Who are they?
The Sayyad, also spelled Syed or Saiyed, are a large Muslim landowning rural community. Numbering around 12.2 million they are spread over one hundred and thirty-one districts of the country. The largest number reside in Uttar Pradesh (1.3 million) and the remainder are spread between Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Bihar, Gujarat, Delhi, Orissa, Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh.
The Sayyad are an influential community that is at the top of the Indian Muslim social hierarchy and as such they can be compared with the Brahmin, the highest Hindu priestly caste. They hold the highest of four classes, namely, Sayyad, Sheikh, Mughal and Pathan. It is believed that they are descendents of the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter Syed-un-Nisa Fatima Zehra and her husband Syedna Ali Murtaza. The word Sayyad is Arabic for chief, leader or master. The synonyms of the name Sayyad are Mir (leader), Agha (master) and Shah (king). Mir is often used as a title along with their names, while in states like West Bengal and Bihar Sayyad is used as such.
William Crooke states in his Tribes and Castes of the North-Western India (1896) that many of the Sayyad came to India with the early Muslim invaders of the 11th century. They asserted their priestly claims which were in many cases rewarded with gifts of revenue-free land by rulers, a position which their descendants still enjoy. During the Mughal era (16th-18th centuries) the Sayyads occupied a majority of prominent civil and religious positions.
The Sayyad speak Urdu as their first language and write in the Persian- Arabic script. They also speak the respective regional languages of the states they live in. In Jammu & Kashmir their mother tongue is Kashmiri, while in Himachal Pradesh their original mother tongue, Persian, is spoken primarily by the elders. In most of the states they are also conversant with Hindi. Many educated Sayyad also read and speak English.
Traditionally the Sayyad exchange food and water with most Muslim communities, except from the Julaha (weaver), Fakir (religious mendicant), Mirasi (bard), Kunjra (greengrocer) and Nalband (furrier). During the partition of India in 1947 many of the more affluent and influential Sayyad families migrated to the newly formed country of Pakistan.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Sayyad are a respected community. A majority of religious leaders and priests are Sayyad who have written books on theology. Priests play an active role in maintaining social control in the absence of community councils. In many states the Sayyad are a landowning rural community and are engaged in agriculture. In Uttar Pradesh they used to be zamindars (large, feudal landholders) before the post-independence land ceiling acts were enforced. The landless agriculturists in Bihar grow crops on someone else’s fields and are paid for half of the crop that is harvested. They also trade and serve in the industrial and government sectors. A few are skilled or unskilled industrial labourers, while some are self-employed in running small-scale industries, transport agencies or as contractors. Child labour is extremely rare
Some Sayyad are gifted in arts such as modeling, carving and engraving, and crafts such as weaving, embroidery and silver or gold thread weaving. There are also a number of entrepreneurs, scholars, artists, teachers, lecturers, administrators, engineers, doctors, lawyers, defense personnel. Political leadership has emerged at regional and national levels.
The literacy rate among the Sayyad is high compared to that of other Muslim communities. They make use of modern medicine but do not practice family planning for religious reasons. They make good use of the facilities for electricity, banking and subsidized rations under the public distribution system (PDS).
The Sayyad are an endogamous community, that is, they prefer to marry within the community. However, they have begun to intermarry with the Shaikh, Pathan and Mughal communities. In fact, Sayyad-Shaikh marriages are quite common. Social divisions exist among the Sayyad based on territory, religious sect and economic status. The two major sects of the Sayyad are the Shia and the Sunni, while in Jammu & Kashmir there is also a third sect known as Ahle-hadith (Wahabi). Among the Sayyad, marriages are usually arranged by parents and elders on both sides, although marriages by mutual consent and service are also reported. Monogamy is virtually the norm, although polygamy is permitted. Both cross-cousin and parallel-cousin marriages are practiced and preferred. Junior and senior levirate and junior sororate are prevalent among them. Adult marriage is preferred.
Sharia (Islamic law) allows divorce and mehar (a compensatory amount mutually fixed at the time of the nuptials) is paid to the divorced wife. The Sayyad of Andhra Pradesh does not permit divorce. Widow, widower and divorcee remarriages are allowed, but a widow or female divorcee has to wait for a mandatory period known as iddat before she can remarry. Both extended and nuclear families are found among the Sayyad. Paternal property is divided among all the children with the daughters getting half of what the sons receive. In Andhra Pradesh, daughters receive no inheritance. The eldest son succeeds the late father as the head of the family. The status of women is secondary to that of the men. In addition to doing all the housework, they participate actively in the socio-religious spheres and in family management.
The women used to wear a burqa (veil), and many still do, but the practice is declining among younger, educated women. Some urban women are employed in offices, while in states like Tamil Nadu they have a role in agricultural operations and animal husbandry. In West Bengal the Sayyad women have a tradition of sewing bedspreads known as kantha, byathum, and sujni. The Sayyad have many folktales and folksongs. Music and dances, besides those devotional and religious in nature, are popular among them. Women dance but not in the presence of men. They play several musical instruments like the dholak (double-sided, barrel-shaped drum) and harmonium as well as modern instruments, and some of them are exponents of classical and light music.
The Sayyad either have a community council called anjuman or jamat or are associated with a local Jamat. In Delhi they have formed a Mohalla Sudhar (Neighborhood improvement) Committee to plan and implement welfare and development activities.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Sayyad are orthodox Muslim and strictly adhere to the tenets of Islam, regarding Allah as the Creator and Almighty and the Prophet Mohammed as his messenger to whom was revealed the holy Koran by the archangel Gabriel. They are either Shia or Sunni, the two main Islamic sects, and follow their respective customs diligently. Muslims believe that their entrance into heaven depends on their good works; repenting of sins and acknowledging that Mohammed is the chief prophet of Allah.
The Sayyad venerate and pay homage at the tomb-shrines of Muslim Sufi saints. They believe that these saints can act as intercessors with Allah for their behalf to have wishes fulfilled. The Urs (an elaborate annual ceremony commemorating a saint’s death) is observed every year and is an especially sacred occasion for the devout to make a pilgrimage to the shrine. Satya Pir is a regional deity of the Sayyad of West Bengal.
They also observe roza (daylong fast for forty consecutive days) during the holy month of Ramzan. All those who can afford to do so, undertake the Haj or holy pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina at least once in their lifetimes. Karbala, Najaf, Qum, Kazmain, Kufa and Baghdad are some of their other pilgrimage centres.
Maulvi (priest), mujtahid (priest-cum-theologian) and qazi (religious judge), from within the Sayyad community perform lifecycle rituals and imparting religious education to children at madrasas (religious schools) and act as exorcists. The Sayyad bury their dead and observe a forty-day pollution period (except in Uttar Pradesh) ending with a ceremony at which a feast is given.