In the days following the Revolt of 1858, Bahadur Shah Zafar, wrote: “The world goes on changing Zafar with the changing times/What sights it then displayed what sights it now provides.” The destruction wrought by the British on the rebels, wrote Zafar, left behind desolate graves, roaming jackals and brambles where there had once been stately palaces, bustling towns, and resplendent gardens.
If 1858 brought with it defeat and uncertainty, the years ahead brought fear for men of Zafar’s social class, the ashraf of the United Provinces. The ashraf were the “noble” section of Indo-Muslim society, tracing ancestry to those Muslims who had entered Hindustan from the Middle-East, Persia or Central Asia.
The ashraf had been one of the most privileged classes of Hindustan before 1858. So 1858 heralded both the end of a long period of Indo-Muslim dynasties in northern India and threatened to end a civilization and way of life. Faced with the creation of a “Hindu” electoral majority with its awakened sense of self and a growing number of Hindu castes in the civil service and legal profession, the ashraf mobilized politically to retain what privilege it could.
While even after 1858, the ashraf occupied a disproportionate share of civil servants and judicial officers in the local bureaucracy and courts, its respective shares declined in contrast to rising Hindu caste groups. It was this threat of becoming backward, rather than actual backwardness, which the ashraf feared. Although it positioned itself as the representative of an all-India Muslim constituency, it was concerned first with maintaining its own survival and privilege. In doing so, the ashraf projected itself as a “distinctive” minority community deserving protection.
The ashraf argued it was distinctive communally as a religiously distinctive community of Muslims. It was also distinctive ancestrally as a peoples descended from Muslims from outside the subcontinent in contrast to those Muslims who had converted from Hinduism to Islam (the ajlaf). It was also distinctive socially and culturally as the former ruling elite of the Indo-Gangetic plain.
Against this, Sayyid Ahmad Khan proclaimed the ashraf a qaum or nation within Hindustan. Beginning in the 1880’s, Sayyid Ahmad devoted his energies to advocating the interests of Muslims, even if much of the reference to “Muslims” was little less than an attempt to preserve the privilege and power of the ashraf.
As Deutsch notes, a “leading social group” will often try to organize itself into a nationality so as to remain above other social groups in terms of current prestige and economic, political and social opportunities. Related (but not equal) members of other social groups can join this nationality, which offers opportunities for “rising in the world,” or “moving vertically in society.” In times of competition, this “nationality” acts as an implied claim to privilege because it emphasizes group preference and group peculiarities, and tends to exclude outside competitors.
In organizing itself politically, the ashraf was motivated by its status as an already privileged minority which “was determined to maintain its privileges.” In assuming leadership of the Muslim community, the Ashraf could mobilize its co-religionists for the common cause of pressing for special interests as a distinctive community in British India. In doing so, the ashraf could voice its interests for Muslims at the all-India level while maintaining its dominance within the Indo-Muslim community.