Reconstructions of the Past 8: Hafsa bint Sirin (My Story of Her Life 3) by Laury Silvers

silvers-bio-pic-frblog - Version 2As discussed in earlier blogs, the sources tend to paint pious women as recluses for any number of reasons. No matter the intention, the message transmitted over time–in so many ways–is that pious women should restrict their social lives, especially their public social lives, even if that means restricting spiritual or scholarly engagement. But what I have been arguing over this series of blogs is that pious and Sufi women lives were not restricted in the way they are portrayed. Thus I argue that despite the messaging that silence is the mark of our purity, there is little historical ground for it. If we are to take the Prophet’s wives and pious and Sufi women such as Hafsa bint Sirin seriously as models for women’s piety, then there is no “sunna” of silence or social disengagement to be a good woman.

The portrayal of the tender relationship between Hafsa and her son is out of character in the literature concerning early pious and Sufi women. When children are mentioned in these sources, it is almost always in bare sketches depicting their service to their mothers, transmitting their mother’s wisdom, or, less often, distracting their mothers from their worship. For all the idealization of mothers in Islam from the early period onward, it is surprising to find this aspect of women’s experience missing from biographies devoted to articulating their piety. Even in those very few accounts in which a loving relationship is depicted between mother and child, like Hafsa and al-Hudhayl, the stories seem to be used mainly to portray the mother as an idealized solitary worshipper, not an idealized mother.

After al-Hudhayl died, Hafsa became close with her student Hisham who seems to have become something of an adopted son to her. She shared stories about al-Hudhayl with him which he transmits and are recorded in the sources. But these stories are not transmitted in order to demonstrate the tenderness of their relationship. Consider that Hafsa’s intent may have been to share stories with Hisham about her close relationship with her son, but the transmitter’s intent was first and foremost to show that she stayed awake all night in solitary prayer and that she fasted everyday.

Playing down the presence of children in these women’s lives seems to have less to do with de-emphasizing the women’s identity as mothers or grandmothers as it does with de-emphasizing women as embodied social beings of which motherhood is a part. Women raised their children as part of a community of other women, members of their extended families, and neighbors in which the shared experience of the cycles of life create ineluctable social bonds. Just because these relationships are not documented in the texts, does not mean we cannot logically infer the possibility of them given all the other evidence to hand.

Given the structure of homes at the time in Basra and the common practice of extended families living in related quarters, Hafsa, her son, and his family probably lived in a grouping of rooms with a shared courtyard and an area set aside for his camel. Her son visited with her regularly. Given the social roles of family members during that time, it is likely that her daughter-in-law helped out with cleaning and cooking. After al-Hudhayl died, his wife probably returned to her own family. Hafsa is reported to have purchased an enslaved girl to do the household chores after he died. This girl, about whom we have no other information, was asked about her and transmits a story about her habit in prayer. She was Hafsa’s unwilling companion. Her sister is said to have visited her often, and although we only have the story of the lamp from her, I find it hard to believe that they never spent time with one another as sisters do. Likewise, there are no stories of her and her sister Karima visiting each other or worshipping together, even though Karima was also known for being a devoted worshipper.

Her brother Muhammad’s wife is said to have been almost continuously pregnant and to have lost nearly all her children. These were hard times in Basra and Muhammad had little interest in business. His work as an itinerant cloth salesman seems to have been more of an opportunity for him to sit with other scholars and pious folk. His wife and children seem to have lived in dire poverty. Given Hafsa’s close relationship with her brother and love of her own child for whom she would grieve so deeply, it is hard for me to imagine that she never came to the aid of her sister-in-law. No doubt her sister-in-law’s own family would be there for her, but in this cultural context it would be expected that all the members of extended families would care for one another.

Perhaps more telling for the silence in the texts, we never hear of any grandchildren or her siblings’ children visiting her. She had twenty-two full or half brothers and sisters. A number of her siblings were also scholars and pious worshippers. It seems impossible that any of their children, not to mention Ibn Sirin’s surviving son who would become a scholar himself, never sat with her to learn Qur’an and Hadith as a child. Ibn Sirin sent his own companions to study with his sister, but not his son who would himself become a pietist and transmitter of hadith?  Just because these relationships are not documented in the texts, does not mean we cannot logically infer the possibility of them given all the other evidence to hand.

So despite almost no mention of these social relations in the reports concerning her, I feel comfortable assuming that Hafsa would have spent a good amount of time with her sisters, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, their children, not to mention her enslaved servant.

If my understanding of her life as filled with family, friends, and her students is correct, then it is impossible, as the sources report, that she only left her place of prayer long enough to relieve herself and get some sun. This claim becomes even more implausible when we consider that the very reports attesting to her extraordinary solitude are transmitted by people who so often spent time in her company: the young men who studied Qur’an with her on a regular basis. In particular, Hisham visited with her socially in her old age, learning from her, taking advice from this wise old woman, and listening to her as she shared stories about her relationship with her son.

Most likely, then, Hafsa stayed awake in worship from the evening prayer to the morning prayer, slept until the midday prayer, then received visitors, students, or visited others during the afternoon hours, performing the afternoon and sunset prayers at their appointed times. This schedule would leave her ample time to take part in the social life of her home as well as teach her classes on the Qur’an and Hadith. We know too that she traveled for Hajj several times in the company of others and visited the homes of elites in Basra. Finally, consider that at least on cold nights, her son, and then her slave, kept her company through the night feeding the fire while she prayed.

All of which begs the question, when was this recluse ever alone?

This entry marks the completion of the Hafsa blogs.

(Accounts are taken from Ibn Saʿd’s Tabaqat al-kubra, her transmissions of hadith, and Ibn al-Jawzi’s Sifat al-safwa).

The featured photo is of the Senegalese Sufi leader Sayyida Zeynabou Mbathie and disciples at a Friday ḥaḍra (gathering) and sikkar (zikr, dhikr). For more on the many female Sufi leaders of Senegal see Hill’s linked article or his forthcoming book Wrapping Authority.

 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

Tags: , , , ,

7 replies

  1. This says it all: This claim becomes even more implausible when we consider that the very reports attesting to her extraordinary solitude are transmitted by people who so often spent time in her company: the young men who studied Qur’an with her on a regular basis.


    • It’s fascinating isn’t it? It’s so obvious, yet unread by most (I have a hard time imagining I am the first person to observe this).

      I think the most problematic aspect is how so many folks read these sources now in such naive ways assuming that everything is a “sincere” account of the actual person’s life. In general, Muslims are sincere like Mormons can be. So they always want to give the benefit of the doubt. It’s not a bad trait, but it can lead to not looking at what’s in front of you and not dealing with a problem in a straightforward way. So I get responses from people saying that they do not believe these transmitters meant to cover anything up or do anything harmful, to responses that the transmitters wouldn’t cover up anything at all because of their sincerity. I reply that the transmitters are sincere, but sincere meaning what to whom? Sincere to their own intentions, which may not at all be our own (typically not!). And that creates certain kinds of readings, emphases, and privileging or erasure of transmissions. So we can say that person is sincerely patriarchal, with the best patriarchal intentions, and sincerely believing that this is the best way and most beautiful in God’s eyes. But that cuts a lot out for the rest of us who have our own sincere readings….like sincerely feminist or sincerely historical.


  2. Thank you for this lively series on an important early Muslima. I have always been mortified by the “silence as a mark of our piety” messaging. The loss of one’s voice and the ability to tell one’s story is a tremendous tribulation. Thank you for taking on and wrestling with this patriarchal interpretation of feminine religious practice.

    I also couldn’t help but wonder, after reading your post, if the transmitter was interested in maintaining his reputation. If the saint is “up all night concentrating on her worshiping” and the age difference is such that she “treats him like a son”, then OBVIOUSLY nothing untoward is going on with this relationship.

    In terms of who she spent time with, that is still difficult to say. While you make a good case for a busy social life, iif Hafsa bint Sirin felt some family members were extremely difficult to get along with, or unkind, or refused to listen to anything she had to say, then she may not have spent too much time with extended family and restricted her interaction to a select few.


    • Two great observations.

      I agree that transmissions often have within them a spin to keep any possible sexual interest above board. Although, I wonder about this situation since she was so much older and the transmissions already mention her insisting on covering her face when it was not required. Typically women who are beyond childbearing years are not considered to be much risk. So I don’t know, but that layer may very well be there.

      You certainly may be right. There is no way to know for sure. Even my argument that she was not a recluse, based on what I consider to be substantial reasons to assume the contrary, could be wrong. It’s a problem when dealing with these kinds of sources. So even more so your nuance on just how socially engaged she might have been. I’m betting on her being more social given that she liked keeping company with elites and the like, having regular students, and at least two who spent a great deal of time with her. As for her family, I like the way you reason it on the basis of the possibility that she may not have liked some of her siblings and may not have wanted to spend time with them. I think considerations like that have to be taken into account, even when we have no evidence of it….because the human element matters when thinking through history. Even with a select few, though, she would have been plenty busy socially and we have to take into account social norms that would have obligated her to interact in some way with her over 20 siblings in one way or another.

      Thanks a lot, I enjoyed those comments a lot!


  3. Fascinating. Thanks for the great work! I think your essay really speaks to some larger questions of historiography (i.e. Historical methodology) as well. How do we get an accurate picture of any historical figure, especially since so many invaluable Islamic sources have been lost or destroyed throughout history?

    You yourself said that your work on Hafsa bint Sirin in this article, relied on two books and the hadith she transmitted. Could we put together a biography of Shakespeare from merely two books, and a few of his own memoirs? An academic scholar could devote 25 years to William Shakespeare and still retire with more unanswered questions than he or she started with. It’s just the same with any illustrious Islamic scholar as an object of study.

    The sources just aren’t there. And it’s a tragedy. One that is truly felt by modern scholars trying to accurately piece together the Islamic past.

    You said we may misinterpret how secluded her life was, or was expected to be at the time. You’re right. Not only that, there could be half a dozen other things about her life and times that we don’t understand properly. From the minutiae of what she did from Monday to Friday, or how her society dealt with race relations, class relations, or even how wealthy of powerful she and her family was. For every source we have it feels like ten are missing. The greater the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder, I suppose. (not my quote).

    But thank you for shining your light into the dark. Much appreciated.


    • It’s frustrating isn’t it?! That said, we can look at other evidence for how people lived at that time to get ideas about what people of different classes ate, wore, and where they lived. But so much of this is speculation. I’m glad you enjoyed what I think of as my informed speculation to bring her to life. Take care. Laury



  1. Reconstructions of the Past 8: Hafsa bint Sirin (My Story of Her Life 3) by Laury Silvers — – Welcome to the World of Ekasringa Avatar!

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: