Friday, June 14, 2013

Eminent scholars or charlatans?

Sciolism and charlatanry is now celebrated as scholarly ‘eminence’ among ‘activists’ against ‘communalism’.
Asghar Ali Engineer, who died recently, is associated in my mind with Ram Puniyani.

This mental association started in July 2011 when I happened to browse through (and quite struck by) Puniyani's review of Engineer's book, 'The Prophet of Non-Violence', published in Tehelka.

Read the review -- headlined, 'Fresh take on Islam: Go by the Quran, not by the Maulanas' -- to get an idea of Puniyani's 'scholarship'.

I had never heard of Puniyani before I came across his piece in Tehelka, which described him as “a former professor at IIT Mumbai” and gave his email address.

Nor had I been familiar with Engineer, though I might have heard his name.

I have since done some reading about both these men, which revealed their association with each other. 

Until his death Engineer had been the “head of the 'Center for Study of Society and Secularism' in Mumbai, where he closely worked with scholar and scientist Professor Dr Ram Puniyani”, says Wikipedia.

The Center's website lists Engineer as chairman and Puniyani as a member of both the general body and the executive council.

The length and closeness of Engineer-Puniyani association is borne out by quite a few references on the Web, such as the following which mentions the two men as speakers at a convention hosted by "All India Secular Forum".

This association, read with Puniyani's review of Engineer's book, provides not only an insight into the quality of 'scholarship' of the "former professor at IIT Mumbai", but also that of Engineer, variously described as 'Islamic scholar', self-declared 'believer', 'rationalist', 'reformer', 'champion of democracy in Islam', opposer of communalism', 'champion of secularism, etc.

One should also read some of Puniyani's other writings on the link below to assess the depth of his knowledge and intellect.

(One of his more recent pieces is titled, ‘Ignore Those Who Love to Hate: Hate Speech and Communal Politics’, and can be read on )

Take a look at some of Engineer's writings, including the one titled, 'What I Believe', at the following link.

Also read the interview with Engineer whose link is pasted below to have a better idea as to how this 'believer', 'rationalist' 'secularist', 'scholar', 'reformer' (all rolled into one) deals with the issue of succession to Muhammad (which translates into 'Caliphate' or the Islamic state) and, at the same time, exhorts "separation of state and religion".

("Religion should never be used for political purposes. State and religion should always remain separate.")

I sent an e-mail -- dated 6 July 2011 -- to Puniyani after reading his review in Tehelka of Engineer's book, 'The Prophet of Non-Violence', and got a reply from him.

The full correspondence with Puniyani is pasted at the bottom of this post.

It left me in no doubt about Puniyani. To me this correspondence -- as also the Engineer-Puniyani association and the larger "anti-communal" activist network -- goes some distance in explaining why some people call such activists a gang of fraudsters and charlatans.

I may have more to say on Engineer in the coming days, but, from what I've read of his articles so far, he appears to me to be more hypocritically contradictory and silly in his dealing with Islam, "communalism" and "secularism" than any other 'eminent Islamic scholar' that I know of. 

The unread and uncritical attribution of ‘eminence’ to people like Puniyani and Engineer shows the bankruptcy of our intellectual culture at best and pure fraud at worst.


Date: 6 July 2011

Subject: Your book review in Tehelka

Dear Prof. Ram Puniyani,

Here are a few thoughts on 'Fresh take on Islam: Go by the Quran, not by the Maulanas', your review of Mr. Asghar Ali Engineer's book, published in Tehelka.

1. Your advice, or echoing of Mr. Engineer's advice, fuels my curiosity.

(a) Could you kindly elaborate as to how does it help someone, Muslim or non-Muslim, to "go by the Quran, not by the Maulanas"? What are the problems -- individual, societal and inter-societal -- that "going by the Quran, not by the Maulanas" will solve and how?

(b) How will "going by the Quran, not by the Maulanas" help the Hindus living in Sindh, Muslims living in Waziristan, Coptic Christians living in Egypt, and Sikhs living in Afghanistan?

(c) How will "going by the Quran, not by the Maulanas" help the Muslim women in Uttar Pradesh, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Sudan, and the rest of the Muslim world?

(d) If some or all of the human societies decide to take your advice, what exactly will they need to do in order to "go by the Quran, not by the Maulanas"? Could you kindly try to specify that in bullet points for ease of understanding?

(e) Since you'd like the people of the world to go by Quran in understanding Islam --- presumably Mr. Engineer's interpretation of Quran as well as such other interpretations that you believe represent 'the truth of the religion' --- and not Maulanas, would you recommend mass education of the world population in the 'right interpretation' of Quran?

(f) What according to you is the approximate proportion of the world Muslim population that already "goes by the Quran, not by the Maulanas"?

(g) You describe it as "a mammoth task" to ensure that "Islam is seen through the pages of the Quran and not through the propaganda against Islam, indulged in by vested interests all around." Would you propose that a multilateral agency like the United Nations or Organisation of Islamic Countries should undertake this "mammoth task"?

(h) How do you --- a very distinguished academic --- think this pedagogic challenge can be met? What according to you will be the scale of human and material resources needed to meet this "mammoth task"? Since you do not want the world to "go by the Maulanas," the educators undertaking this "mammoth task" will presumably not be called "Maulanas." What will they be called?

(i) Would you be willing perhaps to draft a preliminary proposal to be made to the UN or OIC?

(j) Your book review suggests that you are convinced that the 'right interpretation' of Quran exists. However, just to be on the safe side, could you kindly give me an idea of the degree of firmness of your belief in the existence of the 'right interpretation' of Quran? Do you believe 100 per cent or 99 per cent or 98 per cent that such an interpretation exists? Any other percentage? Kindly also cite reasons for the degree of firmness of your belief.

(k) What in your view is the mathematical probability that various Islamic denominations, schools and branches across the world will also agree with you that the 'right interpretation' of Quran exists (and it is not necessarily their own)? Are you aware of any discussion on this subject and a degree of convergence of views within the OIC or anywhere in the Muslim world?

(l) Do you think "going by the Quran, not by the Maulanas," will help to eliminate the schism between the Sunnis and the Shias? Will it also help bridge differences within Shias (Twelvers, Zaidis and Ismailis) and within Sunnis (Hanafis, Shafi'is, Malikis and Hanbalis)? Will it also help bring together various movements within the Hanafi school of law, such as Barelvi and Deobandi, as also such movements in other schools of Islamic law?

(m) Will "going by the Quran, not by the Maulanas" help abate violence between Sunnis and Shias in Pakistan?

(n) What in your view is the mathematical probability that Wahabi rulers of Saudi Arabia can be persuaded to go by the Quran (which presumably emphaises Muslim unity) and not by the Maulanas, so that they stop their policy of religious and economic discrimination against Shia minority?

(o) How will "going by the Quran, not by the Maulanas" help ex-communication of Ahmadiyas by other Muslims and violence perpetrated on the former by the latter?

(p) Do you think "going by the Quran and not by the Maulanas" will affect the status of the communities designated Dhimmi under Sharia in Muslims states?

(q) Since Mr. Engineer happens to be a Dawoodi Bohra Muslim, which is a sub-sect of Ismaili Shia Islam, do you foresee any probability that Muslims belonging to other sects and denominations may find it difficult to agree with his interpretation of Quran?

(r) Do you think all Dawoodi Bohra Muslims of India will agree with Mr. Engineer's interpretation of Quran as the right interpretation? Would you be willing perhaps --- to set the ball rolling --- to arrange a small opinion poll among Dawoodi Bohra Muslims in one or two localities of Mumbai?

(s) Supposing that some or all of about 1.5 billion Muslims of the world actually decide to "go by the Quran, not by the Maulanas", do you see any possibility that they may still not go --- as they actually do not --- by a single interpretation of Sunnah, Hadith, Fiqh and Sharia, which are the other texts central to Islam? What might you propose in such a situation, in addition to proposing the production of more 'right interpretations' of the aforementioned texts and more "mammoth tasks" to "ensure that Islam is not seen through the propaganda"?

(t) Given the indisputable fact that as a military general Prophet Muhammad participated in wars --- only 'just wars' you would probably say --- Sunnah and Hadith (both of which have to do with the conduct of the Prophet) make it incumbent upon Muslims to wage 'just wars' also in the present times. That takes us back to the issue of 'right interpretation' (as to whether a war is 'just' or 'unjust') of not just Quran but also Sunnah and Hadith. Don't you think "going by the Quran, not by the Maulanas" is hardly enough?

(u) How will "going by the Quran, not by the Maulanas" help resolve the differences between the Meccan and Medinan Surahs of Quran and the "doctrine of abrogation"? Who will resolve those differences, if Maulanas are to be kept at bay? Will Quran resolve them on its own?

(v) How many individuals do you know anywhere in the world who will be prepared to go purely by the supposedly 'right interpretation' of a religious text in their everyday lives and not the actual behaviour of the people around them? Would you do it yourself, for instance, if you were a member of minority community in a Muslim country and someone who actually believes that Muslim rulers and clergy continue to "misrepresent the Quran to suit their political and social interests"? Would you even do it as a member of the majority community in India?

(w) Would the Muslims of Gujarat who faced violence in 2002 make the effort to grasp and go by the 'right interpretation' of Vedas, Puranas, Geeta and Ramayana, or the actual behaviour of the people who perpetrated the violence?

(x) Since Prophet Muhammad was indisputably also a military general who was engaged in violent conflicts for many years, could you explain how is Mr. Engineer's description of him as 'The Prophet of Non-Violence' different in nature from the general description of Mahatma Gandhi as 'apostle of peace and non-violence'?

(y) How much of the violence (Muslim-Muslim and Muslim-Non-Muslim) in about 1400 years of Islamic history, whatever be its scale, from the time of Prophet Muhammad to modern times, would you attribute to the work of "propaganda" and "negative projection of Islam"? And how much of that violence would you attribute to the fact that Islam does allow taking up arms and waging war? 

(z) What makes you confident that Mr. Engineer's book "presents the truth of the religion as propagated by Prophet Mohammad"? Have you made the effort of reading the Quran in original or translation yourself? Have you read any other Islamic text?

How is your belief that Mr Engineer "presents the truth of religion" different from someone's belief in a Maulana's interpretation of Quran or Islam?

If your belief stems from your perception of the writer as "a multifaceted scholar-activist, (who) has been a major contributor to the enrichment of humane values," then what prevents others to also predicate their belief in an interpretation of Quran on how they perceive the personality and character of the interpreter?

In that case, how will everyone, or even a significant number of people, agree on a single interpretation of religion as the true interpretation? Don't you think that becomes an even more of a "mammoth task" because you'd like the "Maulanas" to be shunned?

Could you please suggest an objective way in which one can arrive at the "truth of the religion"?

2. Your description accompanying the review --- 'Ram Puniyani is a former professor at IIT Mumbai' --- seems slightly inadequate. Tehelka's editors should perhaps have added a line or two about your scholarship in Islam. For a person who writes with so great a confidence about Islam as you do, you must have read, and perhaps written, quite a few books on Islam.

3. Your book review has left me in no doubt that you are no ordinary intellectual. You are a profound intellectual as one would expect any IIT professor to be. Your review will be as useful -- if not more -- to the reading public across the world as the book you have reviewed.

Warm regards,

Date: 7 July 2011

Subject: Re: Your book review in Tehelka

Dear Kapil Bajaj

I think my review article is just focusing on a single point, that when so many versions of Islam are being presented to us, Asghar ALi Engineer's attempt to present the nature values of Islam as per Koran are apt.

So all other comments of your do not apply to this piece. As such I have written some essays on understanding of religion, Islam included, hope this may clarify my understanding a bit more to you. Also couple of my articles to show the difference between religion and politics in the name of religion are also being sent.

Files are attached.

Best wishes
ram puniyani

Date: 8 July 2011

Subject: Re: Your book review in Tehelka

Dear Prof. Ram Puniyani,

1. Your reply clarifies absolutely nothing.

2. I asked you a total of 45 questions, each of which arises quite naturally from the confident assertions you made and opinions you expressed in your review of Asghar Ali Engineer's book, The Prophet of Non-Violence. So, each of my 45 questions does apply to your piece completely.

You have not answered a single question I have raised.
Nor have you given me any idea of your scholarship on Islam.

3. Excuse me for my bluntness, but the "single point" ("When so many versions of Islam...") you cite in your reply is absurd. What makes you think that people presenting you with "so many versions of Islam" will claim for their own version any less adherence to Quran than Asghar Ali Engineer?

And what makes you confident in your own judgement that Engineer's "attempt" amounts to "presenting the nature (sic) values of Islam as per Koran"?
Using the word "attempt" is quite a breathtaking climbdown on your part, I notice.

Your original comments are: "Asghar Ali Engineer’s popular work, The Prophet of Non-Violence, comes as a breath of fresh air, presenting the truth of the religion as propagated by Prophet Mohammad in the war-torn tribal society of Saudi Arabia.

...Engineer does well to refer to the Quran as the base of his understanding and brilliantly yet simply explains the truth behind the misconceptions popularised by motivated critics".

Engineer's version must be the nth version in the history of Islam presenting (again in your words) "the nature values of Islam as per Koran."

It seems, unfortunately, that those other versions somehow escaped your scholarly attention.

That is why I had said in my earlier mail that you are no ordinary intellectual.

While an ordinary intellectual would most likely have wasted a lot of time reading up on Islam, you would use the same amount of time to produce a great many gems of as profound a scholarship as the review of Engineer's book.

I had also said in my earlier mail that your review will be as useful, if not more, to the reading public as the book you have reviewed.

(Tehelka must get a part of the credit for publishing such useful and scholarly articles.)

4. To put it in plainer English, your book review reveals a level of knowledge of Islam that's comparable to a toddler reciting, Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, before her parents and expecting to be kissed and hugged in admiration.

Reading the book review first and then the questions I have raised shows the puerility and absurdity of the assertions you have made in your article. (Such as discovering some kind of uniqueness in "going by the Quran" in educing the "true" values of Islam without realising that such 'uniqueness' is likely to be claimed by other expounders of Islam as well.)

Only a person who has never made the effort of doing even basic reading of Islam (which could not have been easier for anyone with access to the Internet) can write such stupid stuff.

Today, so much information on Islam is available on the Web that any interested person can acquire a basic understanding of the religion in a matter of days, if not hours, and then go on to hone their critical faculties as regards some of the prominent issues surrounding Islam and the Muslims.

I suggest you take at least a month's break from producing such gems of scholarship, a dime a dozen, to do some serious reading. India's secularism will hopefully survive the month-long hiatus in the flow of your creative juices.

5. You need not have taken the trouble of sending me three more of your gems. Having skimmed through some of your articles on, I have got a pretty good idea of the quality of your scholarship.


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