Go read this article by Khadeeja. (Reproduced below.)
Last night I attended a talk by somebody who had done his doctorate on Sayyidinah Fatima. It was a lecture which brought alive the historical sources. You know when you listen to somebody speak and an hour passes in a blur? Took me back to being in high school, when a particularly riveting vignette was being shared.
He began his lecture at the death of the Prophet (PBUH) with a vivid depiction of the Prophet’s death in Sayyidinah Ayesha’s lap and how Sayyidinah Fatima is almost a shadow in the doorway seething with anger at the usurping of her relationship of her father by the despicable and hated Sayyidinah Ayesha. And so the tale began.
The lecture was enlightening but also disturbing. The schism between the Shia and Sunni perspectives is personified by the differing accounts and perception of Fatima. The author narrated the two extremes; on the one end some Sunni scholarship will have Fatima recorded as a “mere” daughter of the Prophet with no political and social significance in the shaping of the foundations of Islam. On the other side some Shia scholarship has portrayed Sayyidinah Fatima akin to the portrayal of Mary in Catholicism; an almost miracle conception (after Angel Jibreel gives the Prophet (PBUH) fruit from paradise during the Miraj), magical midwives (Aasiyah wife of Pharoah, Sayyidinah Maryam, Kulthum sister of Moosa and Hawa or Eve), her birth in prostration to God and her appeal to God from beyond this life to punish the murderers of her son Husayn. This Fatima is revered, mystical and a woman of almost unbelievable power.
While I don’t want to rehash the entire lecture it highlighted the different methodological approaches to historical fact which yield entirely different stories. I have been raised in the Sunni tradition; that being said it has never been an overarching theme in my life and I identify (if I have to put a label on it) as a Muslim rather than a Sunni Muslim. I cannot say I know much about the Shia tradition but last night my interest was piqued sufficiently for me to open my mind into understanding the Shia perspective better. I loved the fact that Shia scholarship lent an air of mystery and symbolism which to me is often missing from the particular Sunni persuasion I have been exposed to. I like the fact that the hadiths are more about reflection that prescription as I have come to know. Traditions like the fact that owls only come out at night because during the day they mourn the death of Husayn. Beautiful, fascinating traditions. Sometimes the ascetic and dry historical recounting of belief leaves me wanting. And this spoke to a different side of Islam which is hardly emphasised upon in mosques and places of worship I frequent. (Note this is a reflection of my own biases).
In the discussion session post the lecture a member of the audience pointed out the difficulty with any absolutism in this science and how such starkly different accounts of the same woman could be reconciled. I think this is the beauty of the fluidity of religion. A fluidity often neglected in favour of an absolutist approach which leaves no room for alternative perspectives.
However, I also disagreed with her. To me, the lecture highlighted the unity of the two opposing accounts, that of patriarchy and the manipulation of women.
Let me explain:
1. The lecturer contrasted the Sunni scholarship approach of Sayyidinah Fatima as weak and insignificant, a weeping woman whom the Prophet thought of as something of a nuisance (shudder). The opposing Shia viewpoint is of how Fatima was so powerful she could direct the Prophet to deliver a sermon condemning Ali’s desire to take a second wife. Where when Ali built her a house she demanded it wasn’t good enough and he build her one nearer her father.
In both cases a woman’s power is defined by her ability to manipulate the men around her.
2. There is a discrepancy in terms of the dates when she was born and hence her death. The Sunnis allege that she died at the age of 29 while the Shias allege she died at the age of 19. The Shias accuse the Sunnis of wanting to make her seem weak and hence in this paradigm an older woman is less attractive and hence weaker and less worthy of adoration.
Do I need to highlight the patriarchy?
3. Her virginity. She is called “Al-Batul” – the virgin. This, despite being married to Ali. Once again this emphasis on virginity is complemented by supposed Hadith which speak of women’s virginity in heaven being renewed repetitively. Fetishist much? This virginity of Sayyidinah Fatima is believed by the Shias to be representative of the fact that she never menstruated, like Mary. Promoting her holy status. Virginity and its role in the patriarchal perception of power and purity once again.
4. The death of her father. Perhaps she was consumed by anger. Or maybe she was grieving the death of her father and consumed by sadness. To me, this pitting of woman against woman is an age old game. A game which has been used to further ends very far from the spiritual.
I am yet to read the author’s doctorate and can’t wait to read it. But it struck me, how women are always used as pawns in political games. How the true story of Fatima will be buried under political ambitions and perceptions of power through different lenses. It made me profoundly sad to come to the realisation that we might never discover the woman she truly was.