#WorldHiyabDay at Issue by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

1-2When World Hiyab Day (WHD) was held for the first time in 2013, I was an enthusiastic supporter. Even my friend Maria de los Angeles from Venezuela, wore a headscarf for a day in sisterhood. She went to her job and celebrated her birthday in a tropical country, fully head-covered.

I am a muslim woman who wears headscarves and turbans. I benefit widely from “Hiyab Fashion,” an opportunity I have to be creative and original with my outfits. I do assume there are good intentions and will of sisterhood behind WHB, but as years go by, I’ve got disappointed about the celebration. According to its founder, Nazma Khan, an Islamic clothing entrepreneur, the purpose of WHD is “the recognition of millions of Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab and live a life of modesty.”

Maybe I am too picky, but this statement disgusst me for its hint of sexism and slutshamming. If heardscarf is equal to modesty and modesty is equal to virtue so, I wonder: Continue reading “#WorldHiyabDay at Issue by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente”

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. 

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. 

Reconstructions of the Past: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Introduction”) by Laury Silvers

silvers-bio-pic-frblog - Version 2This blog and those to follow will be taken from an academic talk I gave on the life of the early pious worshipper, scholar of Qur’an, Hadith, and their legal meanings, Hafsa bint Sirin (d. ca. 100/800). I used some of the material for the talk in my chapter on early pious, mystic, and Sufi women in the Cambridge Companion to Sufism, but most of what I will share with you here and in the future has never been published. Whenever I sat down to write this material up for a journal, I realized I would not be able to expand the piece in the way I wanted in keeping with a properly skeptical historical attitude. I would need to hem and haw in all those places I just want to be bold and write what I think, without concession.

I want to tell her story as I have imagined it. Granted, what I have imagined is rooted in what can be known about the historical circumstances of her life and the lives of other women in that time and place. But I want to be honest about my agenda. My feminist agenda. In telling Hafsa’s story, I want to address and produce my own counter narrative to those stories told about pious and Sufi women over the years that hold up women’s silence and seclusion as the height of women’s piety. Continue reading “Reconstructions of the Past: Hafsa bint Sirin (“Introduction”) by Laury Silvers”

Hidden Spirituality: The Life of a Muslim Family By Najeeba Syeed-Miller

The following is a guest post written by Najeeba Syeed-Miller, J.D., Professor of Interreligious Education at Claremont School of Theology. She has extensive experience in mediating conflicts among communities of ethnic and religious diversity, and has won awards for her peacemaking and public interest work.  Najeeba also writes her own blog, “Najeeba’s world,” and can be followed on Twitter @najeebasyeed. 

This article was originally posted at Muslim Voices.

Recently, I was asked to write an entry for a book that will be coming out about spiritual development. Initially, I did as many would do think about my introduction to religion as a topic I was taught in an academic setting.

However, as I reflected more deeply, I realized that much of what I know of my faith comes from my mother and the way that she embodied her religion. Here is an excerpt of how she affected me growing up: Continue reading “Hidden Spirituality: The Life of a Muslim Family By Najeeba Syeed-Miller”

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