December issue 2004

By | People | Q & A | Published 17 years ago

“The clash between the cross and the crescent is a definite reality.”

– Dr Riffat Hassan

What makes a good Muslim?

Is it the purity of the gazelle-eyed woman next door, wrapped head-to-toe in billows of black silk, guarding her beauty with the same fervour she does her life?

Or is it the passion of a liberal feminist, denouncing such outward trappings as antiquated relics of forgotten times, symbols of women’s oppression in modern climes?

Is it the holy war of a man prepared to take arms against a sea of troubles, and so opposing, kill others?

Or is it nobler in mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous oppression, and work quietly to reform him?

Recent weeks have hosted a surge in seminars and consultations around the Muslim world — seeking to answer these very questions. In Amman, thousands of international religious leaders congregated at a conference on ‘moderate’ Islam, emphatically calling for ‘modern’ Islamic preaching to address contemporary challenges. In Abu Dhabi, scholars and religious leaders gathered at an Islamic conference to denounce religious fanaticism and terrorism, and issued a fatwa against the perversion of Islam. Ditto in Islamabad — this time at the behest of local counterparts.

But this wasn’t the only meeting in Pakistan debating the future of faith itself. Mid-November also saw a more significant “consultation” — a historic one no less — take place in the nation’s capital, where Muslim scholars, luminaries, intellectuals, activists and free thinkers reflected upon one agenda: their understanding of a modern Muslim society, and how it could be achieved.

Except this one was held behind closed doors, cocooning itself against the sound and fury of Pakistan’s official clergy.

Organised by international scholar, Dr. Riffat Hassan, and featuring the views of one of the most prolific progressive thinkers of our times, Dr Fathi Osman, a project of no less controversy is now in the works. An autonomous, progressive Muslim institute — the antithesis of more orthodox organisations, such as the Islamic University in Islamabad — and headed by the bastion of the “enlightened moderation” movement himself, President Pervez Musharraf. And it will be truly global in its make and manifesto. It is envisioned that the board of directors will comprise the best international progressive scholars, whose works and teachings will be transmitted to Pakistanis around the country through multimedia sources and teachers programmes.

“In Islam, reform is a hated word,” says Osman. “But we have to draw the line between what was applicable only to the Arabs, and teachings meant for all societies at all times.” Hassan concurs. “Society is in desperate need of a reinterpretation of the Divine text,” she says.

With funding from both western and eastern sources and linkages with forward-looking Muslim institutes the world over, opposition to the project is almost a given. Whether bowing to western demands to reform Islam, as its detractors would argue, or a much-needed, overdue enterprise completely in tune with the real spirit of faith, according to its supporters, one fact remains. It is only through open debate, and room for intellectual diversity, that truth can ever be sought. The world is now, more than ever, aware of Islam. It is high time that Muslims themselves, the recipients of the Divine message, take time to reflect upon what Islam, and being a good Muslim, means to them.

riffat-hassan-dec04Q: You wrote an open letter in February 2000 to President Musharraf, outlining your analysis of current conditions in Pakistan and offering a vision for its ethical and intellectual future. Since then, he has asked you to help introduce ‘cultural reforms’ in the country. What progress has been made on this front?

A: I belong to a group called The Middle Way. It comprises people from different disciplines who believe that there is a great need for [Islamic] reform. We are trying to create a middle path between the religious right which has hijacked the discourse on Islam, and those who feel that Islam and human rights are not compatible. The focus is on the understanding of Islam as a religion of moderation — one which depends on reason and knowledge. We also look at contemporary issues, like women’s rights and human rights.

There are two distinct steps in terms of progress [on this front], the first of which is creating awareness that there is a problem, and we have done this with regard to issues which have not been tackled, such as the rights of females. Now we are trying to turn this awareness into a concrete action plan.

In this regard, we held a historic consultation of Muslim scholars recently in Islamabad. For the first time progressive scholars came together to reflect on a common theme: our understanding of a modern Muslim state. Participants came from Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Egypt, the US, Europe, Canada, Macedonia, India, Bangladesh, Iran and Pakistan. It was clear that the same issues were troubling all these countries. We determined that an institute in one country, which could address these issues in a constructive way, would benefit everybody. I hope we will now be able to make progress quickly.

Q: Was this consultation an initiative of President Musharraf? Why was it held behind closed doors?

A: No, it was not started by Musharraf as such. It was the result of a conversation I had with Dr. Ata-ur-Rahman, the Chairman of the Higher Education Commission. Somebody in his ministry wanted to set up a centre of dialogue between Islam and the west. I told him the idea was a bad one, as it relied on polarised concepts. One should not speak in monolithic terms — where the two worlds are absolutised. I suggested instead, that a discussion be held with a group of educated scholars. But there were fears that a conference would arouse a lot of opposition, and incur the clergy’s wrath. This is why it was imperative we have a consultation, not a conference. We wanted a few people to come and talk to the leadership of this country. That is why we kept it a closed-door event.

We divided the participants into two forums, one for international scholars and one for the regional ones. Both were assigned one topic: what was their vision for a modern Muslim society and could they devise an action plan to achieve it? The first day focused on the views of the international scholars, the second on the regional ones, and the third day brought both parties together. The process worked very well and the recommendations that came from the different groups were very similar.

Q: But will an initiative without the involvement of the more ‘traditional’ or ‘orthodox’ scholars be meaningful on the ground?

A: There are a lot of institutions in this country that represent conservative thinking, such as the International Islamic University in Islamabad and the Al-Huda academies all over the place. We want a balance on the other side. If there were significant institutes that represented progressive views, perhaps there could be a possibility for a dialogue between the two groups. But as the conservatives have a big advantage against the progressives, who do not have a single institute in the world and who are very scattered, we need to get like-minded people together under one umbrella. If the traditional scholars would have come in at this point, we would have seen nothing but fighting. This is why it was not a conference — in which you need all sorts of opinions, but a consultation.

Q: What would the aims of such an Islamic institute be?

A: We haven’t decided on a location for the institute yet, but it will probably be established in Lahore, as it is the intellectual and cultural capital of Pakistan. I do not want it to be in Islamabad, as it is too close to the seat in power. We want to facilitate an exchange of ideas. We envisage that the works of progressive scholar’s, such as Dr Fathi Osman, will be made available here. We want to take the basic teachings of Islam, for example, the concept of human rights, and create on-line courses which could be transmitted over the country. The institute will also offer a training programme for teachers. There are 59 million teachers over the world — a very large professional group. All teachers need to know what Islam is. It is a part of history, political science, literature, etc.

Q: Will the institute be affiliated to international organisations?

A:No, not affiliated. It will be autonomous. But it will be linked to international institutions. We want input from all international scholars, so the board of governors will comprise some international scholars who are able to travel here. We believe the study of Islam should be a global, not a local, enterprise. For example, the Canadian High Commissioner, who was an invited guest to the consultation, expressed a desire for the institute to be linked to her alma mater, the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill, Montreal. This kind of fresh input is very important.

Q: If President Musharraf agrees to fund the institute, will this not compromise its autonomy?

A: We have asked the President to be the institute’s Chairman. Ideally, it will be funded and established by the government of Pakistan. But it will be autonomous as it will not be linked to any government ministry.

But there are other means of funding too. I live in the US, which is spending billions of dollars in the war against terrorism. I direct a programme called Islamic Life in the US. It is an exchange programme that takes scholars from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the US and brings Americans back to South-Asia. The US is very keen to win the hearts and minds of the people. They themselves cannot do it, the change has to come from within. If we can show that we can deliver the goods, create a consensus, and move forward the moderation paradigm, money will not be an issue.

Q: But will Musharraf really be able to back such an initiative given his political realities, and will these financial and intellectual linkages with western sources not leave the institute wide open to allegations of it having a western, read American, agenda?

A: Of course, we expect this opposition. The right wing is so well organised in this country, and they will be very hostile. President Musharraf, however, is a truly progressive person. He has had attempts made on his life and he realises the risk in bringing about this change. We know that this is a dangerous enterprise. But we feel that if we do not engage in this confrontation, we are going to lose everything. As I said, our first preference is that the government of Pakistan fund it, and even this will be controversial, as it is a military government. If we get funding from outside, we will be branded as American plants. So we will be better protected if the funding comes from Pakistan, or other Muslim countries. We have asked that the government fund us for five years, until we become self-sufficient. For example, if the American or Canadian government wants a study on women’s rights, we will market our services and so generate our own funds. But we will make sure we have multiple sources of funding, so that nobody can claim ownership. Almost everything in Pakistan is funded by the Americans anyway, so if there are no strings attached, we would accept funding from them. Anyway, even the so-called Islamic university is not independent — it receives money from Saudi Arabia.

Q: You state: “Islam is a wonderful religion, the problem is that I don’t see it practiced anywhere.” What is your position on how it should be practiced? Do you support a creation of a true Islamic state?

A: What I mean is that Islamic rights are not practised anywhere. In principle, Islam is wonderful, but in practice, it hasn’t been implemented anywhere. I hope that our movement will be a catalyst to bring about this change. What I am concerned about is that the Quran never talks about a state — it refers to an ummah. I am interested in the character of societies, in human rights. If a state has the right values, even if it does not call itself Islamic, or is not Islamic, it is fine.

Q: You state that the position of the UN is that religion and human rights are incompatible and that “when human rights are discussed it does not want to introduce Islam as a category at all because Islam is considered anti-humanistic.” Does this apply to other religions as well, and if not, why is the world so afraid of Islam?

A: The UN’s founders wanted to stay away from anything that could be a source of discord, so religion, even ethics were marginalised. The bias was against all religions, but this has changed now since the Beijing and Cairo conferences. The UN has begun to realise that religion is central to the lives of people.

Yes, there is a very deep fear of Islam in the western psyche, ever since the 7th century. Muslims took over Europe, were great leaders intellectually, and spurred the European renaissance. Christianity has been challenged only by two movements in history — Islam and Communism. Now, only Islam remains and it is going strong. There is a definite reality to the clash between the cross and the crescent. This clash is unconscious today. Whenever there is a crisis that involves Muslims, such as the Irani revolution, the Gulf war, or the Salman Rushdie controversy, this antipathy and fear comes out. Post 9/11, it’s all over the place. I talked to people at the Kennedy Centre about the role of the Afghan women after the fall of the Taliban. I was given 10 minutes to convince them about Islam. I said the Islamic world is in need of reform but it will come on its own terms, and from within. It cannot be imposed by military means. I urged them to work with Islam and the moderates. Unfortunately, there is an obsession with reforming the madrassahs, which educate only about three per cent of the population. I have told the President that we should try to reform the other 97 per cent of the people.

The terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘west’ are monolithic. There are many sub-categories in these terms. Yes, the gulf can be bridged among the moderate Muslims and moderate Americans.

Q: Today the hijab is a hotly contested topic around the world. You have stated on numerous occasions that “Wearing hijab today is a sign of submission to Saudi Arabia.” Don’t you believe in a woman’s right to veil, based on her understanding of the Quran?

A: Did I say that? First of all, this issue needs to be studied in an objective scientific way. The practice of veiling comes before Islam. Orthodox Jewish women, to this day, wear the veil. Specifically in the context of the Quran, this issue needs to be understood historically. My unhappiness lies in the fact that the young women wearing the veil have not done research on the subject. If they did and still wore it, I would respect their right to wear it. But given the nature of the Arabic language and the general openness and universality of the Quran, I believe that the Quran offers us many options with regard to the dress code. The principles of the Quran are justice and compassion. It does not focus on outward dress. Those verses were revealed in a particular context and time. The underlying principle is modesty. The word used in the Quran is jilbab. But it is not the case that everybody in the world should wear the jilbab. If the Quran was revealed, say, to the Americans, it would have referred to American dress. What is mandatory is modesty. At the time, the jilbab enabled women to go out. It was not restrictive.

Q: You state that the Quran has been interpreted over the past centuries in a very misogynistic and patriarchal context. Is your position that all the great Arabic scholars have deliberately misinterpreted the Quran?

A:You have to differentiate between the scholars.

Q:Maulana Maudoodi, for example.

A: Yes. He was very patriarchal in his thinking. We now know that the vast majority of the hadith were not authentic in the sense that they referred to Arab culture rather than what the Prophet (p.bu.h) said. Hadith became the lens through which the Quran was seen. The discipline of Tafsir, or the interpretation of the Quran, was developed afterwards. The difference between original texts and tradition has been merged. Iqbal tried to separate this.

Q: Who is capable of undertaking ijtihad today?

A: If scholars could come together, we can do a lot better. I think there is a lot of capability. This is why we need an institution. And this is my mission.

Dr Riffat Hassan is Professor of Religious Studies and Humanities at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. A champion of progressive Islamic thought, she has been engaged in research on the roles and rights of women in Islam for over 25 years. Dr Hassan was a speaker at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt in 1994 and at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in China.