Hafsah bint ‘Umar (RA) was one of the wives of Rasool Allah (SAW) who stands out at the forefront, along with her co-wives ‘Aishah, Umm Salamah and Zaynab bint Jahsh.
Her name has two meanings: one being ‘young lioness,’ and the other being a reference to a certain type of bird that was known for being beautiful, elegant, strong and predatory. With Hafsah (RA), everyone around her testified to the fact that she indeed lived up to her name – a creature of power as well as beauty.
Hafsah was amongst the eldest of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab’s children and one of the early believers of Makkah. She was described as being “her father’s daughter” and indeed, she had a very close relationship with him. Although they used to have strong words with each other quite often, they also respected each other greatly and loved each other dearly. ‘Umar would often turn to his daughter, whether for family matters or even political disputes. When he was the khalifah, Hafsah acted as an intermediary between him and various plaintiffs. He also referred to her for Islamic knowledge, drawing upon her understanding of legal rulings as well as an understanding of the society around her.
Hafsah’s first husband was Khunays ibn Hudhaafah, a believer who fought in the Battle of Badr and then fell ill in Madinah after the Hijrah. When he died and Hafsah was left a widow, ‘Umar t was determined to find a husband who would be suitable for his daughter. With her personality matching his own, he knew that only a strong man could marry a woman like Hafsah.
With this in mind, ‘Umar approached both Abu Bakr (RA) and ‘Uthmaan (RA), hoping that one of them would be as eager about the match as ‘Umar himself was. To his dismay, both of them refused. However, his disappointment was quickly alleviated when Rasool Allah (SAW) proposed to Hafsah.
Hafsah was a woman of both strength and skill. As ‘Aishah (RA) said drily, “She was her father’s daughter” in temperament, and equal in intelligence. She was one of the privileged few who were not only literate, but were also able to write as well. She was eager to study and quick to learn, which Rasool Allah (SAW) recognised and encouraged, especially when he found Hafsah (RA) sitting with ash-Shifa bint ‘Abdullah, who was famous for her skills as a doctor. Rasool Allah specifically instructed ash-Shifa to teach Hafsah medicine, thus adding to her skillset.
In addition to medicine and other subjects, Hafsah was unique in that she was one of the female Companions who memorised the Qur’an completely. She committed it firmly to memory and was well-versed in it, to the point that she would question Rasool Allah (SAW) about certain ayat of the Qur’an.
Jabir bin ‘Abdullah Ansari narrates an incident which was related to him by Umm Mubasher. She, Hafsah and Rasool Allah (SAW) were sitting together and conversing. Rasool Allah mentioned that all the people who had given the pledge of allegiance at Hudaybiyah under the tree would go to Paradise, and not to Hell. Intrigued, Hafsah asked how this was possible, and quoted the verse: “There is not one of you but will pass over it (Hell).” (Maryam:71)
In answer, he replied with the verse immediately after it: “Then We shall save those who used to fear Allah and were dutiful to Him. And We shall leave the wrongdoers therein to their knees (in Hell).” (Maryam:72)
Hafsah was not merely a passive caretaker of the mus’haf (Qur’anic compilation); she was a powerful guardian, who was also an active participant in the process of the preservation of the Qur’an.
During the lifetime of Rasool Allah (SAW), the Sahabah used to write down the ayat of the Qur’an on various sheets of paper and leather. Those sheets of paper were not collected in the proper order of the Qur’an itself, but rather were left loose. This was not an issue at the time as Rasool Allah was still alive, and there were many Sahabah who had memorised the Qur’an and taught it to those around them. However, during the khilafah of Abu Bakr, there arose a problem – not only were there hundreds of thousands of individuals newly accepting Islam, but there were many military expeditions against political rebels. Due to the fact that those who had memorised the Qur’an were those most keen to partake in jihad, huge numbers of qurraa’ (reciters of the Qur’an) died in those battles. With their deaths came the risk of the Qur’an being lost.
Abu Bakr and ‘Umar (RA) came to the conclusion that it was now necessary for Zayd ibn Thabit – the personal scribe of Rasool Allah (SAW) – to take part in collecting all the manuscripts of the Qur’anic verses. They did so, and Abu Bakr became the first custodian of those scrolls until his death, whereupon ‘Umar took them into his care, and after his death, it was Hafsah bint ‘Umar who became the guardian of the mus’haf. (Narrated in Bukhari)
It is further interesting to note that when ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab t passed away, he not only bequeathed the ownership of the mus’haf to Hafsah, but also appointed her as the executor of his will and his estates. Considering the fact that Hafsah had several brothers – including the famous Abdullah ibn ‘Umar – it is a significant matter that Hafsah was regarded so highly by her father, and respected by others.
Hafsah (RA) was extremely protective of the manuscripts in her care. She understood their importance and felt a personal bond with them – after all, she had been witness to the revelation of so many of those verses, and heard her husband, the Messenger of Allah (SAW), recite them in front of her.
When ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan (RA) became the khalifah, he made it his mission to provide a standardised copy of the mus’haf in order to prevent confusion regarding the different qira’aat (modes of recitation). He first asked Hafsah’s permission to use the manuscripts in her possession, and only after he had promised to return the scrolls to her when he was done, would Hafsah permit him access to the scriptures.
During Hafsah’s lifetime, her ownership of the scrolls was undisputed and unchallenged – no one could take them from her or dictate how she used them. Truly, she guarded her treasure with all the ferocity and dedication of a lioness.
When we look at the lives of the Ummahaat al-Mu’mineen and indeed, at great women throughout Islamic history, we need to consider them with more than a passing glance. It’s not enough to mention them as being ‘righteous’ and ‘pious’ – which they indeed were – but we do need to focus on how they contributed meaningfully to our history and our faith. Allah (SWT) promised that He would never allow the Qur’an to be corrupted, and this promise further highlights Hafsah’s role. In essence, she was a manifestation of the promise of Allah – and indeed: “No doubt – the promise of Allah (SWT) is true.” (Yunus:55)
In Hafsah we have the example of a woman who spent her life dedicated to the Qur’an; to memorise it, to protect it, to preserve it and to live according to it. Jibreel (AS) told Rasool Allah (SAW): “She is sawwaamah (constantly fasting), qawwaamah (constantly standing in prayer), and she will be your wife in Jannah.”
This devotion to Allah (SWT), to His Words and His Commands, is precisely what we need to revive amongst ourselves should we hope to see the rise of another generation of heroines of Islam.
Zainab bint Younus (AnonyMouse) is a young woman who finds constant inspiration in the lives of the Sahabiyaat and other great women in Islamic history. She hopes that every Muslimah is able to identify with the struggles of these inspirational women and follow in their footsteps to become a part of a new generation of powerful Muslim women. She blogs at http://www.thesalafifeminist.blogspot.com