short and straight to the point. alhamdoulillah, may Allah reward this sister.
Islam, the Caste System and Marriage
One of the things that has become apparent to me in the last few years, and reared its ugly head again very recently, is the question of caste. You may be thinking “we are Muslim’s what on earth has caste got to do with us?” South Asian Muslims, certainly Muslim’s in Pakistan and I am pretty sure in India too, have a tradition of slotting people into castes according to their family occupation.
This is mainly a result of living amongst Hindu’s and Sikh’s for so long that we have taken on their customs without question and incorporated them into our practice of Islam. One of the things that I love about Islam is the fact that it treats all men and women as equals and judges a persons value not by their tribe or nationality but by their piety. None of us need to be shackled by the position our parents were born to.
I had no idea we had a caste system until my generation started to look at marriage. One of my parent’s friends had refused the partner their daughter had chosen because he was deemed of a lower caste – one of the “kami kameen” (a derogatory word for low-class or under-class which makes my blood boil). People of these castes are usually people whose parents or grandparents family occupations were barbers (nai), shoe-menders (mauchi), tailors (darzi), weavers (casbih), or similar – basically honest working people.
-exactly what i was thinking, i'd be so proud if my dad was a shoemender! or a tailor! these are valuable skills! where would the world be without those AWESOME people!-
I was truly amazed. That people in this day and age were still letting things like this influence their lives. Muslim’s at that. Now every time someone close to me raises the matter of marriage, the caste question is raised. Even people who should know better or are fairly religious cannot escape the tyranny of this issue for fear of losing face amongst their biradari (or extended kinship circles). I once argued with a brother-in-law about this saying it was completely wrong and he laughingly retorted “you know what we say here? Banda hai ya nai? (Are you a human or a nai?)”
One of the things that facilitated the spread of Islam within South Asia with such startling speed was its focus on equality amongst men in a place where the caste system was particularly oppressive. Whereas amongst Hindu’s, the shadow of a lower-caste person falling on a higher-caste person’s food was enough for the food to be deemed polluted and discarded, amongst these new people with their new religion were people who would share their food with anyone – even those assigned to the lowest castes and labelled dirty.
We are going to have to take steps to get over this practice. In Pakistan it is so deeply ingrained that even with people becoming more religious it would be difficult to deal with. People of “higher” castes maintain a sense of superiority because of this system and so would be more likely to hold on to it, sometimes even in ridiculous situations. Near where my parents originate from in Punjab, there were a very wealthy and prosperous clan called the Syeds (these are people in Pakistan who claim descent from our beloved Prophet (PBUH)) who cemented their power by aligning themselves with the British. My grandfather remembers them for their passion for hunting, horses, hounds and birds of prey. Wherever they turned up the people of surrounding villages were expected to care for their animals and run and fetch for them. These were people who could not feed their children properly and were feeding someone’s dogs. What they were not passionate about was education and hard work. Over the years, and especially after the British, left these qualities meant that they fell on hard times. In contrast the “lower” castes were focussing on education as a means to escape from poverty and started to travel to the big cities. This didn’t stop the Syed’s from abusing them as “upstarts” whilst they themselves sat about in the bazaars playing cards.
Here in the West though, perhaps we can overcome this. When we are marrying or arranging the marriage of our children we can endeavour to look past caste at good character. We can remind each other that Allah (SWT) does not elevate us by birth but by our deeds.
"O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well-acquainted. ~Al- Quran, 49:13
“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black has any superiority over a white- except by piety and good action” ~ Bukhari Chapter 3, Book 7