Chambers

Najah Nadi Ahmad

Chambers (ḥujurāt, sing. ḥujra, ḥujar if referring to three), meaning a room or enclosure, are mentioned only once in the Qurʾān, in the sura which bears that same name: Those who call you [O Prophet] from outside the chambers, most of them do not understand (Q 49:4). “Chambers” conventionally refer to the small dwellings of the wives of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, constructed around his Mosque in Madina.

Definitions and Usage

Jār Allāh Abūl-Qāsim al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1074-1143) defines ḥujra as “a parcel of land enclosed by a wall surrounding it.” The three vocalizations ḥujurāt, ḥujarāt, and ḥujrāt denote the chambers of the wives of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace (Kashshāf, sub Q 49:4; also Abū Suʿūd, Irshād). These “chambers” are also called “houses” (buyūt), whence their mention three times in Sūrat al-Aḥzāb (Q 33:33-34, and 53), once as ascribed to the Prophet himself (buyūt al-Nabī, “houses of the Prophet”) and twice to his wives. The commentaries treat ḥujurāt and buyūt here as synonymous.

The root ḥ-j-r originally bears the meaning of prevention (manʿ) and enclosure (iḥāṭa) (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs). Derivatives of this root occur 21 times in the Qurʾān, denoting (apart from the 16 with the meaning of “stone”) something forbidden or restricted (Q 6:138; 25:22, 53),  someone under another’s guardianship (Q 4:23), or a person of discernment (Q 89:5).

The root b-y-t bears the meaning of “abode, place of return, and site of reunion (majmaʿ al-shaml),” whence the usage of bayt for a verse hemistich, “because it is a compound of utterances, letters, and meanings on a specific rhythm” (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs). Derivatives of this root occur 73 times in the Qurʾān.


Location and Description

Each of the Prophet’s wives had one Chamber appended to his Mosque (cf. al-Suhaylī, al-Rawḍ 2:13; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Ālūsī, Rūḥ, sub Q 49:4). Only two were built at the time of the initial construction of the Mosque, shortly after the Prophet’s arrival in Madina in Rabīʿ I 0/September 622. One of these two was for his wife Sawda bt. Zamʿa (d. 54/674), and the other for his betrothed, ʿĀʾisha bt. Abī Bakr (d. 58/678), whom he wed shortly after the completion of the Mosque. Both of these Chambers were contiguous with the eastern wall of the Mosque (al-Samhūdī, Wafāʾ al-wafā, 2:52). Seven more were added later. Muḥammad Ibn Saʿd b. Manīʿ al-Zuhrī (d. 230/ca.845) reports on the authority of ʿImrān b. Anas that of the nine, “four houses (buyūt) were made of adobe (labin) and included chambers made of palm fronds, and five houses were made of palm fronds but had no [separate] chambers… and they were three cubits [long] and one cubit [wide]” (Ibn Saʿd, Ṭabaqāt 1:387). The cubits in this latter report are clearly different from those in al-Bukhārī, Adab p. 209-210; see below.

Regarding their dimensions, Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Bukhārī (194-256/810-870) reports (on the authority of Muḥammad b. Muqātil, from ʿAbdullāh Ibn al-Mubārak) that Dāwūd b. Qays said: “I saw the chambers made of palm fronds covered by layers of animal hair. The width of the house from the door of the chamber to the door of the house was, I think, about six to seven cubits (approx. 3-3.5 meters), and they were about ten cubits (approx. 5.2 meters) from inside.” Al-Bukhārī also reports that Ḥurayth b. al-Sāʾib said he heard al-Ḥasan say: “I would enter the houses of the wives of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, during the Caliphate of ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān, and I could reach the ceiling with my hands” (al-Bukhārī, al-Adab p. 209-210; also in Ibn Saʿd, Ṭabaqāt 1:388).

The Hadith scholar Abūl-Qāsim ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Khathʿamī al-Suhaylī (508-581/1114-1185) provides a more detailed description: “As for his houses, there were nine of them. Some [were built] with palm fronds and mud, while the ceiling was made from palm fronds; others [were built] from stones put atop one another, with a palm-frond ceiling… his bed, upon him blessings and peace, was made of few timbers joined by fiber-thread” (al-Suhaylī, al-Rawḍ 2:13-14). These Chambers’ doors opened toward the Mosque. In addition to these nine dwellings, certain Companions (including Abū Bakr, ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī, and al-ʿAbbās b. ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib) had houses with doors opening onto the Mosque. Shortly before his death, the Prophet ordered that all these doors be walled up, including those of the Chambers, except for the door of Abū Bakr (cf. Ibn Saʿd, Ṭabaqāt 2:175).

All of the Chambers were incorporated into the Mosque during the reign of the Umayyad caliph al-Walīd b. ʿAbd al-Malik (50-668/96-715)—an act to which many of the Followers (tābiʿūn) objected. The Follower Saʿīd b. al-Musayyab is reported to have said on this occasion, “I wish they had left them as they were, for the people of Madina and people coming from other lands to see what the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, had been content with in his life, so that this had become an incentive to abstinence from squandering and competing [in worldly gains]” (Ibn Saʿd, Ṭabaqāt 1:387; cf. Suyūṭī, Tafsīr; Ālūsī, Rūḥ, sub Q 49:4).

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, passed away in the Chamber of ʿĀʾisha, Allah be well-pleased with her. When the Companions wondered where to bury him, Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq (d. 13/634) (q.v.) recalled that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, had said, “There has been no Prophet who passed away but was buried where he died.” So they lifted his bed, dug a grave, and buried his honored body in that very Chamber (Ibn Hishām, Sīra 4:663; Ibn Mājah, Sunan, Janāʾiz, dhikr wafātih wa dafnih).


Chambers and Etiquettes with the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace

Sūrat al-Ḥujurāt (Q 49) instructs the Believers (q.v.) regarding etiquette (q.v.) with the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace. The first five verses of this sura contain several injunctions:

O you who believe, do not put [yourselves] before Allah and His Messenger. Be conscious of Allah; verily Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. You who believe, do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet, and be not loud in speaking with him as you are with one another, lest your deeds became nullified without you realizing. Those who lower their voices in the presence of Allah’s Messenger are those whose hearts Allah has tested for piety: theirs shall be forgiveness and a great reward. As for those who call you [O Prophet] from outside the chambers, most of them do not understand. Had they been patient until you came out to them, that would have been be better for them. Truly Allah is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Q 49:1-5)

Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) writes that Q 49:4 (Those who call you from outside the chambers…) contrastively clarifies (bayān) the preceding passage (Those who lower their voices in the presence of the Messenger of Allah): “in this is an indication that [such calling] constitutes neglect of the manners required for being in the presence of the Messenger of Allah, while presenting one’s request to him” (Tafsīr). ʿImād al-Dīn b. ʿUmar Ibn Kathīr (700-774/1300-1373) concurs:

Allah, Exalted is He, dislikes those who call him (the Prophet) from outside the chambers, which are the houses of his wives, as such are the manners of the rude Bedouins (ajlāf al-aʿrāb). So He said, most of them do not understand; then He, the Almighty, directed [the believers] to the [proper] etiquette. As He Most High said, And if they had been patient until you come out to them, it would have been better for them, that is, they would have received goodness and benefit in this life and the Hereafter…and He called them to repentance and submission, [as] He says, Verily, Allah is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful” (Tafsīr)

Several occasions of revelation (q.v.) are reported for Q 49:4, with two most commonly cited. By the first, the verse refers to when the Tamīmite clan al-ʿAnbar came to Madina to ransom their children from the Muslims. Instead of waiting until after the noon siesta, they called the Prophet from outside the Chambers, “Muḥammad, come to us!” By the second narration, the verse pertains to when a number of Arabs agreed among themselves to gauge the mettle of the Prophet, saying, “Let us go and meet this man. If he is a Prophet, then we are the most fortunate of all—and if he is only a king, then we will live under his protection.” They called him from outside the Chambers, yelling “Muḥammad, Muḥammad!” (cf. Muqātil, Ṭabarī, Qurṭubī, Ṭabarānī, and Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīrs).

ʿAlī b. Muḥammad al-Khāzin (678-741/1280-1341) comments that such calling is rude in three ways: (i) yelling at one’s seniors, rather than coming to them with one’s request; (ii) to call from outside the Chambers puts the onus on the one being called, requiring him to go to the caller (instead of the other way around); and (iii) the Qurʾānic term employed (ḥujurāṭ, Chambers) indicates that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, was in seclusion (khalwa), meaning it would be better to delay requests until he emerged (Lubāb).

In a similar vein, Q 33:53 expressly orders believers not to enter the houses of the Prophet unless granted permission:

O believers, enter not the houses of the Prophet, except when leave is given you for a meal, without watching for the time for it. But when you are invited, enter; and when you have had the meal, disperse without lingering for idle talk; that is hurtful to the Prophet, and he is shy before you, but Allah is not shy of the truth. And when you ask his wives for anything, ask them from behind a curtain; that is purer for your hearts and theirs. It is not for you to hurt the Messenger of Allah, or to ever marry his wives after him; surely that would be an enormity in the sight of Allah.

The commentators cite as the occasion of revelation for this verse the wedding-feast (walīma) arranged by the Prophet after his marriage to Zaynab bt. Jaḥsh, which was the occasion on which the obligation of ḥijāb (See Veil) was instituted (cf. Ṭabarī and Bayḍāwī, Tafsīrs; Khāzin, Lubāb).


Remember what is recited in your houses

Q 33:34 commands the wives of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, to remember that which is recited in your houses of the verses of Allah and the Wisdom; Allah is Subtle, All-Aware. Abū Jaʿfar b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (224-310/839-923) glosses the word “wisdom” (ḥikma) here as those rulings not mentioned in the Qurʾān: that is, those provided in the Sunna of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace (Tafsīr). The Andalusian jurist and exegete Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Qurṭubī (600-671/1204-1273) concurs and adds a three-fold explanation:

Remember the bounty upon you, [O wives of the Prophet,] as Allah has placed you in houses where His verses and Wisdom are recited; secondly, remember the verses of Allah and give them due appreciation (qadr), and ponder upon them, until you are fully acquainted with them and exhort yourselves with Allah’s exhortations… thirdly, “remember” here means preserve, recite, and keep reciting them, as if He were saying: memorize Allah’s commands and prohibitions, which are recited in your houses and which are signs of Allah. [Hence] this is a command to them to report what is revealed from the Qurʾān in their houses, what they witness from the actions of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, and what they hear from his sayings, so that they may convey them to people, who then can act and take example.

Al-Qurṭubī then notes the imperative mood of the verb “remember,” deriving from this the probative value of a single report (khabar al-wāḥid), as for instance of what one woman saw the Prophet do in the privacy of a Chamber: “and this indicates the permissibility of accepting individual narratives from both men and women in [matters of] religion” (Tafsīr, sub Q 33:34).


Revelation and the Chambers

Many other verses are likewise reported to have been revealed in the Chambers. For example, according to a hadith narrated on the authority of Ṣāliḥ b. Rabīʿa b. Hudayr, ʿĀʾisha said, “Allah sent revelation to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, when I was with him, so I closed the door between us, and when the revelation finished coming he said to me, ‘O ʿĀʾisha, Jibrīl sends salutations to you’” (Nasāʾī, Sunan, ʿIshrat al-nisāʾ, ḥubb al-rajul baʿḍ nisāʾih akthar min baʿḍ). Regarding the revelation of Sūrat al-Mujādila (Q 58), Ibn Mājah reports, on the authority of ʿUrwa b. al-Zubayr, that ʿĀʾisha said, “Praise is for Allah, Whose hearing encompasses all voices. She who disputed concerning her husband (al-mujādila) came to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, while I was in a corner of the house, and complained about her husband; but I did not hear what she said. Then Allah revealed Indeed Allah has heard the saying of her that disputes with you concerning her husband (Q 58:1)” (Ibn Mājah, Sunan, Muqaddima, fī-mā ankarat al-jahmiyya; Aḥmad, Musnad, ḥadīth ʿĀʾisha, no. 24832).


Hadith Reports from the Chambers

The narrations of the wives of the Prophet, Allah be well-pleased with them, constitute an important source of hadiths, especially because they were with him on occasions when others were not. The following selected hadiths of ethical and juridical import were reported from within their chambers:

  1. Determining the time of ʿAṣr prayer. On the authority of ʿUrwa, ʿĀʾisha reported" that the Prophet prayed ʿAṣr while there was still sunlight in her chamber and no shadow had yet appeared in it (Bukhārī, Mawāqīt al-ṣalāh, mawāqīt al-ṣalāh wa faḍluhā; Mālik, Muwattaʾ, Wuqūt al-ṣalāh, wuqūt al-ṣalāh);
  2. The practice of praying two cycles (rakʿatayn) before the dawn prayer. On the authority of ʿAbdullah b. ʿUmar: “Ḥafṣa, the wife of the Prophet, told me that the Prophet would pray two light cycles after the muezzin had finished the adhān (see Call to Prayer) and before the iqāma of Fajr” (Mālik, Muwaṭṭaʾ, Ṣalāt al-layl, mā jāʾ fī rakʿatay al-fajr);
  3. Purification after menstruation. On the authority of ʿUrwa b. al-Zubayr and ʿAmra bt. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān: ʿĀʾisha said: Umm Ḥabība bt. Jaḥsh, wife of ʿ Abd al-Raḥmān b. ʿAwf and sister of Zaynab bt. Jaḥsh, suffered from vaginal bleeding and consulted the Messenger of Allah, upon him blessings and peace. He told her: “That is not menstruation; that is [from] a vein. When your menstruation cycle is over, perform the bath (ghusl) of purification and pray, and when [menstruation] returns, stop praying because of it” (Muslim, Ḥayḍ, al-mustaḥāḍa wa ghusluhā; Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, Ṭahāra, al-mustaḥāḍa taghtasil li-kull ṣalāh; Nasāʾī, Sunan, Ṭahāra, al-ightisāl min al-ḥayḍ );
  4. Serving the household. On the authority of Shuʿba: al-Aswad said, “I asked ʿĀʾisha about what the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, used to do in his house. She said: ‘He would be at the service of his family, and when prayer [time] came he would go out to pray’” (Bukhārī, Adhān, man kān fī ḥājat ahlih);
  5. Proscribing a mourning-vigil lasting longer than three days, except for one’s spouse. On the authority of Zaynab bt. Umm Salama: Umm Ḥabība (the wife of the Prophet) reported that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said: “It is not permissible for a Muslim woman believing in Allah and the Hereafter to mourn beyond three days, except for [the death of her] husband, [mourning for whom, as stated in Q 2:234, lasts] four months and ten days” (Bukhārī, Ṭalāq, al-kuḥl lil-ḥādda; Muslim, Ṭalāq, wujūb al-iḥdād fī ʿiddat al-wafāʾ);
  6. Probity of reports from the Prophet’s wives. For example, Abū Bakr b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān heard that Abū Hurayra (d. ca.60/680), Allah be well-pleased with them both, forbade fasting if one awoke ritually impure (junub, see Ritual Purity and Impurity) without time to perform the lustration bath (ghusl) before the fast began. He did so because he had heard a hadith (“Whosoever finds the [time of the] morning prayer (fajr) in a state of major impurity, let him not observe the fast”) which had later been abrogated, without hearing of its abrogation. Abū Bakr b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān narrates that he and his father sought out two wives of the Prophet, ʿĀʾisha and Umm Salama, to inquire about the possibility of such a fast, and they both answered that indeed “the Prophet would awaken in the morning ritually impure, not due to a wet dream, and observe the fast…’” Abū Hurayra then changed his position (for the full hadith, see Muslim, Ṣiyām, ṣiḥḥat ṣawm man ṭalaʿa ʿalayh al-fajr wa huwa junub).


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See also

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