Rant Number 495 26 June 2012
‘Why are you here?’ a bemused official politely inquired of some Muslims, conspicuous amongst the Catholic pilgrims to Portugal’s shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. ‘Fatima’ was the answer. ‘Fatima. The beloved daughter of our Prophet. We come here for Fatima.’
The great Islamic scholar, mystic and priest, Louis Massignon (the only writer Edward Said spares from obloquy inOrientalism), raises Fatima to almost Virgin Mary-like status. Many Muslims would hardly disagree. Although Fatima had children, like other women, a tradition has it that Allah exempted her from menses...
For Massignon Fatima is an emblem of sacred hospitality. That high and beautiful virtue so sacred amongst Semites, harking back to the hospitality of Abraham-Ibrahim, the holy figure venerated by all Ahl al-Kitab, the people of the Book. In Genesis 18 - the same episode also adumbrated in Qur’an 11:69 - Abraham stands before his tent where with Sarah, his wife, he offer generous hospitality to three strangers – angels, actually, divine envoys. It is sacred philoxeny – love of hospitality. (The subject of St Andrei Rublev’s famous Russian Orthodox type of icon.) Both a duty and a gift from God – the supreme Hospitable One.
Fatima herself is the Lady, the mistress of the tent of hospitality. Fr Massignon also calls her ‘the hostess, the patroness of her father’s freedmen, as well as of the non-Arab converts to Islam, the mawali. As such, Fatima transcends her Arab background and stands for the universality of an inclusive, non-racial religion. What is more, Fatima for the French mystic has a secret life. A life of inner compassion, of prayers for the martyrs and a frequent night visitor to tombs. After the critical battle of Uhud indeed Fatima nursed her father’s wounds and regularly prayed for the Muslim fallen.
A talk the priest gave two weeks ago to a Fatima Conference at the House of Lords required of him the prior, pleasant task to do research on the Lady of Islam, Fatima al-Zahra’ – the radiant one . She was a frequent shedder of tears. A critic thought her ‘lachrymose’ but that is wrong. In spirituality the gift of tears is a sign of religious fervour, as well as of election. Eminently, St John’s Gospel shows Jesus weeping at the news of his friend Lazarus’ death. St Mary must have shed bitter tears at the foot of her son’s cross. And weeping is also much needed today – the sight of the mess humanity is making of God’s creation would move a stone to tears, no?
There is a technical term in theology, hyperdoulia. It signifies an extra kind of veneration rightly attributed to a holy person. God alone deserves latria, worship, of course. But a canonised saint, such as St Catherine of Siena, for example, is worthy of doulia, veneration. The Virgin Mary, however, is no ordinary saint. ‘All-holy’, the Orthodox Church calls her. Thus St Mary for Christians rates that special, high, super-veneration, hyperdoulia. So does Fatima for Muslims – and not only Muslims – Fr Massignon argues. As a mortal, the honour she merits could not be higher.
Is there a Fatima of history, as opposed to a Fatima of faith? There is no doubt she existed, a real woman of flesh and blood, and that she married Ali, becoming thus the mother of Hasan and Husain, tragic heroes and Imams of Islam but all the rest comes from religious traditions, intertwining faith and fact. Pious anecdotes abound. When still a child the death of her mother, Khadijah, much distressed Fatima but she must have rejoiced when her father told her the angel Gabriel had informed him that a shining pavilion of pearls had been erected in Paradise for her mother. On another occasion, when one of her father’s enemies in Mecca had flung some filth at him while at prayer, she sprung to Muhammad’s defence and cursed the offender – a natural enough reaction for a loving daughter.
The lady’s early married life was poor. Ali had little – only by selling a breast-plate he could raise enough money to pay for the dowry the bride was entitled from her husband. Their household initially was meagre, both husband and wife worked hard manually, even suffered hunger, but later on things improved and Fatima could say ‘now at last we can eat plenty of dates’.
Fatima’s last days on earth were not, it seems, happy. Her husband failed to obtain the Caliphate. A piece of property she should have inherited from her father was denied to her – an episode much disputed in Islam but...God knows the truth.
She was certainly much affected when Omar, the first Caliph, just after Muhammad’s death, demanded homage from Ali. It is related Fatima was so beside herself at the affront that she threatened to take off her hijab, uncovering her hair – a sign of terrible distress for an Arab woman. Whereupon fierce Omar desisted.
Is there a link between spirituality and rebellion? Fatima may seem an unlikely candidate but...why not? She never killed anyone – she shed no man’s blood, surely there she shows superiority over the bloodthirsty male of the species – but from Massignon to Ali Shariati thinkers have seen her as a champion of the oppressed. Another link with St Mary, perhaps. Who remembers the Magnificat? The Blessed Virgin sings: God ‘has put down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.’ Revolutionary manifesto, what?!
When her father was dying – six months before her own death – Fatima again cried much. Then she was seen smiling. A hadith narrated from ‘Aysha explains why. The Prophet apparently told his daughter that Gabriel’s visits had increased – a sign of the approaching end but also that Fatima would soon follow him into the Hereafter. Fatima then began to weep. Her father comforted her: ‘Are you not happy you will be the first of the ladies of Paradise?’ Then Fatima smiled.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli