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SPECIAL ARTICLE

Quran as Discourse
Engineer’s Case for a Politics of Liberation

Nazeer A Majeed

A
In his reading of the Quran, Asghar Ali Engineer sghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013) is best known for his
emphasises the egalitarian promise of politics in Islam. A documentation and analysis of Hindu-Muslim communal
riots. As a writer and activist, he is also known as a
truly Islamic politics is defined in terms of liberation of
man of multiple discourses (secularism, interfaith relations,
the underprivileged masses which, according to him, is gender jihad, and liberation theology).1 However, his champi-
part of the Quranic project. He has critiqued the global oning of an alternative Islamic politics of liberation still re-
politics of Islamic revivalism from this perspective and mains a lesser known, and least discussed, aspect of his intel-
lectual career. He not only envisaged alliances of underprivi-
sought cooperation across Islamic and secular
leged Muslims, Christians, and Hindus (dalits and tribals)
ideological lines in maximisation of justice and human “within the country” and of anti-imperialist forces “outside the
progress. In this article, his championing of this country” for this politics, but also laboured to demonstrate, in
alternative “Islamic” politics, which is universally relevant a cosmopolitan and non-sectarian language, its urgency (espe-
cially in the years following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in
and can also be supported by rights groups who, rather
Iran) and universal applicability. He had good knowledge of
than getting alarmed, may find enough reasons to make Arabic and Persian and was trained in traditional Islamic sci-
common cause with, is discussed. ences by his father who was a religious leader of the Bohra
community. While arguing his case on the basis of the Quran,
Hadith, and reason, he also enlisted the most authoritative
sources of mainstream Sunni Islam – Shafi’i, Ibn Hazm, Ghaz-
ali, Shatibi, and Ibn Taymiyyah, among others – in his sup-
port.2 His main source, in any case, was his own reading of the
Quran in a social perspective, which he called a socio-theolog-
ical reading because ideals uprooted from social complexes
become abstract concepts or unrealisable goals put on a pedes-
tal to pay homage to (Engineer 1985: 81).
Engineer was a perceptive observer of the “resurgent”
Islamic world, and the most persistent and consistent critic in
India, and perhaps in the world, of the worldwide politics of
Islamisation. He consistently critiqued Islamic revivalist move-
ments around the globe mainly for one reason – their medie-
valism. They are fond of the structures and institutions that
evolved in medieval Islam, while, according to him, religion
comprises values, not institutions. Their romance with medie-
val Islam, which is feudalistic and hierarchical, and lacking in
the most important aspect of the prophetic religion, egalitari-
anism and social justice, makes them, as revolutionaries of
god, avoid the “mundane” politics of the masses, neglecting
their material condition. The Quran elucidates the concept of a
just social order, irrespective of the nature of the state struc-
ture, and to implement Quranic punishments without fully im-
plementing a just social system is in itself zulm (oppression).
However, the priority of Islamists, as politicians of god, is to
Islamise states by covering up the womenfolk, chopping off the
Nazeer A Majeed (nazeermajeed@gmail.com) is with Aligarh Muslim hands of petty thieves, and flogging (or stoning) adulterers.
University, Aligarh.
Punitive measures that do not disturb the status quo, rather
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than egalitarianism, are upheld as the central concern of (2: 219). The poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal even saw
Islamic politics. From India to Pakistan, to Iran and other parts traces of the concept of Islamic communism in this Quranic
of the Islamic world, the most obvious sign that the so-called doctrine of afw (superfluous). It is an integral part of Quranic
Islamic revolutionaries’ support the feudal status quo is that theology that wealth should not remain concentrated in the
social justice is absent from their agenda, and that the upper hands of the rich – “(Let wealth) not circulate between the rich
strata of society has a hegemony on their leadership. Yet the among you” (57: 7). The Quran makes it clear that the right to
Quran promises egalitarianism, and the leadership of the property or wealth is subject to a share for the weaker sections
meek and oppressed of the earth (Engineer 1985: 27, 2008: of society – “And in their wealth the beggar and the deprived
134, 2012: 128). (who does not beg) have their due share” (51: 19).
To claim that the Quran is one’s constitution, in a positive If Moses was the liberator of the Israelites, Muhammad was
sense as the Islamists do, is naïve. Islam, as a religion, provides the liberator of all humankind through liberating the weak
us with a set of norms and values. An Islamic state in a norma- among them. The Communist Manifesto talks of the “dictator-
tive sense is a valid concept. However, it is difficult to accept this ship of the proletariat”, but the Quran, more than 1,400 years
concept in a positive sense, “scientifically speaking”. Keeping ago, talked of the leadership of the weaker sections of society,
this distinction between the normative and positive in view, though not of dictatorship, and recognised that absolute power
Engineer maintains that Islamic teachings and doctrines are could easily lead to injustice – “And We desired to show favour
normative, and do not constitute any positive science. Shura unto those who were oppressed in the earth, and to make them
(consultation), a Quranic normative value, for example, cannot leaders and to make them the inheritors of the earth” (28: 5).3
be the equivalent (or “superior”) of democracy in a positive
sense, as the Islamists claim. Even values evolve, and “to be in Politicians of God
the spirit of the Quran”, they have to be rethought. The concept The fundamentals of an Islamic polity as laid down in the
of justice, for example, has greatly expanded in modern times, Quran, in Engineer’s reading, are very different from what
including human rights as well. It was only after the advent of was and what is being enacted in its name by the powerful
socialism and socialist philosophy that justice to the weaker sec- vested interests in Islamic countries. In an Islamic revolution,
tions became important. Engineer complains that the Islamic the differences between the weak and powerful ought to be
world is today far removed from the Quranic ideal of justice. urgently addressed, as the first caliph Abu Bakr maintained in
Most Muslim countries are still wallowing in feudal and semi-feudal
his first speech as the political successor to the Prophet. Ali,
eras where the concept of justice tends to be feudal in orientation. (One the fourth caliph, described the concept very succinctly when
reason why what goes in the name of the Muslim personal law in India he said an Islamic revolution would go on “until the lowliest of
is no more just.) Human rights is treated with contempt and denounced you would become the highest in status and the highest among
as ‘Western’ in origin and not acceptable to Islam (1989: 159-60).
you would become the lowliest among you and those left
Engineer’s reading of the Quran is a modernist and socialist behind would surpass those who had left them behind”. Islam,
one. We need to evolve, he maintains, a “socio-theological during the Prophet’s lifetime and a little later, was an ideolo-
approach” to the Quranic verses, revealed to a Meccan society gical force challenging the status quo everywhere. The early
with a mercantile economy where disparities of wealth were Muslims also believed in exporting revolution to the most
fast developing, to understand their correct import. Mecca, the powerful empires of the day – Byzantine and Sassanid. Umar
birthplace of Islam, was then a centre of international com- issued instructions that all the estates left behind by Roman
merce. There had emerged a social class of powerful mer- and Persian nobles in conquered lands be returned to the
chants specialising in complex international financial opera- native cultivators. He strictly forbade the Muslim army from
tions and commercial transactions. The rich merchants had distributing these lands among soldiers as booty, and rejected
formed intertribal corporations to monopolise trade with requests by the army officers who wanted to purchase and cul-
regions of the Byzantine Empire and accumulated large prof- tivate them. But, perhaps, historical forces were not ripe enough
its, never distributing a part of it to the poor and needy of their to let this progressive land-tenure policy last long, and the Isla-
tribes. The mercantile capitalism of Mecca was, in a sense, the mic state could not have altered the productive forces outside
prototype of modern industrial capitalism. Feudalism was a Arabia that eventually overcame the Islamic revolution.4
later development in Arabia (Engineer 1984: 25, 1985: 164, In modern times, Islamic revivalists and revolutionaries have
1989: 154-55, 2012: 127-28, 178-79). occasionally invoked this egalitarian and anti-status quo prom-
The Quran warned rich Meccans, and through them all ise of politics in Islam. It is interesting to note that in countries
humanity, in less of a theological and more of a secular idiom, such as Algeria and Egypt the middle and the upper class elites
that a town gets destroyed when its rich (those leading easy support the military regime, while the poorer masses support
lives) transgress all limits in consumption. Only distributive Islamic militants. However, contrary to the expectations of the
justice can prevent such a disaster (17: 16). Accumulation of masses, it is the “politics of the ruling classes that dominates
wealth was disapproved of, and believers were advised to give Islam and not vice versa”. Even Ayatollah Khomeini’s anti-
away in the way of Allah (that is, to the poor and needy) what Americanism is not to be misunderstood as anti-capitalism, as
was left after meeting their basic needs – “They ask thee how he was no less determined to keep Islam medievalised in the
much they are to spend; say afw” (what is beyond your needs) interests of the status quo. When pressed for economic reforms
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after the revolution, Khomeini said that Iran’s revolution was experience speaks otherwise. Even a revolutionary Islamic re-
essentially for God’s sake, not for the economy’s. “Our Muslim gime cannot ensure cleaner and corruption-free politics. The
nation did not revolt for melon”, said Khomeini. It is interesting Islamic Republic of Iran today, Engineer says, is hardly any dif-
to note that this statement came in the wake of a serious eco- ferent from other Islamic countries. It is dogged with economic
nomic crisis in Iran. There was a high rate of inflation and seri- problems, it is rife with corruption, and it can hardly claim to be
ous unemployment. (The prices of some commodities had risen morally superior to any other country. Of course, it is an “Islamic
by 30% to 150% and the unemployment rate was as high as republic”, but only to the extent that there is prohibition there;
17%.) But the Iranian patriarch’s priority was the “spread of Is- there are some public performances of Islamic rituals; and
lam” (including fighting with another Muslim country) even if women have to stick to a certain dress code.7
it meant economic hardships for the people.5 A general belief of Islamists is that western materialism is a
Khomeini’s assertion that the Iranian people did not revolt for major source of corruption in the Muslim world. Instead, Engi-
melon, nonetheless, is not to be taken uncritically. His own radi- neer says, concentration of wealth, as of power, is the real cul-
cal posturing during and after the revolution was to the con- prit. A perceptive observer of human society can never agree
trary. For example, the radical Children of the War mobilised with the naïve assertions of Islamists. While in any society
masses of people to fight on the Iran-Iraq war front. Khomeini integrity of human character and scrupulousness of conduct is
favoured them. When the ulama (scholars who are recognised a must, they cannot be ensured without establishing an egali-
as having specialist knowledge of Islamic sacred law and theol- tarian and just society. Vast differentials in income, as they
ogy) asked him for permission to preach in favour of the sanctity exist today, are a major source of corruption as well as social
of private property “as laid down in Islam”, Khomeini replied tension and class conflict in almost all Islamic countries. How-
that doing so during the war would discourage young people ever, the orthodox proponents of Islamic states, “be he
from volunteering for martyrdom. He then said to them, I do Maududi of Pakistan, King Khalid of Saudi Arabia or Ayatollah
not need you; I need volunteers who can go and fight. Khomeini of Iran”, knowingly or unknowingly – more probably
This posturing is indeed very intriguing. It shows that the knowingly – try to deceptively assume a simple position – that
volunteers and martyrs, as well as the poor masses they be- it is Western materialism that has brought about moral degen-
longed to, were originally inspired and mobilised by the power eration and things can be set right only if the provisions of the
of ideas of intellectuals such as Ayatollah Taleghani and Ali Islamic sharia (canonical law) are strictly enforced, and reli-
Shariati, and organisations such as the Mojahidin-e-Khalq, an gion and spiritualism become dominant in life.
Islamic revolutionary party under whose pressure even Kho- An ideology, Islamic or otherwise, can certainly provide
meini had, before the revolution, theorised that the god of the valuable guidelines and a framework of values, but by itself it
Quran was on the side of the weak, as in Egypt (28: 5), so in can never become the “final solution”. But Islamic militants do
Mecca (4: 148) and in Iran or anywhere in the world in the not take the human (aspect of the) problem into account and,
struggle against powerful oppressors. He frequently quoted taking for granted an Islamic society of morally perfect human
the verse of the Quran that promises leadership and power to beings, claim that “Islam is the only solution”. This is how
the weak and oppressed in the land (28: 5) in his support. Maududi dogmatically refuses to take into account various
However, like other ulama and Islamists, Khomeini too was a interests and how they influence the policies of a modern state.
champion of medieval Islam. That is why, after the revolution, He thinks that in an Islamic society there is no conflict be-
when pressed for revolutionary Islamic measures, he resorted tween capitalists and workers, landlords and peasants, and
to conservatism, banning music and putting women under the the rulers and the ruled. It is quite obvious that he considers
chador (veil), for example, and came down heavily on the religious conflict as the basic conflict even in a modern polity,
Mojahedin and the leftist groups, who shared with him the thus betraying a very superficial understanding of religion and
Islamic faith as well as his, by now forsaken, Quranic vision, the motive forces of human society. Religion, even in its most
and also were his allies and partners in the revolution. abstract and universal form, cannot be fully segregated from
After assuming power, Khomeini declared a 14-point pro- its concrete social milieu. Even a medieval thinker such as Ibn
gramme, which had only one point related to the weaker Khaldun had no difficulty in appreciating this.8
sections of Iranian society. According to this, the country’s
underprivileged would be provided with “free water and elec- Politics of Islamisation
tricity”. When Khomeini died in early June 1989, there were Engineer introduced the politics of liberation for the first time
several issues of an urgent nature debated by the clergy in in contemporary Islamic discourse, and he was followed by a
Iran. Among these were whether the effort to export the much-hyped South African professor, Farid Esack who, never-
revolution should continue; whether economic policy should theless, does not offer a critique of worldwide Islamist politics
take a leftward tilt, leading to land reforms and the redistribution in Quran, Liberation and Pluralism (Esack 1997). This makes
of the land to the tiller; and whether foreign trade should be his case more contextual than universal. Seyyed Vali Reza
nationalised. A year after, there were food riots in Tehran.6 Nasr in Islamic Leviathan (Nasr 2001) shares with him a
Sometimes people are attracted to Islamists for the “promise” general criticism of the politics of Islamisation: It was used by
of a moral alternative in politics. The poorer masses, sick of cor- postcolonial Muslim states to legitimise power, and avoid the
ruption, think that Islam will provide it. However, the Iranian urgent tasks of rationalisation of the state and politics through
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socio-economic and political reforms (democratisation, gen- It is not only motives, but also a simplistic understanding of
der and land reform). For its thoroughness, Engineer’s critique the feudal and capitalist systems that is indicted by Engineer’s
of worldwide Islamist politics is unique. criticism of the Islamist perpetrators of the status quo. In third
Debunking the religious politics of Islamic rulers, Engineer world countries, there can be no solution to the problem of
quotes Karl Marx who dubbed any state claiming to be Christian poverty without implementing land reforms. However, it is
(or Jewish) a hypocritical state. hardly on the agenda of any Islamic country publicising its
Marx has said in ‘On the Jewish Question’ that one must distinguish be-
“Islamisation” programme. Pakistan, for example, badly needs
tween religious attitude to politics and political attitude to religion. It implementation of land reforms. The committee of expert
would not be difficult to establish that the rulers have adopted political economists for Islamisation set up by Zia-ul-Haq stressed the
attitude towards religion throughout the Islamic countries. Religion is urgent need for such reforms. One may object that there were
being used by these rulers to strengthen the forces of status quo.9
no ulama on the committee, and that the modernists or eco-
The Quranic revelation, as is “very clear” from the early his- nomic experts have no right to talk about an Islamic economic
tory of Islam, was not meant to sanctify the status quo but to system. “Nothing could be more misleading than this”, Engi-
change it for the better and establish justice and equality. How- neer says. “The ulama are no less ignorant of modern econom-
ever, as Engineer finds it, the ulama, as a class, are feudal; as ics. They have no right to talk about it.” The only economic
in Iran, so in Pakistan, and India. In a conference held in Mecca reform that the ulama and Islamic theorists supported under
in Saudi Arabia in 1976, the ulama categorically rejected the Zia’s Islamisation programme was to establish “interest-free
concept of a public sector or nationalisation as “un-Islamic” as banks”, which in no way harmed the powerful landlords res-
it would deprive Muslims (that is, monarchs and feudal lords) ponsible for perpetuating poverty. This not only clearly
of their “Islamic right” to hold property.10 betrayed the class character of the Zia regime, but also the
Making observations about Muslim politics in colonial India, ulama’s poor understanding of modern economics.13
B R Ambedkar said that Muslim tenants would never join Hindu Zakat (payment made annually on certain kinds of property
tenants to prevent the tyranny of a landlord, and that Muslim and used for charitable and religious purposes), they believe,
labourers would not join Hindu labourers in the fight of labour is the final solution to all problems even in a modern economy.
against capital for the simple reason that it might harm a Mus- They have no idea of social health and distributive justice.
lim landlord or capitalist, which would result in weakening the Zakat, which was fixed at 2.5%, even when it was paid hon-
community in its fight against Hindus.11 In Ambedkar’s time, it estly and collected and redistributed by the government, was
was the Hindus, in the postcolonial Muslim world, it was the not sufficient to check aggravating disparities of income and
communists. The ulama in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan (in- concentration of wealth when the productive forces were not
cluding Islamic theorists), in their rush to “protect” the Muslim yet feudalised. The modern industrial capitalist economy is a
masses from falling prey to communism, emphasised the “God- different thing altogether.14
given right” of Muslim feudal lords to private property, as if
there was no Islamic ground to hold on between the devil and What Riba Must Include
the deep sea (feudalism and communism). The concept of riba (usury) is no less misunderstood, says
The concept of property, therefore, was treated as an abstrac- Engineer. In the politics of Islamisation, from Iran to Pakistan,
tion, without distinguishing between property in the form of bank interest was interpreted as riba. But the “crassest form of
means of production, which is used for exploiting the labour of exploitation”, that is rural moneylenders, who in many cases
others, and personal property meant for direct consumption. happened to be big landlords, taking interest from poor peas-
According to Engineer, socialist concepts and institutions come ants was completely ignored. The rate of usury on such lend-
much nearer to the Quranic spirit of social justice. It is clearly ing, during the height of Zia’s Islamisation programme, was
stated in the Quran that no bearer of burden shall bear the bur- said to be as high as 100% a year.
den of others (35: 18). Though the context is that of divine jus- The ulama take riba to mean usury and bank interest, and
tice on the day of judgment, it nevertheless implies that no one nothing more, ignoring that the prohibition of riba is integrally
in this world shall work for the comforts and luxuries of others. connected to the concepts of adl and ihsan (justice and equity).
This verse is a clear denial of the “right” to extract labour with- Some modernists like Fazlur Rahman contend that riba is only
out fully compensating for it, which the feudal or capitalist sys- usury, and should not be interpreted as bank interest. Neither
tems sanction in one form or the other. The Quran says, again of the two views is truly representative of the Quranic spirit.
in the context of divine justice, that man shall get what he Given the modern economic system, riba, according to Engi-
strives for (50: 39). This is a clear enunciation of the principle neer, must be understood as exploitative profit and not merely
of ownership of wealth based on one’s work or labour. A property a fixed rate of interest. Profit in an industrial economy that is
acquired by exploitation, speculation, or by any means (feudal, production oriented is highly exploitative. Consumption, pro-
for example) other than by one’s own labour, cannot have any duction, and distribution form an integrated whole in the mod-
sanction in Islam. It is in this Quranic spirit that the Prophet ern capitalist economy. Riba has to be viewed as a part of this
prohibited sharecropping or owning land that is not cultivated complex whole. It would not do to set up interest-free banks on
by the owner himself. And it is in this spirit that speculation and a profit-sharing basis within the capitalist framework. The
future trading in commodities have been banned in Islam.12 actual purpose of the prohibition of riba cannot be realised
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without ending exploitation in all forms. The concept of riba, capitalism or an informed critique of Marxist socialism, except
in Engineer’s opinion, must also include the “quick and easy repeating certain clichés of the moral imperative without its
profit” through investments made in certain areas to the proper sociological concept.18
exclusion of others, ignoring acutely felt social needs.
Moreover, in a modern capitalist economy, one has to take New Generation of Muslims
cognisance of inflation. In an inflationary economy, interest- Engineer is convinced that Islam, if reinterpreted, would certainly
free banking creates its own problems. In a modern economy enthuse poor and downtrodden Muslims.19 He was developing
that is integrated with the global economy, based mainly on a theology of liberation in Islam not merely as an academic dis-
interest, it is small depositors who lose out and capitalist bor- cipline; but championing the cause of the underprivileged very
rowers investing in high profit-seeking areas who gain tremen- seriously. And that is why he was not satisfied with the response
dously, thus leading to more intense exploitation. It constitutes he received. Speaking about this, he says, “Some attempt (to
riba in that the borrowers benefit at the cost of those who save formulate a theology of liberation in Islam) has been made by
(small depositors). (Among other things, any Islamic economic the writer of these lines but there is not adequate response and
theory will have to answer the question of how to control infla- it does not seem to be very likely in near future.”20
tion without the manipulation of rates of interest.)15 Engineer feels confident of the career, and historical role, of
In a volume edited by him, Engineer has included an interest- Islam in India, “Islam has been, since the colonial days, a rally-
ing story from the Islamisation programme carried out in Iran. ing point for the Muslims to fight against foreign domination
As revolutionaries of god, the revolutionary committees in every and exploitation … Islam now, therefore, needs to be used as a
town forced usurers to “compensate” their debtors with the revolutionary force against internal enemies (vested interests
interest they had taken from them before the revolution. It was nearer home supporting the status quo).” However, he is not
a comic opera. The customers of the usurers were rich farmers, very confident of the role of Muslim intellectual leaders in the
industrialists, and merchants who needed money to run their task, least of all the ulama, “It appears that the ulama have thrown
businesses to make more money. They were “compensated” by their lot with the perpetrators of status quo. Now it is for the
the amount of interest they had been paid before and this made Muslim intelligentsia to take lead. Will they prove any different?
them still richer. Workers and peasants, who could see the “Is- Though I am not very hopeful I wish I am proved wrong.”21 He,
lamic face” of justice in this transfer of money from one section nonetheless, sees, or foresees, in the “new generation of Muslims”,
of the rich to the other, looked on in bewilderment.16 leaders capable and worthy of their role both as intellectual and
For Engineer, the abiding value of Marxism lies in the political leaders, not only in India, but in the world at large.
insights that it gives into the exploitative system of capitalism. Indian Muslims have not produced a single leader with future vision
The Pakistan committee for Islamisation seemed to be in full who could give new direction and infuse dynamism into them. Let us
agreement with him. It pointed out “very significantly” that hope the new generation of Muslims will throw up such leadership
capable of solving more down to earth problems facing the Indian
The Islamic injunction against riba constitutes a rejection of the entire Muslims … It is my fervent desire that the new generation of Muslims
capitalist system. It is in fact a signal for a complete restructuring of the should not be content with mere rethinking defenses of medieval
entire economic system along Islamic lines. The Islamic principle of al- Islam. It should rather boldly face the new problems thrown up by the
Adl wal-Ehsan (justice and equity) must be reflected in the basic con- modern society and rethink the doctrinal structure of Islam so as to
sumption, production and distribution relationships. To think of abol- make its value-structure more meaningful in a concrete sense.22
ishing riba without reference to the totality of the Islamic economic sys-
tem is to put cart before the horse. In fact there is a real danger that the And as he was not a religious or ideological fanatic, he even
abolition of riba and its replacement by the profit-sharing system will sought, with all sincerity and earnestness, cooperation across
increase the level of economic exploitation of the poor by the rich, ideological boundaries, and a critical engagement with secu-
thereby negating the basic Islamic principle of al-Adl wal-Ehsan.17
lar ideologies, “This revolutionary theology would not reject
However, in the writings of the ideologues of a superior but cooperate with any secular ideology which strives towards
Islamic economic system, Engineer finds “no traces” of a grasp maximisation of social justice and human progress.”23 Other
of the critique of industrial capitalism by Marx (for example, than democracy, human rights, and secularism, he names
his theory of surplus value which, according to Engineer, forms socialism, humanism, and modernism in this context. Huma-
the basis of exploitation of labour in the capitalist system, or nism with all its philosophical implications may not be accept-
his forecast about the diminishing return of profit with the able to Muslims, but many of its important implications are not
change in the organic composition of capital, or his denuncia- repugnant to Islam. On the contrary, they are in basic accord
tion of the bourgeois concept of equality in his celebrated with it. It is now a question of emphasis and assimilation. Mod-
critique of the Gotha programme). Let alone traditional schol- ernism, unfortunately, has been preached among Muslims by
ars like Maududi and Baqir al-Sadr who can hardly be ex- the upper classes and the issues raised by the advocates of
pected to know much about the modern social sciences, even modernism do not directly concern the poor masses. A new
the Islamists “who have acquired modern qualifications” in reformer will have to reject both the revivalism of the ulama
these sciences do not show much evidence of a thorough grasp and modernism subservient to the needs of upper classes. He
of modern economics, and, while earnestly establishing what is essentially confronted with the task of developing a compre-
they claim to be a superior economic system, none of them has hensive modern revolutionary theology, with an ideology for
attempted (as Marx has) any thorough analysis of modern progress and change in the material conditions of poor and
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downtrodden Muslims in keeping with modern conditions. of the 14 demands drawn up by the Muslim League did not
Without thorough economic transformation, it is not possible include a single demand pertaining to poor Muslim peasants or
to overcome social backwardness, and it also is a prerequisite toiling Muslim workers and artisans. It was a party represent-
for realisation of a rich spiritual life: ing feudal and upper-class interests (reservation of seats for
The static medieval-oriented Islamic theology has reduced spiritualism Muslims in the central and provincial legislatures, reservation
to sheer sterility thus robbing it of all its creative potentialities. This of jobs in the top echelons of the administration, and so on).28
revolutionary theory will have to be dynamic and change-oriented, its only Even in precolonial India, Engineer claims, the plight of the
goal being realisation of rich spiritual life on sound material conditions.24
Muslim masses never did bother Muslim reformers. The two
Engineer envisages a common front of the two religious famous reform movements of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-
minorities in India (Muslims and Christians) to be forged in an 1624) and Shah Waliullah Dehlavi (1703-62) were only con-
alliance with other oppressed people, especially the dalits, cerned with rectifying Hindu influences on the formal aspects
tribals, and other poorer sections of Indian society to emanci- of religion, invoking the purity of early Islam without its spirit
pate themselves from the powerful clutches of hegemonic of revolutionary change, social justice, and egalitarianism. A
vested interests. Keeping in view the globality of Islam and the feudal and hierarchical caste system, short of (in most cases,
universality of the case for a politics of liberation, his liberation but not all) untouchability, ruled the roost. Let alone feuda-
theology would urge upon “every Muslim” in the world to fight lism, no movement of Islamic reform in India ever attempted
against exploiters and oppressors “within the country they be- to rectify even the social practices of Muslims in the country in
long to” and outside the country by joining hands with all anti- keeping with the egalitarian promise of the Quranic project,
imperialist forces. Writing in the years following the Islamic which inspired the early Islamic community.
Revolution in Iran (1979), which “inspired” Muslim youth world- For evaluating any reform movement, it is important to
wide, he felt the need to underline the urgency of the task, examine which aspects of Islamic teachings are being empha-
Muslim masses will have to be awakened. Their exploitative rulers sised. Without doubting Sirhindi’s intentions, if we only try to
and leaders have cast spell of medieval decadent religion on them and evaluate the implications of his reform movement, for exam-
have trampled their rights. This spell will have to be broken…This ple, for different social classes, we can say that he was a sup-
task cannot be deferred any longer. I have thrown these ideas for the
porter of the status quo. Not a single demand of the many
possible takers.25
Sirhindi made on Jahangir as a condition for meeting him tou-
Muslim Politics in India ched on the spirit of social justice and equality that form the
Engineer spoke even more critically about Muslim politics in central part of the vision of Islam.
India. If it was Marx who helped him critique a worldwide Shah Waliullah, whom some Muslims naively describe as a
Islamist politics (anti-US without anti-capitalism), it was precursor of Marx for Indian Muslims, no doubt, had some deep
Ambedkar who did the same with regard to Muslim politics in insights into the socio-economic forces that bring about politi-
India. Complaining about “the stagnation in social and political cal changes in society. He was convinced that traders should be
life of the Muslim community of India,” and claiming that given greater freedom and the burden of taxation should not be
Muslim society is “even more full of social evils” than Hindu too high on them; the khalsa jagirs reserved for the royalty and
society, Ambedkar observed that Muslims had no interest in pol- their families should not be too extensive; the exploitation of
itics as such, with their predominant interest being religion.26 the peasantry should be reduced, and so on and so forth. How-
Speaking from his own Quranic perspective, Engineer says ever, it would be wrong to describe him as a revolutionary
that Islam never emphasised individual salvation; it is a seri- thinker who wanted to emphasise the concepts of social justice
ous project for social change. Social health, and not the per- and equality in Islam. His main concern was not the poor and
sonal law, according to him, is the goal of the Quranic revela- downtrodden Muslim masses, who along with the poor of other
tion. The Muslim leadership has totally failed Muslim masses communities, were being ground down by an oppressive feudal
in sorting out the basic, “first category” problems (poverty, system, but to save the Islamic empire from the depredations of
education, share in economic development, and jobs in the the Marathas. He only concerned himself with arresting its de-
public and private sectors) confronting Indian Muslims. cline by proposing some marginal reforms, but never rejected
Problems like religio-cultural identity, which can be included the feudal system as such. European Christian reform leader
in the second category, have engaged the better part of its Thomas Muntzer (1490-1525), who preceded him by some 200
attention. Muslim leaders, coming from the upper classes, find years, was far ahead of his times. In his kingdom of god there
it very easy to climb up the leadership hierarchy by overem- were no masters and no slaves. A former colleague of Martin
phasising highly emotional issues that suit their politics.27 Luther, Muntzer led the peasant war of 1525 in Germany, with
This was the story of the movement for Pakistan, which was the objective of making “the common lands, waters, woods and
led by the big landlords who dreaded democracy and land forests that the lords have taken to themselves” common again.29
reform. When Muhammad Iqbal drew Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s
attention to the “problem of grinding poverty among the Mus- Social Reform sans Social Justice
lim masses”, he was simply ignored by the leader who was too As for the much-celebrated social reformer of modern India
shrewd to strike the feudal interests whose support was so Syed Ahmad Khan, his reform movement was too divorced from
vital for him in his campaign for Pakistan. The whole charter the ideals of social justice and egalitarianism to be considered a
64 october 11, 2014 vol xlix no 41 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
SPECIAL ARTICLE

movement for social reform. His liberal reinterpretation of reli- the liberalisation and globalisation) has driven many petty
gion, along with his support for the British empire, served his artisans out of business. They are swelling the ranks of the
own class interests and had hardly any appeal for the toiling unemployed in the urban areas working as petty traders,
masses. Far from offering them an opportunity for modern edu- hawkers, mechanics, coolies, rickshaw pullers, taxi drivers,
cation, the “exploitative imperialist rule had put their very beedi workers, iron smiths, butchers and masons, etc. It can be
survival at stake”. Although Engineer is highly appreciative of safely said that, as against the national average of 40%, 60%
Ahmad Khan’s project of reinterpreting religion, he criticises to 70% Muslims live below the poverty line. Muslim masses
him for missing the point which, according to him, had to con- are by and large as economically backward as the scheduled
stitute the central vision of reform. castes and consequently they are backward in the field of edu-
It is equally important to determine the priorities in keeping with the
cation too. But the Muslim leaders, in sharp contrast to the
aspirations of the people at large and not merely a tiny minority con- Christian missions, have hardly done anything to promote
stituting the upper classes. Indian Muslims are extremely poor and modern education among the poor masses of the community.35
backward. Any reform or re-interpretation of Islam would have to Worse, unlike the Hindu OBCs and dalits, the so-called
keep this fact in mind. In other words, social justice (adl) will have to
Muslim lower castes are yet to have a voice of their own for self-
be re-emphasised as constituting the central vision of Islam.30
representation. (Until recently, in independent India, all the
As far as modernity and theological creativity are concerned, benefits of parliamentary seats and government jobs have gone
Engineer ranks Ahmad Khan as the tallest of Muslim intellec- to only the so-called Ashraf.) The Muslim leadership (both sec-
tual leaders and reformers in India, even above Muhammad ular and religious) is monopolised by upper-caste leaders who
Iqbal, the author of The Reconstuction of Religious Thought in are “totally feudal in their outlook”. They just cannot think of
Islam. (“Let no one grudge at this tribute to him”.)31 However, the formidable economic problems facing the Muslim masses.
as for the plight of the overwhelming majority of Muslims was Most of them are demagogues, rather than sincere leaders with
concerned, who, in colonial India, were either landless peas- a vision for the future. In October 1977, in a period of two
ants, petty artisans, or hangers on of the Muslim nobility, one or weeks, two conventions were held, one in Delhi and the other
even many Ahmad Khans would not be relevant. Soon after his in Ranchi, ostensibly “to discuss various problems confronting
autobiography, A Living Faith: My Quest for Peace, Harmony and Indian Muslims”. Surprisingly, six of the seven resolutions passed
Social Change, was released by Vice President M Hamid Ansari pertained, in one way or the other, to the Muslim personal law
in 2011, Engineer said, in an interview to Live Mint, “We had a (at the time, there was no move from the government or any
Sir Syed, we need an Ambedkar. Ambedkar worked for the poo- section of society to enforce changes to the status quo), but no
rest of the poor. Muslims now need to produce an Ambedkar.”32 concern was expressed over the plight of Muslim artisans and
weavers in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra,
Ambedkarite Critique of Muslim Reservation and Andhra Pradesh who were then on the verge of starvation.36
Engineer had discovered very early in his intellectual career Engineer’s position on the question of Muslim reservation, tho-
Ambedkar’s insights into the reality of Muslim society in India. ugh articulated variously, was nonetheless consistent with the
From 1975 to 2006, and later, he consistently challenged the early realisation of a caste hierarchy among Muslims. Writing as
claims of upper-caste Muslim leaders that the Muslim commu- early as in 1985, he says, “The social milieu of Indian Muslims is
nity is an egalitarian monolith.33 He also maintained that an caste-based. It is a mass of heterogeneous groups who have differ-
overwhelming majority of Muslims came from socially back- ent economic, social, political and educational interests. It would
ward castes and that their economic backwardness was rooted be wrong to treat Indian Muslims as a monolithic group even for
in history, two reasons why reservations were provided in the the purposes of reservation of jobs or other similar schemes”.37
Constitution on a caste basis, and not on the basis of religion. In 2006, when the Sachar Committee report was being
Most of the Muslims in India are converts from various dalit, other debated, Engineer very cautiously ruled out reservations even
backward classes (OBC) and artisan castes. They were poor before for dalit Muslims (“it will be politically unwise, it is resented even
conversion and remained poor after conversion. Even the ruling class in the case of Hindu OBCs and dalits”) and suggested setting up an
Muslims during medieval ages had absolutely no sympathy with these
equal opportunity commission, as recommended by the Sachar
low caste Muslims. They were referred to as ajlaf or kamin zaten
(Muslims of lowly origin) and shunned. These low caste Muslims nev- Committee. He also suggested that Muslim artisans be given low-
er acquired higher status in the caste-ridden society of India. Short of interest loans by nationalised banks, and that Muslim children
untouchability every other evil was there. Thus one reason for their be provided additional facilities for education and coaching.38
low economic status is historical in nature.34
About a year later, however, Engineer changed his position,
Writing as early as in 1985, Engineer noted that even British supporting reservations for most backward caste and dalit
colonial rule and Indian nationalism (which supported big Muslims (a general reservation for Muslims on the basis of
mill owners in the name of swadeshi (making goods in India economic backwardness was unconstitutional, and it would
from materials that have also been produced here)) made mat- benefit only the Ashraf classes) not only in the public sector,
ters worse for the artisan communities, a vast majority of but also in the private sector. “Either the private sector will
whom were Muslims. The Muslim leaders have hardly ever have to come forward voluntarily with some scheme to include
bothered to organise these starving artisans into cooperatives. these low castes and tribes in offering jobs, or government
Today, the fast expanding modern industrial sector (and lately may have to take steps”.39
Economic & Political Weekly EPW october 11, 2014 vol xlix no 41 65
SPECIAL ARTICLE

Quran as Discourse: Hermeneutics of Change different set of core values and read them into the Quran, values such
The hermeneutics in Engineer’s work can be termed a herme- as militancy, power, and domination. Similarly, his invoking the prin-
neutics of change. He invariably invokes change as an Islamic, ciple of shura to legitimise political democracy is also inspired by his
own politics, and does not emanate directly from the Prophetic exam-
or more specifically, Quranic, obligation. Quoting Roger
ple itself, for although the Quran advised the Prophet to consult his
Garaudy (a French philosopher who later converted to Islam) followers, he was not bound by their advice.
from The Alternative Future: A Vision of Christian Marxism,
Engineer says that objective conditions are not inert meta- In the ultimate analysis, Sikand says, all readings are arbi-
physical “givens” but the work of men, human projects achi- trary, human products that cannot claim to represent the di-
eved historically, and, consequently, historically modifiable. vine will in its entirety, and this applies to Engineer’s own un-
The sooner this is realised by Muslim intellectuals, the bet- derstanding of the divine revelation as well.45
ter.40 Unfortunately, the ulama and Muslim intellectuals, even Although no reading, or methodology, can claim to be infal-
the so-called activists and revolutionary leaders, according to lible, it is viability of the discourse, in terms of its rationality
Engineer, are perpetrators of the status quo. They want power and the “spirit of the Quran” (or of the Islamic tradition) in-
and domination “for Islam” and Muslims, but not liberation and voked invariably by Engineer, that makes the difference.46
empowerment of the downtrodden, as promised by the Quran, Engineer cites a medieval religious authority stating the ratio-
which is what change means. Ahmad Khan and Maulana Azad nal principle of the viability of a discourse. Ibn Qayyim says
are the only two laudable exceptions to this. (Even in Iqbal, quoting Ibn Aqil from Funun that any act, process, or project
power, rather than social change, engages a better part of his that ensures social justice must be accepted even if it had not
vision.) Their efforts to reinterpret a socially relevant Quranic been clearly laid down by the Prophet or by the Quran.47
message in their creative theologies must be celebrated.41 It is interesting to note that, thanks to the discourse of demo-
Engineer’s hermeneutics of change can be compared with cracy, certain writers who are also well grounded in tradition
Nasr Abu Zayd’s (1943-2010) humanistic hermeneutics, or invalidate their own patriarch’s interpretation of the consulta-
democratic hermeneutics of invoking the Quran as a discourse, tion verse (3: 159) that argued for monarchy and against de-
rather than reading it only as a text. Criticising Islamist writers mocracy while convincingly explaining the Prophet’s conduct
for producing absolute truths or “authoritative” and totali- in this regard.48 In another example, the Quran only as text
tarian meanings and interpretations, just like the learned allowed learned theologians to interpret the verse of equality
theologians of the medieval ages, and modernists for their (49: 13) to mean only spiritual equality “before god”, thus
apologetics, both of whom read the Quran only as a “text”, Abu affirming social hierarchy through the medieval ages.49 The
Zayd says that it is time now to pay close attention to the Quran Quran as a discourse will make any such argument impossible,
as a discourse or discourses. keeping in view the viability of the modern discourse on egali-
The Quran was the outcome of dialogue, debate, argument, accept- tarianism and social equality.
ance and rejection. If we are serious and sincere in freeing religious
thought from power manipulation, whether political, social, or religious Conclusions
in order to return the formulation of ‘meaning’ back to the community Engineer is a very unique phenomenon in the history of Muslim
of believers, we need to construct open democratic hermeneutics.42
intelligentsia, especially for one reason – his cosmopolitanism.
Although the two scholars have very little in common, the Excommunicated by the Bohra priesthood, a subsect of the
Quran as discourse may perhaps refer to what Engineer has in Ismaili Muslims that he originally belonged to, he went on to
mind in approaching the Quran as a divine project for humanity, become a great communicator of ideas on mainstream (Sunni
or what he calls a socio-theological approach to the Quran. Abu and Shia) Islam and Muslims in our times.
Zayd’s contention that the Quran as only a text serves the “cul- His vision of an alternative Islamic politics is unique in em-
tures” of the elite, while the Quran as a discourse helps discover phasising, and prioritising, alleviation of the material condition
its meaning in everyday life,43 would, in other words, mean that of the masses as a prerequisite of a rich and creative spiritual
the Quran as text, by allowing itself to be manipulated, serves life. It recognises all categories of Islamic politics – Islamic the-
the status quo, while the Quran as a discourse supports change, ory, Islamic revolution, and the Islamic state – without atten-
and, in this way, checks arbitrary readings. (To give an example dant nuances (the truth-claims of a medieval Shariah, universal
from Fazlur Rahman, the Quran only as a text emphasises pri- caliphate, “guardianship of the jurisconsult”, and so on). His main
vate virtues that, at best, produce saints and martyrs. The Quran contribution in this discourse is his emphasis on devising new
as a discourse will emphasise public virtues, or the collective institutions in keeping with the demands of evolving concepts of
effort of the community to found an ethical, social, and political justice (as well as an ever-demanding radicalism of the Quran).50
order on earth on the basis of private virtues.)44 However, it can By engaging with the ulama and Islamists on issues of pub-
also be alleged that this is another way of appropriating the text lic policy in a modern state, he offers a vision of secularism
and monopolising manipulation. Yoginder Sikand says, that does not banish religion-informed reason from public pol-
icy debates. This is a position defended by philosophers such
This reading of core values (peace, justice, compassion, and equality)
into the Quran is, while not completely arbitrary, determined essen-
as Jurgen Habermas, post-Marxists such as Chantal Mouffe,
tially by Engineer’s own politics. It is quite conceivable that other Mus- and religious pluralists such as Diana Eck and Miroslav Volf in
lims, pursuing other political agendas, could construct a completely their arguments with secularists.
66 october 11, 2014 vol xlix no 41 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
SPECIAL ARTICLE

In formulating the case of liberation as a religious imperative, The ulama and specially the Islamic theorists take pride in
Engineer has some issues both with the Marxists and the Islam- “ideologising” Islam, that is, making their religion an ideology
ists. With the Marxists, he takes the issue of social relevance of that offers “final solutions”. The irony is that an ideology, religious
religion. Religion must be studied as a serious intellectual, spir- or secular, is always subject to revision and rethinking. But, as
itual, and historical enterprise, rather than being brushed aside Engineer says, ideologies fear being rethought, because rethink-
as a spiritual fraud.51 With the Islamists, on the other hand, Engi- ing undermines their authority.52 However, the critical points
neer has several issues; among them the issues of theological and rational elements in Engineer’s argument, if not particularly
creativity and a critical engagement with secular ideologies in his socialistic reading of the Quran, may go a long way in challeng-
maximising justice and human progress. The idea, though use- ing the feudal innovations in the Islamic tradition and force
ful in the development of what he calls the “Islamic Theory”, Islamic theorists as well as the ulama, the two classes he
will most likely be ignored by the ulama for reasons of purity invariably challenges, to review their positions or rethink
and “religious” correctness. their defences.

Notes 28 The Islamic State, p 151; Islam and Muslims, 46 For “Spirit of the Quran”, see for example: Islam
pp 167-68. and Muslims, pp 13, 39, 56; for the spirit of the
1 See, for example: Muhammad Agus Nuryatno tradition, see: Engineer (2000): pp 245-46.
29 Islam and Muslims, pp 157-61.
(2000) “Asghar Ali Engineer’s Views on Libera-
30 Ibid, pp 162-64. 47 The Islamic State, p 146.
tion Theology and Women’s Issues in Islam: An
Analysis”, Master’s Thesis, Institute of Islamic 31 Islam and Liberation Theology, p 203. 48 Thanwi, Maulana Ashraf Ali (1427 A H),
Studies McGill University Montreal Canada, 32 “Asghar Ali Engineer: We Had a Sir Syed, We pp 300-02, Cf, pp 183-87.
viewed on 19 August 2013, http://digitool.li- Need an Ambedkar”, 9 September 2011, Live 49 Marlow, Louise (1997, 2002), Hierarchy and
brary.mcgill.ca/R/?func=dbin-jump-full& ob- Mint, viewed on 19 August 2013, http://www. Egalitarianism in Islamic Thought (UK: Cam-
ject_id=30194&local_base=GEN01-MCG02 livemint.com/Politics/dfPRud2EIgB8Xp2OX bridge University Press), pp 96-99, 114-16.
2 Hadith: Collections of Bukhari, Muslim, Malik, k1WeO/Asghar-Ali-Engineer--We-had-a-Sir- 50 Islam and Muslims, p 39.
Ahmad, Abu Dawud, Nasai, Baihaqi, and Syed-we-need-an-Ambedkar.html 51 Religion and Liberation, pp 139, 141.
Tabarani. 33 Asghar Ali Engineer (1975): Islam, Muslims, In- 52 The State in Islam, pp 239-40.
3 Engineer (1980, 2006): The State in Islam: dia (Bombay: Lok Vangmaya Griha); Asghar
Nature and Scope (Gurgaon: Hope India Publi- Ali Engineer: “Indian Muslims: Reservation or
cations), p 251; Religion and Liberation, No Reservation?”, 1-15 December 2006, viewed
on 7 July 2014, http://www.csss-isla.com/arch
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36 Islam and Muslims, pp 170-71; “On Reservation – (1984): Islam and Revolution (Delhi: Ajanta).
9 Islam and Muslims, p 16. for Muslims – Should or Should Not Be”, 1-15 – (1985): Islam and Muslims: A Critical Reassess-
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11 B R Ambedkar (Why there is no organised 37 Islam and Muslims, pp 170-71.
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16 Islam and Revolution, p 138. 42 Abu Zayd, Nasr (2004): Rethinking the Quran:
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17 Ibid, p 267. Towards a Humanistic Hermeneutics (Utrecht:
(Oxford: OUP).
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21 The Islamic State, pp 205-06, 206 n 5. periences of the non-Arab Islamic World? Thanwi, Maulana Ashraf Ali (1427 A H): Islam aur
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23 Islam and Muslims, p 166. com/doc/114840036/Rethinking-the-Qur-an-
24 Ibid, pp 92, 164-65. Towards-a-Humanistic-Hermeneutics, pp 4, 16.
25 Ibid, pp 16, 92, 166, 277-78; Islam and Its 43 Ibid, pp 3-4.
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_ partition/410.html Sikand/AsgharAliEngineerIslamicTheology- Ph: 0651-2205640
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Economic & Political Weekly EPW october 11, 2014 vol xlix no 41 67