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Published in the 1-15 Feb 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition


Asghar Ali Engineer's views

Asghar Ali Engineer's write-up, Religion, Religious Institutions and the State (MG, 1-15 January 05, p. 16) wherein he mentions religion to be a collective inheritance of blind beliefs, dogmas and traditions, and religious leaders to be mere representatives of religions, evinces the self-claimed Islamic scholar has many a mile to go in scholarly pursuit. Such Marxist elements so vividly evident in Engineer are certainly not conceptualized by the larger section of society.
Religion has always been accused of corrupting States. Likewise, modern media has played a pivotal role in exploiting religion in the name of freedom of press. Both the State and Media have repeatedly misused religion for its own interests.
Personally, having studied Islam, it is learnt to be one of the most practical religion. The Prophet of Islam like his predecessors practiced and preached Shariah norms that may seem to have material elements such as Zakat and Zabiha (slaughter of animals as per Islamic dictates) to name some, but they possess phenomenal spiritual significance and aren't typical rites and rituals so casually presumed by Engineer. 

If religious leaders were mere interpreters of their respective religions as Engineer deceivably prophesies, then Prophet Muhammad and Asghar Engineer are of the same caliber. In fact Engineer could be a step ahead of the founder of Islam as he asserted during the release of his controversial book Rethinking Issues in Islam that "the purpose of the book was to reinterpret the Quranic teachings." Isn't it the same scriptures Engineer is 'rethinking' and 'reinterpreting' that was revealed upon the Prophet!

However, as in Islam, religious leaders in all religions are revered for their practice of religion in word and spirit. The respect and reverence that religious leaders possess cannot be earned by mere interpretation and re-interpretation of scriptures and texts. It goes far beyond it as they attribute spiritual qualities and hence are able to convey the spiritual essence of religion. 

An interesting factor that Engineer persists, is accountability of religious institutions and leaders. On making queries, this writer leant that unlike the Sankaracharya, the Syedna has repeatedly and successfully clarified and proved his stance in the Courts of the Law whenever questioned by the State.

In fact, Asghar Ali Engineer filed for a judicial review (Writ Petition No. 740 of 1986) defying his excommunication from the Daudi Bohra community on the grounds of human rights violation. Senior Counsel Ms. Indira Jaysinh representing Asghar Ali Engineer was reprimanded in the Supreme Court by the five bench judge sought by her in November 2004 for needlessly filing complaints and held Engineer's excommunication valid on the basis of his disbelief in the core Daudi Bohra doctrine of revering and accepting its leadership and for unreasonably questioning the Syedna monies.

The Chandabhai Gulla Case (1918) that Engineer refers is interesting read to understand the authority of the Syedna and his predecessors. Justice Martin categorically recognized in his judgment the powers and high esteem the Daudi Bohras held for their religious leaders and therefore, justified that being the Sole Trustee, the late Syedna of the time, had the right to control and administer all community funds and Trusts as the present Syedna legally and morally does so. This has been an already settled principle of law, having so decided by the Privy Council in Appeal No. 79 of 1945 being in the case of Hasanali Vs. Mansoorali (50-BLR) and according to the judgment of Supreme Court of India in Writ Petition No. 128 of 1958 in Sardar Dr Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb Vs. The State of Bombay (A.I.R. 1962 SC 856). 

For any outsider, it doesn't seem to be a question of the Syedna being afraid of Engineer as the writer unrightfully claimed. On the contrary, it is awe-inspiring that even business tycoons such as Shri Fakhruddin Khorakiwala, former Sheriff of Mumbai and owner of Akberally's chain of Departmental Stores, have to abide-by the principles of the Daudi Bohras unconditionally or simply leave the community. It is noteworthy that the community known for its discipline and disciplinary action has successfully withstood judicial and social challenges successfully.

Evident as it seems, Engineer's comparison of Kanchi Shankaracharya, Shri Jayendra Saraswati with the Daudi Bohra community leader, Dr. Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, brought forth Engineer's deliberate attempt to belittle the latter. 

The devious comparison of the penury of Bhakti and Sufi saints and the Syedna's financial well-being by Engineer clearly misinterprets the Quran that clearly emphasizes on earning Halal Rizq (money, food etc) for which no limit has been mentioned in Islam. 

Historically, Ismaili Imams of the Fatimi dynasty, known for their riches, scholarly and social justice, ruled vast expanses of North Africa during the 9-10 centuries. The Umayyads and Abbasid Caliphates too had large, rich empires for centuries. Hence, Sunni and Shia Imams and Caliph had worldly riches at their disposal which certainly can't be perceived as un-Islamic. 

Obvious as it is, the Daudi Bohras being immensely successful entrepreneurs are in a position to monetarily as well as religiously support their revered leader from whom they derive their moral and spiritual strength. It is their human right to contribute as much as they desire for the well-being of the community and its leader. 

The major difference between the Kanchi Seer and the Syedna is that while the former is regarded to be involved in murder and embezzlement of funds for which 'the law has taken its own course', the latter has repeatedly been proved innocent by the State judiciary and other State institutes and authorities over the years.

P. Priambaram, Rtd Advocate, Chennai

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