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May 25, 2013 / Man in the Mirror

Khabar: Asghar Ali Engineer hailed as fearless champion of reform

By Udayan Namboodiri for Khabar South Asia in New Delhi

May 18, 2013

Asghar Ali Engineer, who passed away in Mumbai on May 14th after a long illness was well-known for his dedication to Islamic law, Qu’ranic studies and civil rights. His death is being mourned by Indian scholars and leaders from all religious and political persuasions.

  • India's Asghar Ali Engineer, left, and Swami Agnivesh, right, pose with their Right Livelihood Honorary Awards on December 9th, 2004. Engineer, who died Tuesday (May 14th) after a long illness, is being mourned by Indians across the political and religious spectrum. [AFP]India’s Asghar Ali Engineer, left, and Swami Agnivesh, right, pose with their Right Livelihood Honorary Awards on December 9th, 2004. Engineer, who died Tuesday (May 14th) after a long illness, is being mourned by Indians across the political and religious spectrum. [AFP]

Engineer was many things – an acknowledged expert on the Holy Qur’an, a human rights campaigner, a feminist, a fearless crusader for reform in his Shia-Bohra community and an effective communicator on secularist challenges.

“There will never be another Asghar Ali Engineer,” Maulana Arshad Madani, president of Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind, told Khabar South Asia. “He was fearless in both the physical and intellectual sense. He interpreted the Qur’an with great lucidity and courage. His popularity went beyond the borders of India.”

In a statement, Indian Vice-President Mohammad Hamid Ansari said: “In his lifetime [Asghar Ali Engineer] championed the cause of peace, non-violence and communal harmony.”

India’s former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, told Khabar, “Asghar Ali Engineer campaigned for reform in Islamic society by persuading people to understand the teachings of the Prophet better. He was a symbol of India’s unity.”

A life of faith and education

Born March 10th, 1939 to a family of Shia-Bohra scholars in Salumbar in Rajasthan state, Engineer began his education in a madrassa and soon mastered Arabic. He later began formal education and graduated with a civil engineering degree. For over two decades he worked with the municipal corporation of Bombay, as Mumbai was formerly called.

Engineer’s beliefs brought him into conflict with the Yemeni Shia Dawoodi Bohras community in western India during the 1970s. The group endorsed female circumcision and was against women’s emancipation.

The scholar continued to rile up his fundamentalist opponents.

“In 1996, he was assaulted in his own house by hoods in the employ of the supreme leaders of the Bohra community,” rediff.com columnist Dilip D’Souza told Khabar. Though “every article in his house was destroyed,” he did not “bow to their dictates.”

Books addressed Islamic law, human rights

Engineer wrote extensively on both Islamic law and social questions. Of his over 30 books, the most famous were The Origins and Development of Islam: Essays on its Socio-economic Growth (1980), Rights of Women in Islam (1992), The Role of the Minorities in the Freedom Struggle (1986) and Kerala Muslims — an Historical Perspective (1988).

Just because the Qur’an was silent on some women’s issues, it did not signify approval of discrimination against women, he famously argued.

Islam grants women more liberties than in any other faith, Engineer insisted, writing that “even a cursory study of the Qur’an makes it clear that a woman is as much a spiritual entity with dignity of her own.”

“The Prophet gave women the greatest respect both in the roles of mother and wife”, he wrote.

Writer and lifetime friend Shivam Vij told Khabar, “When an Islamic scholar would make an argument that a particular verse in the Qu’ran supported the denying of rights to women, he would shoot back that the antithesis was upheld by the same verse.”

According to son Ifran Ali Engineer, the most cherished of Engineer’s many awards was the 2004 Right Livelihood Award “for promoting religious and communal co-existence, tolerance and mutual understanding.”

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