Dr. Riffat Hassan is a scholar of human rights in Islam and is Professor of Religious Studies and Humanities at the University of Louisville, Kentucky (USA). She's also "a champion of progressive Islamic thought; she has been engaged in research on the roles and rights of women in Islam for over 25 years. Dr. Hassan was a speaker at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994 and at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in China" (according to newsline.com, the full link of which is given below).
And, of course, who could forget that she's the author of Equal before Allah?: Woman-man Equality in the Islamic Tradition.
I smiled when I read on Wikipedia that Riffat Hassan was one of the first to accept "the Islamic feminist label."
(Notice: Expect many, many more blog posts similar to this one in the future; I'll be dedicating random posts every now and then to the progressive thinkers whom I've been looking into for a research that started last year and will be ending in late April. I will also be listing my reviews/thoughts/summaries of most of the books and articles I've read on contemporary progressive Islam and influential progressive Muslims who are important icons in Islamic Studies. No worries -- I'll define the term "progressive" when I post those blogs, ka khairee.)
k, so, I think this interview with her is very well worth reading. With each answer of hers that I read, I felt like a HUGE rock had been lifted off my back. For instance, her views on the highly patriarchal (if not also misogynistic) Maududi, on ijtihad, on scholarship in Islam, on women who veil and/or wear the hijab, ... oh, that's pretty much all of it in this interview.
The interviewer says to her:
"Today the hijab is a hotly contested topic around the world. You have stated on numerous occasions that "Wearing hijab today is a sign of submission to Saudi Arabia." Don't you believe in a woman's right to veil, based on her understanding of the Quran?"
And Dr. Hassan answers:
"Did I say that? First of all, this issue needs to be studied in an objective scientific way. The practice of veiling comes before Islam. Orthodox Jewish women, to this day, wear the veil. Specifically in the context of the Quran, this issue needs to be understood historically. My unhappiness lies in the fact that the young women wearing the veil have not done research on the subject. If they did and still wore it, I would respect their right to wear it. But given the nature of the Arabic language and the general openness and universality of the Quran, I believe that the Quran offers us many options with regard to the dress code. The principles of the Quran are justice and compassion. It does not focus on outward dress. Those verses were revealed in a particular context and time. The underlying principle is modesty. The word used in the Quran is jilbab. But it is not the case that everybody in the world should wear the jilbab. If the Quran was revealed, say, to the Americans, it would have referred to American dress. What is mandatory is modesty. At the time, the jilbab enabled women to go out. It was not restrictive."
(I love how she starts off with "Did I say that?" Goes to show how anything we say can not only be misunderstood but exaggerated to such an extent that it becomes a lie. I note this happening on my own blog quite often as well, and for some reason I refuse to ponder, I am NEVER surprised.)
Anyhow, I love her response. I, too, have always believed that MOST women who wear the hijab/niqab have never actually researched the topic at all.
I'm not going in order of the questions at all, but take a look at this one. The interviewer asks:
"You state that the Quran has been interpreted over the past centuries in a very misogynistic and patriarchal context. Is your position that all the great Arabic scholars have deliberately misinterpreted the Quran?"
Hassan's answer: "You have to differentiate between the scholars."
Interviewer: "Maulana Maudoodi, for example."
Hassan: "Yes. He was very patriarchal in his thinking. We now know that the vast majority of the hadith were not authentic in the sense that they referred to Arab culture rather than what the Prophet (p.bu.h) said. Hadith became the lens through which the Quran was seen. The discipline of Tafsir, or the interpretation of the Quran, was developed afterwards. The difference between original texts and tradition has been merged. Iqbal tried to separate this."
As far as ijtihad is concerned, the interviewer asks:
"Who is capable of undertaking ijtihad today?"
Riffat Hassan: "If scholars could come together, we can do a lot better. I think there is a lot of capability. This is why we need an institution. And this is my mission."
We really have forgotten that we have the option of ijtihad available to us, and we CAN figure out HOW to apply the concept of it and WHEN (i.e., in which contexts) if our current "scholars" could actually start communicating with each other and holding dialogues instead of labeling each other as heretic or blasphemous or whatever.
The beginning of the interview may also be of interest to some of us; I found only the last part relevant to recent discussions held on my blog and chose to post it here.
P.S. On the idea of interpretations and my thoughts on which interpretations should be accepted and which ones rejected, you may check out my post called "A Note on Interpretations and Scholarship (among Muslims)."