At our halaqa (Quranic study circle) this week, I was reminded by one of the sisters about the story of Hafsah bint Umar (ra), one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). We hear so much about A’isha and Umm Salama (ra), and rightfully so, but in the story of Hafsah, there is something very significant to ruminate, beyond just the factual content of her life, as narrated in the tradition.
Firstly, she was the daughter of Umar (ra), the second Caliph and a dear companion to the Prophet (saw), and a sense of her character, which seeps through the various narrations, indicates that like him, she was strong-willed, bold and outspoken. Incidentally, she also inherited some of his famed temper. She loved her father very dearly, and it is narrated that she wept incessantly at his death. (Sahih Bukhari)
Hafsah (ra) was literate, a great feat indeed, for anyone, man or woman, of her time. It is narrated that she was instructed by Shifa’ bint Abdullah (ra), another woman who deserves much accolade, who also taught Hafsah some medicinal healing. (Musnad, Imam Ahmad) The point being – the Prophet (saw), illiterate himself, had in his household, an educated woman.
The most striking aspect of Hafsah’s (ra) life, for me, is that she was entrusted with the only existing manuscript of the Qur’an, after the passing of Umar (ra). This, I believe, is where we need to pause, and reflect.
The Qur’an is the essence and integral of Islam, it is the scripture, the basis for law and the spiritual nexus of the religion. It’s centrality in Islam is pivotal – Islam, as a way of Being, rests on the very existence of the Qu’ran. History tells us that after the death of the Prophet (saw), during the time of Abu Bakr (ra), the prominent companions feared the loss of the Qur’an (the culture being largely oral), due to the loss of many of its memorizers, and thus undertook to collate and compile the first Qur’anic manuscript. After Abu Bakr (ra), it was passed to Umar (ra), who left it to his daughter – Hafsah (ra). (Sahih Bukhari)
Umar (ra) is often criticized as having being overly harsh when it came to issues about women, and in some cases, rightfully so. Yet, despite himself, he decided that the one person in the entire Medinan community, comprising of many prominent male companions who were still alive, whom he could impart the only written Qur’an to, was a woman: Hafsah (ra). This, coupled with the fact that she could read and write, and hence, was a person worthy of the manuscript, sheds light on many misunderstood gender notions in Islam. Yes, she was an exception to the general circumstance, but change, I believe, rests on the shoulders of those in our history who were exceptional.
Hafsah (ra) is also known to have memorized the Qu’ran , adding to her credentials as it’s benefactor. She was thus, not just the keeper of the Qur’an – she had the mental tools to appreciate and make use of it. In fact, there is also a somewhat controversial narration that she, together with A’isha (ra) advised a scribe on the recitation of a particular verse which differed with other accounts. (Muwatta, Imam Malik), and some other traditions mention that in addition to the Qur’anic manuscript compiled under Abu Bakr’s (ra) commission, she had her own compilation. (Abu Dawud) These finer details here, are irrelevant, the bigger picture being that she had in her possession, a weighty and precious entrustment.
When the third Caliph, Uthman (ra) wished to produce copies of the original manuscript, he requested it from Hafsah (ra), explicitly mentioning that he would return it to her. (Sahih Bukhari)
It is known that she fiercely protected her copy of the Qur’an, refusing to relinquish it to the governor, Marwan, who ruled during the last years of her life. (Abu Dawud)
The role of this one woman in preserving the Qur’an in Muslim history is significant. From the Qur’an she so treasured, all other subsequent copies were produced, as we have it today, universal in its appeal and eternal in its message. There is much we can take from her story – as an active member of her society, she contributed to the perpetuation of Islam, at one of the highest levels. She, as a woman, was not just a “keeper” of the Qur’an, she is proof that woman held positions of esteem, for what greater rank can there be than to be the custodian of the one and only compilation of the Qu’ran, in a society built on that very text. She is also proof of the irrelevance of gender in matters of spiritual status and religious affairs, as opposed to transactional and contractual situations, where contextual differences are noted. What this story also reflects is that women had, and should have access to the Qur’an at all levels, as reciters, interpretors, safeguards, teachers and interlocutors of its message.
Not only was Hafsah (ra) a wife of the beloved Prophet (saw) and the daughter of the great Umar (ra), but a woman in and of her own right – Imra’atul Qur’an – a woman of the Qur’an.
It is very saddening to witness the rate of illiterate and uneducated Muslim women in the world today, given the precedence of woman like Hafsah (ra) in our tradition, and even more disheartening is the waning culture of Haafidhat (female memorizers of the Qu’ran). In my own journey with the Qu’ran, in committing it to heart and memory, a blessed source of inspiration is the famed Mushaf Hafsah.