Crusader against communalism


Published: May 15, 2013 02:31 IST | Updated: May 15, 2013 02:31 IST

ASGHAR ALI ENGINEER 1939 – 2013

Meena Menon

 

The Hindu Asghar Ali Engineer.

Asghar Ali Engineer.

All his life he tirelessly worked for interfaith peace and harmony and religious reform in his own community

As a child in Wardha at the time of Partition, Asghar Ali heard “horrible stories of people being killed and trains full of dead bodies.” Those stories, he wrote in his autobiography, A Living Faith, disturbed him so much that he began thinking very early in his life about why people killed each other in the name of religion.

Then, as a student in 1961, he was deeply affected by the riots in Jabalpur, the worst till then in independent India. For Engineer, those riots were the beginning of his lifelong battle against the pathology of communalism and the engagement with creating interfaith harmony.

Only last December, on the 20th anniversary of 1993 Mumbai riots in Mumbai post the Babri Masjid demolition, he was part of a campaign to mark a bloody phase in the city’s history. At the launch, though unwell, he was spirited about the need to remember those riots: “Not for revenge but to ensure that it does not happen again.”

All his life he spoke for peace and communal harmony, his other passion being the democratisation and accountability of the religious establishment. He was physically attacked six times for his beliefs and his advocacy of religious reform. His family often worried about his safety, said his son Irfan.

Born on March 10, 1939, at Salumbar, a town near Udaipur, Rajasthan, Engineer grew up in an orthodox atmosphere. His father was a priest and was posted to different towns to provide religious guidance to the Bohra communities there. But, as he recalled, he never spoke anything against other religions.

It was at school in Dewas, when he and other Muslim boys were teased as being “pro Pakistani” that he became aware of religious and caste distinctions. Engineer was already writing articles in school, mostly on Islam and the problems of Muslims, something that he continued to do almost until the end.

In February, from his hospital bed, he typed out a keynote address on his laptop for an interfaith meeting in Indonesia. Two years ago, he delivered a speech, again from hospital, over the cell phone for one and a half hours, for a conference. A commitment was a commitment for his father, said Irfan.

A scholar and writer of over 70 books and numerous articles, Engineer, his son said, was a very humble person who could relate even to his critics, arguing differences with patience. Irfan, who has taken up Engineer’s crusade, remembers him to be a kind and understanding father who was also a friend.

Women’s rights

Women’s rights and equality was another of his missions. Engineer fought for understanding the Koran which he believed had given women equal rights. Medieval jurisprudence had cheated women and he wanted those rights restored. To support religious reforms, a conference to launch a democratically-elected Central Board of Dawoodi Bohras was held in February 1977 in Udaipur where he was elected general secretary. He later set up the Institute of Islamic Studies, in Mumbai and the Center for Study of Society and Secularism.

He counted Ghalib among his favourite Urdu poets and confessed to being deeply influenced by the Sunni thinker Iqbal among others. Initially repelled by Marxism because of its atheism, Engineer said he was later “won over” by Marxist doctrines “as I found them close to Islamic values,” and that it was not necessary to be an atheist to be a Marxist. Engineer’s father had decided not to force him to continue the priesthood tradition. The first time he had taken him to Bombay was for the ritual of kissing the feet of the Syedna, which Engineer had found revolting.

Arriving in Bombay again in 1963, he found a job with the city municipal corporation as an engineer but quit in 1983. He started writing against the oppression of the Dawoodi Bohras in Udaipur. For this he faced threats and demands for an apology. His family boycotted him. Some of the attacks on him were serious enough for him to be hospitalised. His Center for Study of Society and Secularism was vandalised.

Along with his intense participation in efforts to get to the bottom of communal riots that affected India’s social fabric, and his interfaith initiatives for harmony, Engineer was a scholar of Islam. In his Muslims in India since 1947: Islamic Perspectives on Inter Faith Relations, Yoginder Sikand says Engineer’s principal concern was to evolve a theology of Islam that seeks to grapple with the modern condition even while being rooted in it. Engineer’s main contribution was in articulating a contextual hermeneutics of the Koran one that he believed could help guide Muslims in dealing with the challenges of contemporary life.

Engineer combined a passion for knowledge and religion with action on the ground, taking along leading writers, journalists and members of progressive movements of the day in his battle for religious reform and what he believed was an “un-Islamic” imposition of the Syedna’s tenets.

Before he succumbed to diabetes-related complications on Tuesday, he had partially recovered from a prolonged illness (of three months), and had returned home from hospital on April 26. His passing comes at a time when many of the issues he fought for and deeply cared about are still far from settled. More than ever, we need the values of tolerance, communal harmony and inter-faith dialogue that Engineer stood for all his life.

meena.menon@thehindu.co.in

 

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

 

#RIP- Renowned Islamic scholar, progressive thinker, author Asghar Ali Engineer no more


RIP Asghar Ali (1)

 

Mumbai, May 14 (IANS) Renowned Islamic scholar, progressive thinker, author and Dawoodi Bohra reformist leader Asghar Ali Engineer passed away here Tuesday after a prolonged illness, family members said. He was 74.

Engineer, a widower, is survived his son Irfaan and daughter Seema Indorewala. He was ailing for several months and breathed his last at his Santacruz East home around 8 a.m. The funeral is likely to be held Wednesday, Irfaan indicated.

Born in Salumbar, Rajasthan, in a Dawoodi Bohra Amil (priest) family March 10, 1939, Engineer acquired his training in Quranic tafsir (commentary), tawil (hidden interpretations of Quran), fiqh (jurisprudence) and hadith (Prophet’s teachings, sayings) during his early days.

His father, Sheikh Qurban Husain, was the Amil who also taught the young Engineer Arabic. Later, Engineer studied all the major religious works and scriptures by eminent scholars.

He graduated as a civil engineer from Indore, Madhya Pradesh, and went on to work for nearly two decades in the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

In the early 1970s, he sought voluntary retirement from his BMC service and plunged into the reformist movement in the miniscule Dawood Bohra community, estimated at around 1.20 million worldwide.

In 1972, he assumed a leading role in the movement from Udaipur and also mobilised national and international public opinion through media articles and speeches.

In 1977, he was elected general secretary of Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community at its maiden conference in Udaipur and guided the reformist movement.

Later, Engineer devoted his time and energies to work for communal harmony and combat communalist forces in the country.

The recipient of several awards and honours from around the world, Engineer travelled across the globe speaking at international conferences, seminars and universities on Islam, peace, human rights and other issues.

He founded the Institute of Islamic Studies (1980) and the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (1993), and also authored around 50 books on various topics and believed in treating all religions with equality.

According to reformists, Engineer never believed in blind acceptance of dogmas inherited from the past but strived to rethink issues and reinterpret Islam in keeping with modern times.

Asghar Ali Engineer, leader of the Progressive Dawoodi Borah movement speaks to Madhu Trehan on how priestly families in the community are distorting Islam, challenging fatwas, how Satanic Verses should be challenged but not banned & more.

 

What is it like to have undergone female genital mutilation ? #Vaw #FGM #Womenrights


Out in the open

What is it like to have undergone female genital mutilation, asks NID student’s film

Jyoti Punwani mirrorfeedback@timesgroup.com

When a 24-year-old student of film and video communication at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad received a special mention at the 60th National Film Awards, it was for showing nerve.
Although devoid of sting operations and hidden cameras, Priya Goswami’s 27-minute documentary goes where no one has. In A Pinch of Skin, the young filmmaker gets a string of women to openly share the horror of female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice so secretive, often brothers aren’t aware their sisters have undergone it. The one-million strong community of Dawoodi Bohras, a sect of Ismaili Shias concentrated in trade-focused centres of Maharashtra and Gujarat, carry out the practice citing ‘faith’ as reason, although Islamic scholars say Islam doesn’t sanction it.
The World Health Organisation defines FGM as all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organ for nonmedical reasons. The procedure, according to the WHO website, holds no health benefits for women, and consequences can range from severe bleeding and infection to complications in childbirth. About 140 million girls and women worldwide livewith the consequences of FGM.
Unlike male circumcision, khatna as FGM is called locally, is carried out in secrecy by senior women of the community using blades without medical supervision on seven-year-olds, who the film says are “old enough to remember”. The logic is this: as adults, the girls will practice the ceremony on their children, and since they are pre-adolescent at seven, they are unlikely to suffer severe physiological damage.
That Goswami managed to get the women to talk — albeit without revealing their identity — despite being an outsider, is remarkable. It’s also reflected in the approach she chooses; the community becomes irrelevant. It’s the practice and belief she chooses to focus on, as is evident from her statement at the start of the film: For this film, I have no religion nor am I born into any community. All I know is that I am just a woman and that is my only identity.’
Goswami’s interviewees tell her the aim of khatna is simple —to curb “the urge” in women. Satisfied with their husbands, the women are unlikely to seek pleasure outside the marriage.
A young interviewee admits to Goswami that unlike her friends, she isn’t terribly attracted to men. Another articulate woman, angry that a part of her body was removed without explanation or permission, remains silent when asked if circumcision is aimed at denying women orgasm. “Ask the priests,’’ she finally says.
Intercourse is painful, a third admits. “I guess it is so for all women.”
And so, Goswami succeeds in starting a conversation on the practice within the community. She says it amazed her that women themselves justify the practice and have made peace with it. The term used for the clitoris by the women — “haraami boti’’ — reveals a deep-seated revulsion towards their own anatomy and sexuality. This is hardly community-specific, Goswami observes. “Don’t our grandmothers say, women are the root of all trouble?” she asks. “Don’t we banish young widows to Brindavan?”
Although the filmmaker interviewed men, she chose to leave them out of the film. “I wished to depict the practice as one done on women by women, although instituted by patriarchy.’’
Goswami’s film includes strong voices of dissent, although they are outnumbered. A mother who decided to skip the tradition when it came to her own daughters admits she kept her act of defiance a secret. If the film encourages more women to speak out, Goswami says her efforts will be worth it.
The film will be screened at the Al Jazeera International Documentary Festival in April.

In a still from the film, the interviewee masks her identity while talking about her experience of female genital mutilation

 

 

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