An All-Encompassing Justice? Class, Gender, and Pluralism

The problem of poverty, as we have already noted, is a major theme in Engineer’s discourse. In fact, it is arguably the most important aspect of his liberation theology. For Engineer, greed constitutes the root source of human suffering. Yet greed should not be understood simply as a personal desire for riches, but as a structural expression of wealth accumulation: that is, economic systems like contemporary capitalism that systematically disenfranchise the many in order to enrich the few.[1] Referring to the Qur’anic narratives of Adam’s expulsion from Paradise, Engineer argues that greed was the first cardinal sin committed by humankind. The following passage narrates the story:

Certainly We had enjoined Adam earlier; but he forgot, and We did not find resoluteness in him. When We said to the angels, ‘Prostrate before Adam,’ they prostrated, except Iblis [the name of Satan before his expulsion from Paradise]: he refused. We said, ‘O Adam! This is indeed an enemy of yours and your mate’s. So do not let him expel you from Paradise, or you will be miserable. Indeed you will neither be hungry in it nor naked. Indeed you will neither be thirsty in it nor suffer from the sun.’ Then Satan tempted him. He said, ‘O Adam! Shall I show you the tree of immortality, and an imperishable kingdom?’ So they both ate of it, and their nakedness became exposed to them, and they began to stitch over themselves with the leaves of paradise. Adam disobeyed his Sustainer, and went amiss. (Q. 20:115-121)

Adam and his partner, therefore, had everything that they needed in Paradise—a place of security in which they would be neither hungry nor naked, thirsty nor exposed to the sun—and it was precisely when they coveted what was beyond their basic needs, seeking to satisfy their greed and rebelling against their Creator in the process, that they were banished to the Earth.93 As we have discussed earlier, Engineer argues that the Qur’an calls for a simple, even austere, style of living that is based on fulfilling one’s immediate needs, spending all surplus wealth in the way of the poor and needy (Q. 2:219).94 This is not to imply that the text outlines a specific ideology, such as Marxist economics, but rather that an underlying commitment to socioeconomic equality, as mirrored by need-based living on both personal and structural levels, is a principle that the Qur’an upholds.[2] And it is because free-market capitalism is fundamentally at variance with such values, concludes Engineer, that this economic system must be squarely rejected.[3] Citing the reported proverb of Prophet Muhammad—‘Wisdom is the lost property of the faithful; he should acquire it wherever he finds it’—Engineer continues that if other systems, such as socialism and state-controlled economies, are more congruent with Islamic commitments to economic justice, then Muslims should embrace them.[4] That Engineer cites a prophetic report in making this case is telling, demonstrating his openness to the hadith when its substantive content can be hermeneutically channelled to affirm Qur’anic principles.

His critique of economic hierarchy leads to a wider criticism of political injustice around the world. The global economy has divided the Earth, Engineer laments, and the powerful economies of Europe and North America have systematically exploited and impoverished those of the Third World.[5] Such stark economic inequality, in turn, has spawned political structures and international institutions that are highly undemocratic. The exclusive composition of the UN Security Council is an illustrative example. Comprising a handful of the most powerful nations in the world, which represent the council’s permanent membership, this elite body has overridden time and again the majority decisions of the General Assembly.[6] He singles out the USA in particular as a principal source of global injustice. Despite the US’s discourse of supporting (and in the case of the Bush administration spreading) democracy in Muslim-majority societies, the USA has consistently allied with repressive, dictatorial regimes whenever doing so has advanced American interests.[7] In terms of the Middle East, the Zionist state of Israel—which, Engineer adds, with the assistance of colonial powers was established on indigenous Palestinian land, dispossessing almost a million Palestinians in the process—has been a critical ally of the USA.[8] Indeed, Israel is ‘an American imperialist outpost’, a geostrategic instrument through which the USA can ensure its own privileged access to the region’s oil resources.[9] Engineer’s critique of oppression, therefore, is acutely transnational.

As was shown in the methodology section, gender justice is a prominent feature in his writings. Any liberation struggle that does not include the rights of women, warns Engineer, is fundamentally lacking.[10] When I asked him when exactly he first began to see patriarchy, discerning the social inequalities that existed between women and men, he pointed to the division of labour in the family:

The whole family structure and the distribution of power in the family, that itself convinced me that power lies with men, not with women... the division of labour itself is political. I mean, it is the powerful who decide the division of labour. So the division of labour is coercive.

It is not based on justice or fairness ... and once you internalise it, it becomes natural for you. But it is not natural.[11]

Politics is thus not confined to issues of economic inequality and imperial domination, but is present in every societal space wherein uneven relationships of power exist. In a similar fashion to Esack, Engineer shows an awareness of the complexity of oppression, calling for a generally comprehensive commitment to justice—I will explain shortly why I use the qualifier ‘generally’—and in which women’s equality constitutes a central component. It is in the sphere of gender justice, moreover, that Engineer’s preference for the Qur’an over other Islamic texts like the hadith comes out most clearly. Consider the issue of women’s leadership. When Benazir Bhutto (d. 2007) was first elected Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988, the following prophetic report became widely circulated amongst conservative Muslims: ‘a nation can never prosper which has assigned its rulership to a woman.’105 Countering this misogynistic report, Engineer argued that not only did hadith scholars consider this report to be weak in terms of authenticity, but also, and far more significantly, that the Qur’an speaks highly of a female ruler, the Queen of Sheba,106 portraying her as a capable leader endowed with wisdom and political foresight (Q. 27:29-35). By trumping this hadith with the Qur’an, he uses the vested authority of scripture as an empowering tool with which to undercut patriarchal religious discourses.[12] Though gender justice is clearly an integral part of Engineer’s discourse, it is important to point out the limits, the boundaries of his understanding of gender justice. Unlike Esack and Wadud, Engineer does not support queer rights through an Islamic framework, stating that the Qur’an ‘denounces homosexuality in no uncertain terms’ and that holding such ‘radical positions’ will only weaken the cause of human rights in Muslim-majority countries.[13] His statement about the Qur’an is erroneous, however, as the Islamic scholar Scott Kugle has shown that the text itself does not explicitly condemn homosexuality and that classical jurists read this understanding into the text.[14] In sum, Engineer’s conceptualization of gender justice does not include sexual justice, which is why I state that he has a generally (as opposed to a fully) comprehensive commitment to justice.

Engineer’s liberation theology, moreover, crosses religious boundaries, accepting pluralism and the diverse ways with which human beings can respond to the divine call. At the heart of his conception of pluralism lies the conviction that there is no singular, unanimous understanding of God,[15] and it is this humble acknowledgment that enables Engineer to embrace the religious Other. The Qur’an, he continues, explicitly affirms religious pluralism, citing the following verse by way of example:

We have sent down to you the Book with the truth, confirming what was before it of the Book and as a guardian over it. So judge between them by what God has sent down, and do not follow their desires against the truth that has come to you. For each community among you We have appointed a law and a way of life, and had God wished He would have made you one community, but He wished to test you by that which He gave you. So take the lead in all good works (al-khayrat).

To God shall be the return of you all, whereat He will inform you about that which you used to differ. (Q. 5:48)

This Qur’anic passage squarely rejects any notion of Muslim supremacy. For not only did God provide different laws and ways of life for different communities, Engineer observes, but plurality is actually a part of God’s plan, as this all-powerful deity could easily have crafted one single community.111 Indeed, as the Islamic scholar Carl Ernst has observed, the word islam (submission) is of relatively minor importance in the Qur’an, occurring only eight times, while broader and more inclusive concepts such as iman (faith) and mu’min (believer) receive greater attention.112 Yet it is not even belief but action—al-khayrat (‘good works’), to quote from the above verse— that will ultimately determine the fate of the faithful. According to the Qur’anic text, then, salvation is achieved not by virtue of accidental birth into the right religious community, but rather, as the progressive Islamic scholar Omid Safi notes, by coupling an abiding faith in God with an equally abiding commitment to righteous conduct (ihsan).113

Drawing upon the ideas of earlier Islamic mystics and thinkers, Engineer contrasts the famous Muslim belief found in the hadith, that God sent 124,000 prophets to humankind with the fact that the Qur’an—which selectively refers to the stories of past prophets to illustrate lessons to the reader, rejecting any claim to comprehensiveness— mentions only twenty-five prophets by name.114 And it is in the disparity between these two numbers that Engineer carves out a theological space for the religious Other, since we do not know where numerous prophets were sent and, therefore, such historical figures as Raam and Krishna may well have been messengers of God.115 This hermeneutical manoeuvre is indicative of Engineer’s nuanced treatment of the hadith. For whereas in terms of gender justice we saw how he undermined a misogynistic hadith report through scripture, here he actually uses a hadith to flesh out a Qur’anic hermeneutic of religious pluralism. But Engineer does not only use the idea of prophecy to reconcile theological differences between Islam and other religions like Hinduism, but also, and perhaps paradoxically, the very concept of monotheism itself. He describes the Hindu faith as follows:

the theory and practice of Hinduism are very different. In theory, Hinduism is as monotheistic as Christianity or Judaism or Islam. Because what is the real concept of ishwar [Sanskrit: God] in the Hindu religion? Ishwar is conceived of as formless and without attributes. And if this is not monotheism then what is monotheism?[16]

As commendable as Engineer’s pluralistic intentions may be, the above passage raises some larger questions with regard to the meaning of religious diversity. Does this type of theological reasoning do justice to the religious Other and the Hindu Other in particular? That is, do I as a Muslim reconcile the express polytheism of Hinduism by simply explaining it away as being a misunderstood, mispracticed (Islamic) monotheism? In other words, they are really like us. Or do I engage in the far more difficult and unsettling theological task of actually embracing difference?

  • [1] 94 Engineer, Islam: Misgivings and History, 9.
  • [2] Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 52. 2 Ibid.
  • [3] 97 Ibid, 87. 4 Ibid, 76.
  • [4] 99 Asghar Ali Engineer, ‘Israeli Aggression and the World’, Secular Perspective,
  • [5] 1 August 2006, available at:
  • [6] August-1-15-06.pdf accessed 12 August 2016.
  • [7] Engineer, Islam: Misgivings and History, vii.
  • [8] Engineer, ‘Israeli Aggression and the World’. 2 Ibid.
  • [9] 103 Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, vi.
  • [10] 104 Engineer Interview, 2010.
  • [11] 105 Engineer, The Rights of Women in Islam, 17. 106 Ibid.
  • [12] To be sure, he also uses precedents in the early history of Islam to supportwomen’s participation in public life, pointing to female figures such as ‘Ayesha (d. 678),who was active in political affairs and even led troops into battle. See Asghar AliEngineer, ‘Women and Administration’, in Proceedings: National Seminar on theStatus of Woman in Islam (New Delhi: Bait-al-Hikmat, 1983), 37.
  • [13] Engineer, A Living Faith, 197.
  • [14] Kugle, 50. For Kugle’s close reading of the Lot story, see Chapter 2: ‘LiberatingQur’an: Islamic Scripture’.
  • [15] Engineer Interview, 2010.
  • [16] Ibid. 117 Ibid.
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