Personal Shahadah: A ‘Muslim’ Reverts to Islam (Part 2)

The following is the second part of a simple, inartificial, and appealing real story of a ‘man of action,’ his struggle against the odds, and his humble and realistic aspirations, endeavors and successes. QAZI ASHFAQ AHMED’s consistent and persistent efforts, with meager means at his disposal, brought on a lasting change in Australia where not only, he but the whole family of three generations that he raised, are looked at by Arab, Asian, other emigrants and locals, as a model to follow. The first part of the story was published in the January 2009 issue of YOUNG MUSLIM DIGEST.

It was the first time in the history of the AMU since 1945, that the results of the Union election of 1955 brought an overwhelming majority of the cabinet consisting of community-oriented and Islam-oriented students. It was a great turn of the tide. But it was not enough. The main task was how to Islamize the community-oriented group into an Islamic one. The Jamaat Islami was not fully controlling the Union, and many times persuasions, dialogues and discussions were held by us with the cabinet members to accept and act in the right direction.

In addition to my Organization, training and administration activities, I also pursued my studies in the discipline of history and political science. I regularly attended the MA (final) class of Prof. Habeeb and Prof. Khaleeq Nizami. I found that the context covered in the classes was neither sufficient nor satisfactory for us. It was very slow and not very thought provoking. After three months, I left the classes. I continued to have private discussions with Prof. Habeeb.

One most important event during this period jolted the whole AMU. It was the book by the Education Minister K. L. Munshi in which very bad words were used against the Prophet (saws). The students and the whole cabinet of the Union flared up. Fiery speeches were made. The students wanted to go on strike and the buildings were to be damaged if no immediate apology was rendered by the author. It was a very precarious situation. From the Islamic point of view, the anger and pain against the attack upon the noble personality of Muhammad (saws) was definitely justified, but there was confusion as to how to act upon, and what line of action was to be taken. Dr. Zakir Hussain was still the Vice Chancellor and he had great love and respect for me because of my past relationship with him during my engineering studies at the AMU.

Having had approval from Jamaat Islami, a staff member and I had a long meeting with the Vice Chancellor. It was decided that the Vice Chancellor would address the students and we all would go with him. A resolution, agreed upon by the Vice Chancellor and Jamaat Islami of the AMU was to be presented to the Cabinet, and then after its approval, it was to be passed by the students. The resolution very strongly condemned the writing in that book, and it was resolved to send a delegation of three students with the approval of the Vice Chancellor to meet the Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru, for an immediate ban of the book and a formal apology by the author. The time of ten days was allotted during which students were asked to go to classes and wait for the results during the period. If the desired result was not accomplished, further action would be taken. Alhamdulillah, the events took place as planned. The book was confiscated and the apology was rendered. Dr. Zakir Hussain always appreciated our role and had a great respect for Jamaat Islami.

In January 1956, I myself decided to continue working for Jamaat-e-Islami as a volunteer but not as a fulltime employee. I, therefore, with the consultation of my colleagues, decided to return to the engineering profession, after five and a half years, for my livelihood. Since after finishing my studies, I immediately joined the Sanwi Darsgah, I had to undergo a training of one year of internship to qualify as an Engineer. I started engineering training in a German manufacturing company at Aligarh. I had informed the Jamaat and taken permission for that. At the end of November, I was entitled to have the full-fledged professional qualification of Engineer, working for any industry, or teaching engineering in the University.

I then applied for a teaching position in the Engineering College at the AMU. In spite of opposition from the progressive group I was selected as Lecturer. From that time on there was a steady increase in numbers of Islamic-oriented students and staff at AMU. Most of the research scholars, and those at the top were Islamic-minded people. This was the beginning of a new era in the history of Aligarh Muslim University and for the coming ten years, that is up to 1967, Islamic oriented people were in the forefront in the affairs of the University.

Dr. Zakir Hussain left the AMU and was appointed as the Governor of Bihar. On his way back to Delhi at Jamia Millia, where his family members lived, he used to stay one or two days at Aligarh. One day he expressed his desire to meet me. He already knew I had now joined the AMU as a staff member. I went to see him. As usual, very politely and affectionately he addressed me:

“Maulana, (he always used to address me thus because of my beard), you are a man of sacrifice. I know that you have got a very bright future at the AMU, but I also know that you are not aiming for position and wealth. Do a service for me. At Jamia Millia Islamia, we are opening a Rural Institute for training the workforce from our rural masses. Everyone wishes to live in the cities. We want Engineers, Social Workers, Doctors who can work for the poor masses in the villages. The Education Minister, Mr. Shrimall, and I have planned to open six Rural Institutes throughout India with two disciplines of Engineering and Social Work. I request you to join Jamia Millia Islamia and establish the Engineering wing there.”

The idea appealed to me and I thought that the Jamaat work has been fully established and my colleagues at AMU could carry the work satisfactorily. Formally, I applied for the position of Senior Lecturer in the Jamia Rural Institute. I was selected and I started the Engineering section from scratch in 1957. Alas, the whole scheme later flopped. This institution has not been serving the rural areas for the last two decades but like other engineering institutions, the product of the engineering college of Jamia Millia Islamia is catering to the needs of the urban areas.

Dr. Zakir Hussain, the founder of Jamia Milli Islamiah, and the then-Governor of Bihar, laid a heavy responsibility on me by assigning me the task of establishing Rural Engineering Institute for the engineers to be trained to work in villages. My six years’ duration of 1957-1963 was mostly spent in preparing engineers for rural areas. I was the Senior Lecturer as well as the Acting Principal. Here I had to deal with both the teaching and the administration jobs simultaneously. I used to teach the basics of civil and mechanical engineering with their applications in rural areas. Rural planning and rural housing were the two areas that required great qualitative and quantitative changes. I considered it better to upgrade my knowledge and experience for the purpose. I applied for a Masters Degree in USA under the Technical Co–operation Mission (TCM) scheme scholarship. I was selected. I was admitted in 1958 at Wisconsin University. I got my M. Sc. (Eng.) in 1959, almost in one year, with my thesis on the Rural Planning of an Indian village. After having a study leave for one and a half years, I came back and made a great contribution in course work and engineering practices in the rural engineering discipline.

Another activity in which I was involved during my stay at Jamia Millia, Delhi was the involvement with the ‘study circle’ of the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Mohammad Mujib. He was a historian and was writing a history of the contemporary period. He used to have a sitting of intellectuals to discuss and give their opinions and comments about the manuscript: a very interesting activity for understanding the mind of Indian Muslim liberal intellectuals.

I would have continued to stay, but after a long service of six years taking part in the establishment of the Institute, a new Principal was appointed and he wanted to make many drastic changes in the running of the Rural Institute. I then started sending applications to some other institutions for service. In 1963, I, with my family, went to Kashmir during the summer holidays. There I visited the Regional Engineering College at Srinagar.

The climate of Srinagar, the campus of the college, the staff, and especially the Principal, appealed to me. This prompted me to offer my services to the institute. Within two months, the position of Senior Lecturer was advertised. I applied, was interviewed and then selected. I joined the Regional Engineering College in 1963. Here, again, my experience of administration and dynamism helped me greatly. The Mechanical Engineering department was to be upgraded. There were not many labs. Dynamics and Thermodynamics labs were to be set. Heat Transfer and Thermal Power generation instruments and machines were to be installed. Here again I worked hard as an Associate Professor, and in 1965 I became Professor and Head of the Department. All the positions were advertised and selections were made by screening and interviewing the candidates.

In 1969, with the vacancy of the post of Principal, I was made Vice-Principal, and Acting Principal of the college. It is very interesting to know how the high posts of administration are selected in developing countries, especially in the underdeveloped states. Up to a certain level, say at the most up to professorial level, selection takes place on one’s merit, qualifications and experience. For the posts of Principal or Vice Chancellor, generally you should be in the good books of the politicians, ministers, and the higher bureaucrats. I also became the victim of this malpractice. I was asked indirectly, by almost the highest political authority of Kashmir, who was also the highest decision-maker on the Board of Directors of the Regional Engineering College, to manipulate first division for a student, in his final degree to obtain admission to the USA. Because of my integrity, and requirement of justice to other students, I could not accept partiality, and I had to bear a severe punishment for this denial. When I came back to Srinagar after attending a meeting at lIT Kanpur, my wife presented a telex from my college:

“Your services are hereby terminated because of your subversive activities against India in favour of Pakistan.”

This was a tremendous shock with great suffering for me, having a family of a wife, a sister and six children. It was such a nasty charge that no institution on India, including the Aligarh Muslim University, could provide a job for me.

Coming to Australia

It is very difficult for others to realize what mental torture, physical suffering and humiliation I underwent during the period of December 69 to March ‘71. All the doors of services were closed upon me. Fortunately my international passport was valid from my return from USA, otherwise there was a good chance that a new passport would not have been issued to me because of Central Intelligence report. To make a strong case against me, my file was full of fictitious reports, even photographs. One of the proofs against me was a photograph in which I appeared to be addressing twenty commandos of Pakistan, and my car was beside me. I enquired from the CID person appointed in our Engineering College Campus. He told me that the photograph was taken when I alighted from my car and collected all the students who were on hunger strike because of food quality of the college mess. Then the negative of this photograph was combined with that of an assembly of the commandos.

I must be thankful that in this period of darkness, to my colleague in USA, Dr. Manohar Lal Ganguli, Professor and Head of Mechanical Engineering Department, Indian Institute of Technology (lIT) managed to arrange a post-graduate scholarship for me and I started living in the lIT hostel from December 1969. I managed to visit the embassies of UK, USA and Australia for applications and interviews. First, I received an offer from Australia for a Research fellowship for Ph.D. I didn’t wait for the USA (which came after my departure to Australia) and made arrangements to leave the country at the earliest. Thus, without informing anyone else at all, except my wife, I came alone without anyone seeing me off, and landed in Sydney on 23rd March, 1971.

It was a great relief, as if I have been given by God another life, another chance for my survival and positive activities. As soon as I came out of customs with my passport, having a student’s visa, I prayed to Allah for the safety of my life and for the starting of a new career.

I made a deep analysis of my relationship with Allah. I became convinced that Allah had a special attention towards me. He doesn’t like me to become much engrossed in material gains – positions, status, fame and wealth. On one side, He keeps me away from these things but, on the other side, He desires me not to be so helpless, to the extent of depending upon others for my moderate living. Allah wants me to involve minimum for material gains, and then whatever time is left, I should devote for my spiritual development and for the service of Islam. The episode of Kashmir was also a reminder to return to my mission for which I had made sacrifice. Hence, in Australia, I had to pursue knowledge in the Engineering profession to earn a moderate income, as well as to gain a credible position by obtaining my PhD. Therefore, I pledged with Allah to follow strictly the hidden message of God I received by intuition. Thanks to Allah that from 1971 to date, my life has been spent with this approach. Many temptations and opportunities came to me as diversions, but Allah guided me and kept me balanced.

Out of the 32 years since 1971, 20 years have been passed with 60% time for my livelihood and 40% for the Community work in average. For my livelihood, I had to go to Papua New Guinea as Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor at the University of Technology, for eight years, six years from 1978-84, and two years from 1987-89. In Australia I didn’t get any full time teaching positions and worked on a part time basis, spending other times for Islamic work. My professional achievements of which I am satisfied are mainly four – the fundamental research on the structures of the phenomenon of Turbulence in atmosphere, the novel method for the extension of oil-well fire, solar Refrigeration and teaching engineering subjects.

Due to an accident, my knees were damaged and then replaced, and thus for the last twelve years since 1991, I have been devoting all my time for the community work, living on my disability pension. My wife and I are living with the families of my three sons all together in one house, designed and built by myself and my sons, having twelve bedrooms and working areas for community projects.

I am Alhamdulillah (thanks to Allah) very much satisfied to pass my life in such a meaningful manner. I take it as the Blessings of Allah to arrange for me full-time service for the cause of Islam. I am involved in advising and helping many organizations and initiating and finishing many projects.

Changes in My Viewpoint of Islam

Studying Islam very vigorously, I tried to practice it to the best of my knowledge during my involvement with Islam from 1950, the year of my reversion to Islam. Up to 1971, the year of leaving India for Australia, I fell quite satisfied that I was conceptually and practically somewhat of a good Muslim.

After arriving in Australia, a great metamorphosis took place. For the first time in my life I came across an entirely multi–religious Western society. Moreover, another drastic change was that of having Muslims themselves, of different creeds: Sunnis. Shafiis, Hanafis, Malikis and Hambalis; Shias as Jaafaris, Zaidis and Agha Khanis etc. Moving around in the Australian society in general, and the Muslim society in particular, I learnt a lot about the conceptual Islam by reading more. Moving with people in community work, I learnt more of Islamic practice as well. Following are the salient changes in my outlook and behaviour.

Flexibility and not rigidity Islam is not a rigid religion only of dos and don’ts. The most unique characteristic of Islam is its worldview and its epistemology. Islam as a rigid discipline with sub-disciplines in neat little boxes ‘the Qur’ân,’ ‘Hadith,’ ‘Fiqh,’ ‘Seerah,’ Islamic History, etc., must be abandoned. These must not be taught as isolated components divorced from reality. The new emphasis for the study of Islam should be on the analysis and on solving ethical and moral problems, thinking within the Islamic paradigm.

Islam a world-view and not a religion

Islam should not be considered as a religion, or a culture or even a civilization. Islam must be presented as a world-view, so that it can provide the Muslims, as well as the West, with the alternative ways and means for solving the problems of alienation, for which both are searching.

Islam and the West

Islam and the West both need each other. The framework of concepts, and the Islamic world-view, provide methods for solving ethical, moral, social and political problems, while the West provides the modern skills and techniques for material development. There should be an encounter of the two, seeking an approach through mutually acceptable traits as well as appreciating their useful diversity of identities: following the practice of beneficial dialogues and mutual respect between two equals.

Love in place of hatred

Regardless of how wrong any idea, or any practice may seem, as a true follower of Islam, one should not hate the person concerned. We may argue politely with full respect and feel pity for the person without any ill-feeling. This is the true message of universal brotherhood, which I grasped fully after coming to Australia. The whole of humanity is sailing in the same boat, being victims of circumstances. A lot of patience and perseverance is required for correcting the situation. We have to deal with chains of reactions, and tremendous dedication and wisdom will be required to break those chains.

Reformation, not revolution

The present situation has become too complicated. The nations and countries are no longer isolated. Any small event in a small town has its tremors across the world. In such a volatile situation, revolution in one country, or tyranny or atrocity, will have repercussions allover the world. Revolution needs bloodshed, which hinders long-life peace.

After analyzing the world situation, I have come to realize that the slow and steady process of reformation may guarantee peace in the future: while revolution, though temporarily victorious, destabilizes the situation for a very long period afterwards.

Revenge and counter-revolution generally prove to be the consequence. Reformation is the only sane and viable alternative for the lasting construction of a community or a country. The slow and steady process, of education and persuasion, is much more powerful and heart winning than a revolution.