“Islam and Women” (and every possible tangent that has the potential to fall within this category) is an eternally hot topic, regularly pontificated about by traditional Islamic teachers, the average Muslim layperson, and a special breed of folks that make up progressive Muslim academia. How each group handles the subject, and their impact on wider Muslim discourses, is worth a thesis in its own right; this essay will focus specifically on progressive Muslim academia and the unfortunate trend of intellectual dishonesty that they repeatedly utilize in order to further their own agenda. In particular, we will examine an excerpt from Aisha Geissinger’s paper “Female Figures, Marginality, and Qurʾanic Exegesis in Ibn al-Jawzī’s Sifat al-Safwa,” and the blatantly twisted interpretation of an anecdote featuring the famed Tabi’iyyah scholar Hafsah bint Sireen as a case study.
Geissinger claims to delve into the issue of women’s tafseer of the Qur’an (or lack thereof) by highlighting four anecdotes mentioned within the classical scholar Ibn al-Jawzi’s book “Sifat al-Safwa.” The second incident that she relays is about Hafsah bint Sireen , and an interaction that she had with several male students; she then goes on to supply her commentary, as follows:
“Āṣim al-Aḥwal said: We used to visit Ḥafṣah bint Sīrīn. She had put on her over-garment [jilbāb] like this, and veiled her face with it.
So we said to her: “May God have mercy on you! God has said, ‘No blame will be attached to older women who are not hoping for marriage, if they take off their garments, without flaunting their charms …’ [Q. 24:60] – meaning, the jilbāb.”
He [ʿĀṣim] said: Then she replied, “Is there anything after that?” We answered, “‘… but it is preferable for them not to do this.’” And she responded, “This is the evidence for [wearing] the jilbāb.”54
Here, we have the recounting of an incident between Asim ibn Ahwal (the narrator), his unnamed male companions, and the scholar Hafsah bint Sireen . Before delving into Geissinger’s interpretation of the entire scenario, readers should be aware of the following information regarding Hafsah bint Sireen . Hafsah bint Sireen was a significant scholar of the Tabi’een; her father was a freed slave of the great Companion Anas ibn Malik , and thus Hafsah’s family was blessed to have a mawla-relationship with him. Hafsah and her brother Muhammad became known for their knowledge, with Hafsah herself being highly regarded for her knowledge of the Qur’an and ahadith. Many other scholars and students of knowledge would visit with her, seeking knowledge and the wisdom she had to impart.
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Iyaas ibn Mu’awiyyah said:
“I did not meet anyone whom I can prefer over Hafsah.” He was asked: “What about Hasan al Basri and Muhammad ibn Sireen?” 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 ibn Hassaan said:
“I saw Al-Hasan (Hasan al Basri) and (Muhammad) ibn Sireen, and I did not see anyone that I thought was cleverer than Hafsah.” [Sifah As-Safwah, Dhikr Al Mustafiyaat min A’abidaat al Basrah, Vol 2, Page 709]
Hishaam narrates that when Ibn Sireen (her brother) would find something difficult and ambiguous (ashkala ‘alayhi) regarding the Qiraa’ah (recitation), he would say, “Go and ask Hafsah how to recite.” (Sifah As-Safwah, Dhikr Al Mustafiyaat min A’abidaat al Basrah.)
All of this is necessary to keep in mind as one reads Geissinger’s interpretation of the entire scenario. She says:
“This anecdote (hereafter “the Ḥafṣah’s veil anecdote”) attributed to ʿĀṣim al-Aḥwal (d. ca. 141/758), a freedman and ḥadīth transmitter,55 presents a group of pious men in Basra who were in the habit of coming to see Ḥafṣah bint Sīrīn, perhaps in order to hear aḥādīth or inspiring words.56
This anecdote places their perceptions at the forefront rather than hers. Through ʿĀṣim’s voice and accompanying gesture (“She had put on her over-garment like this”), the reader/audience is shown Ḥafṣah as these men see her – an older woman wearing a jilbāb that she has wrapped in such a way that her face is covered. The men disapprove, and confidently correct her by quoting part of Q. 24:60. By so doing, they imply that there is no reason for her to wear a jilbāb at her age, much less veil her face. Given her family’s slave past,57 the suggestion is not only that she is being unnecessarily stringent, but as well that she is giving herself airs as she even exceeds what is required of elite freeborn older women.58”
Thus far, the reader/audience has been primed to perceive Ḥafṣah solely through the men’s eyes, to unreflectively adopt the men’s gaze and its presumed religious authority as their own. But when she responds by posing a question that indirectly points to their failure to quote the entire verse, the reader/audience begins to suspect that Ḥafṣah knows more than they had assumed. The men reply by reciting its concluding portion, in this way indirectly conceding that their understanding of this verse is partial at best. Finally, Ḥafṣah is granted the last word, and with it she turns the tables on them (as well as on the reader/audience), asserting that its concluding words vindicate her sartorial choice.
It is fascinating, in a twisted sort of way, just how Geissinger has chosen to set the stage for readers. She frames the situation as one where the men somehow have the upper hand, and that they “disapprove” of how she is covering herself in front of them. Additionally, she insinuates that this has something to do with Hafsah’s status as coming from a family of freed slaves – and that these men look down upon her for it, and (in reference to some academic debates regarding hijab vis-a-vis slave women and free women) that they feel that she does not have the right to be observing jilbab in such a way.
Consider, instead, the following framework, which is a far more accurate depiction of the story: the interaction between Hafsah and the men who came to visit her was reflective of students visiting their older teacher, as was (and is) common amongst scholars and students of knowledge. Clearly, they visited her often and had a good relationship with her; one could even venture to characterize their relationship as her being maternal or grandmotherly with these younger men. It is precisely because they had a positive and comfortable relationship with Hafsah that they felt confident enough to tell her that she did not have to cover herself in front of them; undoubtedly, in the heat of Basra, they recognized that she was likely uncomfortable to be covering herself with an additional layer, and covering her face as well in front of them. Rather than looking down on her, or presuming that they knew better than her, they spoke from a place of consideration; they wanted her to feel comfortable and relaxed. By quoting the ayah about the rukhsa (exception) regarding jilbab for older women, they demonstrated their level of comfort with her and their fondness for her. Hafsah’s familial background plays no role whatsoever, except to emphasize her scholarly lineage as a student and mawla of Anas ibn Malik ; this connection raises her in the sight of other scholars and her students, rather than being a negative factor.
Hafsah in turn, reminded her younger students of the rest of the ayah, emphasizing that despite knowing about the exception afforded to her, she chose to pursue the more pious action: that is, to maintain her jilbab around them. As well, this was evidence of how she, a female scholar, understood the aayaat of hijab and chose to implement it, versus the constant claims that only male scholars weighed in on hijab and its rulings. This also demonstrates Hafsah’s own standing as a scholar, and how she chose to educate her students in this moment. She not only displayed her own knowledge of the fiqhi rulings of hijab and jilbab, but also highlighted the aspect of ihsaan (excellence) with regards to how a Muslim should conduct themselves. Even when given a legally mandated exception, Hafsah chose to continue observing jilbab with her male students due to the Qur’an’s conclusion that to do so is spiritually better (for the older women being addressed by the aayah).
Though Geissinger claims that “the reader/audience has been primed to perceive Ḥafṣa solely through the men’s eyes, to unreflectively adopt the men’s gaze and its presumed religious authority as their own…” the truth is that she alone is the one priming the reader / audience to view the story from such a perspective. Nowhere in Asim al-Ahwal’s words can one find the presumption of religious authority from the men; indeed, the very context of the anecdote proves the exact opposite: that in this situation, Hafsah bint Sireen is the elder scholar, the one with whom presumed religious authority lies. The men are her younger students, coming to sit at her feet and learn from her. When Geissinger goes on to say “when she responds by posing a question that indirectly points to their failure to quote the entire verse, the reader/audience begins to suspect that Ḥafṣah knows more than they had assumed,” she betrays her own – and the presumed audience’s – ignorance: the assumption that Hafsah is not as religiously knowledgeable, or superior to, the men visiting her. Rather, anyone with an inkling of Hafsah’s status and merits as a scholar would immediately know and assume that in this story, her knowledge will become even more evident. Geissinger concludes by saying
“Finally, Ḥafṣa is granted the last word, and with it she turns the tables on them (as well as on the reader/audience), asserting that its concluding words vindicate her sartorial choice.”
Again, the framing here is strange – Hafsah is not ‘granted’ the last word; rather, she powerfully demonstrates her knowledge and provides an impactful teaching moment to her students. Unfortunately, Geissinger also simplifies and dismisses the entire issue at hand as that of a “sartorial choice,” when it is anything but a mere question of dressing. Instead, Hafsah’s decision to observe jilbab in front of her students is one that reflects a sense of higher spiritual conduct, out of the sincere and ardent desire to please her Creator.
From beginning to end, the story of Hafsah bint Sireen’s jilbab is reflective of the powerful history of female Islamic scholarship, of the legal rulings and spiritual lessons derived from this teaching moment, and of an example of the classical tradition of interplay between Islamic scholars and their students. Geissinger’s choice to dishonestly represent and frame the characters and the events that took place is both unethical and unsurprising. Indeed, it is to be expected from the progressivists who make up the bulk of Muslamic academia, who have a long track record of twisting classical texts and historical context to make up a version of Islam and Islamic scholarship that suits their own particular world views.
While this essay has looked at only one excerpt from a single paper, it is a glaring example of the intellectual dishonesty at play not just in Geissinger’s work, but in the vast majority of literature penned by progressive Muslamic academics. For the average Muslim – and the more-than-averagely-educated Muslim – who may find themselves delving into many popular books on Islam and gender written by well-known progressive academics, it is necessary to read the literature with a critical lens. It is all too easy to fall for the literary sleights of hand and twisted takes of our Islamic history, leading us to erroneously believe in the alternative facts of progressive Muslamic academia.
What is deeply unfortunate is that while the various subjects of discussion regarding Islam and women are absolutely worth examining in greater detail, progressivists do us a disfavour in the way they choose to approach the topic. Rather than adhering to standards of academic honesty, and thus benefiting the wider Muslim discourses, they have chosen to undermine the very foundations of our exemplary history of Islamic scholarship. In order for us to genuinely address the valid questions and issues that exist within our communities, we must begin with a foundation of sincerity towards Allah , and a dedication to seeking the Truth in an honest manner, without projecting our own biases and agendas insofar as is humanly possible.
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