Message From the Chair
turning of the tide.
The Muslim ummah
today is living through a turning point in its history: Unless its
scholars and intellectuals are committed to assuming their responsibility in
providing the vision and the scholarship that can respond to its needs at this
critical juncture, the chances are that we will be overwhelmed by the raucous
tides that are remaking history. We are already experiencing the burden
of the 'New
World Order' and the events of the past decade do not
bode well for our future. While the world panicked about the
possibilities attending the advent of '2 YK ', the real
catastrophes befalling the ummah went largely unnoticed, were downplayed
and subdued, as Muslims were accomplices to their own disarray. It
takes a sense of purpose and belonging among those of us who are lucky enough
to be still alive and free, and who have the wit and mind to know
something about the trends and events
in our world today, to assume that responsibility.
wages of survival in the 'new world order' :
women have paid dearly for the untold suffering and afflictions wrought on
their communities, from the breadth and depth of a once boundlessly fertile
and golden global Crescent. From Europe to Central and city'.
Those who have survived are scattered throughout refugee camps and living out
their cold welcome in exile, as bereaved mothers, orphaned children, widows,
and broken spirits. There is indeed little chance that these
traumatized and brutalized remnants of historic communities will ever be in a
position to rebuild, amid so thorough a devastation. The
bitter irony of it all, is that the custodians of the new world mayhem have
never ceased to pay lip service to the sanctity of human rights and the
triumph of civility in a world where the only threat seems to come from Islam
and its wretched communities. It is even more ironic to realize the
various ways Muslims have been accomplices to their plight, from
fundamentalists' to 'liberals' to modernists and secularists and traditionists
of all strokes and stripes.
A call to action.
Muslim women in short, can no longer afford to sit
back and watch as the world goes by, if such was ever the case, or even an
option. A mother is bonded to life and has the welfare of generations
instinctively at heart. Motherhood is a cast of soul and spirit, not a
cultural artifact, and even less a biological contingency. And it is the
drenching experience of horror pain and death all round that stirs the deepest
gut instincts, fundamentally maternal instincts, for life, purpose, and
worth. For those who experience and are aware, it is only in the darkest
of gloom that the meaning and value of light and hope are born: and as some
live through the experience and others are witness to the extinction of this
light and to the very extermination of community, the meaning of it all
dawns. It is out of this realization that a new awareness, a new
consciousness is being born throughout the ummah, including its women.
Part of this consciousness is a new resoluteness and resolve.
Muslim women will not be used as weapons to backstab their already blighted
communities, anymore than they will continue to defer to the infirmities and
pathologies that may for long have afflicted their communities.
The birth of a new consciousness.
In these conditions, many women who have
received a public education today and who have graduated from higher
institutions of learning feel that they carry a duty in addition to that of
everyday living, wherever their lives may take them. This duty is one of
cultivating a certain kind of consciousness and contributing to its formation
and its dissemination. Doubtless, a Muslim's sense of consciousness
frequently (indeed, by definition) begins with a God-Consciousness,
and from there on one begins to take one's bearings in the world. This
of course presumes that one is aware of one's being a Muslim, in a world
where an affliction of false consciousness, as much as lost consciousness is
frequently the norm.
Today, many of us
who may not have given much thought to their 'faith identities' in the past,
or those who have simply taken it for granted, are increasingly becoming aware
of what it means to be 'Muslim', for their Muslim identity is being
flung in their faces, forced on their consciousness,
by the very course of events. The only possible response in these
circumstances is to face up to it: and choose between two alternatives, with
little room for a third: One is to rise to the occasion and take up the
challenge wholeheartedly, and drink up one's faith and beliefs and loyalties
to the brim; the other is to be equally adamant, but in the reverse
direction, to try and dissociate oneself, for all its proven futility,
and to succumb to that broken reed within, despite a surface show of
arrogance and indifference. In short, one is living an inevitable
reality of polarization, and one that is not likely to dissipate in the
Why Muslim Women's Studies?
We, as the advocates of Muslim women's studies
in an academic setting where 'women's studies' have become the main growth
'culture industry' of our times, come to the field with these various concerns
in our minds and hearts. We feel that this is an excellent
opportunity to occupy a 'site' and engage a role, where we would contribute to
this historic need of consciousness raising and lucidity, both within our
'thought communities' as well as within our core communities as part and
parcel of a larger historic entity we identify with the ummah. At its
simplest, this entity is a global community that takes its bearings from its
God-Consciousness, its sense of indebtedness to its Creator, and unto whom is
the Return. Our task as Muslim women scholars, is to sharpen this perception
and to inquire into its implications for our life in this world in the
here-and-now, with an eye on the world beyond and the reality of a hereafter.
We believe that this is a unique task that is as much needed within our
professional community as well as among our core social historical
communities, because of the crass materialism and positivism that is a
rampant hallmark of the times and threatens to so brutalize and trivialize our
life on earth. There is a need to rehumanize our world and our
sensibilities: and while this is a common task to which everyone qualified for
the task can contribute, we feel that as women our stakes are more than
doubled in this venture. As 'Muslimat', and as women of faith and
loyalty, with access to the pristine sources of a religion of guidance that
has openly addressed us as fully responsible and mature members of a
privileged community, our sense of duty is compounded.
From profession to vocation:
We come to that task with a sense of mission and
vocation: we use our profession as a means and not an end. Our
professional training, may afford us the tools and the opportunity to approach
our task, but that is only the beginning, and a premise for other conditions
that are needed before we may qualify as 'vocationists.' Our
priority goes to advancing our pursuit with the higher ends in view,
beyond the individual gains and perks that attend the advancement of our
worldly careers. We hope to instill something of that spirit in
Muslim Women's Studies as a newly emerging field of scholarship - and vocation
- in the New Academy. One of the foremost features of the latter is its
openness: it is an academy without walls in every sense of the term.
We may have a chance later, in the course of the Perspectives that we
share in this cyber academy, to develop this idea further - 'au fur et a
mesure,' as the French might say. For now, however, we bring up this
trait, because it is the inspiration behind this forum of ours that we have
called the 'Riwaq'
It is no secret
that much of the drive for making our venture a success comes from the
dedication and spirited commitment of our circle of Friends of the Chair in
Cairo. Particularly our young and upcoming friends: the hallmark
of the future, the Spring of a generation, that has missed so many
Springs. And Cairo is home to a rich and unbroken tradition of culture,
from antiquity to the present. Central to that tradition is its
historical role at the heart of a living community and a cultural heritage
associated with one of the oldest universities in the world, al Azhar.
The rebirth of the riwaqs.
True, the Azhar is but a dim shadow of its golden
prime, of a nearly thousand years odd. Still, it remains the
symbol of a unique tradition of learning that embodies much that is treasured
in the openness and inclusiveness that we cherish and invite into our
own forum. The 'niches' that stand in the Azhar today, those
welcoming alcoves that embrace its courtyard and soften its stately columns,
were once the refuge and resort of generations of knowledge seekers who came
from near and far, in a community that owed its very roots to learning and to
the traditions of its transmission. These niches were called 'riwaqs',
or 'colleges' ... Such riwaqs may have been unique to a culture or
tradition, but they were certainly not confined to a privileged center in the
Muslim world: they were simply embryonic of a cluster of institutions, a
hive of learning that ran the length and breadth of the Muslim City
wherever it may have flourished, from Samarkand to Baghdad, Damascus,
Cairo, Morocco and Andalusia. Women were patrons and contributors to the
munificence that made this lifeline possible everywhere and down the
centuries.. For until well into the 18th century, we will encounter women
whose faith and will kept them actively involved in the vital ongoing trade
that welded generations and provided the ethos upon which the ummah thrived.
I mean to say that women were vital links in the chains of transmission of
that learning that constructed and confirmed community in Islam.
beginnings, in very different circumstances, in a world radically
changed and a community deeply traumatized, we ourselves today,
come as members of different generations and backgrounds, to make our
contribution. Through the 'Riwaq Zahra,' named after the woman whose
example inspires our Chair, and through its constellation of sister
riwaqs as these steadily and graciously come into their own, we hope to
give voice to the birth of the new consciousness and to channel energies thus
infused to their appointed ends. In so doing we hope that we, too,
will be able to make a difference, and leave a small imprint, on our
world. To follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before.
last two decades have seen a tremendous growth in the field of Women Studies
in the Western academy, a growth that is paralleled and reinforced in practice
by the tidal global interest in the renewal of civilization/s and in
socio-cultural politics. This has been attended by a resurgence in topical
issue-areas entailing a redefinition of public space and by new forms of
transcultural encounter and communication. In the process, the changing moral
economy of vulnerable societies has profiled an unprecedented visibility of
women - together with a new dynamics of gender and gendered consciousness.
The upsurge of interest in Islam and in Muslim women has opportunely come to
the fore in these circumstances.
Of all the
traditional world religions Islam provides the most daunting challenge to
globalization. In its own model of universality it assures a credible
alternative to the current dominant thrust of globalization. This alternative
that is more humane and more viable speaks directly to the issue areas at
stake in the changing moral economy, including notably gender-related issues.
precarious position of the Muslim world on the protracted eve of a century's
renaissance leaves it hamstrung. The initiative for critical cultural
encounters and self representation in controversial domains can only be taken
up by women themselves.
It is for Muslim
women scholars in particular to carry the burden of critical enlightenment in
their communities as they seek to explore and to re-examine , to articulate
and to embody, the ideals of Islam.
women need to renegotiate the substance and boundaries of the public square in
their diverse localities and, beyond that, in the all-pervasive global sphere
that impinges on every issue and setting.
As they do so, they will inevitably be contributing to
the emerging transcultural discourse. In imparting their vision and will on
the gender dynamics shaping the global moral economy, they will also be
reinscribing the very nature and direction of cultural modernity.
In the conviction
that enlightened knowledge, as much as sound belief, is the premise for
responsible and moral action, and that its absence or confusion diminishes the
human status and subverts the socio-moral order, the Zahira Abdin Chair sets
out to fulfill a conspicuous need and to remedy a precarious social condition.
In a global world, this condition knows no boundaries. Accordingly, the
scope of its address extends to multiple constituencies. For obvious reasons,
those immediately targeted for engaging a discourse, are expected to come from
within the Muslim community, the ummah. The nature and parameters of
this discourse are a function of its context.
Globalization has simply exacerbated conditions in the post-colonial world,
and the historical encounter with the West has added to the general
disorientation, particularly in the Muslim world. The mounting interest
in Women and gender questions, as it spreads from the West to the Rest, aptly
epitomizes this double disarray, while the prominence of Islam in global
politics is further amplified in the paradoxical visibility attending Muslim
women worldwide. The meaning of the Zahira Abdin Chair and the uniqueness of
its mission, need to be seen against this background.
To note, this is
the first initiative of its kind, a Chair in the West without being of the
West, housed in a nascent academy equally compelling in its mission and
vision as it strives to bridge the historical rift between (an outgrown and
mythical) ‘East and West’ at the same time as it sets out to reform and
renew Muslim thought. In taking Women and Gender for its focus, the
Chair is dedicated to one of the more controversial and intractable
fields of the age. In its pursuit, it questions and contests many of the
prevailing assumptions in the field, and seeks to transcend the dominant
paradigm (s) and pave the way for an alternative model in the academy and in
background, The Chair sees its academic and intellectual agenda in terms of a
two pronged strategy of deconstruction and reconstruction, to critique and to
edify. It assumes the initiative to critique a tradition ‘from within,’
while at the same time, seeking to reform and reconstruct on the basis of an
authentically grounded paradigm drawn on the original and originating sources
of Islam. (Qur’an and the sunnah as an explanatory source and adjunct to the
Qur’an). In affirming the enduring value, validity, and viability of these
Sources, it also hopes to
articulate a model of thought and action in its field that can contribute
positively to the ongoing debates and policies gender related issues, in a
global forum. In a more general vein, the goals and objectives of the Chair
are conceived within a broader tradition of scholarship that strives to
retrieve and appropriate the best in a universal and perennial tradition
identified with the divinely revealed sources of human enlightenment and
guidance. In doing so, it seeks to align itself with the forces that make for
a global cultural renewal.
A New Chair in the Academy ?
it Means and Why the World needs it
of the Chair -Cairo, 1998
Speaking as an
educator coming from an Islamic
civilizational perspective, I take ‘engendering community’ to be a vital
perspective in rethinking women in culture and society.
To speak about women
is to envisage community, and no amount of thinking about community can be
taken seriously without re-centering women as the cornerstones and active
agents for generation, preservation, cultivation, and regeneration. In short,
women are rightly identified with key roles and processes (=actions!) that
assure not only the conception of community, but its persistence and
continuity in human history. Community is the enduring benchmark for
assessing the quality of life and the caliber of human civilization.
engendering roles and processes are frequently subsumed by social scientists
under the rubric of ‘socialization.’ To speak of community in terms of
preservation and continuity however, by no means restricts the processes of
socialization to a monotonous or a one-dimensional exercise in a
‘system-maintenance’ activity, to use another jargon from one of the older
schools of thought in social theory.
community is as much about change in the double sense of the term.
‘Change’ can be taken as adaptation to meet the challenge of survival and
well-being in a perpetually changing world. ‘Change’ can also be
understood as reformation and transformation in a specifically human setting
where culture is an artifice defined by the interplay of agency, morality, and
responsibility. The survival of a historical community in a particular place
and time is hardly the function of the physical or biological components of
the species; but it depends on a ‘wellness’, or on the viability of its
normative and moral profile.
Taking women as an
access to engendering community, therefore, takes us beyond survival to the
quality of life. It means giving value to such ends as its betterment and
refinement, or its moral excellence. Like mothering and caring, the epitome of
womanhood, engendering community ultimately refers to a certain quality that
verges on wholeness and wholesomeness.
Rethinking women and
gender against Islamic civilization perspectives reinforces this approach. A
discourse drawing on this identification between women and community opens out
new horizons for understanding society, culture, and change, and points to new
directions for reconstructing the curriculum. The ground is thus effectively
paved for instituting policies that are bound to reflect on the public
sphere and to impart to it its ethos and its ends. The health of the community
may be primarily gauged by the health of its women, and the health of a
society is contingent on that of its community.
This prognosis is
nothing less than a prescription for a way of understanding self, world, and
other. It points to a way of seeing through the patterns of relationships and
interdependence, constituting the woof and the warp of a primal cosmic weave,
to the complementarity, measure, and proportion they encompass. This is one
aspect of what we mean by a ‘holistic approach.’
One of the principal
objectives of the Chair for Women’s Studies is to provide an institutional
focus for the efforts towards a comprehensive and integrated curriculum. This
kind of curriculum is a necessity in view of the challenges brought about by
the pace and nature of change in the modern world. The uniqueness of that
change is a function of modernity. Not only have material and technological
acumen outstripped moral development, but the scale and reach of the resulting
turbulence has swept through the very real global village, turning
globalization into something more than a virtual reality.
The kind of
curriculum that we are piloting should be capable of meeting a general need,
as well as responding to the more culturally specific needs. Only a curriculum
developed with a view to the universal and the particular in the human
condition can aspire to deal effectively, ethically, and responsibly with its
The Need to innovate in Form
Why innovate? To
meet the challenges in a field marked by the perennial economy of imbalance.
Far from being a source of weakness, we
believe that given the right context and attitudes, or frame of mind, the
discrepancy between needs and resources becomes the trigger for inventiveness.
Women’s Studies Programs in the modern academy in the West have often been
noted for their resourcefulness as much as for their dynamism and diversity.
They have provided the occasion and the conditions for reconstructing the
academy and directing it to nobler ends and new openings. This may admittedly
be more true of the earlier phases, in the seventies and eighties, as opposed
to the latter nineties, a situation that is a reflection of the constraints
that inhere in a paradigm, more than in the particular field in question.
Circle- Morocco 1999 1
In Muslim Women’s
Studies, as we rethink an emerging field of learning, training, reflection and
action from a renewed and renewing civilizational perspective inspired by
Islamic sources and precedents, it is imperative that we strive to overcome
situational impediments. We may indeed, transcend them.
‘Transcend’ is used here to suggest an intellectual and moral
posture of ‘standing up to’ and ‘reaching beyond’- as opposed to
wasting energies in confrontational or defensive tropes. Among the
‘impediments’ that come to mind is the double-barreled resistance that
comes from both vested professional interests and sheer ignorance, to say
nothing of the inertia that encounters all initiatives to take up untrodden
paths. In planning our curriculum we need to be imaginative and creative,
scaling our achievements to the range of the possible, not the ‘given’ or
existing faculties and facilities. Possible can go a long way if it is hedged
with perspicacity and resolve.
In the conventional
curriculum, the focus is usually on the subject and its particulars. Rarely is
attention given to the underlying assumptions that frame the subject, or to
the conceptual and contextual framework that foregrounds the particulars. The
forest is often overlooked in the search for the trees. This may be justified
in terms of a prevailing consensus on the rules of the game among a community
of practitioners. It is what
Thomas Kuhn in his classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,
referred to as the conventions of ‘normal science’.
In cases where there
is doubt about the validity of the rules of the game, or where a different
quest is sought, such normal or predefined practices are open to question. It
is then that any attempt to suggest an alternative must be grounded, with its
presuppositions and parameters subject to question and conscious articulation.
A curriculum developed in this alternative mode would necessarily follow suit.
It is in this
struggle between two worlds, one of normal practice that is open to question,
and another possibilities that is yet to be born, that the awareness of the
paradigm shift come to be experienced as a ‘crisis’ in the scientific
community. The scholarly and educated constituencies to which we address our
concerns and initiatives in this forum, are likely to have affinities with
such a community. And to experience its birth pangs.
The Abdin Forum is
conceived as a space that can contribute to the advancement of the new
paradigm. In the meantime, concrete initiatives will need to be taken, one by
one, on a number of fronts: whether in research, teaching, or advocacy. We may
take an immediate task at hand by way of example.
In drawing up a new
curriculum, we are aware of the need to balance the parts with the whole and,
above all, to keep the grounds that anchor the whole well within the reach and
confines of the parts. This is a precept garnered from using the
civilizational perspective in exploring other areas. It can be used to inform
structure and process as much as content.
One way of
visualizing the project at the formal, or procedural plane, is to consider
setting up our Women’s Studies Program along the following lines. Modules
for a series of ‘crash courses’ could be developed with the objective of
orienting, training, informing, educating, and communicating. The backbone for
this series would be a core matrix consisting of a set of lectures that
provided the perspective and foundations. Around this matrix the emphasis
would shift to adjoining ‘electives’ that could be adapted to the needs
and circumstances of different learning constituencies.
It is an
instructional package that is open and versatile. Over time and with
experience, it can be adjusted and consolidated. These courses can be part of
an ‘Open University’ and a dynamic growing academy, one best expressed in
the idea of a university without walls, or, a learning community without
With the meteoric
rise of the internet and the opportunities it avails for distance learning, it
takes only imagination and resolve to turn
dreams into reality. When
we recall the classical tradition of the ambulant scholar,or ulema, which
continued until late into the nineteenth century in remote enclaves of
Muslim learning, the distance learning of the twenty first century means a new
dimension to an old tradition. The familiar figure of the visiting professor
could then easily become the
pivot in the New Academy, a roving ambassador and herald, or a mission bearer.
One may add a point
on this finishing note. The learned women in the ummah today,
have an advantage that their forebears, the sheikha and 'alima of
earlier centuries, may not have had. Their responsibility to contribute to the
heritage and the well-being of the community is thus proportionately
It is in this spirit
that the Chair for Women's Studies from a civilizational perspective is being
launched. It comes to respond to
a felt need in the ummah and the world community.
But at the same time, it is inspired by a rich legacy that it seeks to
rediscover and activate. In gracing it with the name of a modern accomplished
professional, scholar, and lifelong community healer and builder, we pay
tribute to this heritage, and uphold a model and example to our younger
generations to instill them with faith in the realizability and
practicality of the ideals and precepts of their tradition.
Professor Zahira Abdin. Edinburgh 1980
Copyright © 1999 [The Abdin Waqf- Endowment -
M.A.F.]. All rights reserved.