To its detractors, the al-Huda chain of Islamic schools across Pakistan is a driver of conservative Islam, especially among the secular elite. However, to the thousands who attend its classes across the country, it is a blessing.
Take Mariam Afzal, who says she was once so selfish she would take up two spots in a parking lot without a second thought. Back then, she knew little about Islam beyond the basic rituals. A decade later, the 30-year-old credits al-Huda with turning her into the veil-wearing Koran teacher she is today.
“It has really helped me become a better person,” she says.
Al-Huda’s popularity and rapid growth — and the criticism of it as a promoter of intolerance and gender segregation — is a sign of Pakistan’s swing away from the moderate, Sufi Islam-influenced sphere of South Asia toward the more conservative, Saudi-influenced Middle East.
That swing comes as religious observance is on the rise in many other Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Indonesia, especially after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the US put a magnifying glass on Islam and its adherents.
The appeal of conservative Islam to the Pakistani elite — the same elite that gave Pakistan a female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto — has been brought into focus following the attempted car bombing in New York’s Times Square on May 1. The would-be bomber and most of a dozen others held were from educated, wealthier segments of the mostly impoverished country.
Founder Farhat Hashmi, 52, started al-Huda (Arabic for “guidance”) in her home with a small group of students in the early 1990s. Now, it caters to women and girls in Pakistan and elsewhere, including the US and Canada, where Hashmi now lives.
Al-Huda is distinct in several ways from other groups in Pakistan offering classes on Islam.
It offers a structured curriculum and a range of programs, a strong brand name and administration and it was conceived and run by women from the start, instead of being a branch of a male-dominated institution.
At its main campus in Islamabad, women wearing uniforms of head scarves and long robes sit in rows and take notes as teachers lead lessons on the meaning of the Koran. Children scamper through the multi-story facility. There’s a library, concession stands, a range of pamphlets, books and audiotapes.
Women can sign up for full-fledged diploma courses, taught in Urdu and English, or they can be “listeners,” just stopping by now and then.
Al-Huda administrators are vague on numbers, but Faiza Mushtaq, who is writing her dissertation on the movement, estimates at least 15,000 women have earned diplomas from al-Huda in Pakistan alone since 1994.
Most of al-Huda’s revenue appears to come from sales of its materials and donations.
The school is particularly appealing because it teaches the Koran using Urdu and English translations as opposed to Arabic, which most Pakistanis don’t know.
“My vision is that the Koran reaches everyone, because it is Allah’s message to humanity,” Hashmi said in an interview during a recent visit to Islamabad. Al-Huda is “a kind of women’s empowerment program and I think knowledge is the best way to empower women, especially spiritual knowledge.”
Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear scientist and critic of hardline Islam, has written about the spread of religious conservatism in Pakistan and has pointed to Hashmi as one of its principal forces.