Iqbal and women — a deeper view

Published: June 18, 2010
Dr Riffat Hassan is professor emerita of the University of Louisville, Kentucky.

Dr Riffat Hassan is professor emerita of the University of Louisville, Kentucky.

My article titled “Iqbal’s view of an ideal Muslim woman” (The Express Tribune, May 28, 2010) has elicited a number of thought-provoking comments. Some readers referred to it as “commendable” whilst others responded by making critical remarks about me. For instance, Huma stated, “I cannot believe that a woman in 2010 has written this article without pushing Iqbal’s argument a bit further…Our country already treats women horribly. Can educated women in Pakistan’s ranks stop saying silly things and have the courage to push their agenda a bit more explicitly?” And Rehan asked me directly: “Will Dr Riffat defend or oppose or beat about the bush if asked to give her comments on Iqbal’s views on a woman clerk/typist? Will she support Iqbal’s views on limiting women’s freedom in front of an audience who already has a myopic opinion of Muslim women?”

Firstly, there is a 700 word limit which does not permit a comprehensive discussion on any complex subject. Since 1974 I have been working internationally as a research scholar and an activist to educate Muslim women about the rights given to them by Islam. In 1999, I set up an international network to safeguard the rights of Pakistani girls and women who were victims of violence, particularly of “honour” crimes.

The fact that Iqbal considered motherhood to be a woman’s most important role does not mean that he was not aware of women’s trials. He took serious note of the socio-legal problems faced by Muslim women in India, and wrote as early as 1904, “The most sensitive issue in…social life is the rights of women…Western scholars have wrongly criticised Islam on the rights of women. This criticism applies not to Islam… but to those legal opinions of the Muslim jurists which they have derived from the more general principles of the Quran…These individual opinions are not essential components of the religion.”

Iqbal was probably the first to notice difficulties created for women who sought divorce under the Hanafi law being practiced in India. He said: “There have been cases in which Muslim women wishing to get rid of undesirable husbands have been driven to apostasy…In view of the intense conservatism of the Muslims in India, Indian judges cannot but stick to what are called standard works. The result is that while the people are moving, the law remains stationary.” It is also important to note that in his book on economics, Ilm al-Iqtisad, Iqbal reviewed the economics of population growth and criticised child marriage and polygamy.

Some readers have asked me for my personal opinion on Iqbal’s view on how Muslim women should stay at home and take care of their families ideally. In today’s world where the ratio of single women supporting their families is increasing everywhere, it is simply not possible to do as Iqbal would have wanted.

Some of Iqbal’s views about women’s role in society are culturally conservative but these views constitute a very small fraction of his total philosophy. For me, the most important reason Iqbal remains profoundly relevant and inspirational not only to men but also to women is that as a universal humanist philosopher he considered all human beings to be God’s vicegerents who were called upon to develop their potential to the fullest. Iqbal has given, and continues to give, to millions of Muslims – both men and women – the vision and the energy to engage in a passionate quest for a new world “vibrant with hope and high endeavour”.

Published in the Express Tribune, June 18th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (3)

  • moazzam
    Jun 18, 2010 - 1:59PM

    its a thought rovking article by thing we must remeber that we are living in a constantly changing society. to meet its requirements,we need to think in a new way and not stick to just Iqbal’ views…Recommend

  • arsalan amjad
    Jun 18, 2010 - 10:39PM

    Why is the writer being allowed to push her regressive views on this forum? her previous article was a disservice to the cause of women in pakistan.Maybe,because she is living in an open and free society where women are treated equally she has assumed the same for us.As it is we in pakistan are bombarded with sermons and opininons on the dozens of our tv channels emphasizing a woman’s place in society.We are constantly told that a woman’s place is within the four walls of her society,her only duty in life is as a wife,daughter or mother;any woman daring to think of continuing her career after marriage is a woman of loose morals etc. We didn’t need this forum for more of the fundamentalist propaganda. do an article on our society’s attitudes and mentality towards working mothers,divorcees etc.Recommend

  • Jun 19, 2010 - 8:18AM

    It appears that Mr. Arsalan Amjad did not understand the contents either of the writer’s earlier article or the follow-up in which she responded to some of the comments about her earlier article. The main point which she made in her first article was that in Allama Iqbal’s view the most lauded role for a Muslim woman was that of motherhood which he considered to be central to the development of healthy and a wholesome Muslim society.
    In her second article she pointed out that Allama Iqbal had also been extremely sensitive and sympathetic to the predicament of Muslim women in the Indian society in which he had lived. Instead of trying to understand the multifaceted views of Allam Iqbal about women Mr. Amjad has launched a completely unfair assault on the writer and accused her of fundamentalist propaganda. For his information I would like to inform Mr. Amjad that the writer has been Pakistan’s foremost theologian who has been advocating rights of women both in the context of Quranic teachings and Muslim/Pakistani culture for more than 4 decades and has written about the topics mentioned by him. Recommend

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