Fearless intellectual activist like no other— 16-minute read
I vividly remember the day, some 30 years ago, when the cover story by Asghar Ali Engineer was published in the Illustrated Weekly of India. With Sayedna Moahammed Burhanuddin’s picture on the cover and the title “A Law Unto Himself”, the article created a sensation. Nobody had dared to challenge Sayedna Saheb so openly so publicly before. It gave us young Turks a new sense of mission and energy. Instinctively, we knew this man was on to something. Bohras, who are generally meek and tend to mind their own business, are not quite used to this kind of dynamic personality rising in their midst.
Asghar Ali Engineer came like a breath of fresh air. He broke the archetype of Bohras being a docile and timid community, and opened the floodgates of possibilities. He showed us that it was possible to be more than a petty businessman, that it was possible to defy the clergy, that it was possible to be bold and speak our mind, that it was possible to live in dignity, that it was possible to create a new identity and a new future.
Of his many and great contributions, I feel his greatest – and most intangible – is that he created a space in our mind and our soul where we could re-imagine ourselves – as individuals, as Bohras, as reformists, as Muslims and ultimately as human beings. Asghar Ali saheb was at the core a true humanist, all his struggles and writing and speeches were informed by his deep conviction in the values of humanity, equality and justice and peace. Today that crusader of truth is no more. He was like a permanent fixture for our community, an integral part of the reform movement who was always going to be around like an institution. Our loss, sad and tragic as it is, is two-fold. We have lost not only a good and decent human being but also a great leader, scholar, activist and public intellectual. One must wonder how any one person can accomplish so much in one lifetime. Asghar Ali saheb had all the qualities of a man of God – humble, gentle, fearless and uncommonly courageous. And he was here to do God’s work – to make this world a better place. Indeed, this world is a better place because of him, and now that he is no more it is much poorer.
Asghar Ali saheb’s life had so many facets and he has touched so many lives that it is not possible to sum up his contributions in one article. I could list the numerous awards and honours he received, or I could tell you what a renowned Islamic scholar he was and how he was invited by prestigious universities and think tanks around the globe to share his thoughts, or I could tell you that he was a prolific and profound writer who wrote 50 books and hundreds of articles, or I could tell you how when he spoke he spoke with absolute sincerity and held his audience spellbound with his encyclopedic knowledge and force of argument. I could also tell you how on his death tributes poured in from all over the world, and how memorials are being held in Udaipur, Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Aurangabad and so many other places.
I could tell you all this, and although all of this would be true, it would not capture the essence of the man, the quintessential Asghar Ali Engineer. If he were only an outstanding Islamic scholar – which he was – it would be great and rare enough in and by itself. But he was more than that. He was a man of action. He was an intellectual activist. You cannot separate his convictions from his actions. He practiced what he believed. He believed that justice and equality were essential to human happiness and dignity, and worked all his life to realise those values for his community, his religion and his country and beyond. In a true Marxist tradition it was not enough for him to understand the world but also to change it.
Asghar Ali saheb was influenced by Marxist philosophy in his younger days and borrowed its ideas to formulate a liberation theology of Islam. This is one of his seminal contributions to Islamic thought. As an Aamil’s son he had learned Arabic at an early age and under his father’s guidance studied Islam, its history, theology and jurisprudence from source books. He came to believe that Islam was not just a religion but a political and social movement, a divine project started by Prophet Mohammed to liberate the poor and meek, the women, the orphans and the oppressed of seventh century Arabia. For him Islam was not just a means to earn rewards for the hereafter; it had to be more meaningful and useful for the believers in the here and now. He challenged the orthodoxy of the ulema and the Muslim elite and sought to rescue Islam and its egalitarian potential from their clutches. In doing so he broke the archetype of Islam being rigid and primitive and Muslims being backward and ignorant.
In his writings and talks he tirelessly emphasised that the values of justice, equality and compassion were the foundational pillars of Islam. Yes, the other five or seven pillars mattered but they were not enough. Being a Muslim, according to him, was not just an individual or personal matter but was also a social and collective project. Without social justice and equality in Muslim societies he argued the Prophetic mission would remain incomplete.
Certainly his ideas were unconventional and controversial, and he infuriated the conservative ulema the most on the issue of rights of Muslim women. He spoke and wrote extensively on raising the consciousness of Muslim women and quoted Quran chapter and verse to argue for their empowerment which was their religious and human right. Through his organization The Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism he organised countless workshops and seminar to educate Muslim women. He traveled to towns and villages to talk to them and make them aware of their rights. The cause of Muslim women’s equality – and gender equality in general – was close to his heart and it would be fair to say that no Muslim man in India has worked more tirelessly and more devotedly for their cause than him. In Asghar Ali Engineer Muslim women have lost a true friend, ally and crusader.
Another important aspect of Asghar Ali saheb’s life that many do not know about is his pioneering work in the investigation of communal violence. In fact it was the bloody riots of Jabalpur in 1961 when he was a student that disturbed him, and then later on in his career impelled him to devote his life to public service. He and his organisaton investigated every communal riot, at great personal risk, and published the findings. In almost every instance he found that the riots were politically motivated, pre-planned and organised, and often aided and abetted by the police and administration. Post riots he devoted much time and effort in creating a better understanding and harmony between communities, and his special focus was on organizing workshop for the police, to educate them and to correct their bias against Muslims. His outspoken stance against fundamentalist forces – Hindu and Muslim – incurred him the wrath of both parties. But he remained undeterred. He investigated the Gujarat riots of 2002 and spoke openly against Narendra Modi’s role in it even as our Sayenda Saheb feted and felicitated Modi inside the masjid and showered him with cash.
There cannot be a starker contrast between the values of Bohra priesthood and the values Asghar Ali saheb was fighting for – and the values we reformists are fighting for. His contribution to the reform movement remains unparalleled. He challenged and exposed the clergy in a way nobody had done before. For him the Borha problem was not just the issue of a priestly establishment harassing its followers. It was a matter of oppression and violation of their human rights. By privileging the Bohra problem as a human rights issue he changed the game and its rules of engagement. How priests treated their followers and how they conducted their affairs was no longer a private, internal affair of Bohras. It was now a matter of civil society. The government and the constitution guaranteed individual rights and dignity. Priests cannot take those away in the name of religion. Recast in this new perspective, the press began to take notice of the turmoil within the Bohra community. The Illustrated Weekly article was one of the hundreds he wrote exposing the Bohra priestly establishment. It would be no exaggeration to say that Asghar Ali saheb emblazoned the Bohra problem on to national consciousness. Of course, the Udaipur revolt of 1972 was a landmark event and gave a tremendous boost to the movement but I feel that without Asghar Ali saheb’s leadership and media savvy it would not have achieved the kind of prominence it did.
Setting up public inquiry commission was another front that he devoted much time and effort to. The Nathwani Commission in the seventies under Noman Contractor’s leadership and the Tewatia Commission under his own in the eighties looked into the human rights violations of Bohras. The reports of the two commissions indicting the priestly class are on public record and part of mounting documentary evidence of violation of human rights of Bohras by the priestly establishment.
Litigation was another front. Dragging Mullaji to court hand been going on for almost a century, Asghar Ali saheb added more cases to the mix. Since the uprising in Udaipur a slew of cases were launched putting the priests on the defensive. In the long run though these cases proved to be quite a drain on the limited resources of reformists, the priestly establishment, on the other hand, with its ill-gotten wealth could buy the best legal advice. But to the credit of the Indian judicial system, they could not, at least in our case, buy justice. Many of the cases still drag on with no end in sight.
This multi-pronged attack against the priestly establishment was possible with the new vision and strategy Asghar Ali saheb brought to the movement. By far his most valuable contribution and asset was his knowledge of religion. The clergy could deal with all that was thrown at it but knowledge which it considered its sacrosanct provice was to remain inviolable. Asghar Ali saheb breached that bastion, too. He was an Islamic scholar and had thorough insights into Ismaili esoteric doctrine which the clergy kept close to its chest. The well-cultivated ignorance of Bohras had kept the clergy safe and secure. But those days were over. Asghar Ali saheb challenged the clergy to justify its action on the basis of the Quran and Isamili scriptures. His ground-breaking book The Bohras traced the history of the community and laid out the basics of Bohra faith and tradition. The book, non-academic and accessible, was a phenomenon when it was published and remains a classic to this day and should be required reading for all Bohras.
With this book and tons of other literature produced by him other Bohra scholars publicly available there was no excuse for Bohras to remain ignorant about their religion and their history. But of course the clergy would have none of it. Asghar Ali saheb, just like Prometheus who had stolen fire from the gods, had provoked the holy wrath of the mullahs. He was demonized as the Iblis himself and was denounced from the pulpit and lanats (curses) were pronounced on him at every Bohra gathering. Curses were followed up with violent attacks on his life, on one occasion his office and home were gutted. But despite all the troubles and terrors visited on him, Asghar Ali saheb remained steadfast in his mission. When he left his engineering job at Bombay municipality to work fulltime for public causes he knew this was going be his lot. What he lost by way of a normal family life, personal comforts and so many other things we take for granted, he gained many fold by way of spiritual satisfaction in pursuing his ideals and convictions.
Obviously, Asghar Ali saheb was not just a reformist leader although he gained much fame, and notoriety, because of it. And also much suffering. As mentioned above he was a humanist in the broadest sense of the term. For him the human enterprise was value-based. The values of justice, peace, equality and compassion were ingrained in his psyche. He cared for the oppressed people everywhere; suffering for him had no religious identity. He brought his secular, humanist sensibilities to every cause that consumed his passion.
The Bohra reform movement was just one of them. For him the oppression of Bohras was no different from the suffering of the poor or the exploitation of workers in a capitalist set up. He believed that Bohras cannot fight in isolation; they need allies and must find common cause with other oppressed people in society. Right from the beginning he sought to create a broad-based coalition with other exploited groups, to give Bohras an amplified voice and also to give them exposure to other seamy realities of life around them.
He was aware that Bohras by nature and culture were averse to reaching to others outside their comfort zone. Therefore in every reformist conference, held every three years, Asghar Ali saheb made sure that he invited intellectuals and activists from outside the community. Medha Patkar, Mushirul Hasan, Testa Setelvad, Swami Agnivesh, Daya Pawar, Kamleshwar, Gobinda Mokhoty, Tahir Mahmood and so many others, too numerous to name, graced the podium at conferences and pledged support for the reformist cause. This was another valuable contribution of Asghar Ali saheb. He enriched the movement not only with his vision but also pulled it into the flow of history, right alongside the larger narratives of justice, peace and communal harmony.
In his early days Asghar Ali sabheb toyed with Marxist ideas but as his thinking evolved he became a believer. He thought that the dichotomy between science and religion was artificial and unnecessary, and believed that both reason and revelation were necessary to understanding reality. Faith and reason, he said, could not be separated. He embraced Isalm for the template it provided for creating a just world, and for the inner truth it revealed to him. At heart, I suspect, he always remained a Sufi. If pressed he would have confessed that Prophet Mohammed was the first Marxist and the first Sufi. He often talked about wahadat al wujood – Unity of Being – which the Sufis developed from the Islamic concept of tawheed. He wrote knowledgably and lovingly about such Sufi masters as Rumi, Moiuddin Chisti, Nizamuddin Auliya, Amir Khusro, Kabir and Dara Shikoh. He was convinced of the Sufi idea that the reality of God can be found within the inner dimensions of our Being, but he rejected the Sufi life of passivity and contemplation. Instead he got his hands dirty in the material world to bring about social change.
Always dressed in his trade-mark kurta-pajama, Asghar Ali saheb carried himself with quiet dignity. He did not have the airs of being a scholar or being famous. Easy to approach and talk to, he patiently answered your questions and dealt with aggression, of which he had more than his fair share, without losing his cool. He had a knack of getting up and speaking at length without any preparation or notes. Whenever he could catch a free moment he would start reading, and always carried a book with him long before it became fashionable to do so. Trivial talk and gossip did not interest him, and he never spoke ill of his many “enemies”. He criticized the ideas not the people. Despite all the praise and honours showered on him, he always remained humble and down-to-earth. His humility was born of his appreciation of human limits to knowledge and action. There is only so much we can know and do. Whatever we may do may never amount to much. But he used to say, echoing Gandhiji, that it is important that we do it.
Asghar Ali saheb’s public persona was not different from his private one. His life, as they say, was an open book. Of course, for all his sterling qualities he was not perfect, human that he was. He had many detractors even among his reformist colleagues. His radical views, maybe his style of working, maybe his personality quirks rubbed people on the wrong side. Maybe envy and small-mindedness on part of others created differences. But his foibles were minor and the differences unimportant. In the long view of history he will be fondly remembered as a brave intellectual activist like no other, and as a champion of women and the poor and the downtrodden.
Those who knew him will also remember him as a workaholic. All his life he set himself a punishing regimen of work, and ultimately it seems he worked himself to death. Friends and family for long had been advising him to slow down, but his sense of commitment would not allow him to relax. He was busy attending seminars, workshops and meeting until the moment he collapsed at an airport and was hospitalized. Asghar Ali saheb left this world suddenly without ceremony. Just as he had lived in it. We are left with his tremendous legacy which his son Irfan Engineer says must be celebrated. The best tribute we can pay him is to continue his work. Our struggle remains unfinished. The world is still in need of justice and peace. We have a lot of work to do. Asghar Ali saheb used to say that hope and faith are our best allies. Always keep them by your side. And he did till the end.
Allama Iqbal’s famous couplet seems to have been written just for him:
HazaroN saal nargis apni benoori pe roTi hai
BaDi mushkil say hoTa hay chaman mein DeeDawar paiDa