Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-5wvtr Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-24T18:48:03.689Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 March 2020

Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities and Centre de Sciences Humaines (New Delhi)
Centre de Sciences Humaines (New Delhi) and CEIAS (Paris)


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.

Copyright © The Royal Asiatic Society 2020

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


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.

2 The Jajneri Sayyids are a branch of the larger Sadat-i Bahirah lineage, whose ancestor Abu'l Farah Wasti settled in India in the late tenth or early eleventh century. The Sadat-i Bahirah rose to prominence during Mughal rule in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. See, for instance, Kazim, Syed Ali, A Critical Study of the Role and Achievements of Sayyid Brothers (Aligarh Muslim University, 2008)Google Scholar. On the genealogy and history of the Sadat-i Bahirah, see Kausar, Sayyid Muzaffar Ali Khan, Ansabussadat, al-maʻruf, Tarikh-i Sadat-i Bahirah (Lahore, 1987)Google Scholar.

3 C. van Arendonk and W. A. Graham, ‘S̲h̲arīf’, Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, (April 2012), p. 2.

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.

5 Bhagat, Ram B., ‘Census and caste enumeration: British legacy and contemporary practice in India’, Genus (2006), pp. 123, 127Google Scholar.

6 Ahmad, Imtiaz (ed.), Caste and Social Stratification Among Muslims in India (Delhi, 1973)Google Scholar. The three other volumes edited by Imtiaz Ahmad, although not centred on the issue of caste, are also important contributions to the sociology of South Asian Muslims: Ahmad, Imtiaz (ed.), Family, Kinship, and Marriage among Muslims in India (New Delhi, 1976)Google Scholar; Ahmad, Imtiaz (ed.), Ritual and Religion among Muslims in India (New Delhi, 1981)Google Scholar; Ahmad, Imtiaz (ed.), Modernization and Social Change among Muslims in India (New Delhi, 1983)Google Scholar.

7 Berreman, Gerald Duane, Caste and other Inequities: Essays on Inequality (Meerut, 1979), p. 2Google Scholar.

8 Dumont, Louis, Homo hierarchicus: le système des castes et ses implications (Paris, 1966), pp. 254273Google Scholar.

9 Ibid., p. 263.

10 John Collinson Nesfield, Brief View of the Caste System of the North-Western Provinces and Oudh (1885).

11 Ahmad, ed., Caste and Social Stratification Among Muslims in India, pp. 1–17; Gaborieau, Marc, Un autre islam (Paris, 2007), pp. 167213Google Scholar.

12 Stuers, Cora Vreede-de, Parda: A Study of Muslim Women's Life in Northern India (Assen, 1968)Google Scholar.

13 Srinivas, Mysore Narasimhachar, ‘A note on Sanskritization and Westernization’, The Journal of Asian Studies 15 (1956), pp. 481496Google Scholar.

14 The best-known cases concern the Muslim weavers of Uttar Pradesh, see Mehta, Deepak, Work, Ritual, Biography: A Muslim Community in North India (Delhi, 1997)Google Scholar, and Muslim butchers, see Ahmad, Zarin, Delhi's Meatscapes: Muslim Butchers in a Transforming Mega City (New Delhi, 2018)Google Scholar. The most visible sign of ashrafisation is the replacement of an occupational name by a new collective Arabic title meant to buttress new claims to Arab descent. The weavers thus changed their name from Julaha to Ansari while the butchers discarded the name Qasai for Qureshi.

15 Vreede-de Stuers, Parda, p. 6.

16 Blunt, Edward Arthur Henry, The Caste System of Northern India with Special Reference to the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (London, 1931), p. 183Google Scholar.

17 Imtiaz Ahmad, ‘Endogamy and Status Mobility among the Siddiqui Sheikhs of Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh’, in Caste and Social Stratification Among the Muslims in India, (ed) Ahmad, p. 184.

18 Vatuk, Sylvia, ‘Identity and Difference or Equality and Inequality in South Asian Muslim Society’, in Caste Today, (ed.) Fuller, C. J. (Delhi, 1996), p. 229Google Scholar.

19 Eickelman, Dale, ‘The Study of Islam in Local Contexts’, Contributions to Asian Studies 17 (1982), p. 1Google Scholar.

20 Morimoto, Kazuo, ‘How to behave toward sayyids and sharifs: A trans-sectarian tradition of dream accounts’, in Sayyids and Sharifs in Muslim Societies: The Living Links to the Prophet, (ed.) Morimoto, Kazuo (London and New York, 2012), pp. 1536CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Dagli, Caner K., Dakake, Maria Massi, Lumbard, Joseph E. B., and Rustom, Mohammed, The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (New York, NY, 2017), p. 1181Google Scholar. There are, however, multiple interpretations of this verse. According to Nasr et al., “here [the Prophet] enjoins affection among kinsfolk; that is, he is asking the Makkans to honour and uphold the ties of kinship that he had with them, as nearly all of the Makkans were related by virtue of being members of the same tribe, the Quraysh”. However, “Others say that the call to affection among kinsfolk is an appeal to follow the Prophet's kin, specifically his cousin and son-in-law ʽAli ibn Abi Talib and his daughter Fatimah and their descendants […]. Still others understand the phrase to mean that one should love the Prophet as one loves one's own kinsfolk or that one should love one's kinsfolk and maintain relations with them”. Nasr, Dagli, Dakake, Lumbard, and Rustom, The Study Quran, p. 1181.

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.

23 Ho, Engseng, The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean (Berkeley, 2006)Google Scholar.

24 Pernau, Margrit, Ashraf into Middle Classes: Muslims in Nineteenth-century Delhi (Oxford, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 One of the questions that future research could address is how Sayyid status is legitimised differently according to the sect (the three major sectarian groups in South Asia being the Sunni Barelvi, the Sunni Deobandi, and the Shia Ithna Ashari).

26 Jones, Justin, Shi'a Islam in Colonial India: Religion, Community and Sectarianism (Cambridge, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Corboz, Elvire, Guardians of Shi'ism: Sacred Authority and Transnational Family Networks (Edinburgh, 2015)Google Scholar.

27 Werth, Lukas, ‘“The Saint Who Disappeared”: Saints of the wilderness in Pakistani village shrines’, in Embodying Charisma. Modernity, Locality and the Performance of Emotion in Sufi Cults, (eds.) Werbner, Pnina and Basu, Helene (London, 1998), pp. 7791Google Scholar; Buehler, Arthur F., Sufi Heirs of the Prophet: The Indian Naqshbandiyya and the Rise of the Mediating Sufi Shaykh (Columbia, 1998)Google Scholar.

28 Rahman, Raisur, Locale, Everyday Islam, and Modernity: Qasbah Towns and Muslim Life in Colonial India (New Delhi, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hasan, Mushirul, From Pluralism to Separatism: Qasbas in Colonial Awadh (New Delhi, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 See, for instance, the text by Abbasi, Mahmud AhmadTarikh-i Amroha (Delhi, 1930)Google Scholar—examined in this special issue by Soheb Niazi.

30 Kausar, Sayyid Muzaffar Ali Khan, Ansabussadat, al-maʻruf, Tarikh-i Sadat-i Bahirah (Lahore, 1987)Google Scholar; Rizvi, Zahirulhasan, Tarikh-i Sadat-i Riyasat Bharatpur (Karachi, 1950)Google Scholar.

31 Datta, V. N. and Gleghorn, B. E., ‘Introduction’, in Mahmud, Syed, A Nationalist Muslim & Indian Politics (Delhi, 1974), pp. ixxiiiGoogle Scholar; Lelyveld, David, Aligarh's First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India (New Delhi, 2003)Google Scholar; Metcalf, Barbara, Husain Ahmad Madani: The Jihad for Islam and India's Freedom (Oxford, 2013)Google Scholar.

32 Morimoto, Kazuo, ‘Toward the Formation of Sayyido-Sharifology: Questioning Accepted Fact’, Journal of Sophia Asian Studies (2004), p. 88Google Scholar. Kazuo Morimoto uses the combined term ‘sayyid/sharif’ to describe the social eminence of the descendants of the Muhammad as a pan-Islamic phenomenon. In this special issue, however, ‘sharif/ashraf’ is used in its South Asian meaning to designate the groups of Muslims claiming foreign descent (Sayyid, Shaikh, Mughal and Pathan).

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.

35 Cohn, Bernard S., ‘History and Anthropology: The State of Play’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 22 (1980), p. 217CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Cohn, Bernard S., Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton, 1996)Google Scholar; Dirks, Nicholas B., Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton, 2001)Google Scholar.

37 Metcalf, Barbara, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900 (Princeton, 1982)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jones, Kenneth W., Socio-religious reform movements in British India (Cambridge, 1989), p. 1Google Scholar; Osella, Filippo and Osella, Caroline, ‘Introduction: Islamic Reformism in South Asia’, Modern Asian Studies 42 (March 2008), pp. 247257CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 Pernau, Ashraf into Middle Classes.

39 Alam, Arshad, ‘Challenging the Ashrafs: The Politics of Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 29 (2009), pp. 171181CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Anwar, Ali, Masavat ki jang (New Delhi, 2001)Google Scholar; Sikand, Yoginder, ‘A New Indian Muslim Agenda: The Dalit Muslims and the All-India Backward Muslim Morcha’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 21 (October 2001), pp. 287296CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sikand, Yoginder, Islam, Caste and Dalit Muslim Relations in India (New Delhi, 2004)Google Scholar.

40 Gilmartin, David, ‘Religious Leadership and the Pakistan Movement in the Punjab’, Modern Asian Studies 13, 3 (July 1979), p. 487CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Bayly, Susan, Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age (Cambridge, 2001), p. 2Google Scholar.

42 Morimoto, ‘Toward the Formation of Sayyido-Sharifology’, p. 91.