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Ethnicity Factor in Muslim Marriages

We come across differences in ethnicity, lineage, and biradari highlighted in Muslim marriages in India and even abroad. I would rather stop short of calling this casteism since the question of the other person being a Syed, Shaikh, Pathan, Baig, Ashraf, Ajlaf, Arzal, etc. crops up only
at the time of making a marriage alliance.

How often have we come across matrimonial ads such as: “Alliance invited from Syed or Shaikh boy for our daughter………..” Take the case of Mohsina aunty (name changed). She was heard telling: “We got a perfect match for my son’s marriage alliance, but we rejected the proposal because the girl is a Pathan” (Illustrative and no offense meant to Pathans). Ismail uncle (name changed) was heard saying: “After a long search we came across a good boy in all respects, but we had to reject the proposal since he is a Baig.” (Illustrative and no offense meant to Baig’s). While this is rampant, efforts to change their stance generally meet with failure.

Islam is an egalitarian religion that does not believe in casteism, racism, or any kind of discrimination based on nationality, family lineage, caste, or creed. In the Last Sermon delivered in the Farewell Pilgrimage, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “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. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”

Despite these clear directives, we come across differences in ethnicity, lineage, and biradari highlighted in Muslim marriages in India and even abroad. I would rather stop short of calling this casteism since the question of the other person being a Syed, Shaikh, Pathan, Baig, Ashraf, Ajlaf, Arzal, etc. crops up only at the time of making a marriage alliance. Let us find out the origin of some of these titles.

The Ethnic Groups
Who is a Syed? Sayyid or colloquially Syed (plural Sadath) is a title given among Muslims to the descendants of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). 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. Sharif or Shareef is a term also used to designate a person claiming to be descended from the family of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The Shaikhs claim to be descendants of Arabs, but in South Asia, it is used as a title by Muslims who rarely had any Arab descent. Pathans in India are citizens who are of ethnic Pashtun ancestry. The Muslim surname ‘Khan’ is largely synonymous with and is commonly used by Pathans of Pashtun ancestry, although not all ‘Khans’ are necessarily of Pathan descent. Siddiqui community who are found mainly in India and Pakistan claim to be the descendants of Hazrath Abu Bakr Siddiq (RA). Nawayats are descendants of migrants predominantly from Yemen and Persia and are mostly found in Karnataka and among Konkani Muslims. Kutchi Memons with the surname ‘Sait’ is an ethnic group whose ancestry is traced to Kutch in Gujarat. Kutchi Memons are spread all over India and also abroad. Similarly, there are many other denominations.

It is also noticed that there is a sort of re-positioning in the status of the Pathans, Baigs, Shariffs, and Shaikhs in relation to marriage alliances after India’s independence. These groups claim to have descended from the ruling class during the Mughal era and enjoyed a high status then but are now a notch below in the Indian marriage market. For instance, Baigs or “Begs” were the highest ranking military leaders and advisors to the Mughals. Today “Baig” is a surname of many Muslims in South Asia. The name “Baig” is derived from the Turkish word Beg or Bey, which means Chief or Commander.

Differences between ethnic groups are raked up at the time of making marriage alliances despite modernization. However, of late, many Muslims do not consider it an impediment to forging an alliance. Many of the misconceptions about the ethnic groups are a result of hearsay and are factually incorrect. Many qualities are attached to some ethnic groups without any basis like “they are excessively of angry nature”, “they are not trust-worthy”, “they are very modern” etc. Why are just ethnic labels, red flags shown to Muslims from certain geographical areas? A distant relative of mine rejected a good marriage proposal for her son saying that the girl is from Mysore. The explanation given is that Mysoreans don’t even offer a cup of tea. Myself being a Mysorean, I never felt the need to counter such silly conclusions.

Endogamy And Exogamy
It is evident that the practice of endogamy (marrying within a specific social group or ethnic group and rejecting those from others as unsuitable for marriage) is indeed prevalent. Yet, it cannot be denied that Exogamy (marrying outside one’s own group) also exists. Within the Muslim community, the two broad sections, the Sunnis and Shias, do not normally intermarry, but exceptions are always there.

Shia Muslims in India also practice a certain kind of Endogamy. According to Hasnain, N, and Hussain, SA (Shias and Shia Islam in India: A Study in Society and Culture), Qaum endogamy is still practiced among Shias. The Sayeds, Shaikhs, Moghuls, Pathans, etc. tend to marry among their respective Qaums. “Those who may break the convention of endogamy shall do it only in the case of their son’s marriage, i.e. they may accept a daughter-in-law from outside Qaum but may not give their daughter to a person belonging to some other Qaum.” (ibid. p.62).

Sachar Committee Report
The Sachar Committee Report (2006) states that: “Sociological studies on the social structure of Muslims in India have emphasized the presence of descent-based social stratification among them. Features of the Hindu caste system, such as the hierarchial ordering of social groups, endogamy, and hereditary occupation are amply present among the Indian Muslims as well.” Sachar Committee Report points out that the present-day Muslim society in India can be divided into four major groups. The Ashrafs include all Muslims of foreign blood and converts from higher castes like Sayyads, Sheikhs Moghuls, and Pathans. The Ajlaf embraces the ritually clean occupational groups and low-ranking converts like carpenters, artisans, painters, tanners, milkmen, etc. It also includes the weaver, vegetable seller, barber, tailor, and the like. The third category is the Arzal consisting of the lowest castes, such as the Halalkhor, Lalbegi, Abdal and Bediya.

Unfortunately, there is a new division in the Muslim society that surfaces at the time of marriage alliances. Although, matrimonial ads seldom mention this, but the very first clarification sought is whether the boy belongs to Tableeghi jamaath or Ahle Sunnatul jamaath or jamaath e Islami. People with a strong affiliation to a particular jamaath will not marry their son or daughter in a family which is affiliated with another jamaath. There are also compartments of being a Hanafi or Shaafi or Ahle Hadees.

In this context, it would be most appropriate to quote the following passage from the holy Qur’an which is self-explanatory:

“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 (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). (Surat Al-Hujurat 49:13)