By K D L Khan
February 4th marks the Milad-un Nabi the sacred birthday of Prophet Muhammad. In this context, it is interesting to consider the saga of Sayyids - the traditional descendants of the Prophet’s tribe of Banu Hashim.
Sayyid is the title given in Islamic culture to people descended from Hassan the grandson of the Prophet through his daughter Fatima. Individuals descended from Husayn the Prophet’s other grandson, are known as Sharifs.
The Arabic word “sayyid” corresponds to the English words “lord, chief, or leader.” In the Hadith, the Islamic School of Jurisprudence, the term is used in the sense of “tribal chief or eminent members of a community”. Sayyids are also known as “habib”, “emir”, or “mir” in various Islamic lands. The great Islamic scholars Imam al-Bukhari and Al-Tirmidhi say that this title was first used by the Prophet in reference to Hassan. When sitting on the pulpit one day, Prophet Muhammad pointed to Hassan in one of the rows and said: “This grand son of mine is a sayyid. It is to be hoped that through him Allah will establish peace between two Muslim sects.”
In another hadith, the Prophet said: “Hassan and Husayn are the two sayyids of the young people of Paradise”. When Hazrat Umar Farook (the Second caliph of Islam) married Um Kulsoom, daughter of Hazrat Ali he said “I married her, because I’ve heard Prophet Muhammad say that all the lineages will finish on the day of Judgement, except My lineage. That’s why I wanted to link my destiny - Nasab with that of the descendants of the Prophet”. It is also narrated that sayyids cannot accept Zakaat (Islamic charity) whereas non-sayyids can. Thus, a sayyid must be given the money with the intention of a gift and not as charity. Sayyid scholars wear green or black turbans, whereas non-sayyid scholars (referred to as shaykh) wear white turbans. As a rule, a Sayyid’s daughter marries only another Sayyid, preferably chosen from among exclusive classes of Sayyids. Family trees are examined and every care taken that the accepted suitor is a Sayyid both on the father’s and mother’s side. Children of a Sayyida mother but a non-Sayyid father cannot be attributed the title of Sayyid; however, they may claim maternal descent and are called Mirza.
Muslims have always extended the love and affection they feel for the Prophet to the sayyids. Sayyids have enjoyed a privileged position in worldly treatment in almost all Islamic countries, and efforts have been made to bestow various advantages on them. The most obvious proof of this is how, in the past, special bodies were concerned with their affairs and that the person at the head of these institutions (the naqib al-ashraf) was regarded as having one of the highest ranks. There were registry books called ‘shajara al-mutayyiba’ in which the names of sayyids and sharifs were recorded. Naqib al-Ashraf had an important place in state ceremonies. Afterwards, with the degeneration of the state system, many people who wanted to benefit from the privileges and exemptions that sayyids and sharifs had made themselves recorded in the registry books of Naqib al-Ashraf through false pedigrees and witnesses. Therefore, not everyone who says, “I am a sayyid” is a sayyid.
In fact, till few generations ago, the title of sayyid or more colloquially Syed was exclusively reserved for these special classes of Muslims and others were not supposed to call themselves as such. But, now days the name of Syed is quite common even among those followers of the Prophet who are not the accepted Sayyids. More than 15 million South Asians claim descent from the Prophet’s tribe in South Asia, approximately 3 per cent of the Muslim population of South Asia. The Indo–Pakistan–Bangladesh area of Asia is supposed to have the maximum number of Sayyids - namely seven million in India - slightly less than seven million in Pakistan - one million in Bangladesh and seventy thousand in Nepal.
Their ancestors migrated to India from different parts of the Arab world, Iran, Central Asia and Turkestan, during the invasion of Mongols and other periods of turmoil during the periods of Mahmud Ghaznavi, Delhi Sultanate and Mughals and until the late 19th century. Some early migrant Sayyids moved deep to the region of Deccan plateau in the time of the Bahmani Sultanate and later Qutb Shahi kings of Golconda, Nizam Shahi of Ahmadnagar and other kingdoms of Bijapr, Bidar and Berr.
Several visited India as merchants or escaped from Abbasid, Umayyad and Ottoman Empire. They also ruled over India during the Delhi Sultanate during the short-lived period of 1414-1451. Their name figures in Indian history at the break up of the Mughal Empire, when the Sayyid Brothers created and dethroned Emperors at their will (1714–1720). The first Mohammedans appointed by the British to the Council of India and the first appointed to the Privy Council were both Sayyids.
They also provide an important element in the Mughal army. The new British colonial authorities that replaced the Mughals after the Battle of Buxar in 1764 also made a pragmatic decision to work with various Sayyid jagirdars. Several Sayyid taluqdars in Awadh were substantial landowners under the British colonial regime, and many other Sayyids still played their part in the administration of the state. The community also has a very high literacy rate. The independence and partition of India in 1947 was traumatic for the community, with many families becoming divided, with some members moving to Pakistan. This was followed by the abolishment of the zamindari system, where land was redistributed to those who till the land. Many Sayyids who remained on the land are now medium and small scale farmers. While in the urban areas, there has been a shift towards modern occupations.
Down south in Kerala, with its two-thousand-year-old association with Arabia, in Malayalam, Thangal is an honorific Muslim title almost equivalent to the Arabic term Sayyid which is given to males believed as descendants of Prophet Muhammad. For example the genealogy of Bafaqi Thangal, an eminent Muslim leader of Kerala is traced 35th generations from Fatima the daughter of Prophet Muhammad. The present day Thangals are supposed to be descended from Sayyid families, who migrated from the historic city of Tarim, in Hadramawt Province, Yemen, during the 17th century in order to propagate Islam on the Malabar Coast. Sayyids selected coastal areas to settle. The royal family of Arakkal in Kerala had Thangal origins, and the last ruler, Ali Raja Mariumma Beevi Thangal handed over the power to the Indian government after Independence.
The Sayyid population in India is distributed thus. Population in this Country: 7,017,000 Largest States: Uttar Pradesh (1,493,000) Maharashtra (1,108,000) Karnataka (766,000) Andhra Pradesh (727,000) Rajasthan (497,000) Bihar (419,000) West Bengal (372,000) Madhya Pradesh (307,000) Gujarat (245,000) Tamil Nadu (206,000).
Spread all over India, the Sayyids are a precious link of India to the days of the Prophet in Arabia. MF