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Hafsa bint Sereen: A Remarkable Scholar in Islamic History

The Forgotten Tabi'at (Series)

What Others See

Laura Silvers, in her essay, “Hafsa bint Sereen: Reconstructions of the Past,” narrates as follows:

Hafsa said: We used to prohibit our girls from going out [for the `Eid prayer]. But then, I went to visit a woman who had come to stay at the palace of the Bani Khalaf [the governor’s palace]. The woman was telling people about how her brother-in-law fought alongside the Prophet and that her sister [Umm `Atiyya] had nursed the wounded. She reported that her brother-in-law fought alongside the Prophet in twelve battles and that her sister had been there for six of them. Her sister said, “We used to care for the sick and treat the wounded.”

Once [the sister] asked him directly, “Oh Messenger of God, is there any harm in a woman not going out [to the `Eid prayer] if she has no outer wrap (jilbab)?”

“He replied, ‘Her neighbour should loan her one of her wraps to wear, so that she may also be present to take part in the good works and the gatherings of the believers.'”

Hafsa added: So when Umm `Atiyya [herself] came, I asked her about what I had heard.

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Umm `Atiyya replied, “On my father’s life may he be sacrificed for the Prophet’s sake, peace upon him, yes.” [Hafsa added:] She never mentioned the Prophet without saying, ‘On my father’s life may be sacrificed for the Prophet’s sake, peace upon him’.”

‘The Prophet said, ‘Adolescent girls who are only seen by related men and servants – curtained off [from non-mahram men]–or adolescent girls and those who are curtained off [from non-mahram men], Ayub [the transmitter of Hafsa’s report] was not certain–and menstruating women should go out on the ʿeid. Menstruating women should keep away from the prayer area. But all of them should be present to take part in the good works and the gatherings of the believers.'”

Hafsa said: So I said to Umm `Atiyya, Even those who are menstruating?

Umm`Atiyya replied, “Yes. Are they not also present at `Arafat [during the pilgrimage], and for this [ritual] and for that?'”(Tabaqat al-kubra, Ibn Saʿad)

Truly Genderfree

This story further reminds us that in Islam, knowledge is for both men and women; that no gender has the monopoly of Islamic scholarship.

Today, women are looked down upon with skepticism. They are discredited and cast aside as emotional beings who are not capable of religious intellectualism beyond the basics of  practicing the deen.

It is considered ‘outrageous’ or ‘too much’ if a woman does anything more than pray, fast and seek little knowledge from men. It is believed that women’s intellectual contributions must be censored.

But this is contrary to our Islamic history. It negates everything we have seen from these incredible women, how they dedicated their lives to seeking and transmitting knowledge. “Knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim.” [Ibn Majah].

I am deeply inspired by the story of Hafsa bint Sereen. Although there exists an array of role models from among the righteous men of this Ummah, young Muslim women need to know about these inspirational women from Islamic history.

These women were shining examples of Iman, courage and intellectualism – who were empowered because of their Islam and not despite it. May we all follow in the footsteps of these women who left indelible footprints for the later generations.

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