Friday, December 7, 2007

The Gnostic Cultus of Fatima in Shi'ite Islam

Louis Massignon
« Der gnostische Kult der Fatima in shiitischen Islam » (1938); Opera Minora (Beirut: Dar Al-Maaref Liban, 1963), I, 514-22. (Trans.) Mitra Hazini and Aaron Cheak. (Ed.) Wahid Azal (2007).

Despite the fact that international law has accepted two or three specifically Islamic nations as its members, it is still increasingly difficult for the modern civilized world to accept Islam as an equal among the other major monotheistic religions. Yet their God is the God of Abraham, just as it is for the Christians and Jews, and contrary to the demands of the extreme Zionists, Islam too has just as much right to exist in Palestine. This becomes even more evident when one considers the results of the latest genealogical research, for Moslem blood has mixed with Christian blood over the past thirteen centuries and has penetrated into many European lands. In a manner of speaking, the Moslem family, in which the wife is able to remain Christian or Jewish, has been “kept open from one side.” We may also mention a frequently dangerous inclination towards exoticism among French student circles, whereby young Christian girls are enticed into marrying foreign Moslem students due to a sense of sentimental compensation for the abuse of power that occurred on Islamic soil during French colonization.
Now, it might seem unusual for an Islamic scholar to participate in a series of lectures dealing with religio-historical problems pertaining to the cultus of the Holy Mother, for, in general, the position of women in Islam is theoretically rather subordinate. Her legal testimony, for instance, is worth only half that of a man’s. Even so, a softening of the position is also known; although she can be divorced without her permission, and while the reciprocal right does not apply, the last few years have actually succeeded in improving her essential legal status. As to the Arabic literary tradition, it does not regard a woman simply as a slave to the desires of a man; it also celebrates women of courage, knowledge and nobility. Furthermore, it was in Islamic lands that that high form of Minne emerged which extols a Platonic veneration of the beloved Beatrice (Leila, Bothenia).
Finally—and this is also the justification for my lecture—there are some Islamic sects who raise the cultus of Fatima, the beloved daughter of the Prophet who is revered by almost all Moslem people, to a form of divine adoration. She was first venerated under the name al-batūl, “the virgin,” for it was as a virgin when she married her cousin ‘Ali and bore him sons, two of whom would become the legitimate leaders of the Shī’ites and claimants to the highest power as ‘Ali’s successors.
To this day one can still recognize, here and there, a distinctive feature among the Shī’ite sects of the Isma’ilis who await the coming of the Mahdi: a virgin who comes to be called al-rawda, “paradise,” to whom they seek to offer the leadership of their sect because they hope she will bring the Mahdi into the world. In the ninth century a young widow was held under supervision for seven years because it was supposed that she might be carrying the long-awaited Mahdi under her bosom.
Historically we know very little about the short life of Fatima, as Lammens’ far too cynical and disparaging study misinforms us. The Islamic traditions do not enable the relationship between Fatima and her father to be clearly ascertained. Besides, she had a particularly ill-disposed rival: Ayisha, her Father’s favorite wife.
We know that her father gave her away in marriage to her cousin ‘Ali, and that she was the only daughter of the prophet who gave him grandsons that survived. There is, moreover, no indication that she was denied any sign of heartfelt affection from her father, particularly during the last year of the prophet’s life.
Indeed, after the childhood death of Ibrahim, the son of his Coptic concubine Maria, the prophet had no other hope for the continuation of his lineage other than through the children of Fatima.
Now when, during a festive celebration, the prophet was negotiating a treaty with the Christian authorities of Najrān (from the tribe of ‘Abdel Madān)—a treaty which represents the first “capitulation” between Christians and Moslems—a divergence of opinion arose between the prophet and the Christian envoy, and their negotiations ground to a dead halt on the issue of the incarnation. The prophet wanted to have the question resolved through ordeals and referred his opponent to the verdict of divine judgement. The Koran makes an allusion to these ordeals or mobahala, to which the angst-ridden Christians ultimately capitulated. According to such ritual of divine justice [or execration], each party is supposed to summon hostages from their own ranks to offer in pledge of their convictions. According to general Islamic tradition, the prophet’s hostages were composed of his daughter Fatima, his son in law, and his two grandsons, Hassan and Hossein. With the prophet himself, five people are thusly designated by this singular investiture, which, as the Muslim Hindus expressly emphasize, was represented through the five fingers of a single talismanic hand—the “Hand of Fatima.” Here the explanation familiar in North Africa, according to which the talisman is simply dismissed as a vestige of Carthaginian magic, is invalidated.
When the prophet died, his son-in-law ‘Ali hardly dared wrest power for himself, but he also refused for months thereafter to pledge an oath of allegiance to Abubakr, Ayisha’s father, whom Fatima too never recognized as caliph. This robbed her of her paternal inheritance, and Abubakr withdrew her ownership rights over the oasis of Fadah. He even had a house-search performed during which she was so badly mistreated that she prematurely delivered a stillborn son, Mohsin.
A few months after her father’s death, Fatima also died, and ‘Ali had to decide whether or not to pledge his oath of allegiance to Abubakr.
In all genuine, that is to say Shī’ite, Islamic circles, Fatima stands at the centre of a collective Islamic legitimization problem. This is due not only to the fact that through her husband she is the mother of the ‘Alids— hence all the descendants of the prophet who are entitled to wear the green turban, who in Africa are called the “Shofra” (plural of Sharif)— but also because she forms the point of contact between the two male lineages: that of her father Mohammed and that of her husband ‘Ali.
The fact remains—for those who believe that the divine covenant which elevates the prophet over his own kind was not withdrawn from the community upon his death but rather became transferred first to his son-in-law ‘Ali and then to his descendants (according to rules which not even the Shī’ites themselves are in complete accord regarding), a major difficulty arises: the power will be passed on through the male lineage, and yet ‘Ali is not the son by blood, but only the son-in-law of the prophet. Explanations have been sought to suggest that he could have been the adoptive brother of the prophet, following the ancient biblical precedent of Aaron, who became the successor of Moses. Some have also claimed that ‘Ali’s father Abu Taleb was similarly elected by divine grace, like his brother Abdallah, the father of the prophet. But all these arguments are clearly makeshift, and Shī’ite reverence—forced to bridge the lacuna—ultimately made a virtue out of necessity and thereby introduced the cultus of Fatima.
And so she becomes the binding link between the two masculine branches: that of her father and that of her husband. Like fruit sprung from a tree in paradise, she is in truth neither girl, woman nor mother in flesh. Rather, she is the phenomenal form of a divine idea. Through her, the “five” of the mobahala now form a [syzygic] unity. In essence she is the initiation, the “shimmering color of predestination,” not the initiatrix or the embodiment of inspiration, as one finds in other cults (the nymph of Numa; Ennoia). In a very remarkable manifestation that arises in the meditation of these sects, she appears as a veiled light-form sitting with a crown on her head, wearing two ear ornaments and holding a sword in her hand: the crown is her father, the two earrings her sons, the sword her husband.
The greeting by which she is addressed in prayer is peculiar enough: “Welcome art thou, O Mother of your Father.” The Arabic form (umm abiha) is an old tribal greeting which was used when the son bore the name of the father of his mother. Here the use of the formula signifies that it is from her that the second divine principle emanates, the mīm, which manifested in her father in order to be manifest anew in her sons. In a similar vein of thought, she appears as the “source of the sun” (the red point on the western sky), from whence the sickle of the moon is born at the beginning of each month, the lunar crescent which, for the Shī’ites, symbolizes the “Imāmat.”
In a Sunni text of ‘Abul Fadl Ahmadi († 942 of Hedjra), it is written that ‘Ali must be regarded as the true Tuba-tree of Paradise, for he serves as the veil through which the light of Fatima manifests itself. The proof that this Shī’ite gnostic cultus of Fatima is not based on her human fertility but rather on her beneficent grace is demonstrated by the secret name that she carries after the initiation: instead of her female name, Fatima, she is known only by the name Fatir. But Fatir is a masculine divine epithet. It already features in the Koran, where it signifies “Creator,” or more precisely, “he who lets appear.” What she will let appear, however, is the human form in which, at certain temporal intervals, the Godhead manifests itself in order to test humankind, to demand from it time and again the highest oath of allegiance. In point of fact, history already exists for the Shī’ites as a repeated rebellion of the misled majority in outrage against the highest personified divinity…in the form of the ‘Alids.
What follows is one of the essential texts. Surfacing in the fourteenth century, it probably stems from the Shī’ite sect of Nusayris (although it originally derives from an entire spectrum of far older compositions). Effectively, it functions as a long litany enumerating all the symbols in the Koran that represent Fatima.
A QASIDA OF IBRAHIM TUSI († c. 750/1350)
[Note: A qasida is an Arabic or Persian elegiac poem with a tripartite verse structure—(AC)].
Seemingly a free takhmīs based on a qasida of his master, ‘Ali-b-Mansūr Suwayri (fl. c. 714/1314):
I. How well do you know this mysterious Fitra? And where doth her magnificent clarity come from? Does she belong to the highest pre-eternal essence, does she manifest the attributes of the name, or is she the phenomenal form of the veil?
II. Is she the sacred flame of the torch? Or the glass lantern of the glowing light? Or the revealing clarity of the radiating star whose glittering scintillas ignite the olive tree?
III. Doth the oil ignite itself in her splendor? Or does her splendor come from a pre-existent fire? Yea! It was her will which rose before the well-guided (Wohlgeleiteten) to direct them by the clarity of her Mohammedean light—those who had come to power in her houses.
IV. Her houses are true temples which speak of the Name which is recognized beneath the essential veils. From her arises the confounding of the Name with the Bab, a secret and sacred phenomena.
V. From her arose shadows, the spiritual forms of future mankind, and the day of Mithaq where spirits nestled together to hear the divine lector proclaim to the elect the revelation of our luminous masters.
VI. Through her we have experienced the phenomenon of life, through her Adam was venerated (by the Angels): and through her there was the pact—the divine bond—along with the sublime and magnanimous witnesses who proclaimed the uniqueness of the Godhead when they saw him (‘Ali), those big-bellied and the bald.
VII. She is the image before which one prostrates oneself; she is the highest proof and touchstone for the unbeliever who revolts, who denies God by saying I (“I am more worthy!”)— before being cast down by his cowardice into the ranks of the damned.
VIII. This sublime appearance would not be recognized by the ignorant, who remain shut off. But those who obey her shall be redeemed and honored in the paradise of delights among the lords of all creation.
IX. She is the strong grip, the word that cuts; from her comes the brightness which separates light from darkness—for she has divided and split the world—here the redeemed, there the vanquished—and never the twain shall meet.
X. She is the tree with twelve branches whose fruits have been cultivated in secret since the beginning of time, preserved for the elect in measured share, those leaders of seekers and lovers.
XI. She is the sanctuary of paradise with the Tuba tree, she is the source of Salsal, that exquisite drink of which never satiates, which heals hearts and grants every wish to the
learned and the wise.
XII. She is their residence built since eternity, their majestically towering shelter. She is the raging sea, the light of the Name, the book which conceals within itself all wisdom, of which the text of the Koran is but an outer cover, a distant echo.
XIII. She is the Aqsa Mosque of Jerusalem where the elect and the sacred have ascended to honor the Unique and the Merciful, the situs irradiated by the streaming clarity which pours forth from the luminous stars.
XIV. She is the one who nurtures all creatures at her breast without ever weaning her children or diminishing the abundance of her bosom. She bestows her gifts upon all who seek the truth and the genuinely essential, and upon those who are radiant masters.
XV. It was through her that Cain abandoned the right path; she was Abel’s fire sacrifice, a divine symbol enshrouded in flame to testify against the wicked.
XVI. She is the rock from which the twelve springs have their source, the impeccable pearls—Imāms of pure knowledge—preserved for those inflamed with love for her, and who drink out of her chalice.
XVII. She is the (reddish) cow of the white bāqir, thanks to which the innocent were redeemed from death. Upon being reproached they said: “This is what killed me, I recognize it.” Truth appeared to Moses, who openly proclaimed it.
XVIII. She is the night of power which enjoys glorious renown, her endurance is longer than a thousand moons; here the angels and spirits climb down to earth, and, forsooth, divide the fate of men according to their angelic directive.
XIX. Her light darkens the sun’s gifts when her full moon comes to term, occulted by three veils, three silent veils; and Mohammed leads them with words and directions.
XX. She is the substance of her name—“the holy”—the “creatrix of incarnation”—her veil indicates divine ambiguity, and its borrowed light shines for the elect by night.
XXI. And on the day that the prophet vanished (i.e. as he died), he appeared afresh within her; suffused with eloquence, she became the veil which enraptures those of wisdom and reason, and by the source of the master of revelation (‘Ali), she became the singular and highest ontological essence.
XXII. She is the one whose mysteries became visible to us on the day of fadak; castles and fortresses trembled as she opposed the wicked, and all surrendered their heaving scourges to make peace with ‘Ali.
XXIII. But ‘Ali pacified them when he saw them tearing their souls. And he said: “Steady! Be calm! Your fate is as near as the breaking dawn, and like the day, the judge will appoint them to appear before him.
XXIV. And she returned, smiling, back to her house, both Hassans following her. Her enemies, unsuspecting, will soon be plummeting into the burning fires of hell.
[The corresponding Koranic verses are: I = 30.29; II-III = 24.35; V-VII = 7.10; XII =52.4-6; XIII = 17.1; XVI = 7.160; Numbers 33. 29; XVII = 2.63-69; … compare the cow of Ayisha. XVIII = 97; XIX: the three veils are ‘Ali, Hasan and Hosein.]
(XXV-CXIX refer to the succession of the imams and the Bab.)
In reference to this qasida, it should be noted that Fatir [creatrix], the mysterious name of Fatima, was probably chosen because the numerical value of the letters which form the name produce the same total as the numerical value of the name of Mary (Maryam). For these gnostic circles there is a form of reappearance (the reincarnation of one identical, unchanging archetype from one cycle to the next). Thus, Fatima is simply the reoccurrence of Maryam. The numerical value of both names is 290. From this identification it follows that certain reciprocal reactions in Islamic intellectual circles—in which a traditional Fatima-type is opposed to a traditional Maria-type—should be determined with more precision. So too the proclamation scene (which is described by Jalal-addin Rumi in his Mathnawi in such an idiosyncratic manner) and the theories surrounding the conception and birth of the Imāms.
The women around Mohammed played a role in his family life as well as in his political life. While the Shī’ites remember the Prophet’s first wife Khadija very fondly—the “Umm Salama”—this is in no way the case with Ayisha and Hafsa, daughters of the two initial successors of Mohammed. For Shī’ites they are the “wicked women” of the prophet, who are, moreover, pointed out in one of the verses of the Koran as the disobedient ones. On the other hand, there is a special adoration towards Ayisah and Hafsa amongst Sunnis who are hostile towards Shī’ites.
In the north western part of Kashmir, in the area of Baltistan, where there are mainly Isma’ilis (hence Shī’ites) living, there is an anti-Shī’ite enclave of Kelun-shah who practice a cult devoted blatantly to Ayisha and Hafsa. As Francke observes (Moslem World, 1929, 139), this must be a surviving minority of the Buddhist cult of the two Taras.

Therefore, if we want to compare the role of this female intercessory power in Islam with that of Christianity and Judaism, we will notice that in Islam we are in no way dealing with the personification of the Torah as in Israel (which deals with a marriage of the community to the power of God); nor are we dealing with the Christian Panagia to distinguish a chosen one through the intercession of the Holy Spirit. The Shī’ite traditions are very clear on this: Fatima, who is holding a sword in her hand and is also named El Zahrā, “the brilliant/effulgent,” has an essential eschatological role to play—she will restore justice through irreconcilable vengeance. She will appear at the final judgment with flowing hair to demand justice for the murder of her children; she will appear against those responsible for the premature delivery of her last son, Mohsin, whose blood drenched body she carries in her arms; she will appear against those who poisoned her eldest son Hassan and slew her second son Hossein in Karbala. In this image, then, she is essentially the embodiment of divine retribution, just as she was the embodiment of selectivity at the beginning of time; for those who love her and her successors, who are already thereby assured of paradise. She is the sād, the letter which symbolizes the pre-eternal purity of the elect.