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The Esoteric and Symbolic Significance of Fatimah (sa)

Rebecca Masterton

Manchester 5-6-10

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

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relation to the verse of the Qur’an, where it says ‘To Allah belong the
Best Names’ (7:180), Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (peace be upon him), the sixth
Imam, has said, ‘We are the Names of Allah.’ (Amuli, 44). 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 Fatimu
awliya’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 am al-mahmūd (The Praised One);
second, there is ‘Alī, for I am al-‘ālī (the Most High); third, there is
Fatimah, for I am al-fātir (the Creator); fourth, there is al-Hasan, for I am
al-muhsin (the Benefactor); and fifth, there is al-Husayn, for I am dhu al-
ihsān (the Lord of Beauty and Perfection).’ (Ibn Babuyah, ‘Ilal).
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

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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
Qur’an was sent down to the heart of the Holy Prophet and there is a
chapter in the Qur’an named after it, also called Qadr. In relation to this,
the sixth Imam, Imam Ja‘far 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 Ja‘far al-Sadiq also said
‘the Night is Fatimah and the Qadr – the Power or the Divine Decree – is
Allah.’ (Amuli, 40). 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 23rd or the 25th. Thus Imam Ja’far 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

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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 Qur’an, 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 Qur’an’ as the Holy Prophet was called. The Night of
Divine Decree, in which the entire Qur’an, 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 Ibrahīm Tūsī (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.

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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 Asma’u, 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,

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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.