- Transforming Faith: The Story of Al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism Among Urban Pakistani Women
Sadaf Ahmad’s rich ethnographic study captures one of the most prominent women’s religious-based organizations based in Pakistan today, the Al-Huda Academy for Women. Given the profound success Al-Huda has had in mobilizing women, Ahmad’s book represents an important contribution to the scholarship on Islamic revival movements in various national locations. Through weaving together excerpts of interviews with teachers and students at Al-Huda, Ahmad brings forth narratives of urban middle to upper class Pakistani women whose outlook on their lives has been transformed through studying the Qur’an and its exegetical commentary under the guidance of Al-Huda teachers. To situate dars offered by this organization against the complex landscape of the production of Islamic knowledge by women’s groups [End Page 312] in Islamabad, Ahmad’s book also looks at study circles offered by members of a few other religious groups including the Jamaati Islami, Tehrik-e Islam, as well as some that were not formally affiliated with any organization. In doing so she teases out some of the differences in discursive and pedagogical emphases that characterize these spaces. One reason for Al-Huda’s success, Ahmad suggests, is that its approach to the production of religious knowledge bears deep resonance with the larger religio-nationalist discourses that have been a part of Pakistan’s history.
The main thrust of the book lies in the author’s attempt to explore why and how women engage with the types of religious discourses that are produced by leaders of Al-Huda. Hence, engagements between the subject and the “hegemonic” discourse of Al-Huda occupy a central space in Ahmad’s analysis. She spends a significant amount of time noting the differential ways that women engage with religious knowledge they acquire in their classes, a process that is deeply influenced by factors such as the individuals’ class background, prior relationship to Islam, age, personality, purpose for joining religious study classes, etc. It is, however, somewhere in this dynamic interaction between Al-Huda’s discourses and the subject of Al-Huda, that the conversation becomes stuck. While recognizing Ahmad’s commitment to representing women as complex actors rather than as a monolithic and passive group, the reader is left waiting for the opening of a new theoretical space for inquiry, critique, and analysis around the significance of this movement in general, as well as for the existing scholarship on religious-based movements around the world. Moreover, while the author draws repeatedly on Saba Mahmood’s study of women in the mosque-based movement in Egypt, her analysis does not engage Mahmood’s theoretical claims.1 How, for instance, does the subject of Al-Huda relate to what Mahmood refers to as the “non-liberal” subject of the mosque movement in Egypt?
Ahmad situates the movement within a global web of phenomena that influence the types of discourses that are produced by leaders in this movement. Much of her attention remains focused on the ways that reified notions of “culture” are appropriated by members of the group and how these in turn, generate possibilities for an on-going process of self-definition as pious Muslim women. Drawing on a globalization framework, much of Ahmad’s analysis revolves around ways that media images from Indian TV channels and/or from the “West” acquire new meaning as reified reflections of “Hindu” or “Western” culture against which an authentic Muslim self is defined. A factor that remains underemphasized is the unique geo-political relationship between the United States and Pakistan vis-à-vis the current “War on Terror,” and how this may or may not factor into the ways that women of Al-Huda construct themselves as modern pious Muslims.
Relatedly, the thoroughly transnational dimensions and appeal of this organization remain underemphasized in the book. Not only does Al-Huda offer on-line courses for people to...