Elevate Difference

Transforming Faith: The Story of Al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism Among Urban Pakistani Women

In Transforming Faith, Sadaf Ahmad explores the role of Al-Huda, a women’s Islamic religious school, in promoting the spread of a particular kind of Islam, especially among educated middle- and upper-class women in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Ahmad sets the scene by situating her topic in an historical and global context. She provides a broad overview of the various branches of Islam, and she tells the history of Pakistan’s self-conception as an Islamic state. She describes how Pakistani leaders have drawn discursively on certain flavors of Islam in order to consolidate political power, and how those choices laid the foundation for today’s increasingly conservative politico-religious milieu in Pakistan. Ahmad also links these developments to contemporary global pressures, including the hegemonic and military threats to Pakistan that accompany the skyrocketing Islamophobia in the West.

Against this backdrop, Ahmad explores the growing movement of Islamic women’s religious education, which takes place through small dars, classes for neighborhood women about technical and practical dimensions of Islam that are usually run out of one woman’s home, and through the larger, more institutional Al-Huda network. Its official branches and smaller, less formal dars are run by Al-Huda graduates.

Drawing on a body of carefully selected theory, Ahmad sensitively situates her description of the Al-Huda movement (which in many ways promotes a rigid, patriarchal form of Islam) in its political and cultural context. She notes that women are often positioned by the modern state as the “keepers of tradition,” and that women (especially Muslim women under the Western gaze) are perceived to be helpless victims of patriarchal and state pressure. While she does not hesitate to identify Al-Huda’s flavor of Islam as reactionary, she is also careful to tease out the complex reasons that women seek out Al-Huda and find its teachings transformative and personally meaningful.

On the whole, I found the book extremely nuanced and insightful; however, I did feel that one key element was missing. I found it strange that Ahmad does not discuss the communal feminist aspects of Al-Huda and the dars. Large numbers of women are organizing themselves and each other to obtain highly technical religious knowledge without the mediation of male teachers. In fact, Al-Huda promotes Arabic literacy to enable women to develop a direct relationship with the sacred text of the Qu’ran. It seems that this growing expertise might enable women to take more of a role in defining what it means to be a devout Muslim (and a devout Muslim woman in particular), which could have far-reaching implications. The lack of discussion of this question is puzzling.

Ultimately Transforming Faith is an exploration of the role of pedagogy in producing social and cultural change. How do teachers (in whatever sense of the word) identify and recruit a body of students? In a given sociopolitical context, how do teachers discursively situate their chosen body of knowledge (or, as Foucault would say, technologies of the self) against the backdrop of their students’ lives? What makes it possible to convince students to use those technologies of the self to discipline themselves into “ethical/pious subjects” (as Ahmad writes, drawing on Foucault and Mahmood)? In what way does the state co-opt those particular “ethical/pious subjects” for its own ends? In what ways do “ethical/pious subjects” develop a particular vantage point for resistance?

With its complementary combination of critical history, theory, and ethnography, Transforming Faith is an excellent—and thoroughly readable—case study for examining these questions.

Written by: Ri J. Turner, April 6th 2010