April 16, 2013 By K Ashraf

Asghar Ali Engineer: An Incomplete Story

engineerAsghar Ali Engineer (b.1931) is a pioneering Indian scholar and the author as well as editor of more than fifty books. He is both an activist and intellectual known for his profound commitment to issues of social justice in Islam. He has written extensively on justice, liberation, gender, reform, peace, violence and modernism. His new biography ‘A Living Faith: My Quest for Peace, Harmony and Social Change’ is an account of his life long struggle as an Indian Muslim.

Engineer was born into a Bohra, (a Shi’ah sub-sect) family in Maharashtra, and later worked as an engineer at Mumbai Municipal Corporation – hence his surname. Engineer resigned from his job after twenty years and dedicated himself to the quest for social reformation and justice. Engineer, however, was and is caught up in a double role. On the one hand he is committed to the idea of national integration by erasing the specificities of the Muslim community and on the other, the difference of the same community as a minority, especially in the wake of nationalist Hindu chauvinism. As such, Engineer has become a critical insider and also functions as a political activist for Muslim minority rights.

The autobiography has three parts and consists of thirteen chapters. The first part which contains five chapters gives a glimpse into his personal life, including his childhood and education, and into the development of an alternative social vision which moved him from “conformism to tolerance”. His life in Bombay provided him with a cosmopolitan lifestyle and outlook. During the sixties and seventies, Indian cities were flourishing and expanding due to migration from rural areas and also broke free from the exploited past of both colonialism and traditional Hindu caste hierarchies. Engineer’s reformist activism among the Muslim community started during this period. The Jabalpur riot of 1961, considered as the first major riot in India, roused him from his dream of a secular nation state and he began to address the question of Indian Muslims as a ‘minority’.

Engineer records his engagement with communalism and terrorism. He says that “the problem is extremely complex and requires a multi-dimensional approach which is completely lacking at present” and that in India “many major incidents of terrorism took place during the BJP rule, including the attack on Parliament in 2001”. Engineer alleges that most of the government agencies failed to stop violence and find those responsible for these incidents. Instead, the Indian state arrested innocent Muslim youth and implemented draconian laws, which further deepened the crisis.

One of the drawbacks of this biography is that it lacks full details and complexities of many of the incidents that Engineer describes. For example, while mentioning the attack on parliament on 13th December 2001, Engineer fails to mention the witch-hunt carried out by the right wing Hindutwa ruling party, Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP), and its supporters. He fails to address the propaganda surrounding the arrest of a Kashmiri-born Delhi University Professor, Sayed Abdul Rahman Geelani, by prominent media groups and even some leftist groups. While Engineer is critical of the BJP government’s failure to stop the incidents of terrorism he does not provide an adequate treatment of the responses from marginalised communities against state terrorism and related oppression and thus unconsciously negates the political agencies of those communities.

Another aspect about this biography is that it shows the absence of serious interlocutors to Asghar Ali Engineer. It reflects in the repetitiveness in his ideas and the absence of fresh insights. There are only very few attempts to engage with Engineer. For example, Riffat Hussain wrote an introductory essay on Engineer ‘Asghar Ali Engineer: India’s Reformist Scholar- Activist (Hunter, 2009:178-180).This book was in the context of 9/11 to find new “reformist” voices against the “radical” interpretation of Islam (Hunter, 2009:p.xv). Yogindar Sikand in an essay Asghar Ali Engineer: The Man introduced Engineer as a pioneer along with Wahiduddin Khan (1925- ) and Sayyid Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (d.1999) as an important scholar (Sikand,2004:12-31).

We all know that Engineer’s own work on Hindu Muslim conflict in Indian context is remarkable (Pandey, 1991:559). Gyananendra Pandey criticized Engineer for his leaning towards the nationalist, state centric approach which always wants to ‘normalize’ Muslims. Pandey said from an ‘academic’ point of view that Engineer’s political activism is naïve in the sense that it is not considering the way of response generated by ordinary Muslims to various oppression and their narrative is suppressed by his anxiety for a secular national citizenship .

The biography included the details of Engineer’s travels and interactions with Muslim intellectuals. However, it appears as an incomplete story of a man who tried to live in such a manner as to get engaged with the complexity of his context and surroundings. It is not only the story of Engineer as a person but the story of an Indian Muslim self and its tragic present and distant past.


Hunter, Shireen T.2008. Reformist Voice of Islam: Mediating Islam and Modernity. London: M E Sharpe.
Pandey, Gyanendra. March1991. In Defence of the Fragment: Writing about Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today. Economic and Political Weekly.pp 559-572.
Sikand, Yogindar.2004.Muslims in India since 1947.New York: Routledge.

Posted in: Books