Asghar Ali Engineer's quest for an Islamic theology of peace and religious pluralism
by Yoginder Sikand
At a time when religion has assumed a particular potency in shaping and defining inter-community and inter-state rivalries the world over, the need for evolving alternate understandings of religion to creatively deal with the fact of religious pluralism has emerged as a pressing necessity. This is an issue for concerned and socially engaged believers in all religious traditions. This paper deals with only one particular religion, Islam, looking at how, contrary to widely-held stereotypical notions, it can be interpreted to promote inter-faith dialogue and amity between followers of different faiths.
This discussion centers on the work of a noted Indian Muslim scholar-activist, Asghar 'Ali Engineer, seeing how he deals with the primary sources of Islam in order to develop an Islamic theology of pluralism and social justice. Given the fact that in many parts of the world today conflicts involve Muslims and people of other faiths, these being generally defined as 'Islamic' jihads by radical Islamists, Engineer's creative approach to the Qur'an offers us an alternate way of imagining Islam and Islamic rules for relations between Muslims and others. In turn, this way of approaching Islam, fashioning Islam as an instrument of peace instead of a tool for war and bloodshed, can help counter the appeal of radical Islamism and help work towards the peaceful resolution of many conflicts in which Muslims are involved.
Asghar 'Ali Engineer: The man
Asghar 'Ali Engineer was born in 1939 at the town of Salumbar, in the Udaipur district of the western Indian state of Rajasthan. His father, Shaikh Qurban Hussain, was the priest of the town's Shi'a Isma'ili Bohra community. From his father he learnt the Arabic language, as well as Qur'anic commentary (tafsir), Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and the sayings of or about the Prophet Muhammad (hadith) as contained in the books of the Bohras. Alongside this, he was also provided a secular, modern education. He earned a degree in engineering from the University of Indore and then worked for some twenty years as a civil engineer with the Bombay (now Mumbai) Municipal Corporation.
In 1972, Engineer quit his job and immersed himself in the struggle against the Bohra head-priest, Sayyedna Burhanuddin, protesting against what the reformers saw as his exploitative practices. Along with other reformers, Engineer was instrumental in setting up the Central Board of the Dawoodi Bohra Community, to carry on the reform campaign. The reformers did not seek to challenge the Bohra religion as such. Rather, they defined themselves as believing Bohras, and argued that their sole concern was that the Sayyedna and his family should strictly abide by the principles of the Bohra faith and end their tyrannous control over the community, which they branded as 'un-Islamic'. In the course of the struggle against the Sayyedna, Engineer developed his own understanding of Islam as a means and a resource for social revolution. One can discern in his thought and writings a multiplicity of influences: Mu'tazilite and Isma'ili rationalism, Marxism, western liberalism, Gandhism, and Christian liberation theology, and the impact of the Iranian 'Ali Shari'ati as well as Indian Muslim modernists such as Sayyed Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Iqbal.
His active involvement in the Bohra reformist movement led Engineer to establish contact with other progressive groups working for social transformation in India. Gradually, the focus of his activity broadened from activism within his own community to embrace several other causes. Of particular concern to him was the growing conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India. Engineer wrote extensively on Hindu-Muslim relations, insisting that new understandings of religion were needed to help promote better relations between the two communities.
In 1980, in order to promote new, more progressive understandings of Islam, he set up the Institute of Islamic Studies in Mumbai, through which he established links with progressive Muslims in other parts of India and elsewhere. In 1993 he established the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, also in Mumbai, in order to investigate incidents of Hindu-Muslim conflict, to promote new interpretations of both Hinduism and Islam as a means to promote communal harmony, and to network with activists and the media. Engineer is best described as a public intellectual or as a scholar-activist. Lacking a traditional Islamic education, his understanding of Islam grows out from his close involvement with movements struggling for social justice and reform and from his own study of the Islamic tradition. For him, new understandings of Islam must address themselves to changing social contexts, and religion, if it is at all to remain true to what he sees as its inner spirit, must make a positive contribution to progressive social change.
Muslims struggling for social transformation should, he insists, take their religion seriously, and actively intervene in the struggle for discursive hegemony by offering progressive understandings of Islam. To abandon the task, he argues, would allow for 'reactionaries', including both the conservative 'ulama as well as militant Islamists, to monopolise the terrain of Islamic discourse. Hence, progressive Muslim intellectuals must also seek to establish close and organic links with the masses and involve themselves in mass movements and activist groups working for social change. Islamic scholarship, then, is not to be seen as a mere intellectual exercise, but, rather, one deeply rooted in praxis. Engineer exemplifies this best himself. His own writings are geared to a mass readership, generally published in newspapers and popular magazines, and use a simple and easily understandable language that can readily appeal even to a non-Muslim reader with little or no previous knowledge of Islam.
Engineer's hermeneutics of the Qur'an and the Islamic tradition
The Qur'an forms the basic source for Engineer's hermeneutical project. In his writings, the Hadith or the Prophetic traditions, and the formulations of medieval fiqh play only a very limited role. Occasionally, references to stray Hadith are made to reinforce or legitimise a particular stance, but this is done on a very selective basis. Hadith that go against his own position are ignored. As Engineer sees it, the Qur'an, like any other text, can be interpreted in diverse ways. It is not a closed book, with only one set of clearly specified meanings. Being rich in symbolism, it can be interpreted in different ways by different people in order to promote different political projects. New ways of understanding the text also emerge as a result of, and a response to, the development of human knowledge in other spheres and the maturation of human experience.
While the Qur'an itself is eternal and God-given, the interpretation (tafsir) of the Qur'an is always, he insists, a human product. Like all other human products, he argues, interpretations of the Qur'an carry the imprint of their times. They may, to varying degrees, reflect the truths of the Qur'an but cannot claim to represent the divine truth in its entirety. Since the interpreters of the Qur'an, like other human beings, are members of certain social groups, located in specific spatio-temporal and social contexts, their understandings of the Qur'an are naturally coloured by their own location. Hence, their own interpretations of the Qur'an cannot be said to be free from human biases. Indeed, to claim that one can gain access to the total truth of the Qur'an, and to insist that the historical shari'ah, which is a product of human reflection on the divine commandments, represents the Will of God, has no justification in Engineer's understanding of Islam. It is, he obliquely suggests, tantamount to commit the biggest sin in Islam, that of claiming infallibility, which is akin to shirk or the crime of associating partners with God.
Since all Qur'anic interpretation, which includes the formulation of the historical shari'ah, is, by nature, partial, and, therefore, incomplete, reflecting the context in which the interpreter is located, the search for a total and complete understanding of the Will of God, as expressed in the Qur'an, is fruitless. Rather, Engineer contends, Muslims can only hope to gain further, but always limited, understanding of the Divine Will, by engaging in constant reflection on the Qur'an in the light of new and unfolding circumstances. The hermeneutical key to this contextual understanding of the Qur'an is to be found in the distinction that Engineer makes between the 'spirit' and the 'letter' of the Qur'an, which he sometimes also refers to respectively as the 'normative' and the 'contextual' aspects of the divine revelation. The foundation of the Qur'an is provided by a set of values that infuses the entire revelation.
Four key values are said to form the basis of the entire divine document: justice ('adl), benevolence (ihsan), reason ('aql) and wisdom (hikmah). The basic intention of the Qur'an, Engineer argues, is to bring human beings into close communion with God, while at the same time inspiring them to actively work for a society that is based on these cardinal values. Engineer notes that while the Qur'an is replete with general exhortations to the believers to submit to God and to actively struggle for a just and peaceful social order, it contains only a few detailed legal statements as to exactly how the cardinal divine values should be actually implemented. This, he says, is hardly surprising, for the Qur'an is not meant to be a book of detailed law. Rather, it is, above all, a call for a just social order based on new value system, and the institutional forms that express these values can, and indeed must, radically differ across space and time.
Since it is the divine values that are the corner stone of the Qur'an, they must infuse any contemporary interpretation of the divine revelation if it is to be truthful to the Will of God. Engineer contends that any truthful attempt to understand seeks God's Will for humanity as expressed in the Qur'an must be firmly grounded in this set of values. This has particular relevance in interpreting the clear legal commandments of the Qur'an on contentious issues such as women's rights or relations with non-Muslims. For Islamists, the Qur'anic commandments on these issues have an eternal validity. Engineer, on the other hand, appeals for a contextual reading of the Qur'an, arguing that the legal pronouncements in the divine revelation, as well as in the historical shari'ah, do not have a universal validity across space and time. Thus, unlike the basic values that infuse the text, they are not of fundamental importance. Rather, Engineer insists, they are specific to the particular context of seventh century Arabia when the Qur'an was revealed. To seek to impose them in today's world would not only be anachronistic, it would also be a violation of the Divine Will.
Any divine revelation has to take into account the particular social context in which it is revealed if at all it is to take root. Thus, for instance, the Qur'an accepted slavery as an institution and tolerated a degree of male supremacy, for in the society in which it was revealed slavery and patriarchy were deeply rooted. Were it to have condemned both outright, it would have been rejected completely. Yet, Engineer argues, the fundamental values that infuse the Qur'an are at odds with both slavery and patriarchy and actually encourage Muslims to struggle to overcome them. Accepting, as a temporary provision, the existence of slavery and patriarchy, the Qur'an appealed to the believers to struggle to transcend them and work for a society where these would be finally abolished.
Thus, it sought to improve the condition of slaves and women, as evidenced by the numerous commandments in the Qur'an regarding their rights. Because of the specific context in which the Qur'an was revealed, it could not abolish slavery and patriarchy completely or all at once, but the fundamental values of the Qur'an clearly suggest that this is indeed God's Will. Hence, Engineer contends, Muslims today must struggle to translate the Divine Will into actual practice by doing away with social inequalities and patriarchy.
The commandments in the Qur'an that seem to militate against women's rights or social equality must then be understood as specific to the context of seventh century Arabia, and not to have universal validity. To attempt to fossilize them and impose them today would be a violation of God's plans for humankind, for while the fundamental values of the Qur'an are valid for all times, the forms that these values have taken in the Qur'an, by way of detailed laws and legal pronouncements, are not, for the notion of what is just and equitable changes over time. While the laws for women, for instance, as given in the Qur'an, were a considerable advance over the practices of pre-Islamic Arabia, they were, Engineer insists, specific to a particular time and place. The Qur'an itself wills that these be transcended to accord with new understandings of justice. To insist that these laws must be applied in today's world would be to go against God's Will, for they do not represent justice as we understand it today.
Engineer submits the other sources of Islamic law, including the Hadith and the historical shari'ah, in the form of the formulations of fiqh, to a similar critical contextual reading. The corpus of Hadith is seen, on the whole, as suspect and thus not wholly reliable. Engineer reminds his readers that the Prophet had himself warned his followers not to take anything from him but the Qur'an, and that the first caliph of the Sunnis, Abu Bakr, had sternly forbidden the collection and compiling of Hadith. Despite this, the early Muslims began collecting the Hadith, and some even concocted a large number of sayings to legitimise their own vested interests. This is said to have been actively encouraged by the Umayyad and later, the Abbasid, rulers, to bolster their own claims to rule.
In other words, the corpus of Hadith as it exists today is, as such, not reliable and cannot be said to be completely faithful to the message of the Prophet. Engineer does recognize the existence of genuine (sahih) Hadith, but argues that not all genuine Hadith have an eternal relevance. Like the legislative sections of they Qur'an, they, too, were relevant for the particular social context of seventh century Arabia. To imagine that they can be mechanically applied in today's context is to go against the Will of God and the intention of the Prophet. Engineer sees the task of the believer in dealing with these Hadith, as with the legislative pronouncements of the Qur'an, as being to extract the fundamental values that underlie them rather than to follow them to the letter. Based on these values, new laws and structures need to be evolved in accordance with the needs and demands of today's times, that may indeed differ in form from those of seventh century Arabia but which would be based on the same ethical impulse.
The historical shari'ah, Engineer contends, arguing against those Muslims who see it as divinely mandated, is actually a human product, based on a human reading of the Qur'an and the sunnah or practice of the Prophet. The founders of the fours schools (mazahib) of Sunni law, as well as the Shi'a Imams, were, after all, human beings, products of their times, and, although presumably well-intentioned, were not infallible. To claim that they could not err is to attribute divinity to them, which is contrary to the Qur'anic insistence on monotheism (tauhid). They were influenced by their own social location and by the standard of knowledge of the world available to them, and these were reflected in their own understandings of religion. Further, medieval fiqh and theology did not remain immune to political compulsions, and numerous 'ulama, employed or patronized by the state, developed interpretations of Islam to suit the interests of the dominant classes, often at the expense of the true import of the Qur'an. To accept their understandings of Islam as normative and binding, Engineer insists, would thus be to betray the Qur'an itself. Hence, he argues, Muslims today must develop a new understanding of their faith, a new theology and a new jurisprudence unencumbered by past precedent.
In Engineer's scheme of Qur'anic hermeneutics, a constant dynamic and dialectical relation is sought to be established between the particular social context, on the one hand, and the Qur'an, as the fundamental source of Islam, on the other. Praxis, active involvement in changing society for the better, must be related to new understandings of the Qur'an. Likewise, new visions of Islam must be developed in order to promote or legitimise practical action in working for social transformation inspired by the fundamental ethical impulse or foundational values of the Qur'an. This way of reading the Qur'an uncovers new meanings of the divine revelation in the process of actively intervening in the world in order to transform it.
In turn, this inspires Muslims to work in new directions and in new ways to change society in accordance with the Divine Will. The ever evolving understandings of Islam that emerge from this process of praxis-reflection-praxis are said to be a sign of the Qur'an's eternal validity, not in terms of its detailed, and context-specific legal pronouncements, but in terms of the values on which the entire scripture is based. In this dynamic, the constantly evolving understandings of Islam are to be rooted in reason, for the 'word of God' cannot contradict the 'work of God' as expressed in the laws of science. Hence, as human knowledge expands, the understandings of Islam must also be accordingly transformed.
The distinction that Engineer makes between what he describes as the normative core and the context-specific portions of the fundamental sources of Islam, the former being held as valid for all times and the latter being specific only to the context of the Prophet's times, enables him to produce a vision of Islam that is dynamic, open and, as he sees it, eternally relevant. By going directly to the Qur'an, he by-passes centuries of tradition as developed by the 'ulama. He views the schools of fiqh of the traditional 'ulama as representing a fossilized religion that stresses the letter of the law above its spirit and lacks the capacity to come to terms with the challenges of modernity. The 'ulama are seen to have been complicit in assisting dominant groups in developing a 'feudalised Islam' that has totally betrayed the true values of the faith. Engineer's understanding of Islam also naturally puts him at odds with the Islamists, whose call for the creation of an Islamic state and the imposition of the historical shari'ah he considers as extremely regressive and, in fact, 'un-Islamic'.
The Islamists see the shari'ah as a fixed body of laws, and although they admit the need for ijtihad or creative interpretation of the law on matters where the Qur'an and the Hadith are silent, they insist that the clear legal pronouncements of these two principle sources cannot be over-ruled. Engineer's ijtihad is far more radical and embracing in its scope. He argues that ijtihad must, if need be, also extend to the legal pronouncements of the Qur'an and the Hadith. Hence, aspects of the historical shari'ah as well as certain legal pronouncements in the fundamental sources of Islam that might seem to militate against modern sensibilities must be critiqued, and new legislation should take their place, if required, so that the laws that govern society are in accordance with the fundamental values of the Qur'an, although the forms that these laws take might well differ radically from those found in the historical shari'ah.
Towards a contextual Islamic theology for India
As Engineer sees it, the Qur'an is open to a variety of interpretations, and can be used to justify a diverse range of political projects. His primary concern is to develop a theology of Islam that is rooted in and relevant to the particular context in which the Muslims of India find themselves placed. To imagine that a vision of Islam developed elsewhere or in a different period of history, and this includes the historical shari'ah as formulated by the medieval jurists, could be arbitrarily imposed in today's Indian context is not just poor sociology. It is, above all, Engineer insists, poor theology and, in fact, goes against the Will of God. The particular situation in which the Muslims of India find themselves today, which forms the basis on which Engineer's formulates his own contextual theology, is characterised by multiple oppressions, including of caste, class, gender and religion.
Traditional understandings of religion are, as Engineer sees it, part of the problem rather than the solution, for these, he argues, have been formulated by dominant groups to justify their own interests, to preserve the status quo and to justify these multiple oppressions. These understandings of religion have also been employed to promote conflict between people of different faiths. For Engineer, a truly Islamic theology for contemporary India is one that takes the context of multiple oppressions and the existence of religious plurality seriously, and is at the same time based on what he sees as the cardinal values of the Qur'an.
As Engineer views it, since the foundational values of the Qur'an consist of justice, benevolence, equality and peace, a meaningful contextual theology for India, faithful to the Qur'an and God's Will, must be constructed in such a manner as to promote social justice in terms of relations between castes, classes and the genders, and peaceful relations between Muslims and people of other faiths. Aspects of the Qur'an, the Hadith and the historical shari'ah that seem to militate against these objectives are seen as having no relevance today, being applicable only to a previous historical context. This enables Engineer to present an understanding of Islam that he sees as appropriate for the particular historical context that the Muslims in India find themselves placed in.
Islam and inter-faith relations
Promoting better relations between Muslims and people of other faiths is one of Engineer's principal concerns. He has been involved in several inter-faith dialogue initiatives, both in India as well as abroad, and has written extensively on the subject. Engineer argues that a faithful understanding of Islam in today's context must take the pluralist predicament seriously. To be religious today is, in fact, to be inter-religious. To ignore the question of religious pluralism and the need for harmonious relations between people of different faiths, as the traditional 'ulama seem to have, he warns, is to consign oneself to complete irrelevance.
In fashioning a theology of religious pluralism, Engineer addresses the central question of the nature of truth. Is truth one or many? Is truth absolute or relative? Are there different degrees or levels of truth? Can one religion claim to possess the whole truth? Are all religions other than Islam without any truth? Can non-Muslims be saved by following their own religions if Islam is really the one true religion? In answering these questions Engineer examines the Qur'anic perspective on humankind and the universality of revelation. He writes that all human beings, irrespective of religion, are creatures of God, made from one set of primal parents, and in that sense, equal in His eyes. All human beings are 'of inestimable divine value' and hence must be not just equally respected, but also equally loved.
He argues that all religions come from the same source, the one God, and reflect the Truth in different ways. As the Qur'an insists, God has sent prophets to all nations, and all of them have taught the same basic religion or din, al-Islam or 'submission' to God. Further, the Qur'an also clearly lays down that a Muslim must believe in all the prophets of God, including those whom it does not mention by name, and hold them in equal respect. The various prophets taught the same religion, but some prophets were assigned with teaching a new law (shar'iah) which was meant to suit the particular conditions of the people to whom they were sent. It is, however, the din, and not the shari'ah, that is the fundamental message of God as expressed through the prophets. While the din remains the same, the shari'ah can differ, and hence the latter is subordinate to the former.
All historical religions, therefore, are emanations from this primal din of God, and hence they are, at root, the same, and none can be dismissed as 'illegitimate' or 'false'. Although he does not state it explicitly, Engineer appears to suggest that there is little to choose from among the various religions, as they are all, he seems to believe, roughly identical to each other. They are seen to share a common set of value orientations, such as truth, non-violence, love, justice, equity, tolerance and compassion. He recognizes that in terms of doctrine and ritual practice they do differ from each other, as also in matters of prayer and ritual. These, however, are to be treated as strictly secondary, and in God's eyes, as ultimately of little or no importance. For God, Engineer argues, what is important is the ethical orientation and action of a person and not the content of his belief or the ritual forms in which that belief is expressed. Engineer seems to suggest, therefore, that ultimate salvation hinges on good deeds and not on 'correct' belief or ritual action. While recognising that rituals 'have a significance of their own', as 'psychological supports', he contends that they are 'not central to a religion' and that, therefore, they 'can be neglected', unlike the fundamental values.
Thus, a 'truly religious person' is said to be one who, inspired by these values, does good deeds, irrespective of whether or not he or she follows a particular set of rituals. While Engineer's argument of the universality of revelation and the unity of the din is strictly Qur'anic, he does not pay sufficient attention to the Qur'anic account of how and why the different historical religions differ from each other, despite their common origins in the primal din. He does not seriously engage with the Qur'anic understanding of tahrif or the 'corruption' by people of the scriptures given to them by prophets before Muhammad. Engineer's answer is that the differences between the different historical religions, which he sees as different forms of the same din, are not to be denied, for that would be to ignore the very real differences between them as well as the uniqueness of each religion.
However, he argues, it is for God alone to judge where the religions differ and to decide which one is true or possesses a greater degree of truth. This would come about only on Judgment Day. Till then, the best course for human beings is to focus on what the different religions share in common rather than on what divides them from each other, and to work, in accordance with the Will of God, for social justice and peace for all. Meanwhile, human beings should shelve all religious and doctrinal disputes, desist from trying to prove the superiority of one religion over the others, and, instead, 'vie with each other in good deeds'.
This, then, calls for people of various faiths to dialogue with each other on the basis of what they have in common. Participants in inter-religious dialogue, Engineer insists, must abide by certain basic rules. They must not assume that their religion is superior to those of others. In addition, they must not simply tolerate other faiths but, in fact, respect their teachings and their integrity. They must also not been motivated by any desire to convert others to their faith. Rather, dialogue must be impelled by a desire to move towards discovering the Truth, which can be approached by being open to multiple expressions of truth that one comes to face with through dialogue. Finally, even if the dialogue partners fail to agree on every point, they should not allow the encounter to take the form of polemics.
For Engineer peaceful dialogue between Muslims and people of other faiths is seen as integral to the Qur'anic message. Islam is seen as positively exhorting Muslims to dialogue with people of other faiths. Thus, dialogue is actually a divinely ordained duty for Muslims, and not something that they can treat as an afterthought. The basic framework of the dialogue project is seen as having been laid down in the Qur'an itself. Thus, the Qur'an insists that Muslims must recognize that God is 'The Sustainer of the Worlds' (rabb ul-'alamin) and not just of Muslims alone. The Qur'an accepts religious pluralism as a sign of God's Will. Indeed, it is, Engineer suggests, a part of God's plan for the world, for if He had so willed he could have made all humans to follow just one religion. Thus, the Qur'an says that although God could have made all people one, He has, in His wisdom, 'appointed a law and a way' for different communities, so that he can 'try them', despite their differences. This is said to suggest that the different historical religions, in all their diversity, have been created by God Himself.
To attempt to destroy this plurality by insisting on the truth of one religion alone, even if that religion be Islam, is thus said to be 'against His will'. The Qur'an adds, immediately after, that people, following different laws and ways, must vie with each other 'in virtuous deeds'. This implies, Engineer argues, that the Qur'an 'clearly discourages believers to [sic.] enter into theological polemics', and, instead, encourages them to 'excel each other in good deeds'. In other words, what pleases God is not so much 'correct' belief as 'correct' ethical action. Since God has created a multiplicity of religions, Muslims must not just tolerate them, but, indeed, 'respect' them. Furthermore, the Qur'an insists that Muslims preach their message through 'gentle words' and in a manner that would not provoke hostility or conflict.
Then again, the Qur'an reminds Muslims that there can be no compulsion in religion, for it recognizes the inherent right of all people to believe in what they want. Engineer exhorts Muslims to seek inspiration from the Sufis in order to relate to people of other faiths, and sees Sufism as containing valuable resources for developing an appropriate Islamic theology of religious pluralism. Thus, he writes that many Sufis believed in the concept of 'unity in existence' (wahdat al-wujud), which he describes as a form of pantheism that makes for a recognition of the innate oneness of all humankind and the presence of God in all religions. They also preached the 'welfare of all' (sulh-i kul), and universal love, and in this made no distinction between Muslims and people of other faiths.
Dialogue can take various forms and be engaged in for several purposes. The first is what Engineer calls the 'dialogue of life'. This is a form of dialogue that is not formally articulated in theological statements. People of different religions interact with each other informally, as friends or colleagues in the work place, and attend each other's religious festivals. The second, more structured, form of dialogue is the exchange of views between theologians, in the course of which each comes to learn about the religious beliefs of the other. In the course of such dialogue one deepens and enriches one's own faith, for in the process one gains insights from other faiths that one's religion lacks or does not seem to stress adequately. No religion, Engineer argues, is radically sufficient by itself. Rather, through dialogue one realizes how, in many respects, religions can be 'complimentary' to each other.
Thus, he writes that while Islam stresses justice, Buddhism stresses non-violence and Christianity love. By dialoguing with Buddhists and Christians, then, Muslims can gain new insights that can be used to evolve new interpretations and understanding of their own religion. In this sense, all religions are invited to a form of 'conversion' through dialogue. This does not, however, mean that in the process of theological dialogue all differences between the religions would be negated or denied. Rather, partners in the dialogue process should, at first, try to reconcile their differences, and Engineer offers the example of numerous Sufi and Bhakti saints of India who attempted to do this. If, despite this, certain doctrines or beliefs of one religion cannot be accepted by the followers of another, the dialogue partners must learn to live together in amity and respect their differences.
The third, and more promising, form of dialogue is when social activists, along with socially-engaged theologians, come together, each inspired by his or her own religion, to work for common social projects and causes, such as social justice, peace, love and harmony between people of different faith traditions. Islam, and indeed, other faiths, is seen as having a divine mandate to radically transform social structures, to end poverty and the multiple oppressions of caste, class, ethnicity and gender. Hence, a major goal of the dialogue project is seen as bringing Muslims together with people of goodwill from other faiths to jointly struggle for a new, socialist society where the fundamental social contradictions are resolved. Engineer thus seeks to develop an Islamic theology of liberation and pluralism which he regards as having been the essential mission of all the prophets of God, but which Muslims, like others, have long forgotten, having reduced religion to a set of sterile doctrines, dogmas and rituals. The role of true religion, Engineer stresses, is not simply to interpret the world, but also to transform it, to create a new society based on the cardinal values that he sees all religions sharing in common: justice, equality, benevolence, compassion and freedom.
Since Engineer's principal concern is to develop a relevant theology rooted in the Indian context, dialogue between Muslims and Hindus is seen as particularly urgent. New understandings of Islam, and, for that matter, Hinduism, are regarded as essential to promote better relations between Hindus and Muslims and to counter groups among both communities which seek to promote conflict between the two based on their own distorted understandings of their religion. In formulating a relevant Islamic theology of religious pluralism for India, Engineer is forced to come to terms with traditional Muslim understandings of Hinduism as a religion and of Hindus as a faith community. These understandings, he argues, are rooted in a 'feudal Islam' that developed at a time when political power was in the hands of Muslims in India, and when Hindus were seen by many 'ulama as political, and hence, religious enemies of Islam and Muslims.
Hence, he claims, these traditional understandings do not actually reflect the 'true' Qur'anic position and must be adequately revised. Since God has sent prophets to teach his din to all peoples, He must, Engineer argues, have sent prophets to the people of India as well. Indeed, as he points out, several Muslim scholars and Sufis have argued that Rama and Krishna, worshipped as gods by the Hindus, might actually have been prophets of God. Consequently, Muslims must hold these figures in high regard. Further, even if these figures were not prophets of God, the Qur'an insists that Muslims must not revile or abuse the objects of worship or reverence of people of other faiths. If Muslims were thus to abide by the Qur'an in this matter, Engineer suggests, they would be able to clear many misunderstandings that Hindus have of Islam, and thereby help promote inter-communal amity.
For many Muslims, the ambiguous status of Hindus in Islamic law constitutes a major hurdle in promoting dialogue with them. Unlike the Christians and the Jews, they find no mention in the Qur'an, and have often been seen as idolators, with whom dialogue is ruled out. While noting that many 'ulama have described the Hindus as kafirs and mushriks (polytheists), Engineer argues that this is misleading, for the Hindus, he contends, are actually monotheists and that their holy book, the Vedas, might actually have been a divine revelation. Hence, they must, he insists, be treated as 'People of the Book' (ahl-i kitab) instead, sharing a similar status to the Christians and Jews. Recognising the inability of traditional fiqh to provide positive images of the Hindus, Engineer suggests that Muslims should seek inspiration and guidance from the teachings of certain Indian Sufis, as well as Hindu Bhakta saints, who were concerned to explore the similarities, rather than focus on the differences, between Hinduism and Islam. He argues that in today's India the 'openness' of Sufism and Bhakti Hindu devotion are essential resources in helping to promote inter-faith harmony.
In order to help develop more positive images of each other and to bring them closer, Engineer is at pains to stress the cultural elements that many Indian Muslims share with their Hindu neighbours. He strongly opposes advocates of a 'pure' Islamic culture, arguing that there exists no such thing. Rather, he says, Islam has taken different forms in different parts of the world as it has sought to root itself in different cultural contexts. He goes so far as to negate the notion of a singular Islam, and, instead, speaks of a multiplicity of 'Islams', such as 'Arab Islam', 'Indonesian Islam', 'Indian Islam' and so forth. In advocating an 'Indian Islam' he stresses what he describes as a 'composite culture' shared by Indians of different faiths. This appeal for a 'composite' Indian culture leads him on to a form of syncretism and relativism that appears to deny the autonomy of each religion in a very fundamental sense. Thus, for instance, he approvingly cites such instances of 'composite culture' as a Muslim saint's devotion to Krishna, a Muslim who officiates as a priest in a Hindu temple, and the Meo Muslims of northern India whom he celebrates as the 'best example' of composite culture', being, he says, 'part Hindu and part Muslim'. Elsewhere, he refers to his wife as a model in this regard, who would worship in mosques, temples and churches, believing that 'God was equally present in all the religions'.
For Engineer, inter-faith dialogue is an urgent necessity, not simply because the Qur'an mandates it, but also in order to actively promote peace in a society that continues to witness unrelenting violence between people of different faiths. As Engineer sees it, Islam encourages its followers to actively struggle to promote peaceful relations with people of other faiths. One of Engineer's major concerns, therefore, has been to promote an Islamic theology of peace. He argues that peace is a central tenet of Islam, and points out that the one of the meanings of the word 'Islam' is 'peace'. Peaceful relations, he says, are seen as the norm in Islam, and Muslims must work to establish peace in society and in the relations between different religious communities. In addressing the question of peace in Islam he pays particular attention to the notion of jihad. Grappling with verses in the Qur'an that refer to jihad, he writes that the term refers to any form of struggle for the sake of God, in particular for upholding what he sees are the cardinal values of the Qur'an: peace, justice and equality. To struggle through peaceful means for establishing social justice and social equality is thus one of the highest forms of jihad. He makes a crucial distinction between jihad as any form of struggle to implement God's Will, on the one hand, and qital, or the use of physical force, including violence. It is true that the Qur'an does not advocate complete non-violence, he says, but it considers it as a weapon to be used only in self-defence and not for aggression.
Further, it is to be resorted to only when all peaceful means for defending oneself have been tried and have failed. Even here, strict conditions are to be observed, and innocent non-Muslims cannot, under any circumstances, be attacked. Engineer concedes, however, that the roots of conflict in many cases have little to do with religion per se or with differences of religion. In large parts of the Muslim world, he writes, economic inequalities and political authoritarianism, combined with various economic, political and cultural policies of Western powers, have bred a situation conducive to violence. To preach peace and harmony in such a situation can only help promote the oppressive status quo that would, in turn, engender even more violence. Efforts for establishing peace, Engineer argues, must go hand in hand with the quest for social justice if peace is to be indeed long lasting and firmly rooted.
Islam and secularism
In formulating a theology of Islam suited to the contemporary Indian context, Engineer deals at length with the debate on the relation between Islam and politics, in particular with the notion of the Islamic state. Engineer argues that the Qur'an contains no mandate or blueprint for an Islamic state, for its main concern is not with the state but, rather, with society. It speaks, he says, of an 'ideal society', and not of an 'ideal polity'. The Prophet Muhammad was not commissioned by God to establish a state, although he did so in Medina. To insist on an Islamic state, either, as in India, where Muslims are a minority, or in Muslim-majority countries, is thus against the Divine Will, for the historical shari'ah, the corpus of law that Islamists see the 'Islamic state' as charged with implementing, has little or no relevance in today's age, having been formulated in a completely different context.
This does not, however, mean that Islam has nothing to say about politics. Engineer argues that although the forms of the state might, and indeed, must, change over time, the political structures that are devised must be infused with justice, benevolence and equality, fundamental Islamic values. Thus, what is important is not the form that the state takes, but, rather, its foundational values. Indeed, Engineer points out, neither the Qur'an nor the early history of Muslims provides any model for the form of the polity. The four 'righteous' caliphs of the Sunnis were chosen in different ways, and hardly thirty years after the Prophet's death the 'democratic' caliphate was transformed into a hereditary monarchy. Hence, since there is no such thing as the 'Islamic' form of the polity, Engineer asserts that the task before for Muslims today is to work towards developing new political structures that can best express the core Islamic values. He believes that these values are best served today by the modern, secular democratic state.
Secularism and democracy have been seen by some Muslims as antagonistic to Islam. For them, secularism is regarded as the negation of religion, if not outright hostility to it. Likewise, democracy is seen as usurping God's right and prerogative to rule by replacing the shari'ah with humanly devised laws. Engineer seeks to rebut this argument, insisting that the historical shari'ah is itself largely a human creation, and cannot be said to represent God's Will for all times. In Engineer's own reading of Islam, secularism and democracy, in fact, truly represent the Divine Will. His understanding of secularism is based not on hostility to religion, but, rather, on mutual respect for all religions. A secular state is one that, while not against religion as such, is neutral vis-à-vis the various religions. He contends that such a state is not a novel one for Muslims, for the polity established by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina did envisage equal rights for people of all faiths, including Muslims, Jews as well as pagan Arabs. Each of them was granted full religious freedom, including the right to be ruled according to their own personal laws in internal matters. Hence, he argues, Muslims can, indeed, must, be willing citizens of a secular, plural state that guarantees the freedom of religion and equality to all its members. In the specific Indian context, this means that they must reconcile themselves to being citizens of what is, at least in theory, a secular state.
Likewise, Engineer seeks to argue that democracy is not only not foreign to Islam, but actually contained in it. He draws parallels between democracy and the Islamic notion of shur'a or rule through consultation, and argues that while the form that consultation took in the period of the Prophet may not be replicable today, its fundamental spirit, based on opposition to authoritarianism, is of continuing relevance. He contends that in the present age the most appropriate form that shur'a is political democracy, which, while it differs in form from the shur'a practiced by the Prophet and the early Muslims, preserves and promotes its fundamental values and spirit. Thus, for both Muslim majority countries as well as countries where Muslims are a minority, the most Islamically acceptable form of the polity in today's context would be a secular, democratic state wherein all religious groups are granted equal rights and freedoms, and governed according to laws made by the representatives of the people.
The scope of the historical shari'ah in this scheme of things is strictly limited, at most being of relevance only in the personal sphere, though even here radical reforms are called for. The entire sphere of the mu'amilat or 'worldly affairs' is taken out of the purview of Islamic jurisprudence, as the fiqh formulations in these matters are seen as either limited to the time of the Prophet or else a reflection and outcome of an outdated, 'feudal' understanding of Islam. In the place of the laws of the historical shari'ah on matters related to the mu'amilat, the state must formulate new laws that may well depart from traditional shari' prescriptions but that would be in accordance with the fundamental values of the Qur'an. Since, effectively, the scope of the shari'ah is restricted to the private sphere, the secular, democratic state is able to legislate on matters that traditional 'ulama as well as Islamists consider as having already been covered by God's laws.
What, then, of nationalism and notions of national identity? Engineer contends that nations are a product of shared culture, history and locality. Religion alone cannot be the basis for national identity. The Muslim ummah then is purely a religious unity and not a political community that includes all Muslims. The treaty of Medina between the Prophet and the Jews and pagan Arabs of Medina defined all of them as members of one single ummah, the denizens of Medina. This clearly suggests, Engineer argues, that nationality is not determined by religion. Hence, projects to create a pan-Islamic polity based on the notion of the Muslim ummah as a political unit are not only impractical, but, in fact, contrary to the practice of the Prophet. Since nationality is thus seen as based on shared locality and culture, Muslims can, indeed, must, willingly accept the fact that they belong to different nationalities and that in most cases, as in India, they share their nationality with people of other faiths.
Engineer's hermeneutical approach: A critique
Engineer's understanding of the Qur'an as divine revelation is premised on the distinction that he draws between the essential value system of the text, on the one hand, and the legal pronouncements contained in the text that he sees as context specific, on the other. While the former are said to be of eternal relevance, and hence to represent the essence of the Qur'an, the latter are seen to be rooted in the specific context of seventh century Arabia and, thus, not necessarily valid for all times to come. Any religion, Engineer argues, must operate in a given context, and, accepting many of the institutions and practices of that context, must seek to modify or transcend them gradually. Hence, for instance, the pronouncements of the Qur'an on women or slavery are to be seen in relation to the context in which the divine text was revealed.
Although patriarchy and slavery are seen as going against God's plan for the world, the Qur'an had to accept them as they were deeply rooted in the context of the society in which it was revealed. Yet, this was no passive acceptance or whole-hearted legitimation. Rather, the Qur'an tried to modify the harshness of these institutions, and its essential value system, Engineer argues, clearly suggests that God wills that they should be gradually done away with over time. Using this contextual approach to understanding the Qur'an, Engineer attempts to fashion a new way of interpreting the text, which he sees as relevant for our times.
Engineer's hermeneutical project emerges from his own involvement in groups struggling for social change, and the essential values that he discovers as being the core of the Qur'an are precisely the values that he seeks to promote in the course of his social intervention: peace, justice, compassion and equality. This reading of core values into the Qur'an is, while not completely arbitrary, determined essentially by Engineer's own politics. It is quite conceivable that other Muslims, pursuing other political agendas, could construct a completely different set of core values and read them into the Qur'an, values such as militancy, power and domination. Although Engineer does admit that multiple readings of the text are not just possible but, indeed, inevitable, he implicitly suggests that his own reading of the text is normative. At the same time, he fails to seriously grapple with the claims of other Muslims who might offer radically different readings based on a different set of values that they see as underlying the Qur'anic text. In the ultimate analysis, all readings are arbitrary then, human products that cannot claim to represent the Divine Will in its entirety, and this applies to Engineer's own understanding of the divine revelation as well.
The distinction that Engineer draws between what is normative in the Qur'an, and hence, of lasting relevance, and what is contextual and thus limited in its application, is a product of the purposes for which he seeks to invoke the text. Hence, aspects of the text that are seen as militating against his own project are treated as purely contextual, to be treated as limited in their application to seventh century Arabia, while others, which are seen as positively legitimating his agenda, are deemed as normative and as of eternal significance. Here again, no strict rules are applied, and the sifting between the normative and the contextual appears somewhat arbitrary. The struggle for social justice, peace and harmony, Engineer's principal concerns, thus determines how he reads the Qur'an, rather than the other way round. However, as Engineer's principal purpose is to develop a contextual understanding of the Qur'an, this is inevitable, for the manner in which the both the context and the political project are defined inevitably influences how the text is read.
The dialectical tension between text and context, and the problem of reading into the text understandings that emerge from an external agenda are well illustrated in Engineer's examination of the issues of religious pluralism and secular nationalism. Thus, Engineer argues that the Qur'an itself lays down that God has sent prophets to all peoples , and that all of them have taught the same basic religion, the din, al-Islam or the 'religion of submission [to the one God]'.
Hence, he says, Muslims must respect all religions and not consider their own as inherently superior. Since one of his principal concerns is to promote better relations between Muslims and people of other faiths, he conveniently glosses over those verses in the Qur'an that admonish Christians, Jews and others for having distorted the teachings of the prophets that had been sent to them. By thus remaining silent on the Qur'anic notion of tahrif or the 'corruption' of the scriptures of the pre-Muhammadan prophets by those who claim to be their followers, he seems to argue that these scripturalist traditions as they exist today remain in their pristine purity, as revealed to their prophets, and that, hence, Muslims must regards them as true, which is a notion not many Muslims would agree with.
This selective reading of the Qur'an leads to a relativism that effectively denies the autonomy and integrity of each religious tradition. As Samuel remarks, it works to 'reduce the importance of the truth claims of one's own tradition for its adherents', these being dismissed by Engineer as a product of 'egoism'. Rather than recognizing these competing truth claims and the very real differences between the various religions, Engineer either ignores them or else relativises them. Samuel rightly comments that this way of attempting to promote inter-faith harmony seems 'shallow'. If all the historical religions (as opposed to the primal din, which, as the Qur'an sees it, was taught by all the prophets) are true, then what remains of the Muslim claim that Islam represents a greater degree of truth or, indeed, the absolute truth? By identifying a set of common value orientations that all religions are seen to share as the root of religion, and by divorcing salvation from dogma, religious belief is thus ultimately rendered immaterial in God's eyes. Hence, Engineer is led to suggest that 'Paradise is not the monopoly of any religious group whatever. Whoever submits himself entirely to Allah and is a doer of good, he has his reward in heaven'.
Further, by claiming that what is essential to religion are the core values, which all religions seem to share, and that the forms in which these values have been expressed, the various shar'iahs, are contextual, and, therefore, malleable and dispensable or ultimately irrelevant in God's eyes, all religions are sought to be steamrolled into one, and syncretism is accorded a positive value. By limiting the essenctial core of the Qur'an to faith in God and commitments to a set of basic values, the rest of the Qur'an and the Islamic scripturalist tradition is treated, effectively, as of little or no ultimate concern. Islam thus gets reduced to a value orientation and a system of rituals, although even the latter is seen as part of the historical shari'ah, with little or no ultimate value in itself.
Not only does this approach to Islam question the specificity and autonomy of Islam, as many Muslims appear to understand the religion, it also does scant justice to the way in which other religions see themselves. Thus, other religions, too, are reduced, at root, to a set of values that they are seen as sharing in common with each other and with Islam. This is well illustrated in Engineer's examination of Hinduism, which amounts to a personal redefinition of Hinduism that differs markedly from the way in which many Hindus would understand their own faith. Indeed, he engages in a process of construction of a form of Hinduism that bears little resemblance to the historical forms that it has adopted, in order to stress what he regards as the common teachings of Hinduism and Islam.
Thus, for instance, he argues that since the Qur'an states that prophets have been sent by God to every community, it is possible that figures such as Rama and Krishna were indeed prophets and that the Vedas are a revealed scripture, which Muslims, too must accept. He ignores, however, the very different notion of revelation in Hinduism and Islam and indeed of the role of scripture in both traditions, while also eliding the question of tahrif in the Vedas if they are indeed to be treated divinely revealed texts by Muslims. In constructing a notion of Hinduism that appears to share much in common with Islam, justice is hardly done to the actual forms that Hinduism has taken, particularly in its Brahminical varieties, that seem clearly to militate against the values of justice and equality that Engineer sees as fundamental to all true religion.
In his analysis of the relation between Islam and politics, likewise, Engineer's commitment to secularism and democracy determines his own reading of the Qur'an and the Prophetic example. He pays scant attention to the role and status of the Prophet as the actual head of the state of Medina, and by focusing, instead, on the content of the treaty of Medina and the reciprocal rights that it granted to all communities, is able to gloss over the fact that the constitution of the Medinan state was itself premised on the de facto and de jure rule of the Prophet himself. Thus, he insists that the Prophet 'never aspired for political power', while conveniently ignoring the role of the Prophet as the head of the political community of Medina. Similarly, his invoking the principle of shu'ra to legitimize political democracy is also inspired by his own politics, and does not emanate directly from the Prophetic example itself, for although the Qur'an advised the Prophet to consult his followers, he was not bound by their advice. Likewise, in order to provide 'Islamic' sanction to political democracy he reduces Islam to a set of values, and restricts the application of Islamic law to the personal sphere, paying scant regard to the concept of law in early Muslim history.
In short, then, it appears that Engineer's own theology of Islam is determined, above all, by considerations that emanate from outside the Qur'anic text, and, in several crucial respects, bears little relation to the ways in which Islam has been understood by Muslims throughout history. His understanding of Islam is indelibly shaped by his concern for social justice and inter-communal harmony, of course. But in thus allowing his Qur'anic exegisis to be moulded by 'extra-textual' concerns he is hardly novel, for there can be no politically neutral interpretation of a text, although many, if not most, interpreters of sacred textual traditions would imagine themselves free from the influences of their own social location.