Despite 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.
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.