Suriya Osman tariqas@stderr.org
Wed, 16 May 2001 22:58:47 +0800

points to ponder ..A Muslim Woman Quranic scholar's views on Quranic
For those who asked me about hijab, some expalanations on why Riffat
DOES NOT cover up!

Ibrahim, Senior Editor, NEWSLINE, Karachi, interviewed Dr.Riffat Hassan
during her recent visit to Pakistan. The interview which covers a lot of
ground - including some subjects which have generated intense
controversy - is reproduced below. We thank Samina Ibrahim for raising
issues which are of great significance for Muslim women (She also did an
in-depth interview of Dr. Farhat Hashmi in NEWSLINE, February 2001)
NEWSLINE April 2001 Interview: Dr Riffat Hassan By Samina Ibrahim Riffat
Hassan is an apparent contradiction in terms – a feminist Islamic
theologian. A lifetime of Islamic studies, political activism, and
addressing conflicting views on religion, women and human rights at
various international forums has, on many occasions, thrust her into the
forefront of religious controversy. Riffat’s career began in 1974 when
she began a study of the Quranic text which led to an awareness of the
vast gap between women's rights in the Quran and what was actually
happening to women in Muslim society. A devout Muslim, Riffat has
analysed the differences between the Quran and the ways in which
patriarchal cultures have interpreted it. She feels that although women
are victimised due to social and economic causes, men use Islam to
legitimise discrimination and crimes against women. In her crusade
against karo-kari or honour killings, Riffat founded the International
Network for the Rights of Female Victims of Violence in Pakistan in
February 1999. Riffat Hassan has lived in America since 1972 and is a
professor of religious studies at the University of Louisville,
Kentucky. She has also been a visiting professor at, among others,
Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Hassan is
currently visiting Pakistan to record a 13-part serial for PTV on
women's rights in Islam. Q: There is a common perception that the status
of women in Islam is a relationship of unequals. Will you comment?A: I
began my study on women in Islam in 1974. I realised very soon that
there was a big gap in what the Quran was saying about women's rights
and what was actually happening in Muslim culture. So one has to
distinguish between Quranic text and the Islamic tradition. Quranic
Arabic is like Chaucerian English and is in itself a specialised
subject. The interpretation of the Quran from the earliest times till
now has been done almost entirely by men. It was also done in a
male-dominated patriarchal culture. So the Quran was interpreted through
a male-centric cultural lens—which obviously has affected women's
rights. What I have been trying to do for the past 25 years is to look
at the text without a patriarchal bias and in terms of a linguistic and
philosophical analysis. One of the most debated verses in the Quran,
chapter 4, Surah al Nissa verse 34, which says "men are appointed..."
the crucial word here is "qawwamun." All the Urdu translations that I
have read have translated that word as "hakim" - which means sovereign,
which immediately has connotations of a master-slave relationship. But
if you look at the root of the word, it is “qamma," which means to help
something stand up, or to support. So the most accurate meaning of this
word would be someone who gives economic support. So just that one word,
depending on its translation, brings you to a different ending. And
there are many such words that have been translated universally with a
patriarchal slant. For instance even more basic is the creation of man.
Again in Surah al Nissa it says "And God created from her, her mate."
Now there is no translation in the world that says that. All of them say
"From him, his mate.” There are many references in the Quran on creation
and the term used is " nafs-i-wahidatin" meaning created from one being.
Nafs in Arabic is a feminine noun, but has been mistranslated by most
translators as masculine. So it is all about the politics of language.
Surely all the great Arab scholars can differentiate between feminine
and masculine in Arabic grammar?Q: Are you saying all the great Arabic
scholars have deliberately misinterpreted the Quran?A: In the earlier
centuries there was much more freedom in terms of interpretation. Imam
Bokhari, the greatest collector of Hadith, for instance, translated
"kava-mool”, as an economic support term, which is very interesting
because later it was not translated like that. So even though there was
chauvinism and a patriarchal bias, there was diversity of interpretation
unlike the rigidity that prevails today. There is a consensus among the
scholars of Hadith, beginning from Imam Bokhari to the present, that the
vast majority of the Hadith is not authentic. Out of the six hundred
thousand Hadith that Imam Bokhari examined, he authenticated less than
3000. So if the vast majority of the Hadith are not the words of the
Prophet (PBUH), then what are they? They essentially reflect the Arab
cultural ideas of the 7th and 8th centuries.Q: The moot point in today's
context seems to be to reinterpret the Quran through ijtihad and relate
it to the modern world. This is not being implemented.A. Ijma means
collective so if a Muslim community is confronted by some problem, the
community has to reach a consensus. Obviously this means knowledgeable
people and whatever they come up with is binding on the community. What
has closed doors for our legal system is that the early Islamic jurists
proclaimed that four schools of Islamic law were binding on Muslims for
all times. This is what Allama Iqbal and others have been challenging
for centuries that those people who formed these laws, were lawyers who
were framing laws relevant to their own times. So who should implement
ijtihad? The people of each era. They can take guidance from the past.Q:
But who are the people today who are competent to carry out ijtihad, the
religious parties?A: The fact that in Islam there is no church is
enormously important.. There is no clergy. So there is no one who can
claim they have the exclusive right to interpret. So ijtihad is open to
all who have knowledge of religious matters. In Iran, for instance,
there are Ayatollahs who represent the far right, the far left and the
moderates. All of them, however, have gone to religious institutions and
have studied Islam as a subject. All schools of thought are respected
and it just depends who commands the larger following. In Pakistan this
is not the case. Every religious leader condemns whoever thinks
differently.Q: Do you think Shariah should be enforced?A: I am an
academic, so again I will go back to the basics. What is Shariah? In
Arabic the word means a path through running water for people and
animals to be able to drink in safety. There can be nothing more fluid
than running water and there is a connotation of safety. Shariah is
really an umbrella concept. Shariah is not a term that has a rigid or
fixed connotation or context. Pakistan follows the Hannafi School of
Law. From that I understand the government will appoint a group of ulema
who will then interpret the Shariah. That is a recipe for total
destruction. The Hannafi school is one of four schools of law. As a
Muslim I recognise the authority of the Quran. I believe the Quran is
divine. However I do not consider the Hannafi school of law as divine.
It is man-made. It is a system of law that can be challenged, it can be
questioned. How can it be made the supreme law of the land? And then a
group of ulema are given the authority to interpret... and given the
political corruption in the country who are these maulanas going to be?
It is just not doable. This is just a pointless discussion which is
raised again and again. The constitution of Pakistan says that there can
be no law or activity against the Quran or the Sunnah. So that's it. I
think we should hold fast to the Quran. It is a great safeguard for
us.Q: But would you not agree that basically some laws are unequal
today, though they may have been revolutionary concepts fifteen hundred
years ago?A: I would agree with you there, but in Islam there is the
concept of ijtihad or ijma of which Allama Iqbal was a strong supporter
and I quote from him: "Every generation of Muslims has the right to
interpret the foundational principles of Islam to solve their own
problems."Q: What is the Quranic view on contraception?A: I am trying to
develop a new way of looking at the Quran. So far the way that most
"modern Muslims" have viewed the Quran is that it is a complete code of
life. So is the Quran a book in which you can find the solution of every
problem? Or if a word like "hijab" is not there, then what. One of the
most hotly debated issues at the Cairo conference was whether Islam
allows contraception. When I studied all the literature on the subject I
discovered there were two schools of thought - a liberal and a
conservative. The liberal school believes that because there is no
mention of birth control in the Quran, it is silent on the issue. If the
Quran is silent one moves on to the Hadith. One Hadith seems to support
family planning, one does not and the third is neutral. Then they moved
on to Imam Ghazali, a great Sufi thinker who justified contraception on
almost any grounds including a woman’s appearance. Then we have the
conservatives, like Maulana Maudoodi, who quotes the Quran out of
context, because there is no mention of contraception in the Quran. What
the Quran says is “kill not your children for fear of want,” which
refers to female infanticide rather than family planning. It is clear
that the Quran is referring to living children, not the unborn. The
Quran describes itself as a book of moral guidance. The cardinal
principle is that of Tauheed, oneness of God. From that comes the
oneness of humanity and from that stems the concept of human rights in
Islam. There is a strong principle of social justice in Islam which
infers that a person who is socially disadvantaged has special rights in
Muslim society. Most Muslim women are socially disadvantaged because
they are poor, illiterate and live in villages. Given the total message
of the Quran, I argued at the Cairo conference that contraception is a
fundamental right for the average Muslim woman. What is most important
is the total ethical message of the Quran, not just to quote verses in
isolation. For instance anything harmful for you is haram, not just
alcohol. For a diabetic sugar is haram.Q: What about the laws of
inheritance?A: In Surah at Nissa, Chapter 4, verse 7. This is a verse
that is never quoted in this context, but it is an extremely important
verse. A woman has a share in all property be it large or small. The
son’s share is twice that of the daughter, which is a hotly debated
point. However she also inherits as a mother, a sister, and a wife. As a
mother she inherits equally with the father and so on. The son gets
double because at that time he was responsible for the upkeep of not
only his family, but also the surviving parent and other family members.
The daughter is not bound to do the same. So his share is based on his
economic and social responsibilities.Q: What about the gender difference
regarding the law of evidence?A: There are many references in the Quran
to men and women acting as witnesses and in all of them both are
regarded as equal. "And get two witnesses out of your own men. " Now why
two men? In those days there were only men in the marketplace. "And if
there are not two men then get one man and two women so if one errs the
other can remind her.” This is really a linguistic trick. The two women
are not both witnesses, only one is a witness. The other really plays
the role of an attorney or advisor. Now I look upon this law and others
like it as protective laws. Instead of not allowing women as witnesses,
the law enables a woman to act as a witness, it does not disable her.Q:
What about polygamy?A: The Quran says, "If you fear that you will not be
able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or
three or four... " The concern is with the protection and economic
support of orphans so the women then have to be the mothers of orphans.
The reference to context is very clear. Multiple marriages are allowed
when the welfare of orphans is an issue. Unfortunately the only Muslim
countries that have followed this in its true spirit and context are
Libya and Tunisia. "And if you fear that you will not be able to deal
justly with them, then only one." So there are two conditions clearly
laid down under which men are free to marry more than once.Q: Sexual
violence or rape within marriage is not considered a crime against
women. And women are never supposed to refuse their husbands. What is
the Quran's stand?A: In Surah al Nissa, Chapter 4, verse 10, it says..."
O ye who believe, you are forbidden to inherit women against their
will." And the word "inherit" includes marital rape. The common notion
that women are duty-bound to submit sexually to their husband's will
comes from the Hadith, it is not mentioned anywhere in the Quran. The
test of any Hadith, according to the Prophet (PBUH) himself is that if
there is anything in the Hadith that contradicts what is in the Quran
you must reject it because the Quran is always supreme. Furthermore
there are more laws in the Quran governing the relationship between a
husband and wife than on any other subject. And at that time when women
were socially disadvantaged, the Quran reiterated that the more
powerful, which were the men, must treat women justly and kindly.Q:
Hijab, that has become a burning issue, but you yourself do not wear a
hijab.A: The law in the Quran for believing men and believing women is
exactly the same. "Guard your modesty..." What the Quran says is not to
dress in a way that draws attention to yourself. In fact the Quran says
that an older woman can discard the outer garment or jilbaab and no
blame will be attached to her, but she must still be modest. My argument
is that when the law was passed that whenever a woman stepped out of her
house she had to cover herself otherwise she would be molested, no
longer applies today. There is a word is Arabic, "Aql” which means
reason and my interpretation is that if a law was passed because of one
particular reason and that reason changes, then the law changes. So I
would argue that it no longer applies. Obviously if one were to venture
into an area where it is the norm, like the bazaar in Peshawar then
common sense dictates that one should wear a chadar to avoid
unpleasantness. “Hijab” in Arabic means a curtain or barrier and the
word appears nowhere in the Quran. Also in the days of the Prophet
(PBUH), certain laws were passed for His wives like speaking from behind
a curtain etc, because at that time there were many enemies of Islam who
would try to take advantage of certain situations. And the Prophet's
(PBUH) wives were set apart from other Muslim women so some laws applied
only to them. For instance, if the Prophet (PBUH) died before them they
were not allowed to marry again. This did not apply to other Muslim
women. So the way I look at it, the concept of hijab, or speaking or
appearing behind a curtain, applied to the Prophet's (PBUH) wives only.
My reading of the spread of hijab is that it is funded by Saudi Arabia.
They want to impose their version of Islam, which is the Han bali
school, that is the smallest and most conservative school. To my mind
wearing a hijab today is a sign of submission to Saudi Arabia. What is
binding in the Quran is modesty.Q: What about the laws on child custody
and the right of divorce?A: The laws on child custody are there in the
various schools of thought but not in the Quran. It is in the Hannafi
law. So the legal system can be challenged by appealing to a higher
principle. Why don't all the human rights activists challenge this law?
Because they do not want to introduce religion into their discourse and
I think also because they have not really studied the Quran. The
principle of divorce in the Quran is either to live together in kindness
or separate in kindness. In Islam marriage is a social contract so if
the woman's right to divorce is written into that contract then she is
free to divorce.Q: But that right can only be given to her by her
husband...A: That is true. However, if this issue was to be publicised
so that more women are aware that this is their right under Islam, I
think the situation would change.Q: In the field of women's rights in
Islam, we have outspoken and often critical activists on the one hand,
and Farhat Hashmi on the other. Where do you stand?A: I feel that not
only in Pakistan, but on the global level as well - I saw it in both
Cairo and Beijing - there are two groups of women who are very vocal
when it comes to women's rights. One is the extremely religious right,
which could perhaps be represented by some one from the Jamaat-i-Islami
or perhaps by Farhat Hashmi, and the human rights feminist activists.
The position of the religious right is that Islam is a wonderful
religion which gives us all our rights. We are treated like queens, we
have no obligation to work, we are taken care of etc and what business
is it of any secular organisation, like the UN, to interfere with us?
Who are these western feminists anyway? Basically there are no problems
for women in Islam. My disagreement with this school of thought is that
though I agree that Islam is a wonderful religion, the first problem is
that I don't see it practiced anywhere. The average Muslim woman is
certainly not treated as she should be. She lives in sub-human
conditions and is beaten and brutalised. So the extremist right wing
view that all is well with Muslim women is nonsense. Now for the other
side who call themselves human rights activists, the position that I see
them representing is that religion and human rights are incompatible.
This is also actually the position of the UN itself. So therefore when
human rights are discussed, they do not want to introduce Islam as a
category at all because they consider Islam as anti-humanistic. My
argument is that if anybody says that Islam and human rights are not
compatible then they have not read the Quran. Secondly on a pragmatic
level, I disagree because I have worked for years against violence
against disadvantaged Muslim women. And when I want to reach the
uneducated woman in rural Punjab or Turkey, the UN Human Rights
Declaration will be meaningless to her, it is outside her frame of
reference. But if I relate her rights to her religion, which has always
been a sustaining force for her, it can also be made into an empowering
force. And believe me I have seen it happen myself across the Muslim
world. What I feel is happening in Pakistan is that the religious right
has hijacked Islam, while the human rights activists have hijacked human
rights and the vast majority of women in between who also have an
Islamic identity, who also want human rights, who also want to lead a
modern life, be educated etc, have no representation in this discourse.
And I personally feel that it is this important third option that has to
be developed in Pakistan. That is where the future lies. Q: What do you
think of teachers like Farhat Hashmi who has attracted thousands of
followers?A: Fatima Mernissi, the Moroccan sociologist, has done a very
interesting study on women and shrines. She says because women were
excluded from the mosques and establishment Islam, they sought refuge in
the sanctuaries. It was very therapeutic for them because they could
openly give vent to their emotions: grief, anger, frustration etc.
According to Mernissi, this sanctuary element also robbed them of the
ability and energy to bring about any change because there was no anger
left in them anymore. And until there is anger there can be no change.
Taking this reasoning into the Farhat Hashmi phenomenon, I feel that the
negative aspect of Farhat Hashmi is that she is depriving women of the
will to change. My understanding of Islam is that it is all about social
justice. It is not just about wearing hijab. Though I have not
personally heard Farhat Hashmi I am familiar with this type of
phenomenon. She is a woman and therefore has a feminine consciousness. I
think it is a crucial point that she is doing what she is. Because in a
society where women have no rights, she represents a woman who is able
to interpret religion. And even within the religious right, there is a
left. So you can say she is a liberal of the religious right. So there
is a positive aspect to Farhat Hashmi as well. However, what she is
doing is basically maintaining the status quo and perhaps making certain
age-old interpretations more palatable and acceptable to women. But I
don't think she is making any revolutionary change. For me anyone who
talks about Islam without talking about social justice has not got the
message. She is putting a softer hue... it's like an opiate. You go
there, you feel good, you feel you have pleased God. I think women in
this society, regardless of class, are so oppressed that they need some
support system, some outlet, and what better if that comes in the form
of religion? But the crux of the matter is, is she going to make any
radical changes? I don't think so. The word "Dars" in the classical
sense means correct reading and intonation of the Quran. In Pakistan it
has come to mean interpretation. What happens here at a dars is not even
an exchange of ideas, it is almost a form of brainwashing. If I were to
set myself up on a podium and say this is my version of Islam, that is
against the spirit of Islam. Islam is a very open religion. There is no
such body or person who can become the sole interpreter. Even the word
"fatwa” has a totally different connotation. "Fatwa" means religious
opinion, not judgment. What I find disturbing is the kind of cultic
overtones that are creeping in. The true message of social justice is
being lost in the ritual.Q: In there room for feminism in Islam, and do
human rights issues come into conflict with the status of women in
Islam?A: What is feminism? For me feminism means women having the same
rights as men. In that way I think it is perfectly compatible with
Islam. When we talk about the status of women in Islam we normally mean
what is their position in various situations. My argument is that all
basic rights such as the right to live, to work, to marry, the right to
freedom, to justice are all there in the Quran. Those laws are not
gender specific; they are there for men and for women. Then there are
special or protective rights for women, in the context of marriage,
childbearing etc. So I would say that there is no