Well I will never forgive myself, if I don’t pen an obit on revered Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer who passed away on 14 May 2013 in Mumbai.
He was a reformist-writer and activist and internationally known for his work on liberation theology in Islam. He led the Progressive Dawoodi Bohra movement. The focus of his work was on communal and ethnic violence in India. He was an advocate of a culture of peace, non-violence and communal harmony.
I first met him at AMU Aligarh in early eighties where I was an undergraduate student of History there.He was lecturing at the Kennedy Hall and some friends told me about this event. My knowledge about Islamic history was zero and I just curiously went to hear him. He was quoting from the Islamic literature and his speech was so learned that it bounced over my head. Nonetheless I am indebted to him as he opened the horizons of my knowledge.
I remember vividly how he described about his Bohra community’s politics. The diktat of the spiritual head of the Bohra community Mr. Syedna, how he was attacked inside the mosque when he resisted his fatwas. I owe all this knowledge to late Asghar Ali Engineer. That conversation continued much after the lecture. This event happened more than 30 years ago, but the memories are still fresh.
After that I started reading him mainly his write-ups in Mainstream then edited by Nikhil Chakravartty, also in Seminar edited by Romesh Thapar. Those were the days I was preparing for Civil Services exam in JNU. I was as well researching on the theme The Demand for Partition of India. My thesis is now a book. – http://www.amazon.com/demand-partition-India-British-policy/dp/8170998689
It was also those turbulent years of the late eighties and early 90’s. Ayodhya – Babri Masjid controversy was boiling, all around riots were happening in the country. A sequel of communal politics was happening in India, with first the demolition of Babari Masjid, the Mumbai riots, and then Mumbai bomb blasts. All this had put the secularist in a corner while the communalist held sway.
It was at this moment of time Asghar Ali Engineer was not only chronicling those events but also through his writing resisting the politics of hate and revenge that ruled the roost. He upheld the secular values at time when communalism was making an onslaught. This is his greatest contribution to Indian society.
I remained deeply engrossed reading his ideas on communalism and secularism as they were so profound. He is the first person in this country to highlight the menace of communal riots. He use to visit those places where the communal riots took place and his fact finding reports published in the media exposed the saffron biases against the Muslims.
It’s only when his fact finding mission reports gained publicity the so called national media which early use to parrot the police version of the riots or cooked up its own stories, to blame the Muslims, were forced to take a balanced view of such events.
Asghar Ali Engineer was not simply an armed chaired theoretician but also a grassroots worker who actually saw the developments on the ground and made his observations and comments. This makes his position much above the ranks and files of the scholars who have made their own distinct contributions.
He served as head of the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, both of which he founded in 1980 and 1993 respectively. He also made contributions to The God Contention, a website comparing and contrasting various worldviews.
Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer’s autobiography “A Living Faith: My Quest for Peace, Harmony and Social Change” was released by Vice President Hamid Ansari on 20 July 2011, in New Delhi.
My next encounter with him was in Chennai in 98-99, when I went to interview him as a reporter of a local daily. He was talking at the Anna University, after which I had an opportunity to interview him on the subject of communalism in this country.
My interview centered on the perils of communalism and his prognosis how to uphold the secular values in multi religious country like India. I found him to be convinced about the idea that secularism alone can be guiding principal of nation building.
He said communalists are like frogs that may come during rainy season and vanish. Secularists are those who can brave all weathers and stand like a rock to combat the divisive forces in the society. I must pay him my deep respect and sincere gratitude for imparting me a few piece of wisdom.
Even though he is no more among us, but his writings would continue to inspire millions of people in the country. He was bacon of light serving the humanity with utmost conviction. All those who have read and heard Asghar Ali Engineer will never forget him and he will live in their hearts as long they are alive.
There can be no one like Asghar Ali Engineer but I am sure his words and action will be a source of aspiration to many in the country who may like to tread the path laid by him. I have no doubt in saying that he was of the finest human beings with whom I had the privilege to meet, interact and shake am hands. I really feel proud for having such an opportunity.
I like to quote William Shakespeare and his famous lines in Julius Caesar as my concluding remarks in praise of late Asghar Ali Engineer – His life was gentle; and the elements so mixed in him, that Nature might stand up and say to the entire world, THIS WAS A MAN!
Syed Ali Mujtaba is journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org