THE ARTICLE: DID a Woman Edit the Qur’an? Hafsah and Her Famed Codex, by Ruqayyah Y Khan (published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion: http://jaar.oxfordjournals.org/content/82/1/174.full) has garnered some attention as being daring and revolutionary in the field of Muslim feminist Qur’anic studies.
Although being alerted by the title to the obvious agenda that was likely behind this study, I was most certainly intrigued by the focus on Ḥafṣah bint ʿUmar and her role in the preservation of the Quran.
Despite the incredible potential that a book by this title could have had, I was sorely disappointed by the almost bizarre way that certain basic facts regarding the Quran and the biography of Ḥafṣah were glossed over.
To begin with, the title of the book is both obvious and un-subtle with regards to the agenda it is pushing forward; the continued use of the phrase ‘edit the Qur’an’ makes it clear that the author is approaching the subject from the perspective of one who does not consider the Quran to be perfect from the beginning, in its original, revealed form (which is a common enough belief amongst many progressive groups).
Despite expecting this perspective in the first place, I found the thread of intellectual dishonesty – or perhaps ignorance? – that ran through the entire work to be extremely distasteful. While numerous hints are provided about how the ṣuḥuf (scrolls/ manuscripts) of Ḥafṣah differed from the standard muṣḥaf ʿUthmâni, there is a deliberate and obvious attempt at implying that her copies differ in actual content of the Qur’anic âyât rather than the very obvious and well-known understanding that there were various ‘recitations’ (qirâ’ât) of the Quran that were known to the early Muslims.
Furthermore, it astounds me that the classically and almost universally known position regarding the Prophet’s ‘literacy’ – that he wasn’t! – is completely disregarded in the book, as is demonstrated in the following quotation:
Muḥammad is shown instructing Hafsạ in the Qur’ān as well as writing [ed: italics added] Qur’ānic verses for her.
Abu Al-Aswad related [that] ‘Urwa b. Al-Zūbayr said, “People differed over the recitation of ‘Those who disbelieve from among the People of Book . . . ’ [Q 98: 1], so ‘Umar b. al-Khatṭ ạ̄ b came to Hafsạ h, [bringing] with [him a scrap of ] leather (adîm). He said: When the Messenger of God comes to you, ask him to teach you ‘Those who disbelieve from among the People of the Book’ . . . and tell him to write it for you on this [scrap of] leather. She did [this], and he [i.e., Muḥammad] wrote it for her. This reading became public and widespread [’âmma]. (Ibn Wahb 2003: 62)”
As a non-expert on sîrah, I found it mind-boggling that one of the most basic facts regarding the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and indeed, one of the most amazing aspects of the miracle of the Quran itself, was completely ignored – and in fact denied here. After all, the Prophet was known very specifically as ‘al-nabiyy al-ummiyy’ – “the unlettered Prophet”!
And those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own (Scriptures) – in the Law and the Gospel –…Say: “O men! I am sent unto you all, as the messenger of Allah … the unlettered Prophet, who believeth in Allah and his Words: follow him that (so) ye may be guided. [Sûrat Al-Aʿrâf, 7:157-158]
It is He who has sent amongst the Unlettered a messenger from among themselves, to rehearse to them His Signs, to sanctify them, and to instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom – although they had been, before, in manifest error . [Sûrat Al-Jumuʿah 62:2]
Even if one concedes that the Prophet ﷺ might possibly have had some rudimentary literacy skills considering that he was a prosperous traveling merchant needing to account his merchandise – still, for one to interpret the phrasing in the above-quoted ḥadîth translation, making it to say that he “wrote” a verse for her is highly suspect.
And thou wast not (able) to recite a Book before this (Book came), nor art thou (able) to transcribe it with thy right hand: in that case, indeed, would the talkers of vanities have doubted. [Sûrat Al-ʿAnkabût, 29:48]
Let us explore why.
Questions Worth Asking
Three questions immediately came to mind as I read this quote: How accurate is this quote (e.g., is it given in context with regards to its placement in the original author’s work)? How correct is its translation? And how authentic is the quote itself?
A quick check with a known person of knowledge turned up the fact that this narration is considered weak according to Sunni scholars of ḥadîth, and is also reported almost exclusively by Shîʿi historians.
Khan goes on to say regarding Ḥafṣah and her father, ʿUmar (the second successor to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ :
ʿUmar is shown as asking Hafṣa to edit [Ed: italics added] the Qur’ān on the basis of Muḥammad “teaching” her the correct recitation [Ed: italics added] and [his] writing of the said verse.
This, by itself, highlighted to me both the obvious agenda (once again, the usage of the phrase “edit the Qur’an”) and ignorance of the entire process of the recording, preservation, and transmission of the Quran as indicated in the early sources. Perhaps Dr. Khan is not aware that there were a variety of recitations, all correct and all proper readings of the text, as the Prophet has indicated according to some aḥâdîth.
Combined with the previous quote, allegedly from the ḥadîth collection of Ibn Wahb, it seems rather clear to me that the issue was not the actual wording of the verses that was to be “edited,” but the qirâ’a (recitation) of them instead. As well, this insistence that Ḥafṣah alone had some kind of monopoly on the written text of the Quran is either ignorant of, or deliberately glossing over, the entire communal effort and process of the preservation of the Quran – that which is known, in Hadith Studies, as the system of the sanad (chain of narration).
Distrusting Islamic Scholarship
One telling section in Khan’s article hinting at her bias is where she discusses the relationship between the Prophet ﷺ and Ḥafṣah, even going so far as to claim that Ḥafṣah was his ‘least favourite wife’ and “there is nothing in the sources to suggest that there was a spark of attraction and/or affection between them in the stage before their marriage.”
Not only does this imply that the Prophet ﷺ had somehow been amorously involved with some of his wives before marriage, but it also completely disregards the famous story of how the Prophet ﷺ married Ḥafṣah: When Ḥafṣah’s first husband was martyred, ʿUmar went to both Abû Bakr and ʿUthmân asking if they wanted to marry Ḥafṣah. Both of them demurred. Dejected, ʿUmar went to the Prophet ﷺ to complain about them. In turn, the Prophet ﷺ told him: Ḥafṣah shall marry someone better than ʿUthmân, and ʿUthmân will marry someone better than Ḥafṣah. In this way, the Prophet ﷺ proposed his marriage to Ḥafṣah through his conversation with [her father] ʿUmar – for it had already been his intention to marry Ḥafṣah, and neither Abû Bakr nor ʿUthmân had been aware of this.
What grated on my nerves most, however, was a rather bizarre fixation on the alleged stigma behind the one-divorce of Ḥafṣah and how it was said to affect not only her status amongst the wives of the Prophet ﷺ, but also her eminence as one of the most important people involved in the preservation the Quran.
Within the article itself, Did a Woman Edit the Qur’an?, Khan refrains from mentioning the reason behind Ḥafṣah ‘s divorce, despite the fact that it is the background incident surrounding Ḥafṣah’s divorce which most Quran commentators, like Ibn Kathîr (http://www.qtafsir.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1305&Itemid=122), mention as one of the relevant asbâb al-nuzûl (occasions of revelation) of Sûrat Al-Taḥrîm).
Strangely, Khan implies that because of this incident, Ḥafṣah was somehow considered ‘lesser’ or simply not taken as seriously by the wider Muslim community and by later scholars – thus impugning the motives and good faith of Hafsah. Khan’s emphasis on the divorce of Ḥafṣah apparently results in her failure to adequately consider as relevant the incident in which the Prophet ﷺ offered all his wives the option of divorce.
Finally, despite Khan’s stating in her introduction that the focus of her study is “modern western scholarship on how the Qur’ān came to be compiled and codified,” there are various statements and phrasings in her article implying that classical Islamic scholars are at fault for minimizing – or seeking to erase – the true extent of Ḥafṣah’s influence with regards to her role in the preservation of the Quran.
For example, Khan writes:
It is at least worth asking: could the classical Islamic tradition have devised this first story (regarding Abū Bakr–‘Umar) to suppress and marginalize agency attributed to Hafṣa as regards editing and/or writing the sheets of the Qur’ān (i.e., ṣuḥuf)?
Essentially, Khan seems to be making the case for a vast conspiracy theory that sought to render Ḥafṣah as irrelevant to one of the most important events of Islamic history – a theory which relies heavily on making it seem that Ḥafṣah alone played a crucial role in preserving the Quran, and ignoring the vast and complex science that was developed specifically for ensuring the integrity of that purpose.
Nonetheless, with all the above having been mentioned, I will say that the one aspect in which Khan did well in her article was when she talked about Ḥafṣah’s literacy and intelligence, and her close relationship with her father, ʿUmar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb.
Hafsah, in the Image of her Father
In fact, ʿUmar was known as ‘Abû Ḥafṣ’ (‘father of Ḥafṣ’): a remarkable occurrence when considering the extremely misogynistic, patriarchal society in which he lived, and despite the fact that he had many sons after whom – following Arab tradition – he could instead have been called.
Furthermore, Ḥafṣah is often described as being similar to her father in temperament:
Hafsah had in her nature an aspect of the meaning of her name: She was somewhat stern and tough. Perhaps, she inherited that from her father ‘Umar, al-Farooq.” (Source: Women Around the Messenger, Muhammad Ali Qutb).
There are various telling stories about Ḥafṣah and her father: That he would go to her with rebukes regarding her brother, ʿAbdullâh ibn ʿUmar; that he would ask her for political advice during his khilâfa (ruler-ship of the Muslim community after the passing of the Prophet ﷺ), as well as consult with her on religious matters (including his famous fatwa (ruling) prohibiting Muslim soldiers from being away from their wives for longer than four months); that the Ummah (Islamic community) would approach her to appeal to him on their behalf; and that she was named the executor of his will upon his death.
Off the Mark
While some individuals – including Khan – imply that the relationship between Ḥafṣah and ʿUmar was one of a man exerting power over his daughter for political influence, it seems to me that what is deliberately disregarded is that rather, they had a bond between them that was one of mutual affection and respect, alike. Certainly, Ḥafṣah was known not to be weak-willed and easily influenced by others; and ʿUmar, despite his reputation for being harsh and stern with both men and women, remained close to his daughter for the duration of his life. Together, they clearly formed a formidable team which was respected by everyone around them, men and women.
As an academic work, Khan’s article: Did a Woman Edit the Qur’an? is blatantly biased and certainly greatly lacking in referencing the positive manner in which the story of Ḥafṣah bint ʿUmar is usually recorded in traditional books of Islamic biographies.
Nonetheless, the article reminded me how desperately we need a revival of awareness and knowledge regarding the forgotten heroines of Islam and their influence on Islamic history, and how conservative Muslims need to reclaim the telling of our own stories rather than leaving it up to others to remodel them to suit their own interpretive models or agendas.