I first met Asghar Ali Engineer in January 2002 in Mumbai. I was a fellow with the America India Foundation and a few weeks later I would be posted to work with an NGO in Ahmedabad.
A few minutes before his presentation, I noticed him standing off to the side in silence, staring at the ground. I walked up and introduced myself. I was young, in my 20s, and I did not know what to say.
“As-salaam alaikum,” I said.
“Wa-alaikum salaam,” he replied.
I am not sure what response I expected but I thought that perhaps because he and I share the same faith that we might have a special bond, that my greeting would spark a conversation. After all, I always thought phrases like these serve less as greeting and more as an announcement, as in, I am part of the same religion as you.
But Asghar saab just held my hand and then put his hand on his heart. “Nice to meet you,” he said, and then stared at the ground again in silence. I thought it was odd, rude even.
As I continued to meet Asghar saab, I realised that he had very little patience for superficial connections. I witnessed this when I saw him greet crowds after his lectures. If you told him you were from the same caste or city he would not be as excited as if you told him that you also believe that we must fight patriarchy with the same vigour that we must fight communalism.
What set him apart was his fearlessness, something he showed from a young age. He was born on March 10, 1939 in Salumbar, Rajasthan to a family of priests in the Bohra community and schooled in the traditional Islamic sciences like Qur’anic study (tafseer). Islamic schooling is often based on the idea that you should teach a child as much as he/she can digest and then later they will develop the intellect to question what they have learned. The idea, as William Chittick writes in his book The Sufi Path of Love, is that form precedes meaning. But Asghar saab began to question at a young age, at a time when he was told he should only be memorising. Later he would become one of the first to question the transparency of the Bohra leadership, something completely unheard of during his time.
He was effective and very hard to argue with (as I learned first hand) because he was grounded in Islamic law. When an Islamic scholar would make an argument that a particular verse in the Qur’an supports denying a woman her rights, Asghar saab would draw on his extensive knowledge of the Qur’an to argue that very verse means the antithesis.
Each time he spoke out, the more he isolated himself but this never bothered him. Part of what made him so unique was that he never saw himself as part of a community. He believed this was the surest way to stifle your voice. Be independent, he always told me.
After I witnessed the Gujarat riots, we met on a few occasions. But he never liked hearing my stories from Ahmedabad. It was not that he was not interested but he did not want it to rattle his core belief that humans are inclined towards goodness and reason, two things he saw lacking during the 2002 carnage.
We ended up growing apart because he was so ideal about India and religion that that idealism which I always saw as his virtue I began to see as his blind spot. But I always appreciated how he never gave up and more importantly, how he was always re-examining his beliefs.
The last time we corresponded was in 2005. It was a few months after Modi was denied a visa and I was active in Washington DC in raising awareness about Gujarat. But I was burned out and frustrated by my fellow Indian Americans who could not be bothered with what happens in India. What I wanted, I told him, was more support, more people to stand with me.
“You will not find many friends on this path,” he wrote to me.
It is these words and that image of him — standing off to the side, staring at the ground as when I first saw him — that I will always remember about him. Yes he was alone, as many are who push for change, but he was also something very unique and rare. He was his own person.
— Zahir Janmohamed is a writer in Ahmedabad
*Reproduced with permission from Kafila.org