I paused my work upon hearing the gloomy news of the death of Asghar Ali Engineer, one of the world’s greatest scholars of Islam, last Tuesday, after a prolonged illness.
Born in 1939 in the town of Salumbar in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, Engineer was a prolific writer who authored more than fifty books, many of which have been translated into many languages — including Indonesian — and he wrote innumerable book chapters, journal articles and columns.
But there is more. Engineer was also a daring peace activist who had been at the vanguard of civil society movements against religious tyranny and radicalism. Also, he was a truly passionate liberal Muslim thinker whose ideas on Islamic theology of liberation, secular democracy, Islamic ethics of social justice, women’s rights, religious tolerance and pluralism, non-violence, peace building, communalism and secularism have shaped many scholars and activists around the globe.
Since Engineer’s writings cover broad issues and themes, it’s difficult to decide which aspects of his work are the most important. As the scientist Ram Puniyani has aptly pointed out, “there is a deeper integration in deferent facets of the work [Engineer’s].”
However, it seems that Engineer’s fame, which goes far beyond his homeland, was primarily for his work on or, more precisely, against violent conflicts, particularly those committed in the name of religion, including Islam.
The first dreadful event that shook Engineer very deeply was the bloody Hindu-Muslim violence that broke out in Jabalpur, in Madhya Pradesh state, in 1961. This was the first major communal riot between the two religious groups after the mayhem of 1948, which followed the partition of the Subcontinent into India and Pakistan.
Born in a Bohra orthodox priestly family of Shiite Ismaili Muslims, Engineer was a student when he witnessed the tragedy. For him, violence in the name of religion was anathema in part because he had been soaked in spiritual and peaceful dimensions of Islam from his childhood. Engineer was taught by his father, Shaikh Qurban Hussain, who was a scholar of Islam and a Shiite-Ismaili leader, that Islam is a religion of peace and that no religion preaches violence.
But following the Jabalpur riots, Engineer began to wonder: if Islam — or any other religion — doesn’t teach violence and hate, why, then, were Muslims and Hindus in India fighting each other in the name of religion?
Indeed, India has witnessed a prolonged series of bloody communal violence from the Mumbai riots of 1893 to the more recent carnage in Gujarat and other areas resulting in countless deaths. Most incidents took place between Hindus and Muslims. But riots also occurred between Sunnis and Shiites or between factions within Sunni and Shiite Islam, or between Hindus and Sikhs or Christians, etcetera.
Engineer devoted his life to the study of these seemingly religiously-inspired conflicts and his research findings formed a crucial contribution to conflict and peace studies and to our understanding of the underlying factors of communal turmoil. Engineer, it should be noted, not only conducted fieldwork, analyzed data and wrote up research findings from his desk, but he also mentored and trained peace practitioners and human rights activists, and marched down in the streets to fight against violence and promote communal harmony.
He thought that there was a something wrong with the beliefs and practices of some his fellow Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, etc. who espoused extremism and intolerance. In his autobiography, “A Living Faith: My Quest for Peace, Harmony and Social Change,” Engineer stated that his father taught him to be peaceful and open-minded and show great respect for other religions. In his childhood, he wrote, Hindu Brahmin priests used to come and talk with his father to exchange views on each other’s beliefs with deep esteem.
Inspired by his father’s tolerant teachings and peaceful actions as well as by the spirit of philosophical and spiritual Islam and the universal ethics of the Koran, Engineer worked hard to create a “new India” (or a “new world” generally) which would be free from brutality and bigotry. To do this, he thought it necessary to create research centers, reinterpret Islamic/Koranic foundations for interreligious peace and develop movements dedicated to non-violence. For his tremendous efforts in promoting inter- and intra-religious understandings, he was given numerous awards including the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) and the National Communal Harmony Award by the government of India.
Another of Engineer’s great legacies is that, from 1972 until his death, he had been a strong voice for Islamic reformation. He led the Progressive Dawoodi Bohra movement and although he was devoted to Shiism, Engineer strongly criticized its clergy system and Shiite leaders who manipulated lay believers by injecting “blind religious dogmas of the past” for their own political and economic interests. Islam, for Engineer, was primarily a “liberating force” and a means to achieve social justice.
Engineer compared today’s India to Mecca in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, during which oligarchy thrived due to greed as well as ignorant tribal rule, and, as a result, nobody took care of orphans, widows, the old and the poor.
Engineer used the socio-political settings of Arabia and the tribal leaders’ ill-treatment of Muslims during the time of Muhammad to analyze Indian contexts, and then developed an Islamic theology of liberation, rooted in the concept of tawhid (Oneness of God), as a religious foundation to resist the Shiite clergy in his country. Just like Latin American Catholic leaders who used Biblical traditions to advance a liberation theology to oppose violence and oppression (like Gustavo Gutierrez), Engineer used Koranic texts and Islamic teachings and values, combined with the prophetic practices of Muhammad, as a means of mobilization, reformation and protest against what he considered the politics of injustice of the Shiite religious establishment.
Engineer declared that a religious person must continue to wage jihad against all forms of exploitation, discrimination, and injustices.
Due to his strong criticism of Shiite clerics, however, he put his life (and his family’s) at risk and became the routine subject of insults and fatwas accusing him of sacrilege. Despite the threats, however, he continued to spread and advocate a form of liberating, tolerant, just and peaceful Islam.
Just like India, Indonesia currently faces many problems: from terrorism, intolerance and radicalism to corruption and other social illnesses. It is high time for this nation to educate more “Engineers” and boost progressive understandings of Islam that oppose theocracy (including the Islamic state) and at the same time support secular democracy, the rights of women, homosexuals and non-Muslims, freedom of thought and expression, and the general notion of progress.
Only by implementing such ideas can the pluralistic character of Indonesia be maintained in the future — and protected from the false propaganda of some radical Muslim groups.
Rest in peace, Dr. Engineer.
Sumanto Al Qurtuby is a research fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, Indiana.