Asghar Ali Engineer
(Islam and Modern Age, July, 1999)
I have completed sixty years of life in March, 1999 and I thought it is time to state what my beliefs are. I have spent years and years reflecting on many issues which kept on troubling me for long. The issues of philosophical and spiritual nature. I must state in the beginning that I was born in a Bohra orthodox priestly family. The Bohras are Shi'ah Isma'ili Muslims. My father was a learned scholar of Islam and serving the establishment of the Bohra head priest who holds the office of Da'i and popularly known as Saiyyidna (i.e. our Lord).
My father, who was firm believer in the Shi'ah-Isma'ili Islam had somewhat open mind and showed great patience when persons of other persuasions entered into dialogue with him. In my childhood a Hindu Brahmin priest used to come and have dialogue with my father and both used to exchange views on each others beliefs. But otherwise my father was firm in his own beliefs. I was brought up in this religious environment. My father taught me Arabic and also tafsir (commentary on the holy Qur'an), hadith (reports on sayings and doings of the holy Prophet) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).
But he also sent me to municipal school and saw to it that I acquire modern secular knowledge. In fact he persuaded me to go for either engineering or medical course and I chose to opt for a degree course in civil engineering and qualified for it and later chose to settle down in Bombay and my father also joined me there.
I have seen exploitation in the name of religion at very close quarter since my father was a Bohra priest himself. He inwardly resented this exploitative system strongly but found himself helpless as he had no alternate means of livelihood. He had to serve the system or starve or even face severe persecution as I discovered later when I challenged the system. There is no trace of spiritualism in the Bohra priestly system. The system is nothing but a huge machinery for collection of money from its followers and which is controlled by one priestly family of the Da'i. This machinery has total grip over the life of a Bohra. Even an ordinary Bohra lives in the fear of the system. Any trace of disobedience can ruin his/her life. The vice-like grip of the Bohra priestly establishment over the lives of ordinary Bohras has reduced them to mere slaves.
I, therefore, came to the conclusion at an early age that an organised religion can become totally subservient to the powerful vested interests. It no longer remains a means of enriching inner spiritual life but only an instrument of exploitation and servitude to vested interests. And when I read and re-read the Qur'an I was more and more convinced that the real purpose of religion is to enrich inner life and to seek closeness to God. The Qur'an emphasises that it is in remembrance of Allah that ones heart finds inner peace (13:28). There are several such verses in the Qur'an which strongly emphasise the richness of spiritual life.
The gross exploitation which I saw at close quarter in my childhood and also part of adult life made me seriously re-think the fundamentals of religion. I also read avidly literature on rationalism in Urdu, Arabic and English. I also read writings of Niyaaz Fatehpuri - a noted Urdu writer and a critic of religious orthodoxy when I was studying in my first year of inter science. It was that time that I also read writings of Bertrand Russell, a rationalist Brtisih philosopher. I also studied the Das Capital of Marx. Though I was influenced by the writings of these great thinkers I never ceased to studying the Qur'an and its tafsir by great scholars of Islam. It is during that period that I read Sir Syed's and Maulana Azad's commentaries also. I also delved deep into Rasa'il khwanus Safa believed to have been compiled by the Isma'ili Imams during the period of their concealment in late eighth century A.D. It is the philosophical tract of great significance and has been described by scholars as an encyclopaedic work. These epistles of the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwanus Safa) are great works of synthesis of reason and revelation. I also kept on studying the science of ta'wil (the inner meaning of the Qur'anic verses developed by the Isma'ili scholars).
All this combined gave me
a new vision of life and its meaning. I came to the conclusion that reason
is very crucial for human intellectual development but not sufficient.
Revelation is also a very important source of guidance and inner development.
Reason plays very crucial role in human life and its significance can never
be underestimated but it has obvious limits and cannot answer the ultimate
questions regarding the ultimate meaning and direction of life. It is revelation
which is more helpful in this respect. I also came to believe that revelation
cannot be contradictory to reason as many would like to believe. Revelation
can and does go beyond reason but does not contradict it. Dr.Mohammad Iqbal,
the noted poet-philosopher, has also thrown light on this question in his
Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.
I believe that religion should not be equated with superstitions and dogmas. Each age has its own superstitions and with progress of science these superstitions are called in question. An honest intellectual quest is very vital not only for material progress but also for healthy spiritual life. Superstitions thrive in the absence of knowledge and enrichment of knowledge punctures superstitious beliefs and it is an ongoing process.
I believe that dogmas are product of human urge for security rather than that of spiritual quest for inner certitude. Dogmas can satisfy only those who have given up any quest for intellectual and spiritual growth. Ghalib, the noted Urdu poet of nineteenth century India describes dogma in a very picturesque manner as 'reflection of repetition of desire (for security)' and 'a refuge of the tired mind'. I fully endorse this view and feel that a dogma negates the very spirit of quest which is inculcated by the inner urge to know the truth. Dogmas do lead to a sense of mental security for many but it brings about total stagnation in their life.
I believe that there is vital difference between urge for mental security by believing in dogmas and search for inner certitude which is the result of faith in higher spiritual values. The Qur'an calls this inner certitude imaan which is usually translated as 'faith'. This inner certitude, I believe, is highly necessary for healthy spiritual growth of human beings. This should not be confused with belief in dogmas. The two are qualitatively different. While one leads to stagnation of intellectual and spiritual life, the other is vital for its growth. The sense of commitment is also born as a result of this inner certitude. The absence of this inner certitude can lead to mere scepticism and even cynicism and scepticism and cynicism paralyse the urge for any positive action.
Inner certitude is a must for action. A human being will act with enthusiasm only when one possesses this quality of inner certitude about his/her action. It is this inner certitude which inspires a person to make great sacrifices for higher causes. Life acquires great sense of dynamism because of this inner certitude (imaan in the language of the Qur'an). In all ages human beings have been inspired by this sense of inner certitude to act to renew and reconstruct the world. Any noble act, even an act to defend ones country or to fight against corruption, or to work for the uplift of the weaker sections of the society or to bring about revolution requires the state of inner certitude. It is this inner certitude which makes action itself its own reward and that is why people make sacrifices even if immediate success is not in sight. Only those who look for only material benefit act in the expectation of immediate result and not on account of their conviction.
I believe that dogmatism is not associated only with religion. It is an attitude of mind rather than a set of immutable beliefs. One can find dogmatism in any sphere of life including social, political and cultural. Even rationalists can be dogmatists and many of them actually are. It is as difficult to discuss with them with an open mind on religion as with any person with orthodox views. I also distinguish between 'dogmatism' of common people and that of many learned scholars. the common people tend to be 'dogmatic' more because they need some firm beliefs and a sense of certainty rather than because of an attitude of mind or because of some interests associated with it. The scholars or educated orthodox believers defend religious dogmas not because of inner conviction but more because of either laziness of mind or some interests associated with it. Whatever it is to hold on to dogmas results in negativity rather than positivity.
I believe that any act which leads to general good of the human beings is a spiritual act. The Prophet of Islam is reported to have said that to feed a hungry soul is more meritorious than praying throughout the night. He is also reported to have said that the angels do not descend in a locality where people are starving. Thus the real spirituality lies in serving the people, in fact serving the whole creation. Therefore, even the act to protect environment from destruction is also a spiritual act. It is only in proper environment that life - whether human, animal or plant life - can thrive. Any act to destroy the environment is an irreligious act.
I believe that religious sectarianism is very harmful and is a negative attitude. The view that what one believes is final and the only truth and what others believe is based on falsity is the root cause of sectarian conflicts. Not only that one should have open mind but should also respect the integrity and sincerity of other believers. I even believe that one who cannot respect the sincerity and integrity of others' beliefs is not capable of having genuine respect for his own beliefs. Respecting others beliefs and intellectual and spiritual positions is more important than mere tolerance.
I, therefore, believe that change of conviction should also be respected. Change of conviction is, more often than not, a result of quest for truth. I, therefore, strongly believe that every individual must have a right to convert to any other religion or point of view without let or hindrance. Those who penalise others or attack others for change of conviction are far from defenders of their own faith. I believe that the fanatics and fundamentalists do more harm to their own religion than to that of others. A true lover of his own religion will always respect others faith. Deep and true conviction of ones own faith would never evoke hatred and disrespect for others faith.
I believe that religious authoritarianism is worse than political authoritarianism though both are equally condemnable. Political authoritarianism leads to suppression of freedom of expression; religious authoritarianism, on the other hand, stunts the growth of spiritual life, evokes hatred and contempt for others and totally destroys true spirit of commitment to higher values. Similarly combination of wealth and religion on one hand, and, that of political power and religion on the other, is destructive of all that true religion stands for. Both power and wealth not only corrupts but also produces arrogance and arrogance leads to oppression. That is why the Holy Qur'an strongly condemns Pharoa who represents arrogance of power (istikbar) and supports Moses who symbolises liberation from oppression and sensitivity towards sufferings of weaker sections of society (istid'af).
I believe that one who is truely religious is highly sensitive towards others sufferings, particularly sufferings of the weaker sections of society. Thus the feeling of compassion is very fundamental to being religious. In all religious traditions, particularly in Buddhist and Islamic traditions God is embodiment of compassion. No one who lacks compassion and sensitivity towards others sufferings can ever claim to be a full human being, let alone a religious person.
I believe that the Qur'an emphasises four most important teachings without which one cannot be a good Muslim. These are 1) 'adl, ihsan, rahmah and hikmah i.e. justice, benevolence, compassion and wisdom. Thus a person must be just, benevolent, compassionate and wise in order to be a good human being. Mere performance of certain rituals cannot qualify one for being a spiritual person. One must inculcate these qualities.
I also believe that a truely religious person is quite subversive of the unjust established order. One who supports an unjust order, or remains silent in view of gross injustices is, in my opinion, not at all a religious person. Silence in view of injustices and exploitation also amounts to collusion with the oppressors and exploiters. A religious person must continue to wage jihad against all forms of exploitation and injustices. Even a religious establishment can become highly oppressive and one must fight against such oppressive religious establishment. One who compromises with such establishment pollutes his/her own soul and does so either out of fear or lust for power. And fear and lust for power both destroy human sensibilities. Fear leads to cowardice and lust towards insensitivity and oppression and exploitation.
I believe in non-violence and totally oppose any form of violence. Resort to violence is destructive of all human values. Violence could be the last resort in once own defence. Even defencive violence should not be treated as a licence to kill. If one cannot create life, one has no right to destroy it. The respect for life is the rudiment of human sensitivity. In my opinion violence should not be used licentiously even for liberative purposes. The liberative violence soon degenerates into oppressive violence. Once you take up a gun you do not want to lay it down. Gun empowers you and you want to enjoy that power over others.
Liberative violence soon results in killing spree against ones own revolutionary colleagues. The history is full of such instances. Be it French revolution or Russian revolution - though they were undoubtedly liberative, resulted in needless killings of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. It is true hunger and deprivation (of basic necessities or even of freedom) are form of violence but violence perpetrated by weapons is any time worse than that of hunger and deprivation. Any social or economic order based on violence cannot lead to a just order.
The extremists in Kashmir resorted to violence to achieve 'azadi' but only ended in the death of more than 50,000 people either at their own hands or at the hands of the army and security forces. And they are nowhere near the objective. Democratic and peaceful methods, though at times frustratingly long in yielding results, are much more healthier for society and for the ultimate objective. I, therefore, strongly believe in democratic transformation. Kashmir problem would have been nearer solution had the extremists not resorted to indiscriminate use of violence. And same is true of North East and other parts of India. The Khalistanis also killed a large number of innocent Sikhs and Hindus in Punjab. The LTTE has killed thousands of innocent Tamils and Sinhalas so far and has spread culture of violence through political killings. And yet, the LTTE is nowhere near its goal of the Tamil Ellam. And even if such a goal is realised it will be highly oppressive and exploitative. Violence destroys all human sensitivities and turns a human person into an insensitive killing monster.
I believe that nuclear explosion is the worst crime against humanity. Nuclear weapons have the highest potential for killing. No person with any human sensibility would ever support a nuclear weaponisation project even in the name of security. All weapons in general, and nuclear weapons in particular can at best create only an illusion of security, never a real security. Real security comes only through peace and well being of people. History also has proved time and again that highly weaponised states, with discontented population, collapsed like house of cards at the hands of much less powerful attackers. Real movement should be to destroy all modern weapons, nuclear or otherwise, and use resources for building peaceful and contented society throughout the world. Higher cultural values can be based only on culture of peace and non-violence. It is unfortunate that while we pay lip service to non-violence we glorify as 'heroes' those who waged wars and killed.
I strongly believe in pluralism and diversity. I believe that uniformity, be it of religious or political beliefs or of cultural practices, result only in suppressing human creativity. Human creativity can thrive only in the situation of freedom and diversity. Democratic freedom has meaning only if diversity is allowed to flower. Strict uniformity can, and often does, lead to fascism. A truely democratic society can be promoted only, and only if diversity is allowed to flower. I, therefore, believe in three 'ds' i.e. democracy, diversity and dialogue.
I believe that democracy,
diversity and dialogue sustain and strengthen each other. If there is no
diversity, there can be no democracy and if there is no dialogue, diversity
cannot be strengthened. Dialogue is the very spirit of religious and cultural
diversity. A genuine dialogue can be conducted only in the spirit of democracy.
Firstly, dialogue recognises the right of others to believe what they think
is based on their own inner convictions. Secondly, dialogue is conducted
not to convert others to ones own viewpoint but to understand others viewpoint.
Also dialogue can be conducted only in a spirit of humility. I believe
that while arrogance dictates while dialogue discusses. In a democratic
set up differences should be resolved only through dialogue and discussion.
Every major religion be it Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Sikkhism, emphasises certain values which compliment rather than contradict each other. For example, Hinduism and Jainism emphasise non-violence; Buddhism emphasises compassion, Christianity love and Islam equality and justice. All these values are complementary to each other and hence supportive of each other. The rivalries between these religions are promoted by those who control respective religious establishments. Those who do not aspire to control religious establishments do not promote any hostility against others. The Sufis and Bhakti saints were more interested in spiritual exercises and never aspired to control any religious establishments and hence they did not involve themselves in religious polemics. They showed respect towards each other.
I believe that religious plurality enriches spiritual life and promotes human creativity. God is the creator of this plurality and hence those who seek to destroy it act against His will. Thus a truely religious person should have liberal disposition and should be far from being fanatical about his beliefs. He should accept plurality as a boon from God. Each religion has made a unique contribution to human culture and civilization through its own spiritual milieu, theological concepts and value-orientation.
I, therefore, totally reject the theory of clash of civilizations and believe that it is not civilizations but barbarians who clash. The clash can never be civilizational but political. There can be power struggle between those who aspire to control one or the other civilizational based institutions but there can never be clash of civilizations. This doctrine has been formulated deliberately to promote Western hegemony and should not be taken seriously. The peace loving people belonging to different civilizations would refute such superficial doctrine by living in harmony and cooperative spirit with each other enriching human civilization as a whole.
I believe in unity of entire humanity and integrity of entire creation. If we love God we must love entire universe. The Qur'an has described Allah as sustainer of entire universe Rabb al-'Aalamin and hence it is our duty to submit humbly to the will of Allah and be His humble servant in maintaining and sustaining integrity of His creation.
Institute of Islamic Studies,