New Delhi: Imtiaz Ahmad, a renowned scholar who taught political sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, died on June 19, 2023. He was 83. He was ailing for some time and was hospitalized.
Ahmad’s book, Caste, and Social Stratification Among Muslims in India, is celebrated as pioneering work in the field. It was for the first time that the impact of caste and casteism on Muslim Indians was systematically studied. He etched to broad relief how caste defines the social ties within Indian Muslim society, something the Islamic clerics had been denying. A staunch believer in India’s composite culture, he was a bold academician refusing to change his tune with the change in regime. As a liberal, he was often the butt of attack from diverse kinds of fundamentalists. Muslim clerics reviled him for talking about ‘pasmanda’ Muslims, thereby considering it a negative reflection of the monolithic nature of Islam. The ‘Indianness’ of Islam ran central through all his writings. He felt no qualms in emphasizing that there is a distinct difference between textual religion and the way religion is lived out by its adherents and Islam or Hinduism were no exceptions to it.
He was of the opinion that that caste has transmorphed into ‘Biradari’ among Muslims, particularly in the Indo-Gangetic plain where Hindus and Muslims shared a history of a millennium. There are several defining characteristics of caste and casteism. Some of these are 1-Ascending order of holiness, descending order of lowliness, 2-Being pure and impure by birth, 3-Endogamy (marrying within the fold of the caste, 4-Priesthood being reserved for certain castes, 5-Untouchability, 6-Work by hand and work by minds, 7-Affiliation to certain occupations. The Biradari system among Muslims shares at least five of the seven abovementioned characteristics as Muslims do not practice untouchability and there is no priestly class among them.
The clerics were never seriously interested in studying caste and the Biradari system among Muslims as they tended to project Muslims as a homogenous society.
Ahmad got his MA degree from the Lucknow University in 1960. He started as a senior research analyst at the Institute of Economic Growth at Delhi University in 1964 and two years later, became a lecturer in sociology at the same university.
After three years as visiting professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri in the US, Ahmad joined JNU as an associate professor in political sociology in 1972. He became a professor in the department in 1983 and taught there for three decades.
Among his numerous publications are those which throw light on Muslim empowerment, minority rights, the role of education among Muslims, how Islamic ideologies mesh with social realities, how Muslim women are studied in India, and communalism.
Ahmad also wrote critically on the Gujarat riots of 2002 in particular and communal politics in general. His work has been lauded as having shed light on the composite culture of India.
He is survived by his wife Sabiha.