Islam and human rights

Dr. Riffat Hasan

Courtesy to “Dawn”

In Pakistan any discourse on Islam and human rights is dominated by two highly visible groups -- one sees itself as the custodian of Islam while the other sees human rights as having nothing to do with religion. A majority of Pakistanis, however, subscribe to neither mindset; yet there is no platform for them to air their views. Dr Riffat Hassan concludes her analysis by focussing on two women who represent those opposing mindsets: Dr Farhat Hashmi and Asma Jahangir.
In my view, given the patriarchalism of Pakistani society, the presence of a Muslim woman who can teach or preach Islam should be seen as a positive event. Further, the fact that Dr Farhat Hashmi wants to educate other Muslim women about Islam should also be seen as a worthy objective. This has also been my objective for many years, and I am very glad to see that after centuries of being excluded from religious education and discourse, an increasing number of women in Pakistan are now engaging in the study of Islam. To the extent that Dr Farhat Hashmi is instrumental in this, she deserves to be commended. Nothing is worse than ignorance, which the Qur'an likens to the state of being blind; and the seeking of knowledge is a primary mandate for all Muslims.

However, while I applaud the effort of Dr Hashmi and any other Muslim woman who aspires to be a scholar of Islam, I have serious reservations with regards to Dr Hashmi's approach to the teaching (or preaching) of Islam, and the message that she is communicating. In this context I would like to make the following observations, which highlight the major points she makes in her public statements as well as the salient differences between my approach and perspective and hers.

Dr Hashmi appears to be making the claim that what she is communicating in her dars (teaching) is what God has revealed in the Qur'an. In her interview with Samina Ibrahim in Newsline (February 2001), she said, "All I am doing is spreading the message of the Qur'an. If somebody objects to that, then their fight is not with me, but with God." What Dr Hashmi is presenting to her listeners is what she understands to be the meaning of a particular Qur'anic text, just as I have, for many years, been presenting to diverse audiences what I understand to be the meaning or intent of particular Qur'anic passages. However, neither she nor I, nor anyone else except the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) is the recipient of God's revelation (wahy) and the possessor of prophetic wisdom (hikmat). All of us who seek to understand the Word of God are fallible and limited human beings whose interpretation of the divine text cannot be regarded as final and definitive, having the seal of approval from God. Therefore, saying that any objection to Dr Hashmi's representation of what is in the Qur'an is tantamount to "a fight with God" is indefensible both from a religious and a methodological viewpoint.

In the same interview, Dr Hashmi says, "I am not prepared to take dictation from the ulema and teach their version of Islam."This means that she is aware of the fact that there is more than a single version of Islam. Dr Hashmi also objects to "too much rigidity" in matters of religious interpretation in Pakistan, where the prevailing attitude is summarized by Dr Hashmi as follows: "Whatever a scholar said a thousand years ago is the final word. One cannot change or bring a different interpretation to the Qur'an. This has hurt and damaged the Muslims, because there is capacity within Islam to grow with changing times. But in Pakistan the way we approach Islam is very rigid. In academics one does not take the word of only one scholar alone, one learns from as many sources as possible." If this is the case then why should Dr Hashmi regard any objection to her version of Islam to be tantamount to "a fight with God" or heresy?

In my work over the last 28 years I have shown how a number of Qur'anic passages that are commonly cited to discriminate against women can be interpreted differently and can, in my judgment, be used to strengthen rather than weaken women's position in a Muslim society. However, I have not demanded nor expected that my interpretations be regarded as definitive and final. Human knowledge is always tentative, and the more I study the Qur'an the more aware I become of the complexity of its multi-layered text whose total meaning is known only to its author. Furthermore, given the nature of the Semitic language in which the Qur'anic text is written -- Arabic -- it is virtually impossible to say that a particular concept or term can only mean one thing.

In Arabic the meaning of a word derives from its "roots", and generally "root-words" have multiple meanings. For example, the root-word daraba which has been commonly translated as "to beat" by interpreters of Surah 4: An-Nisa' 34 (who have used this verse to assert that men have been permitted by God to beat women if they are guilty of nushaz which is commonly translated as "disobedience") has a large number of meanings, as may be seen from Taj al-Arus, the authoritative classical lexicon of the Arabic language. (My interpretation of this passage, which has been regarded by many as the definitive text with regards to the husband-wife relationship in Islam, is contained in a number of my published writings. In my exegesis I have shown that on the basis of sound linguistic, philosophical, and ethical hermeneutical criteria it is possible to arrive at a radically different understanding of this text.)

Many people who have talked to me about Dr Hashmi (including Samina Ibrahim who interviewed both her and me for Newsline) tell me that they are confused by many things that Dr Hashmi says. For instance, she criticizes male ulema who do not accept her as a scholar and faults them for being "too rigid" and not being open to new interpretations. She says that she has been told that "I have a feminist approach" and that "I have liberalized Islam". It is clear from Dr Hashmi's words and tone that she considers being called a "feminist" or "liberal" a compliment -- perhaps because this helps her to distinguish herself from the male ulema who have rejected her authority as a teacher or preacher of Islam and to vindicate her as a woman alim.

However, if one examines the content of Dr Hashmi's message she can be called neither a "feminist" nor a "liberal". She may perhaps, in some ways, be to the left of the most conservative ulema in Pakistan in that she speaks with a softer voice and supports the idea of women studying Islam, but her ideological stance is still very markedly right-wing (reminiscent in some ways of Mr Bush's "compassionate conservatism") and uncompromisingly committed to upholding a patriarchal system and segregated sex-roles.

When asked by Newsline if she felt there was "need for reinterpretation of Islamic thought in today's context, particularly human rights issues concerning women", Dr Hashmi stated: "I feel that there is need for interpretation on all issues. But this should be done by a group of people who understand today's problems and a group of people who understand religion, so that solutions that are there for modern issues can be applied. An interpretation for a problem made a thousand years ago was made in a different historical era and environment. It has to be reinterpreted within the parameters of the Qur'an."

What Dr Hashmi is stating here appears to be a reformulation of the modernist position represented, for instance, by the late Professor Fazlur Rahman, who had pointed out that one major problem confronting contemporary Muslims was that those who understood Islam did not understand modernity and those who understood modernity did not understand Islam. Professor Rahman -- like the modernist thinkers before him -- had also advocated a return to the Qur'an to discover the normative principles of Islam, and then going forward with ijtihad to see how these principles could be applied in present-day contexts. Some of Dr Hashmi's statements -- including the one cited above -- appear to incorporate the modernist views of thinkers like Iqbal and Fazlur Rahman.

From her public statements, it is clear that Dr Hashmi considers herself a modernist Muslim thinker who is opposed to what is archaic and outdated. But if one scrutinizes the message that she is giving to those who go and hear her, one realizes that she is no more "modernist" than she is "feminist" or "liberal". Dr Hashmi has made a number of statements which she deems to be "politically correct" in the 21st century, but these statements do not add up to a coherent or consistent system of thought, nor are they in line with what she actually preaches to women.

It is not surprising that so many people are confused about what Dr Hashmi is saying. The confusion is not in the minds of the listeners. It is in the statements made by Dr Hashmi herself. What she wants her public projection as a Muslim alim to be, is very different from her bottom-line position as an ultra-conservative Muslim woman. Since she does not participate in academic conferences where other qualified Muslims can engage in a critical discussion with her about her statements, she is not obliged to clarify the discrepancy between her so-called "feminism", "liberalism", and "modernism", and what she is preaching to an increasing number of girls and women who want to find out what Islam is from a woman who has shrouded herself in the mantle of piety and authority.

Dr Hashmi's message is directed mainly at affluent urban women and young girls who are students in her "Al-Huda" academies or other institutions. There is one aspect of her message that is positive. This message has to do with making an effort to study Islam and not to be absorbed in material things. Many women who have become the followers of Dr Hashmi come from the elite classes and had plenty of money and time, much of which was spent on worldly pursuits. Dr Hashmi made these women aware of the importance of fulfilling their religious obligations. She also told them that doing whatever was pleasing to their husbands was good. If, for instance, their husbands wanted them to dress ornately or in any other way, it was their duty to be compliant.

It is interesting to note that a number of women who follow Dr Hashmi still wear rich and gaudy attire beneath their hijab.It is likely that they are still spending a lot of money on their appearance, but now their husbands appear to be happy because they are told that whatever the wives are doing is for their pleasure. It is not surprising that Dr Hashmi's message is irresistible to the privileged women in her "target groups". These women had all the material things and comforts they wanted when they came to Dr Hashmi. In addition to that, Dr Hashmi showed them the way of attaining paradise (by doing what was pleasing to God) as well as marital bliss (by doing what was pleasing to their husbands).

Amongst Dr Hashmi's followers are also young girls, and it is important to understand their motivation. Youth is always idealistic and action-oriented. But living in a society as patriarchal and as morally and intellectually bankrupt as Pakistan, many amongst our teeming millions of young people are highly frustrated, and desperately in search of direction and guidance that would lead them to a purposeful life. Unfortunately, our so-called "liberal" and "progressive" classes have never undertaken the responsibility to provide a forum or a platform for discussion and action to these young persons. The "religious extremists" have taken full advantage of the situation and have actively targeted youth, going literally from classroom to classroom and institution to institution. As a result tens of millions of young people not only in Pakistan but also in other Muslim countries and even in Muslim communities living in the West, have adopted a version of Islam that is in complete contrast to the life-affirming, reason-affirming, justice-and-compassion-centered teachings in the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet of Islam (PBUH).

Some girls and women who are followers of Dr Hashmi have told me that she has put them on the "right track" to paradise. l have asked them to explain to me what is this "right track". They say that she has told them how important it is to pray to God and fulfill their religious obligations and that taking care of the family is the primary purpose of a woman's life. When I ask them if she told them to wear hijab they say that she has not "forced" them to wear hijab but that wearing hijab is a religious mandate for Muslim women. Those of Dr Hashmi's followers who imitate her style of not only wearing a chadur on their heads but also covering their faces (except for the eyes) apparently do not know that this form of hijab was unknown at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) when the Qur'an was revealed.

In the same interview, Dr Hashmi states: "...The ulema cannot accept that a woman is capable of understanding, interpreting or teaching the Qur'an. I have even been called a kafir because I do not propagate jihad. I teach women: are they going to go and fight? Anyway there are many things to be done before thinking of jihad. From beginning to end I keep the Qur'an in front of me. And for me what is written in the Qur'an is Islam."

Dr Hashmi's understanding of the core Qur'anic concept of jihad appears to be as flawed as that of many Western media experts who have been attacking Islam relentlessly since September 11, 2001. In fact, jihad refers to moral, intellectual, and spiritual striving to attain a higher level of self-development, and even jihad al-asghar (the lesser jihad), which is directed toward combating social evils, does not refer primarily to "fighting". Her question: "I teach women: are they going to go and fight?" seems to have been rhetorical, not seeking a response. I want, however, to respond to it: the mandate to engage in jihad fi' sabil Allah [struggle in the way of God] is given as much to women as to men. In Islam, women have the same rights and obligations as men, and nowhere is it stated in the Qur'an that women are exempted from any form of jihad. Islam does not permit wars of aggression, but in the defensive wars fought by the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) women were out in the battlefield ministering to the wounded.

In my view the greatest jihad for the Muslims today is not physical but moral and intellectual. That is why a thinker like Iqbal, who had such profound understanding of the Qur'an and Islam, put so much emphasis on ijtihad (which comes from the same root as the word jihad). But Dr Hashmi, who so easily dismisses the idea that women should engage in jihad, also does not encourage her followers to engage in ijtihad. Both involve intense individual effort, which could lead to women developing leadership skills and acquiring the ability and confidence to start questioning the patriarchal traditions that have discriminated against them in multifarious ways.

Dr Hashmi prefers to focus on hijab, which she interprets in a very restrictive way. In the context of proper attire and conduct, the Qur'an lays down one basic principle which may be described as the principle or law of modesty. In Surah 24: An-Nur: 30-31, modesty is enjoined both upon Muslim men and women.

On the basis of the above-cited Surah, the following points may be made: The Qur'anic injunctions enjoining the believers to lower their gaze and behave modestly applies to both Muslim men and women and not to Muslim women alone. Here it is to be noted that there are no statements in the Qur'an which justify the extremely rigid restrictions regarding veiling and segregation which have been imposed on Muslim women by some Muslim societies or groups (e.g., the Taliban in Afghanistan). To those who dispute this let me put one short question: If the Qur'an intended for women to be completely veiled why, then, did it command the men to "lower their gaze"?

Muslim women are enjoined to "draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty" except in the presence of their husbands, other women, children, eunuchs, and those men who are so closely related to them that they are not allowed to marry them. Although a self-conscious exhibition of one's zinat (which means "that which appears to be beautiful" or "that which is used for embellishment or adornment") is forbidden, the Qur'an makes it clear that what a woman wears ordinarily is permissible. Another interpretation of this part of this passage is that if the display of zinat is unintentional or accidental, it does not violate the law of modesty.

Although Muslim women may wear ornaments, they should not walk in a manner intended to cause their ornaments to jingle and thus attract the attention of others.

At this point a "liberated" woman might ask: Why should a Muslim woman display her beauty only in the presence of those (apart from her husband) who are likely to have no sexual interest in her? The answer to this question is contained in the Qur'anic view of the ideal society and the social and moral values to be upheld by, both Muslim men and women. In Qur'anic terms, the ideal society is that in which there is justice for all, i.e., justice between man and man and, what is perhaps even more important, justice between man and woman. (It is important to note that there is more Qur'anic legislation on the subject of a proper ordering of the relationship of men and women than on any other subject.)

By using an elaborate network of laws and recommendations, the Qur'an aimed at liberating women from the indignity of being sex-objects and transforming them into persons. If a woman wished to be regarded as a person and not as a sex-object it was necessary -- according to Qur'anic teaching -- that she should behave with [the] dignity and decorum befitting a secure, self-respecting and self-aware human being, rather than an insecure female who felt that her survival depended on her ability to attract, entertain, or cajole those men who were interested not in her personality but only in her sexuality.

A number of women-related Qur'anic laws which are interpreted by some critics of Islam to be restrictive of women's freedom are in fact meant to protect what the Qur'an deems to be a woman's fundamental rights. According to the Qur'anic text (Surah 33: Al-Ahzab: 59), the reason why Muslim women should wear an outer garment when they go out of their houses is so that they may be recognized as "believing" Muslim women, and differentiated from streetwalkers for whom sexual harassment is an occupational hazard.

The purpose of this verse was not to confine a woman to her house, but to make it safe for her to go about her daily business without attracting unwholesome attention. The Qur'an decreed that "the outer garment" be worn as a mark of identification by "believing" Muslim women, so apparently there was a need at the time of the Qur'anic statement for a means whereby a "believing" Muslim woman could be distinguished from the others. In societies where there is no danger of "believing" Muslim women being confused with streetwalkers or in which "the outer garment" is unable to function as a mark of identification for "believing" Muslim women, the mere wearing of "the outer garment" would not fulfill the true objective of the Qur'anic decree.

Women who on account of their advanced age are not likely to be regarded as sex-objects are allowed to discard "the outer garment" (Surah 24: An-Nur: 60), but there is no relaxation as far as the essential Qur'anic principle of modest behaviour is connected. Regardless of age or sex, this Qur'anic principle -- like all other principles of what is termed the deen or core teachings of Islam -- is, for Muslims, unchanging and unchangeable. Reflection on the last-cited verse shows that "the outer garment" is not required by the Qur'an as a necessary expression of modesty, since it recognizes the possibility that women may continue to be modest even when they have discarded "the outer garment".

Muslim societies in general, have, however, disregarded the basic intent of the Qur'anic statements -- which regard women as autonomous human beings capable of being righteous as an act of choice, rather than as mentally and morally deficient creatures on whom morality has to be externally imposed. Not satisfied with "the outer garment" prescribed by the Qur'an for Muslim women in a specific cultural context, some conservative Muslims have also sought the help of traditions (ahadith) whose authenticity is dubious, to compel women to cover themselves from head to foot, leaving only the face and hands uncovered.

Dr Hashmi has gone even farther than these men and initiated a style of hijab which requires the covering also of the face (except for the eyes). This kind of hijab was not mandated by the Qur'an, nor found in the days of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Nor is it indigenous to urban Pakistani society. It is very difficult to understand why Dr Hashmi, who, on the one hand, wants to be regarded as a "feminist", "liberal", and "modernist" scholar of Islam, on the other hand wants to be seen as more conservative than the rigid ulema whom she constantly criticizes.

During the initial phases of the "Islamization" process, efforts were made by conservative Muslim men who were threatened by women's presence in "public space" to put them in the chadur and chardivari [staying within 'four walls']. Due to various reasons these efforts were not very successful, especially amongst urban elite women. Dr. Hashmi has been far more successful in her so-called "Islamization" campaign, since her followers seem to have voluntarily adopted a style of hijab that not only covers their bodies but virtually makes them faceless. Along with this has come a withdrawal from any meaningful engagement in social issues, and a relapse into totally segregated traditional roles.

While Dr Hashmi and her followers have the right to wear any kind of hijab they choose to, they do not have the right to assert or imply that by doing so they have acquired a higher station as a Muslim or that those women who dress differently are somehow deficient in their "iman" or amal. As Surah 12: Yusuf: 40 states, "Judgment (as to what is right and what is wrong) rests with God alone" (translation by Muhammad Asad).

Dr Hashmi says, "I do not judge anyone by their appearance alone" and denounces "judgmental and self-righteous behaviour", but appearance and self-righteous behaviour is precisely what distinguishes Dr Hashmi's followers from others.

My greatest objection to Dr Hashmi's message to women is the total absence in it of any reference to social justice or human rights. I believe that the most important mandate of Islam as a prophetic religion is that Muslims should strive to create a just society. Living as we do in an unjust world, the creation of a just society is a formidable task and requires unceasing jihad. The greatest jihad (jihad al-akbar) is against one's own shortcomings and deficiencies. In his philosophy of Khudi, Iqbal identifies factors which strengthen the Self and those which weaken it. "Pillars of faith" such as salat (prayer), siyam (fasting), or zakat (wealth-sharing) are intended to make us more integrated and disciplined, so that we are better able to fulfill the mission given to us by God. But personal piety -- important as it is -- is only a means to an end, the end being engagement in the struggle to create a society in which there is both 'adl (legalistic justice) and ihsaan (compassionate justice).

What kind of Islam is Dr Hashmi teaching, if she does not speak about 'adl or ihsaan -- which are emphasized throughout the Qur'an? Her teachings show an obvious lack of reflection on Surah 107: Al-Ma'un which reads: "Hast thou ever considered (the kind of man) who gives the lie to all moral law? Behold, it is this (kind of man) that thrusts the orphan away, and feels no urge to feed the needy. Woe, then, unto those praying ones whose hearts from their prayers are remote -- those who want only to be seen and praised, and, withal, deny all assistance (to their fellowmen)" (translation by Muhammad Asad).

Perhaps many of the women who have become followers of Dr Hashmi would not have become social activists in any case, since they come from the stratum of Pakistani society which is largely self-indulgent and not particularly interested in social issues. However, it is possible that if they had been exposed to a different version of Islam that made them realize the importance of engaging in the struggle for a more just and compassionate world, they might not have chosen to follow the escape route offered to them by Dr Hashmi.

What is a matter of deep concern today is the fact that Dr Hashmi's message -- like that of the other extremist religious groups -- is being spread through educational institutions to young girls who have the potential of contributing to the development of their poor country and its disadvantaged people. I believe that it is extremely important to challenge the teachings of Dr Hashmi in a public forum, so that those who are mesmerized by her pious-sounding words can actually begin to see its internal contradictions or inconsistencies, and how profoundly its narrow, closed-minded, and rigid intent and content differs from the expansive, enlightened, and empowering teachings of the Qur'an.

The discourse on Islam and Human Rights in Pakistan is dominated by two highly vocal and visible groups that represent opposing mindsets. In some ways both of these mindsets can be described as "extremist." The first mindset is represented by persons such as Dr Farhat Hashmi who consider themselves the custodians of "Islam", which they generally define in narrowly construed literalistic and legalistic terms. The second mindset is represented by others such as Asma Jahangir and other leaders of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who consider themselves the guardians of "human rights", which they see as having nothing to do with religion.

A review of Pakistan's history shows that "religious" extremists have, in general, opposed any critical review or reform of traditional attitudes and practices which have become associated with popular Muslim culture. They have, in particular, been opposed to any changes in the traditional roles of women, and have regarded the movement for women's rights as a great threat to the integrity and solidarity of the Muslim family system.

Averse in general to "modernity" which they identify largely with "Westernization" of Muslim societies, "religious" extremists have raised a red flag and shouted that "the integrity of the Islamic way of life" was under assault, each time any government has taken any step to address the issue of gender inequality or discrimination against women.

While "extremism" is associated most often with "the religious right" referred to above, it is important to note that it is also to be found in the utterances and actions of those who regard religion, especially Islam, negatively. In asserting that "Islam" and "human rights" are mutually exclusive, advocates of human rights such as Asma Jahangir adopt a position which is untenable both on theoretical and pragmatic grounds. The Qur'an strongly affirms all the fundamental human rights.

In pragmatic terms, it is evident that Muslims generally -- including the vast majority of Pakistanis -- are strong believers in God and Islam, regardless of how they express or enact their beliefs. The insistence by advocates of human rights that Islam should not be made part of the ongoing discourse on human rights in Pakistan, is, therefore, vacuous. Whether acknowledged or not, Islam -- which defines the identity and ground reality of millions of Pakistanis -- is already, and inevitably, a part of this discourse. Furthermore, it is important to know that "religious" and "anti-religious" extremisms feed into one another. The more the "anti-religious" extremists marginalize Islam in their rhetoric, the stronger is the outcry from "religious extremists" that "Islam is in danger".

Here I would like to make an important clarification. Just as there are many people in Pakistan who are confused regarding the ideological position of Dr Farhat Hashmi (largely, as illustrated in this analysis, due to her conflicting statements), there are also people who confuse what I have termed "anti-religious extremism" with "secularism". As pointed out by The Encyclopaedia of Religion, "The term secularization came into use in European languages at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 where it was used to describe the transfer of territories previously under ecclesiastical control to the dominion of lay political authorities" (Edited by Mircea Eliade, The Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1987, Volume 13, p.158).

A secular society is one in which religion is not the controlling factor in the lives of the people, or one in which no one religion is privileged. A person who is "secular" may not attach much significance to religious consciousness, activities, and institutions in the context of society, but is not "anti-religious". Whereas "secular" people may be open-minded and tolerant of different viewpoints, "anti-religious" persons can be just as absolutist, closed-minded, and intolerant as "religious extremists".

The Qur'anic proclamation in Surah 2: Al-Baqarah: 256, "There shall be no coercion in matters of faith" (translation by Muhammad Asad), guarantees freedom of religion and worship. A number of Qur'anic passages also state clearly that the responsibility of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is to communicate the message of God, and not to compel anyone to believe. (For instance, Surah 6: Al-An'am: 107; Surah 10: Yunus: 99; Surah 16: An-Nahl: 82; Surah 42: Ash-Shura: 48.) The right to exercise free choice in matters of belief is unambiguously endorsed by the Qur'an in Surah 18: Al-Kahf: 29, which states: "The Truth is, From your Lord: Let him who will Believe, and let him who will, reject (it." (Translation by A. Yusuf Ali).

Whether or not leading advocates of human rights believe in God or in any religion is up to them. However, it is legitimate to ask how the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan -- the non-governmental organization which has virtual monopoly of the human rights discourse in Pakistan and receives an enormous amount of funding from Western donors -- can claim to represent the people of Pakistan, who are near-universally "believers" and regard Islam as the matrix in which their lives are rooted, when it holds the position that Islam should not be part of the human rights discourse except in a negative sense.

My philosophical disagreement with the viewpoint that Islam should be excluded from the human rights discourse in Pakistan, held by Asma Jahangir and her colleagues, does not mean that I do not acknowledge or respect their efforts to document human rights abuses in Pakistan, or the bold stand they have been taking on behalf of victims of violence in the courts, the media, and the public.

I believe that it is possible for persons of different religious, ideological, or philosophical perspectives to work together in pursuit of the common good. When this has been done (as in Latin America with the rise of "liberation theology" when Catholics, Protestants, Communists, persons of indigenous religions and others joined hands to combat social evils), the results have been inspirational.

Despite my openness to working with others who support the struggle for human rights and women's rights, the position that I represent has been resented and rejected by many human rights advocates in Pakistan. I believe that they are threatened by my stated conviction that it is possible to construct a paradigm of human rights within the framework of normative Islam. They also do not want to accept my view that in the context of contemporary Pakistan and most of the Muslim world, this paradigm of human rights is the only one that is likely to be accepted or actualized, because it is based on religious principles respected by masses of people and is not seen as a foreign imposition.

Vocal and visible as the extremists in Pakistan are, they constitute a small percentage of the total population of Pakistan. The vast majority of Pakistanis are middle-of-the-road people who neither subscribe to, nor support, extremism. While they have a strong Muslim identity and their faith is very important to them, they also aspire to be a part of the "modern" world through acquiring education, awareness of contemporary values, and the means to have what the Greeks called "the good life". In other words, they want both din (religion) and dunya (the world). This is a position supported by Qur'anic teaching and the Prophetic example, which describe Islam as a religion of balance and moderation, stressing the complementarity of various spheres of life.

It is a matter of utmost gravity that in Pakistan the discourse on Islam has been hijacked by "religious extremists", and the discourse on human rights has been hijacked by another group of extremists. In my judgment, it is vitally important to broaden the discourse both on Islam and human rights to include a third option. This option means the creation of a new discourse or an alternative paradigm which is grounded in the ethical principles of the Qur'an and relates to the beliefs as well as the aspirations of middle-of-the-road Pakistanis.

Islam is, undoubtedly, the sustaining factor in the lives of millions of Muslims -- including Pakistanis -- many of whom live in conditions of great hardship, suffering or oppression. It can easily become a source of empowerment for them if they begin to see that they have been given a large number of rights -- not by any human agency but by God. Once the masses who constitute "the silent majority" of Pakistanis become conscious of their God-given right to actualize their human potential to the fullest, they can be mobilized to participate in building a dynamic and democratic society. But in order to make this happen, a new perspective on human rights (including women's rights), grounded in normative Islamic ideas of universalism rationalism, moderation, social justice, and compassion, must be disseminated as widely as possible.

In the foregoing analytic narrative I have shared my research findings and reflections on a number of issues that are of critical importance to many Pakistanis and Muslims today. I have endeavoured to articulate the philosophical vision which motivates my lifelong struggle to understand the purpose of creation and what we have to do to fulfill the responsibility of being God's khalifa (vicegerent) on earth. I have also attempted to state as clearly and coherently as I could my perspective on what it means to be a Muslim and the contemporary discourse on Islam and human rights.

In response to numerous queries asking me to clarity my position vis-a-vis that of Dr Farhat Hashmi and Asma Jahangir, I have given my analysis of what I believe Dr Hashmi's approach and message is, and indicated why I do not subscribe to Asma Jahangir's perspective on human rights. For the record I would like to say that I have challenged Dr Farhat Hashmi and Asma Jahangir to a public debate on human rights and women's rights at a number of important forums. I believe that the public is entitled to hear the views of all three of us in an open setting, so that it can understand and evaluate the content and worth of what each of us is saying. To date, the challenge remains unaccepted.

It is my hope that what I have presented to you in this account will stimulate your own deeper thoughts, and that you will find compelling reasons for joining the movement that aims to rebuild the intellectual and ethical foundations of our beloved Pakistan, which is not doing well in any way.

The author can be contacted at