Making New Muslim Arains: Reform, Law, and Politics in Colonial Punjab, 1890s-1940s
This dissertation focuses on the Arains, a lower-status Muslim community of colonial Punjab. I examine the historical construction of the Arains’ ‘caste’ identity and its deployment in the domains of reformist Islam, colonial personal law, and representative politics by Arain elites. I argue that the Arains’ strident emphasis on their Muslim-ness solidified their caste identity. Elite-led promotion of reformist Islamic practices, a genealogy linking the Arains to early Islamic Arabia, and political participation mediated through a caste association, consolidated the Arains’ identity as a bounded caste group. This dissertation illuminates the complex intersections of caste, Islam, colonial epistemology, and politics, which enabled the Arains to craft their caste identity in Islamic terms, and use it to distinguish themselves from other Muslims and non-Muslims. Relying on official and non-official materials in English and Urdu, five chapters trace the genealogical re-articulation of Arain identity and its implications for the Arains’ legal selfhood and electoral participation in colonial Punjab. This dissertation intervenes in three historiographical debates. First, building on and departing from the recent reconceptualization of caste as a political phenomenon independent of ritual purity, it underlines the central place of religion in the redefinition of the Arains’ caste identity. Purported descent from early Arab Muslims and the intrinsic ‘purity’ it attributed to colonial Arains was pivotal for differentiating the community from other South Asian Muslims. Second, it challenges sociological models of upward mobility among South Asian Muslims by demonstrating that the Arains, rather than adopting the practices of high caste Sayyids or Rajputs, sought to recalibrate their social status by claiming an Arab genealogy and proximity to pre-colonial and colonial political structures. Third, it redirects the predominantly textual and institutional focus of scholarly literature on reformist Islamic thought in South Asia by exploring the processes through which provincial Muslim elites tailored reformist ideals to suit the demands of their historical location.