The Legacy of Fatima

Though men and women may have appropriated Fatima in different ways, men as usual authored nearly all of the preserved literature regarding her biography, so that censored writings of history function as a paradigm. This symbol of Fatima has consequently and predictably been molded throughout the centuries to fit political needs or inspirations: Fatima is often depicted as an archetype of chastity and feminine virtue and patience in the face of suffering. In The Images of Fatima, she is said to lead all virtuous women across a bridge to Heaven with seven thousand angels preceding and following as well as bordered on each side. She is an exemplar of integrities essentialized specifically for women, though she should be an aspiration for all Muslims. Consequently even despite the fact that she is an authority, she is an authority who in reception is modulated by her sex.

But on the other hand Fatima is a paradigmatic figure, one whose power and significance is not derivative of any man—Fatima, though the daughter of our beloved Prophet, is also herself crucial to authorizing the subsequent Shi’a imams of whose pedigree she is considered to have established. This is a position of power in which women are rarely placed in patriarchal societal hierarchies; though not entirely a structural comparison, Catholic women who are ordained by the Church—though they are reviving a birthright stolen from them by the aberrant rewriting of canon law—derive the power of priesthood from male predecessors and thus become silent contributors of privileging the male supremacy, which they must reconcile with their opposing feminist position.

Yet even despite Fatima’s position of existing amongst the purest five, in practice women are forbidden to hold the office of imams in institutional reality. In a patriarchal society, no matter how exalted a woman may be in spirituality and virtue, this will never translate into a status of structural religious authority. In the social and political realms, men will continue to remain unfaithful to the reality of God’s assertion that men and women are ontological equals within the moral realm and thus fail to adequately practice their religion.

And Fatima’s exaltation is incomparable indeed. In the earliest hagiographical works, she is written to have pre-existed in Paradise, where her essence of radiant light was created and placed by God on a tree, the fruit of which was consumed by the Prophet and passed into Khadija when she conceived their daughter. Other works cite her existence even before that of Adam and Eve, who pride themselves in being God’s first creation until in the highest level of Heaven they encounter Fatima, gloriously beautiful, who informs Adam and Eve that her earrings are her sons, the gem on her crown is her husband, and the crown upon her hair is her father. In this account not only does she pre-exist Adam and Eve, but she rightfully possesses–and has been favored to be gifted–with the coveted concept of knowledge, as she has known of their existence for thousands of years.

Whether one believes these accounts or the reliability of their sources (I don’t, personally; though depending strictly on the Qur’an and sunnah alone and viewing spirituality and meditation as having no contribution is said to actually be an aberration, this is a little far too questionable for me) we can draw not only the conclusion that Fatima’s authority, power, and significance is not derivative, but that she—a woman—is native to Paradise.

The separation of body from spirit is mechanism in many cases for women relegated to spiritual insignificance; however, the opposite is true for Fatima—while she occupies a highly spiritual realm of existence as her ontological status fastens the epistemological foundation of her authority, her bodily existence also personifies the delivery of Divine assistance for worldly suffering. She attests to both the notion of physical exertions that are particular to women—menstruation, childbirth, the loss of her children—but also the harsh political and social inequities she faced during her life, including the refusal of Abu Bakr and Umar to give her her rightful inheritance after the Prophet’s death (symbolic of the Shi’a denied their rightful voice in the Ummah), the miscarriage which resulted from her distress caused by Umar gathering a gang of followers to burn down her house, and the death of her two sons in battle after facing intense persecution. This would illustrate and advocate a familiar approach to piety: that suffering and poverty in this world promises riches in the next; on the principle that Fatima is a woman however, and the patriarchal view of woman as the second sex, this expectancy of patience in the face of suffering to regulated to women.

But Fatima’s power, much like the power of the newly liberated woman at the rise of Islam, was beyond what had been previously allowed or expected in Arab culture. Not only did she heal the ill with a touch of her hand, she was so favored by Divinity that even in her impoverished state, a state in which she was once too embarrassed to attend the wedding of an opposing clan, she arrived upon the ceremony illuminated by Heavenly light and dressed by the miraculous work of angels in such gorgeous clothing, that those rivals attending converted to Islam at the sight of her resplendent radiance. Fatima’s poverty, life-long persecution, and suffering delivered her, and Divine Intervention illustrated her humanity; ultimately she is a source of inner fortitude. Simultaneously, the prevailing image of her is a perpetually weeping and grieving woman: soft, feminine, fragile even despite her highly influential position and her departure from the traditionally female role.

Unfortunately Fatima’s religious significance has long been addressed by anyone but the women to whom it pertains themselves, so women’s perceptions of their roles are absent from documentation. Fatima has been employed as a symbol of both female liberation and an ideal of female impossibility, toward which women should aspire, though they will never achieve her perfection.

2 thoughts on “The Legacy of Fatima

  1. How well said. I think that this narrative of polarising women into the epitome of virtue or piety (sometimes simultaneously) as a function of their sex is repeated at every turn- not just for those before us but for our contemporary aspirations as well. It is another way of the patriarchal agenda being put forward- using the “ideal woman” as a means to drown out the voice of women everywhere. Because somehow we all fall short.

    Anyway, I loved this piece and will definitely re-read all the little treasures in it.


  2. bigstick1

    I am curious if you will let this stand on your site as in one way it is off topic but in another it is spot on.

    I thought you might find it interesting about Junia (female) changed to Junius (male) who was said to be the best apostle among men. So in the 12th century the Catholic church scribes changed it and it was allowed to stand. This information really only came to light in the last 40 years or so.

    Then you might find this site interesting.



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