Description of Major Muslim Communities in India – Abdal, Arab (Chavuse), Arain, Arghon, Atishbaz and Attarwala

In this blog, I will look at some of larger Muslim communities or castes found in India. I will keep the description brief and I have added a bibliography at the end for people interested in further reading. This is my first posting and hopefully several more will follow time permitting. What I wish to show is the extraordinary diversity of the of Indian Muslim community.

Abdal

The Abdal are one of a number of Muslim semi-nomadic community, traditionally associated with begging at shrines of Sufi saints. They are likely to be a division of the Domba community. The word Abdal is the plural form of the Arabic word Abdul, which means slave or follower. According to the traditions of the Abdal, they acquired this name on account of the fact that they were followers of various Sufi saints. As such, the Abdal is not a single community, but refers to groups that are traditionally associated with begging at shrines. The Abdal of Bihar, who speak the Maithili language, and are found mainly in the district of Purnea, while other Abdal communities speak the language of the region they reside in.I n Gujarat, the Abdal are a community of beggars, who are also known as Dafalis and Nagarchis. Their traditional occupation was beating drums at Muslim shrines. The community is found mainly in Ahmedabad city.
In West Bengal, according to the traditions of the community, the community is known as Abdal, as they are true slaves of God, and the word Abdal means a servant of God. Little is known when the community emerged in West Bengal, but presently form a distinct Muslim community.

Sectarian Affaliation

The Abdal belief incorporate several folk traditions, and follow several Sufi orders such as the Qadriya and Sarwariya.

Distribution

In terms of distribution, the Abdal are found mainly in Bihar, Gujarat and West Bengal.

 

Arabs in Gujarat, also known as Chavuse

The Arabs community found in Gujarat, also known as the Chavuse, are descendents of Arabs soldiers who were in the employment of various rulers of states in Gujarat, Kathiawar and Kutch. They are said to have arrived in India in the 17th, 18 and 19th Century. According Satish Chandra Mishra, they are divided in 169 clans, but generally divided into groups, the Hejazi, originating from Saudi Arabia, and the Hadhramis from Yemen. With the collapse of Mughal authority in Gujarat in early 18th Century, a number of local feudal chieftains, both Hindu and Muslim became independent. Most of their armies were made up of mercenaries, and Arabs became the main source of soldiers. This was especially the case in Jamnagar, Junagadh and Bhavnagar. The Arabs who came were mainly men, very rarely bringing their families, and intermarriage with local Muslim as well as Koli women was common.

The present Arab community has kept a distinct identity, with many moving to the Gulf States, where they have acquired citizenship. They continue to speak a dialect of Gujarati with Arabic loanwords. The Arbs also continue to maintain distance from groups claiming Sayyid or Shaikh status. Arabs are subdivided into the following sub-groups, the Akvon, Acari, Ansari, Anuj, Kathiri, and Qureshi

Sectarian Affiliation
Sunni, many are now Salafi

Distribution

Junagadh, Bhavnagar, Panchmahal and Surat. districts of Gujarat

Arghon

The Arghons are a small community of descendants of immigrants from Yarkand (Xinjiang) and Kashmir that have intermingled with the local Ladakhi community. Most are said to have arrived in the 17th and 18th Century, although some Arghons descend from Kashmiri traders who arrived in the 19th Century. The distinction between the different lineages has disappeared; a new Arghon identity has come into being. Most Arghon are still concentrated in Leh city. The Arghon speak Ladakhi among themselves, but most understand Kashmiri and some also speak Urdu. They are essentially a community of traders and merchants.

Sectarian Affiliation

They are Sunni, and as such quite distinct from the Balti, another Tibetan speaking Muslim group, who are Shia.

Distribution

In Leh District of Ladakh (in Jammu and Kashmir), mainly in Leh town.

 

Arain

The Arain in India are now two distinct communities, the Arain of Delhi, and those of Malerkotla. Historic, there were Arain communities in what is now Haryana and East Punjab, but most of these immigrated to Pakistan in 1947.

The Arain have a number of origin myths, including descent from Arabs soldiers that came to India with Mohammed bin Qasim. Among the Malerkotla Arains, the tradition of Arab descent is growing, although others still make reference to Raja Bhutta, ruler of Uchh in what is now Pakistan, who lost his kingdom and settled along the banks of the Sutlej. The Malerkotla Arain are Punjabi speaking, and remnants of much larger community in found in eastern Punjab that immigrated to Pakistan at partition.

Separate from the Punjab Arain are those of Delhi. They claim descent from Rai Jaj, grandson of Lara, the mythical founder of the city of Lahore. This Jaj was the ruler of Sirsa territory, and was thus called Rai, a title used by rulers in ancient Haryana. This was latter corrupted to Arain over time. They were converted to Islam during the rule of Mohammed Ghori. The Arain of Delhi are said to have emigrated from Sirsa, during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. A good many of the Delhi Arain emigrated to Pakistan, at the time of partition of India.

The community was traditionally involved in horticulture and the selling of vegetables. They had their gardens and agriculture lands in Kureni near Narela, Jharoda, Azadpur, Malikpur Chuni and Model Town localities. Malikpur Chuni was traditionally an Arain locality, getting its name from Malik, meaning chief, which is a common surname found among the Arain. From the 1960s onwards, the lands of the Arain have been taken over by the Delhi Development Authority. Many are involved in various trades and businesses.

Sectarian Affiliation

Entirely Sunni

Distribution

Malerkotla in Punjab, and Delhi State

Atishbaz,

The Atishbaz are also known as Atishbaz Shaikh or sometimes just Shaikh.

The word atishbaz literally means a firework maker, from the Persian atish meaning fire, and baz meaning to play, and the community is said to have acquired the name on account of their traditional occupation, which was the manufacture of fireworks. According to the traditions of the community, they were originally brought over by the Mughals from Central Asia, as their ancestors were specialists in the manufacture of gunpowder. With the decline of the Mughal Empire, the community took to the manufacturing of fireworks.

Sectarian Affiliation
They are entirely Sunni.

Distribution
In easternUttar Pradesh, in the districts of Mirzapur, Azamgarh, Jaunpur, Basti, Gonda and Varanasi. In Varanasi, they are found in the Kashipura, Aurangabad and Ram Nagar localities

Attarwala

The word attarwala simply means the manufacturer of perfumes. The Attarwala claim to be descended from a group of Hazara soldiers who were initially settled in Agra, during the rule of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. After the failure of 1857 uprising, the Attarwala moved to Gujarat. Once settled in Gujarat, the community took up the occupation of manufacturing of perfumes known locally as ittars.

The community is subdivided into biradari, literally meaning lineages, the larger ones being the Peer Baksh, Ammer Ali, Khorata, Mandusa, Hussainsa, Zahur Hussain, Mohammad Hussain, Khodar Baksh, Barkhan, Mashoob Khan and Ghulam Khan. They also differ from other Gujarati groups in that they still speak Urdu, although most also understand Gujarati.

Sectarian Affiliation
Ithna Ashri Shia

Distribution
Mainly in Ahmadabad in Gujarat, a few also in Baroda

 

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