I scoured several primary sources like Bihar al-Anwar, al-Manaqib, and Kashf al-Ghummah, secondary sources like Muntaha al-Amaal, and numerous biographical works, searching all the while for the kinds of sermons and admonitions I have come to expect from the Prophet and Imams (peace be upon them). I found there are many traditions about her conception and birth, her marriage and her death. There are numerous traditions extolling her praises. There is mention of a few important incidents such as the division of labor between her and Imam Ali and the ordainment of what has come to be called tasbih al-zahra or "the invocation of Lady Fatima." And there is little else.
This odd silence led me to examine what we know about other women in Islamic history. According to a famous tradition, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) said, "The best women among humankind are four: Mary, daughter of Imran, Khadija, daughter of Khuwaylid, Fatima, daughter of Muhammad, and Asiya, daughter of Muzahim." (Manaqib al-Abi Talib) The mention of Lady Mary made in the Qur'an is limited to narrations of her miraculous birth (Qur'an 3:35-36), some incidents in the temple, some with the Prophet Zakaria (3:37 and 3:42-43), and the immaculate conception of the Prophet Jesus (19:16-33). Likewise, our knowledge of Lady Khadija is largely limited to her marriage to the Prophet, the birth of Fatima, and her largesse in backing the incipient Islamic movement. Similarly, the Qur'an mentions Lady Asiya only at the time when she finds the baby Moses (28:8-9) and at her execution at the hands of her megalomaniac husband, the Pharaoh of Egypt (66:11).
Other significant personalities such as Sara and Hagar, the wives of the Prophet Abraham, only give a cameo appearance when the angels come to tell them of the miraculous births of their respective sons, Isaac and Ishmael (11:71-73 and 51:29-30). Even the life of a person as important as Lady Zainab (peace be upon her) remains largely unknown to us aside from her role in the aftermath of Karbala.
The question is why? Why are we not told more about these women? Does the Qur'an not call Lady Mary and Lady Asiya "models for the faithful?" Is Lady Fatima not "The Mistress of all Women?" How can we be expected to learn from, and emulate, them if we do not know how they lived and what they taught?
This question is all the more poignant in the current era when we are accustomed to heroines who led their nations' armies to battle and victory like Joan of Arc; who revolutionized the institution of nursing like Florence Nightingale; who rose from rags to riches to influential trendsetter like Oprah Winfrey; who are outspoken, powerful, and even masculine like Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Modern heroines enter the public arena and work side by side with men – even superseding them at times – to make their marks on human history. Why then are Muslim heroines so seemingly reclusive and silent?
We might begin to discover the answer to this conundrum in a tradition narrated in Kashf al-Ghummah: It is reported that Imam Ali said, "We were with the Messenger of God when he asked, 'Tell me what is best for women?' None of us was able to answer him until we dispersed. Then I came home to Fatima and informed her of what the Messenger of God asked us…so she said, 'I know the answer. It is best for women not to see men and for men not to see them.' So I returned to the Messenger of God and said, 'O Messenger of God, you asked us what is best for women. It is best for women not to see men and for men not to see them.' He asked, 'Who told you this, for you did not know it when you were with me [earlier]?' I replied, 'Fatima.' This pleased the Messenger of God, and he said, 'Fatima is of my flesh.'"
This tradition should not be misconstrued as an excuse to enforce a Taliban-style exclusion of women from the public arena. Our jurists (mujtahids), to whom we look for the legal rulings concerning, among other things, male-female interaction, have determined that Islamic law allows women to leave their homes and participate in public life within certain parameters. This tradition does, on the other hand, highlight a virtue to which Muslim women should aspire: to minimize their interactions with unrelated men in the public sphere and to participate in public life only to the extent that necessity dictates. It is in the private sphere of the home, family, and among female friends that a woman can fully realize her social potential while remaining chaste and out of harm's way.
A tradition that encourages its women to favor the private sphere over the public sphere will naturally produce heroines who make their mark in a quiet, private way. A tradition that has relieved women of the burden of warfare will not nurture a Joan of Arc in its ranks. A tradition that values the qualities that distinguish women from men will not foster power-mongering, masculine women. A tradition that values chastity as a supreme virtue will not give rise to models and actresses, who must by the nature of their work, place themselves on display.
That is not to say that the Islamic tradition produces weak women. To be private, quiet, chaste, and feminine – contrary to what feminist-influenced Western culture would have us believe – does not in any way imply weakness of character. In fact, history has shown us repeatedly that these same private women, when circumstances have demanded, have had the courage, the eloquence, and the sagacity to change the course of history.
When Moses' serpent devoured all the other snakes, and even the magicians fell prostrate before the God who had given him such power, Pharaoh refused to concede defeat. At that point, Lady Asiya had the courage to stand up to him, renounce him and his world, and die the death of a martyr (Qur'an 66:11).
When Lady Mary was chosen for her chastity to give birth miraculously to Jesus, she braved the malicious slander of her Jewish townspeople who accused her of fornication. She did not even speak a word in her own defense; rather, she trusted in God and simply pointed to her new-born son who defended her from his cradle (18:27-33).
Lady Khadija did not have to live a public life to realize the integrity of her husband and the truth of the religion he brought. Thus, she willingly placed all of her sizeable assets at the disposal of the Prophet to be used to further the cause.
When a handful of the Prophet's companions decided to flout the Prophet's appointment of Ali as his successor, and then proceeded to press every denizen of Medina into allegiance to their ill-chosen and ill-suited candidate, and when they added insult to injury by usurping the land of Fadak from Lady Fatima after her father had given it to her, she is reported to have made one final stand. She donned her head covering and veil, wrapped herself in a cloak, and, surrounded by her female servants, entered the council of men. She had a curtain hung before herself to shield herself from their gazes. Then, she commenced to extemporaneously berate, with fearlessness and eloquence rivaled only by Imam Ali, those companions who had abandoned her father and his successor. In the course of this oration, she said the following:
"When [my father] was pitted against brutish men: the wolfish Arabs and the refractory People of the Book [about whom God says,] 'Every time they fanned the flames of war, God extinguished them', or when the devil flashed a horn or the venomous pagans bore their fangs, [the Messenger of God] hurled his brother [Ali] into their gaping jaws. Ali never remitted until he had destroyed them and extinguished their embers with his sword, exhausting himself for the sake of God, striving for the cause of God, in the proximity of the Messenger of God, a leader of the friends of God; ever ready, with pure intent, always striving, always struggling. All the while, you were living in comfort, in ease, in pleasure, and security. You lay in wait for some misfortune to befall us. You impatiently awaited the news [of the Prophet's demise]. You turned your backs on the fight and fled from the battlefield." (Balaghat al-Nisa)
Lady Zainab, following the lead of her mother Lady Fatima and grandmother Lady Khadija, led a life focused around the private sphere. However, when she and the other captives of Karbala were summoned to the courts of Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad and Yazid, she confronted them with the ferocity and stunning eloquence of her father and mother. She shook the very foundations of Yazid's empire and neutralized any political advantage he had hoped to gain through the murder of Imam Hussain (peace be upon him).
There is another lesson to be drawn from the dearth of traditions of and about Lady Fatima, a lesson that speaks to both men and women. There is a tendency to judge the virtue of people by their outward acts. We deem those who fight bravely, who deliver heart-rending speeches, who help the poor, and who launch revolutions, to be good without consideration for their intentions and motives. We place more emphasis on the act than on the actor.
In stark contrast, Imam Ali says, "The doer of good is better than his good deed." (Nahjul Balagha, saying #32) God's evaluation of a deed is not based on the superficial criteria upon which we must depend. He sees not only the deed, but the intention behind it as well. To him, the intention is more important than the deed itself. This is the meaning of this quotation from Imam Ali.
We must carry this message over to the subject of Lady Fatima, the other women we have mentioned here, and all people whose outward role seems to be less than we would expect it to be. We are not in a position to judge anyone's station before God by his outward contribution to the Islamic cause. One's relationship to God is something known only to God. All we can do is evaluate outward deeds according to the standards God has placed at our disposal. Thus, we need not be surprised by the apparently small outward contribution Lady Fatima may have made to the Islamic cause. Rather, it is safe to assume that she fulfilled whatever duties God consigned to her in the best possible way, even though she must have done this far from the public gaze. For this reason, we see that the Prophet and Imams extol her as the "Mistress of all Women", as one who was spoken to by Gabriel (al-Muhaddathah), as one whose pleasure and anger are in absolute synch with the pleasure and anger of the Prophet of God, and as one of the infallible members of the household of the Prophet whom God purified thoroughly (33:33).
Shaikh Rizwan Arastu is the director of the Islamic Texts Institute. In addition, he serves as an educator for the Imam Mahdi Association of Marjaeya.