Reconstructions of the Past 4: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Women’s Withdrawal is Women’s Piety”) by Laury Silvers


silvers-bio-pic-frblog - Version 2Despite the public roles women most likely played in the first century, hadith, biographical, and legal literature of the following centuries positioned women’s ritual activity at home as a norm for pious behavior. The earlier blogs noted that women were present at the Prophet’s home mosque while he was alive and just after, but that public worship seems to have become a problem for men by the middle of the first century.

While some hadith and historical evidence point to women’s public worship in the early days–including the Prophet’s wives and the wives of his Companions–other hadith paint a picture suggesting that the best women pray in seclusion only. In this hadith literature, it is not unusual to read that good women pray at home. One later hadith in particular seems to offer a touchstone for this view. In this report, Muhammad is supposed to have told Umm Humayd, who reportedly liked to pray with him in his mosque, that the best place for her worship is a small room inside her home.

I know that you like to pray with me, [he said,] but your praying in your room (baytiki) is better for you than your praying in your house (hujratiki), and your praying in your house is better for you than your praying in your neighborhood (dariki), and your praying in your neighbourhood is better for you than your praying in the mosque of your tribe (masjid qawmiki), and your praying in the mosque of your tribe is better for you than your praying in my mosque.” So she commanded that a prayer space be built for her in the furthest and darkest corner of her room (bayt), and she used to pray there until she died (Tr. Nevin Reda, “Women in the Mosque,” 91).

Since the hadith idealizing women’s seclusion so neatly coincide with the later efforts of men to remove women from the mosque, I am willing to risk that those hadith are either not reliable or have been taken out of a specific context and made into a general rule. If the hadith of Umm Humayd is historically reliable, such as it is, then it could only be with reference to her particular situation and cannot be generalized to all women. If generalized, it would suggest that any women who pray publicly (or even in the main room of their home) are not only disobeying the Prophet, but that they cannot be counted among the properly pious. That would mean, then, that the wives of the Prophet and his Companions were improper women since we know that they prayed in public spaces. Not sure why a traditional scholar would want to risk making that point. But alas.   

In Sufi and piety literature, the theme of women’s pious withdrawal may include withdrawing from even acceptable social interaction with other women and family. There is a beautifully rendered story in Ibn al-Jawzi’s collection of the pious depicting a woman’s quiet dignity at her husband’s death. These sorts of anecdotes address, in part, concerns that women’s wailing and rending of garments at funerals, and in the women’s own homes, was a potential source of social and political unrest. Their message is that righteous women, importantly depicted as women of emotional and physical strength, withdraw not simply to their homes but also from the social interaction and support of other women in their homes or neighbourhoods.

Abu Bakr Muḥammad ibn al-Husayn said, “It was related to me that ʿAbd Allah b. al-Faraj’s wife did not tell his brothers [immediately] about his death. They had been sitting by the door waiting to visit their ill brother. [Instead of letting them know,] she washed his body for burial [herself] and wrapped him in a cloth. Then she took down one of the doors of the house and laid him out on top of it and secured him to it with rope. [Only] then did she call out to inform his brothers that he had died and that she had finished preparing his body. They came in, [picked up the pallet] and [turned] to carry him to the gravesite. She shut the door behind them (Ibn al-Jawzi, Sifat al-safwa, 363).

This last line best evokes her dignity, putting the seal on her as a woman worthy of emulation. She did not step out of her house with the body nor reach out to other women in the community; no sisters, servants, or children are shown waiting for her indoors. She is depicted only retiring to utter seclusion. Her dignity is so profound that respect requires even that her name be withheld. We know her only through her husband–whom she honors with her restraint.

The textual idealization of women’s pious withdrawal extends to secluding women from public exposure in the texts themselves. As I discussed in the first blog, reports of women’s participation in scholarly and spiritual life drop out almost entirely from the literature. Asma Sayeed details the “precipitous decline” in the numbers of female hadith transmitters from the mid-second century until the fourth century, when they re-emerge in the Hadith literature again as respected scholars. Early pious and Sufi women were not as lucky as their scholarly sisters. Stories of their preaching, feats of worship, and knowledge of God do not (re)appear until the fifth century and at that time only in two biographical sources: Sulami’s Early Sufi Women and Ibn al-Jawzi’s Characteristics of the Pure, and then with a narrative emphasis on pious withdrawal from any social engagement. We’ll see in the next blog that their accounts of Hafsa either erase her scholarly life or vouchsafe it by emphasizing her immaculate modesty and seclusion, both narratives point directly away from her social engagement.

(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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13 replies

  1. Love these posts.

    It seems that you are saying that women’s leadership and participation in early Islam were not only being erased as happened in the editing of the New Testament and continued on in Christianity,but also that as Islam developed (became more patriarchal) a part of women’s piety is not to be seen in public (presumably by men).

    This must have some connection to the contentious issue of covering/veiling, which I hope you will discuss at some point in relation to these texts.

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    • Thanks! I assume a connection as well, although as NMR points out below, class is a major issue. Female slaves had the same modesty expectations as men and the high status women (who could be poor, status could come from a number of factors such as having known the Prophet or one’s scholarship, seem to have covered more. More later when I get back to my computer tomorrow!

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    • I’ll actually get to veiling in the next entry. But the problem with the veiling discussion is that it means so many things to so many people it is hard to pin down what work it does in gendering a woman. Different times and regions will have different expectations.

      That said, I see an effort to distance women from their bodies in “editing” them for pious consumption. So while we can say that women were taking part in gender-mixed communities and sometimes even leading the remembrance ceremonies, it was scandalous to the larger doctrinal powers that be. So I am guessing in large part the women get written out of the texts and distanced from their female bodies in these accounts in order to answer to charges of scandal and heresy. There was a big gap between what was happening in the real world and what the powers that be wanted. So the texts present an idealized picture of what those powers want, not what women’s lives were really like. The problem….and this is especially why I am posting this as a series of blogs….is that we read about these women who have become for all intents and purposes “spiritual supermodels” and aspire to be women in a way that women may never have been. Not only does it inwardly marginalize women with spiritual aspirations who cannot fit this mold, but it creates opportunities for spiritual arrogance for those who can make it to whatever degree. The arrogance can either be from the woman who prays excessively (we know that people can get tangled in arrogance in the very process of trying to rid themselves of it) or from those around her who use her example to shame others.

      Those are just some of the pitfalls, all of which I know you are well aware from dealing with Christian saints, etc.

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  2. These concepts of women’s withdrawal as the properly pious woman, the pure woman, a woman of immaculate modesty and therefore secluded, righteous women. These values invite an idea that an average female, or the common person, would generally be the opposite, that is, impure, impious, unclean, unrighteous, etc., and therefore must undergo withdrawal and purification.

    Why not this humility by Emily Dickinson, not withdrawing, but reaching for the great:

    “What I can do — I will —
    Though it be little as a Daffodil —
    That I cannot — must be
    Unknown to possibility —”

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    • Secluded = righteous = privilege. I think this is the problem with the equation.

      A common person has to engage with the world in order to earn a living and survive. But the wealthy, the privileged, the elite, can build themselves whatever bubble world they want, surround themselves with bodyguards and CCTVs and do whatever they want. (Oh right- pray!).

      But every person, common and uncommon, needs some solitude to reflect and listen to their inner voice and try to find that divine connection.

      “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only she who listens can speak.” – Dag Hammarskjold

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      • I’ll be back at my computer tomorrow and reply then, but great discussion!

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      • I never thought about the privilege angle. Certainly these concocted idealized narratives for women would lend themselves best for women who can afford to seclude themselves or those who can abandon life’s demands. In historical terms, most of these women were “elite” but while living in grave to relative poverty. In fact, in the early period poverty gave them space to practice how they pleased. Elite women would have had to marry, whereas poor women could go out on their own. Poor women posed less of a problem for the social order. Poor women, even slaves, made their work part of their practice. Many of these women were renunciants, meaning that they refused some or all of comforts of life in order to bring their soul into harmony with God. Some women who could afford a maid or a slave to keep house for them refused them because their house work (grinding flour, etc.) was a renunciant act. Not being “lazy” seems to have been very important to some women. For the most part, they were not the reclusive, solitary women the texts make them out to be.

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    • Sarah, absolutely. I think of it this way: these women are “edited” to be “spiritual supermodels” who both inspire and shame us.

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      • I’m also just wondering who were the intended readers of these books. Nowadays, women readers look at the historical women as spiritual supermodels, but were the original readers of these books privileged and educated men (was their a high literacy rate among medieval Muslim women?). Were these men being instructed as to how to control women in a manner that would give their tribe/social class increased elite status? If the Joneses are keeping their women in purdah, then we better do that, too.

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      • That is the million dollar question. Definitely for other men. These books had to be hand-copied, right? So if they were read out in communities, how did that happen, under what circumstances? And how do the stories take on a life of their own as they are related orally from the books and then related again by someone who only heard them?

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  3. Thank you Laury.

    Brilliant discussion as always and good to be wary of resorting back to another veil discussion and thus MISSING the vital point in the first Hadith cited here. Namely the role and function of khalwah, spiritual seclusion, which after all is NOT a female only recommendation, just because you are focusing on that in these essays.

    In another discussion today we were looking at the relationship between meditative introspection for deep healing versus (that’s how it was put, as in either/or)…healing through companionship.. and I suggested the both/and. In order to keep the merits of spiritual seclusion, we do an injustice to link it ONLY to women and the cultural context of Muslim separation of gender scenario.

    My take is the Prophet (s) was only referring to her INSIDE transformation in deep self-awareness. The kind that is distracted by even the rustle of cloth worn by the person beside you. Again, not as the only aspect of spiritual transformation, since the communal one has its merit as well, mostly as affirmation. Just that some times, we need to learn by being alone.

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    • First thank you! Second, yes, I agree on all points. I’m sure we are on the same page, I just want to explain why I am articulating these issues this way. You don’t need explanation on any of the issues below, but we’re not the only ones reading this exchange.

      It’s a blog so I am limited to what I can discuss in each instalment. But my over all point, as these blogs progress, is that seclusion in and of itself is not the problem. It is the way seclusion becomes idealized (for many different reasons, some of which come from trying to protect haters from attacking female mystics) in a particularly gendered way for women. So men and women both seek out seclusion for worship, but how seclusion is depicted in the sources has a different social impact for men and women now. It’s definitely not either/or, but I wanted to point out how it is used in this particular manner for the clarity of the argument I am making.

      For instance here I am pointing out how a particular insight for one woman (if the hadith is “historical”) is generalized to all women as part of a larger historical trend during that period to try to keep women from worshipping in public or mixed gender environments….and even sometimes in women-only environments. What Muhammad may have meant is one thing, what gets done with what he said is another.

      I know the veiling issue has a life of its own that typically gets us off point (and that we find it more than tiresome and sometimes even obsessional), but veiling is part of the discussion here as the next post will show. In my understanding of it, women may be depicted veiling themselves in such a way so as to demonstrate to those who object to women’s religious authority that these women are not scandals and should be left to teach and practice as they have been. To my mind, many of these depictions are actually offered by allies to protect women’s autonomy. But they end up playing out differently in our social context now. For instance, in the first blog I linked to blogs on Hafsa demonstrating that the conversation on her will always lead back to why women should veil, not on her intellectual or spiritual achievements.

      I feel like I cannot talk about the value of seclusion on the path without pointing out these depictions because of the way it is so often used against us. I just want to offer that historically and narratively we have other options in developing our distinct relationships with divine love. As I am trying to show with Hafsa’s case that one can take time in spiritual seclusion AND teach, socialize, travel, and the rest. Basically, I’m arguing that someone like you, Amina, is not a scandal to piety and the path to love.

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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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