Reconstructions of the Past: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Introduction”) by Laury Silvers

silvers-bio-pic-frblog - Version 2This 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.

(To be continued…)

[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 North American Muslim novelist, retired academic and activist. She is a visiting research fellow at the University of Toronto for the Department for the Study of Religion. Her historical mystery, The Lover: A Sufi Mystery, is available on Amazon (and Ingram for bookstores). Her non-fiction work centres on Sufism in Early Islam, as well as women’s religious authority and theological concerns in North American Islam. See her website for more on her fiction and non-fiction work. 

(Thanks to Saliha Devoe and Nahida S. Nisa for proofreading and helping with links)

Author: Laury Silvers

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16 thoughts on “Reconstructions of the Past: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Introduction”) by Laury Silvers”

  1. Really inspiring piece to read and I want to read more about it. I loved how you described silence as part behavior and as a feature of feminine for Muslim women. i will wait for the coming parts.


    1. This was very interesting. I too look forward to the next part. I am not going to look it up now, but isn’t what your are doing consistent with one of E S F”s stages in the process of interpretation of biblical texts, something like, after exhausting historical and textual methods, reconstructing the story from the standpoint of the community of wo/men?


      1. Yes, definitely! Especially the need to take public responsibility for one’s interpretation. I’ll be discussing her work at an Islamic ethics conference (should my paper be accepted). Of course scholars like Plaskow and Ann Holmes Redding are essential to feminist make up. My published work on pious and Sufi women and gender owes most to scholars like Brooten and Bynum, but maybe the most to Natalie Zemon Davis. In these posts, I’ll be a more free with my thoughts than in my published work, but I’ll not be creative with the history. I am just take the indulgence of saying what I think is happening without the necessary hemming and hawing.


    2. Thanks! It’s an interesting question because divine-oriented silence is an important part of a spiritual path. But there is a point when it human-orienting silencing instead and thus serves the male-centred order instead of the path.


  2. Laury, I was rereading your Cambridge Companion piece last night and thinking about some of the issues you raise here. I am so glad to see this published and look forward eagerly to future installments.


  3. So looking forward to reading about Hafsa bint Sirin especially after you introduce your subject with “…I just want to be bold and write what I think, without concession.” Refreshing!


  4. Dear Laury: Thank you very much for this text. I am excited and happy to read about women in Islam and at the same time, realize how the policy of silence has been a long lasting tool to keep women invisible there and now and figure out how to break that wall. Thank you for what you do in this regard.


  5. Laury, What and introduction!! I can’t wait to read the next installment. My work lately has had a similar emphasis. I researched the historical background of the Hindu goddess Durga, both in the Dravidian-speaking regions of India today as well as possible antecedents in the Indus Valley Civilization, trying to speculate about who She was in a pre-Aryan, “matriarchal” (matristic) context. We need to reimagine women’s lives (and goddesses’ stories) that have only come down to us through patriarchal channels. Women were more than dutiful daughters or pious, silent people even if they were oppressed by patriarchy. How do we know that? Because we can see it in our world today (Malala, Rosa Parks, Abigail Adams…..)


  6. Thanks for posting this introduction and for doing the excavation work to bring these voices and persons out of the silence and darkness of these masculinist notions of piety. That is the problem isn’tit? Instead of the divine setting the terms through direct experience of the aspirant, masculine controlled mechanisms are at play even here at the deepest level of spiritual agency and intimacy.

    Well deserved TIME to take over feminine spirituality as WITHOUT borders…


    1. Sorry for taking so long to respond, I just saw this. Absolutely!!! This is one of the most amazing aspects of it for me. Malamud’s Gender and Spiritual Self-Fashioning and the chapter on women and the body in Bashir’s Sufi Bodies hit me very hard. I had no idea.


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