Legacy of Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer

Irfan Engineer

A storm has destroyed everything in my life. I am not even beginning to come to terms with the loss in my life. Death, like storm, is God’s hand and you are so helpless. Never knew that death would snatch my very loving father Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer from us. I was not prepared yet for this colossal loss! But let me remember what he has bequeathed to me. My sister Seema rightly told a reporter that our father wanted us to inherit his legacy equally – legacy of his teachings. In the lull after the storm I am trying to reflect on his legacy to gather some pieces of my inheritance.

What is the legacy that I have inherited from my father?

Asgar ali engineer1) The discipline and the punishing schedule that he followed.
He never budged from his daily routine which included morning walks to maintain his health; working from morning 8:00 am till 10 pm in the night with a small nap in the afternoon until he was hospitalized on 13th February 2013; divided his day into four segments – administrative work, responding to e-mails, reading and writing, and followed the time schedule meticulously. Office staff was not allowed to violate. Visitors from outside city would be entertained even in violation of the time distribution, but visitors from within city were requested to seek appointment, but even then he would be considerate if they came from far. Even on Sundays and holidays, the schedule would hold for him and even if he had to sit in the office alone. Sunday evenings sometimes was a time for a little stroll or a drive. Frequent travels deprived us, his family members, from his company. However, he did not distinguish between the groups that invited him. His commitment once given, he would honour it, even if later some more important invitations arrived on his table. Even his ill health would not force him to change his mind. He has conducted his peace and conflict resolution workshops when sick. This discipline and long day enabled him to contribute so much to the world but perhaps contributed towards shortening his life. How organized and disciplined can we be?

2) Nothing except the values of justice, equality, love, dignity, and diversity were sacred for him. No rituals and no traditions and no cultures. Cultures were only media through which humans made a sense of the world. All cultures, all faiths were to be respected. Except the values, everything else should be subjected rational scrutiny and reformed, reinterpreted, re-understood and refashioned to serve the sacred values. His lifelong search for truth knew no limitations and was checked by no sacred symbols, rituals, traditions, language or culture. Truth could be achieved only through relentless and fearless pursuit. No cost was high enough to attend truth. Truth required only an honest inner search dictated by conscience. He paid a price for his search of truth – transferred often and promotions delayed when in service of Bombay Municipal Corporation as a civil engineer for his honesty and for leading Engineer’s Association, took voluntary retirement to work full time for the cause, suffering great loss of income, socially boycotted by Syedna’s establishment which meant being cut off from his mother, brother, sister and other near and dear ones, his house and office was attacked and completely destroyed by Syedna’s fanatical followers in February 2000, was physically attacked 6 times by Syedna’s fanatical followers with sharp weapons in order to kill him, often abused and threatened, but nothing deterred him from his search for truth and no sacrifice was too high a price to be paid for his principles. He was like a rock so far as his principles were concerned. How honest and relentless can we be in our search for truth?

3) If one realized any dimension of truth, it should be shared with people and without fear of consequences and in language that people understand. He often told me that the difference between a prophet and philosopher was that prophet communicated his message in language that people could easily understand whereas often philosophers spoke in language comprehensible only to a privileged few. The latter made careers, the former brought about social change and left a lasting impact and legacy. As an activist scholar, Engineer always talked in simple understandable language through his writings and oratories. He consciously chose that! He had begun writing in academic language initially, but soon checked himself, for he wanted to work for social change! How passionate can we be in our quest for social change? Will we walk the talk?

4) Dr. Engineer often said that search for freedom required enabling environment. It required freedom and democracy and free dialogue. Three Ds, he would say – Democracy, Dialogue and Diversity. All were necessary for honest understanding and knowing each other and more facets of truth in all its complexity. One had to be a patient listener and open minded before we strive for truth. The differences between two individuals and two or more groups can be made a bridge to reach out each other and to enrich our understanding through dialogue with those with whom one had differences.
Diversity was important as different cultures represent different systems of meaning and visions of good life. Since each realizes a limited range of human capacities and emotions and grasps only a part of the totality of human existence, it needs other cultures to help it understand itself better, expand its intellectual and moral horizon, stretch its imagination, save it from narcissism to guard it against the obvious temptation to absolutize itself, and so on. This does not mean that one cannot lead a good life within one’s own culture, but rather that, other things being equal, one’s way of life is likely to be richer if one also enjoys access to others, and that a culturally self-contained life is virtually impossible for most human beings in the modern, mobile and interdependent world. No culture is wholly worthless, that it deserves at least some respect because of what it means to its members and the creative energy it displays, that no culture is perfect and has a right to impose itself on others, and that cultures are best changed from within.

5) For a person who has realized truth, it was absolutely necessary to be humble. More than anything, Dr. Engineer was a very very humble human being. While returning home from office (when he could walk home), often he would be stopped on road by a stranger and the insignificant stranger would discuss or ask his doubts and even argue with Engineer on various issues. He would passionately argue with the stranger his opinions for, sometimes, hours. My legs would ache standing with him but until the stranger was fully satisfied or decided to quit, Dr. Engineer would passionately keep discussing with him. Later when I would inquire why he invested so much time, he would reply, everyone was important. He was highly approachable and anybody could contact him anytime of the day and night with their queries. He would reply to abusive e-mails, and he could patiently reason with every opponent. His humility influenced even the most indoctrinated cadre who passionately opposed his views. His patience in arguing with them and making them see reason was remarkable. No case was beyond redemption for him. Each human being could be made to see reason and convert her to be a justice and peace worker. Humility was very natural for him and was the other side of coin of truth, but it was also his tool to win over worst opponent! He has conducted his peace workshops in challenging conditions that the organizers can afford. Sometimes in conditions that would appall any decent person. People were important to him and not luxuries and comfortable situations. He would easily trust people and particularly those who were needy. Compassion for those needy, suffering and victims of injustice was an important value for him which he followed lifelong. He was softer than molten wax as far as marginalized, oppressed and persons needing justice, or suffering or otherwise needy people were concerned.

6) Peace with justice was another value to which Dr. Engineer was absolutely committed to. There could be no peace without justice and justice meant not only restorative justice where violators of one’s rights were brought to justice and punished and the victims had the right to reparations. Justice for him also meant distributive justice where class based inequalities were not to be tolerated. In order to work for peace, he studied communal conflicts in depth and understood the roots of the conflict were in economic, social and political inequalities. He wrote extensively on major communal conflicts and explained that though religion was used as a tool to promote conflicts, religion was not the root cause of the conflicts. The real nature of conflict was competition between elite to control socio-economic institutions, including the state and establish one’s hegemony over the other. Religion was used as a tool to mobilize large number of gullible people. Communal conflicts would not be possible without wide spread prejudices against the minorities. Prejudices against the minorities were the foundation on which the infrastructure of communal conflicts was built. Dr. Engineer painfully gathered facts and data to counter the prejudices against minorities convincingly. Many people have approached this author to recall how the workshop and sound arguments and facts placed by Dr. Engineer changed their attitudes towards minorities. One Haryana police officer by the name Sharma met me while Dr. Engineer was in ICU to tell me how attending Dr. Engineer’s workshop was life changing moment for him. He never hated minorities from that day onwards and, more important, would never believe in stupid propaganda like Aurangzeb would eat only after gathering 20 manns of sacred threads of Brahmin.

7) One truth that he arrived through his search was the need to liberate religions from the clutches of the priestly establishments and restoring agency to a common believer would rejuvenate the religion, but more importantly, reveal the hidden meanings that we had failed to understand hitherto. Religion would become true moral power in the hands of the oppressed to fight injustice and change the oppressive status-quo. To him religion was not religion if it didn’t inspire to question status-quo, question the dominant understanding, and taught the followers to be rebels. He challenged the understanding of the left ideologists for whom religion was opium of masses. Even to Marx, religion was not frozen into single role of opium. Marx propounded that religion was also sigh of the oppressed and heart of the heartless world.

8) Gender justice and equality in general and for Muslim women in particular was a great passion for him. He pressed his entire knowledge of Islam and understanding of Quran, Islamic history, study of Islamic jurisprudence to service for the cause of Muslim women. Quran, according to him talked only of rights of women and not of men in Surah An-Nisa and reference to men was always with respect to their duties and not rights. That was to set the social imbalance right where women only had duties and no rights. He argued that during medieval period, as Muslim rulers conquered territories and spread, and became an empire, patriarchal culture snatched the rights given to women by Quran. Muslim Ulema seldom could counter his Quranic arguments and would respond with and defence of patriarchal cultural values on the basis of morals. He instructed me to give his daughter and my sister her share in his property after him. He of course struggled for equality of all and was part of struggle for implementation of Mandal Commission Report much before we all knew about it.

9) Mission of Asghar Ali Engineer was to liberate religion from religious establishments, make it a tool to question established interpretations of religious scriptures and make it a inspiration to search for truth and change the oppressive social reality; to embrace diversity and learn to co-exist through dialogue of cultures and equality, particularly gender equality and rights of Muslim women and by bringing scholarly works to bear to achieve these objectives was the mission of Asghar Ali Engineer. He expanded the horizons of knowledge and values and opened up many avenues for us to achieve the goal of equality, justice, peace, dignity for all and diversity. Asghar Ali Engineer was an institution in himself. Are we ready to carry forward his mission with the discipline and dedication that he had? We will strive!! May his soul rest in peace.

  • Seema Arif

    May his soul rest in peace. Amen!
    He was a great humanist and a scholar of his times.
    He knew about the scars on the face of humanity and tried his best to heal them. May we follow his path! May God give us the vision and courage to follow the path.

  • Vivek

    A really great and noble soul. May he rest in peace and his legacy continue

  • What a truly beautiful and inspiring person. His legacy will live on in the work he did. Peace and love to his family and to those who continue to do what he did.

  • afroze

    Dear Irfan,
    You may not remember me but I was great admirer of your dad’s work and was shocked to hear of his passing away. Please do accept my heartfelt condolences.

  • May his soul rest in peace.