Visualizing female actors in Hadith networks with Palladio

Perhaps more than any other area of permodern Arabic literature, genres concerned with ḥadīth transmission offer themselves for a network approach. Even small collections provide a plethora of names and put them in relation to each other. Someone hears one tradition from someone and then relates it to someone else, thereby turning from a “target” in one relation to a “source” in the next. While the individual chain of transmission might only give diachronic relations, a survey of a larger number of chains might also unearth synchronic relations between transmitters.

Samāʿ sessions, in particular, often catered to large audiences of tens or hundreds of people. At the least, the ones that then made it into ḥadīth literature can be assumed to have interacted with each other in these situations. It can also be assumed, if they were in the same place in this instance, that they were living in each other’s vicinity for a longer period of time as well, and therefore interacted with each other at other times as well.

Asma Sayyed, in her 2002 article “Women and Ḥadīth Transmission. Two Case Studies From Mamluk Damascus” [Studia Islamica 95 (2002): 71-94], proposes that, “by combining [a person’s] biographies with those of [their] teachers and students, it is possible to construct a more complete picture than the one offered in medieval compilations” (75). Although the scope of ḥadīth literature is often even more limited than that of biographical literature, it can add to such “a more complete picture”.

On a more basic level, this approach also allows the identification of a person behind a variety of names, which can otherwise be testing or misleading when people outside the biographers’ focus are concerned. One has to be careful how to phrase this correctly but women often fall outside this focus.

As Sayeed demonstrates that might not be the case in ḥadīth transmission during the Mamluk period. She demonstrates the immersion of women within and their impact on ḥadīth transmission through two case studies: both Zaynab bt. al-Kamāl (646-740/1248-1339) and ʿĀʾisha bt. ʿAbd al-Hādī (723-816/1323-1413) were prominent transmitters in Damascus who participated, just like the male members of their families, in a pervasive communal culture of ḥadīth transmission and benefited from the ensuing status that short chains of transmission bestowed upon their possessors.

This post approaches the role of women in ḥadīth transmission from a different angle: it looks at their networks of transmission as they are documented in Ibn Ṭūlūn’s ḥadīth collection al-Aḥadīth al-miʾa ʿalā miʿat nisba ilā al-ṣanāʿi. This collection contains one hundred traditions, each of which is assigned to one market related profession.

The following images have once again been created using the software Palladio. The survey and transposition of the data into the necessary file format have been undertaken as an intern project at the Orient-Institut Beirut. I am grateful to both Juli Singer and Alexander Reindl for their work in this matter.

First, we have identified those traditions, in which women are mentioned within the chain of transmission. As a second step, we compared the different names given in the text and find out which actually refer to identical transmitters. For the identification, we consulted both the Onomasticon Arabicum and the Virtual International Authority File. We also compared positions of names in the chains of transmission for different traditions. If similar names were positioned between identical names within the chains, the probability is high that they refer to the same person.

As I have demonstrated elsewhere, Palladio needs at least two tables to visualize a network. One table contains all the “nodes” (in this case, transmitters) and another contains all the “edges” (here the acts of transmission). For the nodes, we  have entered the ID, which is congruent either to the Onomasticon (OA…) or to viaf (V…). Where neither database has a record, the ID begins with ND (“no database”). In addition the table contains in separate columns laqab/kunyaism, nasab, and nisba. It further contains dates of birth and death where available as well as the person’s sex (1 for male, 2 for female).

It has to be noted that due to constraints in time we have not considered all transmitters mentioned in Ibn Ṭūlūn’s work. The sample is concentrated on female transmitters. This has to be considered when assessing the centrality of female actors within this network. In addition to those, the sample includes those people from whom they received and those to whom they transmitted a tradition. In total, the resulting network consists of seventy people. And despite our biased selection criteria, within this network we find eighteen women compared to 52 men.

The ID is referred to in the edges table because it is definite, in contrast to either component of the names. The ID is used to identify both source and target of any act of transmission. We have further added the ḥadīth number to explore in which transmissions women appear more frequently. Whereas in most cases only two acts of transmission include women (they receive and then transmit), this number goes up to six for #79 and #82, indicating that their chains of transmission included three women each.

Image 1: Relations Source (dark) – Target (light). Nodes that are involved as both recipient and transmitter show dark.

The first image shows the entirety of the resulting network. In each cluster, there is at least one woman involved in the transmission. Most interesting is probably the large top center cluster which includes most woman-woman transmission within our sample. Moreover, it is a decidedly localized cluster with most people being residents of Damascus in general and even Ṣāliḥiyya in particular.

The largest circle in this cluster (OA16353) refers to the above-mentioned ʿĀʾisha bt. ʿAbd al-Hādī. The second largest, situated to the right, refers to another ʿĀʾisha, called Bint al-Muḥtasib al-ʿUmarī. We could not determine whether the two are in fact identical. One word about the cluster in the lower left corner: the large dark node refers to Shuhda al-Kātiba (d. 570/1174).

Sayeed repeatedly points to the importance of kinship networks in ḥadīth transmission and in particular in the creation and perpetuation of short chains of transmission. Older family members would take younger ones to recitation sessions at a young age and thus enable them to transmit short chains later in life. They might also own some of the texts transmitted originally.

The second image shows the concentration of ḥadīth transmitters in certain families. Out of 27 nisbas, nineteen are exclusively carried by male transmitters and five exclusively by women. Only two nisbas are shared between transmitters of both sexes. And these two are telling, since they both refer to the Damascene suburb Ṣāliḥiyya: the Maqdisī family originally founded the settlement and the name al-ʿUmarī probably refers to either to one descendant of that same family (Abū ʿUmar) or to the madrasa named after him (ʿUmariyya madrasa). This spatially restricted transmission also includes the nisba al-Ṣāliḥī found within our sample only for men.

Image 2: Correlations between sex and nisba (excluding people for whom no nisba is given)

Also the Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī family belonged to the same kinship network, and therefore the centrality of the above-mentioned ʿĀʾisha is not so surprising. Especially, since Ibn Ṭūlūn himself had close ties to later scions of that branch. The centrality of the family becomes even more apparent in the third image.

Image 3: ID (dark) to nisba (light), size of circles dependent on number of acts of transmission

The relative size of the circles shows the involvement of individuals and families (as defined by nisba) respectively in the transmission of ḥadīth. The Maqdisī family is the most important family in this sample, far superceding the ʿUmarī, Wāsiṭī or even Ḥanafī clusters.

Image 4: Impact of transmitters (ID) by ḥadīth (numbered). This graph is restricted to female transmitters.

Finally, we see why ʿĀʾisha bt. ʿAbd al-Hādī is so prominent in this sample. She was involved in the transmission of one fourth of all ḥadīth. She is furthermore connected to several other impactful female transmitters which extends her reach within the network to all but eight chains of transmission.

Yet, as I have said before, the relative impact of women in the transmission of prophetic traditions should not be overstated either—or at least not its visibility in the sources. The final image therefore follows the same parameters as the previous one but includes both male and female transmitters. The result is much more messy and complex.

Image 5: ID to ḥadīth number. This image combines both male and female transmitters.

A comparison of both images shows several aspects: 1) the centrality of ʿĀʾisha remains uncontested; 2)  the relative importance of other female transmitters decreases within the entire network; 3) the entire sample only constitutes a fully developed network if women and men are taken into account. This means that individual women, especially if they came from a conducive familial background, could leave a decisive print on local, regional and even transregional traditions of ḥadīth transmission. But, on the other hand, they could only do so against a background of a decidedly male-dominated culture of travel and exchange.


Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Visualizing female actors in Hadith networks with Palladio", in Damascus Anecdotes, August 5, 2018,
Both tables can be downloaded here:

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