, just by the thought, that the events of the past and the life and deeds of our ancestors can prove beneficial for the present generation, I began to write the history of our predecessors.Footnote 60
Among the leading figures of Aligarh, Hali proved to be particularly influential in Abbasi's life. This influence appears explicitly in the dibacha (preface) of Abbasi's third volume on nasab, which begins with a reference to the poet's classic work Shikwa-i Hind.Footnote 61 However, Abbasi's reverence for Aligarh and its reformers was not unqualified. The advocates of the qaum faced a tension between normative claims on Islam's egalitarianism, on the one hand, and empirical social inequalities and hierarchies, on the other. In Aligarh, the qaum was confined to its Sayyid and sharif proponents. In Amroha, the contested discourse of nasab challenged the concept of a unified Muslim qaum. This tension was taken up by Abbasi, who accepted the Aligarians' broad framework, but nevertheless addressed issues of social contestations in his volume on nasab.
In the preface to the TaA, Abbasi quotes Hali's Shikva-i Hind that stressed that both the Arab and the Ajam (non-Arab) identities hold a special status within the qaum-i muslim (community of Muslims or ummah). The contemporary situation in Amroha, Abbasi laments, was marked by a pride in genealogical descent that went against the egalitarian spirit of Islam: not only Arabi and Ajami Muslims, but also Hindi Muslims were plagued by the false pride of nasab, which led to contestations regarding lineage and descent among these groups. Abbasi points out that Hindi Muslims had begun to organise conferences and anjumans (associations) to claim Sayyid, Shaikh or Ashraf status. If Hali had been alive to witness this false pride of genealogical descent, Abbasi claims that he would have added a section on nasab to his epic poem.
Hali did indeed write a short essay regarding his views on nasab that was published in 1894 in the Tahzib al-akhlaq, entitled ʽHasb o nasab’.Footnote 62 Hali distinguished between nasab and hasb (merit) by pointing out that while the former was biological (in the sense that every human since Adam had possessed it), hasb was instead inherited. Any sense of tafavvuq (superiority) that marked contemporary society, Hali explained, was according to the notions of hasb and not based on any sense of pride in one's nasab. Hasb reflected a status or rank whose inheritance could be derived from social or economic capital. Regardless of its importance, Hali stated, any status deriving from hasb, following Ibn Khaldun, only lasts for four subsequent generations, beyond which an individual had to earn respect and status through one's deeds and ʽamal (practice). In contrast to Hali's dismissal of the value of nasab, the Deoband ʽalim Ashraf Ali Thanawi in several of his sermons stressed the significance of both hasb and nasab. The latter is considered especially important in matters regarding the directive for marriage, kafa'ah,Footnote 63 whose validity is established by a Hadith tradition that is commonly quoted in most discussions on genealogy across the Islamicate world.Footnote 64
Abbasi gives credence to these views of nineteenth-century Islamic reformers who termed certain rituals and traditions practiced by lower Muslims classes as bid‘at (innovation) owing to their similarities with the practitioners of Hinduism. For Abbasi, social divisions among Muslims, or more specifically nasal parasti (discrimination based on race and ethnicity) as practiced by the Hindi Muslims, was the result of the company of the asnam parast (idol worshippers).Footnote 65 In his view, any such distinctions based on race and ethnicity, though against the spirit of the egalitarian principles advocated by Islam, were rationalised through an interpretation based on a temporal division of the history of Islam. Abbasi thus contrasts the Islam that was based on masavat, as it was practiced in the age of the Prophet, with Muslims’ contemporary practices in Amroha, plagued by distinctions based on race, ethnicity and genealogical pride. Although he insists on the prominence of parhezgari (piety) and ʽamal (practice) as the sole criteria for respect and virtue within the normative egalitarian tradition of Islam, Abbasi devotes an entire volume to ʽilm al-nasab, an indicator of the ongoing importance of genealogy. The real objective of this volume, Abbasi explains, was to correct the wrong interpretations of family trees projected by “hypocrite voices” in Amroha that he believed to be biased and prejudiced.Footnote 66 A false sense of pride based on nasab had taken the present time back to the ahd-i jahiliyyat (dark ages), and all the principles of hurriyat (freedom) and masavat (equality), characteristic of the early days of Islam during the life of the Prophet, had been destroyed. This temporal distinction between an egalitarian golden period of early Islam and the contemporary dark ages was common to the understanding of some of the reformers of Aligarh. According to them, masavat was the ideal of Islam, but zat pat or unch nich (caste hierarchies) existed among Muslims in Hindustan due to the Hindu environment. Within this framework, caste hierarchies practised by lower-class converts were implicitly regarded as bidʽat.
While these reformers dismissed caste-based hierarchies, they turned toward the notion of nasab to account for (or even justify) tension between the normative egalitarian ideal of Islam and existing hierarchical practices among Muslims. They pointed out that, unlike zat pat, nasab was part of the Arabic-Islamic tradition and ‘authentic’ sources could be cited to justify its importance. Although, in theory, piety and its ʽamal were the criteria for virtue and excellence, in the contemporary world—where status hierarchies were under question—an emphasis on nasab allowed Sayyids to legitimise their claim to the apex position among Muslims. Indeed, such intense emphasis on nasab suggests that these discussions regarding genealogy and descent were not merely a literary exercise. Rather, they constituted a response to the social and material transformations taking place across the United Provinces in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Owing to changes in the economy with the spread of industrialisation, Muslims hitherto considered to be lower-class, specifically Julahas (weavers) and Qasabs (butchers), began organising themselves in order to promote the uplift of their respective communities. The 1920s saw the founding of the All India Jamiatul Quresh (AIJQ) and the All-India Jamiat al-Ansar, representing butchers and weavers respectively. Both had a strong presence in qasbah towns located across the United Provinces.Footnote 67 In particular, the former was well entrenched in Amroha in the person of Haji Zafar Ahmad, its all-India general secretary and one of its leading voices at the local level. The Qasabs, like the Julahas, were looking to challenge Sayyid and Ashraf hegemony. In the process, they engaged with the discourse of nasab to claim Shaikh status for themselves. Haji Zafar Ahmad, for instance, published a text in 1934, entitled Suhel-i Sehmi, which questioned Mahmud Ahmad Abbasi's claims regarding the Qasabs being of Hindi origin, and so inferior to Sayyid and Ashraf Muslims who claimed to be of Arab origin. But this engagement with the discourse on nasab was itself directly tied to confrontations over political and economic power. With the introduction of local self-government and municipal boards, local politics created space for new political actors representing their communities' interests.Footnote 68 Land disputes further fuelled contestations over social hierarchies.
Understanding the way in which the material context of the ownership of land was tied to discussions on lineage and descent provides useful context and sheds light on Abbasi's scheme of stratification with respect to Amroha Muslims. Indeed, it was a dispute in the early 1920s concerning land rights in the village of Garhi located in Amroha tehsil that brought to the fore the economic implications of social stratification. The case, which involved a piece of land previously owned by a Sayyid and transferred to a Qasab, was first decided by the District Judge of Moradabad, before whom hearings took place between 1922 and 1924.Footnote 69 The case eventually reached the Allahabad High Court, which overruled the judgement of the lower-level District Court. The arguments provided by the District and High Courts are highly revealing of the bigger picture. The second and the third defendants, who were Qasabs, had sold their house to another butcher, the first defendant. The zamindar sued them, declaring that the sale of the land was invalid, and demanded the possession of the sites as well as the removal of the Qasabs' constructions. The courts took up a single point, namely whether “Qasabs are not Sheikhs and therefore cannot claim rights of transfer given to Sheikhs”.Footnote 70
The most important document providing local land record and rights of transfer was the vajib al-arz (record of rights), which attributed “a transferable right in their houses” to “seven classes of persons and no others”.Footnote 71 These seven classes comprised “Tambolis, Brahmans, Banias, Shaikhs, Sayyids, Mughals and Pathans”.Footnote 72 The view taken by the trial court was that the four Muslim groups were merely illustrative rather than exhaustive, and that the custom applied to all Muslims whether or not they belonged to the specified classes. The High Court Judge, however, differed in his interpretation of the vajib al-arz and provided three counter-arguments.
First, the High Court Judge argued that if the vajib al-arz had been intended to include all Muslims it would have done so rather than mention only four groups. Second, he pointed out that all Muslims who were not Sayyids, Pathans or Mughals claimed to be Shaikhs when they rose in the world. Further, he noted that many Muslims in India did not call themselves Shaikh, Sayyid, Pathan or Mughal, but instead used other specific names such as Julaha, Nurbaf, Qasab, etc. Third, the judge maintained that the argument that low-class Muslims and converts to Islam were intentionally excluded was supported by the fact that only certain classes of Hindus were given a right of alienation in the vajib al-arz. Footnote 73 Accordingly, he dismissed the case and, in doing so, denied Qasabs the right of transfer and alienation of land: clearly, in his opinion, land rights remained dependent on community status tied to lineage and descent.
Questions over vajib al-arz, thus, reflected wider social transformations that were sweeping across the United Provinces during the period of British rule. These records featured lengthy genealogical tables to support claims to foreign origins and to establish common ancestors for the community. Establishing a shared lineage was not simply a matter of pride. It became a significant act to settle disputes and contestations over land and property. As a result, the practice of ʽilm al-nasab was not merely a literary exercise. It also became closely associated with property rights and community status strengthening notions of communities based on common origin and descent.
Hence, it is within this context of social and material transformations, that Abbasi's scheme of stratification among Muslims needs to be read, and understood. The larger part of Abbasi's work on nasab is a sociological exercise of enumerating the various social segments of the population of Amroha. Abbasi begins by listing the Hindus and their various castes, namely Brahmins, Vaishyas, Kayasth and Shudras. This is followed up by a discussion focused on the Muslim population of Amroha, for whom Abbasi had formulated an elaborate scheme of stratification and categorisation based on an understanding of ethnic origins of various social groups. This scheme envisaged well-defined and distinct categories (see Table 1). Not only did he provide conceptual and historical analysis, he also substantiated his scheme empirically by identifying specific families in Amroha who belonged to each of the categories. These were neatly distributed in the various muhallahs of the qasbah. Such empirical precision was unprecedented, and a step ahead of colonial ethnographers, whose censuses and surveys had remained abstract and incoherent in spite of the attempt to anchor normative caste categories in empirical observation.Footnote 74
Table 1. The stratification of the Muslims of Amroha according to M. A. Abbasi Footnote 75
Abbasi's neat and well-defined scheme of social stratification for the Muslims of Amroha includes several sets of distinctions. He first differentiates them according to their ethnic nasal (lineage) into three categories—Arabi, Ajami and Hindi—with the first being superior to the last. These categories emerged out of early narratives of Islamic history, according to which the ahl-i bait was revered and could make claims to rule the early Islamic dynasties on the basis of rightful lineage and descent. In Abbasi's scheme, in line with the interpretation found in the AiA, only the Banu Hashim clan could be considered the real ahl-i bait and rightful claimants to the title of Sayyid.Footnote 76 The Hashmis were further divided into five clans—Hasani, Husaini, Jafri, Aqili and AbbasiFootnote 77—that considered each other ham kufu.Footnote 78 Abbasi condemns those who created hierarchies within the various families of the Banu Hashim, and directs this critique towards the Shi‘as of Amroha who considered the offspring of Fatima as the only authentic lineage emerging out of the Banu Hashim. Such a consideration allowed Abbasi to challenge the Shi‘as of Amroha who did not consider the Abbasis as part of the ahl-i bait.Footnote 79
Although not claimants to the title of ‘Sayyid’, Qureshis and Ansaris in Abbasi's scheme are also categorised as Arabi nasal and so are deemed superior to families of Ajami or Hindi lineages. In the four-fold hierarchical order often used by colonial ethnographers to categorise Muslims with foreign descent, they were only second to the Sayyids and fell under the broad category of the Shaikh. Among the Qureshis, three clans could claim the purest lineage, the Siddiquis, Faruqis and Usmanis. Abbasi identifies specific families (with the muhallahs in which they resided) of Amroha for all these sets of categories.
The most provocative aspect of Abbasi's scheme was his categorisation of the peshevar aqvam Footnote 80 (occupational classes), such as those of Hindi nasal. Within this category were to be found the working classes, who were identified through their occupations, such as Julahas, Qasabs and Mirasis. As already pointed out, these communities in the 1920s had begun forming associations that were attempting to challenge Sayyid and Ashraf hegemony. It was the category of the Shaikh, however, that was most ambiguous and fluid, and so it was thoroughly contested when many among the peshevar aqvam began to claim this status. These working-class groups sought the title of Shaikh, which implied a claim of being of Arabi nasal, and began to call themselves Ansaris and Qureshis, thereby claiming a higher social status in the scheme of stratification than was being advocated by either colonial ethnographers or by Abbasi.
For Abbasi, such claims were inaccurate and he went to painstaking lengths in his first and the third volumes to prove that Muslim peshevar aqvam were of Hindi nasal rather than of Arabi nasal. He deliberated on this point extensively, and his arguments became the basis of polemical debates and discussions that took place in Amroha. In his attempt to deny the peshevar aqvam the status of Arabi nasal, Abbasi put forward several arguments. First, he claimed that these communities were of Hindi nasal, having been converted from the Hindu lower and untouchable castes. This understanding overlapped with much of the understanding of colonial scholars who made similar claims. Abbasi, in fact, quoted passages from T. W. Arnold's The Preaching of Islam, wherein Arnold divides Muslims into two groups: those who migrated to India from foreign lands and those converted from local inhabitants.Footnote 81 This theory, however, was rejected by the peshevar aqvam, especially by the Qasabs of Amroha who published a series of pamphlets under the aegis of the All India Jamiatul Quresh, succinctly refuting each claim put forward by Abbasi in his writings.
More often than not, Abbasi invokes the observations made by colonial ethnographers on the subject. He quotes Beames who acknowledged this phenomenon in the North-Western Provinces; the number of Muslims who were claiming to be Shaikhs had increased and this general tendency was reflected by the commonly-quoted adage “Last year I was a weaver, this year I am a Shaikh, next year if grain is dear, I shall be a Sayyid”.Footnote 82 Hence, Abbasi's well-defined scheme of social stratification represented an attempt to impose normative and textual understandings of Muslim society onto distinct observable social groups. The social categories that he put forward indicated the social hierarchy as it was conceived by dominant groups at the local level of the qasbah of Amroha at his time.
Conclusion: implications for Sayyid-ness
This article has sought to historicise the terms of references of debates on hierarchy among Muslims in India by reading vernacular Urdu tarikh texts that were produced in Amroha in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Colonial ethnographers in the nineteenth century and social scientists in the twentieth century considered notions of caste and hierarchy within the practice of Islam in India to be a result of its fusion with Hinduism. Their writings argued that there was no evidence of caste or justification of social hierarchy in classical Islamic scriptures, although notions of social stratification existed in practice among Muslims.
The three texts examined here intervened in debates and practices on hierarchy and social stratification among Muslims at the local level of the qasbah. They deployed the tradition of genealogical history writing—ʽilm al-nasab—to narrate the qasbah's past, its important families and their ancestors. The textual practice of ʽilm al-nasab, however, evolved from being a form of family history towards becoming a kind of social history. Moreover, the three texts under scrutiny emerged in a social and material context that was rapidly changing, with the peshevar aqwam such as Julahas (weavers) and Qasabs (butchers) forming associations and challenging the social hierarchy as it was conceived by Sayyid and Ashraf Muslims.
Accordingly, several conceptions of hierarchy among Muslims can be mapped from these Urdu tarikh texts. Ethnic categorisations according to geographic origin were one way of conceiving of it, and so they divided Amroha's Muslims into Arabi, Ajami, and Hindi groups on the one hand, and into Ashraf and Ajlaf on the other. A second type of classification found in them was based on narratives of early Islamic history, particularly those concerned with the relationship with the family of the Prophet, known as the ahl-i bait. By using the term ‘Sayyid’, which referred specifically to Muslims who could claim an authentic lineage to the family of the Prophet, the texts’ authors aimed to distinguish sadat from other Muslims, including other Ashraf elites. In addition, these texts established a hierarchy based on notions of respectability by distinguishing sharif from razil Muslims. Finally, they evoked a fourth type of hierarchical distinction, linked to the occupational background of these different groups—labouring peshevar qaum versus sharif qaum who were involved in respectable professions. In practice, therefore, these texts did not rely on a single type of social hierarchy but on multiple forms of categorisation.
And yet Sayyid Muslim narratives consistently denied the normative basis of hierarchy within Islam, and instead projected inequality as practised among Muslims as the result of Islam's assimilation with Hinduism in India. Such an understanding of caste hierarchies among Muslims in India can be traced to nineteenth-century reformers in Aligarh and Deoband, who regarded caste hierarchies as bid‘at, associated with lower-class Muslim practices. To resolve the tension between the practice of caste hierarchies in Muslim society and Islam's normative egalitarian ideals, Sayyid authors drew a temporal distinction between the early period of Islam and contemporary times, and deployed the notion of nasab accordingly. They declared that, in theory, piety and its practice were the criteria for virtue and excellence in the afterworld. At the same time, they cited ‘authentic’ Islamic sources to show the importance of genealogy. This allowed them to justify the existence of hierarchies in practice among Muslims, and particularly the position of Sayyids at the apex of social stratification among Muslims.
But from the historian's perspective, these texts not only reflect Sayyid conceptions of social stratification among Muslims. They also provide valuable indications regarding who was a Sayyid and how a person could claim to be an authentic one. The autobiographical notes of the three Sayyid authors discussed here offer us a general picture of what Sayyid life could be like. These men often occupied important positions in the administration, whether this was in the service of the Nawab of Rampur or the AIMEC. In their writings, it appears that Sayyids considered themselves to be migrants in Hindustan. Claiming to be part of the ahl-i bait meant that they regarded themselves to be of Arabi nasal and this resulted in them having a sense of superiority vis-à-vis indigenous converts of Hindi nasal. The Sayyids of nineteenth-century Hindustan were often recipients of patronage and revenue-free land. Land in itself was a marker of being noble. It was reflected in local records such as the vajib al-arz, which legitimised their ownership of land and even restricted its transfer to non-Ashraf people. Besides, Sayyids often inhabited important muhallahs of the town, where they were engaged in constructing, maintaining and managing key religious and educational sites. Their economic prosperity, combined with the symbolic legitimacy of noble lineage and descent, allowed Sayyids to enjoy a prominent place in the Muslim social stratification as practised across north India during the colonial period. In the early decades of the twentieth century, however, various associations like the All India Jamiatul Quresh challenged this dominance, and can be seen not just in the literary sphere—in publications and pamphlets—but also in local politics at the municipal level in the qasbah.
Repeated emphasis on Islam's egalitarian ethos notwithstanding, social hierarchy among Muslims remains a fraught issue today. As the recent re-publication of the three texts explored here suggests, Sayyids continue to engage actively with history-writing and to place importance upon nasab. At the same time, in the last two decades the growth of organisations such as the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz (‘Marginalised Muslim Front’), highlights caste discrimination among Muslims and the ongoing relevance of debates on caste and descent-based hierarchies among Muslims in India.