Q&A with Aisha Hasan of The Qarawiyyin Project

Traversing Tradition had the pleasure of interviewing Aisha Hasan, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Qarawiyyin Project. Based in London, she is a researcher in international development in the Middle East, a student of Islamic Studies and a Quran teacher. She has been active in the Muslim community for several years, appearing on television, radio shows, and delivering talks at universities around the UK. You can follow her on Twitter here and the Qarawiyyin Project @qarawiyyinpro.

  1. What’s the story behind the name of the project?

A rare stroke of inspiration alhamdulillah! We decided to rebrand the website in mid-2018 and I was playing around with words like ‘initiative’ and ‘project,’ but we wanted to signify that the website was something run by, and aimed at Muslim women, without having either of those words in the name. That was when the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque in Fez came to me; founded by Fatima al-Fihri in the 9th century as an institution of worship and later learning, it perfectly encapsulates the spirit with which we started the project. We hope to honor her legacy through our work and follow in her footsteps Insha’Allah.  

  1. How have your studies and research in international development shaped your understanding of the problems plaguing Muslim communities abroad versus in a UK context?

International development is a field largely born out of the colonial experience. When looking at Muslim-majority countries, it’s impossible to ignore how colonization, not only as a defined historical period, but also as an intellectual force, has shaped the trajectory of those states and their Muslim populations. My own focus has largely been on economic and political development since the colonial era, but understanding the far–reaching impact of colonization can give some insights into diaspora communities in the West too. For example, recognizing the role played by socioeconomic factors and education levels in our countries of origin, as well as how Islamic practice changed in different nations during the colonial and post-colonial periods, speaks to how our respective immigrant communities have adapted to being a minority. The relationships between those from colonizing and formerly-colonized states also reveals persistent racial fault lines; the UK and its Muslim subcontinent population for example, or France and its migrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa. So many of the phenomena we see today are rooted in these histories. 

  1. The women’s magazine/initiatives spaces often feels oversaturated with discourse that positions Muslim women as empowered and free in spite of Islamic injunctions, not through them. What would you consider to be the pitfalls/limitations of empowerment rhetoric (if any) when it comes to the issues faced by Muslim women? 

I think the biggest problem with the empowerment rhetoric in general is that it’s all relative, especially in the political and cultural climate we are in today. If someone declares something to be empowering to them personally, no one can dispute that. It’s why we see the pornography industry repeatedly hailed as beneficial to women as long as regulations are in place, despite the continual evidence of the [negative] impact it is having on societal perceptions of women. So when it comes to Muslim women, using this basis to defend Islamic practice actually does little credit to the Deen. It is simply expressing that you feel happy with a certain choice. It does not expand on the wisdoms of that particular injunction, let alone speak to how Islamic rulings in totality come together to liberate women (and men) from the constraints of this material life and work towards gender justice. If we believe Islam is a guidance for all humankind, we have to show people that. That is dawah, not simply stating our personal preference.

  1. How does The Qarawiyyin Project (TQP) aim to preserve the diversity of women’s individual voices while calling for a proper, correct understanding in matters of the deen?

One thing we as a team at TQP are passionate about recognizing is that women’s experiences are different. Attempting to homogenize or essentialize Muslim women not only serves to brush over more complex problems in our communities, but also the diversity of expertise that women bring to the table as a result of their varied histories. Having said that, while our experiences are different, when it comes to resolving these challenges, the parameters for discussion are defined by Islam. We aim to showcase how despite our differing paths, Muslim women are able to find solace and solutions through Islamic guidelines. These solutions may be different depending on the needs in the community, but they are rooted in the same divine principles. To us, this is what it means for Islam to be timeless.

  1. Are there certain topics you feel pressured to address by virtue of being a Muslim women’s organization? How does TQP balance addressing women and gender-related topics with benefiting readers with Muslim women’s expertise in any area?

We definitely feel obliged to address gender issues as a platform, and this is understandable given the controversy around women in Islam, which is a significant source of doubt for many. But we are also determined to highlight women’s contributions beyond this sphere. I do believe that solely addressing “women’s issues” can be a vicious circle; if you only showcase Muslim women in fashion, lifestyle, and culture, you will not encourage your audience to think how they can contribute outside of those spaces. It’s ironic because we have so many Muslim women in STEM fields, in the humanities, and in activism, but when it comes to Islamic-related work, most of the contributions of women are related to lifestyle issues or spirituality. By contrast, you will see brothers’ spaces filled with conversations on philosophy, politics, or history. This is not to criticize women – as I said we have the expertise and are excelling in the “secular” sphere. I genuinely feel that it’s because of a lack of Muslim spaces for women to talk about these things, that they feel obliged to revert to more general topics. Our hope is that we can provide such a space.

  1. Who is your target audience? How has the feedback been so far?

Our work is primarily directed at young Muslim women and with writers from around the world, we hope to engage a transnational audience. Having said that, we have a strong male readership as our topics are relevant to both men and women. And alhamdulillah, it’s been incredibly humbling to see the positive response since the onset. We recently completed our annual feedback survey and we can also see a marked difference in the kinds of topics our readers enjoyed and what they want to see more of. Initially, many were expecting us to write on marriage and hijab, and while important topics, there are already brilliant resources available on those issues. However this year we saw the vast majority of our readers were leaning towards articles on Islamic law, politics, and contemporary challenges in both the West and the Muslim world, as well as of course our spiritual pieces. There were times we felt that we had to create more than cater to our audience, and were anxious as to how topics that are not often spoken about by women would be received. It’s been gratifying to see that be welcomed alhamdulillah.  

  1. With increased hostility towards Muslims in Western Europe (especially in light of Islamophobic policies in France) there are some who would insinuate that Muslim presence in largely non-Muslim countries is becoming increasingly redundant. From a developmental stand-point what would you say the role of Western Muslim communities could/should be in the serving the wider ummah?

I think recent events should make us consider our presence as Muslims in the West more purposefully. There was perhaps a mentality amongst the previous generation that as long as Muslims were law-abiding citizens, we would be able to have our masaajid, halal butchers, Muslim schools, and essentially put our roots down in the West as other religious minorities have done. That illusion has been shattered since the War on Terror and growing recognition of the intolerance of liberalism. Our presence in the West is very much conditional, regardless of our citizenship status. 

I don’t think these developments make Muslim presence in the West redundant, but we should use this as an opportunity to evaluate our focus. Rather than aspiring to be the “model minority,” we should direct our efforts towards building strong institutions, active dawah efforts to wider society, and also knowledge production. We are also well-placed to contribute to all these efforts by virtue of being more financially secure relative to those in Muslim-majority countries, having our access to better education, and having comparatively more freedom of speech. Networking and strategizing for the long term is how we can lay the foundations for future development. From a historical standpoint, no civilizational renaissance or renewal came overnight, so we need to play it for the long game. 

I think this is also a wake up call for those who argue that minorities ought to think locally rather than be preoccupied with global concerns. This is a binary we need to do away with in my opinion. Whilst alhamdulillah in the West we are not suffering from war and famine, local and global concerns are converging in many ways, whether in relation to populism, state surveillance and violence, urban deprivation, migration, or climate change. We need to work together and learn from one another, not be divided by national boundaries and deal with our issues in isolation. 

But despite the challenges, we should not despair. A sister in Spain recently put it to me that Muslims minorities are like Musa in the palace of the Pharaoh – this is an inspirational way to think about the impact we can make in spite of our limiting circumstances.

  1. In your journalistic experience, what major ways would you say media falls short in critically analyzing North African politics and conflicts?

One of the things I struggled most with when it came to media coverage of the MENA region was labelling. The term “Islamist” is probably the best example – to the undiscerning reader, it lumps together ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, Syrian revolutionary groups and the Turkish AK Party, the Taliban and Ennahda. It’s completely useless in actually understanding the nuances of different parties and their respective histories, and instead plays into Western binaries of religion and backwardness, and secularism and progression. But even at a more subtle level, using terms like ‘rebels’ instead of ‘opposition groups,’ ‘defense forces’ as opposed to ‘occupying forces;’ language frames so much of how we see global conflict. 

In general there is a lot of projection from the media when it comes to MENA politics. Events and controversies are always expressed in terminology that their primary readership can relate to – many conflicts’ religious or tribal underpinnings are ignored in favor of a more nationalist angle. It’s this kind of mentality that is partly responsible for the anti-imperialist “tankie” wave we’ve seen in recent years, the kind of people that will back Bashar al-Assad and the Chinese government because they are against US hegemony. You see even reputable journalists justifying their framing of world politics by promoting outright conspiracy theories. All in all, my brief experience in journalism taught me that it’s anything but objective! 

  1. Lastly, what’s your advice for young Muslims (especially women but not limited to them) who want to get involved in the type of work and research you do with TQP?

Firstly I guess please do get in touch with us! We are always looking for contributors, and hope to offer new opportunities for volunteers and interns later in the year Insha’Allah. We are keeping the platform exclusive to women’s contributions, but brothers are more than welcome to send their feedback on our content. More generally, I always advise sisters to take a step back and think about where you can contribute based on the specific talents that Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) has blessed you with. These days we spend so long crafting our resumes to list all our experiences and skills; we just need to think about how we can apply those to any other kinds of community work, knowledge production, or activism. And lastly, as our teachers continually remind us, to purify our intentions and ensure that we are striving first and foremost to please Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala). When we do that, He (subhanahu wa ta’ala) will open doors for us.

Photo by Maria Teneva via Unsplash

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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