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Hafsa bint Sereen: A Remarkable Scholar in Islamic History

The Forgotten Tabi'at (Series)

While taking a course on Islamic history, I was awed to have come across the story of Hafsa bint Sereen. Drawn towards her personality I realized I’d never seen a female scholar from the Tabi’in teaching both men and women. And she narrated so many hadiths!

Hafsa’s Heritage

Hafsa bint Sereen was born in the year 31 AH during the caliphate of Uthman. Her father was Sereen, the freed slave of Anas ibn Maalik (RA), a blessed and beloved Companion of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Sereen was captured in a desert of Iraq, and sold to the companion, Khalid bin Walid who in turn sold him to Anas bin Maalik. As the years went by, Sereen eventually bought freedom for himself and his family.

He paid Anas ibn Maalik an agreed sum, yet in reality, there was no way he was ever going to be able to pay back for the amount of beneficial knowledge he and his family acquired from him.

Hafsa’s mother, Safiyyah, was one of the most prominent women scholars at that time, passing her knowledge down to her children. Safiyyah was born into slavery.

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No one knew the name of her father, neither did she know her parents. She was a slave to Abu Bakr during the pre-Islamic era. When Islam began to spread, Abu Bakr freed Safiyyah and she became one of his rare students.

Eighteen Sahaabah, who had participated in the battle of Badr, attended Sereen and Safiyyah’s marriage ceremony.

Even after Abu Bakr passed away, Safiyyah continued to learn and study from Aisha (RA). She was such a noblewoman, that Ibn Katheer said of her funeral: “There is no Janazah in history after the Janazah of Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam), where they had that large number of influential people attend.”

A Familial Legacy

Hafsa bint Sereen was not only a daughter to Sereen and Safiyyah but her sisters, Yahya bin Sereen and Muhammad bin Sereen, were also great scholars from amongst the tabi’een.

Kareemah bint Sereen – an aa’bidah who according to Mahdee bin Maymoon stayed for fifteen years without leaving her prayer mat except to fulfil a need and Umm Sulaym bint Sereen – a woman of piety and knowledge.

Hafsa learned so much from her mother and due to this righteous upbringing, she memorised the entire Qur’an by the age of 10 and mastered all the Qira’aa by the age of 12.

She became so knowledgeable in hadith that even her brothers became her students – including Muhammad bin Sereen. She was an early scholar of Islam who has been called one of the “pioneers in the history of female asceticism in Islam”.

Hafsa lived in Basra where she organised halaqahs for a large number of students. She was famous for her piety as well as her deep knowledge of the practical and legal aspects of Islamic traditions. She was also credited with seventeen traditions.

Iyas bin Mu’aawiyah once said about Hafsa; “I did not meet anyone whom I can prefer over Hafsa”‘ He was asked: ‘What about Hasan al Basri and Muhammad ibn Sereen?’ He said: “As for me I do not prefer anyone over her. She learnt the Qur’an by heart when she was twelve years old.” (Al Mizzi, Tahdheeb al-Kamaal, xxxv. 152.)

Hishaam narrates that when Muhammad ibn Sereen (her brother) would find something difficult and ambiguous regarding the Qiraa’ah (recitation), he would say, “Go and ask Hafsah how to recite.” (Sifah As-Safwah, Ibn Qayyim Al Jawzi)

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