Conversation with Asghar Ali Engineer (1)

by Farish A. Noor (2)


You are known in many parts of the Muslim world for a number of things: your work on women’s rights in Islam, your struggle against religious intolerance and sectarianism, and your studies on secularism. You are seen as a Muslim modernist and you have often spoken about the compatibility of Islam and modern values. Can you tell us what you mean by that?

What I mean is that there is no serious or insurmountable difficulty between Islam, as deen or a way of life, and the modern world in which we live. If you look at modern political ideologies and modern political morality today, you will find that many of the Qur’anic concepts of reason, justice, wisdom and benevolence are also there. So why is it so difficult for us to deal with modern political culture and morality? There is no reason why Muslims cannot and should not work with and within the structures and institutions of modern politics. One can even say that much of what we recognize as Islamic values and principles is already there in the modern political culture around us.

There is nothing new about this either. Although today there are many Muslim groups that continue to demonize anything and everything that is modern on the grounds that it is un-Islamic, Muslim history is full of examples of Muslim thinkers and leaders who turned to the West and its modern way of life as an example for Muslims to emulate. Even when Jamaluddin al-Afghani went to Europe [in the 19 t h century], he claimed that he saw more Islamic practices in Europe than in the Muslim countries he knew. By this he meant the modern way of living and carrying out the affairs of state that he admired so, and from which he wanted Muslims to learn.

What about those who argue that Islam cannot accommodate or tolerate the ‘secular’ aspect of modernity? There are many Muslim thinkers in the world today who argue that as Muslims we cannot and should not accept any of the values which come under the general label of ‘secular’.

Most of these people do not understand what is meant by secularism. Now if by that you mean a culture of rampant hedonism, wastefulness and idle vice, then of course we do not accept that. But you cannot reduce secularism to simply that, and such forms of decadence can exist even in a non-secular environment. If we look at the collapse of the Muslim empires in the past, for instance, we can apply a cultural critique in many of those cases and argue that these Muslim kingdoms were themselves corrupted from within by vices of all sorts, despite the fact that outwardly they conformed to Islamic notions of piety and good governance. Somehow we have to break away from this tendency to equate secularism with all that is bad and negative from the Islamic point of view. There is simply no essential link between the two and we cannot say that secularism is essentially un-Islamic or anti-Islamic in any fundamental way.

The process of secular development in other parts of the world has also broadened the worldview of human beings, liberated people from their prejudice and fears, and allowed for the creation of more open and plural societies. We cannot deny that we in the Muslim world have benefited from this. Who would argue that science has not taught us some valuable lessons about health, economics, the environment and governance? We cannot dispute the fact that rationalism—which was practised by generations of Muslim rationalist thinkers—has helped to deliver us from the days of superstition and wrongful understanding. Now we cannot say that all of that is bad or un-Islamic, can we?

For me, one of the most attractive and redeeming features of secularism is the emphasis that it places on pluralism and equal rights for all: equal rights for men and women, equal rights between the rich and the poor, equal rights between all religious and cultural communities. So it is not at all difficult for us to see and understand why so many communities in the world today have opted to work within a secular system. This is even more important if you happen to be in a religious or cultural minority like the Muslims or Christians in India.

Now in India the Muslims constitute a minority of about 12 per cent. But even so they happen to be an important minority as they tend to be concentrated in certain areas and they tend to be found in certain fields of work. As such they are an identifiable constituency and this makes them very important to politicians and political parties. The political parties in India now realize that the Muslims represent a bloc vote and a united constituency that they need to have on their side. So many of the more progressive parties and movements in India have begun to court the Muslim vote. But for Muslim minority groups to gain a foothold in the political arena of the country, they need to work within a secular framework which at least respects and defends pluralism and diversity.

And how do the Muslims in India react to this? How should a religious minority operate within such a political environment? This is an important point to raise because there are so many Islamic movements and Islamic thinkers who talk about Islam and Muslim concerns from the point of view of a dominant constituency, despite the fact that Muslims happen to be in minority in many other parts of the world.

The Indian Muslims realize that as a minority they need to think strategically. Obviously they cannot support any kind of religious movement or political party that works against them. So in the face of the threat represented by extremist Hindu chauvinists, the Muslims—like the Christians—now support secular political parties that promise to uphold and defend the principles of plu- ralism and democracy. In the Indian context, Muslim groups and parties have even formed instrumental coalitions with liberals, socialists and communists as part of a modern form of pragmatic politics. But this has a lot to do with their need to survive and their search for identity and a space to belong.

This was why Nehru was so important and popular for us, even till today. You see, Nehru was a great defender of the secular principles and values of consti- tutional democracy. He never wanted India to develop to be a religious state where only one religious community was dominant and able to impose its religious or cultural hegemony on others. For many Muslims and other religious minorities in India, he was their great defender. What is more, that episode in Indian history has taught us the importance and value of secularism as a philosophy for living. Today even the Indian mullahs and ulama have called on Muslims to work with other secular parties and movements in order to defend themselves against dominant religious parties like the BJP.

The Islamists in predominantly Muslim countries need to learn from this; they need to understand how the Other feels. Minorities always prefer to support and work with composite movements that can absorb and accept them. This is why the Chinese in your country, Malaysia, choose to work with the government which is perceived as secular. As for your Islamists in Malaysia, they must understand that this is how other minorities feel. It is natural for them to be scared and worried, even if their fears are baseless. As a Muslim in India, I find myself turning away from any Indian party that calls for Hindu dominance or promotes Hindu chauvinism as its ideology. How do you think non-Muslims feel when the situation is reversed and they confront Muslim groups that talk the same kind of exclusive language? It’s only natural for them to react with fear. So we all need to be more understanding and accommodating.

It is interesting to hear you say that, for there are many Islamic movements in the world today that are calling for a more active, even militant approach of pushing the Muslim agenda worldwide. The resurgence of political Islam over the past few decades has been accompanied by a call for a more assertive expression of Islamic identity, sometimes couched in terms of a politics of purity or authenticity which draws clear distinctions between Muslims and non-Muslims, the Muslim world and the rest.

That is true, but it is not a reflection of present-day realities. On a global scale we can see that we Muslims are a minority in fact. We are not even the biggest religion in the world, so why do all these movements in so many Muslim countries talk about converting the world to Islam? This only makes non-Muslims fear Islam and fear Muslims even more. This kind of talk is not even Islamic by its nature—it is arrogant and self-defeating.

The other aspect of your work has been your sustained critique of predominant practices in the Muslim world that are based on traditions and customs which you argue are un-Islamic and culturally mediated. Some argue that your defence of secularism and secular values has also led you towards an internal critique of cultural practices that are alien to the true spirit of Islam. Can you elaborate a little further on this?

My critique of certain traditions and practices among Muslims stems from a desire to distinguish between the fundamental teachings of Islam and the cultural practice of it, though both are closely related as we all know. Now we must remember that religion is a culturally mediated phenomenon. By this we are referring to the practice of religion, as opposed to the values or message of religion. This is true of Islam as it is of every other religion in the world. All religions have a universal message in them, but the universal message of Islam has been reinterpreted and re-contextualized over the centuries thanks to the mode of transmission through which it is spread.

In many cases, the cultural mediation of Islam has led to the encroachment of new values, ideas, and practices that are not even Islamic, yet most of us think they are. For instance, take the example of Muslim marriages these days. Now in many Islamic countries Muslim women who get married are told that they need a wali or guardian to marry them off. Sometimes this can be very complicated and these poor women have to undergo all kinds of problems and difficulties when they want to marry somebody. But the holy Qur’an does not call for a wali for a woman to marry. The concept of the wali is a shariھa concept , which makes it a culturally mediated concept. It developed from a context and time when Muslims lived in patriarchal societies where men dominated every-thing. But why do we maintain such concepts now? Why do we still keep these practices alive? Now the whole world thinks that Islam is a man-made religion which caters to men’s needs more than women’s. But this is not true at all. Islam is so democratic, so just, fair and equal in its treatment of these issues that it allows women complete freedom to marry when they are mature enough to do so. In Islam, women are free to contract their own marriages.

These kinds of contradictions create the impression that Islam is such a rigid religion, while the truth is that Islam upholds the values of what we call today democratic governance. The problem is that the cultures of Muslim societies still do not reflect this democratic spirit of Islam. The cultural mediation of Islam, which led to the creation of an Arabized shariھa and Islamic culture, has eroded and disfigured the fundamentally democratic and egalitarian ethos of Islam.

How could we have reached such a state? If, as you say, the fundamentals of Islam are as clear cut as some of us may think, how is it that so much of what passes as popular Islam today has little to do with the fundamentals of Islam itself?

Why is this so? I can only say that many people unfortunately do not want to be free. People—and this includes Muslim people—want to be led; they want to have some kind of mental refuge. But the danger is that this opens the way for all kinds of authoritarian leaders, be they mullahs or politicians, who then come to offer them miracle cures and empty promises for their troubles. In the end they become victims of their cultural practices.

But such cultural practices are bound to arise and become institutionalized with the passing of time. Time gives way to history and history in turn allows practices and customs to become normalized and entrenched. It is when these practices become enmeshed in the network of tradition that the problem arises, hence the need for us to remind ourselves that our religion and practices are culturally mediated and historically bound all the time. It is because so much of our religion and culture has been abused and disfigured by culturally mediated demands that we need to revive it from within.

Holding fast to the message of our religion, we need to work towards a reform from within that will allow us to break from the cycle of abuse and exploitation of religion for sectarian ends or self-interest. One of the ways we can do this is by working within a modern, secular social and political culture which reminds us of our fundamental human rights and obligations, and which protects our interests as individuals and communities.

And where do Muslim intellectuals come in here? You yourself have been at the forefront of countless doctrinal disputes and political struggles in India, and it seems that the battle is a never ending one. What role are they meant to play in contemporary Muslim societies?

Muslim intellectuals, activists and academics today need to realize that they have a great moral responsibility before them. They must play an active role in defending the rights of Muslims as a collective, but also the rights of individual Muslims within that collective. That is why for me the real test has always been how these intellectuals address the issue of women’s rights in Islam. As long as they do not take this as a serious cause—perhaps the most serious cause of all—then they cannot be said to be committed intellectuals.

But many of our intellectuals are also not well versed in the Qur’an and hadith. There is the tendency to forget the need to base all our struggles on the holy Qur’an and what it says. We cannot confront oppressive governments or conservative mullahs without knowing the Qur’an ourselves, which is why I always tell these intellectuals that they need to understand the laws and philosophy of their own religion first. Only then can you call them ‘Muslim’ intellectuals in the true sense of the word.

1- Director of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) which is based in Mumbai, India. A highly active campaigner on a number of social issues, he is seen as a spokesman for women’s rights in Islam as well as minority concerns in the Indian Subcontinent. Thanks to his sustained efforts to represent the minority groups in his country, he has also been the target of numerous polemics and attacks by his detractors. But he has continued his work despite the odds and is regarded by many as the embodiment of the scholar-activist and public intellectual.

2- Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. This interview was conducted at a workshop on Muslim intellectual trends in 2000. It is part of a series of interviews published under the title “New Voices of Islam” (Farish A. Noor, (ed.) ISIM institute, Leiden, Netherlands, 2002.)