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Who Are They?
The Shaikh are a large Muslim community of around 45 million who are primarily cultivators but also rear buffaloes, cows, goats and sheep in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Business, trade, service, weaving, woodwork, masonry are other sources of livelihood.
They are settled in 254 districts of India in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Delhi.
Shaikh is an Arabic word meaning an elder or chief and implies someone who executes justice. They were the first people to embrace Islam on the advice of Prophet Mohammed and were given the title of Shaikh. It was originally given only to those of Arabic descent but has been adopted by Muslim converts from lower caste Hindus. They rank below the Sayyad in Muslim social hierarchy. According to the recorded history of the community they migrated to India during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658).
There is a common derogatory saying – ‘the first year I was a butcher, the next year a Shaikh; this year if prices rise I shall be a Sayyad.’ H.A. Rose (A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-west Frontier Provinces, 1919) states that the term Shaikh is ‘loosely applied to an extraordinary number of Muslim artisans and others of similar status.’
The Shaikh have twenty-eight main subgroups, some of which are: Abbasi, which takes its name from Prophet Mohammed’s paternal uncle, Abbas; Ansari, from al’Ansar, residents of Medina who gave shelter to the Prophet and his fellow immigrants; Faruqi, which is derived from Khalifa Umar; Hashimi, after Hashim, the great-grandfather of the Prophet; Jafari, after Jafar, Mohammed’s cousin; Qureshi, the name of the Prophet’s Arabic tribe; Siddiqi, who take their name from the first Khalifa, Abu Bakar, who received the title of siddiqui – ‘one who speaks the truth’, Sulemani from Solomon; Ulwi, named after Khalifa Ali Murtaza; Faridi, or followers of the famous Sufi saint Baba Farid; Milky or Malik, who were originally a Persian tribe; and Usmani, from Usman, the fourth Khalifa.
The Shaikh are also called Mohammad. In fact, the word Shaikh is commonly used as a courtesy title such as ‘sir’. In Rajasthan the Shaikh surname is Uddin, while in West Bengal, Mondal, and in Gujarat, Dada, Mukkan or Mikkani. The names of the subgroups are used as surnames.
The Shaikh people are multi-lingual; they speak Urdu as their mother tongue, which is written in the Persian – Arabic script. They also speak Hindi and write using the Devnagari script in North India. They also speak the regional language of their home states. Some also speak English.
The Shaikh have socio economic and religious interactions with the other Muslim and Hindu community because they of their occupations as traders, agriculture and private and public service. For example, there is a landlord-tenant, cultivator-labourer relationship with the Scheduled Castes (SC) and the Yadav communities. The Shaikh participate in the festivals and auspicious occasions of the communities in their midst.
What Are Their Lives Like?
In the states of Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka, the Shaikh do not practice their traditional occupation. They are employed in small businesses, as traders, farmers or work in government offices and for private organizations. In Karnataka, many Shaikh are self-employed auto- rickshaw drivers and fruit merchants. There are also teachers, clerks, administrators, scientists, scholars, advocates, entrepreneurs, army personnel, engineers, doctors and politicians among them.
In Delhi and Rajasthan, they have been primarily traders and businessmen since Mughal times,. Some were landlords or accountants to the rulers. Today, they are engaged in government service, do business and work for private enterprises.
In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the majority depend on agriculture. Business, trade, government service, weaving, woodwork and masonry are other sources of livelihood. Fishing is another source of income in West Bengal. In Himachal Pradesh a few have meager landholdings or work on the fields of other landholders on a sharecropping or contract basis to improve their income source. Many Shaikh are skilled in carving wood, silver and ivory, and in intricate embroidery such as zari or zardozi (gold and silver thread embroidery on silk or other cloth) work, weaving and handicrafts.
The Shaikh community is moderately literate. Parents do educate both boys and girls, though girls tend to be taken out earlier for social reasons. Despite this, a large number study further. Except for those in Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Rajasthan, most Shaikh are open to family planning, especially younger couples. This community believes in modern medicine but also use local herbs and cures. Valuable assistance is available to them though government, self-employment programs and the Public Distribution System. Despite the presence of banks and the availability of loans, many still depend on local moneylenders due to poverty.
The Shaikh are generally an endogamous community though a few may intermarry with other Muslim communities. They are divided into a number of subgroups of equal social status. The practice of child marriages is disappearing. Today adult marriages, arranged by negotiation among family members, are preferred. However, they also practice marriage by mutual consent and exchange. Polygamy is permitted but is not common. Consanguineous (among cousins) marriages are widespread among the Shaikh, and they prefer to marry among close kin such as parallel cousins and cross cousins. Junior sororate and junior, and at times senior, levirate marriages are practiced by them.
Married women wear glass bangles, a finger ring, a nose-stud and toe-rings; these and a gold and black-bead necklace (lachcha) are symbols indicating marital status. Dowry is given in cash and kind. Divorce, due to maladjustment, adultery, barrenness, is permitted under Shariat (Islamic) law and mehar (a pre-determined financial compensation that is fixed at the time of the nuptials) is granted to the divorced wife. Widow, widower, and divorcee remarriages are allowed.
The modern trend of living apart from the extended family is more common today. Ancestral property is divided according to Islamic law where daughters receive only half of their brother’s share. A widow is entitled to one-eighth of her husband’s property. The eldest son succeeds as head of the family. Women have a lower status lower than men but play a significant role in social, religious and economic spheres. Some educated women work in government or private service, while poor families work as labourers in the fields. Men wear a white cap with a broad base, while women wear a burqa (veil) when not at home. However many younger women from cities do not always follow this practice.
The Shaikh have community councils in most states. These bodies settle disputes and impose cash fines and have the authority to excommunicate people in extreme cases. Many Shaikh participate in political activities and leadership has emerged at the local, regional and national levels.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Shaikh are devout Muslims and belong mostly to the dominant Sunni sect of Islam; some are Shia followers. Like all Muslims they believe in Allah as the Almighty and revere Prophet Mohammed as his messenger to whom their scripture, the Koran, was revealed. They adhere strictly to the tenets of Islam and pray daily at mosques. They are under great pressure to maintain honor in their society.
The Shaikh visit the tomb shrines of the Pirs (Muslim saints) to pay homage and to ask them for intercede on their behalf. A priest called performs all rites of birth, marriage, death, teaches and acts as healer and exorcist. Circumcision is performed on boys in infancy or early childhood. Aqiqa (a head shaving ceremony) is performed on male and female children. The dead are buried and a forty-day mourning period is observed, at the end of which a community feast is usually given and alms distributed to the poor. The Shaikh celebrate all Muslim festivals with great devotion. Pilgrimages are made to Mecca and Medina. A dawn-to-dusk fast for forty consecutive days during the holy month of Ramzan during the summer is kept.