A Womans Reading (04/01/2001)
The NEWS 04/01/2001
What I aim at is to create an equitable and just society on the lines the Holy Quran propounds, Dr Riffat Hassan tells Muhammad Badar Alam in an interview
To talk of a universal declaration of human rights may sound foreign, nay western, to many, but listen to what Dr Riffat Hassan has to say on women rights and you are in for a cultural shock.
She teaches Islamic Studies at the Louisville University in the United States, but her heart is where her origin is. A devout Muslim, she painstakingly portrays Islam not as an embodiment of beliefs and rituals but as a way forward for an equitable and just society.
Sounds familiar, may be cliched? Day in and day out one hears the same thing from pulpits and parliaments. So what is different about Dr Riffat and why does one write about her then?
Perhaps, the answer can be found in the story of her life. Very young, she rebelled against her father's desire to have his daughters married in their teens. Mingled with this rebellion was a life-long devotion with Allama Iqbal who she knew well as a good friend of her maternal grandfather, Hakim Ahmad Shujaa. Iqbal's personality, poetry and philosophy all had a great formative influence on me, she herself has to say.
A strong passion for knowledge coupled with her defiance of her family's traditions paid and she managed to travel to England for higher studies. Thence started an intellectual journey from philosophy and literature to Iqbal and Islam. For me, this is a personal journey prompted by my predicament as a Muslim woman in a modem world, she says.
And then one day she was there, giving a lecture on women in Islam before a pre-dominantly male, Muslim and Arab audience. Contrary to repeating what her audience wanted to listen, she put to test everything they had held dear on the issue for centuries.
There was no stopping her from then onwards. From demolishing popular myths of women being the cause of the Fall, she went on to claim that the Holy Quran is interpreted wrongly as far as women's property and legal rights are concerned. A close look at the text reveals that all these beliefs about women being half of men are not Islamic. These are a result of Arab traditions prevalent at the time of the advent of Islam somehow fusing into the teachings of Quran, she tells a mostly young and educated audience at the American Center in Lahore. Because interpreting the text has remained an exclusively male domain, it is highly likely that early Islam interpreters saw all these questions in the light of an Arab culture tilted heavily against women.
Feminist theology at its best. But feminism or no feminism, Riffat says a new interpretation of the Quranic text is warranted. Then again putting and answering the question as to who is entitled to do so is to open a pandoras box. Whether this reinterpretation, ijtehad in Islamic lexicon, is still possible is a question which has dogged and divided the Muslim scholars over the centuries. For Riffat Hassan, however, it is nothing more than the exercise of his or her basic right to dissent. There is no priesthood in Islam, no established church and no set criteria as to what type of training is necessary for the interpretation of the text. None of the reformers, from Jalauddin Afghani to Sir Sayyed and Allama Iqbal, received education in a religious seminary. They were rather trained in the western tradi
Professor Dr. Riffat Hassan,
P.O. Box 17202,
Phone: 502 637 4090
Fax: 502 637 4002