Review: Ashgar Ali Engineer’s Autobiography

An Engineer and a Reformist: The Autobiography of Asghar Ali Engineer

Review by Zarin Ahmad

A Living Faith: My Quest for Peace Harmony and Social Change, New Delhi, Orient BlackSwan, 2011

Most people in India are familiar with the name Asghar Ali Engineer – a reformist, writer and activist based in Mumbai. He is well known in South Asia and beyond for his work on or rather against communal violence in India and his revolutionary activism against the Dawoodi Bohra (a Shia sect) clergy. Engineer has authored more than fifty books and written innumerable articles in books, journals and newspapers and been at the forefront of civil society movements.

However not many of us are aware of the fact that Asghar Ali is an engineer by training. He graduated in civil engineering from Vikram University, Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh and has worked with the Bombay Municipal Corporation for nearly twenty years. Asghar Ali remained active and interested in various social issues while working as an engineer. In 1981 he took leave for two years to work on an ICSSR project on Indian Muslims in the post-independence period and finally took voluntary retirement in 1983.

During his engagement with writing and activism, Asghar Ali Sheikh Kurban or Asghar Ali SK as he was then called, changed his name to Asghar Ali Engineer. He was writing an article for the Times of India on the evolution of Shariah law in 1965. He felt that the name Asghar Ali SK, did not sound good. His friend Zoeb Ansari suggested that he could take his professional name. It is common in India especially among Parsis (Zoroastrians) and Bohra Muslims to have a family name based on one’s occupation (Bandukwala or one who deals in guns, Mithaiwala or one who deals in sweets, Vakil or lawyer, Contractor,) or on the village name (Sidpurwala, Partapurwala). Going by this trend, Asghar Ali SK chose his professional name and not his village name which would have been Mandsaurwala. He penned his article in the Times of India under the name Asghar Ali Engineer –the name stayed.

The present book surveys his journey as the son of a teacher from a small town – Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh in the 1940s to a reformer and activist in Bombay (Mumbai) from the 1970s to the present. In doing so, Engineer addresses key issues in understanding Indian politics and society specifically the contours of communal politics in India and Maharashtra; Islamic Shariat and women’s rights and the politics and workings of the Bohra Muslim clergy. The latter is extremely valuable for those working on the Sociology of Muslims in India for two reasons. One, there is not enough literature on Muslim communities particularly so for Shia Muslims. Two, being a part of the Bohra community, Engineer has a deeper insight and access to the subject. The book also provides interesting vignettes on the experience of a civil engineer in Bombay from 1963 to 1981. This aspect however could have been discussed in a little more detail.