News & Events
March 10, 1939 - May 14, 2013
Asghar Ali Engineer passes away
It is with great sadness and sorrow we report the passing away of Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer. He breathed his last on May 14, 2013 at his suburban home in Mumbai. He was 74. Dr. Engineer had been ill since February. His untimely death is a great loss to the peace and justice loving people around the world. He was a renowned Islamic scholar, Borha reformist leader and a public intellectual who passionately fought for the rights and justice of the downtrodden and of women. He had made it his life’s mission to work for communal harmony and was a staunch opponent of religious obscurantism which, he claimed, politicians exploited to garner votes and power.
For refomist Bohras he leaves a tremendous vacuum which will be hard to fill. When he joined the reform movement soon after the Udaipur revolt in the early Seventies, the rumblings of reforms had already been underway for decades. Under his leadership he gave a bold new direction to the reform movement and attracted the educated generations to take up issues of justice and human rights within the community. Before he came on the scene, the Bohras and their struggles were languishing in obscurity. Dr. Engineer fearlessly started exposing the Bohra establishment and its corrupt practices in the media and brought the Bohra struggle into national consciousness.
He spoke boldly against the practice of ex-communication and highlighted the exploitative system of taxation which Bohras are made to pay under duress. He demanded accountability and urged the clergy that the money collected form the people be spent on the welfare of the community. He wrote, “There is no trace of spiritualism in the Bohra priestly system. The system is nothing but a huge machinery for collection of money from its followers and which is controlled by the priestly family of the Da'i. This machinery has total grip over the life of a Bohra. Even an ordinary Bohra lives in the fear of the system. Any trace of disobedience can ruin his/her life. The vice-like grip of the Bohra priestly establishment over the lives of ordinary Bohras has reduced them to mere slaves.”
For his pains Dr. Engineer became the public enemy number one for the priestly establishment. He was reviled and condemned like all Bohra reformers before him, and was violently attacked by the establishment goons on many occasions, and on one occasion his office and home were attacked and destroyed. Unfazed, Dr. Engineer continued his struggle and spearheaded the reform movement for nearly four decades. His contribution to Bohra reform is incalculable as he leaves behind a rich legacy of uncompromising commitment to justice and human rights.
Dr. Engineer was not merely a Bohra reform leader. His contributions and reputation go further afield. He is better known as Islamic scholar who, in the mould of Allama Iqbal and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, wanted to unleash the liberative potential of the Quran. He has written more than 50 books and hundreds of articles and papers on Islam and current affairs. He brought a voice of reason to public discourse and believed in non-violence, insisting on resolving issues through dialogue and negotiation. He believed in democracy, diversity and dialogue, and wrote that, “(they) sustain and strengthen each other. If there is no diversity, there can be no democracy and if there is no dialogue, diversity cannot be strengthened. Dialogue is the very spirit of religious and cultural diversity. A genuine dialogue can be conducted only in the spirit of democracy.”
When not travelling the world to speak about Islam and its egalitarian spirit and when not embroiled in Bohra stuggle, Dr. Engineer was mostly devoted to investigating communal riots, and seeing its horrible consequences, worked tirelessly to build social harmony through seminars, workshops and youth camps. Among all his passions, the rights of Muslim women held a special place in his heart. It pained him to see how Muslim women were getting a raw deal by the conservative ulema, and he incurred the wrath of many a mullah for his efforts in raising the status of women and speaking in behalf of their rights and equality. He writes, “According to the Qur'an woman is neither poised against man nor is she his competitor but in Qur'anic philosophy both man and woman complete each other and they are mutual companions, nothing less, nothing more.”
Dr. Engineer won many awards and recognition during his active career the most notable among them being The Right Livelihood Award (Alternate Nobel Prize) which he won in 2004 and shared with Swami Agnivesh. He also won the National Communal Harmony Award in 1997, and the USA Award from the Association for Communal Harmony in Asia in 2003. He counted Bollywood celebrities and intellectual luminaries among his friends but always remained humble and modest to the core. He adopted a simple pajama-kurta as his mode of dress and wore his fame and scholarship lightly.
Dr. Engineer’s memory and work will remain with us for a long time to come, even as we begin to assess the enormity of his loss and his legacy. What he leaves behind for us to emulate is his passion for justice, humanity and his unfailing belief that spiritual growth is essential to human progress.
The Bohra reform movement remains an unfinished struggle, and his leadership and wisdom will be sorely missed. But he leaves behind solid institutions and practices which reformists will carry forward to achieve their aims. His vision for the community was clearly laid out in an open letter he wrote to Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin:
“We pray to Allah to provide us the right guidance and give us courage to stand by Truth with patience. We pray to Allah to grace us with His Mercy so that we can serve entire humanity along with our community. The reformists urge upon you to follow the true path of religion of Islam and live an exemplary simple life and serve the community and humanity as a true leader with great vision. The reformists have always believed in democratic values in social and political matters and have tried to practice the doctrines of accountability and transparency. We have been struggling for these values and will continue to struggle for these values Insha Allah.”