Asghar Ali Engineer
Asghar Ali Engineer was an Indian reformist-writer and activist who led the Progressive Dawoodi Bohra movement. He was internationally acknowledged for his work on liberation theology in Islam. His work mainly focused on communalism, communal and ethnic violence in India and South Asia. He advocated peaceful culture, non- violence and communal harmony and has done a great deal of work on communalism and communal violence in India since the first major riot in India in Jabalpur in 1961. When a revolt took place in Udaipur in the year 1972, he started playing the leading role in the reform movement. Asghar Ali Engineer has been instrumental in publicizing the Progressive Dawoodi Bohra movement through his writings and speeches. In 1993, he founded, ‘Center for Study of Society and Secularism’ to promote communal harmony. He has been awarded several awards, including the Right Livelihood Award in 2004 for his ‘strong commitment to promote values of co-existence and tolerance’.
Progressive Dawoodi Bohra
It is a movement within the Dawoodi Bohra subsect of Mustaali Ismaili Shia Islam led by Asghar Ali Engineer. They separated from the mainstream Dawoodi Bohra community on social and economic issues. They called themselves as Progressives or Reformists and challenged the absolute authority and supremacy of the Dai, or spiritual leader of the community. They alleged that the 51st Dai Sayedna Taher Saifuddin claimed infallibility and issued new doctrines pronouncing that all properties owned by the Bohras belonged to the Syedna, and that they are mere munims or account keepers on his behalf. The Dai Syedna professed to be instituted a doctrine of Raza, which required that without first attaining his permission, his followers could do nothing (secular or religious). It was in the year 1902 when the policy of requiring a Raza began. Several Bohras challenged the authority of Taher Saifuddin through litigation and his claims were rejected by the court. The Progressive Dawoodi Bohra community also claims that the 52nd Da’i Sayedna Mohammad Burhanuddin asserted the same rights as Taher Saifuddin, but, the District Court of Udaipur upheld his
claims. However, the Rajasthan High Court at Jodhpur, held later that the Waqf Act of 1954 provided exclusive control of property such as mosques to the Waqf Board, and that the Syedna have no rights over them.
Asghar Ali was a true humanist His struggles and writing and speeches were informed by his deep conviction in the values of humanity, equality and justice and peace. He challenged the orthodoxy of the ulema and the Muslim elite and sought to rescue Islam and its egalitarian potential from their clutches. In doing so he broke the archetype of Islam being rigid and primitive and Muslims being backward and ignorant.
He was influenced by Marxist philosophy and borrowed its ideas to formulate a liberation theology of Islam. This is one of his seminal contributions to Islamic thought. He came to believe that Islam was not just a religion but a political and social movement, a divine project started by Prophet Mohammed to liberate the poor and meek, the women, the orphans and the oppressed.
His ideas were certainly unconventional and controversial, and he infuriated the conservative ulema the most on the issue of rights of Muslim women. He spoke and wrote extensively on raising the consciousness of Muslim women.
His contribution to the reform movement remains unparalleled. He challenged and exposed the clergy in a way nobody had done before. For him the Bohra problem was a matter of oppression and violation of their human rights. How priests treated their followers and how they conducted their affairs was no longer a private, internal affair of Bohras. The government and the constitution guaranteed individual rights and dignity. Priests cannot take those away in the name of religion.
His most valuable contribution and asset was his knowledge of religion. He was an Islamic scholar and had thorough insights into Ismaili esoteric doctrine which the clergy kept close to its chest. He challenged the clergy to justify its action on the basis of the Quran and Isamili scriptures. In his writings, he emphasised that the values of justice, equality and compassion were the foundational pillars of Islam. According to him, being a Muslim was a social and collective project and without social justice and equality in Muslim societies the Prophetic mission would remain incomplete.
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