Asghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013)

B_-_portrait.Ashgar_Ali_Engineer-Salzb05__c__RLA_Foundation__Ulrike_AltekruseAn obituary by ZAHIR JANMOHAMED: I first met Asghar Ali Engineer in January 2002 in Mumbai. I was a fellow with the America India Foundation and a few weeks later I would be posted to work with an NGO in Ahmedabad.

A few minutes before his presentation, I noticed him standing off to the side in silence, staring at the ground. I walked up and introduced myself. I was young, in my twenties, and I did not know what to say.

“As-salaam alaikum,” I said.

“Wa-alaikum salaam,” he replied.

I am not sure what response I expected but I thought that perhaps because he and I share the same faith that we might have a special bond, that my greeting would spark a conversation. After all, I always thought phrases like these serve less as greeting and more as an announcement, as in, I am part of the same religion as you.

But Asghar saab just held my hand and then put his hand on his heart. “Nice to meet you,” he said, and then stared at the ground again in silence. I thought it was odd, rude even.

As I continued to meet Asghar saab, I realized that he had very little patience for superficial connections. I witnessed this when I saw him greet crowds after his lectures. If you told him you were from the same caste or city he would not be as excited as if you told him that you also believe that we must fight patriarchy with the same vigor that we must fight communalism.

What set him apart was his fearlessness, something he showed from a young age. He was born on March 10, 1939 in Salumbar, Rajasthan to a family of priests in the Bohra community and schooled in the traditional Islamic sciences like Qur’anic study (tafseer). Islamic schooling is often based on the idea that you should teach a child as much as he/she can digest and then later they will develop the intellect to question what they have learned. The idea, as Willim Chittick writes in his book The Sufi Path of Love, is that form precedes meaning. But Asghar saab began to question at a young age, at a time when he was told he should only be memorizing. Later he would become one of the first to question the transparency of the Bohra leadership, something completely unheard of during his time.

He was effective and very hard to argue with (as I learned first hand) because he was grounded in Islamic law. When an Islamic scholar would make an argument that a particular verse in the Qur’an supports denying a woman her rights, Asghar saab would draw on his extensive knowledge of the Qur’an to argue that that very verse means the antithesis.

Each time he spoke out, the more he isolated himself but this never bothered him. Part of what made him so unique was that he never saw himself as part of a community. He believed this was the surest way to stifle your voice. Be independent, he always told me.

After I witnessed the Gujarat riots, we met on a few occasions. But he never liked hearing my stories from Ahmedabad. It was not that he was not interested but he did not want it to rattle his core belief that humans are inclined towards goodness and reason, two things he saw lacking during the 2002 carnage.

We ended up growing apart because he was so ideal about India and religion that that idealism which I always saw as his virtue I began to see as his blind spot. But I always appreciated how he never gave up and more importantly, how he was always re-examining his beliefs.

The last time we corresponded was in 2005. It was a few months after Modi was denied a visa and I was active in Washington DC in raising awareness about Gujarat. But I was burned out and frustrated by my fellow Indian Americans who could not be bothered with what happens in India. What I wanted, I told him, was more support, more people to stand with me.

“You will not find many friends on this path,” he wrote to me.

It is these words and that image of him—standing off to the side, staring at the ground as when I first saw him—that I will always remember about him. Yes he was alone, as many are who push for change, but he was also something very unique and rare. He was his own person.

(Zahir Janmohamed is a writer in Ahmedabad.)

14 thoughts on “Asghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013)”

  1. Asghar Ali Engineer- the chronicler of the intricate terrain of communal violence in Independent India, the impact on the victims and the quantum of damage suffered in each of the instances. Indeed, in the face of unfortunately long and wide history of communal violence in India, his work had also assumed formidable proportions. RIP Asghar Saheb.


  2. Very touching!

    “You will not find many friends on this path,” he wrote to me.”

    Dear Zahir, this is the path of truth, be ready to tread on tirelessly, but friendless.

    — Fellow Juhapura resident.


  3. I almost agree with this very well narrative. However, it would also be important to go beyond the dominant image of Asghar saheb’s as a ‘secularist’. He was very much interested in developing a serious, humane and modern Islamic interpretation. In the introduction of one of his most talked about books, he said: ‘I am afraid the theology in its received form does not imply human liberation… it concerns itself exclusively with liberation in purely metaphysical sense and outside the process of history… it is because the received theology has been an ally of establishment and the theologians benefactor of status quo’… Hence it is necessary to develop a liberation theology if religion has to be meaningful to the oppressed and weak who follow it most’ (On Developing Liberation Theology in Islam, 1980, p.1). In this sense, Asghar saheb, it seems, not merely tried to refute the claims of Muslim and Hindu rightists but also paid adequate attention to the formation of a few normative ideas by which theologies are defined, justified, and even imposed. It is important here to note that his focus shifted from complex formation of Islamic ideas to the nature of secularism in India in the post-Babri Masjid period. It was inevitable: He was an activist and his intellectual work stemmed from his political commitment. In my view, Asghar Ali Engineer’s work is a revealing of example of what I would like to call ‘intellectual politics’.


  4. Asghar Ali Engineer was one the leading Islamic scholars. I met him some years ago in Toronto. He was not in good health even then.His Obituary does not do justice to the great man.He did a lot more in Islamic studies besides his work on riots.He also contributed regularly on Islamic topics and research. I read a number in Dawn of Karachi.I distinctly recollect a research piece head lined “Sharia is man made”. I wish some one could collect these great pieces of “Gems” and publish them.


  5. We specially remember his presence at our meeting on Religion and Sexuality in August 2009. This meeting was in the wake of the Delhi High Court Judgement that decriminalised same-sex relations among consenting adults in private. Some groups were making simplistic and dangerous arguments that suggested that religions (and especially Islam and Christians) are against sexual minorities. This myth was exposed at this meeting where people of faith came out in support of sexual minorities. Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer spoke with deep scholarship and said that homosexuals cannot be treated as criminals. After this meeting he said he will hold one in Mumbai and he did. We salute you, Sir.


  6. I corresponded with Asghar Ali Sahab from time to time. He helped me with material and, in small ways and less often, I helped him. The friction came because he was firmly a believer in his faith and had little sympathy for those who followed no faith and who did not approve of religion per se. This was much like what Zahir J. calls a blind spot. There is no doubt, of course, that he was consistently brave and dedicated. His energy was impressive.


  7. i first met Ashgar Ali Engineer in 1988…he was to deliver a lecture that i was to attend as a young student…i remember he sat apart and was silent and absorbed before the lecture…which was about the pathetic lack of leadership the community faced in India…i remember his serious concern , reflected in his words and his eyes…i thought he was kind, benevolent learned…RIP


  8. Although I never had the good fortune of meeting him or ever hearing him speak, he gave hope to a young fifteen year old girl at a time when she was questioning her religious identity. Coming from the same community as him, his writing gave me the strength to take a stance against beliefs and practices long-held by the community. He was undoubtedly a revolutionary in his own way, articulate, and very courageous.


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