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Introduction: Historicizing Sayyid-ness: Social Status and Muslim Identity in South Asia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 March 2020

LAURENCE GAUTIER
Affiliation:
Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities and Centre de Sciences Humaines (New Delhi) magautier@jgu.edu.in
JULIEN LEVESQUE
Affiliation:
Centre de Sciences Humaines (New Delhi) and CEIAS (Paris) jullevesque@gmail.com

Abstract

The introduction to the special issue provides a framework to think about the changing conceptions of Sayyid-ness in various historical contexts in South Asia. First, we review some of the sociological and anthropological literature on caste among South Asian Muslims, to argue for a contextualised and historicised study of Muslim social stratification in Muslims’ own terms. Second, we throw light on the fact that Sayyid-ness, far from being a transhistorical fact, may be conceptualised differently in different socio-political and historical contexts. For instance, Sayyid pedigree was at times downplayed in favour of a more encompassing Ashraf identity in order to project the idea of a single Muslim community. Far from projecting an essentialising image of Sayyid-ness, by focusing on historical change, the articles in this collection de-naturalise Sayyids’ and Ashraf's social superiority as a ‘well-understood and accepted fact’. They further shift attention from the debate on ‘Muslim caste’, often marred by Hindu-centric assumptions, to focus instead on social dynamics among South Asian Muslims ‘in their own terms’. In so doing, these studies highlight the importance of the local, while pointing to possible comparisons with Muslim groups outside South Asia.

Type
Introduction
Copyright
Copyright © The Royal Asiatic Society 2020

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References

1Musulmanon men shanakht ki khatir guroh bandi ki gai lekin aj ham use bhi bura samajh rahe hain. Yeh yad rakhen ki ‘sayyid’ kahlana fakhr ki bat nahin aur jo ‘sayyid’ nahin unse voh kamtar hain. Allah ke nazdik to taqva hi imtiyaz ka maqam rakhta hai varna tamam musulman bhai bhai hain. Shadiyat mein ham beshak baradari ko tarjih den lekin baradari men agar munasib rishtah dastayab na ho to dusri baradari men acche rishte ki talash karni chahiye”, Chavavri, Sayyid Abdul Qayyum, Sadat-i Jajneri (Karachi, 1992), p. 1Google Scholar.

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4 This dichotomy, although widely used by sociologists and anthropologists, has also been criticised for not corresponding to the categories used by the actors themselves. See Ahmad, Imtiaz, ‘The Ashraf-Ajlaf Dichotomy in Muslim Social Structure in India’, Indian Economic Social History Review 3 (July 1966), pp. 268278CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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22 These are, respectively, Morimoto (ed.), Sayyids and Sharifs in Muslim Societies; Amoretti, Biancamaria Scarcia (ed.), ‘The Role of the Sādāt/Ašrāf in Muslim History and Civilization / Il ruolo dei sādāt/ašrāf nella storia e civiltà islamiche’, Oriente Moderno 79 (1999), pp. 541570Google Scholar.

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33 Ibid., p. 91.

34 The study of ‘Muslim caste’ in Uttar Pradesh by Ghaus Ansari, although often hailed as the beginning of socio-anthropological studies on caste among Muslims, is a case in point. The book, for instance, does not even mention the massive outmigration of UP Muslims that took place at the time of Partition in 1947, less than fifteen years before its publication. Ansari, Ghaus, Muslim Caste in Uttar Pradesh: A Study of Culture Contact (Lucknow, 1960)Google Scholar.

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