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Article: Women in Imami Biographical Collections

It is reported on the authority of Abu al-Hasan ‘Alī al-Rida that Sa‘īda, the servant of Ja‘far, was among the people of merit and excellence (min ahl al-faḍl). She had learned statements from Abu ‘Abd Allah [i.e., Ja‘far al-Sadiq]. She had in her possession the wasiyya of the Prophet. Ja‘far said to her, “Beseech God who has made you known to me in this world to marry me to you in the Hereafter.” She used to live near the home of Ja‘far and was not seen in the mosque [of the Prophet] except that she was reciting blessings on the Prophet whether she was leaving for Mecca or returning from it.

This notice about Sa‘īda, a companion of Ja‘far al-Sādiq (d. 148/765), the sixth Shī‘ī Imām, provides an intriguing view of female religious learning and authority in early Shī‘ī history. Privileged with access to the Imām’s teachings, Sa‘īda was known to have learned some traditions (hadīth) from him, including the wasiyya of the Prophet, a text dealing with his will and testament. The entry, albeit brief, raises many questions about women’s religious participation in early Shī‘ism. This chapter engages with a few of these questions through a study of selected early and classical Imāmī biographical works, a genre that focuses on transmitters of religious knowledge.

Throughout Muslim history, biographical literature has been a medium through which scholars negotiated and articulated criteria for membership and authority in their respective religious communities. It is also a genre in which authors have regularly documented women’s contributions, thereby providing valuable sources for understanding their religious participation. While our understanding of Muslim women’s history in the early and classical periods has been enriched by recent analyses of these sources, the research has almost exclusively focused on women in Sunnī biographical collections. Devin Stewart’s recent study of women in the Imāmī compendium Riyāḍ al-‘ulamā wa-hiyād al-fuḍalā’ of Mīrzā ‘Abd Allāh al-Isfahānī (d. ca. 1130/1718) is a rare exception to this rule. My chapter builds on Stewart’s findings and considers patterns that emerge when we examine a broader selection of Imāmī biographical literature. These works reflect a range of women’s activities, from preservation of the Imāms’ teachings to legal and hermeneutical engagement with texts central to Imāmism. The patterns of women’s religious engagement in Imāmī works are distinct from those in the Sunnī sources underscoring the necessity of understanding the social histories of each of these sects on their own terms. This chapter first summarizes the evidence from selected early and classical Imāmī biographical compendia and extracts salient characteristics of women’s participation. My analysis then looks to developments in Imāmī legal and intellectual history to explain the distinct trajectory of women’s religious learning that emerges from the early and classical sources.

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This Article taken from “law and tradition in Classical Islamic Thought”.

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