Was a Woman the first editor of the Qur’an?


A recent study suggests that Hafsa bint ‘Umar, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, had a crucial role in editing and codifying the Qur’an and was likely the one of the first people to have kept a written version of the religious text.

Medieval copy of the Qur’an

Until recently, scholarship on the origins of Islam have focused mainly on the actions of the male followers of the Prophet Muhammad. However some historians are showing that women played important roles in the rise of the religion in Arabia. This includes Ruqayya Khan, Chair of Islamic Studies at Claremont Graduate University, was has written the article ‘Did a Woman Edit the Qur’an? Hafsa’s Famed Codex’.

In it, she examines how the Qur’an was formed into a book in the mid-seventh century. There are at least two major Hadith traditions on how the verses, which had largely been transmitted orally among the Muslim community, were codified into a written version. In both accounts, Hafsa played an instrumental role.

Hafsa was the daughter of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, one of the chief supporters of Muhammad and later one of the early Caliphs. She married Muhammad around 625, becoming his fourth wife, but accounts show that their relationship was strained – Muhammad even briefly divorced her. Sources portray Hafsa as being highly intelligent and literate. One account even has her challenging her husband over the relevance of certain verses in the Qur’an.

Khan writes:

A telling picture emerges from the following account cited in an early source by ‘Abdullah Ibn Wahb (d. 812) and attributed to ‘Urwa b. al-Zūbayr (d. 712), a famous Medinese jurist and “pioneer in history writing”. In it, Hafṣa is clearly portrayed as being conversant with reciting, reading, writing, and even editing Qur’ānic material. Muḥammad is shown instructing Hafṣa in the Qur’ān as well as writing Qur’ānic verses for her. Evidently, her father ‘Umar regarded her as an authority on the oral and written Qur’ān, because he seeks her out when it came to sort out competing recitations of Qur’ānic verses:

Abu l-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-Khaṭṭāb came to Hafṣa, [bringing] with [him a scrap of] leather (adīm). 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 [’āmma].

In one Hadith tradition, it was during the reign of the first Caliph Abū Bakr (632-634) that he and Hafsa’s father ‘Umar decided to assemble the verses of the Qur’an into written documents after the death of large numbers of Qur’ān-reciters. This text was then held first by Abū Bakr, then by ‘Umar until his death, after which it was kept by Hafsa herself.

In another tradition, around the 650s the Caliph ‘Uthmān sought to establish a set of bound texts of the codified version of the Qur’an, which he could send out to corners of his growing empire. In order to have this document, the Caliph sent a messenger to Hafsa asking herto “Send us the sheets [ṣuḥuf] so that we may copy them into codices [al-maṣahif] and then we will return them to you.”

Khan notes that:

Reading between the lines, Hafṣa is depicted as being extremely careful and guarded in her release of the ṣuḥuf to the caliph ‘Uthmān. Indeed, in an Islamic account that pre-dates the aforementioned Hadīths by al-Bukhāri, Hafṣa is actually quoted as setting a pre-condition for the release of the materials. This account is found in a source by ‘Abdullah Ibn Wahb (d. 812), and interestingly, it uses the term muṣhaf to describe Hafṣa’s materials: “‘Uthmān sent a message to Hafṣa that she send the [muṣhaf ] to him. She said: ‘Upon the condition that you return it to me.’ He said: ‘Yes’”

Hafsa’s continued as guardian of the original documents of the Qur’an, and during her lifetime she prevented attempts by the governor of Medina, Marwān ibn Hakam, to have these sheets destroyed. Only after she died in 665 was her version of the Qur’an torn up by Marwān.

Most scholars who have commented on Hafsa’s role in the formulation of the Qur’an have tended to marginalize her, portraying the woman as a mere go-between among male leaders of the early Islamic community, and that her collection of Qur’anic verses was something more akin to a private copy that held little importance. Khan challenges these notions and the idea that such sacred writings would never be entrusted to a woman. Along with offering several questions the historians of early Islam should consider, she notes that:

modern western Qur’ānic scholarship needs to better integrate women’s history with its debates over early Islamic historiography and the reconstruction of early Islamic origins. By examining Hafṣa bint ‘Umar’s connection with the codification of the Qur’ān, this scholarship could avail itself of the opportunity to better shed light on both the literary and historical contexts associated with the Qur’ān.

The article  ‘Did a Woman Edit the Qur’an? Hafsa’s Famed Codex,’ can be found in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 82:1 (2014). Click here to visit Ruqayya Khan’s profile at Claremont Graduate University.

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