This blog and those to follow will be taken from an academic talk I gave on the life of the early pious worshipper, scholar of Qur’an, Hadith, and their legal meanings, Hafsa bint Sirin (d. ca. 100/800). I used some of the material for the talk in my chapter on early pious, mystic, and Sufi women in the Cambridge Companion to Sufism, but most of what I will share with you here and in the future has never been published. Whenever I sat down to write this material up for a journal, I realized I would not be able to expand the piece in the way I wanted in keeping with a properly skeptical historical attitude. I would need to hem and haw in all those places I just want to be bold and write what I think, without concession.
I want to tell her story as I have imagined it. Granted, what I have imagined is rooted in what can be known about the historical circumstances of her life and the lives of other women in that time and place. But I want to be honest about my agenda. My feminist agenda. In telling Hafsa’s story, I want to address and produce my own counter narrative to those stories told about pious and Sufi women over the years that hold up women’s silence and seclusion as the height of women’s piety.
There is a wonderful quote that is the perfect set-piece for the story I want to tell. It is found in a book length account of the life and teachings of the great Sufi shaykh Abu Saʿid b. Abu al-Khayr (d. 440/1049) under a section entitled “Instructive Points.” The transmitter has the great shaykh’s sister Amma–who was well-known for her extraordinary intimacy with God and her scrupulous modesty–exclaiming to her brother after hearing some of his teachings: “Oh Master, your words are an ingot of gold!” He is said to have replied, “Our words may be an ingot of gold, but your silence is an un-pierced pearl!” As in so much of this literature, silence is held to be the highest mark of a woman’s piety; but here the imagery makes obvious what is often only suggested elsewhere. Silence is equated with virginal purity and thus seclusion from temptation. And so the opposite may also be inferred; namely, women who speak are immoral.
That one quote suggests that there is a lot more at stake in stories heralding pious and Sufi women’s silence and seclusion than idealizing quiet humility: in the first century after Muhammad’s death, there was a concerted effort to restrict women’s public religious lives where there had been few restrictions before. There was a parallel effort made over the ensuing centuries in the Qur’an commentary, Hadith, Sufi literature, and other pious traditions to excise women from the public face of these traditions. In doing so, a textual silence and seclusion was enforced on women as the ideal form of female piety. Consider that in Sufi literature alone, women are almost entirely missing from the major sources. Where they do exist, they are typically exceptional, like the near legendary Rabi`a al-`Adawiyya, marginal like the women whose identities are lost and whose wisdom sayings ended up being attributed to men, or transformed into recluses, as I will show happened to Hafsa bt. Sirin.
Those who know Hafsa’s story might object that she does not fit with this characterization. After all, Hafsa is admired to this day by great numbers of Muslims, not just Sufis and is held out as an example for girls and women’s aspirations to become scholars. Schools are named after her in Muslim majority countries. Numerous blogs in English are devoted to her story to prove that women were then and can become now great scholars. But consider, for instance, that these blogs tend to shift the focus from her intellectual prowess to the intensity of her piety, her reclusive nature, miracles, and especially her unfailing modesty even in her old age. This is nothing new and male scholars were certainly subject to these pious makeovers. Meghan Reid has written how by the 12th century biographical traditions projected intense piety and even asceticism back onto earlier male scholars as guarantors of their scholarship. But these stories, recast to link scholarship with intense piety, play out for women in a distinctly different way than they do for men. In short, women’s ambitions should be pursued with an emphasis that leads away from the kind of public engagement expected of men.
To one degree or another, the stories that come down to us about the lives of these pious and Sufi women have been used over the centuries into the present day to teach women that silence and a retiring demeanour, if not seeking out seclusion itself, is the hallmark of a woman’s faith, proof of a high spiritual station, and scholarly reliability. Such teachings are perfectly in-line with more conservative cultural assumptions and Islamic legal rulings that mark a woman’s voice as a sex organ; making speaking up the equivalent of spreading her legs in public.
More mainstream views are not so blatantly vulgar, but can work just the same to silence women by chastising them for lack of propriety. The word I am translating as “propriety” here is “adab.” Its meanings include “good behavior” as well as “refinement of character.” It does not mean just social refinement, but also also spiritual refinement. I know I am not alone in noticing that adab is widely used to enforce an unquestioning stance towards religious and spiritual norms, silencing objections to even the most obvious misogyny. Should women break with adab, the silent piety of our spiritual supermodels may be recalled for us so that we are reminded that our silence is as valuable an unpierced pearl. Sadly, their stories–backed up by preaching, legal rulings, and cultural practices–are so effective that we often don’t need our community to police our voices, we gladly police ourselves considering it part of our spiritual struggle.
Thus reconstructing the lives of pious and Sufi women from Muslim history is a necessary task, not just for the sake of the historical record, but also because women’s silencing and seclusion in the texts affects Muslims’ expectations now of what it means to be a pious or Sufi woman. I work from an already established tradition of women on the Sufi path taking back our stories or Sufi narratives on gender. I don’t even stand in the shadow of women such as the great scholar, guide, and Sufi poet Nana Asma’u (d. 1864) whose poem “Sufi Women” seamlessly weaves the stories of female Sufis of the past and her present. So in that light, I want to share a bit of what I’ve been thinking about women’s marginalization from public worship and how silence and seclusion came to be the mark of female piety, through an examination and feminist reconstruction of the scholarly, unretiring, and socially engaged life of Hafsa bt. Sirin.
[Note to citations: I have tried to link directly to quotes in google books, but some readers may be blocked from seeing them (the results seem random).]
Laury Silvers is a Muslim academic and accidental activist. She is a sessional professor at the University of Toronto for the Department for the Study of Religion. She writes on Sufism in Early Islam, as well as women’s religious authority and theological concerns in North American Islam. See her website for her publications.
(Thanks to Saliha Devoe and Nahida S. Nisa for proofreading and helping with links)