The introduction to the special issue provides a framework to think about the changing conceptions of Sayyid-ness in various historical contexts in South Asia. First, we review some of the sociological and anthropological literature on caste among South Asian Muslims, to argue for a contextualised and historicised study of Muslim social stratification in Muslims’ own terms. Second, we throw light on the fact that Sayyid-ness, far from being a transhistorical fact, may be conceptualised differently in different socio-political and historical contexts. For instance, Sayyid pedigree was at times downplayed in favour of a more encompassing Ashraf identity in order to project the idea of a single Muslim community. Far from projecting an essentialising image of Sayyid-ness, by focusing on historical change, the articles in this collection de-naturalise Sayyids’ and Ashraf's social superiority as a ‘well-understood and accepted fact’. They further shift attention from the debate on ‘Muslim caste’, often marred by Hindu-centric assumptions, to focus instead on social dynamics among South Asian Muslims ‘in their own terms’. In so doing, these studies highlight the importance of the local, while pointing to possible comparisons with Muslim groups outside South Asia.