This article explores historical shifts in the ways the Muslim barbers of South Asia are viewed and the intertwined ways they are conceptualised. Tracing various concepts, such as caste identity, and their multiple links to contempt, labour and Islamic ethical discourses and practices, this article demonstrates shifting meanings of these concepts and ways in which the Muslim barbers of Malabar (in southwest India) negotiate religious and social histories as well as status in everyday life. The aim was to link legal and social realms by considering how bodily comportment of barbers and pious Muslims intersect and diverge. Relying on ethnographic fieldwork among Muslim barbers of Malabar and their oral histories, it becomes apparent that status is negotiated in a fluid community where professional contempt, multiple attitudes about modernity and piety crosscut one another to inform local perceptions of themselves or others. This paper seeks to avoid the presentation of a teleology of past to present, binaries distinguishing professionals from quacks, and the pious from the scorned. The argument instead is that opposition between caste/caste-like practices and Islamic ethics is more complex than an essentialised dichotomy would convey.
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