Portrait Asghar Ali Engineer

Learning from India

Asghar Ali Engineer's aim is to make progressive thinking accessible to lay people and to bring it beyond the borders of a select group of intellectuals. A portrait of the Indian Muslim thinker by Fatma Sagir

Asghar Ali Engineer (hinduonnet.com)
"A living faith is not possible without free choice," Asghar Ali Engineer proclaimed in his acceptance speech at the Right Livelihood Awards 2004

​​With his numerous publications, Asghar Ali Engineer is one of the most impressive modern Muslim thinkers of our time. It is not easy to sum up the work of the 66-year-old in a single word. Engineer's writings are philosophical, political, and theological. His style is simple, clear, and comprehensible. He brings the same enthusiasm to his commentaries on theological issues as to his work as a social activist.

Engineer is convinced that communal harmony can only be achieved by new ways of thinking and detachment from orthodox structures and, above all, exclusivist interpretations of religion.

Hindu priests as regular visitors

Born near Udaipur in Rajasthan, Engineer was sensitized to interreligious dialogue from an early age. He grew up in a Bohra community, which is associated with the Shiite Ismailiyya. Hindu priests and lay people were regular visitors to his parents' house. He was educated in the classic fields of Islamic theology by his father, the cleric Qurban Hussain.

From an early age, he observed how clerics made simple believers dependent on them by means of a complex system of dues and contributions. Things came to a head in 1972. When Engineer publicly criticised the absolute authority of the community's religious leader, Sayedna Burhanuddin, and its hierarchical structures, he was declared a persona non grata.

Together with other critics, he founded the reform movement "Progressive Dawoodi Bohra". Since then, Engineer has been the target of five attacks from Sayedna followers, the last of which took place in 2000.

"Practical Koran exegesis"

As is the case with so many Muslim reformist thinkers, the Koran is at the heart of his work. However, unlike his "colleagues" from the Arab world in particular, Engineer pursues what he refers to as a "practical Koran exegesis". His aim is to make progressive thinking accessible to lay people and to bring it beyond the borders of a select group of intellectuals.

"A living faith is not possible without free choice," Engineer said in his acceptance speech at the Right Livelihood Awards 2004. "I thus began interpretation of Islam to make it more meaningful to contemporary life, to make it more meaningful to lay people. I have continuously written on Islam and modern challenges so as to make Islam a living and meaningful faith. It also greatly helps in fighting communal and sectarian forces. My two struggles reinforce each other."

It is no surprise, therefore, that Engineer is particularly in favour of an improvement in the position, (not only) of Muslim women. In doing so, he criticises both marginalising structures at socio-political level and Islamic legal scholars. He argues that they are related to patriarchal values and not to the principle of justice.

He also denounces the workings of the so-called panchayat (village councils comprising amateur jurists) in cases of sexual attacks on women (most recently in the case of the Pakistani woman Mukhtaran Mai who was raped by several men after being "sentenced" by an informal council; a case which grabbed headlines around the world). Engineer rejects the view that such an inhuman practice is "Islamic".

Sharia laws – subject to change

He also considers the assumption that the Sharia is divine and consequently unchangeable to be ill-founded. "Sharia laws are the result of human interpretation," he says in his 2005 article Shari'ah, Women and Traditional Society. Engineer goes on to say that the monopoly of orthodox ulema can only be broken in a modern, pluralist democracy.

India is, of course, the largest democracy in the world. A progressive Muslim thinker like engineer can work and publish freely there. In other countries, Muslim intellectuals often have to go into exile to do so. This is why Engineer sees secularism as a guarantee for communal harmony in a multireligious society. This allows for the development of an Indian national identity, which opposes any concepts based on exclusivist ethnic or religious arguments and also allows the country to overcome the trauma of the division of 1947.

Engineer makes a valuable contribution to the process of coming to terms with this past and focussing attention on minorities and their role in Indian society. His criticism is aimed both at socio-political structures and forces that block access to education and hamper communal harmony and at religious orthodoxy.

In 2004, Engineer and the Hindu social reformer Swami Agnivesh won the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize.

Fatma Sagir

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Asghar Ali Engineer lives and works in Mumbai. He is head of the Center for Secularism and Society and the Indian Institute for Islamic Studies, and publishes the Indian Journal for Secularism. His most recent publication include: Engineer, Asghar Ali (Ed.), They too fought for Freedom. The Role of Minorities, Hope India: Haryana, 2006.

Fatma Sagir, expert in Islamic studies in Freiburg, is writing her doctorate on the issue of reformist Islam in India.


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