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
May 15, 2013
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.