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).