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Slightly edited for classroom use by FWP: typos corrected, punctuation adjusted, etc. All annotations in square brackets are by FWP.

DAWN, Review, Nov. 7, 2002
My struggle to help Muslim women regain their God-given rights

Dr. Riffat Hasan

To understand the strong impetus to "Islamize" Muslim societies, especially with regard to women-related norms and values, it is necessary to know that of all the challenges confronting the Muslim world, perhaps the greatest is that of modernity. In this exclusive two-part essay, renowned Islamic theologian Dr Riffat Hasan presents a critical analysis of three contemporary women in Islam: herself, Dr Farhat Hashmi of Al-Huda and human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir.

While my work and writings are known to many persons in many countries, this statement may be read by some who are not aware of my background and what I have focused on as a student, as a researcher, as a teacher, as a philosopher as a writer, or as an activist. I consider it important therefore to begin by mentioning some facts of my personal and professional history that might be helpful to the reader in understanding my ideas and the larger framework within which they have developed. Like many other contemporary women thinkers l see a profound linkage between what is intellectual and what is existential and experiential. Consequently this statement reflects the jihad (struggle) l have engaged in both as a theologian and as a Pakistani Muslim woman.

I come from an old Saiyyad family from Muslim Town, Lahore. Faiz Road, on which my ancestral home is situated, is named after my grandfather Saiyyad Faizul Hassan whose progenitors "founded" Muslim Town. My maternal grandfather Hakim Ahmad Shuja came from Bazaar-e-Hakiman, which was named after his family, in the old city of Lahore. The Hakims (and their cousins the Faqirs) were known for their patronage of art and literature and nurtured many gifted artists, thinkers and writers, including the young Iqbal when he first came from Sialkot to study at the Government College, Lahore. Hakim Sahib was not only a well-known poet and playwright, but also a Qur'anic scholar who collaborated with Iqbal in some of his early works.

Upholding the "honor" of his Saiyyad heritage and being "noble" Muslims was very important to my father. Being educated, creative, and independent was what mattered greatly to my mother. My parents differed greatly in their life-perspectives, and had strongly conflicting views regarding how girls were to be brought up. Growing up in the midst of so much discord, trying to figure out with the mind of a young child who I was and what was the purpose of my life, was a very difficult thing. What sustained me during the troubled years of my childhood were two things: my faith in God who was to me the source of light, of justice and compassion, and my love of reading and writing which enabled me to create an inner universe in which my mind and spirit could grow.

I left home at 17 to study in England and returned seven years later with a BA Honours degree in English Literature and Philosophy, and a PhD for my thesis on the philosophy of Allama Iqbal. There is no question that the single most important intellectual influence on my mental development has been that of Iqbal. From him I learnt more than I can say -- his philosophy of Khudi (selfhood) became the foundation of my evolving philosophical vision, and his insistence on going back to the Qur'an and going forward with ijtihad (independent reasoning, which he called "the principle of movement in Islam") was something that became pivotal in my own study of Islam.

I have been involved in the teaching of Islam since 1973, and have been engaged in research on issues relating to women in Islam since the fall of 1974. Recalling how I embarked on the most important journey of any life, I wrote in one of my articles, "I do not know exactly at what time my 'academic' study of women in Islam became a passionate quest for truth and justice on behalf of Muslim women -- perhaps it was when I realized the impact on my own life of the so-called Islamic ideas and attitudes regarding women. What began as a scholarly exercise became simultaneously an Odyssean venture in self-understanding. But 'enlightenment' does not always lead to 'endless bliss' (as the Buddhists say). The more I saw the justice and compassion of God reflected in the Qur'anic teachings regarding women, the more anguished and angry I became, seeing the injustice and inhumanity to which Muslim women, in general, are subjected to in actual life. I began to feel strongly that it was my duty -- as a part of the microscopic minority of educated Muslim women -- to do as much consciousness-raising regarding the situation of Muslim women as I could.

Very early in my study I realized that Islam, like the other major religions of the world (namely, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism) had developed in patriarchal culture in which its mayor sources, i.e., the Qur'an, the Sunnah, the Hadith literature, and Fiqh, had been interpreted almost exclusively by men -- who had assigned to themselves the right to define the ontological, theological, sociological, and eschatological status of Muslim women. I spent the first decade of my research on women in Islam (1974-1984) in reinterpreting the Qur'anic texts relating to women from a non-patriarchal perspective, and came to the conclusion that the Qur'an does not discriminate against women in any way. In fact if one can see the Qur'anic text without the lens of patriarchal biases, one discovers how strongly it affirms the rights of women -- and of other socially disadvantaged groups.

Since the 1970s the process of "Islamization" which was initiated in some Muslim countries, including Pakistan, led to the promulgation of laws whose primary objective was to put women "in their place". Women were also a major target of the so-called Islamic punishments that were instituted by General Ziaul Haq in Pakistan, who enacted the Hudood Ordinance (1979), the Qanun-e-Shahadat (1984), and the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance (1990). These laws -- which aimed at reducing the value and status of women systematically, and virtually mathematically, to less than that of men -- are manifestly unjust and un-Islamic, as pointed out repeatedly by advocates of women's rights in Pakistan. No government, however, has had the moral or political will to amend or repeal these laws which have caused great suffering to a large number of girls and women in Pakistan.

To understand the strong impetus to "Islamize" Muslim societies, especially with regard to women-related norms and values, it is necessary to know that of all the challenges confronting the Muslim world, perhaps the greatest is that of modernity. Unable to come to grips with modernity as a whole, many Muslim societies make a sharp distinction between two aspects of it. The first -- generally referred to as "modernization" and largely approved -- is identified with science, technology, and a better standard of life. The second -- generally referred to as "Westernization" and largely disapproved -- is identified with emblems of "mass" Western culture such, as promiscuity, break-up of family and community, latch-key kids, and drug and alcohol abuse.

What is of importance to note here, is that an emancipated Muslim woman is seen by many Muslims as a symbol not of "modernization" but of "Westernization". (These days Muslim girls, as well as boys, go to Western institutions for higher education. However, often when a young man returns from the West he is considered "modernized", but when a young woman returns she is considered "Westemized".) This is so because she appears to be in violation of what traditional societies consider to be a necessary barrier between "private space" (i.e. the home) where women belong and "public space" (i.e. the rest of the world) which belongs to men. This invisible barrier between these two unequal spaces is called hijab (literally meaning "curtain"). Traditionally, Muslims have developed the belief that it is best to keep men and women segregated, i.e., in their separate, designated spaces, because the intrusion of women into men's space is seen as leading to the disruption, if not the destruction, of the fundamental order of things. According to a popular hadith, whenever a man and woman are alone, "ash-Shaitan" (the Satan) is bound to be there.

The self-styled caretakers of Muslim traditions are aware of the fact that viability in the modern technological age requires the adoption of the scientific or rational outlook that inevitably brings about major changes in modes of thinking and behaviour. Women, both educated and uneducated, who are participating in the national work force, and contributing towards national development, think and behave differently from women who have no sense of their individual identity or autonomy as active agents in a history-making process and regard themselves merely as instruments designed to minister to and reinforce a patriarch system that they believe to be divinely instituted.

Though I emigrated to the US in 1972, I have always maintained strong ties with Pakistan and spent every summer in Lahore. I, therefore, knew from close quarters what was happening in the country. In 1983-84, I was able to spend two years in Pakistan, since I had a year's sabbatical leave and a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship for a one-year research project. This was the time when the victimization of women by the new laws (particularly the Zina ordinance, which was part of the Hudood ordinance) had started. Though most of the victims were poor and illiterate, many affluent and educated women in Pakistan began to realize that the discriminatory laws were threatening to erode the fundamental rights not only of disadvantaged females but of all females.

In addition to the increase in violence being perpetrated upon women through legislation, there was a deluge of anti-women literature produced by religious extremists which flooded the popular market. The purpose of the multi-faceted onslaught unleashed against women by the "Islamization" process was to push women out of "public space" into the chadur and chardivari [staying within 'four walls'] where they would perform the traditional roles of wives and mothers as defined by a patriarchal society that regards the inferiority and subservience of women to men as part of God's eternal system. These roles are promoted as bringing not respect but respectability to the women in the name of Islam.

As I reflected upon the scene I witnessed, and asked myself how it was possible for laws that were archaic if not absurd to be implemented in a society that professed a passionate commitment to modernity, the importance of something that I had always known dawned on me with stunning clarity.

Pakistani society (or any other Muslim society for that matter) could enact or accept laws that specified that women were less than men in fundamental ways because Muslims, in general, consider it a self-evident truth that women are not equal to men.

Anyone who states that in the present-day world it is accepted in many religious as well as secular communities that men and women are equal, or that evidence can be found in the Qur'an and the islamic tradition for affirming man-woman equality, is likely to be confronted, immediately and with force, by a mass of what is described as "irrefutable evidence" taken from the Qur'an, Hadith, and Sunnah to "prove" that men are "above" women.

Among the arguments used to overwhelm any proponent of man-woman equality, the following are perhaps the most popular: that according to the Qur'an, men are qawwamun (generally translated as hakim or "rulers") in relation to women; that according to the Qur'an, a man's share in inheritance is twice that of a woman; that according to the Qur'an, the witness of one man is equal to that of two women; that according to the Prophet (p.b.u.h.), women are deficient both in prayer (due to menstruation) and in intellect (due to their witness counting for less than a man's). In my theological work I have presented compelling evidence to show that a correct reading of the Qur'an or the Prophetic tradition does not support such arguments, and that the normative teachings of Islam strongly uphold the equality of men and women both in relation to God and to each other.

Since I was (in all probability) the only Muslim woman in the country who was attempting to interpret the Qur'an systematically from a non-patriarchal perspective, I was approached numerous times by women leaders (including the members of the Pakistan Commission on the Status of Women, before whom I gave my testimony in May 1984) to state what my findings were and if they could be used to improve the situation of women in Pakistani society.

I was urged by those spirited women who were mobilizing and leading women's protests in the streets to help them by developing an ideology or strategy that they could use to counter the avalanche of negative laws, literature, and actions with which they were being confronted. Some of them wanted to use the work I had already done and use my interpretations of Qur'anic texts to refute the arguments that were being used to make them less than fully human on a case-by-case or point-by-point basis. I must admit that I was tempted to join the foray in support of my beleaguered sisters (amongst whom was Asma Jahangir) who were being deprived of their human rights in the name of Islam.

But I knew through my long and continuing struggle with the forces of Muslim traditionalism (which were now being gravely threatened by what they described as "the assault of Westernization under the guise of modernization") that the arguments that were being broadcast to "keep women in their place" of subordination and submissiveness were only the front line of attack. Behind these arguments were others, and no sooner would one line of attack be eliminated than another one would be set up in its place. What had to be done, first and foremost, in my opinion, was to examine the theological ground in which all the anti-women arguments were rooted to see if, indeed, a case could be made for asserting that from the point of view of normative Islam, men and women were essentially equal, despite biological and other differences.

As a result of my study and deliberation I came to perceive that not only in the Islamic, but also in the Jewish and Christian traditions, there are three theological assumptions on which the superstructure of men's alleged superiority to women (which implies the inequality of women and man) has been erected. These three assumptions are:

(1) that God's primary creation is man, not woman, since woman is believed to have been created from man's rib, hence is derivative and secondary ontologically.

(2) That woman, not man, was the primary agent of what is customarily described as the "Fall," or man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, hence all "daughters of Eve" are to be regarded with hatred, suspicion, and contempt.

(3) That woman was created not only from man but also for man, which makes her existence merely instrumental and not of fundamental importance.

The three theological questions to which the above assumptions may appropriately be regarded as answers, are: How was woman created? Was woman responsible for the "Fall" of man? Why was woman created?

I have spent many years working on these questions, and have shown in my writings that none of the above-mentioned assumptions is warranted by a correct reading of the Qur'an -- which states categorically (in 30 passages) that God created all humanity at the same time, of the same substance, in the same manner; that both man and woman disobeyed God by going near the forbidden tree, but that they acknowledged their wrongdoing and were forgiven by God (hence there is no "Fall" in Islam); that God created both men and women "for a just purpose" and that the relationship between them is one of equality, mutuality, and cordiality.

It has been the major mission of my life, especially since I became involved in 1984 in helping women activists in Pakistan, to educate Muslim/Pakistani girls and women about the rights given to them by God in the Qur'an. These rights may be denied or dishonoured -- as they have been through much of our history -- but rights given by God cannot be abrogated by any human being or agency.

In pursuit of my passionate quest for justice on behalf of Muslim women I have travelled from one end of the Muslim world to the other conducting workshops, participating in conferences, meeting leaders and policy makers. I have had the privilege of being one of the main spokespersons for Islam at several United Nations Conferences, including those held at Cairo (1994), Copenhagen (1995), Beijing (1995) and Istanbul (1996). I have also been a featured speaker at several hundred conferences in the US, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The message I have delivered in each of my presentations is that Islam is a justice-and-compassion-centered religion which values the life of each person and holds before all human beings -- women as well as men -- the lofty vision embodied in the Qur'anic proclamation, "Towards God is your limit." (Surah 53: An-Najm: 42, translation by Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Lahore, 1971, p. 57).

In February 1999, ABC showed the BBC documentary entitled Murder in Purdah - a very graphic and powerful film about "honour" crimes in Pakistan - in their show Nightline, and I was one of the two commentators (the other one being Asma Jahangir) in this programme.

Following the airing of this programme, I was inundated with letters, faxes and e-mail from women and men around the United States. Most expressed a sense of outrage that vulnerable girls and women were being subjected to so much brutality and violence in Pakistan, and a keen desire to do something about it. Out of these initial contacts grew a loose network of concerned individuals which I formalized into The International Network for the Rights of Female Victims of Violence in Pakistan (INRFVVP) in February, 1999. The membership of the INRFVVP grew rapidly not only in the US and Pakistan, but throughout the world, and it soon became incorporated as a non-profit, non-governmental organization. In the three-and a-half-years since its inception, the INRFVVP has gone beyond being a mere organization. I see it as a movement for change which is committed to identifying those negative factors -- whether religious, cultural or any other -- which promote or permit violence against girls and women and any other socially marginalized group in Pakistan. Once these factors have been identified through field research, strategies and programmes will be developed to eliminate them and to create a culture in which the rights of all human beings are recognized, safeguarded and implemented.

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DAWN Review, November 14, 2002
Islam and human rights

Dr. Riffat Hasan

In Pakistan any discourse on Islam and human rights is dominated by two highly visible groups -- one sees itself as the custodian of Islam while the other sees human rights as having nothing to do with religion. A majority of Pakistanis, however, subscribe to neither mindset; yet there is no platform for them to air their views. Dr Riffat Hassan concludes her analysis by focussing on two women who represent those opposing mindsets: Dr Farhat Hashmi and Asma Jahangir.
In my view, given the patriarchalism of Pakistani society, the presence of a Muslim woman who can teach or preach Islam should be seen as a positive event. Further, the fact that Dr Farhat Hashmi wants to educate other Muslim women about Islam should also be seen as a worthy objective. This has also been my objective for many years, and I am very glad to see that after centuries of being excluded from religious education and discourse, an increasing number of women in Pakistan are now engaging in the study of Islam. To the extent that Dr Farhat Hashmi is instrumental in this, she deserves to be commended. Nothing is worse than ignorance, which the Qur'an likens to the state of being blind; and the seeking of knowledge is a primary mandate for all Muslims.

However, while I applaud the effort of Dr Hashmi and any other Muslim woman who aspires to be a scholar of Islam, I have serious reservations with regards to Dr Hashmi's approach to the teaching (or preaching) of Islam, and the message that she is communicating. In this context I would like to make the following observations, which highlight the major points she makes in her public statements as well as the salient differences between my approach and perspective and hers.

Dr Hashmi appears to be making the claim that what she is communicating in her dars (teaching) is what God has revealed in the Qur'an. In her interview with Samina Ibrahim in Newsline (February 2001), she said, "All I am doing is spreading the message of the Qur'an. If somebody objects to that, then their fight is not with me, but with God." What Dr Hashmi is presenting to her listeners is what she understands to be the meaning of a particular Qur'anic text, just as I have, for many years, been presenting to diverse audiences what I understand to be the meaning or intent of particular Qur'anic passages. However, neither she nor I, nor anyone else except the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) is the recipient of God's revelation (wahy) and the possessor of prophetic wisdom (hikmat). All of us who seek to understand the Word of God are fallible and limited human beings whose interpretation of the divine text cannot be regarded as final and definitive, having the seal of approval from God. Therefore, saying that any objection to Dr Hashmi's representation of what is in the Qur'an is tantamount to "a fight with God" is indefensible both from a religious and a methodological viewpoint.

In the same interview, Dr Hashmi says, "I am not prepared to take dictation from the ulema and teach their version of Islam."This means that she is aware of the fact that there is more than a single version of Islam. Dr Hashmi also objects to "too much rigidity" in matters of religious interpretation in Pakistan, where the prevailing attitude is summarized by Dr Hashmi as follows: "Whatever a scholar said a thousand years ago is the final word. One cannot change or bring a different interpretation to the Qur'an. This has hurt and damaged the Muslims, because there is capacity within Islam to grow with changing times. But in Pakistan the way we approach Islam is very rigid. In academics one does not take the word of only one scholar alone, one learns from as many sources as possible." If this is the case then why should Dr Hashmi regard any objection to her version of Islam to be tantamount to "a fight with God" or heresy?

In my work over the last 28 years I have shown how a number of Qur'anic passages that are commonly cited to discriminate against women can be interpreted differently and can, in my judgment, be used to strengthen rather than weaken women's position in a Muslim society. However, I have not demanded nor expected that my interpretations be regarded as definitive and final. Human knowledge is always tentative, and the more I study the Qur'an the more aware I become of the complexity of its multi-layered text whose total meaning is known only to its author. Furthermore, given the nature of the Semitic language in which the Qur'anic text is written -- Arabic -- it is virtually impossible to say that a particular concept or term can only mean one thing.

In Arabic the meaning of a word derives from its "roots", and generally "root-words" have multiple meanings. For example, the root-word daraba which has been commonly translated as "to beat" by interpreters of Surah 4: An-Nisa' 34 (who have used this verse to assert that men have been permitted by God to beat women if they are guilty of nushaz which is commonly translated as "disobedience") has a large number of meanings, as may be seen from Taj al-Arus, the authoritative classical lexicon of the Arabic language. (My interpretation of this passage, which has been regarded by many as the definitive text with regards to the husband-wife relationship in Islam, is contained in a number of my published writings. In my exegesis I have shown that on the basis of sound linguistic, philosophical, and ethical hermeneutical criteria it is possible to arrive at a radically different understanding of this text.)

Many people who have talked to me about Dr Hashmi (including Samina Ibrahim who interviewed both her and me for Newsline) tell me that they are confused by many things that Dr Hashmi says. For instance, she criticizes male ulema who do not accept her as a scholar and faults them for being "too rigid" and not being open to new interpretations. She says that she has been told that "I have a feminist approach" and that "I have liberalized Islam". It is clear from Dr Hashmi's words and tone that she considers being called a "feminist" or "liberal" a compliment -- perhaps because this helps her to distinguish herself from the male ulema who have rejected her authority as a teacher or preacher of Islam and to vindicate her as a woman alim.

However, if one examines the content of Dr Hashmi's message she can be called neither a "feminist" nor a "liberal". She may perhaps, in some ways, be to the left of the most conservative ulema in Pakistan in that she speaks with a softer voice and supports the idea of women studying Islam, but her ideological stance is still very markedly right-wing (reminiscent in some ways of Mr Bush's "compassionate conservatism") and uncompromisingly committed to upholding a patriarchal system and segregated sex-roles.

When asked by Newsline if she felt there was "need for reinterpretation of Islamic thought in today's context, particularly human rights issues concerning women", Dr Hashmi stated: "I feel that there is need for interpretation on all issues. But this should be done by a group of people who understand today's problems and a group of people who understand religion, so that solutions that are there for modern issues can be applied. An interpretation for a problem made a thousand years ago was made in a different historical era and environment. It has to be reinterpreted within the parameters of the Qur'an."

What Dr Hashmi is stating here appears to be a reformulation of the modernist position represented, for instance, by the late Professor Fazlur Rahman, who had pointed out that one major problem confronting contemporary Muslims was that those who understood Islam did not understand modernity and those who understood modernity did not understand Islam. Professor Rahman -- like the modernist thinkers before him -- had also advocated a return to the Qur'an to discover the normative principles of Islam, and then going forward with ijtihad to see how these principles could be applied in present-day contexts. Some of Dr Hashmi's statements -- including the one cited above -- appear to incorporate the modernist views of thinkers like Iqbal and Fazlur Rahman.

From her public statements, it is clear that Dr Hashmi considers herself a modernist Muslim thinker who is opposed to what is archaic and outdated. But if one scrutinizes the message that she is giving to those who go and hear her, one realizes that she is no more "modernist" than she is "feminist" or "liberal". Dr Hashmi has made a number of statements which she deems to be "politically correct" in the 21st century, but these statements do not add up to a coherent or consistent system of thought, nor are they in line with what she actually preaches to women.

It is not surprising that so many people are confused about what Dr Hashmi is saying. The confusion is not in the minds of the listeners. It is in the statements made by Dr Hashmi herself. What she wants her public projection as a Muslim alim to be, is very different from her bottom-line position as an ultra-conservative Muslim woman. Since she does not participate in academic conferences where other qualified Muslims can engage in a critical discussion with her about her statements, she is not obliged to clarify the discrepancy between her so-called "feminism", "liberalism", and "modernism", and what she is preaching to an increasing number of girls and women who want to find out what Islam is from a woman who has shrouded herself in the mantle of piety and authority.

Dr Hashmi's message is directed mainly at affluent urban women and young girls who are students in her "Al-Huda" academies or other institutions. There is one aspect of her message that is positive. This message has to do with making an effort to study Islam and not to be absorbed in material things. Many women who have become the followers of Dr Hashmi come from the elite classes and had plenty of money and time, much of which was spent on worldly pursuits. Dr Hashmi made these women aware of the importance of fulfilling their religious obligations. She also told them that doing whatever was pleasing to their husbands was good. If, for instance, their husbands wanted them to dress ornately or in any other way, it was their duty to be compliant.

It is interesting to note that a number of women who follow Dr Hashmi still wear rich and gaudy attire beneath their hijab.It is likely that they are still spending a lot of money on their appearance, but now their husbands appear to be happy because they are told that whatever the wives are doing is for their pleasure. It is not surprising that Dr Hashmi's message is irresistible to the privileged women in her "target groups". These women had all the material things and comforts they wanted when they came to Dr Hashmi. In addition to that, Dr Hashmi showed them the way of attaining paradise (by doing what was pleasing to God) as well as marital bliss (by doing what was pleasing to their husbands).

Amongst Dr Hashmi's followers are also young girls, and it is important to understand their motivation. Youth is always idealistic and action-oriented. But living in a society as patriarchal and as morally and intellectually bankrupt as Pakistan, many amongst our teeming millions of young people are highly frustrated, and desperately in search of direction and guidance that would lead them to a purposeful life. Unfortunately, our so-called "liberal" and "progressive" classes have never undertaken the responsibility to provide a forum or a platform for discussion and action to these young persons. The "religious extremists" have taken full advantage of the situation and have actively targeted youth, going literally from classroom to classroom and institution to institution. As a result tens of millions of young people not only in Pakistan but also in other Muslim countries and even in Muslim communities living in the West, have adopted a version of Islam that is in complete contrast to the life-affirming, reason-affirming, justice-and-compassion-centered teachings in the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet of Islam (PBUH).

Some girls and women who are followers of Dr Hashmi have told me that she has put them on the "right track" to paradise. l have asked them to explain to me what is this "right track". They say that she has told them how important it is to pray to God and fulfill their religious obligations and that taking care of the family is the primary purpose of a woman's life. When I ask them if she told them to wear hijab they say that she has not "forced" them to wear hijab but that wearing hijab is a religious mandate for Muslim women. Those of Dr Hashmi's followers who imitate her style of not only wearing a chadur on their heads but also covering their faces (except for the eyes) apparently do not know that this form of hijab was unknown at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) when the Qur'an was revealed.

In the same interview, Dr Hashmi states: "...The ulema cannot accept that a woman is capable of understanding, interpreting or teaching the Qur'an. I have even been called a kafir because I do not propagate jihad. I teach women: are they going to go and fight? Anyway there are many things to be done before thinking of jihad. From beginning to end I keep the Qur'an in front of me. And for me what is written in the Qur'an is Islam."

Dr Hashmi's understanding of the core Qur'anic concept of jihad appears to be as flawed as that of many Western media experts who have been attacking Islam relentlessly since September 11, 2001. In fact, jihad refers to moral, intellectual, and spiritual striving to attain a higher level of self-development, and even jihad al-asghar (the lesser jihad), which is directed toward combating social evils, does not refer primarily to "fighting". Her question: "I teach women: are they going to go and fight?" seems to have been rhetorical, not seeking a response. I want, however, to respond to it: the mandate to engage in jihad fi' sabil Allah [struggle in the way of God] is given as much to women as to men. In Islam, women have the same rights and obligations as men, and nowhere is it stated in the Qur'an that women are exempted from any form of jihad. Islam does not permit wars of aggression, but in the defensive wars fought by the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) women were out in the battlefield ministering to the wounded.

In my view the greatest jihad for the Muslims today is not physical but moral and intellectual. That is why a thinker like Iqbal, who had such profound understanding of the Qur'an and Islam, put so much emphasis on ijtihad (which comes from the same root as the word jihad). But Dr Hashmi, who so easily dismisses the idea that women should engage in jihad, also does not encourage her followers to engage in ijtihad. Both involve intense individual effort, which could lead to women developing leadership skills and acquiring the ability and confidence to start questioning the patriarchal traditions that have discriminated against them in multifarious ways.

Dr Hashmi prefers to focus on hijab, which she interprets in a very restrictive way. In the context of proper attire and conduct, the Qur'an lays down one basic principle which may be described as the principle or law of modesty. In Surah 24: An-Nur: 30-31, modesty is enjoined both upon Muslim men and women.

On the basis of the above-cited Surah, the following points may be made: The Qur'anic injunctions enjoining the believers to lower their gaze and behave modestly applies to both Muslim men and women and not to Muslim women alone. Here it is to be noted that there are no statements in the Qur'an which justify the extremely rigid restrictions regarding veiling and segregation which have been imposed on Muslim women by some Muslim societies or groups (e.g., the Taliban in Afghanistan). To those who dispute this let me put one short question: If the Qur'an intended for women to be completely veiled why, then, did it command the men to "lower their gaze"?

Muslim women are enjoined to "draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty" except in the presence of their husbands, other women, children, eunuchs, and those men who are so closely related to them that they are not allowed to marry them. Although a self-conscious exhibition of one's zinat (which means "that which appears to be beautiful" or "that which is used for embellishment or adornment") is forbidden, the Qur'an makes it clear that what a woman wears ordinarily is permissible. Another interpretation of this part of this passage is that if the display of zinat is unintentional or accidental, it does not violate the law of modesty.

Although Muslim women may wear ornaments, they should not walk in a manner intended to cause their ornaments to jingle and thus attract the attention of others.

At this point a "liberated" woman might ask: Why should a Muslim woman display her beauty only in the presence of those (apart from her husband) who are likely to have no sexual interest in her? The answer to this question is contained in the Qur'anic view of the ideal society and the social and moral values to be upheld by, both Muslim men and women. In Qur'anic terms, the ideal society is that in which there is justice for all, i.e., justice between man and man and, what is perhaps even more important, justice between man and woman. (It is important to note that there is more Qur'anic legislation on the subject of a proper ordering of the relationship of men and women than on any other subject.)

By using an elaborate network of laws and recommendations, the Qur'an aimed at liberating women from the indignity of being sex-objects and transforming them into persons. If a woman wished to be regarded as a person and not as a sex-object it was necessary -- according to Qur'anic teaching -- that she should behave with [the] dignity and decorum befitting a secure, self-respecting and self-aware human being, rather than an insecure female who felt that her survival depended on her ability to attract, entertain, or cajole those men who were interested not in her personality but only in her sexuality.

A number of women-related Qur'anic laws which are interpreted by some critics of Islam to be restrictive of women's freedom are in fact meant to protect what the Qur'an deems to be a woman's fundamental rights. According to the Qur'anic text (Surah 33: Al-Ahzab: 59), the reason why Muslim women should wear an outer garment when they go out of their houses is so that they may be recognized as "believing" Muslim women, and differentiated from streetwalkers for whom sexual harassment is an occupational hazard.

The purpose of this verse was not to confine a woman to her house, but to make it safe for her to go about her daily business without attracting unwholesome attention. The Qur'an decreed that "the outer garment" be worn as a mark of identification by "believing" Muslim women, so apparently there was a need at the time of the Qur'anic statement for a means whereby a "believing" Muslim woman could be distinguished from the others. In societies where there is no danger of "believing" Muslim women being confused with streetwalkers or in which "the outer garment" is unable to function as a mark of identification for "believing" Muslim women, the mere wearing of "the outer garment" would not fulfill the true objective of the Qur'anic decree.

Women who on account of their advanced age are not likely to be regarded as sex-objects are allowed to discard "the outer garment" (Surah 24: An-Nur: 60), but there is no relaxation as far as the essential Qur'anic principle of modest behaviour is connected. Regardless of age or sex, this Qur'anic principle -- like all other principles of what is termed the deen or core teachings of Islam -- is, for Muslims, unchanging and unchangeable. Reflection on the last-cited verse shows that "the outer garment" is not required by the Qur'an as a necessary expression of modesty, since it recognizes the possibility that women may continue to be modest even when they have discarded "the outer garment".

Muslim societies in general, have, however, disregarded the basic intent of the Qur'anic statements -- which regard women as autonomous human beings capable of being righteous as an act of choice, rather than as mentally and morally deficient creatures on whom morality has to be externally imposed. Not satisfied with "the outer garment" prescribed by the Qur'an for Muslim women in a specific cultural context, some conservative Muslims have also sought the help of traditions (ahadith) whose authenticity is dubious, to compel women to cover themselves from head to foot, leaving only the face and hands uncovered.

Dr Hashmi has gone even farther than these men and initiated a style of hijab which requires the covering also of the face (except for the eyes). This kind of hijab was not mandated by the Qur'an, nor found in the days of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Nor is it indigenous to urban Pakistani society. It is very difficult to understand why Dr Hashmi, who, on the one hand, wants to be regarded as a "feminist", "liberal", and "modernist" scholar of Islam, on the other hand wants to be seen as more conservative than the rigid ulema whom she constantly criticizes.

During the initial phases of the "Islamization" process, efforts were made by conservative Muslim men who were threatened by women's presence in "public space" to put them in the chadur and chardivari [staying within 'four walls']. Due to various reasons these efforts were not very successful, especially amongst urban elite women. Dr. Hashmi has been far more successful in her so-called "Islamization" campaign, since her followers seem to have voluntarily adopted a style of hijab that not only covers their bodies but virtually makes them faceless. Along with this has come a withdrawal from any meaningful engagement in social issues, and a relapse into totally segregated traditional roles.

While Dr Hashmi and her followers have the right to wear any kind of hijab they choose to, they do not have the right to assert or imply that by doing so they have acquired a higher station as a Muslim or that those women who dress differently are somehow deficient in their "iman" or amal. As Surah 12: Yusuf: 40 states, "Judgment (as to what is right and what is wrong) rests with God alone" (translation by Muhammad Asad).

Dr Hashmi says, "I do not judge anyone by their appearance alone" and denounces "judgmental and self-righteous behaviour", but appearance and self-righteous behaviour is precisely what distinguishes Dr Hashmi's followers from others.

My greatest objection to Dr Hashmi's message to women is the total absence in it of any reference to social justice or human rights. I believe that the most important mandate of Islam as a prophetic religion is that Muslims should strive to create a just society. Living as we do in an unjust world, the creation of a just society is a formidable task and requires unceasing jihad. The greatest jihad (jihad al-akbar) is against one's own shortcomings and deficiencies. In his philosophy of Khudi, Iqbal identifies factors which strengthen the Self and those which weaken it. "Pillars of faith" such as salat (prayer), siyam (fasting), or zakat (wealth-sharing) are intended to make us more integrated and disciplined, so that we are better able to fulfill the mission given to us by God. But personal piety -- important as it is -- is only a means to an end, the end being engagement in the struggle to create a society in which there is both 'adl (legalistic justice) and ihsaan (compassionate justice).

What kind of Islam is Dr Hashmi teaching, if she does not speak about 'adl or ihsaan -- which are emphasized throughout the Qur'an? Her teachings show an obvious lack of reflection on Surah 107: Al-Ma'un which reads: "Hast thou ever considered (the kind of man) who gives the lie to all moral law? Behold, it is this (kind of man) that thrusts the orphan away, and feels no urge to feed the needy. Woe, then, unto those praying ones whose hearts from their prayers are remote -- those who want only to be seen and praised, and, withal, deny all assistance (to their fellowmen)" (translation by Muhammad Asad).

Perhaps many of the women who have become followers of Dr Hashmi would not have become social activists in any case, since they come from the stratum of Pakistani society which is largely self-indulgent and not particularly interested in social issues. However, it is possible that if they had been exposed to a different version of Islam that made them realize the importance of engaging in the struggle for a more just and compassionate world, they might not have chosen to follow the escape route offered to them by Dr Hashmi.

What is a matter of deep concern today is the fact that Dr Hashmi's message -- like that of the other extremist religious groups -- is being spread through educational institutions to young girls who have the potential of contributing to the development of their poor country and its disadvantaged people. I believe that it is extremely important to challenge the teachings of Dr Hashmi in a public forum, so that those who are mesmerized by her pious-sounding words can actually begin to see its internal contradictions or inconsistencies, and how profoundly its narrow, closed-minded, and rigid intent and content differs from the expansive, enlightened, and empowering teachings of the Qur'an.

The discourse on Islam and Human Rights in Pakistan is dominated by two highly vocal and visible groups that represent opposing mindsets. In some ways both of these mindsets can be described as "extremist." The first mindset is represented by persons such as Dr Farhat Hashmi who consider themselves the custodians of "Islam", which they generally define in narrowly construed literalistic and legalistic terms. The second mindset is represented by others such as Asma Jahangir and other leaders of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who consider themselves the guardians of "human rights", which they see as having nothing to do with religion.

A review of Pakistan's history shows that "religious" extremists have, in general, opposed any critical review or reform of traditional attitudes and practices which have become associated with popular Muslim culture. They have, in particular, been opposed to any changes in the traditional roles of women, and have regarded the movement for women's rights as a great threat to the integrity and solidarity of the Muslim family system.

Averse in general to "modernity" which they identify largely with "Westernization" of Muslim societies, "religious" extremists have raised a red flag and shouted that "the integrity of the Islamic way of life" was under assault, each time any government has taken any step to address the issue of gender inequality or discrimination against women.

While "extremism" is associated most often with "the religious right" referred to above, it is important to note that it is also to be found in the utterances and actions of those who regard religion, especially Islam, negatively. In asserting that "Islam" and "human rights" are mutually exclusive, advocates of human rights such as Asma Jahangir adopt a position which is untenable both on theoretical and pragmatic grounds. The Qur'an strongly affirms all the fundamental human rights.

In pragmatic terms, it is evident that Muslims generally -- including the vast majority of Pakistanis -- are strong believers in God and Islam, regardless of how they express or enact their beliefs. The insistence by advocates of human rights that Islam should not be made part of the ongoing discourse on human rights in Pakistan, is, therefore, vacuous. Whether acknowledged or not, Islam -- which defines the identity and ground reality of millions of Pakistanis -- is already, and inevitably, a part of this discourse. Furthermore, it is important to know that "religious" and "anti-religious" extremisms feed into one another. The more the "anti-religious" extremists marginalize Islam in their rhetoric, the stronger is the outcry from "religious extremists" that "Islam is in danger".

Here I would like to make an important clarification. Just as there are many people in Pakistan who are confused regarding the ideological position of Dr Farhat Hashmi (largely, as illustrated in this analysis, due to her conflicting statements), there are also people who confuse what I have termed "anti-religious extremism" with "secularism". As pointed out by The Encyclopaedia of Religion, "The term secularization came into use in European languages at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 where it was used to describe the transfer of territories previously under ecclesiastical control to the dominion of lay political authorities" (Edited by Mircea Eliade, The Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1987, Volume 13, p.158).

A secular society is one in which religion is not the controlling factor in the lives of the people, or one in which no one religion is privileged. A person who is "secular" may not attach much significance to religious consciousness, activities, and institutions in the context of society, but is not "anti-religious". Whereas "secular" people may be open-minded and tolerant of different viewpoints, "anti-religious" persons can be just as absolutist, closed-minded, and intolerant as "religious extremists".

The Qur'anic proclamation in Surah 2: Al-Baqarah: 256, "There shall be no coercion in matters of faith" (translation by Muhammad Asad), guarantees freedom of religion and worship. A number of Qur'anic passages also state clearly that the responsibility of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is to communicate the message of God, and not to compel anyone to believe. (For instance, Surah 6: Al-An'am: 107; Surah 10: Yunus: 99; Surah 16: An-Nahl: 82; Surah 42: Ash-Shura: 48.) The right to exercise free choice in matters of belief is unambiguously endorsed by the Qur'an in Surah 18: Al-Kahf: 29, which states: "The Truth is, From your Lord: Let him who will Believe, and let him who will, reject (it." (Translation by A. Yusuf Ali).

Whether or not leading advocates of human rights believe in God or in any religion is up to them. However, it is legitimate to ask how the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan -- the non-governmental organization which has virtual monopoly of the human rights discourse in Pakistan and receives an enormous amount of funding from Western donors -- can claim to represent the people of Pakistan, who are near-universally "believers" and regard Islam as the matrix in which their lives are rooted, when it holds the position that Islam should not be part of the human rights discourse except in a negative sense.

My philosophical disagreement with the viewpoint that Islam should be excluded from the human rights discourse in Pakistan, held by Asma Jahangir and her colleagues, does not mean that I do not acknowledge or respect their efforts to document human rights abuses in Pakistan, or the bold stand they have been taking on behalf of victims of violence in the courts, the media, and the public.

I believe that it is possible for persons of different religious, ideological, or philosophical perspectives to work together in pursuit of the common good. When this has been done (as in Latin America with the rise of "liberation theology" when Catholics, Protestants, Communists, persons of indigenous religions and others joined hands to combat social evils), the results have been inspirational.

Despite my openness to working with others who support the struggle for human rights and women's rights, the position that I represent has been resented and rejected by many human rights advocates in Pakistan. I believe that they are threatened by my stated conviction that it is possible to construct a paradigm of human rights within the framework of normative Islam. They also do not want to accept my view that in the context of contemporary Pakistan and most of the Muslim world, this paradigm of human rights is the only one that is likely to be accepted or actualized, because it is based on religious principles respected by masses of people and is not seen as a foreign imposition.

Vocal and visible as the extremists in Pakistan are, they constitute a small percentage of the total population of Pakistan. The vast majority of Pakistanis are middle-of-the-road people who neither subscribe to, nor support, extremism. While they have a strong Muslim identity and their faith is very important to them, they also aspire to be a part of the "modern" world through acquiring education, awareness of contemporary values, and the means to have what the Greeks called "the good life". In other words, they want both din (religion) and dunya (the world). This is a position supported by Qur'anic teaching and the Prophetic example, which describe Islam as a religion of balance and moderation, stressing the complementarity of various spheres of life.

It is a matter of utmost gravity that in Pakistan the discourse on Islam has been hijacked by "religious extremists", and the discourse on human rights has been hijacked by another group of extremists. In my judgment, it is vitally important to broaden the discourse both on Islam and human rights to include a third option. This option means the creation of a new discourse or an alternative paradigm which is grounded in the ethical principles of the Qur'an and relates to the beliefs as well as the aspirations of middle-of-the-road Pakistanis.

Islam is, undoubtedly, the sustaining factor in the lives of millions of Muslims -- including Pakistanis -- many of whom live in conditions of great hardship, suffering or oppression. It can easily become a source of empowerment for them if they begin to see that they have been given a large number of rights -- not by any human agency but by God. Once the masses who constitute "the silent majority" of Pakistanis become conscious of their God-given right to actualize their human potential to the fullest, they can be mobilized to participate in building a dynamic and democratic society. But in order to make this happen, a new perspective on human rights (including women's rights), grounded in normative Islamic ideas of universalism rationalism, moderation, social justice, and compassion, must be disseminated as widely as possible.

In the foregoing analytic narrative I have shared my research findings and reflections on a number of issues that are of critical importance to many Pakistanis and Muslims today. I have endeavoured to articulate the philosophical vision which motivates my lifelong struggle to understand the purpose of creation and what we have to do to fulfill the responsibility of being God's khalifa (vicegerent) on earth. I have also attempted to state as clearly and coherently as I could my perspective on what it means to be a Muslim and the contemporary discourse on Islam and human rights.

In response to numerous queries asking me to clarity my position vis-a-vis that of Dr Farhat Hashmi and Asma Jahangir, I have given my analysis of what I believe Dr Hashmi's approach and message is, and indicated why I do not subscribe to Asma Jahangir's perspective on human rights. For the record I would like to say that I have challenged Dr Farhat Hashmi and Asma Jahangir to a public debate on human rights and women's rights at a number of important forums. I believe that the public is entitled to hear the views of all three of us in an open setting, so that it can understand and evaluate the content and worth of what each of us is saying. To date, the challenge remains unaccepted.

It is my hope that what I have presented to you in this account will stimulate your own deeper thoughts, and that you will find compelling reasons for joining the movement that aims to rebuild the intellectual and ethical foundations of our beloved Pakistan, which is not doing well in any way.

The author can be contacted at