Reconstructions of the Past 3: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Hafsa’s Hadith”) by Laury Silvers


silvers-bio-pic-frblog - Version 2If you’ve read Part 2, then you know we’ve been talking about how the literature demonstrates that there were attempts in the early period to bar women from mosque attendance and even attendance at the prayers for the two `eids. Our hero, Hafsa bint Sirin, seems to have been part of winning women the right in Basra to attend the `eid prayers. She does so by making a legal argument through the transmission of a hadith.

Hadith are typically transmitted with a narrative frame that describes the circumstances that prompted Muhammad’s reported words or actions; sometimes that narrative frame also includes the circumstances for the transmission of the report itself.  Hafsa’s hadith is the second kind. Since Hafsa’s hadith can be reliably traced back to her place and time, and since we can triangulate its circumstances with other evidence, I am going to accept that her narrative frame is a reasonable account of her telling of it.

I am going to unpack the frame to give some sense of how she argued for women’s right to attend the `eid prayers. And here is where my imagination comes most into play and I will begin to significantly part ways with careful historical writing. To be sure, my imagination is historically grounded. But I’m going just going to tell it like I think it was. And in later blogs, in the reconstruction of her life story, I’m going to tell it as I would have it be.

I will quote the hadith in full at the beginning, then unpack it in parts showing how the narrative frame tells us something about 1. how these reports were used in legal conversations, 2. Hafsa’s role as a discussant in this particular legal question, and 3. the intellectual and ritual lives of women at the time. 

Hafsa said: We used to prohibit our girls from going out [for the `Eid prayer]. But then, I went to visit a woman who had come to stay at the palace of the Bani Khalaf [the governor’s palace]. The woman was telling people about how her brother-in-law fought alongside the Prophet and that her sister [Umm `Atiyya] had nursed the wounded. She reported that her brother-in-law fought alongside the Prophet in twelve battles, and that her sister had been there for six of them. Her sister said, “We used to care for the sick and treat the wounded.”

Once [the sister] asked him directly, “Oh Messenger of God, is there any harm in a woman not going out [to the `Eid prayer] if she has no outer wrap (jilbab)?”

“He replied, ‘Her neighbor should loan her one of her own wraps to wear, so that she may also be present to take part in the good works and the gatherings of the believers.'”

Hafsa added: So when Umm `Atiyya [herself] came, I asked her about what I had heard.

Umm `Atiyya replied, “On my father’s life may he be sacrificed for the Prophet’s sake, peace upon him, yes.” [Hafsa added:] She never mentioned the Prophet without saying, ‘On my father’s life may he sacrificed for the Prophet’s sake, peace upon him’.”

‘The Prophet said, ‘Adolescent girls who are only seen by related men and servantscurtained off [from non-mahram men]–or adolescent girls and those who are curtained off [from non-mahram men], Ayub [the transmitter of Hafsa’s report] was not certain–and menstruating women should go out on the ʿeid. The menstruating women should keep away from the prayer area. But all of them should be present to take part in the good works and the gatherings of the believers.'”

Hafsa said: So I said to Umm `Atiyya, Even those who are menstruating?

Umm `Atiyya replied, “Yes. Are they not also present at `Arafat [during the pilgrimage], and for this [ritual] and for that?'”

Hafsa visited well-known female and male scholars and was a well-respected scholar of hadith and Qur’an who taught male and female students out of her home. Perhaps while sitting in one of these scholarly circles, a discussion arguing for excluding women from attending the mosque was raised and an argument was made for it. Hafsa disagrees. She has heard a Hadith that can be used to argue for the exact opposite. In fact, this report demonstrates that women not only attended the mosque for `eid prayers during the Prophet’s day, but that Muhammad insisted that women attend even if they are menstruating or sexually vulnerable. But Hafsa does not just relay the hadith to her companions and hope for the best, rather using the hadith as a proof-text, she argued brilliantly for women’s right to attend the prayer.

She starts out by rhetorically taking the side of those arguing against women attending ʿEid prayers. It is a disarming ploy. She begins by saying, “We used to prohibit our girls from going out [for the `eid prayer].”  “But then!” she adds. The “but then” indicating that something changed her mind. It is as if she is saying, “Really, fellows, I’m on your side!” It is a rhetorical claim that sets the whole story up as her objective discovery of the facts of the matter.

After that move, she establishes her own authority and that of the secondary transmitter of the hadith by pointing out (1) their connections to political elites. (2) Then she points out the unassailable moral authority of the primary transmitter as a woman who went into battle with the Prophet, (3) which also demonstrates the transmitter had the opportunity to hear these words directly from the Prophet thus guaranteeing the accuracy of the tradition itself. In other words, these are women whose opinion should be taken seriously.

Hafsa said: We used to prohibit our girls from going out [for the `Eid prayer]. But then, (1) I went to visit a woman who had come to stay at the palace of the Bani Khalaf [the governor’s palace]. (2) The woman was telling people about how her brother-in-law fought alongside the Prophet and that her sister [Umm `Atiyya] had nursed the wounded. She reported that her brother-in-law fought alongside the Prophet in twelve battles, and that her sister had been there for six of them. Her sister said, “We used to care for the sick and treat the wounded.”

(3) Once [the sister] asked him directly, “Oh Messenger of God, is there any harm in a woman not going out [to the `Eid prayer] if she has no outer wrap (jilbab)?”

Here is where she begins laying out her argument. The Prophet’s response to Umm `Atiyya’s question establishes three points: (1) Umm `Atiyya’s question and Muhammad’s answer begin with the assumption that women had already been attending the ʿeid prayer. After all, the question would make no sense if women were not already attending. So it sets a precedent. (2) Attending `eid benefits women’s moral character. And (3) While acknowledging the need for modesty, it asserts that women are not simply permitted to attend, but Muhammad urged them to attend.

Once she asked him directly, “Oh God’s Messenger, is there any harm in a woman not going out [to the `eid prayer] if she has no outer wrap (jilbab)?”

“He replied, ‘Her neighbor should loan her one of her own wraps to wear, so that she may also be present to take part in the good works and the gatherings of the believers.'”

Now, while any reliable hadith narrator would seek out confirmation of the report, the rhetorical tenor of the opening to her argument–taking the side of the opposing opinion–suggests that she continued to use this device. In this next part, she sounds like she nevertheless remained wary about this permission. She is letting her listeners know that she cannot be swayed from prohibiting women’s mosque attendance so easily!

Hafsa added: So when Umm `Atiyya [herself] came, I asked her about what I had heard.

When she asks Umm ʿAtiyya, Umm `Atiyya confirms the report, swearing on her father’s life, and relays what she heard directly from the Prophet to Hafsa. This direct report from Umm `Atiyya shortens and strengthens the line of transmission making the report even more reliable. The version of the report she hears directly from Umm `Atiyya builds on the argument that the Prophet insisted all women go to the mosque as he insists that even sexually vulnerable women and women who are menstruating should go.

Umm `Atiyya replied, “On my father’s life may he be sacrificed for the Prophet’s sake, peace upon him, yes.” [Hafsa added:] She never mentioned the Prophet without saying, ‘On my father’s life may he sacrificed for the Prophet’s sake, peace upon him’.”

‘The Prophet said, ‘Adolescent girls who are only seen by related men and servantscurtained off [from non-mahram men]–or adolescent girls and those who are curtained off [from non-mahram men], Ayub [the transmitter of Hafsa’s report] was not certain–and menstruating women should go out on the ʿeid. The menstruating women should keep away from the prayer area. But all of them should be present to take part in the good works and the gatherings of the believers.'”

But Hafsa continues to play the part of the skeptic in her transmission!

Hafsa said: So I said to Umm `Atiyya, “Even those who are menstruating?”

In other words, how can it be that menstruating women who cannot even perform the prayer itself should go?!

In the closing words of her case, Hafsa shares Umm ʿAtiyya’s answer to this question sealing her argument with a legal analogy. Umm `Atiyya states with clarity that the attendance of menstruating women is certainly permissible because it is legally analogous to their attendance at other rituals.

Umm `Atiyya replied, “Yes. Are they not also present at `Arafat [during the pilgrimage], and for this [ritual] and for that?'”

The narrative frame of Hafsa’s hadith gives us some insight into scholarly women’s experience in legal discussions of the day. Asma Sayeed writes in some detail about a number of female hadith transmitters whose transmissions demonstrate their active engagement in legal discussions. All evidence points to Hafsa’s close involvement in the scholarly circles in Basra and that her opinion was taken seriously. I believe that Hafsa helped women retain the right to attend the `eid prayers in Basra at least. But the report also indicates the kinds of struggles women were facing in their public ritual lives, and so it gives a sense of the gravity of the efforts to disenfranchise women from the public ritual life of the community at that time.

(To be continued…)

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.

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Categories: General, Islam, Ritual

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12 replies

  1. This has been very interesting to read. I edited a book by a very nice Muslim fellow last year, but he didn’t write about Hafsa Bint Sirin. It’s good to know about her! Why don’t all the men in the madrassas teach her hadith? Thanks for writing this series. When’s the next part??

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    • Oh what was the book? I’d love to know.

      So hadith transmitted about women are taught, but the way that the women as scholars are “managed” women end up being marginalized. I mentioned a bit of that in the introduction blog to this series. Hafsa bint Sirin is highly respected, her story told often, but in such a way as to emphasize her piety and penchant for seclusion and withdrawal from her social world. I’m trying to show that narrative of her reclusive nature is false and in the process show how ambitious, scholarly women these days are taught that they can be scholars…but in a less public way then men. Read that blog I linked to that tells her story in large part to get why women should be more modest. It’s a trip.

      This is an old story. Aisha Geissinger has a book coming out this year show how the early and medieval sources quote women’s transmissions in a way that marginalizes them, to deauthorize them in a way. It just utterly obvious how it’s done once she points it out. Now women’s hadith are taught to show that women were always a part of the tradition….which they were….but it’s more complicated than that as Geissinger’s work, just mentioned, and Asma Sayeed’s work on women hadith transmitters shows.

      In one sense, one of the problems with Akram Nadwi’s impressive collection of female hadith transmitters (mentioned by a commentator on the last blog entry) is that it doesn’t acknowledge these complexities (which really, why should it, that wasn’t what he was trying to do. He was trying to document these women’s existence and their contributions), but people now use to act like things were equal in the past or that there were no issues. The number of female scholars or religious leaders is a drop in the bucket of the number of male scholars and only the most exceptional women had any real authority. So it perpetuates a male-centered system of religious authority while pretending it’s inclusive.

      As soon as I can, I’ll get the next part readied. Within the next couple of weeks I think, then it’s up to FAR when they can fit it in. But I’m so excited that some people are enjoying this! It’s very gratifying! Thank you.

      This is becoming an interesting process. I’m trying to keep the language non-academic. It’s a real experiment to allow myself to let go and speak more naturally than I am used to. I’m not there yet….but I’m enjoying it.

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  2. Interesting perspective and narrative, really enjoying the Rahmanian (if that’s even a word) approach to your critique of Hadith, has provided for an interesting discussion within the committee of the masjid I study at.

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  3. Thank you for posting these. Aside from the substantial depth and solid content of your posts it is great that you chose blogging as a way of disseminating it. Blogging bypasses the politics of knowledge production that I imagine would have seen your writing be chopped to pieces and reshaped in something quite different. Also it is great to see that effective work of engaging with the tradition does not have to be confined to obscure academic journals and specialized jargon. Blogging makes it more immediate and accessible with the added advantage of accumulative comments at the end. Your posts will be great addition to reading list of a few of my courses, like Islam and Gender course.
    Thank you!
    Mahdi Tourage, PhD
    Associate Professor of Religious Studies, and Social Justice and Peace Studies
    Dept. of Religion and Philosophy
    King’s University College, London ON, Canada

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    • Mahdi,
      Thank you for your kind words and observations regarding my post. It’s always a delight to have those within the academy as well as those outside of it’s hierarchal structure to appreciate the diverse issues addressed on FAR.

      Cynthia

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    • Thank you! It’s an odd thing, sometimes you need to say something so specialized that it really can only go out to your peers. But this really seemed like the public potential was greater than the academic potential, I hope it makes a difference. I was really glad to hear it’s being discussed in a mosque committee. And I cannot tell you how gratifying it is that you might teach it. Mahdi, I would love to see you write something for a broad audience. Your work deserves it. Thank you!

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  4. Hafsaa bint Seereen was also known for establishing her own mosque inside her house. While she fought for the rights of women to attend salaah in congregation, it would seem this was not the state she preferred for herself. She also established that women who leave their houses must leave properly attired.

    What say you to the proof that the Mutazilas, those who rejected tradition and set up an interpretation of Islam which privileged reason over everything else, had almost zero women scholars in their ranks, and yet the traditionalists, about whom you complain so much, are the ones whose approach established women like Hafsaa bint Seereen and Sitt Ar Rakb as authorities in their own ranks?

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    • I appreciate this comment, thank you.

      I think we would differ a bit on how we read the sources. I don’t see in the earliest accounts that the room within her house she is said to have prayed in alone was a “mosque.” But I’ll get to that in a later blog. But ours may be two different and fair readings of the sources.

      On other issues, I’ve never brought up the Mu`tazila in these blogs. I’m not interested in them personally, although other Muslim feminists are. Perhaps your question would be better directed toward them?

      It’s so hard to get a full picture of what a person thinks in a blog, let alone in a comment. If you are interested (and no reason for you to be), my position is articulated more clearly in my chapter in the Cambridge Companion to Sufism. As for the hadith scholars, I’ve cited Asma Sayeed’s book on this website a few times. Also you might be interested in Aisha Geissinger’s new book on tafsir, Gender and Muslim Constructions of Exegetical Authority. They know the sources and get at a level of complexity I could not claim for myself.

      All the best, and peace even in the midst of disagreement, Laury

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  1. “Reconstructions of the Past: Hafsa bint Sirin” (8 blog entries published on Feminism and Religion) | Laury Silvers

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