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On Authority

Engineer’s prioritization of the Qur’an over other Islamic texts is intrinsically linked, I argue, to his critique of clerical hierarchy. As the Islamic scholar Carl Ernst has observed, the most contentious issue in Islam is the question of sacred authority: that is, who has the right to partake in religious interpretation and, in so doing, to define the faith?[1] In our interview, Engineer summed up his stance on this heated question:

There is no concept of authority as far as the Qur’an is concerned. As far as the Qur’an is concerned, it is the individual. Responsibility is with the individual. The Qur’an nowhere says that the Prophet will be responsible for what Muslims are doing. The Qur’an nowhere says that any caliph will be responsible or any ‘alim [religious scholar] will be responsible. If I am accountable on the Day of Judgement to Allah, I must accept my own authority.[2]

Engineer draws a compelling connection here between authority and accountability: that because each and every person will ultimately stand before God for what s/he has done, it is the individual’s authority that is binding and not those of Islamic scholars or mystical intermediaries. The Islamic intellectual tradition, as an elite body of scholarship requiring years of intensive study in order to master medieval texts, poses a fundamental problem for such an inclusive approach to authority. While arguably more accessible than the intellectual tradition, the hadith, too, comprises a dense corpus involving the study of thousands of prophetic reports, including the substantive portions of these reports as well as their complex, convoluted and often contradictory chains of narration. Indeed, it is important to point out that the ‘ulama are not only staunch supporters of the intellectual tradition but also of the hadith, reflecting their sustained efforts to maintain their own position as the authoritative interpreters of the prophetic legacy.44 Compared to the hadith and the tradition, the Qur’an is a simple (not to be confused with simplistic) and straightforward text, comprising a single-volume canon. And it is precisely because of the accessibility of the Qur’an, in addition of course to its hallowed status as the Word of God, that it takes centre-stage in Engineer’s Islamic discourse. To be sure, successive layers of exegesis have accumulated around the Qur’anic text, embodied most evidently in ‘ulum al-Qur’an (the Sciences of the Qur’an), which deal with the text’s proper exposition. A recurring theme in this genre, as in much of mainstream Islamic thought, is delineating who exactly has the authority to interpret. According to Islamic scholars, the qualified Qur’anic exegete must display such qualities as soundness in ‘aqida, or creed (effectively ruling out heterodox Muslim groups), a mastery of the Arabic language and knowledge of the classical commentarial tradition.[3] The exegete should also refrain from using personal opinion, refer to hadith to advance understanding and consult the views of respected Islamic scholars.[4] Countering such interpretive hierarchy, Engineer argues that every Muslim should be able to expound the Qur’an, to draw authoritative meaning from the text. Furthermore, even if a Muslim cannot read classical Arabic—let alone display mastery over the language—s/he has the solemn responsibility to study the text through translations, though knowledge of Arabic would be an obvious advantage.[5]

Engineer’s suspicion of religious authority is, in large part, a result of his own upbringing, in which he was exposed to the exploitative nature of entrenched, clerical hierarchy. Manipulating his spiritual credentials, the head of the Dawudi Bohras imposed heavy taxes on his followers in order to consolidate control and secure his family’s financial standing.48 What allowed him to do so was his own privileged position as the authoritative representative of the hidden imam.49 As Shi‘a Muslims, the Bohras believe in the institution of imamate. Starting from Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 661), the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, the imamate is understood by Shi‘a Muslims as a divinely sanctioned and hereditary spiritual office, safeguarding the message of the Prophet, and the authority of which is vested in the Prophet’s immediate family. Different Shi‘a schools of thought, therefore, follow various hereditary lines of imams. After the disappearance of their twenty-first imam, Tayyib Abi al-Qasim (b. circa 1130), who is believed to have gone into seclusion at a very young age, the Bohra community began to follow the authority of a hereditary line of da‘is, or representatives of the hidden imam. Engineer grew up under the leadership of Tahir Seifuddin (d. 1965), who assumed office as the fifty-first da‘i. In addition to exploiting the community financially, Seifuddin essentially established himself as an intermediary between God and the faithful, claiming that any marriage contracted without his permission was Islamically unlawful—and, thus, any children borne of such wedlock illegitimate—and that no Bohra could lead the congregational prayers without his express consent.50 The dal’s authority, moreover, spread to the secular realm. For instance, elections could not be contested and organizations such as schools and charities could not be established without his permission.51 A traditional scholar, Engineer’s father was an 'amll, or a lower official whose task was to execute the wishes of the da'i. In our interview, Engineer recounted how his father encouraged him to follow a more ‘secular’ education and become an engineer precisely so that Engineer would not have to enter the acutely hierarchical clerical establishment and become a ‘slave’ to the da‘i like his father.52 When the Bohra community in the city of Udaipur was driven to such an extreme that they openly rebelled against the da‘i in the early 1960s, Engineer joined the uprising and became a leading figure in the reformist movement.53 This formative experience of witnessing first-hand the oppressive potential of religious hierarchy has, in turn, led Engineer to become deeply suspicious of sacred authority as a whole. The critique of the ‘ulama is a prominent theme in his writings, which portray these traditional scholars and especially their claim that the shari‘a is divine and unalterable—thereby consolidating their own authority—as a prime obstacle towards progressive change within Islam.54

Engineer’s critique of the Bohra clerical establishment has come with severe personal consequences. Barat was a key tool that the establishment used, and continues to use, against internal dissent in general and the reformist movement in particular.55 Barat is basically a social boycott, with no Bohra allowed to speak with the targeted individual. It thus entails complete isolation from the community, including the targeted individual’s family,56 and is especially damaging given how closely-knit Bohras are as a community. As soon as Engineer spoke out against the clerical establishment, Barat was imposed on him. In his memoirs, he relives the deep alienation and tribulations that he faced, with relatives urging him to apologize to the da‘i and, if he failed to do so, that they would never speak to

Engineer again.[6] He refused and was consequently ostracized from his family. This time was particularly painful for his mother, who was ridiculed in community circles and whom he could only meet in secret.[7] In addition to being rendered an outcast, Engineer has been physically assaulted by supporters of the Bohra clerical establishment, including in Hyderabad in 1977 and 1981; in Mumbai in 2001; and even in Cairo in 1983. The Bohras have a natural connection to Egypt, with its Isma‘ili Fatimid legacy (909-1171). In 1983, the da‘i decided to hold the Muharram lectures, which commemorate the death of the third imam Husayn b. Ali, in Cairo and thus a large number of Bohras assembled in the Egyptian capital. Engineer happened to be in Cairo at the same time for a conference. When he visited one of the Fatimid mosques—Jami‘ al-Hakim—he inadvertently ran into a group of Bohras, who recognized him and beat him unconscious.[8]

  • [1] Ernst, 31. 2 Engineer Interview, 2010.
  • [2] 44 Brown, Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought, 133.
  • [3] Von Denffer, 122-3 . 2 Ibid. 3 Engineer Interview, 2010.
  • [4] 48 Engineer, On Developing Theology of Peace in Islam, 171-2.
  • [5] 49 Engineer Interview, 2010.
  • [6] Ibid, 44-5 . 2 Ibid, 45 -6. 3 Ibid, 63-4.
  • [7] 60 Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, v.
  • [8] 61 Ibid, 5. The two words, as well as their linguistic derivatives, that are used inthese verses— ‘adl and qist—are the main terms in the Qur’an for justice, the former
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