Fāṭimah bint Muḥammad

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FĀIMAH BINT MUAMMAD (d. 11 ah/633 ce) was the youngest and best-known daughter of the prophet Muammad and his first wife Khadījah. His bloodline continues exclusively through her.

Biographical Details

The sources give Fāimah's date of birth as falling between 609 and 614 ce. She is described as having been greatly beloved of Muammad, and in turn was completely devoted to him. Her mother Khadījah's death while Fāimah was still very young filled her with great grief. She shared her father's travails during his years of persecution in Mecca before the emigration (hijrah ) to Medina in 622 ce.

Shortly after the hijrah, two close associates of the Prophet, Abū Bakr and ʿUmar (who later became the first and second caliph), asked for Fāimah's hand in marriage. Muammad refused both of them, and instead encouraged his cousin ʿAlī, despite his greatly impoverished circumstances, to propose marriage to his daughter. ʿAlī, at the Prophet's behest, sold his shield and thereby obtained a sum of roughly 480 dirhams to offer as the bridal gift. Fāimah was between fifteen and twenty-one and ʿAlī twenty-five years of age at the time of marriage. A modest wedding feast was arranged and the couple moved into a home close to the Prophet's residence. They lived in grinding poverty, especially for the first several years of their marriage; the sources depict them as often having very little to eat. To earn a meager living, ʿAlī would draw water from the wells and water other people's lands, and Fāimah did all the housework herself, being unable to afford servants. Despite this, Fāimah is well-known for her highly charitable disposition, and before her marriage had tended to the ahl al-uffah (people of the bench), a group of destitute Muslims who took refuge in the Prophet's mosque in Medina.

The two famous sons of Fāimah and ʿAlī, al-asan and al-usayn, were born within the first four years of their marriage. A third son, Muassin (or Musin), was stillborn. Two daughters followed, Umm Kulthūm and Zaynab, who were named after Fāimah's elder sisters.

There was apparently friction between Fāimah and ʿAlī, and she would complain to her father about the latter's harshness to her. Muammad is said to have been distressed by this lack of conjugal harmony and intervened on such occasions to effect a reconciliation between the sparring couple. A serious rift threatened to erupt between the couple when ʿAlī began to actively consider taking a second wife. The Prophet came to the defense of Fāimah and forbade ʿAlī from contracting a second marriage unless he were to divorce her first. Muammad's affection for his daughter was codified in a adīth he uttered on this occasion: "Fāimah is a part of me and whoever offends her offends me." ʿAlī was thus dissuaded from taking a second consort. This event is sometimes invoked to point to the Prophet's preference for monogamy over polygamy, in the absence of extenuating circumstances.

Both the Sunnīs and the Shīʿah venerate Fāimah greatly as the beloved daughter of the Prophet, through whom his descendants are traced. She is one of the five members of the Prophet's family (ahl al-bayt ; literally "family of the house [of the Prophet]"), which includes additionally, besides Muammad, ʿAlī and their two sons, al-asan and al-usayn. The term ahl al-bayt is a highly charged term, particularly for the Shīʿah. It occurs in a significant verse in the Qurʾān (33:33), which states, "O People of the House, God wishes only to remove from you uncleanliness." To whom precisely ahl al-bayt refers has remained unresolved to this day. Many Sunnī commentators have understood this verse to include not only the five members indicated above but also all the Prophet's wives. But Shīʿī commentators, and a number of pro-ʿAlid Sunnī exegetes, have interpreted ahl al-bayt as referring only to the five members, and have stressed the Qurʾanically mandated privileged status thereby accruing to them. An "occasion of revelation" is frequently recounted in connection with this verse, which further anchors this circumscribed meaning of ahl al-bayt. The sources relate that during an event that has come to be known as al-mubāhalah (mutual adjuration), the Prophet gathered ʿAlī, Fāimah, al-asan, and al-usayn under a cloak before a Christian delegation from Najrān as a proof of his prophethood, according to one version. "The family of the cloak" (ahl al-kisāʾ ), as they are referred to after this incident, tends to become conflated with ahl al-bayt in Shīʿī exegetical works in particular.

Another adīth, known as the adīth al-thaqalayn (the Prophet's statement regarding the two weighty [things]), underscores the high status of the ahl al-bayt and is recorded in both Sunnī and Shīʿī standard adīth compilations. In this report, Muammad says, "Indeed, I am leaving behind two weighty [things] among you: the Book of God and my kindred, the ahl al-bayt."

The family of the Prophet is greatly revered by both Sunnīs and Shīʿah alikealthough among the Shīʿah, allegiance to the ahl al-bayt becomes a religious tenet. Both Sunnī and Shīʿī sources attest to the special bond of affection and closeness that existed between Muammad and Fāimah in particular. She is said to have closely resembled him in appearance and manner. Fāimah's usual epithet, al-Zahrāʾ, means "the radiant one." It is worthy of note that the most famous and oldest institution of higher learning in the Islamic world, al-Azhar (masculine form of al-Zahrāʾ) in Cairo, Egypt, is named after her. This mosque-university was built in 969 ce by the Ismāʿīlī dynasty from North Africa, known, once again after Fāimah, as the Fāimids.

Fāimah died in 633, about four to six months after her father. ʿAlī prepared her body for burial, and she was laid to rest in the family cemetery of Baqīʿ al-Gharqad in Medina.

The Cult of FĀimah

The cult of Fāimah grew as the Shīʿah became more confirmed in their oppositional role to the majoritarian Sunnīs. As the former progressively came to stress over time that legitimate and just leadership of the Muslim polity could only be exercised by a descendant of Fāimah and ʿAlī, her status, as the only daughter of the Prophet to produce heirs who lived into adulthood and thus continue his line, grew accordingly. In Shīʿī sources, Fāimah, in addition to al-Zahrāʾ, is given eight other names: al-Baūl (the Chaste/Virgin), al-iddīqah (the Truthful), al-āhirah (the Pure), al-Mubārakah (the Blessed), al-Zakīyah (the Pure), al-Raīyah (the One Contented [with God's pleasure]), al-Mariyah (One with whom [God is] pleased), al-Muaddathah (the One Spoken to [by angels]), and Umm Muammad/Umm Abīhā (Mother of Muammad/Mother of Her Father). The last epithet invokes the memory of the occulted Twelfth Imām in Imāmī or Twelver Shīʿī belief, whose name was Muammad, like the Prophet of Islam. In this sense, Fāimah is the "mother" of her distant descendant, and thus "of her father" who bears the same name.

In Shīʿī hagiography, the name Fāimah itself is glossed as "One who was weaned [by God from the Fire];" those who love her will also be saved from it. Fāimah is the Pure and Chaste one because she was not subject to the blood of menstruation and parturition on account of having been created from the waters of paradise. The Qurʾanic verse (33:33) cited above is taken by the Shīʿah as a proof-text attesting to Fāimah's ʿismah, or "[moral] impeccability" or "sinlessness" (and that of other members of the family of the Prophet as well). Fāimah is moreover believed to have been entrusted with a special "scroll," known as Maaf Fāimah, brought to her by Gabriel to console her on the death of her father. The cult of Fāimah has been likened to the cult of the Virgin Mary in Roman Catholicism; there are indeed many parallels to be observed. Like Mary, she is virginal, despite being a wife and mother; and she is a tragic yet powerful female figure, eliciting the greatest loyalty from those devoted to her. The Shīʿah often refer to Fāimah as Maryam al-Kubrá (the Greater Mary).


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Asma Afsaruddin (2005)