Allah revealed to Prophet Muhammad that he created the universe for him and because of him. He later told Muhammad that he himself was created because of Ali and at the end proclaimed that both and all was created because of Fatima (Shi’ite hadith ghodsi).
Fatima is a very important and central figure in Iranian Shi’ism. The literature dealing with her is secondary literature, i.e. hadith (narratives) and reports, and is substantial. It is often commented that such literature with respect to women is a mirror image of the misogynist attitudes in the Muslim countries and is used as a tool to reinforce such negative trends. There is literature of this kind associated with Fatima too. The most famous is the one in which she is quoted as saying, "the best thing for a woman is to stay at home and not to be seen by strange men" (Bukhari). However, the bulk of the literature dealing with her is from a different nature and a different story. The literature has depth, is multi dimensional and has an evolution. The earlier accounts are biographical; Ibn Hisham in his biography of Prophet Muhammad, the earliest records of his life and early Islam only mentions her without any details. Bukhari has more information but again she is just mentioned. As of the 10th century, with the appearance of several minor and a couple of major pro-Shi’ite dynasties, the Fatamids of Egypt and the Buyid of Iran, her image gradually but eventually changed drastically. The Fatamid claimed descent from Fatima and it is during the Buyid period that for the first time public mourning for Imam Husayn is performed in Iran. From this time on, she becomes more of a Saint and less of a person. The Sixteenth century, the coming of Safavid dynasty and the Shi’ scholar; Majlesi’s colossal work Oceans of Light completed her transformation into a major Saint with a number of titles each a manifestation of one of her saintly attributes and more.
She is divine in origin and several variations of a major hadith describe how she was conceived on the night of Meraj (ascension). On this night, the angel Gabriel, took Muhammad to Jerusalem and then to Heaven. While up in Heaven, he was offered some heavenly fruit, the seed of which was responsible for her conception after Prophet’s arrival at home on the same night and making love to his beloved wife Khadija. This story is important and has become a point of departure between Sunni and Shi’i with respect to her age. Accordingly to the Shi’ite account, she was conceived on this night and she lived for only 18 years. On the other hand, Sunnis believe that she was born five years before the revelation and as a result she is 10 years older.
She is called Zahra, the radiant one, a universal motif and a characteristic of all saints. She is also called Batul meaning virgin. She is the Queen of mankind and is compared to Mary and is called Maryam and like Mary she is Queen of Heaven. She is the first woman who will enter the paradise and all those who accompany her or have prayed to her will also enter paradise and their sins will be forgiven, she is their shafe (savior) and protector. She is mohadatheh, the one who talks and is in contact with angels. In fact, angels are at her service. Archangel Gabriel representing the Holy Ghost praises her at her incredible wedding in heaven and angels assist her when she is giving birth to her children and are present at her deathbed.
She is pure (tahereh), sinless and becomes one of the “14 innocents” (14 massoum) and one of the holy five (panj tan). She is a major archetype with her own cult. There are prayers for her and a major all female feast, sofreh hazrat i zahra, is still very popular with Muslim women. Sofreh feasts are Zoroastrian in origin and are mainly practiced by Iranians.
On another level she is central to the doctrine of martyrdom and though her son is the major character, she is not marginalized. She is considered to be almost immortal. The holy five were created from divine rays of light at the beginning of time and she knows her children will be massacred and her husband will be assassinated right from this time. She understands that this is her mission and God’s design for her. The long gone ancient prophets sympathize and angels cry with her. She sobs and mourns over her beloved son’s slain body as a distressed mother and is present at all the passion plays, even though she had died fifty years earlier before the tragedy of Kerbela.
Yet at another level she is the fighter and the defender of the true faith and justice. After her father’s death, the power struggle started, her family representing the true faith, the pure and the holy blood was pushed aside. It is her speech that stirs, accuses and reveals all that is wrong and how deviations will happen with the greedy leaders who will change the course of Islam forever and for the worse. At the domestic level, she is the loyal daughter, the devoted wife, the caring mother and a symbol of endurance. Such themes have been used for centuries to project her image as that of the ideal Muslim woman. She is the one who will not hesitate to sacrifice everything including herself for the sake of her family and the true fate.
Her image since Safavid times has changed little with one exception; the popular Muslim preacher, Ali Shariati’s famous book and the bestseller Fatima is Fatima. Shariati, a sociologist educated in France and extremely popular in Iran since the 1970s, had his own vision of Islam and societies in general. The West represented corruption, imperialism, capitalism and commercialization. The Muslim East had a glorious past but had deteriorated in the hands of authoritarian kings and opportunist clergy. The Pahlavi dynasty had created a class of women with no identity, distorted, doll like, copycats and totally cut off from their origins, heritage and fate. The good Muslim women had become confused and disoriented. They did not want to be like their mothers but they did not know what they wanted or who they were. Shariati presented Fatima as his ideal woman, as a role model for all women. However his version of the Queen of Heaven is devoid of her sainthood and divine attributes. Fatima was human, a real person, but a unique women. By her own will and sound judgement she had chosen to be loyal, devoted, compassionate and ready to sacrifice herself for her family and the true fate. All women in Iran should follow the same example and be an object of sacrifice like her. This image was taken up by the women during the revolution and has been abandoned and critically questioned by most women two decades after the Islamic revolution. Shariati’s image is one-dimensional, devoid of saintly attributes and historically inaccurate. His analysis of the west and east is also too simple, incorrect and reductionism at its best.
The Islamic Republic has kept all these images. They have preserved her sainthood and at the same time have politicized her as Shariati did. Her birthday is Mother’s Day in Iran and she is constantly presented as the ideal woman and role model. However there is one difference: a number of Muslim women writers are emerging with their own understanding of Fatima. Their interpretations are different from the traditional sources of literature such as Bukhari, Koleini, Shaykh Tousi, Ibn Babuyeh, Majlesi and Shariati.
This will eventually add a new dimension to the already complicated and multi-faceted image of Fatima, the cause of creation as stated in the major hadith above. In one such account woman writer Alavieh Homayouni in her book called Love about Fatima and Ali makes a very interesting observation. When she talks about the Hadith ghodsi mentioned at the beginning, she remarks that "maybe Fatima is the cause of creation because she is a woman and a life giver". This is practically saying that a male sovereign god (Allah) created all for the sake of a female deity who is the source of all life. The statement is well in tune with the old creation myths popular in ancient Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean world and is a well-established feminist account of creation myths.
Reviewing the literature about her presents a very complicated image and signifies her importance as a divine female. Why was she so important? Her significance in Safavid times and present-day Iran is understandable. However some of the major stories and the imagery are very old and may be even older than she is. Her image is too grand and too complicated and is not proportional to her function as a blood link. Such extreme veneration for her reminds one of the ancient cultural practices of venerating female deities so popular in the area before Islam. The literature that compares her to Mary comes from previously Christian territories like Egypt. It is possible that her cult might have replaced Anahita’s cult—at least in Iranian territories. There is a story in the traditional literature that is not used or quoted because it is so odd. Anahita the very popular female deity and protector of all waters, bathes in a river, walks out and becomes pregnant with the saviour and the Messiah who will save the world. Fatima bathes in a river as well, comes out and is pregnant with Imam Husayn. Anahita’s influence amazingly survived until the 19th century. Part of her image remained until the founding of the Islamic republic. Her beast lion and her crest sun was a national emblem and on the Iranian flag until the Islamic revolution.
In the ancient imagery Anahita is on a lion and inside the sun. After Islam she was eliminated, but the lion and the sun survived. Eventually the lion came to represent Ali, Fatima’s husband, holding his sword zulfaghar. Well into the 19th century when water reservoirs were still built, they had a stone lion outside. This practice is similar to those of ancient times when Anahita protected the waters and most traditional bathhouses had water faucets in shape of a lion’s head. There were rites of protection for the newborn, these involved water rituals reminiscent of ancient rites for Anahita who was also the protector of fetus and women’s womb. When women were delivering babies, they asked for help by shouting ‘Ya Zahra’ as they would with Anahita’s name in earlier times. It appears that veneration for ancient female deities continued after Islam with Fatima replacing the more ancient ones. This might explain why Fatima is so goddess-like in a religion where there is little space for a feminine side to the divinity.