Written by Zunara Naeem, Muslim Link Staff Writer
THURSDAY, 19 AUGUST 2010
Area Muslim women responded to recent allegations that a famous female Islamic lecturer was promoting extremism, calling the media reports baseless.
Dr. Farhat Hashmi’s Al-Huda International Welfare Foundation, an Islamic, educational institute that gives to the needy and also provides Islamic learning to women of all ages around the world through online lectures, was accused of promoting an “orthodoxy” that “echoes the Taliban’s vision for Pakistan” in an April 5, 2010 National Public Radio (NPR) segment.
“I don’t see how those allegations could fit”, said Samiyah Mustafa from Rockville, 18, in an interview with the Muslim Link. She took an Al-Huda International Foundation course in January 2009 and finished it one month ago.
The Muslim Link found similar responses from women taking Al-Huda’s summer courses in Pakistan, evening courses (for working women), and online courses. Many of the school’s ‘students’ are under-the-radar, as they listen to Dr. Hashmi’s tapes and cassettes. “Dr. Hashmi? My mother listens to her lectures like a drug!” says one teenage Muslimah in Montgomery. The sister is a second-generation Indian-Muslim, and her mother has been living in the United States since her high school years.
Al-Huda’s students have grown into a vast network of millions of women worldwide, often organized into local groups that meet at houses. The classes—taught both in Urdu and English– started in Dr. Farhat Hashmi’s own house, when the sister with a PhD in Hadith Sciences from the University in Glasgow begun to teach Islam full-time in 1994. She relocated to Canada after demand for her classes grew in the country.
The “sorority of Al-Huda”, as one sister in Saudi Arabia puts it, were dismayed to hear the institute being accused of breeding terrorism.
“I think it’s a baseless allegation as are most of the allegations we keep hearing and reading about,” opined Um-e-Abdullah, a Pakistani sister who did her Diploma Course in Islamic Education from Al-Huda. “As a student of Al-Huda I don’t know which of the teachings could be interpreted without considerable use of one’s imagination.”
Even so, Al-Huda’s teachings are repeatedly being used in the media in connection to extremism, in recent controversial coverage by major news sources such as NPR, Globe, Newsline, and Dawn. They cite growth in the selling and wearing of ‘abayahs in Pakistan after the school’s establishment as an example of Al-Huda’s “talibinisation” of women.
Most alarming to Al-Huda’s critics is the growing influence of the education movement on an international scale. Nadeem Paracha, a columnist for Dawn newspaper, says, “if the Taliban are playing a destructive role in a political matter, then these preachers are playing a very destructive role in a culturally and social manner.” Mr. Paracha did not elaborate on the means of which the institute or Dr. Hashmi are playing out their “very destructive role.”
In contrast to Mr. Paracha’s statements, however, are the values Al-Huda’s students have come away with:
“Humility, peace, and submission to Allah,” says Sadaf Farooqi, a visiting faculty member of the institute in Pakistan and graduate of the school’s basic and advanced Taleem Al-Wuran courses.
“When each one of us strengthened our own hearts through Allah’s message,” said Mahvash Choudhury of Rockville, who took the Ta’leemul Qur’an course 10 years ago at Al-Huda in Islamabad, “we would become better people and we would be living what our deen advocates: a life of peace and comfort and a life of sacrifice and happiness and all of that together into a life of harmony.
“In every story and every ayat she’d [Dr. Hashmi] ask us a question to ask ourselves: What is Allah saying to me? What is in here for me?” continued Sr. Mahvash. “…The Qur’an is a compilation of lessons for us to gain from, and in every lesson we have to ask ‘Where do I fall, what changes do I have to make within myself?’ ”
For Sr. Sadaf, she was inspired to not only cover up after graduating from the course, but to drop her previous, mostly secular lifestyle to “completely reverting to Islam, embracing the mustahabat (highly recommended actions) as well.” She faced opposition from her extended family about separating from the norm by studying the Qur’an instead of taking up a job after college. She is now a writer for Muslimmatters.org, SISTERS magazine, Hiba magazine, and the Saudi gazette.
Sr. Samiyah realized the importance of salah “in times of Struggle.” Before the course she took online, she described herself as “the type of person to think ‘that’s not going to make a difference. Pray two rak’ahs? Come on’. But now if I’m having an off day, I’ll pray salah, because I know Allah is the only one who can change it for me.”
Some women on antidepressants “found a cure for their illness through this course,” said Um-e-Abdullah.
The students appreciate this focus on a person’s ‘inner being’ because it allows both purification and
accessibility for anyone looking into Al-Huda. “An… aspect that attracts women ….are the teachers,” says Sr. Sadaf, “who [are] polite, non-judgmental, speak English well, relate to modern-day issues, and look past a student wearing e.g. sleeveless or skinny jeans, to see the person within — the person who wants to connect to Allah and achieve success in the Hereafter.”
“My vision is that the Quran reaches everyone, because it is Allah’s message to humanity,” says Dr. Hashmi in a recent interview. She began teaching Arabic and Islamic Studies to women at the International Islamic University Islamabad after getting a Masters in Arabic from Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan, and her PhD.
Yet her degrees don’t qualify her as an authority on Islam to some of Pakistan’s ulema who have passed fatwas against the daughter of the late scholar, Abdur Rehman Hashmi. They criticize her “feminist” approach and say she has “liberalized” Islam, despite Dr. Hashmi having been guided in her study abroad by the late contemporary muhaddith (scholar specializing in ahadith), Sheikh al-Albani, rahimullah.
In return, Dr. Hashmi refuses to “take dictation from the ulema and teach their version of Islam,” criticizing their “rigid” stances on Qur’anic interpretations as being based on “whatever a scholar said a thousand years ago being the final word…[that interpretation] was made in a different historical era and environment. Today [it] cannot apply,” she says, as she believes, “there is a capacity within Islam to grow with changing times.”
She is for “interpretation on all issues,” including today’s human rights’ issues concerning women, though reinterpretation must be “within the parameters of the Quran.” Dr. Hashmi does not believe a proper authority yet exists, however, for this type of mass ijtihad (an individual, interpretive form of deriving Islamic laws).
Dr. Hashmi has not offered any different stances on any traditionally obligatory norms of a Muslim woman’s role in society, but she pushes for women to get an education: “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?”
While teaching at the university in Islamabad, Dr. Farhat gave halaqahs (religious study circles) to women, from–according to one essayist–of “all walks of life.” She received notable attention, however, from her sessions with Pakistan’s upper elite, one session including Mrs. Farooq Leghari, Pakistan’s First Lady in 1999.
Many criticize her focus on teaching the rich, however. In an article by Canadian-run Maclean’s, the conservative and widely-read magazine highlighted Dr. Hashmi’s amassed earnings from her “rich man’s preacher” job. Dr. Hashmi, mother of four, said in an interview with Newsline’s Samina Ibrahim, felt it “would make more sense” for her to begin teaching with the “urban and academic” like herself, believing that starting with the “under-privileged” would have kept her message “restricted only to them; they would not have been able to influence other sections of society.”
Macleans also published mention of Dr. Hashmi’s uttering that the 2008 October 8 earthquake in Pakistan—with 80,000 dead– was a punishment from God, due to the mostly poor region’s immorality. This comment was allegedly caught on tape during one of Dr. Hashmi’s lectures by the Globe’s Sharmeen Obaid-Chenoy, on an ‘undercover documentary’ that the Muslim Link could not find on the Web, and, despite repeated calls and emails, has yet to receive a response on from Ms. Obaid-Chenoy, or Al-Huda International.
The school does “donate and provide funds to those who need it,” says Umm Maryam. Indeed, the “dues of others”—words an online student from Northern VA— is something the school (a Welfare Foundation) emphasizes, since services like “natural calamities relief and disaster management, digging wells in drought-stricken areas of Pakistan, [and] stipends and food provision to widows and orphans,” are a part of the school’s social welfare program stated on its website, alhudapk.com.
Al-Huda provides financial aid for those who can’t afford it, while some of Al-Huda’s students bear their classmates tuition in the spirit of “sadaqa jariyah”, says Sr. Samiyah.
According to Faiza Mushtaq–she is writing her thesis on the Al-Huda movement– the school receives most of its revenue through donations and its sale of merchandise.
Sr. Mahvash Choudhury believes the school’s funding “come[s] from Allah. They teach within their means, so most of her [Dr. Hashmi] efforts are towards the Qur’an and not fundraising. So that for me is a strong indication of truth.”
“Al-Huda is just a place that’s finally offering the people what they need,” says Sr. Samiyah. “The Qur’an is there for everyone but not everyone understands it. They took the first place to understand it themselves and now they’re teaching it, and… I think they’re so sincere in their efforts, [so] alhamdullilah, alhamdullilah, I think that’s why Allah is letting them survive still, despite so much opposition for Dr. Farhat.”
To Dr. Hashmi, a labeled feminist, Al-Huda is “a kind of women’s empowerment program. And…knowledge is the best way to empower women, especially spiritual knowledge.”