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Chosen Among Women: Mary and Fatima in Medieval Christianity and Shi`ite Islam

Chosen Among Women: Mary and Fatima in Medieval Christianity and Shi`ite Islam

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
ISBN: 10: 0-268-04231-4


We have transfered the docx and html files from its PDF, so may be there are some errors in Arabic words. In case of error, just look at its PDF.


Chosen Among Women:

Mary and Fatima in Medieval Christianity and Shi`ite Islam

Mary F. Thurlkill


Chosen Among Women: Mary and Fatima in Medieval Christianity and Shi`ite Islam

Mary F. Thurlkill

University of Notre Dame Press

Notre Dame, Indiana

Copyright © 2007 by University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame, Indiana 46566


All Rights Reserved

Manufactured in the United States of America

Reprinted in 2010

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Thurlkill, Mary F., 1969-

Chosen among women: Mary and Fatima in medieval Christianity and Shi`ite Islam / Mary F. Thurlkill.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references (p.) and index.

ISBN-13: 978-0-268-04231-8 (pbk. : alk. paper)

ISBN-10: 0-268-04231-4 (pbk. : alk. paper)

1. Mary, Blessed Virgin, Saint - History of doctrines - Middle Ages, 600-1500.

2. Fatimah, d. 632 or 3. 3. Shi`ah - Doctrines - History. I. Title

BT612.T48 2007

232.91 - dc22


This book is printed on recycled paper.

For Edmund and Geraldine Thurlkill

And for

my students,

who always challenge and inspire


This version is published on behalf of www.alhassanain.org/english

The composing errors are not corrected.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 9

Preliminary Notes 10

Translations 10

Transliteration 10

Dates 10

Introduction 11

Chapter One: Holy Women in Context 17

Mary, the Church, and the Merovingians 17

Fatima, the Holy Family, and Shi`ite Dynasties 21

Chapter Two: Holy Women in Holy Texts 27

Medieval and Modern Audiences: Islam 30

Sources and Gender 34

Chapter Three: Virgins and Wombs 36

Blessed Virgin Mary 38

Fatima al-Batul (the Virgin) 47

Virgin Mothers? 52

Chapter Four: Mothers and Families 53

Right Doctrine 60

Right Communities 67

Right Gender 73

Chapter Five: Sacred Art and Architecture 76

Images or Idols? 77

Mary in Built Form 78

Fatima and the ahl al-bayt in Built Form 86

Conclusion 93

Appendix 97

Genealogies 97

Glossary of Arabic Terms 100

Abbreviations 102

Notes 103

Introduction 103

Chapter One. Holy Women in Context 105

Chapter Two. Holy Women in Holy Texts 108

Chapter Three. Virgins and Wombs 112

Chapter Four. Mothers and Families 117

Chapter Five. Sacred Art and Architecture 125

Conclusion 129

Bibliography 131

Primary Sources 131

Secondary Sources 134


When time for writing these acknowledgments approached, I noticed a sharp increase in my propensity for procrastination. I have lived with Mary and Fatima for so long, providing the final touches to the manuscript feels like a death of sorts, not only the end of a research project, but also the loss of a part of myself. I first met medieval Mary and Fatima when I was an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas; they followed me to Indiana University for my graduate work and to Southern Arkansas University for my first academic post. They remain close by, now at the University of Mississippi, as I begin the tenure process. The Blessed Virgin and Fatima al-Zahra have remained my constants as I moved across various state lines, making new friends and leaving old ones and learning to face the challenges of life in academia. It is with profound humility and sadness that I now complete my time spent with their lives and legacies and introduce them to my readers.

Because this study has consumed me for so many years, there are many people to thank for their continued support and encouragement. First, however, I should like to recognize the generosity of Southern Arkansas University and Ole Miss; both institutions provided summer research funds that allowed me time to write. Various colleagues and friends also made this book possible: Paul Babbitt, who counted my paradigm shifts; David Brakke and Dyan Elliot, who read early drafts; Jan and Bonnie Duke; Chris and Maren Foley; Ben Johnson; the Rasmussen clan, who protected my sanity; William Tucker; Mary Jo Weaver; and James Willis.

I especially want to thank two mentors and friends, Lynda Coon and Scott Alexander. I met Lynda when I was an undergraduate, and she challenged my notions of history, religion, and gender. During her classes, I reexamined everything I thought I knew about myself and the world around me. She continued to offer advice - and sometimes threats - throughout my graduate career; and she provided a critical reading of the manuscript in its final stages. Her comments revealed her stunningly sophisticated insights that compelled me to rewrite and revise in imitation of her own scholarship (though not always successfully). Scott Alexander, my mentor at Indiana University, introduced me to the mysteries of the Arabic language and guided me with questions and comments during hours of conversation about Shi`ism, the holy family, and comparative religion. I remain in awe of his breadth of knowledge, generous spirit, and masterful teaching. In view of Lynda and Scott’s constant encouragement, it seems disingenuous to present this work as wholly my own - I can hear their comments, opinions, and critiques blending with my analysis in conversation (and sometimes disagreement) about medieval hagiography, holiness, and gender. Without their voices, this book would not exist.

Preliminary Notes


The Latin and Arabic transliterations for all extensive quotations are provided in the notes. Modern translations that I consulted are identified following the appropriate citation.

I have attempted to render all important Latin and Arabic terms into English. I have retained two Arabic designations that, because of their mystical bent, escape a literal translation: nur, or light, is the preexistent form of Muhammad and the Imams who resided on Allah’s throne in paradise; ahl al-bayt, or people of the house, refers to Muhammad’s family. According to Shi`ite theology, Allah awards the Prophet’s family, the ahl al-bayt, special authority and status among humanity. The appendix includes a glossary of Arabic terms for nonspecialists.


I have standardized as many Arabic transliterations as possible, so I do not use the macron or underdot in the body of the text. I do include all diacritical marks in the notes, following the transliteration guide adhered to by the International Journal of Middle East Studies. I do not include diacritics for common words and names; for example, the ahl al-bayt’s names are rendered as Muhammad, Fatima, `Ali, Hasan, and Husayn throughout the text and notes.


The standard Gregorian dating system is employed throughout the work. Therefore, all Islamic dates (AH) are converted to common era (CE).


Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. . Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. (Luke 1.28-30)

Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above women of all peoples. (Qur’an 3.42)

According to both Christianity and Islam, the angel Gabriel delivered the above pronouncements to Mary, informing her that she would give birth to a son even though she was a virgin. Mary obeyed God’s will and bore the Christians’ God-Man and the Muslims’ great prophet, `Isa / Jesus. Shi`ite tradition relates that Gabriel repeated the same Qur’anic pronouncement to another favored woman, Fatima, the prophet Muhammad’s daughter, also known as Maryam al-kubra, or Mary the Greater.1 For Shi`ites God chose both women for a sublime purpose, mothers of an exalted progeny; yet Fatima, as Maryam al-kubra, surpasses Mary in both purity and divine favor.

Mary and Fatima afford scholars of medieval Christianity, Islam, and gender studies an opportunity to examine feminine imagery in sacred traditions. Christian authors elevated Mary as Christ’s mother, and Shi`ite authors recognized Fatima’s offspring as their community’s infallible leaders (called Imams). Both religions asserted the holy women’s wondrous bodies and deeds without compromising their more conservative feminine ideals. As Mary and Fatima performed miracles, rewarded the pious, and punished the heretical, they also remained submissive, chaste, and immaculate.

Mary and Fatima provided more than just models for feminine compliance, however; these female exemplars also betray complex political, social, and religious agendas. Late antique and early medieval Christian authors (c. 200 -750 CE) identified Mary with the church and labeled those outside as heretics. Early medieval Shi`ite authors (c. 700-1000 CE) explained that Fatima led her supporters to paradise and consigned her enemies to the hellfire. Hagiographers and theologians alike imbued Mary and Fatima with symbolic markers of political, theological, and communal identity as they redefined their societies.

In late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, church fathers and hagiographers transformed Mary into a symbol of sectarian identity. The fifth-century theologians Augustine and Ambrose assimilated Mary to the Christian church: both remained pure and spotless, yet fecund with converts. Mary symbolized an emerging orthodoxy (or, right theology); those labeled heterodox remained outside her maternal care.

The early Merovingian Kingdom (c. 400 -750 CE) also employed Mary as a symbol of unity and orthodoxy. The Merovingians revolutionized the late Roman Empire in Gaul. They were a Frankish tribe that both supplanted and assimilated Roman rule, Gallo-Roman cultural patterns, and Rome’s state religion.2 When the Franks converted to orthodox Christianity, they infiltrated the church’s ruling structures as bishops and further stabilized their sovereignty. As an orthodox Christian kingdom, they separated themselves from their barbarian competitors, the Arian Huns and the Goths.3 Fourth-century church fathers and theologians had pronounced Arianism a heresy that denied Christ’s full divinity; the Merovingians thus became orthodox Christians among a sea of Arian enemies.

Frankish authors proclaimed their unique Christian identity by adopting several Gallo-Roman saints (e.g., Saint Martin of Tours, a fourth-century holy man from Gaul) as well as more ecumenical holy figures (e.g., the Virgin Mary). In their sacred histories and hagiographies Frankish authors also assimilated their holy women to Marian prototypes. Just as the Virgin Mary nurtured and sustained Christians, Merovingian queens and abbesses mothered their emerging communities and congregations. Some Merovingian bishops and priests even advertised their authority with Marian relics.4 Marian imagery in the early Middle Ages, prolific yet often subtle, reflected the Franks’ Christianization and orthodoxy in the midst of both God and the Merovingians’ heretical enemies. By affiliating themselves with Mary, Frankish authors managed to sharpen their communal boundaries without seriously threatening traditional gender expectations.

The proliferation of Fatima imagery also signaled religious and political shifts in the Islamic community by the eighth and ninth centuries. Shi`ite scholars began to outline their basic theological assumptions and tenets, which firmly identified their orthodoxy against other Shi`i groups as well as their Sunni competitors.5 The Shi`ites acknowledged `Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, as the Prophet’s chosen successor; they also recognized `Ali’s offspring as the true religious authority regardless of any other political ruler. The Shi`a soon disagreed, however, as to who the Imams actually were: some designated five, some seven, and others twelve different figures. They all accepted the Imam as infallible and pure; there was disagreement as to several of the Imams’ identities.

As the Shi`ite community honed its sectarian theology regarding the Imamate, it emphasized Fatima’s miraculous motherhood. Theologians outlined her attributes to explain the Imams’ status: they existed before created time; they were infallible; they possessed divine wisdom. Fatima, the only female among Muhammad’s miraculous holy family (the ahl al-bayt), supplied the Prophet’s sublime progeny and then welcomed others into the group as extended kin. Yet, as in Christianity, male authors simultaneously praised Fatima’s virtues while extolling the holy family’s masculine dominance. Fatima’s presence among the ahl al-bayt ultimately depended on her role as Muhammad’s daughter, `Ali’s wife, and the Imams’ mother.

The majority Sunni Muslims, on the other hand, elected the Prophet’s friend and companion, Abu Bakr, as the rightful legatee after Muhammad’s death. These supporters of Muhammad’s companions, instead of his family, eventually founded the Umayyad caliphate (661-750 CE). In the largely Sunni Muslim empire, most Shi`ites openly heeded caliphal rule while they credited the Imams (`Ali and Fatima’s descendants) as their true spiritual guides.

Locating Mary and Fatima within these early Christian and Muslim milieus is a difficult task for many reasons. First, a successful comparison brings together sources from two disparate cultures at times of critical shifts in communal and religious identity. There is no historical or geographic symmetry. In the Christian context, Marian imagery appears in the earliest theological treatises and continues into Merovingian circles in western Europe (c. 200 -750 CE). In the Muslim context, Fatima imagery becomes particularly prevalent during the `Abbasid caliphate (750-1258 CE) and proliferates throughout Shi`ite dynasties in Egypt, Persia, and Yemen. While dissimilar in space and time, both Christian and Muslim audiences struggled to define themselves in a rapidly changing world.

Second, comparing Mary and Fatima depends on vastly different types of sources. Late antiquity and the early medieval period yield a number of ecclesiastical treatises and hagiographies referring to the Virgin. From these texts scholars can glimpse the elite, theological descriptions of Mary alongside the more approachable miracle texts and ritual descriptions. Theologians clearly rely on Mary’s miraculous body as they define their Christology; hagiographers subtly elevate Mary as a model for holy women to imitate. Merovingian authors even present many of their queens and abbesses as sublime virgins, styled in Mary’s image.

Shi`ite sources that extol Fatima are more difficult to categorize. An ideal cross-cultural comparison would correlate Fatima images in theology and hagiography with their Christian counterparts; unfortunately, no easy parallel exists. Shi`ite theologians and hagiographers alike relied on the transmission of hadith (sayings about the Prophet and his family) to define the Imams’ miraculous nature. Hadith collections, often anonymous, reveal the emerging beliefs and teachings esteemed by the early Shi`a. They provide a theology as well as hagiographic accounts of the Imams’ miraculous deeds.

Like their Merovingian counterparts, Shi`ite hagiographers assimilated powerful queens to their idealized Holy Woman. Unlike the Merovingians, who ruled in Gaul, however, Shi`ites lived and ruled throughout the Middle East. Scholars have yet to examine systematically the gendered rhetoric employed by specific Shi`ite communities, particularly how they imagined Fatima. The Isma`ili queen `Arwa (d. 1138) ruled Yemen, for example, and she assumed many of Fatima’s characteristics. The Safavid dynasty, founded in sixteenth-century Iran, also styled many of its queens as new Fatimas, with epithets similar to their namesake’s. These appellations included al-zahra (the radiant), tahira (pure), and ma`suma (infallible).6 This study explores the more general Shi`ite beliefs regarding Fatima transmitted through common collections of hadith. It provides a foundation for future, more discrete works that might analyze how and to what purpose specific dynastic leaders chose to transform pious women into their own “Fatima of the age.”7

The third difficulty of comparing Mary and Fatima within their respective traditions is that male authors often described them with conflicting and paradoxical images.8 Mary and Fatima were both idealized yet inimitable, chaste yet fecund, intercessors yet submissive handmaids. Such bewildering imagery leaves the historian questioning how Christian and Islamic communities actually viewed women and gender roles.

According to theologians, for example, God elevated Mary and Fatima as venerable mothers and exceptional women. Yet they were aberrations among their sex: part of their charismatic authority stemmed from the fact that God transformed them into pure vessels (a miracle in itself). For Christians Mary held God-made-flesh within her chaste womb and, according to early church fathers, eschewed public activities by confining herself within domestic boundaries.9 Scholars promoted Mary as the perfect model for all young virgins to imitate: be chaste and stay at home.10 At the same time, Christian scholars labeled women in late antique and early medieval Christianity as the spiritually depraved daughters of Eve. Women symbolized the sinful flesh finally conquered by Christ’s redemptive act. No greater miracle could occur in late antiquity than the transformation of a female into a holy figure. Such a salvific event only emphasized the abundance of God’s mercy as such a lowly female sinner received grace.11

Islamic theology placed women in an equally precarious role. Classical texts included women among shayatin (devilish) forces sent to delude and confuse male Muslims.12 Islamic rhetoric also equated the female with the base soul (nafs) that tempted humanity to sin.13 Yet Shi`ite scholars also praised Fatima, the prophet Muhammad’s daughter, as the mother of the Shi`ite Imams.14 As matriarch Fatima shared the Imams’ privileged status and miraculous gifts; she, uniquely among women, remained ritually pure and divinely inspired.

Both Christian and Muslim theological systems condemned the female body in its impurity and taint while extolling Mary and Fatima as holy vessels for sublime offspring. Hagiographers transformed the two holy women into pristine containers of God’s presence, presenting multivalent images of the womb. Early church fathers encouraged believers, both male and female, to become pregnant with God’s seed (faith) and produce children (good works) just as Mary conceived Christ in her womb.15 According to Shi`ite cosmology, Fatima’s womb held the nur (light) of the Imamate; her purity protected this radiant “semen,” and she gave birth to Hasan and Husayn, God’s chosen Imams.

Political and sectarian discourse reveals equally contradictory versions of Mary and Fatima in theological texts.16 Male authors manipulated their holy women’s lives and miracles to reflect shifting social and political identities. Nascent Christian and Shi`ite communities associated themselves with these feminine figures and celebrated their miraculous powers. In doing so, these communities formulated and advertised new political boundaries and sectarian divisions.

Mary and Fatima as mothers, quickly synonymous with orthodox (right) doctrine, effectively weaned their communities from hellfire. One medieval exegete associated Fatima’s name with the root meaning, ف-ط-م (f-t-m), which can mean “to wean.”17 Fatima has the authority to intercede for her family (i.e., the Shi`a) on judgment day and condemn her enemies to eternal hellfire. Hagiographers express that authority through her domestic station as the holy family’s sublime matriarch: she cares for her family’s earthly needs, cleans the home, feeds her family and neighbors (often through miraculous intervention), and provides wise counsel to her children and husband. Christian Marian imagery also describes a powerful heavenly matriarch, seated at her Son’s right hand, ready to intercede for the church and dismiss the heterodox. She gained that position, however, by submitting to God’s will as his holy handmaid. Male authors encourage Christian women, including abbesses and secular queens, to imitate that submissive quality. In both cases, the male householder never yields his ultimate authority: the father and sons rule within the ahl al-bayt, and the male priest presides over the church.

These theologies and ideologies regarding Mary and Fatima appear not only in sacred narratives but also in material culture.18 Mary’s and Fatima’s textual bodies literally assumed built form while appealing more widely to believers’ imaginations. Early Christian catacombs and churches displayed images of Mary, glorified as virgin, mother, and bride. Mosque lamps and prayer niches could easily be interpreted as symbolizing Fatima’s radiant presence along with the Imams’. Shi`ite amulets shaped as the human hand effectively evoked the ahl al-bayt’s intercessory authority. Medieval artists and architects transformed their theological, social, and political symbols into visual form.

This work concentrates on feminine imagery in political, cultural, and theological rhetoric as well as material culture during periods of transformation and conversion. This approach reflects current trends among gender historians to correlate structures of power and authority with the literary and rhetorical nature of feminine imagery. As poststructuralist theory dictates, cultural systems often modify gender categories to accentuate changes in political and social conventions.19 For scholars of Christianity and Islam, for example, the early medieval shift of Mary and Fatima imagery signals dramatic social, political, and even religious transitions. Male authors employed Mary and Fatima as rhetorical tools in a complex discourse of identity and orthodoxy; they were more than models for women to emulate.

This approach is in sharp contrast to earlier feminist theory and modes of historical inquiry. During the 1970s, feminist historians of early Christianity read late antique and early medieval authors as patriarchal proof texts. Feminist theologians rejected early church writings as misogynistic and oppressive.20 In the 1980s, more moderate revisionist historians sought to reclaim the church’s secret history by revealing the actual lives of pious women. Although women were largely absent from the texts, feminists sought to re-create women’s considerable contributions to the early Christian movement.21

A feminist hermeneutic concerning women in Islam is more difficult to trace. Works available to Western audiences confine women to apologetic argument, descriptive historiography, or modern political rhetoric.22 Modern feminists reimagine early Islamic women in an attempt to discourage veiling, segregation, and patriarchal leadership in Muslim societies. Scholars generally ignore the abundant gender imagery and the rhetorical nature of miracle accounts to focus on their own political agendas.

More recent historical methodology attuned to literary criticism and poststructuralist examinations of gender and culture allows for a review of feminine imagery in general and Mary and Fatima in particular. Most Marian scholars, for example, largely neglect the fourth through eighth centuries and focus on the Marian cult’s rapid proliferation during the high and late Middle Ages. Scholars of Islam include brief surveys that recount Fatima’s exalted position within Shi`ite Islam, yet none move beyond detailed narratives to offer feminist interpretation. Scholars still argue over Fatima’s historicity and generally ignore the social and gender implications of Fatima texts.23

This study, in contrast, focuses on late antique and early medieval Christianity, particularly in Gaul, as well as medieval Shi`ism. The presence of Marian imagery in Merovingian Gaul is certainly not an exception among the barbarian kingdoms. It is clear, for example, that Mary’s cult flourished in Anglo-Saxon England well before the Norman invasion.24 Bede explains that the earliest missionaries such as Augustine and Mellitus sent by Pope Gregory the Great in the late sixth and early seventh century brought Marian relics such as her hair along with them.25 Early lives of the Irish Saint Brigid also mention the Virgin Mary: hagiographers recommend that female saints participate in Christ’s divine motherhood along with Mary herself.26 Historians would benefit from future explorations of Marian imagery in these western empires with an eye toward political and sectarian motivation, in the same way that this work concentrates on Gaul.

Although this study limits its investigation of Christian Marian imagery to late antiquity and early medieval Gaul, it approaches Shi`ite accounts of Fatima more universally because of the nature of the sources. Tracing and confining Shi`ite traditions to their specific geographic roots is almost impossible (and would constitute another book in itself). This study examines Shi`ite theologians and hagiographers who generally lauded the Imams’ lives and miracles while exploring the community’s connection as a whole to a pristine past. As already noted, future studies might well reveal the many ways that specific Shi`ite dynasties assimilated their royal women to a Fatima prototype.

By exploring the various conventions of Christian and Shi`ite sanctity, I offer a comparison of cross-cultural hagiography, a complex symbolic literature that assumes divergent forms in each cultural milieu. Hagiographies are contentious texts for scholars of both religions, yet male authors employed this literary genre to promote Mary and Fatima effectively as feminine exempla. Read skillfully, hagiographies provide historians and feminists alike with not only sacred models meant to transcend time and space but also reflections of contemporary political and social debates. Such texts reveal distinct cultural contexts wherein male authors construct feminine images for a variety of audiences and purposes.