In his article “Casteism in Kashmiri Marriages” (Greater Kashmir, Feb 21) Mehboob Makhdoomi pointed out the proverbial elephant in the room long ignored in social and cultural debates in Kashmiri press. As expected it stirred up heated debate. On his Facebook post alone, the article attracted huge attention, pitching one school of thought against another, and by the last count there were over 230 likes, 150 comments, and some 35 shares. The topic is indeed worth to ponder over and analyze critically.
Let us talk about the matter, scientifically first. The whole idea of blood purity is a myth busted by many researches done on the subject. In 2008 scientists from University of Copenhagen came up with evidence refuting the claims of racial purity of Scandinavian people. Their study on a 2000 year old skeletons established that Scandinavians were very much genetically diverse than they perceived themselves.
Now let us turn to genomic (lineage) claims of the social group who like to call themselves as ‘Syeds’. In a study by Harappa Ancestry Project (HAP), it was found that Syed ancestry does not show “Syed modal haplotype”. By a general definition “a haplotype can describe a pair of genes inherited together from one parent on one chromosome, or it can describe all of the genes on a chromosome that were inherited together from a single parent”. According to Broad Institute research (USA) “These ancestral genomic segments are inherited as discrete units with little genetic shuffling across generations”. The HAP study found that Y chromosomes (which should be less diverse among Sayyids than in non-Sayyids) from sample of Sayyids from India and Pakistan dramatically exhibited same diversity as those of non-Sayyids. That means those who call themselves Sayyids, biologically, does not have common lineage. This study scientifically proves the common ancestry of Syeds as a myth.
There are people who still believe in this myth but, essentially, under this fixation on ancestry, and pure blood lay politics of power, legitimacy, and authority. Proximity of Peers or Syeds with religious and spiritual institutions (like shrines) lent them with a degree of social power that they preserved, consolidated, and made heritable. They became Mutawalis (caretakers/administrators) of shrines in Kashmir. The offerings that devotees brought in cash and kind largely went into their pockets, and it gave rise to a kind of family business.
If you visit the Makhdoom Sahab shrine you can see some people sitting on its carved wooden windows, perched there like spiritual salesmen offering a handful of sugaries and for-sale blessings in return of money. This is utterly manipulative but institutionalized practice. What should otherwise go for educational programs and social welfare of poor goes to their bottomless pockets.
Once I met a Mutawali inside Makhdoom sahib shrine. He turned out, unexpectedly, a progressive thinking one. He was upset with the whole Mutawali system and was lamenting how it has evolved into a big lucrative business, where every window of the shrine is auctioned. “Look at the Hindu shrine in Mata Vaishnov Devi” he said, “They have established medical colleges and educational institutions while here the big chunk of offerings is taken by mutawalis”.
There is another paradox here. The pathological misconception of self is well entrenched in caste Hindus – Brahmins. In “peer or syed” social groups’ claims of superiority is their perception of being beacons of enlightenment that brought Islam to Kashmir and rid it of malicious social practices of caste system associated with Hinduism. The same group, however, practices a subtler form of casteism itself and yet prides itself being progenies of the pioneers of Islam in Kashmir. This is the biggest irony of the fact, which makes the group point of ridicule among the general population.
Like Brahmins, this group also has its share of progressives who, educated in liberal universities around the world, do profess egalitarian ideas but when it comes to practically breaking from the prejudicial norms of intra-group matrimonial practices, they are not any different from Brahmin liberal hypocrites. In fact, in the general perception, caste Hindus (Brahmins) and “Peers” are the self-reproducing social groups who are looked at with a certain degree of contempt and suspicion. While in the case of the Brahmins it is scripturally sanctioned, the latter (Peers) cite and twist selective ahadith (sayings and actions of Holy Prophet S.A.W) to justify their position.
And how are you going to interpret it against the Last Sermon of the holy Prophet (SAW): “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 black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety (taqwa) and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.” Furthermore, has holy Prophet (SAW) explicitly said anywhere that his lineage must be preserved by his descendants? How are you going to read this hadith then: “Indeed Allah has removed from you the blind loyalties of jahiliyyah and the pride for ancestry. Either be a pious believer or a miserable insolent. (All of) you are children of Adam, and Adam is from dust. Let some men cease to take pride in others, who are nothing but burning coal for the Hell Fire, it will be easier for Allah to handle them than a dung beetle driving his nose into filth” (Narrated by Abu Hurayrah , Ahmad, Abu Dawud).
After 1400 years the descendants of holy Prophet (SAW) must have reached millions in number and assimilated through spread of Islam in different cultures and even through inter-faith marriages (which did happen in many cases). This lineage must have mingled and transferred to non-Arabs, Non-Muslims also.
Even Queen Elizabeth II of England and many other European monarchs are said to have ancestral links with Holy Prophet’s family (via alliance between a Spanish princess and a Muslim). So is Queen Elizabeth II a “Sayyid” then? This may sound absurd or even outlandish but going by the same logic as presented by “Peers” she deserves a Sayyid title too by virtue of a link that can be located somewhere in Muslim Spain.
Over 15 million people in South Asia claim ancestral links with the holy Prophet’s tribe. Saudi Arabia’s real population is only 16 million. That means there are more people in South Asia (15 million) with claims of the ancestry than in the land of holy Prophet’s birth place!
To sum it up, there are certain questions you need to ask. Are adaab (good etiquettes) genetically transmitted or socially acquired? Are off-springs born from “Peer” blood “chosen people” (honorable) and others low in the rank! There are many people born in “Peer” families who do not believe in this fantasy of blue-blood but the problem is that they are not courageous enough to critically write against it or talk openly about it. The real change will happen the day a “Peer” will do what Marx did against Capitalism, Sartre against French Colonialism, and Simon de Beauvoir against male chauvinism. Till that happens I would say: you cannot have a cake and eat it too.
Published in Greater Kashmir on 07.03.2015: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/2015/Mar/7/exclusivity-of-the-descent-38.asp