The Esoteric and Symbolic Significance
of Fatimah (salamallah aliha)
Speech by Dr. Rebecca Masterton.
[5 June 2010, Manchester, U.K.]
In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
All praise is due to the One Reality that brought us into existence through Love and endowed us with the light of consciousness that we may a witness His Perfection; and salutations to His Final Prophet and Messenger, Muhammad, and the Purified Progeny who came after him and who are still to come. Fatimah al-Zahra (peace be upon her), daughter of the final Prophet and Messenger, peace be upon him and his purified progeny, has, like the Holy Prophet, both exoteric and esoteric dimensions. This means that she has a historical personality and also a cosmological personality. She is known as someone who washed the blood from her father’s face on the battlefield; who cleaned him and comforted him after he had animal entrails thrown at him and who was known as Umm Abiha: the Mother of her Father, such was the respect that the Prophet had for her. She also staunchly defended her husband, Ali ibn Abi Talib, in the face of those who sought to wrest from him his position as the successor of the Holy Prophet. She was outspoken and unafraid. So what about Fatimah’s inner, cosmological personality? What can we learn from it?
In turning to this dimension of Fatimah, not only do we journey to the inner reality of this revealed way of life, Islam, but we are also able to understand better the one underlying Reality from which we originate and to which we will return. Fatimah was sent into the world not only to assist in establishing Islam as a way of life to be practiced here, but also as a sign of the One Reality that has brought everything into existence and as a means to knowing that Reality.
Islam teaches that God has ninety-nine Names and Attributes and these Names and Attributes both make up creation and are reflected in it. The aim of the Muslim is likewise to reflect them in a manner befitting human capacity. However, what is different between those of us who have been brought into this world in order to undergo the trials of the soul so that we may be polished in our return to the One Reality, and the Holy Prophet and his Purified Family and Progeny, is that, while we strive imperfectly to manifest the Names and Attributes, the Purified Family and Progeny were created already as their perfect manifestations. In relation to the verse of the Quran, where it says
“To Allah belong the Best Names” – (7:180)
Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (peace be upon him), the sixth Imam, has said,
“We are the Names of Allah.”
The Holy Prophet and his Purified Family and Progeny were created as perfect manifestations of the Attributes in order that they might be infallible examples for mankind to follow, and in order that this perfection might shine in the spiritual darkness of the world throughout history until the end of time.
In cosmological terms, according to Islam, the Fourteen Infallibles− the Prophet, his daughter Fatimah and the Twelve Imams − were created as manifestations of the Names and Attributes before coming into existence in this world. We could say that, at one point in history, therefore, they existed simultaneously both in the highest realm of the cosmic hierarchy, which is the realm of the Intellect, and in this, worldly realm, as human beings and lamps of guidance.
There are many narrations that tell of Fatimah’s cosmic qualities. It is said that Fatimah was created from the Name al-Fatir, and al-Fatir has different meanings, each related to each other. Al-Fatir is said to be ‘the cleaver of the heavens and the earth’, since the name derives from fatara: to cleave. According to the respected scholar Shaykh Khalfan, in this case al-Fatir means ‘one who cleaves and breaks non-existence and brings about existence’, or, ‘one who originates and brings into being.’
There is one narration in which God is seen to converse with Prophet Adam before Adam comes into existence. Here, God introduces Fatimah (peace be upon her) to Adam, saying
“…and this is Fatima while I am the Fatir al-samawati wa al-ardh (Originator of the heavens and the earth (6:79), Fatimu a’da’i min Rahmati yawma fasli qada’I (the Severer of My enemies from My mercy on the day of My judgment), and Fatimuawliya’i ‘amma ya’tarihim wa yashinuhum (the Relinquisher of affliction and disgrace from those near to Me). So I derived for her a name from My Name.”
According to another narration, when God brought Adam into being, Adam saw five names inscribed on the Throne – the Throne being God’s Knowledge and Power – and he asked what they were. God told him
“First there is Muhammad, for I amal-mahmūd (The Praised One);second, there is Ali, for I amal-‘ālī (the Most High); third, there is Fatimah, for I amal-fātir (the Creator); fourth, there is al-Hasan, for I amal-muhsin (the Benefactor); and fifth, there is al-Husayn, for I amdhu al-ihsān (the Lord of Beauty and Perfection).”
There are other beautiful narrations where Adam encounters Fatimah in the Garden, before the Fall of Man.
“When God created Adam… there was a brilliant girl from whom light was illuminating and on her head was a golden crown ornamented with diamonds; the like of whom Adam had never seen. Adam asked: `My Lord who is this girl?’ God said: ‘Fatima daughter of Muhammad.’ Adam said: `My Lord, who is her husband? God said: `O Gabriel, open the gate of the ruby palace;’ when Gabriel did, Adam saw a dome of camphor and inside it was a golden bed equipped by a young man as beautiful as Yusef.’ He then said: “this is her husband, Ali ibn Abu Talib.”
(Sunni scholar, Safuri Shafe’i in his book Nuzhat al-Majlis v. 2, p. 223).
The eleventh Imam, Imam al-Hassan ibn Ali al-Askari (peace be upon him) reported that his Fathers quoted a well-known companion of the Prophet, Jabir ibn Abdullah, as saying:
“The Messenger of God (peace be upon him) said: ‘When God created Adam and Eve, they strutted through paradise and said: `Who are better than we?’ At that moment they noticed an image of a girl like they had never seen before; from this girl came an illuminating light so bright that it almost blinded the eyes. They said: ‘O Lord, what is this?’ He answered: ‘This is the image of Fatima, the mistress of your women descendants.’ Adam asked: ‘What is this crown on her head?’ Allah said: ‘Her husband Ali.’ Adam then asked: ‘What are her two earrings?’ God replied: ‘Her (two) sons, they were ordained in My ever-existent knowledge two thousand years before I created you’.”
(Asqalani in his book Lisan al-Mizan v. 3, p. 346).
The greatest night in the Islamic calendar is that which falls in the Month of Ramadan, and which is called Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power, or the Night of Divine Decree. It was on this night that the Quran was sent down to the heart of the Holy Prophet and there is a chapter in the Quran named after it, also called Qadr. In relation to this, the sixth Imam, Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (peace be upon him) has famously said,
“The Night of Divine Decree is Fatimah (peace be upon her.), therefore whoever knows Fatimah (peace be upon her) well has understood the Night of Divine Decree.”
Imam Jafar al-Sadiq also said
“the Night is Fatimah and the Qadr – the Power or the Divine Decree – is Allah.”
As one scholar has noted, Fatimah’s burial place is hidden and she was buried at night; similarly the exact date of the Night of Power in the Month of Ramadan is not known: it may be the Night of the 21st, the 23th or the 25th. Thus Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (peace be upon him) said,
“She has been called Fatimah because mankind has been prevented (fatimu) from obtaining her acquaintance’ and ‘cannot comprehend her innermost essence.”
(Amuli, 40) .
Not only that, but we may interpret from this that esoteric knowledge – knowledge of the heart – is itself hidden in many ways: it is hidden since it lies in the innermost depths of our being and remains known only to us and the One Reality that is God; it is largely hidden from those around us; and often, it must remain hidden in society from those who would not understand it and who might condemn it because they don’t understand.
Similarly, Fatimah represents the esoteric dimensions of Islam; those dimensions that also lie hidden to all except those who have a discerning eye and heart and who sincerely seek out this hidden knowledge; furthermore, as the wife of Ali ibn Abi Talib, who himself said that,
“the Prophet showed me a thousand doors of knowledge and behind each door was another thousands doors.”
And, as the mother of the Imams who succeeded her, who were, and are, the guardians of the deeper dimensions of Islam, it can also be seen how Fatimah is she from whom flows all esoteric knowledge, culminating in he who is also hidden, the last Imam, Imam al-Mahdi (may God hasten his return) who also instructs his followers in secret to this day.
Iranian scholar Hasan Hasanzadeh Amuli has explained that ‘The Night of Divine Decree is the structure of the Perfect Man.’ The Perfect Man is a human being who reflects all of God’s Attributes. It is said, according to some scholars, that the universe also reflects all of God’s Attributes.
The Quran, likewise, is said to be a universe, reflecting all of God’s Attributes. The human being who reflects all of God’s Attributes is thus a ‘walking Quran’ as the Holy Prophet was called. The Night of Divine Decree, in which the entire Quran, reflecting all of God’s Attributes, was revealed to the heart of the Holy Prophet, is thus the structure of the Perfect Man, and Fatimah, as the Night, is the place and the time in which it was revealed, and the means by which it descended to the earthly realm. She is, according to a narration, the ‘Confluence of the Two Lights’ – majma al-nurayn– these two lights being prophecy and imamate, the exoteric and the esoteric manifestations of authority and knowledge.
The Night of Power is also known as the heart of the Seal of Prophethood. Fatimah, therefore, is the heart of the Seal of Prophethood. She is also, as Amuli says, the ‘fruit of prophecy’.
Such is Fatimah’s status that she has been given intercession of those who follow her. The Holy Prophet said
“I named her Fatimah because God protected ( fatama) her and whoever loves her from the Fire.”
In a Sunni text on Fatimah, Abul Fadl Ahmadi (d.942 of Hedjra),writes 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.”
And, in a poem by Ibrahim Tusi (d. 750 AH/ 1350 CE) it is written:
“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 Salsabil , 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.”
The figure of Fātima has influenced Islamic practice globally. In Somalia and Djibouti, women have gatherings called sittaat. At these gatherings, they seek closeness to Fātima, and also her intercession, chanting:
“Madaad madaad , Fatima, daughter of the Chosen One; Madaad madaad , Fatima, daughter of the Prophet; Give us that for which we call upon you […] You, new moon, mother, lightning that reached the earth; shining Fatima, we need you urgently.”
(Harrow (ed.), 1996: 133).
She also appears in the praise poems of Nana Asmau, daughter of Usmān dan Fodio, the founder of the Sokoto caliphate in nineteenth century West Africa:
“And Fadima Zahra’u, or Batulu; Gracious lady, close follower of the Prophet. She was peerless, she who shunned the world.”
(Boyd; Mack, 1997:74).
Of course, Fatimah also has her own European legacy, from the time that Muslims lived in Portugal and named the famous place known as Fatimah after her; and this place has become the confluence of Fatimah and Mary, as two holy women fused together as one voice.
Now, while Fatimah (peace be upon her) is lauded in the Islamic tradition, and across the Muslim world, it may be asked, what relevance does she have in today’s Western world? Is she not just an obscure, archaic figure that has no place in societies where people live so differently from her time?
In fact, we can say that certainly, we live in a world where only fragments of prophetic knowledge are left; where the traces of the prophetic path have faded, and where people have become divorced from their own inner dimensions, leading to a global sense of unease and dissatisfaction with the self. Our societies have become alienated from the prophetic path and people have become alienated from themselves, often without even realising it. Seeking out those faded traces of the path might be seen as something quaint and odd, incomprehensible and irrelevant, yet this is a path of light which has been revealed in order, as I said before, for us to know the most fundamental reality of our existence: the One Absolute Reality out of which all other realities have emerged; and that One Absolute Reality lies at the very heart of our own existence; unless we can know that Reality, that Truth, we can never know ourselves, and as long as we cannot know ourselves, we will continually live in a state of restless dissatisfaction. Fatimah is the model of prophetic femininity; she is also the model of strength and power that derives from prophetic knowledge.
In today’s world, where this prophetic model is all but forgotten, Fatimah is an example of resistance against the tide of a ruthless, worldly consciousness that pervades our society and agitates our souls. She is a reminder of what we could be as human beings if only we followed the signs pointing to our own inner reality, and she herself is one of those signs. As the embodiment of the esoteric dimensions of the prophetic path, the carrier and transmitter of its light, Fatimah calls us to search more deeply for that which may not at first be apparent; to explore the hidden depths of our own selves in order that we too may purify ourselves and be filled with the light that illuminates our existence and which brings us back to a state of inner peace.