Women in the sphere of Islamic learning

March 21, 2021

Usha Sanyal presents her research on contemporary female scholars of Islam in her new book

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Books about Islamic scholarship are published decade after decade. Those written about women Muslim scholars of Islam are rarer. This is especially true of books about contemporary female scholars of Islam. This is the small niche where the book Scholars of Faith – South Asian Muslim Women and the Embodiment of Religious Knowledge finds itself. Bound in hardcover, the book is spread over some 400 plus pages. The book’s first edition was published by the Oxford University Press in India in October 2020. The author, Usha Sanyal, is an independent scholar and academic based in the USA, whose prior research has focused on the history of the Barelvi or Ahle Sunnat Wa Jamaat movement in British India.

In the book in question, the author focused on the emergence of Muslim girls and women in the sphere of Islamic learning. The trend of acquiring in-depth Islamic education – using both a traditionalist and classical methodology and a contemporary, modern approach – has increased among South Asian women particularly since the latter part of the 20th Century, whether these are women living in the urban or peri-urban areas of their own countries or are part of the Diaspora now settled in the West.

Scholars of Faith is relevant to the Pakistani readership for more than one reason. To begin with, the book is based on an ethnographic study of two institutions of Islamic learning for women. One of those is the Jami’a Nur seminary in Shahjahanpur, India, and the other Al-Huda International Welfare Foundation, an Islamic educational institute and not-for-profit non-governmental organisation known mainly for imparting Islamic education and supporting the underprivileged. Al-Huda has been founded by Dr Farhat Hashmi. The institute’s students and beneficiaries are today spread across continents. From what started as small gatherings of female students, it now has branches spread not just across Pakistan, but also in other countries. Its second largest hub is at Mississauga, Canada.

Sanyal says that she had not heard of Al-Huda till 2009 when she presented a paper at a conference, and someone in the audience mentioned it. She later looked it up online. “I then decided to sign up for the Taleem-ul-Quran course that was being offered later that year as a part-time student, taking classes twice a week. For me, it was a way of studying the Quran, which I had not done before and wanted very much to do.” Her second reason was to do research about these classes, especially the ones online. “I made it known to my instructors and those in authority that I am a non-Muslim and wanted to do this for research purposes. They gave me permission to stay in the class, and thus I continued until the course was over some three and a half years later,” adds Sanyal.

The common lens through which the status of women in Islam is seen often perpetuates the narrative that Islamic laws tend to restrict the mobility, growth and empowerment of women. The book holds that the relationship that today’s South Asian women have with Islam and Islamic education lends them new perspectives, and their application of this knowledge to their practical lives and social status is different from Muslim women of preceding generations.

Early on in the book, Sanyal puts forth the question: “Why are South Asian Muslim girls and women seeking opportunities to acquire religious learning today, and what do they wish to accomplish with their newfound knowledge? What is the impact of women’s greater access to education in South Asia; what societal changes does this exemplify and portend?” This is the premise of the book, and the pages that follow attempt to answer these questions.

The two institutions she has chosen for her research are not just on the opposite sides of the Pakistan-India border, they are also poles apart. In terms of worldviews, global context, and Islamic perspectives, the two institutes do not find themselves on the same page as the author mentions on Page 37 under the heading The Shared Moral Universe of the Barelvis and Al-Huda: Iman, Ahkam, Adab and Da’wa. Yet, in the following paragraphs, the author discusses the shared ethos of the two on core Islamic principles and ideals.

The book offers insights into the curricula offered to students at the two institutes. It includes personal accounts of and quotes from students. On Page 252, for example, she mentions how the word-for-word translation of the Quran is taught at Al-Huda with “…constant reference to the students’ own day-to-day lives…”.

Sanyal has touched upon difficult and layered subjects like the common impressions about Al-Huda, and her actual observations about how and what of the teaching there. She looks closely at both on-site and online classes of the institute (Chapter 8). She dedicates an entire chapter (Chapter 7) to Al-Huda’s intellectual foundations, discussing everything from the scholarship of Dr Farhat Hashmi and her husband Dr Idrees Zubair, to Al-Huda’s approach to science and everyday life. “The Quranic material is seamlessly integrated with modern science, technology, and the everyday realities of the students” states the book on Page 289.

Commenting on Dr Farhat Hashmi’s style and methodology of teaching, the author states on Page 304 that “… Farhat Hashmi brings in an array of topics including history, psychology, science, religious and social etiquette, and advice on time management and interpersonal skills, among others, peppering her lecture throughout with Quranic and Hadith references in fluent Arabic. The style is erudite but personal, making constant connections between the verses being studied and the lives of the students before her”. While looking at Al-Huda and Farhat Hashmi from a purely research-based lens, and also adding references of earlier academic studies that were often critical of Al-Huda, the author juxtaposes these in the book with positive comments. An Al-Huda teacher is quoted on Page 315 as saying that what she most admired in Farhat Hashmi was that “… whatever she preached to her students, whatever ideals she asked them to live by, she herself followed them even more faithfully than she asked them to. Whatever she was ‘on the outside’, she was also ‘on the inside’.”

In the course of Chapter 8, the author looks deeply at Al-Huda’s institute in Canada, and praises Dr Farhat Hashmi’s daughter and teacher of Quranic translation and exegesis (tafsir), Taimiyyah Zubair. “Taimiyyah is a very knowledgeable, hard-working, and highly dedicated teacher of word-for-word translation of the Quran from Arabic into English, and an avid student of tafsir” states the author on Page 325.

According to Sanyal, women Muslim scholars of Islam can and do bring a vital perspective to bear on the study of Islam. “The study of Islam at a deep level has for centuries been the privilege of Muslim men, but that is beginning to change, with important new voices, like Al-Huda, for example,” she adds.

Scholars of Faith: South Asian Muslim Women and the Embodiment of Religious Knowledge

Author: Usha Sanyal

Publisher: Oxford University Press, India (2020)

Pages: 409 (Hardcover)

Price: $65

The writer is a freelance journalist and editor with a focus on human rights, education, health, and literature. She also works as a communications practitioner and media trainer.

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