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Asghar Ali Engineer’s Islam

The Reformist as Pacifist

by FARZANA VERSEY

Let not the fact that they buried him in the Sunni graveyard, where his Leftist friends are interred, mislead anyone into believing that Asghar Ali Engineer was a Communist. It was a pragmatic wish upon which the decision was taken. He died on May 14. The Dawoodi Bohra community to which he belonged would not have accepted his last remains, much as they did not acknowledge him in life. He was excommunicated. However, he was much more than a nemesis of the Syedna, the spiritual head of the community.

Engineer did not become as much of a name as he deserved to be simply because he was not a prototype moderate Muslim. The tag of “Islamic scholar” sat lightly on him. He was a believer who questioned many of the belief’s practices; a secularist who prayed regularly; a rationalist who did not lose touch with his emotions; an outcaste who did not suffer from the arrogance of an outsider, although he had every reason to. For speaking out against the stranglehold of the priesthood within his sect, he was abused, beaten up, his house and office were broken into and destroyed. Every utterance by him was used against him.

How would a person in this position feel?  Following is a collation of excerpts from some of my interviews with him:

FV: What does a lonely hunter contribute to society?

AE: “History is full of instances of people who challenged the mighty forces of evil and they were not only fighting a lonely battle but were left alone to die. If somebody asked me about achievement I would have to talk qualitatively because my forces have depleted. So what? People who were swearing by my values finally succumbed. I have been ex-communicated.”

FV: What does that mean?

AE: “You are declared a non-Bohra, you are not allowed to meet your parents, your children, your marriage gets dissolved, you cannot meet your friends, relatives, you cannot take part in any community activity, or enter any holy shrine, I lose all those rights. But my family has stood by me”

FV: But technically your marriage is invalid, your children illegitimate?

AE: “Yes.”

FV: Yet you believe in god?

AE: “Yes, because atheists blame religion when priests do wrong. Anything can be misused, whether it is nuclear power or a matchstick. So, how can I blame religion? Patriotism too can be misused, by misinforming others and eliminating people, so do we start hating the country? Religion helps you relate with the universe. Buddha was indifferent to the concept of god yet he gave us values.”

FV: When you were fighting the dogmas were you aware of the consequences?

AE: “Not to the extent that it could lead to such consequences. I was vaguely aware that I was going against the grain. I thought I would get people to respond because I was fighting for the truth, but people don’t respond just because you are fighting for the truth. They take their interests into account. I did not know I would suffer so much. But then I did not care.”

FV: What was the real suffering…being beaten up?

AE: “Not only that. You can bear such attacks because physical wounds heal, but those on the soul are difficult to heal. Weapons are less harmful than words. The psychological torture that I suffer is terrible. The kind of loose talk among the orthodox that I have sold myself, that I am an agent, that I am trying to destroy the community, I am an enemy of religion and the way some of my closest friends and relatives turned their faces away, that is more hurting.”

FV: Then did you not want to question yourself when those you loved moved away, did you not wonder whether your truth was what you thought it to be?

AE: “Self-examination goes on. I would not have continued had I not been convinced; it wasn’t just my ego.”

FV: What role does individualism play when it gives an identity but can take away from commitment to society?

AE: “I am not an individualist in the Western sense. Collectivism can become oppressive when it tries to dictate; the rights of the two should not clash. The individual cannot exist on his/her own and the collectivism should respect freedom of conscience, that is why the fight with the Bohra community. I do not deny its importance. My struggle is about the freedom of thought.”

FV: You talk about Islam in a modernist light. How valid is it to tamper with a whole body of work that has come through generations?

AE: “I am not taking away the historical legacy, but it should not become a burden. In a context it served a purpose at one time but times change and we should change and grow, and yet be proud of our legacy.”

FV: If you want religion to be dynamic you have to rationalise it. That can become dangerous.

AE: “What is religion? I want to remove the chaff from the grain. For me it is not what it is for the common people. If you take away certain social customs, they think you have taken away religion. For me it means purifying it. For example, women’s position includes so many pre-Islamic customs that have become an integral part of the Shariat. I am fighting that. Triple talaq is not mentioned in the Quran. Of course, there is a controversy; some maintain that the Prophet approved of it. Even if he did, maybe he had social constraints.”

FV: What about jihad?

AE: “Jihad is misused by fundamentalists. The Quranic meaning is not meant for war at all, in the sense of killing. Jihad is nothing but making efforts to realise goodness in life.”

FV: Who, then, is a kafir?

AE: “It is not one who believes in this form or that. Real ‘imaan’ is faith in humanity, so those who deny goodness are kafirs.”

FV: Islam has this macho image. I suspect it is because there is no idol worship. Without something tangible to submit to, can the gun not become a potent idol for some?

AE: “I would not agree with you at all. Those who take to guns could do so due to deprivation, suppression, or historical legacy. The Afghans have lived through violence for centuries, by the Mughals, the Russians, their own people, so they have always had to fight for freedom…we cannot take away the context. But they legitimised it by using jihad, a religious sanction, so they could be seen as mujahids, fighting for Allah. And you cannot say there is nothing concrete. Muslims going to mausoleums have created a concrete concept. An abstract god may be difficult so they found alternatives. My personal belief is we should not bow to any object. But Islam was aware of this human weakness and fulfilled that need through Haj to kiss a stone. A stone is a stone but the vacuum was filled and it became the holiest object. I have performed Haj and seen the devotion of people braving stampedes only to kiss that stone.”

FV: Then why is there a mental barrier against others practising idol worship?

AE: “It is not as much religious as political and cultural. That is because they have been taught. Quran says do not abuse others’ gods, they will abuse Allah. But most people do not believe in this…they feel their way is the only right one. This is to maintain religious hegemony.”

FV: But when maulvis were invited to perform ‘namaaz’ at a Ganpati pandal, some people said the place was desecrated.

AE: “That is narrow-minded people; you can pray where you want. You do not worship that idol there. Even here there are differences of opinion. The Sufi saint Mazhar Jaan Jana of 18th century Delhi believed that the Quran condemns bowing before deities because in pre-Islamic idol worship stones were considered god. But Hindus pray to god through that idol, which is a reflection of god. In Vedas god is nirguna and nirankara, that is, he has no attributes and no shape, that is the real belief of Hindus. As Muslims visit graves, so Hindus worship idols…”

FV: I don’t agree with that Sufi saint. Ganesha and Lakshmi and the rest do represent something.

AE: “We are talking about beliefs, not how people do it.”

FV: How people do it is what religion becomes. Culturally, what is the role of the minorities in a majority state where they have to retain their identity and yet be part of the mainstream?

AE: “This demand to merge in the mainstream is fascistic. Who will define what the mainstream is? Will the RSS chief define it or the people of India? If it is left to the people then all are part of the mainstream. To protect one’s identity is a Constitutional right.”

FV: Then why do Muslims form ghettoes – is it just insecurity?

AE: “If the communal riots had not taken place there would not be this ghetto feeling.”

FV: But Bhendi Bazaar and Chandni Chowk have always existed.

AE: “That is true, but it was not exclusivist with Muslims running away from Hindu areas, Hindus running away from Muslim areas. So Bhendi Bazaar is only a community living in one area. It is different from refusing to open out to others, which is real ghettoism. At the level of feeling, it did not exist before the riots.”

FV: Could it make them less assertive, maybe even stop believing in themselves as important elements of society?

AE: “Potency does not mean being unnecessarily aggressive; one has to be wise. I believe the minorities need to have a strategy of survival because needless aggression when you cannot change the situation does not help. Wisdom is more important than saving some cultural symbol.”

FV: Would that qualify then as some sort of intellectual slavery?

AE: “No, I am clear that the demolition was a violation of law and of a religious community. But if I cannot save it physically, it does not mean I have intellectually surrendered. We can assert that it was a condemnable act, but cannot come out on the roads and throw stones.”

FV: How can we expect one community to be wise in the face of an emotional onslaught from the other side?

AE: “It is very difficult. But somebody has to be restrained, that is also important. There should be someone to warn them of the perils of their behaviour. On Dec 7, 1993, it became a leaderless mob, no leader to provoke or restrain them…so the young people took to the streets, and had to suffer.”

FV: Have there been attempts to co-opt you by other religious forces?

AE: “Many people asked me to convert. I said my religious convictions remain. I am fighting the wrongs within my own community. And if I decide to convert I will lose the right to fight.”

On one of my visits to his house, his wife had seen me to the door. She said, “It is not easy,” referring to the isolation from the community. That one sentence uttered with a fading smile conveyed all the hidden battle scars of a man who fought silently.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.in/