Asghar Ali Engineer: Simple, fearless, straight from the heart


May 14, 2013

Renowned Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer, who passed away in MumbaiImages ] on Tuesday , was opposed to all forms of religious bigotry including by the clergy of his own faith. For opposing the Syedna, spiritual of Dawoodi Bohras, Engineer faced scorn, boycott and even, sometimes, violence. In February 2000 Dilip D’souza had chronicled in Rediff.com one such assault on Asghar Ali Engineer; we reproduce it here. In Tribute.

If you want to find Asghar Ali Engineer on a working day, you’ll have to make your way to his office in Santa Cruz, Bombay. To get there, you edge through the chaos outside the railway station: buses and rickshaws bear down on you, hawkers of everything conceivable are everywhere, the occasional cow meanders about. Past them, the grubby building has a too-low entrance on which I’ve rammed my forehead more times than I can count. That negotiated, you walk up the narrow stairs to a small office, overflowing with books, papers, newspapers and magazines.

Invariably in a white or beige kurta and pajama, Asghar Ali sits in a room at the back. It’s a near-sure bet he’s busy pecking intently at a keyboard. Earlier, that keyboard belonged to a small red typewriter; lately it is part of a laptop. He writes with energy and passion people half his age can’t match, turning out articles and pamphlets and books on a wide range of subjects. He’ll be the first to acknowledge that it’s not high literature he’s producing in that room. But he writes like he talks to you: simply, fearlessly and straight from the heart. Never a hint of hedging or obfuscation.

That is why this man is so widely respected. That is why, too, he is so hated. Hated enough, that at Bombay airport on February 13, three goons beat up this 60-year-old heart patient. Hated enough, that pals of those goons have since gone into a kind of accusatory overdrive, making public statements that it was actually Engineer who was doing the beating and abusing.

To anyone who knows Asghar Ali even slightly, the idea of him assaulting someone is so absurd, it might have been funny. But it is not funny in the least.

To understand what happened at the airport that day, you have to know that Engineer is a Dawoodi Bohra. This is a Muslim sect of traders, originally from Gujarat. Their spiritual head is the 85-year-old Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (now 102) known simply as The Syedna. The Syedna maintains strict control over his flock via a system of seven taxes and multiple regulations, all enforced by his priests.

For many years, Asghar Ali has campaigned for reform within the Bohra community, asked over and over again for an accounting from the Syedna for the money he collects through those taxes. As reformers usually are, he is unpopular among the clergy, among the faithful. They have attacked him four times already, going back to 1977.

February 13 saw the fifth attack. That day, Asghar Ali was on an Alliance Air (a subsidiary of Indian Airlines) flight from Bhopal to Bombay, via Indore. It was supposed to be a half-hour halt at Indore, just enough to drop off and pick up passengers. But an hour passed and still the plane stayed put on the ground. Turned out the Syedna himself was to board the flight there, and the great man was delayed.

Nearly 3,000 of the Syedna’s followers had gathered to wave tearful goodbyes to him at Indore. Seeing this crowd, the airport Indian Airlines personnel ‘felt it could be risky to let the airplane take off without [the Syedna].’ So they delayed the departure, hoping ‘to prevent a law and order problem.’ (Quotes from The Times of India [ Images ], February 17).

Apparently several of the passengers on the flight objected to this delay, and Asghar Ali Engineer joined the protest. Of course, the protest had no effect. But when the Syedna finally arrived and the flight took off, Engineer told Outlook, two of his followers, ‘after consulting the Syedna, began abusing … [T]hey said, “You shaitan, get down and see what happens to you.” ‘

What happened to the ‘shaitan’ was that in the terminal at Bombay, three men assaulted him. One was one of the Syedna’s fellow flyers, the other two were from among the hordes who had turned up to fondly greet him on arrival. The assault continued for several minutes. Asghar Ali fell to the ground, bleeding. Eventually the police rescued him and took him to Nanavati hospital.

Meanwhile, more of the Syedna’s followers paid visits to Asghar Ali’s home and that crowded first-floor office in Santa Cruz. These were not courtesy calls to express concern for his health. No, they ransacked both places, up to the fans on the ceiling. As Asghar Ali wrote to me some days later: “My household things have been destroyed completely. Office computers were also destroyed.”

The story does not end there. The Syedna’s followers have wasted very little time cranking up the propaganda machine. They took a delegation to the chief minister to demand protection for the Syedna from Engineer. (There was one extremely interesting feature of this delegation that I will get to in a bit). Then they flooded the newspapers with letters recounting what they say really happened on that Indore-Bombay flight.

The assaulter, the propaganda would have it, was Engineer. First, he had stood at the entrance with his arms outspread, preventing the Syedna from entering. After waiting “quietly” for some minutes on the ladder, the Syedna managed to make his way into the plane. That’s when Asghar Ali began “abusing” him in “foul language”, “provoking” him and his 20 followers throughout the flight to Bombay. The delegation said that Asghar Ali’s language was “unbearable and intolerable to any follower of the religion.” To top it all, Asghar Ali actually mounted a “physical assault” on the Syedna.

“The fact remains”, one letter said, “that it was Engineer who took the law in his hands first and whatever happened afterwards was a result of that.” Another expressed these lucid opinions: “Engineer [doesn’t] even know how to behave with a person of [the Syedna’s] dignity and class. Engineer is … a curse on society. … May [the Syedna’s] enemies burn in the fires of hell.”

Florid accusations aside, who ransacked Asghar Ali’s home and office? The Syedna’s nephew, Badrul Jamali Bhai, used strangely familiar language at a press conference: “Someone whose feelings may have been hurt could have done it.” More familiar language came from a Syedna spokesman: “It was the natural feelings of his followers that broke out into violence. If someone abuses our father, how can we tolerate it?”

Ah yes, that language of intolerance again. Feelings were hurt, some things just can’t be tolerated, the assault was only an expression of those “natural feelings.” I didn’t catch it in the reports I found, but I am confident someone among the Syedna’s men used that word loved by goons intent on lying propaganda, whether during Nazi Germany’s [ Images ] Kristallnacht or after the demolition of the Babri Masjid [ Images ].

“Spontaneous.”

As in: the attacks on Jews that November 9 night in 1938 were, said Joseph Goebbels, a “spontaneous” demonstration by the German people against the murder of a German embassy official in Paris. As in: leaders of the Shiv Sena [ Images ] admitted that their “boys” were out rioting in Bombay in 1992-93, but that they appeared “spontaneously” to “prevent the massacre of Hindus.” As in: the destruction of the Babri Masjid, leaders of the BJP told us, was a “spontaneous” reaction of Hindus whose “feelings had been hurt” enough.

Yes indeed, when it is bigotry, when it is intolerance of differing opinions, there are no religious boundaries. The defenders of the Syedna could be the defenders of German purity could be the defenders of Hinduism.

Apart from his calls for reform among the Bohras, Asghar Ali Engineer is a strong and learned spokesman for religious sanity. In particular, his was a prominent voice after the demolition of that mosque and the 1992-93 Bombay riots. His team of volunteers fanned out to speak to riot victims all over the city. The report he issued based on their findings (Bombay’s Shame) is a sad and damning commentary on the destruction the so-called defenders of Hinduism brought on the heads of all Bombay, Hindus and otherwise. His subsequent writings have kept up that commentary. They have brought him hatred from the defenders of Hinduism just as severe as he gets from the Syedna’s flock.

And that’s why the Syedna’s delegation that went to the chief minister was so interesting. It was led by two prominent Bombay politicians: Maharashtra’s [ Images ] ex-Minister for Housing Raj Purohit and Khetwadi MLA Atul Shah.

Both belong to the BJP.

Dilip D’Souza

Image: Asghar Ali Engineer passed away on Tuesday  | Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

 

‘Asghar Ali Will Be Remembered As A Creative Interpreter Of Islam’


In a career spanning over four decades, Asghar Ali was in the forefront of anti-communal movements and upholding the spirit of our secular constitution

MUSHIRUL HASAN

May 15, 2013

Photo Courtesy: www.csss-isla.com

Photo Courtesy: http://www.csss-isla.com

He never wrote his full name. AA Engineer is how he was widely known. I wrote a column on him in the Indian Express and followed it up with another article on his 70th birthday. Now, regrettably, I write his obituary.

Like many in this country and abroad I am deeply grieved by his sudden death. He was a man of extraordinary energy and unshakable conviction. Above all, he was on a mission to reform his own Bohra community, to expose the menace of communalism and to plead for a liberal and modernist version of Islam. What is amazing is that he actually believed that these changes would take place during his lifetime. Sadly, that did not happen.

Asghar Ali Engineer’s chief mission was to make India a safer place to live in for the minorities. For this, he did not adopt the reckless course of many a protagonist of Muslim causes. Instead, he endeavoured to instill confidence in the minorities. At the same time, he argued for reforms and innovations within inherited traditions. He wanted Muslims in particular to move forward and shed their psychological inhibitions. He wanted them to remain true to their faith, because he believed that Islam, contrary to its current demonization, championed social equity, justice and tolerance. He would quote chapter and verse from the Quran to defend his position. Unlike other reformers, he was a well-read person and linguistically equipped to interpret the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet. Therefore, he consistently argued, for example, that gender justice is enshrined in the Quran.

In a career spanning over four decades, Asghar Ali spearheaded many important movements. He was in the forefront of anti-communal movements, upholding the spirit of our secular constitution. Global peace and interfaith dialogue was lately, his principal passion. He tried to work out a synthesis between different religions, traditions and underline their commonalities. In this respect, his dialogues with Christian and Hindu priests are quite important. It marked an advance on a tradition pioneered by social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Mahatma Gandhi.

When I first visited Asghar Ali at Irene Cottage in Santa Cruz East, I expected to be greeted in a large palatial house. Instead, I walked through a decrepit staircase which led me into a rather modest two-room apartment. It was barely furnished. There were only books and printed articles strewn all over the place. This is not surprising. He was a dedicated scholar who spent several hours every day writing his own books, articles and reports on communal riots in different parts of the country. Many of these were published in the Economic and Political Weekly. He will be long remembered for his bold and courageous interventions on leading public issues and in the service of communal peace and secularism. His judgement on most matters was objective and reasonable.
Asghar Ali was a reckless individual, with a junoon to transform the world. He travelled ceaselessly and kept odd hours which ultimately took a toll on his health. Whenever I asked him to take it easy, he would brush aside my suggestion. He said that he had miles to go and much more work to do.

His life offers many lessons to be learnt, of paths taken and not taken. But whatever may be the verdict of history, Asghar Ali Engineer will be remembered as a creative interpreter of Islam and as a champion of the liberal and secular values. His life clearly demonstrates that it is possible to be wedded to one’s own tradition and at the same time be a quintessential liberal. There is no conflict of vision in Asghar Ali’s public life or writings.

We will miss this enlightened and dignified man. We will miss a principled and conscientious citizen and dissenter who recognised no caste or community differences. And finally, we will miss a scholar who was relentless in his search for ideas and solutions to contemporary conflicts and divisions.

The author is Professor of History, former Vice-Chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia and the former Director General, National Archives of India

– See more at: http://tehelka.com/asghar-ali-engineer-will-be-remembered-as-a-creative-interpreter-of-islam/#sthash.QGfpi43O.dpuf

There will never be another Asghar Ali


 Jyoti Punwani
Mumbai Mirror | May 15, 2013, 12.00 AM IST
There will never be another Asghar Ali
Asghar Ali Engineer passed away on Tuesday. He was 74
By: Jyoti Punwani

Scholarly, courageous and secular, Asghar Ali Engineer spent his life combating regressive beliefs and practices while presenting a modern, humanistic interpretation of Islam

The passing away of Asghar Ali Engineer leaves everyone poorer. He wasn’t only the face of the Bohra reform movement – a movement for human rights supported by the tallest intellectuals of the country. He was a scholar of Islam, whose interpretation of it was progressive and humanistic, embracing the egalitarian ideals of Marxism and feminism. The world, including the bastion of conservative Islam, Saudi Arabia, invited Engineer to share his knowledge and liberal reading of his religion.

Engineer was a brave man. Assaulted six times, twice almost fatally, by orthodox Bohras, simply for fighting constitutionally against the absolute hold of the Syedna over the community, it would have been easy for him to give up a fight he began openly in 1973, with an article in The Times of India. The social boycott against him declared by the Bohra clergy cut him off for years from his family, including his mother, and in his words, “almost drove (me) mad”.

The political establishment, all the way up to Indira Gandhi and Vajpayee, stood solidly behind the Syedna. Yet, Engineer remained a Reformist throughout, and not just in his personal life. Under his guidance, the Reformists became a force to reckon with, with women at the forefront of the movement. He showed the same courage in openly organising support for the Shahbano judgment, when the Muslim establishment mounted acampaign against it.

For me, Asghar Ali Engineer was many things – a fount of knowledge and a guru, yet one so devoid of arrogance that I was able to, over the past 20 years, interact with him as a friend. I first met him as a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, of which he was both founder and vice-president. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, CPDR members used to demonstrate holding placards in a narrow lane across the road from Badri Mahal, Fort – that was as close to the Bohra headquarters as the police would allow us to get. Yet this insignificant bunch of youngsters, led by Engineer and a few other Reformists, would be considered enough of a threat to be stoned by orthodox Bohras. I used to be terrified, but not the much older Engineer.

As a novice in journalism, I turned to Engineer for everything concerning Muslims – be it history, the freedom movement, communal politics. Always ready to share his immense knowledge, he never grew impatient at my endless questions. I would interview others too, but no one had his rounded, secular, yet scholarly perspective.

In 1984, after seeing the partisan conduct of the police towards the Shiv Sena, during the riots that broke out in Bhiwandi, Thane and Mumbai, I told him I supported those young Muslims who felt revenge was the only solution. “No, never,” was his immediate response. “Revenge will only set off an endless cycle of violence, which will help no one, Muslims least of all.”

His way was to change minds. But that will take forever, I replied. Yet that’s what he never stopped trying to do through his writings and interactions with youngsters, policemen and IAS trainees. Every communal riot was investigated by him personally, or by his team, to trace the root causes, for as he said, religion was not the cause of conflict, its political use was.

Engineer won many awards, but the one that suited him best was the Right Livelihood Award or the Alternate Nobel, given to him in 2004 “for promoting religious and communal co-existence, tolerance and mutual understanding”.

With all his qualities, Engineer was essentially a simple man. I remember him walking outside his ramshackle building holding his little daughter Seema’s hand; remonstrating and embarrassed as his wife grumbled to me about being left behind for weeks as he travelled all over the world; chuckling at some wry comment on the irrelevance of pseudo-secularists.

Engineer had told his family he would like to be buried where his friends from the Progressive Writers Association, Kaifi Azmi, Jan Nisaar Akhthar and Ali Sardar Jafri, were. No doubt, he’ll be happy reciting Urdu poetry with them. But we, who still need him, will wonder where to find another like him.

WHEN ENGINEER BOWED BEFORE THE SYEDNA

The first and last time Engineer bowed in front of the Dawoodi Bohra high priest was when he was physically forced to by a marshal in the Syedna’s chamber. He had been taken there by his father, himself a priest, after his matriculation result was declared. Seeing others “fall on their knees and crawl with folded hands to the Syedna’s chamber, where he sat on a high chair like a king, (then) prostrate, lie with face down in submission before him,” Engineer refused, believing that sajda was to be performed only before Allah. Abusing him as ‘shaitaan’, a marshal caught his neck and forced it down. (From A Living Faith, Engineer’s autobiography)

 

Obituary – Asghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013)


RIP Asghar Ali (1)

MAY 14, 2013
by , kafila.org

B_-_portrait.Ashgar_Ali_Engineer-Salzb05__c__RLA_Foundation__Ulrike_AltekruseAn obituary by ZAHIR JANMOHAMED: I first met Asghar Ali Engineer in January 2002 in Mumbai. I was a fellow with the America India Foundation and a few weeks later I would be posted to work with an NGO in Ahmedabad.

A few minutes before his presentation, I noticed him standing off to the side in silence, staring at the ground. I walked up and introduced myself. I was young, in my twenties, and I did not know what to say.

As-salaam alaikum,” I said.

“Wa-alaikum salaam,” he replied.

I am not sure what response I expected but I thought that perhaps because he and I share the same faith that we might have a special bond, that my greeting would spark a conversation. After all, I always thought phrases like these serve less as greeting and more as an announcement, as in, I am part of the same religion as you.

But Asghar saab just held my hand and then put his hand on his heart. “Nice to meet you,” he said, and then stared at the ground again in silence. I thought it was odd, rude even.

As I continued to meet Asghar saab, I realized that he had very little patience for superficial connections. I witnessed this when I saw him greet crowds after his lectures. If you told him you were from the same caste or city he would not be as excited as if you told him that you also believe that we must fight patriarchy with the same vigor that we must fight communalism.

What set him apart was his fearlessness, something he showed from a young age. He was born on March 10, 1939 in Salumbar, Rajasthan to a family of priests in the Bohra community and schooled in the traditional Islamic sciences like Qur’anic study (tafseer). Islamic schooling is often based on the idea that you should teach a child as much as he/she can digest and then later they will develop the intellect to question what they have learned. The idea, as Willim Chittick writes in his book The Sufi Path of Love, is that form precedes meaning. But Asghar saab began to question at a young age, at a time when he was told he should only be memorizing. Later he would become one of the first to question the transparency of the Bohra leadership, something completely unheard of during his time.

He was effective and very hard to argue with (as I learned first hand) because he was grounded in Islamic law. When an Islamic scholar would make an argument that a particular verse in the Qur’an supports denying a woman her rights, Asghar saab would draw on his extensive knowledge of the Qur’an to argue that that very verse means the antithesis.

Each time he spoke out, the more he isolated himself but this never bothered him. Part of what made him so unique was that he never saw himself as part of a community. He believed this was the surest way to stifle your voice. Be independent, he always told me.

After I witnessed the Gujarat riots, we met on a few occasions. But he never liked hearing my stories from Ahmedabad. It was not that he was not interested but he did not want it to rattle his core belief that humans are inclined towards goodness and reason, two things he saw lacking during the 2002 carnage.

We ended up growing apart because he was so ideal about India and religion that that idealism which I always saw as his virtue I began to see as his blind spot. But I always appreciated how he never gave up and more importantly, how he was always re-examining his beliefs.

The last time we corresponded was in 2005. It was a few months after Modi was denied a visa and I was active in Washington DC in raising awareness about Gujarat. But I was burned out and frustrated by my fellow Indian Americans who could not be bothered with what happens in India. What I wanted, I told him, was more support, more people to stand with me.

“You will not find many friends on this path,” he wrote to me.

It is these words and that image of him—standing off to the side, staring at the ground as when I first saw him—that I will always remember about him. Yes he was alone, as many are who push for change, but he was also something very unique and rare. He was his own person.

(Zahir Janmohamed is a writer in Ahmedabad.)

 

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