Syeds and Muslim Society

Actions rather than titles should speak for one’s nobility of lineage.

By Syed Tahsin Ahmed

Going through the matrimonial ads, I was struck by the emphasis given to Syeds among other groups like Shaikhs, Pathans etc while choosing a bride or bridegroom. Recently, a relative pointed out with genuine concern that having the noble lineage of Syed, I should have included Syed in the name of my granddaughter. I being a Syed from both my father’s and mother’s side have avoided Syed as a prefix or suffix. Without any disrespect to whatSyed stands for, my feeling was that identifying people as Syed or Shaikh or Pathan etc legitimizes a caste system which should not exist in Islam. When my well-meaning relative was puzzled at my action of foregoing a valued title for my offsprings, it set my thoughts in motion.
Who are the Syeds?
Sayyid or colloquially Syed (plural: Sadaath) is a title given among Muslims to the descendents of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. The ancestry is claimed through Hazrat Imam Hassan or Hazrat Imam Hussain, grandsons of the prophet and sons of the prophet’s daughter Hazrat Fathima Zahara and her husband Hazrat Ali. The lineage is patrilineal and children of a Syed mother and a non-Syed father cannot be called Syeds. However, they may claim maternal descent to the extent that they are called Mirzas. Shariat laws require that zakat cannot be given to a person who is a Syed.
Syeds in History
Over the years Syeds have not only received love and respect from the Muslim society but they were also given a privileged position by Muslim rulers in Islamic countries. Special institutions were set up to deal with their affairs and the head of such institutions (naqib al-ashraf) held one of the highest ranks. Registry books called shajara al-mutayyiba were maintained in which the names of Syeds and Sharifs were recorded. Gradually, there was a decline in the administration and many people taking advantage of it, got themselves recorded in the registry books as Syeds through false pedigrees and witnesses. Much like people in the present times who try and get a false 2(A) or 2(B) backward certificate (in Karnataka) to corner the reservation benefits, these people too had an eye on the privileges and exemptions. To eliminate such false claims, the Ottoman Caliphs during the 19th century listed the descendents of Prophet Muhammad in the Kitab-al-Ashraf (Book of the Sharifs), after verifying the lines of descent. It is very likely that several people have begun to claim this title or surname to lay claim to the noble descent without actually being so and in full knowledge that there exists no mechanism to verify these claims.
Syeds in Arab world
Syed families exist in Egypt, Libya, Qatar, the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Yemen etc. but they are known by different names. They exist both among Shias and Sunnis. In Qatar and the UAE, many of the Syed families claim that they belong to a common tribe of Banu Hashim, a clan from the tribe of Quraish which derives its name from Hashim, the great-grandfather of the Prophet. Syed families in Yemen include the Rassids, the Qassimids, and the Mutawakkilites etc. Tarim city in south Yemen is estimated to contain the highest concentration of Syeds anywhere in the world. The Syed families in Iraq include the Al-Hashimi, Al-Yasiri, Al-Zaidi, Al-Hassani, Al-Hussaini, Al-Alawi etc.
Syeds in South Asia
It is estimated that the Syed population is seven million in India, six million in Pakistan, one million in Bangladesh and about 70,000 in Nepal. Syeds migrated to these countries many centuries ago from Iran, Turkestan, Central Asia and from many parts of the Arab world. While some of them migrated from the Abbasid, Umayyad and Ottoman empires, many of them came as merchants. After the partition of India, many Syed families of Uttar Pradesh (Sadaat Amroha and Sadaat-e-Bara) migrated to Pakistan.
Syeds in India
Saiyed Salaar Dawood Ghazi (brother-in-law of Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi) and his son Saiyed Salaar Masud Ghazi are considered as the first Syed settlers in North India, having migrated from Iran to Barabanki district of Uttar Pradesh in 1032 AD. Many of the early Sufi saints who came to India were from Syed families. Syeds started settling in Gujarat right from the 15th century onwards as a consequence of their being given land grants and being inducted as administrators and judges by the Muslim rulers.
In South India, Kerala had developed association with Arabia very early. They are called Thangals in Malayalam. Thangals trace their origins to Syed migrants from Yemen during the 17th century for propagating Islam in the coastal areas of Malabar.
Genetic studies of Syeds
A sample survey conducted by E.M.S Belle, Saima Shah and others in the United Kingdom to find out whether all Syeds in the Indian sub-continent are really in direct descent from Imam Hassan and Hussain by examining the “Y” chromosomes, revealed that that there is no biological basis to the belief that self-identified Syeds share a recent common ancestry since they showed no less genetic diversity than the non-Syeds of the same region. However, people claiming to be Syeds in the Indian sub-continent show a greater affinity to Arab populations than the others.
Thoughts to ponder
From a socio-religious point of view, a few questions arise. Keeping an honorific title of a noble lineage against your name is one thing. But, do the Syeds reflect a more elevated status in their manners, behaviour and religiosity? Do they possess the nobility of character? Do they lend dignity to the most cherished lineage they claim to possess? The moot question is whether they live up to the minimum standards necessary to claim descent from an ancestry which is undoubtedly the highest in all respects?
(The writer is a retired Karnataka Administrative Service officer and can be contacted at [email protected])

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