The Allure of Al-Huda: Reconciling Liberalism and Literalist Islam

Sep 2014

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Artist: Tazeen Qayyum | A Journey Unfinished

Artist: Tazeen Qayyum | A Journey Unfinished

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About us

Qur’an for all. In every heart, in every hand – Al-Huda International slogan

As I was smoothing out the white sheets on the floor at my mother’s house in preparation for a Qur’an khaani, my aunt came up to me and whispered in my ear, “You know this is biddat” and handed me a little gift bag with a prayer book and a CD with a sermon by Dr. Farhat Hashmi inside. This is how I was introduced to Al-Huda, an Islamic piety group led by women for women. Following that incidence, I began to notice many transformations in the practices of piety in my family in Pakistan and in Mississauga, marking a conservative, or what some might call, an ‘orthodox’ turn. We moved away from how we had formerly self-identified as “moderate” (and therefore modern) Muslims.  Practices such as the Qur’an khaani – the collective reading of the whole Qur’an in one sitting – were vanishing and in their wake, words such as biddat and shirk became commonplace. To a large extent, these transformations were set in motion by women in my family who had started participating in Al-Huda, both formally and informally, and it raised questions for me about the organization.

What sets Al-Huda apart from other approaches to gender progressive Islam – such as those by Amina Wadud, Riffat Hassan, Asma Barlas, or Fatima Mernissi – is Al-Huda’s commitment to upholding a literalist Islamic tradition, a tradition not typically associated with improving the interests of women.  Yet, Al-Huda has gained a lot of popularity amongst urban, “modern,” educated women, ostensibly exactly the group one would expect to repudiate such literalist interpretations.  This is because, contrary to what one might think, Al-Huda’s literalist interpretation extends a brand of liberalism — not despite it.

Liberal pieties

By the term “liberalism” I mean something particular. I am referring to the political philosophy that structures society based on individual autonomy and demarcates inclusion, democratic franchise, and freedoms based on the individual possession of rationality — a quality that has very specific, exclusionary underpinnings within liberal philosophical thought. Indeed, a call to rationality is a deeply political move and

 To put it bluntly: a good Muslim is a literate Muslim is a relatively well-off Muslim. The conflation of class and piety writes marginalized populations and poorer Muslims as a threat to both Islam and the globe.

 steeped in power relations. Such a call has the potential to prioritize distinctly European forms of thought as the universal gold standard for rationality. Attempts to reconcile Islam with liberal modernity have often been predicated on re-reading Islam as compatible with this form of rationality.  Many Muslim scholars have turned to ijtihad — the systematic, progressive, and contextualized (re)interpretation of holy texts — to identify how modernity and Islam may be commensurate, producing what some have termed “liberal Islam.” This move is akin to the Islamic modernism of early 20th century Islamic thinkers such as Mohammad Iqbal, Sayyid Ahmad Khan and the Aligarh movement. Many juxtapose this form of “modern” Islam with “traditionalist Islam”, which is defined as committed to upholding a historic “Islamic tradition” and engaged in a more literal interpretation of scripture, as exemplified by Maulana Maududi and the Jamaat-e-Islami. This is where Al-Huda would be located as well if we work within this dichotomy, but something is amiss in this schema:  Foreclosing the possibility that the literalist tradition and liberalism may actually be commensurable is, in fact, premature and detrimental to an understanding of how liberalism operates in Pakistan.

Scholars and commentators have discounted the idea that literalist approaches to Islam could be rational because they argue that the rejection of custom and tradition is fundamental to the development of rationality. Liberalism imagines rational people as autonomous, thinking and autonomously-acting agents in the world. Liberal philosophers hold tradition and custom as forms of habit that stymie autonomy and the ability to think for oneself.  The influential liberal philosopher (and employee of the East India Company), John Stuart Mill wrote that customs and traditions are antithetical to progress because they “render reason unnecessary.” Conformity or “imitation” — which is how Mill understood tradition — does not require the exercise of mental faculties, he argued.  In fact, it actually weakens those faculties. Customs, Mill concluded, ought to be rejected as a regressive force, and societies where the “despotism of custom is complete” are “barbaric societies,” equivalent to children who cannot exercise individual liberty until they are appropriately civilized. This opened the door for imperialism as a civilizing mission at the same moment that liberalism, commonly (incorrectly) regarded as an egalitarian philosophy, was being elaborated. So, modern liberalism considers tradition and custom as “imitation” and the binary opposite of progress and civilization. Therefore, liberal arguments consider literalist Islam, which imagines itself as working within a long Islamic “tradition,” as antithetical to liberalism. Yet, the aforementioned separation between liberal and traditionalist Islam is not quite so neat.  Drawing on interviews and participatory observations with women affiliated (both officially and unofficially) with Al-Huda, I found that their participation in the literalist discourses of Al-Huda led them to reassert specifically liberal forms of hierarchies and ways of structuring exclusion and inclusion in society. More specifically, by engaging in liberal discourses of rationality and progress and by focusing on text-centered and developmentalist discourses, their notion of piety privileged literacy as a central Islamic ethic. That, in turn, has ramifications for how the Islamic practices of the non-literate classes are understood — and denounced.

“Imitation ummat”
“It’s better to be a student than an imitation.” – Aaliya, former student of Al-Huda. (All interviewees will be referred to using pseudonyms in order to ensure anonymity.)

In the above quotation, the opposition of “imitation” and “student” is indicative of the way women of AHI set their own practices apart from other practices of piety around them. Emerging in the 1990s in Pakistan as an Islamic piety group pioneered by and for women, Al-Huda International foregrounds issues of access to the Qur’an.  Women in Al-Huda have worked tirelessly to challenge male-dominance in the production and dissemination of religious knowledge, seeking to address the gaping deficiency in understandings of women’s piety in order to improve their own practice of Islam.  Al-Huda International (AHI) was founded in Islamabad by Dr. Farhat Hashmi, a Pakistani Islamic scholar with a doctorate in Hadith Sciences from the University of Glasgow. It has since expanded to other urban centers in Pakistan and the diaspora, including Australia, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. The organization started with home-based Qur’an classes for women in the affluent neighborhoods of Islamabad. While these home-based classes continue to be a central form of instruction, Al-Huda now also has its own formal instructional spaces that range from a fully developed campus in Islamabad and Mississauga (Canada) to small classrooms scattered across the globe. AHI also produces its own print, web, audio, and video material.

In an echo of liberal thought, Al-Huda women say they aspire towards a more conscientious and rational engagement with Islam that is unlike so many other irrational, mindless, imitative practices of Islam that are contaminated by “cultural baggage.”  So, the opposition of “imitation” and “student” also illustrates another opposition: that between culture and religion where the proper practice of religion requires an ‘objective’ stance free of the weight culture.  In other words, the allure of imitating prevalent practices is an example of the damaging effects of culture to the progress of Islam.  In an impassioned conversation about the state of Islam in Pakistan, Aaliya further targeted her frustrations towards “poor” people:

If you go to any poor person…they don’t know [Islam] but they are the ones who are brought out on the streets to do this or that in the name of Islam.  They are sheep and goats.  They don’t know anything. They are ignorant.  They are illiterate.  They don’t know what they are saying, what they are eating, what they are doing.  They don’t know the meaning of anything let alone Islam.

While Aaliya’s comments are particularly scathing in their characterization of the “poor” and do not reflect the way most women in Al-Huda articulated their concerns, several other women did echo Aaliya’s sentiments in their use of various descriptors such as “mindless”, “mob mentality”, “ritualistic”, and “ignorant”, when referring to the religious practices of this vaguely defined class of others, a class that, interestingly, for these women also often overlapped with being economically poor.  The Islamic customs and traditions of the “poor people” were reduced to an animalistic and undiscerning “imitation” of arbitrary practices that did not follow any legitimized form of rationality — and certainly not an Islamic one — hence the currency of the term “imitation ummat” (ummat refers to a community of Muslims, often in terms of a global scale).

Many of the women reduced and dismissed the practices of the majority of the Pakistani population by referring to textual sources.  They categorized prevalent religious practices using the Islamic concepts of biddat and shirk.  Biddat refers to practices that are ‘innovations’ and are not true to the Qur’an and sunnah, and shirk refers to equating someone or something with Allah (and therefore challenging the oneness of god).  Innovation, in their lexicon does not refer to reformations that contribute to the progress of Islam; rather it refers to prevalent customs and traditions that are clothed in the guise of Islam and hold back the progress of Islam. Consequently, categorizing something as biddat is part of a project to expel certain practices that they say are mired by “cultural baggage”. They view these practices as detrimental to the movement toward an “authentic” Islam that the AHI women argue, emerges out of their text-centric — and therefore rational —discourse of piety.

The diasporic dimension of Al-Huda has been instrumental in further sharpening this notion of cultural baggage.  For example, Razia, a woman I interviewed in Mississauga responded to my upcoming fieldwork trip to Pakistan by saying,“If you want to know about Islam you should speak to women here [in Mississauga].”  Her explanation for this was that, “In Pakistan, we are living in the past because we are too close to the past. It is right there next to us in India so it is not easy to let it go and move on to Islam.”  Razia collapses both time and space—India (read Hindu) is both a geographic neighbor and a specter reflecting the past of what Pakistan once was—to develop a narrative in which the Pakistani nation is being held back from realizing its true, essential identity: Islam.  This temporal imaginary then simultaneously thinks of Islam as the foundation and the future of Pakistan. Consequently, it sets in motion a sense of national duty that, as Pakistani Muslims, there is a need to actively progress toward Islam and, more significantly, away from India. Therefore, Razia asserts that it is in the diaspora where one can find an opportunity to practice and develop piety properly, a chance that is not possible within Pakistan because of its proximity to India and the related presence of biddat and shirk. In many ways, this transnational dimension is instrumental to how women in Al-Huda legitimate their practices of piety. Note, for instance, the deliberate choice to add the suffix “international” in naming the organization “Al-Huda International” in order to signal their cosmopolitan and global outlook and the legitimacy of neutrality this affords.

Good (literate) Muslims

For members of Al-Huda, the distinction between text-centric and non-text-centric approaches to Islam, is central to the identification and rejection of biddat and shirk.  That is, the AHI women denounce practices not authorized by holy texts as being without “rhyme or reason”, as one woman stated. The valorization of the written text, and mastering it, is key. It affirms their existing identities as educated women. Rabia told me, “I thought to myself, I am an educated woman, and I have been blessed — my brain and memory power is a lot — so why not read the Qur’an and understand it?”

Many women also pointed out that the common practice of treating the Qur’an as a revered holy object, rather than as an accessible manual to structure one’s everyday life, is flawed and unproductive.  Describing a practice common at a Sufi shrine, a graduate of AHI, Romana said:

“In Pir Pagaro’s castle, there are many rooms and in one of the rooms there is a swing, and people put the Qur’an on the swing.  Whoever rocks the swing, his heart’s wishes will be granted—this is the absurd concept that people have. You could put any book on there and rock it.  Rocking the Qur’an doesn’t do anything.  Reading the Qur’an is what does it.  So instead of rocking it there, take it home, open it and read it.”

Similarly, several women critiqued what they called the culture of Qur’an-on-the-shelf. As one woman, Zainab said:

In my family, Islam was on a shelf.  It was like this – in Ramzan we would go and take the book off the shelf and read it speedily and then on the 27th of Ramzan we would finish it and then after that we would forget that we are Muslims and put [the Qur’an] back on the shelf.

Another observed:

People just wrap up the Qur’an and make really pretty covers for it and put it on a shelf and on someone’s death or a wedding they bring it out and put it on their heads or recite prayers but they don’t realize that your entire life and how you are supposed to live it is in there. 

These characterizations of common Islamic practices as absurd and irrational pivot on the conviction that a rational approach to the Qur’an requires one to read it.  The slippage between rationality and reading is one that marginalizes the illiterate from the category of a good Muslim.  The significance of this disenfranchisement, both literal and figurative, is clear when considering it within the context of Pakistan and its ideology of a Muslim nation. Thus, while in many ways Al-Huda represents an egalitarian moment in Islamic discourse in Pakistan in that the organization advocates access to piety for all and aims to dismantle the monopoly over religious knowledge by the male ulema, its discourses still construct a hierarchy that marginalizes and demonizes many popular Islamic practices where direct access to Qur’anic text is immaterial.  The conflation of literacy and piety is also particularly acute in the context of global discourses about the “war on terror.” To put it bluntly: a good Muslim is a literate Muslim is a relatively well-off Muslim. The conflation of class and piety writes marginalized populations and poorer Muslims as a threat to both Islam and the globe.

Developmentalist da’wah

Give me a good woman and I will give you a good nation” -Beenish

“Give me good mothers and I’ll give you good societies”-Ghazala

“Good nations are born in a mothers lap”-Romana

ALI_Drinking tea

Related: The Politics of Liberal Guilt | Noaman G. Ali (Photo: Asadullah Tahir)

The recurring construction of the good woman and good nation in the quotations above is emblematic of how women in AHI perceive their role in their communities.  This is what I call “developmentalist da’wah”.  Da’wah is the Islamic duty to call, invite or summon others to Islam or to improve their practice of Islam.  In Al-Huda it takes on the form of a gendered duty couched in the language of benevolence and rationality and tied to the progress of piety and nation. For example, take the class held at one of the smaller centers in Karachi’s affluent Defense Housing Authority area for domestic workers colloquially called the “maasi class.”  It is a special class designed for domestic workers employed at the homes of some of the students and teachers.  Imagining a woman-to-woman “trickle down effect” from the educated upper classes, women affiliated with the center drop off their domestic workers for 3 hours a week to learn literacy skills, Islamic knowledge, and more importantly to unlearn their existing practices of Islam. Some of the domestic workers I spoke with at the class described their existing practices of Islam as reciting verses received through the oral traditions of their families and communities and going to the shrines of Sufi saints on special occasions – practices that would be categorized as biddat and shirk in AHI.  In many ways, these domestic workers represented the “imitation ummat” – the irrational, undiscerning, ignorant masses – and their existing Islamic practices were undermined and delegitimized with impunity.  For instance, as part of their lesson, these workers were told in no uncertain terms that the prayers they traditionally recited were tantamount to a sin, and that their prayers were not “heartfelt” because they did not know the meaning of the Arabic verses they recited.  AHI women assumed that the affective or emotional possibilities of the workers’ practices of piety were truncated because of their lack of literacy.  In other words, even affect is mediated through rationality. These gendered development activities—what AHI women call “charity work”—thus act as a disciplining mechanism to shift the working class women from “custom” (read: Indian/Hindu) to text-centric forms of piety.

While this liberal divide between the upper/literate and lower/illiterate classes is not exclusive to AHI’s charity work, it is germane to how they imagine their role in the formation of a pious society.  The premise that in order to reject (Hindu) customs and become a pious (rational) Muslim, one must read and understand holy texts situates the literate classes as the harbingers of Islam. The developmentalist project of reproducing others in the image of themselves in turn enhances and sustains hierarchical social relations that continuously re-center the upper literate classes as the rational and therefore ideal type of Muslim. Liberalism thus lies at the heart of Al-Huda’s literalist praxis.

Nadia Z. Hasan is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Political Science at York University and an associate of the South Asia Research Group at the York Centre for Asian Research.  Her dissertation explores the imbrications of nationalism, liberalism and Islam through an analysis of women’s piety groups in Pakistan and Canada.


For further reading:

Ahmad, Sadaf. 2010. Transforming Faith: The Story of Al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism Among Urban Pakistani Women. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press

Bose, Sugata and Ayesha Jalal. 1998. Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy. London: Routledge

Mahmood, Saba. 2006. “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation.” In: Public Culture. 18(2).

Mehta, Uday Singh. 1999. Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press [/schedule]

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30 Responses to The Allure of Al-Huda: Reconciling Liberalism and Literalist Islam

  1. […] Hazara sit-ins, and Katja Mielke presents her long study of katchi abadi protests. Nadia Hasan researches another kind of movement: the turn towards forms of piety organizations like Al-Huda, by bourgeois […]

  2. TQ Chāt | # 21 | Tanqeed on Oct 2014 at 5:50 PM

    […] The allure of Al Huda: Reconciling liberalism and literalist Islam. […]

  3. Razan on Oct 2014 at 9:31 PM

    I don’t quite understand your undertone of dislike for al-Huda’s dislike of ‘clinging to custom’. Some customs are often very harmful towards women, or even antithetical to what the Quran says about itself – are we meant to put up with them in the name of tradition? Sufi practices have their beauties and advantages, but quite often their harms and superstitions. I have seen many of these conservative women get other girls education, respect, and their marital rights through letting them access the Quran – instead of their societies’ insistence on keeping them at home, pregnant, uneducated, and very vulnerable to abuse. Are we meant to venerate tradition merely for the fact that it is tradition??

  4. Tehmina on Feb 2015 at 9:25 PM

    Sorry. This is the sorriest bunch of absolute and utter cr-p that I have read about al huda. I have seen Al Huda turn usually sensible, mild women into aggressive control freaks, proselytizing aggressively (a big problem in Pakistan) about what is haram or not, what is biddat etc etc…. They are the most bigoted bunch of women. Perhaps the author could usefully explore how women who don’t have much agency and voice, all of a sudden, find this agency by asserting to others ” Islam says xyz and u can’t challenge me because I am only doing what my religion says, and btw, now I am going to tell YOU what to do as well”. moreover they have an acute focus on women’s modesty, on women as good mothers and wives, and ignore that economic and educational emancipation for women is a crucial determinant worldwide in determining health, income of their children…

  5. Ali Renton on Jul 2015 at 4:31 PM

    Tehmina, the author’s just practicing writing an anthropology article, that’s how I see it. She’s repeating the kinds of arguments used in some of the sources she lists. Ignoring obvious facts like the ones you bring up in your comment, and doing a roundabout, circuitous argument via European philosophy to valorize their subjects — that’s pretty much a standard method for stuff like this, including the above article. Of course, such authors don’t actually live the lifestyles of the women they discuss, they tend to live like anyone else on the educated left. But they do use those women’s lives as a template to make arguments that further their careers in academia. So what I’m saying, Tehmina, is that it’s not actually about being accurate (or even honest), unfortunately.

  6. sara on Jul 2016 at 12:24 PM

    this is good

    • Mohammad Aamer on Aug 2016 at 5:31 AM

      Religion is not man made rather it is inherited, and same true in Islam. If some thing is good then it must shows its inheritance, and its connection to the only source of Islam “The Muhammad SAW and Shahbah RA”. If we drop the said source we have no proof of the truthfulness of Islam. Beware of the new and non_linking sources of this age of Fitna.

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