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Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer attends Global Ethics conference in Kenya

Quran lays foundation of global ethics

Dr. Asgher Ali Engineer was invited to attend a global conference in Nairobi, Kenya from 25 – 29 January 2009 organized by a Swiss NGO called Global Ethics. The objective of the conference was to develop a global ethics with the help of scholars and intellectuals from around the world.

Sixty delegates from 27 countries attended the conference. Dr. Engineer gave the opening and closing address and he was also the moderator and chairperson for a session on Inter-faith Dialogue and Global Ethics.

Globar Ethics is a global network of persons and institutions interested in different fields of applied ethics. It offers access to knowledge and information resources on ethics, especially through its leading global digital library on ethics. It facilitates collaborative web-based research, conferences, online publishing and active sharing of expertise.

Global Ethics aims specifically at increasing the visibility of, and access to ethics perspectives from Africa, Latin America and Asia. It fosters global common values as well as respect for contextual ethics perspectives, and the richness of diverse languages, religions and world views.

The conference opened with Dr. Engineer talking about three principles in the Quran that deliver the foundation for global ethics.

  1. The Quran opens with the verse “Bismillahi rehmani rahim” which talks of a God that is most gracious the most merciful. That is also the fundamental value of Ethics – to be merciful and compassionate. Further, the verse continues as “maliki yaw mid din” – Allah is the sustainer of the universe – not just the sustainer of Muslims per say. Thus the Quran has global implications. Since the Quran makes Allah the sustainer of the universe, all forms of life and the sustenance of the universe become sacred. The environment becomes sacred and a Muslim’s duty is like that of Allah’s - to respect all life.
  2. Qur’an 49.13: O mankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes, in order that you might come to know one another. In the sight of God the noblest among you is the one who is most deeply conscious of God.

    Here is another message of Allah; the message is that of diversity, respect, understanding, peace and harmony amongst all faiths, religions and peoples. The verse expounds on the belief that if Allah wanted he could have created all as one race, but Allah chose diversity over uniformity.

  3. Quran 28.5: And we wished to do a favor to those who are weak (oppressed) in the land, and to make them rulers and to make them the inheritors.

    Similarly, the Bible talks of “The meek shall inherit the earth”. Peace, equality, justice and compassion must be established to remove strife and sustain global ethics.

In his closing remarks, Dr. Engineer indicated that there was a lot of differing opinions as to the wordings of the communication of the conference. Conference participants were engaged in arguments over using the right words. Dr. Enginner mentioned that the message of all the great religious men – be it Buddha, Moses, Jesus or Mohammed - was very simple and direct. We are making their message complex by drowning them with words.

He urged that we should keep the message simple and not deviate from it by making the language and communication of it complicated. He gave two examples to demonstrate the simplicity of the message and how we have lost that simplicity:

First, Molana Rumi, the great Persian saint was addressing his disciples and a drunkard came in to disturb the meeting. His disciples started cursing and physically abusing the drunkard. Rumi at once asked his disciples to stop this and scolded them. He said that they (the disciples) were more intoxicated than the drunkard; the drunkard is just intoxicated with alcohol but the disciples are intoxicated with power. He suggested that the disciples’ false sense of power was more potent and dangerous than the innocent person who had just consumed alcohol.

Second, Dr. Engineer cited the example of Buddha who was giving a sermon and an angry man came to him and demanded that he explain who is God. Buddha narrated him a story to calm his down: A man once went hunting and by mistake the arrow missed the deer and struck a man. The hunter rushed to the injured man and started treating him and was trying to remove the arrow. The injured man took hold of the hunter's shoulder and demanded why he shot the arrow at him, what wrong had he done and all sorts of other questions. The hunter said, “Look we have very little time and if I use the time to explain this you might be dead. Let me tend to your wounds first, then I will explain what really happened.” Similarly, Buddha said to the angry man, “let me remove the suffering of humankind first then I will tell you about God.”

Religion means good deeds not just rituals

An evening with Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer on 25 Jan 2009 at Sir Yusufali Sports Club, Nairobi, Kenya

Reformists Bohras have a presence in Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya. They are 100 strong in Nairobi and some 50 in Mombasa. Sir Yusufali Karimjee Jivanjee built a magnificent sports facility in Nairobi and another similar facility in Mombasa. Reformists use the club as their center for all religious and social functions. Recently, a ghusal khana was built to facilitate burial procedures.

About 70 people gathered at Sir Yusufali Sports club to listen to Dr. Engineer. Zahid Rajan started the program by welcoming Dr. Engineer to Nairobi and Aftab Fidaali introduced him to the gathering.

The audience asked Dr. Engineer to speak on Islam and inter-faith relations, and he began by saying that Islam respects all prophets which came to all people at all times. 124,000 prophets graced this world over the ages and they all should be respected whether they are mentioned in the Quran or not. He emphasized that religions should be approached on the basis of commonality rather than differences. He said that there are a lot of commonalities and our relationships should be based on these and these alone.

Most religions believe in God, charity, goodness, righteousness and Akhirat i.e. life after death. He said, we should make use of these similarities and create a brotherhood of nations. Prophet Abraham AS is common to so many, Muslims used to pary facing Jerusalem, and Jewish and Christian traditions are valued but many vested interests exploited the differences in religion to gain and hold power, he said. In his opinion, Ram, Krishna and Buddha could be considered probable prophets.

He explained that there is no compulsion in religion. The right path is shown and falsehood denied in Islam. We chant the 99 names of God and that is the extent of our religion. True worship is only accepted if we emulate all the beautiful names of Allah. It is deeds that matter – not our chanting. Chanting without deeds becomes a ritual, true worship is through deeds. If we understand and perform good deeds and not just get obsessed with rituals, harmony and peace will prevail. But sadly, he said, we have committed ourselves to rituals and forgotten the true meaning of religion and forgotten the true deeds of compassion, harmony, peace and good relations with others.

Jihad has been wrongfully used and taken out of context by radical Islamists, he said. True jihad is the struggle with one’s self – to eliminate lust, greed, ego, and jealousy and to participate in the betterment of self and society.

During question time, a Christian lady who converted to Islam asked his advice as she is under a lot of pressure from her family as her conversion has greatly displeased them. Dr. Engineer advised her to be patient and respectful to her family. “Try your best to explain to them in very good demeanor why you converted. If they do not understand, she should conduct her behavior in a pleasing way. Only then they would understand you. You should be a role model like Bilal who converted to Islam.”

This session lasted from 11.00 AM to 1.00 PM. Namaz and majlis of Fakhruddin Shaheed followed. Fatma Jivanjee, Tehzin Abdulla and Zohrein Abdulla graced the majlis by reciting beautiful marisias.

The second session of the program started at 2.00 PM and the topic of discussion was the Status of the Bohra Reform Movement. In response to questions Dr. Engineer informed the audience about court cases concerning Udaipur Masjids and excommunication.

Later Dr. Engineer talked about the strength of conviction. He said that it does not matter whether people support him or not, he wants to be true to his conviction and he was only answerable to his convictions. What other people want to do is up to them and he is not relying on others.

Somebody asked whether he has ever met Syedna Saheb and he said yes. His father was an Amil and once his father took him to meet Syedna Saheb. He was forced to perform sajda and he told his father he would never see him again. He also related his story on the flight from Indore to Mumbai where Syedna Saheb declared in a Mumbai masjid that Asgher Ali pushed him in the plane. This is obviously not true. Dr. Engineer has a reputation of being a “Gandhian” who subscribes to non-violence. He was beaten up by Syedna’s Saheb’s goons on his arrival at Mumbai ariport and had to be hospitalized. His house and office were also attakced and ransacked.

Women’s rights and men’s duties

Discussions continue at Jivanjee and Fatma Jivanjee’s residence.

More than 30 people attended Jivanjee’s residence on Thursday 29th January to hear Dr. Engineer speak about “Women’s rights in Islam”. There was a hue and cry from Toronto reformist women regarding the topic; they said it should be about “Men’s duties” rather than “women’s rights”. That is exactly what Dr. Enginner discussed. He said that there is an opposing opinion between the rights given to women in the Quran v/s Sharia. When our patriarchal society did not find the support of the Quran in dominating women, they invented Sharia to support such a system.

He said that Quran has spoken of equality between men and women. Quran addresses men and women as “zowjain” and there is no gender difference in the Quran. Dr. Engineer said that he has studied the Quran for many years to understand gender issues and his findings can be distilled as follows:

  1. Whenever the Quran talks of women, it talks of women’s rights whilst wherever the Quran has spoken about men, it talks about their duties.
  2. The Quran has given rights of property to women 1400 years a go whilst in modern secular society this right has been given only in the last 100 years. After his talk, there were many challenging questions from the floor. He was asked about his take on the hijab. He stated that decency of dress is prescribed, not complete covering as stipulated by conservative Islamists.

Can women lead prayer? He emphatically said yes. He said the first converts of Islam were women, as they had not seen such rights given to them before. Therefore many believing women started praying and lead prayers, as men did not know how.

Can a woman perform nikah? Why not, was his reply. Women “kazi” are allowed in Islam. If women can become judges, why can they not perform nikah.

The meeting started at 8.00 PM in the evening after Dr. Engineer’s conclusion of the Global Ethics conference in Athi River. Fatma Jivanjee prepared a sumptuous meal. Questions and answers continued after dinner and the meeting ended at 11.00 PM. Thank you Jivanjeebhai and Fatma for being such gracious hosts. Many thanks go to Aftab Jivanjee and Zahid Rajan for taking the initiative to arrange these meetings.