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HVK Archives: Modernity poses the greatest challenge to Muslim societies

Modernity poses the greatest challenge to Muslim societies - The Times of India

Posted By Ashok V Chowgule (ashokvc@giasbm01.vsnl.net.in)
2 December 1996

Title : `Modernity poses the greatest challenge to Muslim societies'
Author :
Publication : The Times of India
Date : December 2, 1996

Is Islam incompatible with democracy and gender equality?
This debate has been raging within and outside the Isla-
mic world, for some time. The activities of Muslim funda-
mentalist groups throughout the world and especially in
Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, Sudan and Bangladesh have
strengthened the view that Islam cannot coexist with
liberal attitudes. However, Riffat Hassan, a professor of
the Religious Studies Programme at the University of
Louisville, kentucky in the United States is out to
demolish the stereotype of a patriarchal Islam.

Through her forceful writings and presentations she has
added a new pro-woman and pro-democracy dimension to the
whole debate culminating in her latest book Woman and the
Quran. Riffat, who was born and brought up in Lahore,
came into the limelight when she authored Bitter Harvest
(translations of selections from the verses of Sahir
Ludhianvi) in 1977. Shamsul Islam talked to her when she
was recently in Delhi. Excerpts from the interview:

You are being talked about as the first liberation theol-
ogist of Islam. Do you agree with this description?

I object to the use of the term, Liberation theology" to
describe my quest. I am simply trying to reinterpret
Islam in the context of Quran. Unfortunately, today Islam
is being presented as anti-women, and against human
rights. On the contrary, male tyranny and repression of
women are absolutely against the very basic spirit of
Islam. This tilt was forced on Islam because the ruling
classes in the Islamic countries were part of societies
which were die-hard patriarchal and feudal in nature.
Even today the situation remains the same.

How did you get into this 'quest'?

I became interested in this question of women in Islam in
1974, when I was teaching at the Oklahoma state Universi-
ty. There was a chapter of an organisation called Muslim
Students' Association at the university consisting almost
entirely of students from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the
Emirates whose understanding of Islam was very pa-

They asked me to deliver a talk on women in Islam. For
this paper 1 made a serious attempt to expose the falla-
cies of the patriarchal Islam.

By 1986 I had decided to devote all my intellectual
energies to work on issues of women and democracy in
Islam. This commitment was further strengthened due to
two important developments in Pakistan. First, with
Zia's irritation of the process of islamisation and the
new Shariat laws in Pakistan women were reduced to pa-
thetic beings. Constitutionally they became second-rate
citizens of Pakistan. It also was the time when Pakistan
was flooded with anti-women Islamic literature.

Secondly, the Safia Begum rape case in the Pakistan shook
me to the core. Safia was a 14-years-old blind girl

employed as a maid by a rich family. She was sexually
abused both by her employer and his son, and consequently
became pregnant. The Shariat Court instead of punishing
the rapist father-son duo, sentenced Safia Begum to six
years' jail for adultery. She could not produce "four
pairs of eyes" (all males) in her defence and, thus, was
pronounced the culprit.

Though 1972 onward, I lived outside Pakistan I always had
a home in Lahore. Women's groups of Pakistan approached
me to give an Islamic ideological basis to the fight for
democracy of Pakistan women. I accepted the challenge and
never looked back.

Is it not surprising that the late 70s and the 80s saw
the emergence of a process of Islamisation in countries
which were Islamic even earlier. Why did these Islamic
polities require additional and stronger doses of Islam?

I believe that modernity poses the greatest challenge to
Muslim societies. The process of islamisation had noth-
ing to do with Islam. it was, at best, a political gim-
mick to keep Muslim societies in the perpetual bondage of
feudal and patriarchal elements. The rulers were scared
of ideas of emancipation and change, and hence Islamisa-

How do you reconcile to the enforcement of strict Shariat
codes for women by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the
Pasdars (Militia) of the Islamic regime in Iran?

Why should we single out only Afghanistan and Iran?
Muslim fundamentalists throughout the world and more
prominently in Muslim majority states are working over-
time to make Muslim women faceless and nameless.

Moreover, Muslim fundamentalists have three foundational
assumptions in order to prove inequality. First, it is
argued that the primary creation was man i.e. Adam, and
he gave birth to woman so she is subservient to man.
Secondly, Eve i.e. woman made Adam eat the forbidden
fruit and caused his exit from the Heavens. Thirdly,
woman was not only made from man but she was also made
for man.

The fact is all these assumptions are contrary to Islam
and Quran. In Quran there are 30 passages which refer to
birth of humanity. But nowhere is it said that Adam gave
birth to Eve. There is neither a Rib story nor is there
Eve in the Quran. The Rib story which Is part of the
Christian tradition appears later in two theological
works Sahi ul Muslim and Sahi ul Bukhari, which contain a
large number of Hadis (practices and saying of Prophet
Mohammed). Those Muslims who believe in the superiority
of men over women forget that Quranic cannons cannot be
set aside by Hadis. But in the creation story Quran has
been taken over by Hadis. Perhaps this liberty has been
taken because it concerns Muslim women.

How do you respond to Issues like the strict enforcement
of purdah for Muslim women, triple talaq or polygamy?

It is really unfortunate that Muslim women think that
purdah is divinely ordained. it is older than Islam.
Purdah meant the subjugation of women to men. it had
nothing to do with God or Islam. In fact, it was St

Augustine long before the advent of Islam, who said that
women should not interact even with holy men.

Those Muslim zealots who are forcing Muslim women to go
behind veil are in fact enforcing Christian morality
which was never endorsed by Quran.

Likewise triple talaq is totally unIslamic and unQuranic.
It is absent even in Fatwa-e-Alamgiri (religious decrees
of Aurangzeb on which Shariat laws of India, Pakistan and
Bangladesh are based). Polygamy is supported only once
in Quran (Surat an Nissa, verse 3). This too was ordained
in order to tackle the situation after the Battle of Uhud
in which a large number of males were killed and the
Muslim community was left with many orphans and widows.
one important fact is that Prophet Mohammed from the age
of 25 to 50 had only one wife.

Do you believe that your arguments can bring about change
of heart in Muslim clergy or the Islamic establishment?

I am least bothered about the Muslim clergy. In fact,
Islam is a religion which has no Church, and no mullahs.
There is nobody between God and us as an agent. Quran is
not a book of repression or tyranny. Human rights,
democracy, equality all are part of the Islamic heritage.
I have tried to present a better religious argument which
brings forward the humane bases of Islam. Ethical con-
sistency demands that in Islam, which came to emancipate
the human race, God's will cannot be used to perpetuate a
system of injustices.

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