The country is much poorer for the passing away of Asghar Ali Engineer, who believed that true religion could never teach hatred, prejudice or violence.
Social reformer and scholar Asghar Ali Engineer devoted most of his adult life heroically fighting not one but three battles. The first was against religious hatred and violence, for promoting peace and harmony among people of diverse faiths. The second was a painfully lonely lifelong struggle against the oppression of the leader of the Bohra sect into which he was born. And a third was to reclaim ideas of a humane, peaceful, tolerant, and gender-just Islam.
Over many decades, in times of strife and mass violence, his voice steadied us with its compassion and reason. For his beliefs, Engineer routinely suffered death threats, deathly attacks and social boycott. Yet he never wavered. In the years I was privileged to know him, I never heard a word of personal rancour or bitterness. With the passing of this man of extraordinary humanity, dignity, learning and courage of convictions, the country is much poorer.
Engineer inherited a long tradition of social reformers in India — which latterly includes also Gandhi and Maulana Azad — who were simultaneously deeply religious and deeply secular, and saw no contradiction between these two. Instead, Engineer believed that true religion could never teach you hatred, prejudice or violence against people of other faiths.
His father was a Bohra amil or priest, posted to many towns in Madhya Pradesh with the mandate to provide religious guidance to local Bohras. He learnt from him Islamic theology and history and, in his autobiography A Living Faith, Engineer recalls that as a student, he was initially very orthodox. But teachers like Shama Saheb in Dewas helped open his mind and heart. His teacher “was a firmly believing Muslim but was far from narrow-minded, much less communal. He inspired us to be good Muslims but never to be orthodox”, lessons which young Engineer took to heart.
Another influence was his encounter with Marxist writings, which moved him profoundly. He struggled to reconcile his new Marxist convictions with his religious faith, and found solace in poet Iqbal’s words that socialism along with God makes Islam. He concluded that it was not necessary to be an atheist to be a Marxist, and both Marx and his religious beliefs nourished his values of justice, equality and compassion for the suffering of others. Engineer’s interpretations of Islam, in over 70 books which he wrote, and his life-long practice, represent a creative construction of liberation theology in Indian Islam.
He was still a student of engineering when Jabalpur was racked in 1961 by the first major outbreak of communal violence after Partition, which stunned and saddened Nehru. Engineer vowed then to not only understand the problem of communalism by investigating successive riots, but to also speak and write to promote communal harmony throughout the country. Although he served in the Bombay Municipal Corporation as an engineer for 20 years, he made time to visit sites of every major riot in the country, fearlessly exposed the role of biased state officials and communal organisations, and organising relief for the survivors.
The next major riots after Jabalpur were in Ahmedabad in 1969, from where he reported gruesome brutalities. The next year, Bhiwandi burned. Engineer took leave from the Bombay Municipal Corporation, and his friend, actor Balraj Sahni, from films, to spend 15 days in the May heat together touring Bhiwandi town and the countryside appealing for peace. They were devastated by the violence they saw in many villages, in which isolated Muslim families were killed and their bodies thrown into wells. Back in Bombay, actors and poets joined him in appeals for peace. This remained a recurring motif of Engineer’s life right until his death. I doubt if there is another like him, who tirelessly visited every site of communal violence in free India, to tell its story and to appeal for peace.
The second battle which consumed him was against the despotic tyranny of the high priest of the Bohras, the Syedna, who exercises absolute authority over all Bohras in religious as well as secular matters. The Syedna retaliated against Engineer’s calls for reform by declaring him a social pariah, commanding all Bohras to socially boycott him. He was barred even from attending the weddings or funerals of his closest friends or relatives. Even his mother, who could not bear to be cut off from her siblings, relatives and friends, finally moved into a separate house he bought for her and met him only in secret.
He was also assaulted half a dozen times; his face was once slashed, and his house looted and ransacked, including his beloved books. Even in his death, he was an exile: denied a resting place in the Bohra burial grounds. He was buried in a Sunni graveyard.
He spoke to me once about the loneliness of this cruel, lifelong boycott by his extended family and community. He regretted also that none of the country’s political leaders openly sided with his battle for fear of alienating the powerful Syedna. This could well have felled a lesser man. But not Engineer.
He also valiantly fought Islamic orthodoxy. He crossed swords with the Muslim clergy many times, including his spirited support for the right of divorced Muslim women like Shahbano to alimony in 1986, when he urged Rajiv Gandhi to respect this right, even though the clergy opposed it as un-Islamic. A kafir, he declared, was not one who does not accept Islam, but a person who rejects truth, justice, compassion and causes suffering to others. Jihad, he said, is nothing but a ceaseless struggle for a just world, and can never be violent. All religions mandate, he believed, freedom of conscience, fearlessness and commitment to truth, as well as human solidarity.
In his autobiography, Engineer quoted poet Rumi: “A heart without love is nothing but a handful of dust.” Engineer’s life was one devoted above all to the pursuit of love. Like the Sufis, he derived from his love for God the brave love of all humanity.