Living a faith

Print edition : June 14, 2013

Asghar Ali Engineer: 1939-2013 Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

Dawoodi Bohras offering namaz on Eid-ul-Fitr at Hussaini Masjid in Bhopal. A 2010 photograph. Photo: A.M. Faruqui

The religious head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin Saheb at a function to commemorate his 101st birthday in Surat in May 2012. Photo: PTI

Asghar Ali Engineer’s activism stemmed from his deep-rooted beliefs, though as an independent thinker he chose to believe in a modern, humanistic interpretation of Islam.

WHEN Asghar Ali Engineer passed away on May 14, he left a void that will be difficult, if not impossible, to fill. If one were to choose one word to describe him, it would have to be “courage”, for he had a seemingly limitless supply of physical, moral, emotional and spiritual courage. It stemmed, he once told this correspondent, from belief. And that is why he will be a difficult act to follow. He was an independent thinker and a man who fearlessly questioned regressive religious practices despite being subjected to violence and facing threats to his life.

He spent the greater part of his 74 years battling some practices and beliefs of the Dawoodi Bohra community to which he belonged. The Bohras, a small sect of Ismaili Muslims, are believers in the Shia tradition. An outspoken critic of backward thinking, Engineer chose to believe in a modern, humanistic interpretation of Islam. This, clearly, did not go down well with the orthodox section of the community, and Engineer was assaulted many times—twice with almost fatal consequences. He was actually in a strange position—an Islamic scholar from a priestly family battling against the religious head of his own sect. Engineer led a constitutionally sound fight, essentially questioning what he said was the stranglehold of the Syedna (a title akin to Our Lord) Mohammed Burhanuddin on the Bohra community.

Though Engineer was probably the most public face of the reform movement among the Dawoodi Bohras, he did not initiate it. The movement was launched at the beginning of the 20th century by a few Bohras who defied the dictates of the Syedna, the high priest. They were persecuted in a variety of ways, such as social boycott and physical violence, but in 1977 their persistence finally brought some results.

A commission of inquiry was appointed by the national executive council of the Citizens for Democracy (an NGO which Jayaprakash Narayan founded, along with V.M. Tarkunde, in 1974). Headed by a retired judge, Narendra Nathwani, the commission looked at three issues: misaq, or the right of a religious head to demand obedience from his followers; baraat, or social boycott; and an independent audit of the huge sums of money collected by the Syedna as zakat, or tax.

Engineer’s objection to misaq was that the Syedna extended it to non-religious matters. Engineer once told this correspondent: “ Misaq is about swearing allegiance to Quranic teachings and to the Prophet. But today, it has become more fundamental than the faith itself. It is being used as a tool for promoting authoritarian culture. We reject this.” He said even wedding invitations had to be inscribed with the words Abde Syedna, which means “Slave of the High Priest”.

Baraat is one of the most dreaded diktats in the small and closely knit community. It often means that immediate family members are also forbidden from any contact with the person declared an outsider. All Bohra traditions and customs are denied to the victim—marriages, funerals, admission to mosques. Engineer himself was a victim of baraat. When Engineer was excommunicated, even his mother was banned from meeting him. The other relatives, too, were asked to choose between the Syedna and Engineer. They chose the Syedna, leaving him effectively without a family, apart from his wife, son and daughter. When his wife died in 1999, his relatives could not attend the funeral.

The Syedna collects Zakat on every conceivable occasion, from the naming of a child to marriage to the opening of a business venture from the members of this trading community. It is a huge source of revenue. While Engineer did not contest the practice of paying tax, which is in keeping with Quranic principles, he did object to the way the money was used. Instead of it being invested back into community projects, he said it went towards cushioning a lavish lifestyle for the Syedna and his extended family, who live on a large estate in one of Mumbai’s prime localities.

Government’s connivance

The inquiry commission suggested that misaq be limited to religious matters and that if the Syedna refused to do this, then it should be prohibited by law, making baraat a punishable offence and regulating the trusts and funds of the Syedna. Unfortunately, the commission’s recommendations remain on paper. It is a point worth noting that the State and Central governments have always chosen to sidestep any controversy involving the Syedna. In his autobiography, A Living Faith, published in 2011 (“Faith and Reason”, Frontline, November 4, 2011), Engineer wrote: “I am up against a very powerful establishment. I have met five Prime Ministers to try and get them to intercede in what is happening among the Bohras but they all told me they were helpless.”

Engineer felt sore about this so-called helplessness because he felt that he was really not asking for much. It is a mistaken notion that he wanted to change the way of thinking of the orthodox. What he really wanted was to lead life according to what he understood to be the Quranic way. In a pamphlet titled “The Reformists and their Religious Beliefs”, he wrote: “The reformists do not believe in inflicting their point of view on anyone, not even on the orthodox Bohras. They accept the right of the orthodox also to believe and practise what they want. Similarly, they do not want others to inflict their viewpoint on them or coerce them to accept their authority on pain of social boycott. The reformists resent it when the orthodox treat them as not being Dawoodi Bohras. The reformists maintain that they are true Dawoodi Bohras and adhere to the doctrine of their faith.”

A rational man, he refused to be led by popular opinion. For instance, during the Shah Bano controversy, he supported the judgment in the face of opposition from other Muslims. Likewise, after the riots in Mumbai in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Engineer kept a calm hand over reactionaries, telling them that retaliating in revenge would not achieve anything. He remained true to the spirit of non-violence in belief, thought and speech throughout his life.

Engineer was the director of the Institute of Islamic Studies, head of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism and the founding chairman of the Asian Muslim Action Network. He was also one of the founders of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. On January 26, 1997, he was awarded the National Communal Harmony Award by the Government of India for promoting communal harmony. He also received the Right Livelihood Award, also called the Alternative Nobel, in 2004, which he shared with Swami Agnivesh. The prize was instituted in 1980 by Jakob von Uexkull and is presented every year by the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, Sweden.

Priestly background

Engineer was born in a Bohra amil’s (priestly) family on March 10, 1939 in Salumbar, Rajasthan. His father, Sheikh Qurban Husain, was the appointed amil in the town. Naturally, Engineer was trained in the ways of his family with the understanding that he would follow in his father’s footsteps.

The training was intensive. Studying Arabic, he learnt the intricacies of the Quran. Throughout, he was guided by his father. This early understanding of the complexities of religious texts held him in good stead later when he argued that the Quran did not prescribe the sort of repression and exploitation that was being practised in the name of religion.

His father, an innately progressive man, also ensured that his son had a non-religious education. He went to a municipal school and later acquired a degree with distinction in civil engineering from Indore and was employed by what used to be the Bombay Municipal Corporation. His open mind led him to read the literature on rationalism in the three languages he was proficient in—English, Urdu and Arabic. He read everything from feminism to Marxism, imbibing what was best and relating it to his existing spiritual knowledge.

After two decades of working with the Municipal Corporation, he took up what was his raison d’etre—reform in the Bohra community. Engineer picked up the reformist flag sometime in the early 1970s, writing articles in newspapers all over the country. In 1973, he wrote an article in The Times of India in support of a gathering of reformist Bohras who had met in Udaipur.

The article enraged conservatives who gathered outside the newspaper building and threatened to burn it down if it did not issue an apology. The Times refused to publish any more articles by Engineer. The author himself was besieged by his relatives and friends and asked to apologise. He did not budge. In 1977, Udaipur hosted another meeting of reform-seeking Bohras from all over the world. Here, Engineer was unanimously elected general secretary of the Central Board of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

Inevitably, Engineer was also drawn into activism, to promote inter-religious understanding. Starting with the Jabalpur riots in 1961, over the following decades he travelled to riot-hit areas to promote peace, understanding and tolerance. In the context of the rides trend of fomenting communal tension for political gains, he worked tirelessly for inter-faith and inter-community understanding.

Engineer was soon recognised by the Bohra community worldwide for his work and was appreciated as an Islamic scholar. He lectured in universities, addressed public meetings, presented papers in academic gatherings and wrote almost incessantly. He published over 50 books and numerous articles in national and international publications. His autobiography was reprinted a year after it was published and was also translated into Urdu and Marathi. Recognition came in many ways. He had the grateful approval of many Bohras (though many remained silent out of fear, and progressive and liberal thinkers the world over saw his work as pioneering and scholarly.

His critics tried to portray him as a non-believer and as a man who did not respect Islam. The truth was that he respected other religions although he was deeply rooted in Islamic beliefs and teachings. Indeed, he always said that he was misunderstood and that his beliefs were so deep that his activism stemmed from them. This conundrum is easily explained. With his solid grounding in the Islamic texts, he found the misinterpretation of the Islamic way of life objectionable. What he objected to was a dogmatic approach to religion, saying that it had to be rethought in such a way that its relevance was not lost in the changing times. His critics saw this as blasphemy but his beliefs were deep enough for him to spend his life fighting for these.

His family was forced to bury him in a Sunni graveyard and his detractors felt they had triumphed over him finally. But, in reality, the detractors’ “success” ended up highlighting the narrow thinking that Engineer had fought against all his life.

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