As a young Muslim woman in Damascus, Syria, Abla Hasan would walk down the Hamidiah Market, visiting the sweet and carved wood vendors housed in cragged walls standing since Ottoman rule. As she walked, the adhan – the call to prayer – would echo through the Umayyad mosque and down the market, the low chanting resonating in Hasan’s memory as an insider of this Muslim practice.
Presently, on March 9, 2016, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Hasan presents PowerPoint slides about polygamy within Islam in her “Women In Quran” class. She paces the room and talks about the wording of a Quran passage, now an outsider of the faith looking in.
As a Muslim in America, Hasan embodies both her tradition and modernity as an insider and outsider of Islam. She usually sports a silver-blue hijab headscarf, traditional for Middle-Eastern Muslim women, along with a woman’s dress-suit and pants. Like some Christian families and their churches, she normally enters a mosque only during holidays, believing in personal faith over attendance.
When it comes o her work, Hasan is no different. As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor of the Arabic language and the Quran, she reads the Quran “critically” – as much as any Imam – but she does so to “question traditional interpretation and schools” of the Islamic faith, using feminist and other academic ideas in her interpretations.
In her class, Hasan starts her talk on polygamy by noting the economic and social necessities of marriage and childbirth during pre-Islamic Arabia. Hasan then points to the Quran 4:3 passage, which limited polygamy from unlimited wives to four wives, and established ma’ruf – the fair treatment of all wives:
“And if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, then marry other women of your choice, two or three or four. But if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one or those that your right hands possess. That is nearer to prevent you from doing injustice.”
Hasan praises the Quran’s initial effects historically in the religious communities.
“Islam established amnesty and brotherhood between tribes,” Hasan said.
However, after encouraging students to speak their minds, she criticizes the deeper meanings behind the passage, touching on her feminist thinking.
“We [Muslims who wrote the Quran] don’t add sentences that we don’t need – every word, every letter, counts,” Hasan said. “This is a sexist treating of love – a man has the capability to love more than one person, a woman cannot. It’s an argument of human nature.”
Hasan grew up with this willingness to debate her religion back in Syria, as her parents – both teachers, her mother also an Arabic teacher – raised her. As a woman who never wore the hijab until she was 26, Hasan considered her household a more secular one, much like the rest of Damascus at the time.
“My family was more about opening a dialogue,” Hasan said.
Following her parents’ footsteps, she earned her BA and degree in High Studies in Philosophy at Damascus University in 2000 and 2001 before moving into Lincoln with her family and then earning her MA in Philosophy as a Fulbright grantee at UNL in 2009, just before the Syrian uprising. She earned her Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Language at UNL in 2013.
“Her perseverance into coming to the United States and then seeking her graduate degree – and then with her home dissolving into chaos and having to rebuild her life – shows remarkable courage,” said UNL Hebrew Bible and second-temple Judaism professor Sidnie Crawford.
Crawford, whom Hasan worked under as a graduate teaching assistant, says that Hasan’s critical readings of the Quran break new ground.
“She’s on the cutting edge,” Crawford said. “There’s not much work done on the Quran. I think that interpretation is rarer for Islam than Judaism and Christianity. In some Islamic countries, it would be impossible to do.”
According to Crawford that many readings of any religious text, like Hasan’s readings of the Quran, can lead to positive results.
“One can find a lot of richness, tradition if one doesn’t stick to one religious interpretation,” Crawford said.
However, the nterpretations of Islam from some outside of the religion muddy with current issues. On one side of the issue, some Muslim scholars and general Muslims interpret the Quran for their own agendas, says Muhammed Sackor, the Imam – or head religious counselor – of the Islamic Foundation of Lincoln. This misuse of Islam, Muhammed says, carries on whether it’s for ISIS-brand terrorism in Syria or something as personal as polygamy in Saudi Arabia.
“In terms of religion, knowing the proper channel, you have few people who have spent the time,” Sackor said to Hasan’s class on polygamy. “People don’t have the proper knowledge – or they’re learning from the wrong sources. You see a lot of Muslims out there – but they’re only Muslims by name. You see people who want to do things with the camouflage of religion.”
Hasan agrees with Sackor’s sentiments, criticizing ignorance of Islam by the scholars.
“I believe that scholars working for the political powers are playing a dirty game,” Hasan said during her polygamy class. “They don’t do any deep, analytical reading.”
On the other side of the issue in America, Hasan says the media reports “scary stories” with inaccurate representations of violent or socially backward Muslims.
“They want to keep entertaining people,” Hasan said.
This puts Muslims and non-Muslims at an impasse, says Sackor.
“What they see in the news is what they will use to judge the 2.2 percent of Muslim Americans,” Sackor said.
All the inaccuracies, particularly those believed by Americans, give the Muslim community in America – including Lincoln – a large hurdle to cross, says Asawar Sajid, the secretary of the Islamic Foundation of Lincoln.
“Our biggest challenge is trying to change people’s minds, educating people,” Sajid said. “One of our biggest objectives is for people to understand Islam intellectually.”
The challenges make critical readings by scholars like Hasan, notes Sackor, all the more important for the better perception of the faith by non-Muslims. With better understanding, people could learn a sober reality – including the fact that the Quran promotes the pursuit of knowledge by men and women, and that 95 percent of Muslims condemn fringe groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, said Sackor during an “Islam 101” panel at UNL.
“It gives the re-image of Islam to non-Muslims,” Sackor said. “They [Hasan’s nterpretations] give us our platform to speak. We can work together to give more academic efforts, contributions.”
So, one of Hasan’s major efforts towards critiquing and reeducating Islam not only involves lecturing for non-Muslims, but for Muslims as well. Ayat Aribi, UNL Vice Chair of the Executive Council Multicultural Organizations and President of the Middle Eastern Students Unite, says that she learned greatly about Islam and herself as a Muslims woman from Hasan’s deep readings and lessons.
“She’s always saying, ‘Go back to the basics, don’t let somebody who lived 200 years tell you how to understand,” Aribi said. “I learned more from her than at my mosque for 6 years. We dived into it a lot deeper.”
Aribi also says that it’s this approach by Hasan – of critiquing and analyzing on the inside of the religion – that inevitably helps bring change.
“If you try to fight the system outside the system, it isn’t going to work as well as fighting the system inside the system,” Aribi said. “You’re going to get people to change instead of cause commotion.”
There may be hope in the future for change, if one looks at Hasan’s life in Lincoln. When she finally moved into Lincoln, she says that people actually welcomed her family, saying how “people are nice” and how Lincoln’s Muslim community is “in harmony.”
So Hasan – the Muslim woman and scholar, on the inside and outside of Islam, some might say – advises the Muslim people to keep working at the present without fear of losing themselves.
“Reach out to others without fear of losing your identity,” Hasan said. “People are open to differences, they give you an opportunity. People ask a lot of questions; people are interested in getting to know more.”