Seventh in my series on Hafsa bint Sirin. I pause in my story of Hafsa's life to consider classical storytelling about her life and its intents, specifically motherhood, before the final thread next week where I share what I think her social life was really like. A veiled woman in a western manuscript depicting the actions
Earlier threads detailed how the sources tend to paint pious women as recluses. The message over time is that good women 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 threads is that pious and Sufi women lives were not restricted in the way they are portrayed.
Despite messaging that silence is purity, there is little historical ground for it. If we take the examples Prophet’s family and early pious and Sufi women seriously, then there is no “sunna” of silence or social disengagement to be a good woman.
Consider that the portrayal of the tender relationship between Hafsa and her son is out of character in most accounts of early pious and Sufi women.

For more detail on these stories see my piece, "Early Pious Mystic and Sufi Women" linked here.
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. There are a few examples of women lamenting the birth of a c
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. A veiled woman in a western manuscript depicting the actions
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.
While we can imagine the real life scene of Hafsa sharing her grief and stories of her son’s devotion with Hisham, the student who stepped into that gap in her life, the transmitters are sharing them for their own purposes.
Najam Haider @nhaider74 calls this kind of historical storytelling “rhetoricizing,” in which historians, biographers, and transmitters took stories--often well-known to their audience--and reframed them to make a point.…
Recall that Sulami and Ibn al-Jawzi tell her story to different ends. Sulami disembodies her, turning her into a luminous soul to vouch for her sanctity, while Ibn al-Jawzi gives small details of her life to diminish her scholarly authority.
Ibn al-Jawzi’s framing of the story of the tenderness of her relationship with her son and Hisham was both to diminish her authority and argue that the exemplars of womanhood stay awake all night in solitary prayer and fast every day. So should you.
Again, in most accounts of mothers in early pious and Sufi women, with some exceptions, the stories seem to be used to portray the mother as an idealized solitary worshipper, not an idealized mother. Ibn al-Jawzi was the same.
(Anyone interested in the notions of motherhood past and present in Islam should check out the work of Irene Oh and Avner Giladi. I’ll link to Giladi’s work here since it is all historical detail about this period.)…
So playing down the presence of children in these women’s lives seems to have less to do with deemphasizing 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.
While the previous threads have mainly been about the efforts of transmitters to tell Hafsa bint Sirin’s life to their own ends, next time I’ll complete this series by sharing what social history can say about the lives of early Muslim women and the take away for Hafsa’s life.
Hint: She had a busy social life to the point that we have to ask, when was this supposedly solitary woman ever alone? (Okay, she was not like these highly elite women who are listening to music with cups of who knows what in their hands, but she had a very busy social life.) Abbasid era women, elite, listening to someone play a string
As always, if you like the way I think about history, you may like my novels, The Sufi Mysteries Quartet. These kinds of observations about women in history are woven into an emotionally riveting whodunit set in Baghdad in Abbasid days. 💚
Links to get my historical mystery series on all e-book platforms and paperbacks online are available on the front page of my website. The academic editions are also available on order from your local bookstore. To be read in order, start with The Lover!

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More from @waraqamusa

25 Apr
Sixth in my series on Hafsa bint Sirin. I continue the story of Hafsa’s life, here we touch on her elite status, her students, her hadith transmissions, and her personal losses (with a touch of plague). Image of medieval manuscript of men preparing a man for buri
When we last left Hafsa, she earning her mother’s ire for taking her father’s side in his multiple marriages, especially the niece of Anas ibn Malik. The match raised him, and his children, to family of one of the Prophet’s companions.
Sirin’s efforts to raise his and his family’s social status ensured his spiritually and intellectually precocious children, had every opportunity for success. It is, in part, on him that she was a guest of the Governor of Basra and took part in an elite legal debate while there.
Read 31 tweets
11 Apr
The fifth Hafsa bint Sirin thread. Despite taking part in legal debates as a social and intellectual elite and a well-known Qur’an reciter in her day, she comes to be known in later sources for being a pious recluse. Grrr. So how and why? Artist Habiba El-Sayed, "Shared Pain." two clay arabesque shapes that are fired dark brown except t
As I mentioned in the last thread, the idealization of women’s pious withdrawal in the world extends to secluding women from public exposure in the texts themselves, which is exactly why they are at the centre of my novels, The Sufi Mystery Quartet.
Sufi and pious women were mentioned in very early sources, then dropped almost in their entirety, reappearing in the 5th century in only in two biographical sources in significant numbers: Sulami’s Early Sufi Women (Dhikr) and Ibn al-Jawzi’s Characteristics of the Pure (Sifat). The cover of Cornell's introduction and translation to SulamA cover of an Arabic edition of Ibn al-Jawzi's Sifat al-safw
Read 29 tweets
2 Apr
Master Thread for my novels, The Sufi Mysteries Quartet, and my Twitter threads on the history that informs them. A 1918 photograph by Sven Hedin of a Jewish woman knocking o
The Quartet is available in reader editions (e-book and paperback) and academic editions (paperback only) with glossaries. The academic editions have reading questions and an assignment. e-books are on most platforms, paperbacks on order or from Amazon.
The Lover. Zaytuna wants to be left to her asceticism and nurse her dark view of life. But when a girl begs her to solve the murder of a friend, she must face the suffering of the vulnerable of Baghdad and the legacy of her mother, an ecstatic whose love for God eclipsed all. An image of the e-book for The Lover. Imran Khan writes, &qu
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28 Mar
Second in my series about Hafsa bint Sirin (d. 719), Muslim women’s religious life and the history that informs the world of my novels The Sufi Mysteries. Today we look at Hafsa bint Sirin’s role in securing women the right to attend the Eid prayer in Basra. A manuscript image of two M...
I know this seems odd to some, that it was ever thought impermissible, as Eid prayer is typically attended by the whole family. Alas, it was once. And it may be Hafsa who helped make today’s openness to all a thing. A recent photograph of youn...
Before the Hafsa threads, I looked at women’s stubborn piety in the face of some men’s eagerness to push them to the sidelines of religious authority and public religious practice.
Read 35 tweets
7 Mar
Early pious and mystic women were famous for their stubborn trust in their knowledge of God and making their own way in a world that was threatening to exclude them. A taste of early Sufi women's authority in thread of twenty-three tweets. "Bronze Carpet": ...
Some of what follows may be familiar to you if you've read my novels, especially The Lover. Zaytuna and Tein's mother is a composite of early Sufi women and her life story and dialogue and is adapted from these sources.
Unfortunately, Women almost entirely disappear from the biographies of Sufis by the 5th/11th century. We argue about why. I think Sara Abdel Latif is right to point at a complex of reasons, an important one being the real risk of violence and shunning over accusations of impiety. Cover of Alexander Knysh's ...
Read 31 tweets

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