According to Louis Dumont’s theory, the religious ideology of Islam directly established a social order structured by castes (jati), which are determined according to the criteria of endogamy, hereditary professional specialization and hierarchical relationships defined by status, which together form a system.
The author believes that this social order is not only fully established within the Hindu environment; externally, in areas far outside Hinduism’s sphere of influence, castes can exist but are often weak or incomplete.
The key notion of caste often goes beyond the strict framework of Hinduism, in which it originated, to influence the social structures of other religious groups.
Rémy Delage shows us the extent to which caste categories are important for understanding the social organization of Muslims in the region.
Many studies have shown that Muslim society was also strongly hierarchized and divided into social groups of varying status.
This article will review the apparent reappropriation of a specifically Hindu institution by the Muslims of South Asia.
Far from being homogeneous, for over 100 years the largest religious minority in India has been structured by three main schools of thought represented by the Barelvis, Deobondis and Ahl al-Hadiths, as well as the Twelver and Ismaili Shiite groups.
In the Muslim social organization of South Asia, three main hierarchical divisions emerge (Ashraf, Ajlaf, Arzal), within which we find many social units that are interdependent, more or less endogamous, of varying size, similar to Hindu castes and sub-castes, and unevenly distributed across Indian territory.
From a sociological standpoint, the opposition between an egalitarian Islam and a hierarchical Hinduism does not help us to understand contemporary Muslim society, especially since this egalitarian view has only been put forward by some Muslim ideologists since the end of the 19 century, during the socioreligious reforms.
While Louis Dumont put forward religious Hindu ideology – particularly the opposition between the pure and the impure – as the primary foundational element of the caste hierarchy, normative Islam, on the other hand, today claims to have an egalitarian social system.
In the Muslim world in general, as in India and South Asia, that view is legitimized by a Koranic concept frequently used in the practice of Muslim marriage.
The exporting of those criteria beyond the borders of the Arab peninsula, particularly into the Indian sub-continent from the 8 century, gave rise to another element of distinction, this time between Arabs and non-Arabs, and within this latter group between the previously converted (khadim-al islam), from the time of the very first waves of Islamization, and the newly converted (jadid-al islam).
Still today, these criteria for distinction divide the Muslim social space in the Indian sub-continent into the higher castes (unch zat), of Arab origin, and the castes of lower status (nich zat), made up of descendents of those who converted to Islam.