KOZHIKODE: Though religious leaders never acknowledge it openly, casteism exists among Muslims too, but not overtly. Ossan (barber) and Pusalan (fishermen) are regarded as the lower strata of Kerala Muslims. The discrimination had a direct link to their work and low financial status.
Despite the Gulf boom and the increased financial clout having considerably brought down caste discrimination, it is very much prevalent when it comes to marriages. There is near unanimity among scholars and religious leaders who concede that there is less casteism in the Muslim community when compared to Hindus and Christians.
If any section of Kerala Muslims can be labelled as upper caste, they are the ‘Thangals’, who claim to be the Prophet’s direct descendants. “The Thangals never marry outside their community irrespective of the financial status of the groom/brides,” said social critic Hameed Chendamangallur.
Ronald E Miller, who authored ‘Mappilah Muslims of Kerala’, refers to three types of Muslims - superior Thangal lineage, Malabaris and Ossan-Pusalan community, according to Chendamangallur. Except Thangals, Ossan and Pusalan, all the others are included under the Malabaris.
But Panakkad Munavarali Shihab Thangal dismisses the caste angle behind the ‘superiority’ enjoyed by the Thangal family. “That is because of people’s reverence for the Prophet’s lineage. Intra community marriages were conducted only for protecting that lineage and culture. But now it has changed and men marry from outside the community,” said Shihab Thangal, who belongs to the Panakkad Thangal family.
Caste derived from work
In earlier times, circumcision was performed by Ossans. Besides, the members of affluent households got their hair cut by them. Then the job came to be regarded as infra dig and its practitioners seen as belonging to the low class. Likewise, fishermen had low social status then and Muslims in the coastal belt are successors of backward Hindus who converted to Islam. Nowadays, the barbershops have made way for beauty parlours and hair salons and the younger generation of Ossan community is making a quick buck abroad. Now, it is only during times of marriage that the Ossans encounter caste discrimination.
Mujeeb Rahman Kinalur of Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen (KNM) said virulent casteism has ceased to exist after the low-caste people became affluent.
Keyis of Thalassery
Keyis of Thalassery are another creamy section among Muslims. The Keyis are known for their vast wealth and landed property acquired through trade with the English East India Company. They are very well educated and had received English education even during the British Raj. Keyis too marry only from within their community to keep their lineage intact.
Though there are many divisions like EK Sunni, Kanthapuram Sunni, Mujahid and Jamaat-e-Islami among Muslims, there is no ban on others entering a sect’s mosque or marrying across the sects. “Normally, a Sunni will go to a Sunni mosque only and Jamaat to Jammat mosque. But no one will object if a Sunni goes to Jamaat mosque for worship or vice-versa,” says Chendamangallur. During marriage across sects, the parameters are common such as finance, employment or education. On the issue of caste, Jamaat-e-Islami Assistant Ameer Sheikh Muhammed Karakunnu said such discrimination existed but not in places where Jamaat-e-Islami has a strong presence.