By: Risma Hikmawati

Born in an elite religious community milieu which later on so close with the gross exploitation in the name of religion, make himself exploring the essence of Islamic teaching. He tried to compromise it with the Western literature to find that actually the nature of the Sharia will become blessing for the human civilization. This is because according to his perspective,  revelation is not contradictory with reason, but it complete each other. 

A Reflective Muslim Thinker to the Social Reality 

Asghar Ali Engineer is a human rights defender who was born in India. He came from the family of the Bohro ulama, at 10 March 1939. His father was Syeikh Qurban Husein, a strong Shia Ismaily follower who had been open enough to have a dialogue with other religious believers. His father was also a well-educated Islamic scholar who support the foundation of Bohro ulama leadership. 

During her childhood, Engineer often witness the exploitation in the name of religion. The situation had happened since his father become the Bohro ulama. At that time, there is nobody who dare to fight against the oppressive system. Even though her father who became ulama, was not be able to do something although in his heart he hated this situation. 

Concerned with this situation, Engineer was diligent to study the religious literatures from various sources. Those were written by Islamic or Western authors, from traditionalist background as well as modernist background. In addition to that, Engineer also learned the Quran, Hadith, and the Fiqh. His intellectual background as well as his strong reflection on the social problems, make him become both a thinker and activist who have liberal, revolutionary, and democratic perspective. 

In his childhood, Engineer received education on Arabic Language, Tafsir (Quranic Exegesis). Hadith (Commentary), and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) from his father and in the next step he continued in by himself. Asghar Ali Engineer also learned all masterpieces of the Fathimis propaganda through  Sayidina Hatim, Sayidin Qadi Nu’man, Sayidina Muayyad Shirazi, Sayidina Hamiduddin Kirmani, Sayidina Hatim al-Razi, Sayidina Jafar Mansur al-Yaman, and etc. But, he also learned the general sciences in the civil engineering  when finally he awas awarded with Doctor degree from the Vikram University, Ujjain, India. After that, he decided to reside permanently in Bombay, and then followed by his father. 

Although recognized that he was influenced by the works of great philosopher such as Bertrand Russel and Karl Marx, Engineer did not leave his concern to learn the Quran and its Quranic exegesis which were written by Muslim scholars. During this period, Asghar Ali Engineer read the explanation’s from Sir Syed and Maulana Azad. In addition to that, he also learned deeply on Rasail Ikhwan As-Shafa and compared it to the Imams of Shia Ismailiyah teaching during their hiding place in the end of 9 Century. 

After turning upside and down in his work in Bombay Municipal Corporation around 20 years, Engineer  conjoined the Bohro reformist movement. In year 1977, The Central Board of Dawoodi Bohro Community held their first conference, where Asghar was elected as General Secretary in acclamation vote. And he held that position until he passed away. Through the religious authority he had, he share his thoughts and ideas actively although faced the conservative perspective from the elder generation up to the brutal attack from the opposite parties. 

Theology of Liberation to Struggle for Minority Rights 

The theology of liberation ensure that the theological concept which had been known so far as abstract and transcendent can be understood and applied in a more ‘humanist’ framework and perspective. So that, the discussion can address the real human basic needs and problems directly. In a more specific context, the Liberation theology strived for human being in order to be free from various kinds of injustices, oppression, impoverishment, duping, etc. The such theological concept, according to engineer emphasize to freedom, egalitarianism, and distributive justice, and strongly reject to the oppression, violation, and human exploitation by other human being. Asghar’s ideas was very closed with the sociological background and history of the birth of Islam itself. 

According to him, religion is not merely aspect of belief in God, but also related to the practical things which touch the real problems of human. While the theology at the first time was a socio-political respond for the past time, then the theology of Liberation is also a socio-political respond nowadays. Islam, according to Asghar, is present in order to criticize the establishment of power, which is built based on the political, economical, and furthermore religious authority,  which tends to be oppressive and exploitative. Islam is a religion which very rich history; so that it make it possible to grow and develop as a teaching of theology which is revolutionary and liberating. In addition to that, Islam emphasizes to the non discriminative unity of human being; and also required to justice in all aspects which can be realized only if there is a freedom. 

While the character of the ‘Islamic Liberation Theology’ ideas which is introduced by Asghar is based on the current situation in this world, and later will be connected with the life in hereafter. Anti establishment or status quo, in political and religious dimension, will become an inspiring ideology for the oppressed  against the oppressor, emphasized to a  more just, gender equal, and un-exploitative social institution. To implement that, the people should imitate or follow him as a role model and realize the prophetic and liberation spirit of Prophet Muhammad PBUH in Mecca. In addition to that, also learn from the revolutionary theologies which have ever existed in the Islamic history. Both in the idea level as well as practical level and reinterprete the Quranic verses which had been distorted by the ulama of  pro-establish power. 

The Quranic Reinterpretation to Women Liberation 

An awareness to struggle for women liberation become one of Aghar Ali Engineer’s focus of thinking.  According to him, one of the step to strive for women liberation in the practical arena is by reinterpretation of understanding of the Sacred text which become the main sources in our life. He introduced several methods of the Quranic interpretation. The tradition and culture that had been rooted in the interpreters milieu, sometimes can become the causative factors of the un-equal gender interpretation of the texts.  Whereas the most fundamental value in the Quran is the equality in all aspect of life for men and women, including in the sexual matters. 

The most modern of Islamic value system are justice and equality. And when it is implemented in the Islamic Jurisprudence related to women’s problem, so this kind of law will become the most progressive and gender justice law. The shadow of medieval social ethos had covered those Islamic spirit. 

In the efforts on understanding many Quranic statements, the most fundamental thing whichhad been strongly held by Engineer is that the consciousness about there is no single interpretation (of the Quran); although may be there will be the significant one. This kind of thoughts is a respond to many perspectives which often raise objection and misinterpretation of the Quran. There is no interpretation of the Quran which is literally the same. Everyone understand the Quran is suitable with their own political, social, and economic position. It is difficult to understand what God’s really mean. Everybody struggle to understand God’s purpose based on their own position and understanding. Therefore, the classical ulamas (Islamic scholars often say “wallahu a’lam bisshawab” (Allah knows best). 

In addition to that, an  interpreter is possible to have his or her theological, sociological, or other science perspective. Everybody will have a contribution they made from their own perspective. For this matter, it is imported to be noted that the Quran uses the words with various meaning, and even language symbols. And the symbols or words is not only seen from the various perspective. But there is also word and symbol that will be developed according with the growing times and the coming of new experiences. 

In understanding the versed which is related with justice or similar universal values. Engineer perceived that a mufassir (an interpreter) should take into his or her consideration the existing spirit during the time. This is what he called with the dynamic element, a methodological element which is very importand to understand the Quranic verses. {}

*) Risma is participant of the program “Strengthenic Local Religious Leaders in Eliminating Violence Against Women 


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