Irfan Engineer recalls a moment from two weeks ago: When he was under heavy medication for septicaemia,my father (writer-activist Asghar Ali Engineer) told the doctor two things to give him fewer medicines and to ensure that his daughter,my sister Seema,got one-third of his ancestral property,as set out in the Quran. I laughed and told him that the doctor wouldnt be able to ensure my sister got one-third,but I would make sure she got not one-third but half the property.
Asghar Ali Engineer died Tuesday. Born Asghar Ali Mandsaurwala in Sambalpur in Rajasthan,he changed his last name to Engineer after completing his engineering from Indore in the 1960s. After a stint at the Bombay Municipal Corporation,he took voluntary retirement. From then on,he worked on social engineering,dedicating himself to three things that defined his life helping interpret and explain Islam from a modern perspective,emphasising gender justice within Islam,and working for inter-community harmony.
But it was his resistance to the Syedna,the head of the Dawoodi Bohra community,that drew the initial attention to him. His revolt stood out because of the fact that he was the son of a Bohra priest who hailed from Madhya Pradesh. In the seventies,he spearheaded a sharp,controversial movement to liberate his community of Dawoodi Bohras from the influence of the Mumbai-based Syedna Burhanuddin. The result in the small but affluent,influential and organised community was a social boycott that he had to face,as well as a series of physical assaults one even while he was touring Egypt as part of a government delegation.
Engineer is best remembered for integrating two aspects of a challenge fighting fundamentalist right-wing views within the Islamic community,as well as those in the Hindu right wing. He told Communalism Combat in an interview 14 years ago that when he was a student in 1961 in Indore,the first major riots of independent India,in Jabalpur,shook him and proved a turning point,prompting him to form anti-communal youth groups. After 1972,he would dedicate himself to understanding riots,documenting them and trying to identify and fight the causes.
His autobiography,Living Islam,was published in 2011.
Says Wajahat Habibullah,chairman of the National Minorities Commission,It is a loss not only for India and the community,but also for us as a commission as we relied on his work and writings on riots and several problems.
Engineer started working with the late Subhadra Joshi and the late D R Goyal in their Sampradayikta Virodhi Manch,forming a counter to the forces that were fanning the riots of the 1980s and 1990s. He worked extensively in Bhiwandi,Thane,and Bombay. He went on to found a platform,Ekta,before he launched two institutes in Mumbai,the Institute of Islamic Studies in 1980 and the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in 1983,all the while working from his impressive,book-lined study in his house in Santacruz.
Engineers assessment and reassessment of Islam unsettled hardliners,who were particularly wary of what they saw as a radical interpretation of the place of women in Islam. Engineer was committed to proving that Islam is rational,a religion of peace and one that ascribes equal status to women. Among the last things he did was to prepare a draft codified set of Muslim personal laws,taking it to maulvis or ordinary Muslims,arguing with them,debating it and devoting a lot of time to it,says his son Irfan.
Though he was no fan of established Muslim religious groups,they found in him a good bridge for reaching outside the community. Says Maharashtra-based Mujtaba Farooq of the Jamat-e-Islami,He always stayed within the framework of Islam,which we respected. In progressive circles,he could convey the enlightened Islamic view which,if it were to come from a traditionalist,would not be accepted or heard. He created space for this voice from a Muslim point of view,within the progressive circle.
Engineer won several awards for his ideas about the need to integrate reform within the community as well as challenge Hindu rightists stereotyping of Islam. There was criticism from some of his fellow anti-Syedna Bohra friends,who found him obstinate and wanting to fight the Syedna without leaving the framework. Engineer said he wanted to keep it exactly that way fight from within.
The space he carved out was one of a unique voice of a writer/activist who understood the problems of western Indian Muslims. In a world obsessed with UP and Bihari Muslim issues, says a friend of his,he brought to the table a different and informed Western Indian idea that looked at the long,long-term.