Reconstructions of the Past 5: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Women’s Withdrawal in the Literature”) by Laury Silvers

silvers-bio-pic-frblog - Version 2As I mentioned in the last entry, the textual idealization of women’s pious withdrawal extends to secluding women from public exposure in the texts themselves. Sufi and pious women were mentioned in very early sources, then dropped almost in their entirety. They do not (re)appear until the fifth century, and then only in two biographical sources in significant numbers: Sulami’s Early Sufi Women and Ibn al-Jawzi’s Characteristics of the Pure. As is the case with all biographical literature, their accounts reveal the editorial impulses of their compilers, both of whom emphasize pious withdrawal from social engagement in many of the narratives.

It would be wonderful if someone would do a full study on these gendered editorial agendas. To date, I have only seen Rkia Cornell’s account in her introduction to Early Sufi Women and heard Aisha Geissinger’s analysis of Ibn al-Jawzi’s biographies in a paper she gave at the American Academy of Religion in 2014. Meghan Reid’s excellent work is not discussed here because she does not take up a gender analysis of the sources.

Cornell argued that Sulami chose to emphasize the spiritual vocations of these women to strengthen their spiritual authority, whereas Ibn al-Jawzi tended to portray the women as emotional thus undermining them. Geissinger argued that Ibn al-Jawzi tends to present women’s interactions with the Qur’an in ways that reinforce stereotypes of women as less knowledgeable and their piety as more experiential, domestically focused, and individual. I have suggested that some transmitters and editors were protecting some women’s reputations by distancing them from their social contexts and their female bodies.

Looking at the historical context, although many Sufis believed themselves to be in the mainstream of the developing Islamic sciences, non-Sufis (and some Sufis) did not always agree. At times they faced serious threats. Many Sufi works, including that of Sulami (d. 1021), reflect an effort to explain or justify their rituals and beliefs and emphasize their sobriety (and marginalize male or female ecstatics). Sufis may have dropped women or portrayed them in a cautious manner to protect their communities from accusations of impropriety and to control a “proper” expression of Sufi experience.

Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1201) was virulently critical of Sufis. Nevertheless, he admired those aspects of Sufism that he saw as universal to Muslim piety and included stories of those Sufis who exemplified them in his biographies. He wrote from a position of scholarly power which might explain why he included so many biographies of women in greater detail than Sulami and in a more ecstatic light. Nevertheless, since sobriety was highly valued among scholars, his portrayal did not risk giving those women any institutional authority.

The only thing I can be sure of is that no matter the respect Sulami and Ibn al-Jawzi had for the women they depicted, they were not challenging the primacy of male authority. The primary mode of transmission and guarantee of Sufi knowledge or religious piety was through men. So while they chose to acknowledge women’s piety and their spiritual authority, they did so from within well-established androcentric parameters.

In their distinct ways, both Sulami and Ibn al-Jawzi emphasized modesty and seclusion in their stories of women. Hafsa’s biographies are a case in point. Because other accounts of Hafsa’s life and work are available in a number of sources, we can see how their accounts of Hafsa end up either erasing or backgrounding her engaged scholarly life by so strongly emphasizing her seclusion and immaculate modesty.

Sulami and Ibn al-Jawzi’s Portrayal of Hafsa

Sulami’s entry on Hafsa is one of the most austere treatments in his entire book (see Cornell, 122). He mentions that Hafsa was a renunciant, scrupulous, and known for “signs” and “miracles.” Then, he relates only one story about her:

Hafsa bint Sirin used to light her lamp at night, and then would rise to worship in her prayer area. At times, the lamp would go out, but it would continue to illuminate her house until daylight.

He does not mention her highly respected knowledge of Qur’an and Hadith, her ability to reason legally from these sources, nor that male students came to study with her. I agree with Cornell that Sulami is primarily interested in calling attention to women’s spiritual vocation in these reports, portraying them as “career women of the spirit.” It is telling, though, that honoring women’s spiritual vocation seems to require removing them from their social contexts such that, for example in Hafsa’s case, there is no trace of a woman left, just a pure soul that kindles lamps.

Ibn al-Jawzi has a fuller treatment that allows Hafsa some bodily humanity and cites her intellectual and pious achievements (see Cornell, 270-74; IJ #585). But the narrative flow of the accounts ultimately portrays Hafsa as a learned woman whose interpretive choices and piety kept her at a remove from others. Ibn al-Jawzi opens his entry on Hafsa with several accounts that act as the lens through which one reads the others. One pays tribute to her as a scholar of the Qur’an and its legal interpretation; but more importantly, it assures the audience of the reliability of her opinions by pointing out her scrupulous modesty even in her old age.

ʿAsim al-Sahawal said, “We used to visit Hafsa bt. Sirin [to study with her]. She would pull her outer wrap in such and such a way and would veil her face with it. So we admonished her, ‘May God have mercy on you. God has said, ’Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage, there is no blame on them if they lay aside their outer garments, provided it is not a wanton display of their beauty (24:60). [ʿAsim explains], This refers to the outer wrap known as the jilbab.

She queried us then, “And.. what comes after that in the verse?”

We answered “But it is best for them to be modest (24:60)”

Then she replied “That part of the verse is what confirms the use of the outer wrap.”

The two other accounts establish her as a woman of extraordinary piety and a committed recluse.

Hisham b. Hassan said, “Hafsa used to enter her prayer area and would pray the midday, afternoon, sunset, evening, and morning prayers. She would remain there until the full light of day; then she would make a single prostration and leave. At that time, she would perform her ablution and sleep until the time for the midday prayer. Then she would return to her prayer area and perform the same routine as before.”

Mahdi b. Maymun said, “Hafsa remained in her place of worship for thirty years, not leaving it except to answer the call of nature or to get some sun.”

All of the other accounts depict her likewise. She is scholarly, standing at length in prayer, fasting, patiently bearing up under the grief she felt over the death of her beloved son, and most of all secluding herself from others.

Then Comes My Portrayal

In the following blog entries, I will share my “feminist reconstruction” of her life from the available sources. Suffice to say, I’ll be portraying her life as more socially engaged than the way she has been portrayed by Sulami and Ibn al-Jawzi.

(to be continued…)

 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. 

Categories: General, Islam

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14 replies

  1. Laury, thank you once again for a wonderful installment of your research into the life of Hafsa bint Sirin. Here, we see many strands being woven together: what premodern sources exist, what modern scholars have (and have not) done with them, what patterns of authority are emphasized and replicated.


  2. Thank you very much for this post, but I admit I was rather saddened by the end of it. This really intelligent and interesting woman’s legacy, in the hands of the establishment men, was reduced to a mournful, ritual-perfect penitent. :(

    Which is why I’m so very grateful you are providing us with a different narrative legacy. :) Time to shine a light on not-by-the-old-books aspects of Hafsa bint Sirin’s life!


    • It’s funny, as a Historian of Religion I thought, “I cannot rewrite her life. It’s so hard to say anything with any certainty.” But as a Feminist, I thought, “Whatever! Those guys all wrote whatever they wanted in keeping with their historical moment and personal perspectives on what was right for women, I can do the same!” It’s true that this is a well-trod path by earlier and present feminists (taking back the stories), so I’m not doing anything new here. Nevertheless, it did take some self-convincing to be allow myself not to historically hem and haw about what I could and could not say. So new for me.


  3. Thanks Laury.. I very much like the way you contextualize their lives and read critically the way classical historians and biographers portray them. Can’t wait for your “portrayal! aw


    • Thank you! I think some of my posts are depressing, hopefully the retelling will be a bit more hopeful. It won’t be a story, I’m not much of a writer in that sense, but my take on what I read without too much historical worry.


  4. I kept thinking, as I read this, how the same things can be said of how “religious” men have viewed pious women in both Christianity and Judaism and continue to do so today. Either that or they pretend such women never existed in the first place, even with historical accounts to the contrary. I often wonder why these sorts of attitudes are so pervasive in all three of these religions and then I remember they all come from the same roots.


    • I don’t know. For me, I think that male-centered power is common to every culture and then it is given different narrative forms and institutions.

      For me it’s interesting to ask if it was even possible to think gender-equality or even human equality in the vast majority of pre-modern cultures? One of the things that blew my mind when reading creation stories is that there were often other homo sapiens around. The stories were not about the creation of homo sapiens, but human beings, meaning a particular clan while others were not fully human until integrated with that clan. When in history do we get to a point in which it is possible to think full equality–meaning no slavery, no social hierarchies, gendered, sexed, looks, including hierarchies that marginalize those who have whatever is/was considered a disability at any point in time? We can think that now, it’s product of modernity, but we are in no way there at all.

      So in part, I cannot blame them for not being able to think it. But I can hold them responsible for not doing the best within their particular conditions. I think it is possible to say that Sulami supported female spiritual authority from within the male centered world in which he was able to think. Ibn al-Arabi, possibly the most radical of all Sufi thinkers, saw himself in the culmination of Muhammad’s wisdom as he articulated women’s equal religious authority in unequivocal terms. But he still did not think of equality or even gender in the way that we do.


      • Your point about Ibn Arabi reminds me of a question I’ve been thinking about. Do you think the terms “Sufi” and “Sufism” are really useful anymore? Their use is so general now that they don’t seem to have much descriptive value. I just read recently that Mansur al-Halaj even regarded Ibn Hanbal as a “sufi” of sorts. If both Ibn Arabi and Ibn Hanbal can both be described as “Sufis” then what does it actually mean?


      • @Ortega, I think about that in two ways: 1. as a person who studies Sufism academically, and 2. as a person who belongs to a Sufi order.

        1. Historically, who called themselves or others Sufis is always interesting because it forces us to ask what Sufism meant for different people in different times and places. Who does it refer to? Who is in? Who is out? It seems as if Hallaj never referred to himself as a Sufi and the newly minted “Sufis” of Baghdad did not consider him one. In some cases, the term Sufi is retroactive, meaning later Sufis want to make a claim to an early figure as their own so they call that person a Sufi. This is the case with Rabia al-Adawiyya. She lived before Sufism as a historical phenomena existed. I’d have to look up Hallaj calling AbH a Sufi, I don’t know this off the top of my head. It could be true that H called AbH that or it could be a later interpolation to make one or both of them conform to a later transmitter’s ideological needs.

        As for 2. I think it’s useful. :)


      • Thanks for the reply.

        Thinking about it, I believe it was mentioned in Michael Muhammed Knight’s newest book. Also, as I remember Halaj may not have called actually called Ibn Hanbal a “Sufi” but rather just revered him as a saintly figure. I’ve read several about there being this historical connection between al-Halaj and the Hanbalis both in his life and posthumously.


      • So I guess I should say this: It is a very useful category historically because people used the term and we cannot talk about what these people did or what they thought without using the term they used for themselves or that others used for them or against them. Personally, since my order calls itself Sufi, it’s useful for us. It ties us to particular people and practices. As for AbH, if 1/4 of what is reported about his character is true, he was indeed a saintly human being. Mike is a trustworthy source. I’ve only just started the latest, so I’m sure I’ll run across it.


  5. Looking forward to your feminist retelling. “You can’t kill the Spirit, She is like a River, old and strong, She goes on and on.”


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