There is significant historical scholarship demonstrating that women’s public lives were coming under increasing restriction during the first few hundred years of Islam. Despite the differing modes of analyses and conclusions of such scholarship, there seems to be agreement that the Qur’an, Hadith, legal, and biographical literature advocate for increasingly restricted public social and religious engagement for women.
While piety and Sufi literature may have called for and depicted women in seclusion, in practical terms, the available historical sources suggest that women’s “secular” public activities–such as manual labor, buying and selling, teaching, and socializing–could not be controlled. Likewise unofficial religious activity such as pious and Sufi men and women visiting each other, attending mixed-gender gatherings, and, in some extreme cases, women setting up camp at the Kaaba or even preaching in the streets was not uncommon.
But legal debates that are traceable to the first century of Islam indicate that there were ongoing legal attempts to restrict women from official public ritual activity such as praying in congregation. Hafsa bint Sirin may have been at the center of one such a debate transmitting a hadith that played a part in winning women in Basra the right to attend the mosque or musalla (in this case, an outdoor space where large congregational prayers would be held) for the `eids, the two major religious holidays.
As recent scholarship as shown, the hadith literature is a rich source for social and legal histories in the first few centuries of Islam. For these purposes, historians are not so much concerned whether or not a report of what Muhammad said or did can be reliably traced back to him; rather, they are interested what the hadith can tell us about the world of the people who transmitted them and made use of them. Back in the day, it was more likely for hadith to be transmitted out of the need to address a pressing issue rather than as collections of transmissions detached from their contexts. For instance, it’s been shown that hadith about the permissibility of eating garlic originate in cities where people commonly ate garlic, and only rarely in cities where it was not consumed. Thus we can assume that hadith originating from or repeated often in a particular city, tell us something about the issues of concern there.
One such historian, Behnam Sadeghi, has placed and dated Hafsa’s transmission in the city of Basra during her lifetime, and its transmission and use in other major cities. He shows that this report does not just tell us that people were debating women’s mosque attendance at the time, but that it may offer reliable evidence concerning women’s actual attendance at congregational prayers. Given Sadeghi’s more recent work as well, specifically his detailed account of Hanafi legal reasoning on women and communal prayer in Logic of Lawmaking, and now Marion Katz’s work Women in the Mosque, it looks like women’s expectations of public worship had significantly changed over the early centuries of Islam.
During Muhammad’s day, free and enslaved women and men prayed daily prayers together in congregation in his home-mosque courtyard in Medina and in other prayers spaces established around the city. Muhammad and his wives’ rooms opened up onto the courtyard, an open space for socializing and trade which would be cleared when the time came to pray. Any number of reports give a sense of its seemingly relaxed mixed-gender environment. Katz cites a report in which older women remark that during the Prophet’s day and the during rule of Abu Bakr directly after him, they would sit in the courtyard and spin or braid palm leaves. Another report has Abdullah b. `Umar relaxing outside Aisha’s room in the courtyard when he is joined by other men. They are debating a point of the Prophet’s ritual practice when they hear Aisha brushing her teeth. Realizing that she is at home, they call in to her to answer the matter for them.
As those practices were opened to debate over the following decades in Medina and other cities, women’s mosque attendance became more and more a point of contention for men. Muhammad is reported to have said, “Do not prevent the maidservants of God from [going to] the mosques of God.” This report was understood even by `Umar, the second caliph after Muhammad, as categorically permitting women to attend the mosque for daily prayers. `Umar’s acceptance was reluctant at best, given during a dispute with his wife who declares, “By God, I will go out unless you forbid me.” But as Katz describes, major scholars of law were able to interpretively finagle the report to read that women were only permitted to go to the mosque under restricted circumstances. The degree to which legal scholars were successful in barring women from the mosque seems inversely related to the urgency of their efforts to ban them. Katz argues that women continued to attend the mosque in the early period despite legal rulings and changing social expectations of (free) women’s behavior. Law is not always practice. But I cannot imagine that with all the efforts to restrict women’s mosque attendance, that the scholars were entirely unsuccessful at keeping women at home. Katz’s observations, supported by my own with regard to literature on pious and Sufi women, demonstrates that some women were attending in actual practice…but how many, who, where, and under what circumstances still needs to be determined.
Katz and Aisha Geissinger point out that a social order came to be enforced in which women’s social status and sexual availability (determined in part by puberty, old age, or attractiveness), as well as men’s right to control women’s movements, came to be determiners of if and when women were permitted to go the mosque. The social status of free women came to be marked in part by having their movements restricted. Katz writes that while the old women sitting in the courtyard spinning and braiding palm leaves seemed well-satisfied with their situation, `Umar felt it was beneath them. He declared to them that he would make them noble women once more….by kicking them out of the courtyard. Women might be permitted to go to the mosque in the early morning or at night when they would not be seen. Or old women might be permitted, but not young, especially attractive women who might cause social disorder with their mere presence. With a few exceptions, the tendency was to argue for prohibition.
Attending the two annual `eid prayers might be considered an exception to the prohibition of women’s prayers in the mosque. They are perhaps the most important ritual closures for the whole community: One ends the month of fasting in Ramadan and the other Abraham’s sealing his submission to God through the near sacrifice of his son. But according Sadeghi, by the end of the first century of Islam, Medinans did not permit women to attend the `eid prayers. Kufans allowed only old women to attend the `eid prayers and other women by concession alone. Women only retained the unfettered right to attend the `eid prayers in Mecca and Basra. At least in Basra, it seems as if the legal argument made in Hafsa’s report may have played an important role in the legal battle to preserve women’s right to attend the `eid prayers.
The next installment of this blog will be a close reading of the narrative frame of Hafsa’s report which gives a sense of the gravity of women’s growing disenfranchisement from the public ritual life of the community at that time.
[Note: This blog entry only addresses the early period. For a discussion on women’s mosque attendance in the present day, please see Katz’s chapter, “Modern Developments.” As always, to get a sense of popular practices and debates about women’s mosque attendance, Mr. Google is your friend.
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). The majority of citations will be found in the first chapter of Katz’s book Women in the Mosque which can be read in parts through Amazon’s “Look Inside” and Google Books.]
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.