Islamic scholar who fought religious bigotry
Asghar Ali Engineer was an Indian reformist-writer and activist. Internationally known for his work on liberation theology in Islam, he led the...
Asghar 'Ali Engineer was born in 1939 in a priestly family at the town of Salumbar, in the Udaipur district of Rajasthan. His father, Shaikh Qurban Hussain, was the priest of the town's Shi'a Isma'ili Bohra community. From his father he learnt the Arabic language, as well as Qur'anic commentary (tafsir), Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and the sayings of or about the Prophet Muhammad (hadith) as contained in the books of the Bohras. Alongside this, he was also provided a secular, modern education. He earned a degree in engineering from the University of Indore and then worked for some 20 years as a civil engineer with the Bombay (now Mumbai) Municipal Corporation.
In 1972, Engineer quit his job and immersed himself in the struggle against the Bohra head-priest, Sayyedna Burhanuddin, protesting against what the reformers saw as his exploitative practices. Along with other reformers, Engineer was instrumental in setting up the Central Board of the Dawoodi Bohra Community, to carry on the reform campaign. The reformers did not seek to challenge the Bohra religion as such. Rather, they defined themselves as believing Bohras, and argued that their sole concern was that the Sayyedna and his family should strictly abide by the principles of the Bohra faith and end their tyrannous control over the community, which they branded as 'un-Islamic'.
In the course of the struggle against the Sayyedna, Engineer developed his own understanding of Islam as a means and a resource for social revolution. One can discern in his thought and writings a multiplicity of influences: Mu'tazilite and Isma'ili rationalism, Marxism, western liberalism, Gandhism, and Christian liberation theology, and the impact of the Iranian 'Ali Shari'ati as well as Indian Muslim modernists such as Sayyed Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Iqbal.
His active involvement in the Bohra reformist movement led Engineer to establish contact with other progressive groups working for social transformation in India. Gradually, the focus of his activity broadened from activism within his own community to embrace several other causes. Of particular concern to him was the growing conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India.
In 1980, in order to promote new, more progressive understandings of Islam, he set up the Institute of Islamic Studies in Mumbai, through which he established links with progressive Muslims in other parts of India and elsewhere. In 1993, after the demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, he established the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, also in Mumbai, in order to investigate incidents of Hindu-Muslim conflict, to promote new interpretations of both Hinduism and Islam as a means to promote communal harmony, and to network with activists and the media. Engineer is best described as a public intellectual or as a scholar-activist.
Lacking a traditional Islamic education, his understanding of Islam grows out from his close involvement with movements struggling for social justice and reform and from his own study of the Islamic tradition. For him, new understandings of Islam must address themselves to changing social contexts, and religion, if it is at all to remain true to what he sees as its inner spirit, must make a positive contribution to progressive social change. Muslims struggling for social transformation should, he insists, take their religion seriously, and actively intervene in the struggle for discursive hegemony by offering progressive understandings of Islam. To abandon the task, he argues, would allow for 'reactionaries', including both the conservative 'ulema as well as militant Islamists, to monopolise the terrain of Islamic discourse. Hence, progressive Muslim intellectuals must also seek to establish close and organic links with the masses and involve themselves in mass movements and activist groups working for social change.
Engineer has done a great deal of work on communalism and communal violence in India since the first major riot in India in Jabalpur in 1961. His work in this field is considered pioneering and in recognition of his work Calcutta University conferred an honorary degree of D Litt. on him in February, 1983.
Dr Engineer, as he is known since then, is also recognised as a distinguished scholar of Islam and is invited for international conferences on Islam by various governments and universities. Dr. Engineer has lectured in several universities in USA., Canada, UK, Indonesia, Malaysia, Germany, France, Thailand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Mexico, Lebanon, Switzerland, Egypt, Tokyo, Uzbekistan, Moscow, Leningrad etc. He has also lectured in all the universities throughout India.
Engineer has received several awards on his work on inter-religious understanding. He believes in showing equal respect to all religions and he considers faith in religion as most vital for a meaningful life. However, he does not believe in blindly accepting dogmas inherited from the past. He believes in re-thinking issues and re-interpreting Islam in keeping with the changed times. He is of the opinion that it is our individual obligation to acquire Islamic learning and reflect deeply rather than following any one blindly
In 1987, he received the Distinguished Service Award from the USA International Student Assembly and the USA Indian Student Assembly. In 1990, he received the Dalmia Award for communal harmony and was the recipient of three honorary doctorate degrees. In 1997, the Government of India conferred on him the National Communal Harmony Award. He published 52 books, many papers and articles, including those for scholarly journals. He was a regular contributor to national dailies, and also wrote for The Hans India. He edited the 'Indian Journal of Secularism', and a monthly paper, Islam and Modern Age. He also published Secular Perspective every fortnight.