Pritam K. Rohila


Spectacled and dressed in an Indian kurta-pajama-waistcoat outfit, I found Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, on January 22, 2004, standing outside the Arrival Hall of the Portland International Airport. After arriving there, around 8:00 p.m., by the United Airlines flight from Washington D.C., he was waiting to be picked up by me.


I had known him through his writings, and media stories about him. Also I had exchanged emails with him regarding our peace and harmony activities. In April 2000, I had even collected donations from members of the Association for Communal Harmony in Asia (ACHA), our U.S.-based peace and harmony organization, to help Dr. Engineer recover from a brutal attack on his person, his home and his office, by members of his own community, which he had been campaigning to reform for several years.


Besides, on December 7, 2003, we  had recognized him, for his remarkable achievements, with 2003 ACHA Peace Star Award (formerly known as ACHA Star Award).  Enumerating his many accomplishments, in her nomination of Dr. Engineer, Dr. Ingrid Shafer, then Professor of  Philosophy, Religion & Interdisciplinary Studies, at the University of Science & Art of Oklahoma, Chickasha, OK,  had called him “One-man army fighting against communalism” in India, for over 40 years. In this regard, among other things, she mentioned the organizations – Awaz-e-Bradran, Ekta Committee for Communal Harmony, and the Center for Study of Society and Secularism – which he had founded; and workshops and seminars he had organized for youth, teachers, journalists, and police, at many places, to promote communal harmony and secularism, throughout India.


Accepting the award by phone from Mumbai, India, Dr. Engineer said “I accept the award in all humility and I am grateful to ACHA for giving me this honor. I will continue to work for communal harmony in India until the last breath of my life. The danger has increased manifold after the BJP came to power and recently won elections in three states in Hindi heartland. There is a great need to intensify activities to contain communal forces and promote communal harmony and interfaith understanding.”


But, never before, did I have the privilege of meeting Dr. Engineer face to face. And I was late by about half an hour! Then after picking him up, I got so absorbed in talking with him, that I missed the exit, and had to turn around! Certainly, it was not a good impression for a first meeting. Being a gentleman, as he always had been, he kept any disapproval of my behavior, to himself.


Anyhow, in 2004, Dr. Engineer was on a whirlwind lecture tour of the United States. Since his

arrival in the United States, on the night of January 19, he had already given two lectures at Washington, DC, on two consecutive days. After Portland, Oregon, and before his departure for Mumbai, India, on February 3, he was scheduled to give lectures at San Francisco, California, on January 24; at Dallas, Texas, on January 25; at Detroit, Michigan, on January 27; at Dayton, Ohio, on January 29; at Chicago, Illinois, on Jan. 30 & 31; and in New York, on February 1 & 2.


His busy lecture schedule, and  agenda during his brief Oregon visit,  reflected his capability and stamina, as also demonstrated by the long list of his life’s accomplishments – articles published; periodicals authored and edited; lectures delivered; research studies conducted; organizations founded; conventions, workshops and meeting organized and attended; demonstrations held; visitors to his office entertained; and so and so forth.


On January 23, 2004, after a brunch meeting with a few distinguished personalities from the local area, at 10 a.m. at our home, I drove him for his next engagement, to Lewis and Clark College, in Portland, OR.


Located on a 137-acre forested campus, Lewis & Clark is a prestigious private liberal arts college. There, at 12:40 p.m., he delivered a very informative lecture on “Islam and the Modern World,” to the students and faculty of the History and Religious Fundamentalism classes.


“On his visit to Lewis & Clark College in 2004,” recollects Dr. David Campion, one of the two professors there, who had hosted it, “Asghar Ali Engineer spoke to a packed lecture hall of students, faculty and visitors.  His topic was ‘Islam and the Modern World’ but he ranged widely in his remarks about the role of religion more generally in civil society, especially in religiously pluralistic societies like India and the United States.  Dr. Engineer’s comments were learned, relevant, and humane.  He revealed the rich history of Islam in India and its traditions of cosmopolitanism, outreach and tolerance while addressing the challenges of extremism and the social, political, and economic realities that often fuel extremists.”


“Coming a short while after the September 11th terrorist attacks and the communal riots in Gujarat,” Dr. Campion continues, “his lecture was a timely reminder of the continuing need for dialogue and understanding between people of different religions.  Dr. Engineer’s visit to campus was a wonderful opportunity for L&C students, many of whom were studying about the history and religions of South Asia for the first time, to interact directly with one of the leading public figures in the struggle to maintain religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence in India and the world.”


Following tea at the Lake Oswego residence of Dr. Abdul Qayum, then professor of Economics at Portland State University (PSU), and  his wife, Mrs. Ismat Qayum,  we proceeded to PSU, where Dr. Engineer was scheduled to deliver his second lecture of the day, at 6:30 p.m.  The lecture was free and open to public. About 100  individuals had gathered there, to listen to Dr. Engineer speak on “Jihad, Terrorism, Peace: Role of Islam in the Modern World.” Remarks by discussants – Dr. David Savage, retired professor of British and Indian history at Lewis & Clark College, Portland, OR; Dr. Bilal Hashmi, retired professor of sociology at Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA; and Rev. Mark Duntley, Dean of the Chapel at Lewis & Clark College, Portland, OR – and questions from the audience followed his talk. We used the opportunity to also present him his 2003 ACHA Peace Star Award.


Almost exclusively white audiences, at both lectures, with no or very little exposure to Islam got an earful of new information about Islam, and jihad, the terms which had been at the center of public attention, ever since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. He used his scholarship and mastery  of the various interpretations of and commentaries on the Holy Quran, Islamic jurisprudence, and Muslims in India, to help the audience gain a better appreciation of Islam than that which is often portrayed by some of its proponents as well as by some of its opponents.


Dr. Wetzel remembers him as “one of that rare breed: the scientist with a humanist core.” “I am sorry to hear of his passing since he was such a force for good,” she adds.


“In my professional and private life I have had the opportunity of meeting thousands of people from all over the world, but only a few individuals had a lasting impression. Dr. Engineer was one of those impressive personalities I can never forget,” recalls Dr. Sabri.”  I hosted Dr. Engineer for one night,” he continues, “after the dinner we had a lively discussion on various topics including justice, equality, diversity and necessity of inter-faith dialog…His passion for gender equality was quite evident. He was a champion of justice and always trying to expose hypocrisy of gender inequality in our society through his writings, discussions and lectures.” He added, “I met him only once and always wanted to visit him in Mumbai but never made it and regretfully now never will. I was shocked to hear the untimely death of Dr. Engineer. May his good soul rest in peace!”


I will never forget that day in January 2004, which I had spent in the company of Dr. Engineer, a perfect gentleman, an esteemed scholar, a prolific writer, and a marvelous speaker. Steadfast on his principles; resolute in his commitment to peace, communal harmony, social reform, and gender justice; and described as the “modern day Spinoza”, none of the labels cover all he had been and done, in the 74 years of his life. He was a spectacular star of hope that will shine for a long time in the hearts and minds of many people, who came in contact with him in person, or through his written and spoken words.



Association for Communal Harmony in Asia [ACHA]

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