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Society & Culture

Was Hafsa the Koran’s First Woman Editor?

May 2, 2014
Azadeh Moaveni
10 min read
Was Hafsa the Koran’s First Woman Editor?
Was Hafsa the Koran’s First Woman Editor?

Was Hafsa the Koran’s First Woman Editor?

Islamic tradition is not short on lore about women in the early days of the faith, provided they were women the Prophet Muhammad loved, like his most treasured wives Ayesha and Khadija, and his favorite daughter, Fatima. Their personalities loom across the centuries, their names are favoured by the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, and even children can tell you why they mattered. But, argues American scholar Ruqayya Yasmine Khan, chair of Islamic Studies at Claremont Graduate Universities in Califiornia, Muhammad’s lesser known fourth wife Hafsa may be the real feminist star of the early era of Islam. In her compelling new article entitled “Did a Woman Edit the Koran? Hafsa’s Famed Codex,” Khan recasts the narrative surrounding the Koran’s formation, suggesting that Hafsa, the only one of the Prophets wives who could read, and, crucially, write, played a role in transcribing and codifying the Koran. While most feminist scholars of Islam advocate the religion’s ethos of equality by parsing verses, Khan is taking a fresh track, exploring how Hafsa’s work on the Koran, indeed her ownership of a significant early copy, can reshape our understanding of women’s agency and standing in that era. She talks to IranWire about her findings.

What prompted your interest in Hafsa's copy of the Koran?

In 2009, when I was teaching a course on the Koran at my previous institution, at Trinity [University] in San Antonio, it was standard to teach students both the Islamic view of the formation of the Koran, along with the Western views. Both accounts feature Hafsa, but only in passing. And whenever I would teach her it would just bug me that she was always mentioned in just one or two lines. That was true not just of the primary texts and hadith accounts of the Koran’s formation, but also the scholarship itself. It just kept bothering me, and as I’ve always been fascinated with the topics of the mothers of the believers and the wives of prophets, I thought, I’m going to dig into this.

Can you tell us about Hafsa herself? She seems like an intriguing figure.

She is very interesting. She was probably one of the Prophet’s more brainy wives, her personality comes across as more intellectual. The sources suggest she was the only one of his wives who read and wrote, and she was also adept at recitation. I also found it intriguing that, her father, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph – I know he’s not a favourite figure for Shi’ites – designated her as the executor of his will. When he was killed, part of his estate included the earliest collection of the Koran. If we connect the dots it does seem that she was involved with the collection of the Koran, because she was literate, and that the collection could have even been bequeathed to her when her father was alive, that she was involved its assembly.

So she had an engaged and assertive personality, it seems?

She was definitely strong willed like her father, and had a quick temper, also like him. She was a person who liked to learn, to be educated, to keep her mind exercised throughout her life. We have her narratives that indicate that she wanted to learn something about healing practices in pre-Islamic Arabia, and others that indicate she was conversant with some of the Biblical writing. When you put it together you realize [she was] a thinking, questioning, debating woman, and that as a wife of the prophet, as the daughter of Umar, that really showed in her personality.

Given that she was intimately involved with the Koran, it seems curious that there are not more accounts of her interaction with Muhammad surrounding this involvement. What was their relationship like?

She might have been one of his least favourite wives. What we’re able to put together from the sources, which emerged as much as 150 years later, is that her marriage with the Prophet occurred under unusual circumstances. For her it was a second marriage, her first husband had died in a battle the believers [waged] against the Meccans, and a number of narratives suggest that Umar was very concerned when she was widowed at 19. He went first to Uthman, who was still young, he might have even gone to Ali, to ask if they would marry his daughter. They both politely declined. And then somehow word reached Muhammad, who then approached Umar and said something like, the line is very famous:  “God has informed me that Uthman will marry someone better than your daughter, and your daughter will marry someone better than Uthman.”

This wasn’t a real romance, then.

The Prophet had wanted to marry Ayesha and Um Salama, but this marriage mattered because of his close and intimate bond with Umar, it was really informed by the intimacy of that alliance. So once married, she was the fourth wife, straight after Ayesha, and the picture that emerges is that they had a cantankerous relationship. There’s an interesting incident in the sources that suggests the Prophet might have even divorced her at one point, but that he took her back, because he received some sort of guidance. I think the chemistry also wasn’t there between them. But in a sense it’s very refreshing to see the humanity of Muhammad as a man who had issues with his wives and who tried his best, but sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t. Another way is to look at it as a marriage like any real couple.

It’s quite fascinating, it suggests we don’t know that much about Hafsa in part because the Prophet didn’t get along very well with her.

It behoves us to look very closely, as scholars and as Muslim women, at the ways that women relate to mothers of the believers and the Prophet’s wives. There’s a lot of focus on Khadija, Ayesha, and Fatima, the women who loom large, and their legacy is wonderful. But what about looking at the others as well? Hafsa we don’t find much about, it could be because over the centuries not just scholars, but ordinary Muslims even essentially replicated the prophet’s own hierarchies in affection. What he loved, they loved, whoever he didn’t get along with, they chose not spend too much time looking at or understanding. It’s understandable, but it partly may obscure her role in the way that the Koran was codified.

What was so significant about her copy?

The earliest accounts show a two-phased process about how the Koran was made into a book. ‘Umar is a pivotal figure in this process, which is why Hafsa, being his daughter, is also possibly very much part of the picture, both in the first phase and the second phase. We surmise at this time that Hafsa was a widow, the daughter of Umar, the sources suggest she both read and wrote, that she probably had some sort of role in the collection during both those caliphs’ times. Now don’t think of a bound book here, it was likely an assemblage of animals skins, flat bones. And under Uthman, who in the second phase decides one main copy is needed, because there are these disparate recitations, who does he turn to? He turns first to Hafsa and, the sources say, asks her to hand over her collection. What’s fascinating is that she says, ‘Only if I can have my copy back.’

So she is shown to be very careful about her collection of the Koran being part of her personal property. But the sources don’t connect the dots, neither has Western scholarship taken the opportunity to connect the fact that she was involved in this way in the Koran’s formation with fact that she was inheritor of Umar’s estate. So there are more questions than there are answers, but it does seem her role is not fully appreciated.

Why did Marwan, governor of Medina, want Hafsa’s copy destroyed?

Multiple sources suggest that this historical figure, Marwan ibn Hakam, from roughly 650 to 661 CE, when he became governor, hounded Hafsa to turn over her copy, and she says no. As soon as she dies, around time he became governor, he officiates her funeral and goes straight to her brother asks for it. The sources are rather silent on why there was this duel between them.  Most Muslims and scholars say there was no difference between today’s Koran and that Koran codex, so it’s hard to explain why Marwan was so hung up about it. Western scholars pose the question, but are not sure how to answer it. One of my points is that perhaps, just perhaps Marwan wanted “her” copy back because it was in the possession of a woman, and just maybe a woman though she was one of the Wives, she was a wife with some degree of stigma, e.g., had been almost divorced. Maybe we’ll never really know. But another way to look at is to take her more seriously and ask why she guarded her copy so fiercely.

It could have nothing to do with discrepancies and more to do with her possibly having a hand in making it and putting it together, it could be that she had lost her beloved father, or both. We don’t know the answers but the questions are there, and her courage in the face of this, going up against Marwan, who was a blood relative of ‘Uthman, the Caliph, so she was kind of going up against the “official state” so to speak, is striking.

Why do you think that feminist Muslim scholars are more interested in theology and interpretation than investigating the role of women in the Koran’s formation?

For feminists interpreting verses or commentary, it obviously has more relevance to life today, there’s an applied dimension in looking at separate verses regarding for instance, veiling, covering up, other kinds of verses. So that’s part of it. Going back to the origins of the Islam and the Koran is harder, the sources are not all there, you really have to look at different sets of sources to put things together, one is on more solid ground if just takes the Koran as fait accompli.  If as a feminist I’m interested in trying to create more progressive interpretations, I will work with the Koran, which already exists as a text.  It’s a viable trajectory of scholarship, and I have no issue with it.

But women and feminists should also pay attention to women’s roles in that era. Ayesha’s role is recognized in the context of the hadith transmission, but little attention is paid to women’s role regarding the Koran. It is kind of remarkable given that the Koran was revealed to the Prophet over 22 years during which he was mostly in the company of women, living with his wives and daughters, and we know that this was a big part of his life, and we have hadiths that indicate that he would spend time after receiving revelations in their company.  How might they have been involved in process of memorizing, recitation, even reporting?

What can you tell us about the notion of editing? Your article argues that Hafsa transcribed and codified. Do those activities qualify her as an editor?

The notion of editing is problematic, and the question of how editing and putting together fits in with what was happening during that period of early Islam. My article doesn’t cover the modern Muslim clergy, and I would love to know from clerics who are conversant with the accounts what their views would be regarding Hafsa. I have read one modern book that seemed to suggest that Hafsa only had a collection because of an accident of history, her father was killed so quickly that there wasn’t time to designate a male heir. It saddens me to see her agency overlooked that way.

Hafsa can be a very empowering figure – a woman who was intellectual, inquisitive, who made a contribution -- if we can look back and reclaim her. 


May 2, 2014

Except there is a darkside to this story that has been totally glossed over. Hafsa is accused as being one of the individuals in early Shi'i history for tampering with the text of the Qur'an in order to cut the rights of 'Ali and the family of the prophet out of it. She plays a central role, along with Uthman, in the whole taḥrīf controversy that was part and parcel of early Shi'i narratives. Hafsa has also occasionally appeared in certain narratives as being complicit in what some Shi'i consider to have been the murder of Fatima, the prophet's daughter, over her inheritance at Fadak. As such this line of investigation may sound palatable to some contemporary feminists, but the proverbial waters can get quite muddied with the Shi'i counter-narrative of Hafsa. Note that Hafsa, along with Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and 'Ayesha, is one of the five individuals who constitute the primary locus maleficus and thus the focus of the traditional Shi'i practice of the ritual cursing (tabarri) of the enemies of the Family of Muhammad (ahl al-bayt). ... read more