Review, Transforming Faith, By Sohomjit Ray

Transforming Faith: The Story of Al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism among Pakistani Women. Sadaf Ahmad. New York: Syracuse UP, 2009. 227 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8156-3209-2.

Sadaf Ahmad’s Transforming Faith is the first important study of Al-Huda, an Islamic revivalist movement with a large following among women in Pakistan. While it is not uncommon to find Islamic religious study groups (dars) of various ideological persuasions that engage women’s participation in Pakistan, Ahmad is quick to point out that the “uniqueness” of Al-Huda lies in “being able to make inroads into the middle and upper classes of the urban areas of Pakistan, a feat other religious groups have been unsuccessful at accomplishing,” especially when the group is perceived as being extremely narrow and one-dimensional in its interpretation of Islam (1). Ahmad frankly admits that the impetus to conduct research on the phenomenon of Al-Huda came from her personal perplexity “about why so many women from my hometown [Islamabad], who also belonged to the same class I belonged to, were changing their behavior and lifestyle” (3). The most noticeable of such lifestyle changes include starting to wear the hijab (head scarf) or the abaya (loose garment worn over clothes) and deeming music and traditional cultural rituals associated with major life events like weddings and deaths un-Islamic (biddat i.e. religious innovation not in keeping with the true Islamic principles) (3). Although Ahmad points out towards the very beginning of the study that the movement is no longer confined to the urban, relatively affluent Pakistani women anymore[i], she does maintain that her primary focus remains on the women of the middle and the upper classes of urban areas (21).

Ahmad is extremely aware that her comparatively similar (in some cases, identical) socio-cultural background with her subjects, not to mention her ideological perspectives as a progressive feminist with access to the metropolitan academia[ii], opens up thorny questions of representation and objectivity, crucial in establishing credibility of the project itself. Indeed, it would have been a surprising omission if in the process of discussing the “politics of knowledge production” as it relates to the pedagogy of Al-Huda, the author had assumed a putative objectivity with regards to her own political affiliations (8). Instead, Ahmad provides a detailed rationale of her methodology and epistemological grounding in the very first chapter, aptly entitled “The Cultural Politics of Fieldwork,” persuasively arguing that a situated subjectivity is better than a false objectivity that grants only partial vision. After all, as she puts it simply: “Subjectivity does not imply a lack of rigor” (19)[iii].

[i] This is something Ahmad realized when she started the fieldwork. She clarifies that she did not conduct research in rural areas, but did interact with women from the lower middles classes (21). In fact, two of the five dars surveyed in the fourth chapter for their pedagogical techniques have women mostly from “lower middle to middle class.” Ahmad does not provide the exact basis of such categorization.

[ii] The study is published by Syracuse UP, and is one of the titles under the ‘Gender and Globalization’ series edited by Susan S. Wadley, professor of Anthropology at the Maxwell School, housed at Syracuse University.

[iii] In the Introduction to Orientalism, Said quotes Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks to note that a necessary point de départ of critical elaboration is to be conscious of what one really is, and to compile an inventory of the historical processes that have led to that consciousness (25). Ahmad’s rigorous attention in providing such an inventory throughout the study is very visible. This is not to say that there are no occasional lapses into a ‘biased’ rhetorical choice, but that it is a sign of her rigorous attention in providing this inventory that the ‘bias’ immediately becomes apparent, and hence proves the merit of her situated subjectivity.

(To read the full review please visit Pakistaniaat: Vol. 3, No. 1 (2011)