Indian culture

Hussaini Brahmins are Hindus but observe Muslim traditions

Syed Ali Moujtaba

The Brahmin Hussaini community is little known in the country. They are Hindus but also believe in Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. They pay homage to Hindu idols and photographs, but also keep the ‘Alam’ – the standard with the emblem of Imam Hussain in the Pooja corner of their houses.

Hussaini Brahmin is a Mohyal Brahmin community in the Punjab region. The Mohyal community comprises seven sub-clans named Bali, Bhimwal, Chhibber, Dutt, Lau, Mohan and Vaid. Mohyal Brahmin of the Dutt clan had fought on behalf of Imam Hussain in the Battle of Karbala (680 CE)
According to legend, Rahab Sidh Dutt was the leader of a small group of career soldiers living near Baghdad at the time of the Battle of Karbala. The legend mentions the place where he stayed as Dair-al-Hindiya, meaning “The Indian quarter”, which corresponds to Al-Hindiya a place that still exists today.

In line with Hindu tradition, the Moyhal community adopted non-Indian traditions which led to the emergence of a small Hussaini Brahman sub-sect paying homage to Islam, notably Imam Hussain. As a result, many Hussaini Brahmin observe Muharram every year even on this date.
According to historical records, around 1,400 Brahmins lived in Baghdad, capital of Iraq, when the Battle of Karbala took place. Few families are still in parts of Iraq, but most are now settled in Pune, Delhi, Chandigarh, Amritsar and Jammu in India, Sindh and Lahore in Pakistan, and Kabul in southern Afghanistan.

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Until the partition of India, many Hussaini Brahmins lived in Lahore. In Ajmer, there is a small group of people who still call themselves Hussaini Brahmins today. In Bihar, a sect of Bhumihar Brahmins in Muzzafarpur district also claim ancestry from Hussaini Brahmins.

Hussaini Brahmins are neither “orthodox Hindus” nor orthodox Muslims. They practice a mixture of Vedic and Orthodox Islamic traditions. A Hindi/Urdu saying refers to Hussaini Brahmins as: “Wah Datt Sultan, Hindu ka dharm, Musalman ka Iman, Adha Hindu adha Musalman” (Well Datt Sultan, declaring Hindu Dharma and following Muslim practice, half Hindu and half muslim.

Some prominent figures in the Hussaini Brahman community are; actor Sunil Dutt, Urdu writers Kashmiri Lal Zakir, Sabir Dutt and Nand Kishore Vikram.

The Hussaini Brahmin community follows all the traditions observed by the Shia sect of Muslims during the month of Muharram. They offer greetings in the Azakhan’, the place where Muharram Azadari stands. Many are familiar with the technique of reading Marsiya, Nauha and Salaam (elegies lamenting the death of martyrs in the Battle of Karbala).

Most Hussaini Brahmins were born into a Hindu family in Saraswat. They carry on the tradition of belief in Imam Hussain which they learned from their ancestors. They attend the Majlis and recite elegies during the days of mourning in Muharram.

Sunita Jhingran, a renowned classical music singer best known for her thumri, khayal, dadra and ghazal, is a Hussaini Brahmin who says; “God created humans first, but we split into religions. The blood in the body of Hindus and Muslims is red. We must understand that humanity is the greatest of all religions and this is my way of promoting love and respect for all.

She adds: “For me, religion is a personal matter between God and me and no one has the right to tell me who I am”. She insisted on the need to understand the meaning of communal harmony to live in India. In this video she explains the Hussaini Brahmin community which has tenets of both Hinduism and Islam.

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Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at