Samina Ibrahim interviewed Farhat Hashmi for NEWSLINE, in February 2001, while the latter was conducting the “Diploma Course of Islamic Education for Women” in Karachi, Pakistan:
Q: Why did you decide to go to Glasgow for your Ph. D?
A: I was curious to learn western perceptions on Islam. Because until one learns and understands what different communities know and feel about Islam you cannot defend it. I applied to Al-Azhar in Cairo but they wanted such complicated and detailed documents that I felt I would never be able to go. Glasgow was the first university to reply and my scholarship had a one year time bar so after taking advice from various people I took the plunge and left along with my husband. We both also went on a six month study tour of Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and met the most learned scholars from the Arab world. One of the most important lessons that I learnt was why Pakistan is so backward. In both religious and worldly matters we know very little. There is also too much rigidity. Whatever a scholar said a 1,000 years ago is the final word. One cannot change or bring a different interpretation to the Quran. This has hurt and damaged the Muslims because there is a 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. But in Pakistan it is the narrow vision that prevails and this view has turned the younger generation away from Islam. They regard it as a religion that instead of solving their problems will throw them back into the dark ages. The emphasis has always been on dos and don’ts, what is haram, what is balal. But the leeway or options present in the Quran have not been given any prominence.
Q: People, however do feel that your views are too rigid. There have been cases where young girls have attended your classes and then not returned because they felt there was no place for them there…
A: There are some parts of the Quran which are sometimes too heavy to bear, particularly if you have not been exposed to a gradual understanding from the beginning. The Quran itself shows both sides. Whenever there is mention of heaven, there is also mention of hell and vice versa. So one should not only take note of one without the other. And if somebody is rushing headlong in one direction, you cannot turn them to another path overnight. My ultimate aim is to spread awareness of what our responsibilities as human beings are. Sometimes I feel like putting my religious teachings aside and just talk about etiquette and moral ethics, both of which are sorely lacking in our society. I am here only to spread the message of Quran as it is written.
Q: Do you feel there is a need for reinterpretation of Islamic thought in today’s context particularly human rights issues concerning women?
A: I feel that there is a need for reinterpretation 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 1000 years ago was made in a different historical era and environment. Today that interpretation cannot apply. It has to be reinterpreted within the parameters of the Quran.
Q: Is there a competent authority today to reinterpret Islamic doctrine and take it into the 21st century?
A: Maybe there are such people, but I have not heard of them.
Q: Do you agree with what reformers like Allama lqbal were trying to do?
A: While one cannot fault people like him for their good intentions, any human effort is bound to have some flaws. But if our ulema had cooperated with him and others like him and debated issues and accommodated what they were trying to do within the parameters laid down by Islam it would have been extremely beneficial. But is sad that even a person of Allama Iqbal’s calibre had to face fatwas of kufr. Anyone who tries to bring any element of change is rejected by our religious elements.
Reply: This shows the lack of walaa` (allegance) wal baraa` (enmity). What is the caliber of Allama Iqbal? Philosophy and going to darghas seeking the guidance of sufi dead so called saints. “Anyone who tries to bring any element of change is rejected by our religious elements.” If the change being promoted opposes the Qur`an and Sunnah then yes it is rejected that is the whole point of the deen, to guide us to what is right and reject misguidance! Help you one another in AlBirr and AtTaqwa (virtue, righteousness and piety); but do not help one another in sin and transgression. And fear Allâh. Verily, Allâh is Severe in punishment. (Surah Al-Ma’idah 5:2)
Q: Do you think that the Shariah should be enforced?
A: I don’t think that the Shariah should be artificially enforced. It should not be looked at from only one particular angle and then that made the final verdict. Unfortunately this is what has been happening in Pakistan. The Prophet (PBUH) first won the hearts of the people by giving them laws to live by and for Him to explain and achieve this took many years. Take the case of alcohol: it was first touched upon lightly, then after a while more strongly and then the third time it was banned. The purpose behind it was gradually explained so when the final ban came, people were ready to accept it. I feel it is important to first explain the concept to people and give them time to understand, debate and accept it. Nothing should just be imposed arbitrarily.
Q: The blasphemy law for instance has been blatantly misused…
A: These are the things that have defamed both our religion and the Shariah as being unjust and cruel. It is people who enforce the Shariah and if those who are enforcing it have no fear of God, how can they enforce God’s laws? But this is what is been happening and this is not the right way.
Q: There is a perception that your classes are producing a breed of judgemental and self-righteous women…
A: I do feel that the message of intolerance spread by most religious parties is not there in my classes. I emphasise, in almost every class, not to judge another human being. That is God’s work. Almost every day I say do not judge any one by their appearance alone. There have been so many discussions on Satan and why he fell from grace: because he thought himself superior. If this judgemental and self-righteous behaviour is I finding its way out of the classroom it is negating what I am trying to do and I will make an even greater effort to change it.
Q: Instead of empowering and liberalizing women, your mission might result In obscurantism, the losing of whatever rights women have achieved, and perhaps even encourage the Talibanisation of society?
A: I am not propagating my personal views, I’m only conveying what is written in the Quran. As far as the Taliban are concerned, I have heard that they are against the education of women. When I myself have done my Ph. D and gone to a foreign land to study, how can I tell others not to do the same. My point of view is that a woman’s primary responsibility is her home, after she has fulfilled that it is up to her to go into whatever field suits her best. I have no agenda to take away women’s rights. Al-Huda holds evening classes specially for working women. But, peace in the home depends on the woman and that aspect should not be ignored at the cost of working outside the home. A woman’s role as a home-maker should not be sacrificed at the altar of ambition.
Reply: “When I myself have done my Ph. D and gone to a foreign land to study, how can I tell others not to do the same.” Just the same way you supposedly teach people Qur`aan then you would inform them how it’s impermissible to study in a mixed environment. Allah the Most High says: And stay in your houses, and do not display yourselves like that of the times of ignorance, and perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat), and give Zakat and obey Allah and His Messenger… (Surah Al-Ahzab 33:33)
Q: What is your interpretation of the fact that a husband has the right to chastise his wife, even physically if she does not obey him?
A: Nowhere is it written that the husband has the right to chastise his wife if she does not obey him. That right has been given to him if she is unfaithful. I have been told that I have a feminist approach. I have elaborated this ayat in detail. The word used in the Quran for this is ‘Nashoos’ which does not mean not listening. It means a distortion of family life, when the wife shows she does not care for the husband and in doing that disturbs the harmony and peace in the home, and my interpretation of that is when she is unfaithful.
Reply: So a house that has a woman that does not obey her husband will not disturb the harmony? And “your” interpretation is when she is unfaithful is that the degree it has to reach for it to be an issue? You say nowhere is it written, let us take a look at the ayah: Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend (to support them) from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah and to their husbands), and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah orders them to guard (e.g. their chastity, their husband’s property, etc.). As to those women on whose part you see ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly, if it is useful), but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance). Surely, Allah is Ever Most High, Most Great. You have the answer in the beginning of the ayah of what a righteous woman is, obedience is part of the description so the latter part of the ayah is stating what to do if you find her disobedient. Where does it say that nushooz is from a woman being unfaithful? Does this mean that a man waits until he sees that his wife is not stopping her unfaithful ways to eventually punish her to the degree of lightly hitting her? What a twisted interpretation this is.
When Allah the Most High describes someone as being unfaithful He does not say nushooz as is stated in the same surah: And those of your women who commit illegal sexual intercourse, take the evidence of four witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they testify, confine them (i.e. women) to houses until death comes to them or Allah ordains for them some (other) way. (Surah An-Nisaa` 4:15). The word used here and in other verses is Al-Faahishatu. And for those who accuse their wives, but have no witnesses except themselves, let the testimony of one of them be four testimonies (i.e. testifies four times) by Allah that he is one of those who speak the truth. And the fifth (testimony) (should be) the invoking of the Curse of Allah on him if he be of those who tell a lie (against her). (Surah An-Noor 24:6-7). This is the guidance of how to deal with an unfaithful wife there was no command as given in the ayah that you so wrongfully interpreted.
One cannot interpret the Quran without using the sunnah and what does the sunnah say regarding this topic? “Fear Allah concerning women! Verily you have taken them on the security of Allah, and intercourse with them has been made lawful unto you by words of Allah. You too have rights over them, and that they should not allow anyone to sit on your bed [i.e., not let them into the house] whom you do not like. But if they do that, you can chastise them but not severely. Their rights upon you are that you should provide them with food and clothing in a fitting manner” (Narrated by Muslim, 1218)
Q: Islam is a universal religion. There is an observation that in Pakistan, Islam has been Arabised particularly in the outward appearance of Islam. For instance hijab is more of an Arab cultural custom, rather than an Islamic code of dress.
A: I am not prescribing the design of what a woman should wear. It is up to the woman to adapt whatever form of covering that is convenient for her. I don’t think that one is following the Arab way of dress, but when one is translating Arabic there will be some influence of that language. The Islamic code of dress is to hide your beauty, however you choose to do it. It is, however, clearly stated that there should be a head covering that also covers the upper part of one’s body. It can be a scarf, a chadar, a burqa. According to religious research, a woman’s hair is part of her beauty. Just look at all the beauty parlours in Pakistan, their main work is to beautify hair!
Q: Why do you not channel the influence you have on so many women to the serious issues that plague our society? Most of the women who attend your classes seem to be more concerned with issues like sitting or standing during a milad or wearing nail polish during namaz…
A: It is sad but the level of our awareness about religion is very low. I myself have been amazed that after a class, I am asked these trivial questions. Is this all they have gleaned or understood? Very often it pains me to see that as far as religion is concerned, the only issues that seem to bother even the most educated women who attend, are irrelevant issues and the various arguments of different schools of thought. I think our religious education so far has unfortunately only been based on these things. Religion has always been seen as a matter of outward appearance only, not the spiritual inner self. It is much easier to change ones appearance than one’s inner self. True awareness can only come through education and this is something that I emphasise all the time. The women who attend my classes are still bound by a life-time of religious knowledge that has been based on trivia and to correct that will take time. It never ceases to surprise me that some women, despite being highly educated academically, are so uneducated in their religion. I cannot understand why they cannot rise above asking questions about nail polish and waxing. One of my complaints is why is it that whenever religion is discussed there is argument and discord. It is written in the Quran that even if arguing with a non-Muslim, do so peaceably and without aggression.
Q: The ladies who attend your classes generally come from educated and privileged backgrounds anyway. Why are you not spreading your message in the rural and tribal areas or to the underprivileged instead of in 5-star hotels and Clifton? And wouldn’t the time they spend attending your classes be better spent working in the social sector which is in dire need of help?
A: Well, some of the ladies who attend my classes previously spent their time at coffee and lunch parties. At least now they are coming here. That is the first step. The next step is to go out and help those less fortunate. If I can motivate the educated and privileged section of society to go out and also spread the message of the Quran… I teach in Clifton because by chance this is where I was given the facility. And I hope that those who are coming here will be inspired to go out and help others. It is a reality that if I had started with the under-privileged my message would have been restricted only to them; they would not have been able to influence other sections of society. The women of the rural areas cannot come and educate women in the city, it can only work the other way round. If I am not holding classes in the rural areas, my cassettes are available there. It has not been my intention only to teach a certain segment of society. I teach and like a river runs through whatever channel it finds, in the same way what I teach spreads in whatever way it can. Ultimately my goal is to reach as far as I can through those who come to my classes. There are those among my students whose villages are in the interior and I have told them to record cassettes in simple Sindhi. There’s no point in my going to a village in Sindh, I cannot speak the language, what will I be able to communicate? Similarly in the tribal areas. I come from an urban and academic background, so it makes more sense for me to convey my message to people from a similar background. It would be a waste of time for me to go and speak to those who will not understand me. I am not ignoring them or their needs but there is a natural growth in everything. It takes time for the fruit of ones labour to show.
Q: Surprisingly, despite the fact that you are spreading the message of the Quran, some of the ulema are very critical of your mission…
A: Most of them are very critical. They say that I have liberalised Islam. They have criticised my Ramzan classes calling them a fashion show in the name of Islam. They expect that I should force people to change, and enforce beliefs the way the Taliban do. They objected to the fact that my classes initially took place at the Pearl Continental saying that dance parties are held there. Islam is not bound by any place, one can talk about Islam anywhere. I think it has also become a gender issue; they feel that a woman is usurping their territory. I have been told that it is un-Islamic for a woman to be heard publicly as I am through my cassettes. They have objected to the fact that I say that there should be a place in mosques for women. They have gone to the extent of saying that I have turned even those women who were following Islam away from it. The other thing is that I am not a product of the madrassas, I come from a school, college and university background. I have studied abroad. I do not fit into the typical mould so many of them do not even consider me a religious person. An even more basic issue is the fact that the ulema do not want to educate the common man about the Quran. The ulema say the masses are not capable of understanding it, that only religious scholars are able to understand it. The ulema cannot accept that a woman is capable of understanding, interpreting or teaching the Quran. I have even been called a kafir because I do not propagate jihad. I teach women; are they going to go and fight? Any way there are many things that need to be done, before thinking of jihad. From beginning to end I keep the Quran in front of me. And for me what is written in the Quran is Islam. I am not prepared to take dictation from the ulema and teach their version of Islam.
Q: What are the differences between you and the ulema?
A: Basically my point of view is that we must rethink philosophies and interpretation. There is a lot of flexibility within Islam. Do you think that God did not know how times would change and how people’s needs would change? The potential to solve all problems is there within our religion. But if we continue to rely on interpretations from another millennium then we can never succeed nor can Islam benefit us in its true sense. My basic point of conflict with the ulema is that with every ayat I try to find what is the benefit of that ayat for today’s world. This is what they do not like and constantly criticise.
Q: Do they acknowledge your academic qualifications as a religious scholar?
A: They do not recognise my Ph. D. at all. According to them I am not qualified to be a religious scholar despite my years of study. They say until I do not go and study in their madrassas and adopt their way of thinking I am not qualified to be a scholar.
Q: Do you think that the ulema tolerate you because they do not see you as a threat since your target audience is so small? Would they let you continue if you were to take your message to the masses?
A: I did not start my mission with anyone’s approval and I will not end it because of anyone’s disapproval. I do not fear the ulema. I do not fear anyone. All I am doing is spreading the message of the Quran. If somebody objects to that, then their fight is not with me, but with God.