religious matters

In Pakistan, women are driving the demand for Islamic content in relatable, meme-sized bites

The new Islamic media circuit in the neighbouring country includes magazines like 'Hiba' and 'Intellect'.

In bookshops across Pakistan, there is no shortage of religious literature – translations and interpretations of the Quran, books of Hadiths (oral traditions of Prophet Mohammed) and stories of the prophets abound. Book stores stock long, elaborate texts, replete with quotes from scripture and anecdotes from the earliest days of Islam.

But over the past few years, a couple of glossy magazines have stood out from the usual Islamic literature found in Pakistan. These magazines focus on propagating conservative values and ideas but ground it in contemporary concerns of upper middle- and middle-class Pakistanis, whether it is about practicing faith, parenting or dieting. The magazines publish lifestyle features, inspirational personal essays, Q&As, listicles, quizzes and book reviews that are written in conversational English. Instead of sermons by aging clerics, they feature young preachers like Canadian-Muslim Bilal Philips, who is part of a conservative, and often controversial Islamic circuit. And unlike the fashion shoots and interminable Page three-style spreads that are a fixture of Pakistani publications, these magazines have no models, or photos – and even steer clear of what might be considered provocative illustrations.

This is the new Islamic media circuit in Pakistan, which includes magazines like Hiba and Intellect, and women-only private Facebook groups like Deen Sisters, whose over 40,000 members discuss religious issues and post translations of Quranic quotations.

Big demand

The demand for conservative Islamic media has bubbled over online in Pakistan in the last few years, leading to the creation of Instagram accounts of Islamic memes, and religious literature produced by educational institutions.

While theology students might have the time and inclination to pore over arcane texts, study with clerics and interpret Hadith, young people want their Islamic content in relatable, meme-sized bites. These young religious people eschew traditional sources of Islamic instruction for articulate foreign-born clerics whose advice is grounded in the world they can relate to – whether it is concerning wearing the hijab, raising children in the faith, and the influence of the internet.

This is where magazines like Hiba and Intellect come in. They break down religious content and present it in English, using infographics and memes.

“There was an opening, bigger than a typical niche, to cater to the reading interests of a growing, relatively younger and more educated group of people, who have come closer to deen [the faith] after sort of spending a ‘been there-done that’ life,” said Zawjah Farid, who helps edit Intellect magazine. “Most of this target group is comfortable in English, hence it is easier to reach out to them.”

Rana Rais Khan, the editor of Hiba magazine, echoed Farid. “If I talk in Urdu in an abaya, people will look away,” she said. “If I wear an abaya and talk in English, people will listen to me.”

Farid and Khan reflect the audience of the magazines they are associated with. Both are 40-something women who came to Islam late in life, have university degrees and extended social circles, and edit these magazines out of their homes, with the help of a remote editorial team.

Women like them are at the centre of this conservative media circuit. These magazines, where women are the main contributors, tap into a burgeoning group of upper middle- and middle-class professionals in Pakistan – particularly women – who are rediscovering their Islamic faith late in life. They have come to Islam through a process of self-discovery, whether through an encounter with an influential preacher, a life-changing moment, or the realisation that there is something unfulfilled in their lives. This growing segment of urbane Pakistanis wants to help others like them to find answers about how Islam relates to their lives.

While Hiba’s issues are based on different themes, Intellect carries a mix of topics, including pieces on fatwas, which Hiba steers clear of.

A poster available for download on Hiba magazine's website. Image credit: Hiba.
A poster available for download on Hiba magazine's website. Image credit: Hiba.

A space for Islamic content

In the early 2000s, Khan was working as a freelance writer in Karachi, but when she would add religious quotations to her work, editors would cut them out. Her frustration at the lack of space for Islamic instruction in what she calls Pakistan’s “secular” media led to the idea for a new publication.

In 2004, she launched Hiba – a Muslim lifestyle magazine that is published every quarter. A children’s edition followed a couple of years later. Hiba also has a website where it sells merchandise including bumper stickers, keychains and fridge magnets and mugs that carry inspirational quotations in harmony with Islam. It also co-hosts workshops on parenting, and is working on a project at Karachi’s Central Jail.

But the magazine has a vision beyond just promoting Islamic sayings. It wants to show Muslim families how to resolve conflicts and build relationships in line with their faith.

Khan said that Hiba started out as an educational publication about families, bringing up kids and marital relationships. “Our vision of Hiba is to build strong Muslim homes,” said Khan. “What we do is we generally stick to the Quran and Sunnah.”

She added that Hiba has since expanded from being a magazine to a “family resource centre” with the same vision of the magazine – to “build strong Muslim homes” through projects including the magazines for adults and children, a comics series, website and community projects and workshops.

Other publications

The Bait-us-Salam mosque in Karachi, which produces Intellect magazine, also produces several other titles including Radiance, a magazine for children; The Intellect Bulletin, an English and Urdu broadsheet that publishes news of events at the mosque and from Muslim countries, and an Urdu magazine called Fahm-e-Deen.

“We wanted to introduce contemporary issues,” said Farid of Intellect magazine. “What is bothering them? What can they relate to?”

While Hiba’s older readers subscribe to the magazine or buy it at bookstores, younger readers come to the magazine online.

“We do not have political or religious affiliation,” said Khan. “We do not belong to any group. We are just a set of ladies who want to make a difference in society. We are trying to make sure homes do not break up. We give them the Islamic perspective and the wisdom behind that, and how Prophet Muhammad strove so hard to keep people together.”

Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist and author currently based in the Middle East. Her twitter handle is @SabaImtiaz. She reported from Pakistan with a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.

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