Reconstructions of the Past 2: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Women’s Mosque Attendance”) by Laury Silvers

silvers-bio-pic-frblog - Version 2There 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 describesmajor 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.

(To be continued…)

[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 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. 

Author: Laury Silvers

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21 thoughts on “Reconstructions of the Past 2: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Women’s Mosque Attendance”) by Laury Silvers”

  1. It has been said that mystics of various religions have more in common with each other than they do oftentimes with other expressions of their own traditions.

    Sufism has been defined as Islamic mysticism. So I was wondering if that continuity with mysticism generally holds true in Sufism. Would a Sufi practitioner resonate, for instance, with St. Teresa of Avila’s INTERIOR CASTLE, in which the Castle represents the human soul, and whereby St. Teresa walks the reader through various rooms, moving more and more inward through the enclosures, gradually deepening into a contemplative path, and until finally in the last chapter, the journey reaches the center of the Castle/Soul, and the seeker meets divinity.

    Exploring the Net on that question, I found a Wikipedia page which seemed to me in fact to say, yes, exactly what the saint was seeking as a mystic, so is Sufism. Here’s the quote I found at Wikipedia (see under “Islamic Discipline”) and which makes possible that amazing bridge with St. Teresa:

    “Sufism is a mystical-ascetic aspect of Islam. It is not a sect, rather it is considered as the part of Islamic teaching that deals with the purification of inner self. By focusing on the more spiritual aspects of religion, Sufis strive to obtain direct experience of God by making use of ‘intuitive and emotional faculties’ that one must be trained to use.”


  2. I think the answer to that depends on whom you ask. Personally, I believe there is a direct, raw experience that is then given shape by one’s own cultural, historical, and personal context. So for all intents and purposes–with regard to experience–it is not all “one” because the One is beyond the scope of any one individual’s experience. People have a raw experiences of the Real which are expressed and understood in infinitely diverse ways. So those differences in experienced “experience” can be so distinct that two people from different traditions might have a hard time connecting over them. Sometimes the common doctrine people connect over can be traced back to a common source like the influence of Neo-Platonism on medieval Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mysticism. Sufism has many forms that are in keeping with the different contexts in which people live. So much so, different Sufi orders may feel another Sufi order is not doing it right, less than them, or even astray. It’s like this within and without any one tradition. But given what I’ve seen and read, typically when two people meet who are deeply immersed in direct experience of the Real from different traditions, they recognize a common ground of reality from which their distinct experiences are rooted.

    I like the quote you got there, it doesn’t make Sufism out to be something distinct from Islam but rather a specialized mode of realizing what Sufism understand to be the realization of the heart of Islam, ihsan (doing things beautifully). Although, to be clear, when I say “Islam” I mean that which different people have identified at it at different times and places….not some idealized tradition….but all the ways in which people have understood themselves to be Muslim. And there certainly are groups that are Sufi without being Muslim. I am not sure about the historical precedence for that, but it certainly is common to Euro-American contexts.


  3. I don’t know what kind of negative push-back you may have had or will have over this series of articles, but I want you to know in complete sincerity that I am deeply, deeply grateful for your amazing scholarship and critical thinking in this matter. Jazak Allahu khairin.


    1. Alhamdulilah, thank you. We cast our work out in the world with a prayer that it might make a positive difference, so alhamdulilah it’s doing that for at least one person! Thank you again, that means a lot.


  4. I think you would find the work of Shaykh Akram Nadwi beneficial. He has compiled a voluminous record of Female Islamic Scholars from the earliest eras, with their bios and their influences. Many renowned Male islamic scholars had female teachers and those teachers themselves were very highly regarded. Here’s is one of his lectures on the topic.


  5. I think you would find the work of Shaykh Akram Nadwi beneficial. He has compiled a voluminous record of Female Islamic Scholars from the earliest eras, with their bios and their influences. Many renowned Male islamic scholars had female teachers and those teachers themselves were very highly regarded. Here’s is one of his lectures on the topic:


    1. Yes! Thank you for mentioning it. It is much needed scholarship, a real contribution. Have you ever looked at the work of Asma Sayeed, she does work on female hadith scholars. Not a collection, analysis.


  6. Thanks for writing this! I didn’t really appreciate how “anything is possible” in traditional Islamic law until I read about women being banned from congregational prayers, in spite of the hadith saying “do not prevent” them. Moments like that show that texts mean whatever we want them to mean. I think that’s a healthy thing to admit, and a useful tool for feminists who get complaints about not following “traditional methodology.” Basically the classical scholars looked at this hadith saying “don’t keep women from going to the mosque” and said, “Times change, bro.” Mashallah.

    Marion Katz has an article about this that people can read online:

    “While the modern and liberal willingness to bend concrete norms in view of social change and perceived overall principles has been widely recognized, the extent to which pre-modern and conservative scholars have similarly modified concrete precedents established by the Prophet and his contemporaries has not been similarly acknowledged. Specifically, I will look at ways in which apparently liberating ritual precedents set by the Prophet and modeled by his wives have been marginalized or declared inapplicable on the grounds that Muslims of later generations have morally degenerated to the point that such freedoms are no longer appropriate. This idea has been particularly widely applied to issues of women’s public participation and visibility.”

    Click to access Marion%20Holmes%20Katz,%20The%20Corruption%20of%20the%20Times%20and%20the%20Mutability%20of%20the%20Shari%E2%80%99a.pdf

    Can’t wait to see the next piece!


    1. It is extraordinary once it starts to crack open! It depresses some, but really it’s great because it creates the opportunity for Muslims who follow the schools to think critically about the rules that are presented to them as “truth of the ages” which allows them to make the right choices for themselves.

      And let’s have a group hug around the Amazing Marion Katz shall we? (((Marion Katz)))


      1. As Katz points out, while there was all this legal wheeling and dealing to keep women out, women were going. She gives plenty of evidence for that. Likewise, I saw the same thing with early pious and Sufi women. They were supposed to be staying home, but they were at gatherings and of course some women were leading gatherings. The literature is so extreme given the reality. The real issue is that people take this literature as an account of how things were and *how they should be* now. And, of course, we all know there are too many places in the world in which women have been effectively barred from attending the mosque by law or by habit (make the women’s section near the garbage in the alley, women don’t come).


  7. Interestingly, I was listening to a lecture by Shaykh Ahmed Tijani Sy from 1969, where he spoke of exactly that, that women used to attend the mosque regularly in the time of the Prophet AS and some time after, using this anecdote to stress the point:
    After her first two husbands were killed (Abdallah ibn Abu Bakr then Umar the caliph), Atika bint Zayd ibn Amr married Zubayr ibn Al-Awwâm, who was known to be very jealous and severe.

    Although Zubayr’s then wives attended the mosque regularly, zubayr sought to prevent Atika from going to the mosque, to which she replied with “…would your jealousy cause you to prevent me from heading to a place where I prayed with the Messenger of God himself, Abu Bakr and Umar?”

    Zubayr relented, however, as she headed to the mosque, he disguised himself, walked up to her in the street, slapped her on the backside and walked away. That freaked out Atika, who turned around and went back home.
    At noticing that she was not going to the mosque anymore, Zubayr asked her why. She responded that “…people were now ruffians.”

    To me, that story says a great deal about the hijacking of women’s rights in Islam, especially as it relates to attending the mosque. While Atika, a beautiful, highly regarded woman in term of her religious assiduity and spiritual practice had free access to the mosque in the time of the Prophet AS and his first two caliphs (the rightful and righteous authority), she lost that access when one man, not the authority, cut off that access, first by making the claim of religious(?) authority,and when that was challenged through lack of religious precedent, he succeeded by instilling fear into her.

    I imagine that such event acted as the religious/traditional precedent to prevent a great many women from attending the mosque, which became then the de facto state of things. If someone as beautiful, high-born, highly respected woman such as Atika was no longer attending the mosque, she became the example by which some denied access and the others denied themselves access. I can also imagine Atika saying to her friends who wondered about her absence from the mosque that “times have changed and that women were no longer safe on the way to the mosque…:


    1. That is a fantastic story!!! And I love that Shaykh Ahmed Tijani Sy said that! How great that he read the slap on the bottom to be an underhanded (er, pun) theft of women’s access to the mosque. Because I can see that story being read to mean that he was simply showing her assaults that elite women such as her would be wrongly exposed to–without her actually having to be assaulted by a stranger so saving her reputation–and then quote that report **supposedly** from Aisha that if the Prophet had known to what depth people would have sunk after him, he never would have permitted women to go to the mosque. And Atiqa is the one who yelled at Umar that she would go to the mosque unless he forbade her, but he could not because of the report, “do not forbid the maidservants of God from the mosque.” Katz cites too that she a later report says that she had it in her marriage contracts that they could not forbid her.

      It makes me reflect too on how things have changed at Sidi Ahmed Tijani’s Zawiya/mosque in Fez. When I was there in the mid-90’s, the women’s section was nearly equal to the size of the men’s and equal in access to the tomb. The spaces truly seemed equitable. It was very welcoming. We would go there to break our fast at times in Ramadan. It was a gentle space. When I returned in the early 2000’s the women’s section had been reconstructed to be much smaller, I believe there was no direct access to the tomb anymore (or at least it felt that way, someone can correct me), and it had lost its welcoming feel to me. It was really sad.


      1. I have been relistening to lectures by Sheikh Ahmed Tidiane Sy lately, some ranging from 1968 to 2009, and I notice how much of a feminist he is, and how his interpretation of the Quran and hadiths diverges from the traditional arabic/patriarchial bent.
        I am working on gathering them all into a book, hopefully sooner rather than later.

        Funny you mention the Sidi Ahmed Tijani’s zawiya, as I am mulling visiting it on my way to Senegal (hopefully to meet with S. A. Tidiane Sy) sometimes this summer.
        You just made sure I see it though your eyes :)


      2. Oh dear I don’t want to ruin it for you! It is never wrong to make ziyara, always right! I really hope you write up what he said. Is it just a matter of transcribing to get the ball rolling? Someone can be hired to do that, then that makes the editing process faster.

        You must publish it. It’s necessary for people to see that Sufism need not be mired in patriarchal forms and attitudes. Patriarchal forms have been woven into the very rituals and attitudes of much of Sufism (see Malamud’s article, Gender and Spiritual Self-Fashioning and Bashir’s chapter on women in Sufi Bodies)….but it need not be! There are plenty of examples of strong women Sufi leaders demonstrating that fact, and male leaders who do not play that dunyawi patriarchal power-trip.


  8. No, that’s a good thing, seeing it through your eyes would just expand my perspective! A frame of reference is always welcome…then I can discuss it with mom as she has been there countless times!

    Un/fortunately, the lectures were in wolof mostly, which requires transcribing then translating.
    I have a partner in this so I hope it cuts the required time by half. I’ll let you know when it is done.
    May even recruit your knowledge sometimes… :)


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