For Sayyida Fatima
السلام عليك يا سيدة نساء العالمين
People often wonder why I care so much about the Sunni-Shi’i divide. Perhaps I should explain.
Before I was a Muslim, I spent as much time and energy as I could learning about the religious traditions of humanity, as well as secular perspectives on religion. I read everything from Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian” to Srila Prabhupada’s “Bhagavad-Gita As It Is.” I don’t know why I was so fascinated by religion. Some people think about math all day. I thought about religion.
In the process, I realized that my default assumptions were secular humanist. I know human beings exist. I know the Earth exists. But religion – well, there are a lot of different ways of looking at it. Perhaps it is “the opiate of the masses,” per Marxist analysis. Perhaps it helps society function smoothly, as Durkheim would argue. Perhaps one religion was true, pace Evangelical Christianity. Perhaps all culturally-conditioned religious traditions point to a higher metaphysics, as Schuon tried to explain. Perhaps it is all made up, as Richard Dawkins would have it. My secular humanist assumption was that, most likely, none of them were true, although each of them might reveal something about the human condition. I found beauty and wisdom in much of it, perhaps most of all in the Vaisnava traditions of India and Roman Catholicism, but nothing that changed my fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality: Big Bang>Formation of Galaxies>Earth>Origin of Life>Dinosaurs>Humans>Star Trek.
Into this intellectual melee came Muhammad, the son of Abdullah. A historical figure, without a doubt. A founder of a major empire. Someone whose efforts led to hundreds of millions of people learning his native language, Arabic. And for Muslims, the Messenger of God (rasul Allah). It was Muhammad, as both the conveyor of the Qur’an and the exemplar of lived Islam, that changed my life. In short, I felt like Muhammad was a proof (hujja) over me – how could I question the existence of God after I had learned about the life and teachings of Muhammad!?
Indeed, I could not. As a skeptical person, before I became Muslim, I asked myself many questions as to why I might reject Muhammad. Perhaps he was in it for the money – “that seemed unlikely,” I surmised. Perhaps he wanted more sex – “nope.” Perhaps he craved power – “doesn’t seem to be the case.” Perhaps he was delusional – “don’t think so.” For every objection I could think of, Muhammad’s life and example undermined my skepticism. He won the war of ideas, and I submitted. That was 1998.
So as I began trying to live as a Muslim, I did the same thing that I did before I became Muslim: ask myself every question that came to mind. Yes, I believe that “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God (la ilaha ill Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah),” but what else do I believe in? And so my studies continued, and I was open to everything. The Aga Khan says he is Muhammad’s living representative – “I don’t think so,” I concluded. The Tablighi Jama’at says they are the only solution to the crisis of contemporary Islam – “nope.” Ibn ‘Arabi says he is the Seal of Muhammadan Saints – “what does that mean?” Some say the Ba ‘Alawi’s of Yemen can read the unseen and know how to navigate contemporary political situations through unveiling (kashf) – “how does one even verify such a belief?”
In short, the entirety of Islamic intellectual diversity was at my disposal, and I felt obliged to delve into it. I learned along the way that God created me in a unique way – I don’t think most people could do what I have done and not become overwhelmed. It is so much easier to just be secular, or to imbibe a developed religious tradition uncritically, or to just make it up yourself. To be clear, there have definitely been times when I have been overwhelmed, and wanted an easier approach to the Divine. But as much as I wanted to just be a Muslim and read the Qur’an and fast and so on, I couldn’t avoid these realities. God kept on bringing the complexity of it all into my life, forcing me to examine it and make choices.
I try to be very honest about what I know and what I do not, even when there is choice to be made. For example, I am convinced that praying with your hands at the sides (a position known as sadl) is the Sunnah, which is the ruling of the Maliki, Imami, Zaydi, and Ibadi schools of fiqh. But my conviction has more to do with my understanding of the historical development of Islamic law than it does on any particular narration (for there is nothing about the issue in the Qur’an). The initial sectarian division in Islam is the split between the Shi’is, the Kharijis, and the masses who eventually identified with the catch-all term, “The People of the Prophetic Example and the Wider Community (ahl al-sunna wa’l-jama’a),” or Sunnis for short. As these three sectarian identities coalesced in the 8th and 9th centuries, varying positions on belief and law became symbols of one’s sectarian identity. For example, saying the qunut (a du’a in the ritual prayer) in the second rak’ah became a symbol of being an Imami, one of the groups of the Shi’a (see the chapter on the qunut in Najam Haider’s work “The Origins of the Shi’a” for further information). And holding the right hand over the left in prayer (a practice known as qabd) became a symbol of Sunni identity, as only the Hanafis, Shafi’is and Hanbalis emphasize qabd. The sadl, however, is preserved not only in the early Sunni school of Malik, but also the Shi’i schools and the Ibadis (who are the only surviving school of the Kharijis). As such, it would seem that this practice was what all Muslims had typically done in the earliest times, following the lived example of the Messenger of God, blessings and peace be upon him and his family. And God knows best.
Now, of course, one would have to write a PhD dissertation to examine the historical development of all the narrations on where to place the hands in prayer, in all of the juridical literature, to prove whether or not my belief is historically correct. As Umar Abd-Allah mentions in the introduction of “Malik and Medina,” comparative study of Shi’i, Khariji, and Sunni sectarian literature on early Islamic law has not really been done yet. Insha’Allah, someone will take up this important topic, but in the meantime, I still have to pray the best way I can discern. Since I am convinced that sadl is the way that the Messenger of God taught us how to pray, then I pray that way, even though I don’t have a PhD dissertation to prove it.
But that is one small issue – where I hold my hands in prayer – amongst many. So when it comes to the foundational split between the Kharijis, the Sunnis, and the Shi’is, I try to be even more cautious. They all fast in Ramadan, following the clear instructions of the Qur’an. They all read the Qur’an and write commentaries on it. They all pray fajr, although they may differ on certain details regarding it. And for someone like me, born and raised in a post-Christian/secular environment, that is a lot to work with in practical terms. As the wise saying goes, “act on what you know, and God will give you knowledge about what you do not know.” That has been my guiding motto for over a decade, and it has served me well, by God’s grace.
But many questions still remain. For example, did Abu Bakr disinherit Fatima from the lands of Fadak? The answer is unequivocally yes – in my studies, I have yet to come across a source that says this did not happen. Why did he do so? According to the Sunni tradition, it is because he heard the Messenger of Allah say something about this issue, and thus he was acting on prophetic knowledge. But simultaneously in the Sunni tradition, we see that Fatima vehemently disagreed with Abu Bakr’s perspective. In the most widely-regarded Sunni source for prophetic teachings, the Sahih of al-Bukhari, we see the following narration:
Fatima and al-‘Abbas came to Abu Bakr, seeking their share from the property of Allah’s Messenger and at that time, they were asking for their land at Fadak and their share from Khaibar. Abu Bakr said to them, “I have heard from Allah’s Messenger saying, ‘Our property cannot be inherited, and whatever we leave is to be spent in charity, but the family of Muhammad may take their provisions from this property.'” Abu Bakr added, “By Allah, I will not leave the procedure I saw Allah’s Messenger following during his lifetime concerning this property.” Therefore Fatima left Abu Bakr and did not speak to him till she died.
Now, keep in mind while reflecting on this single narration that both Sunnis and Shi’is believe that Fatima is one of the four best women who ever lived. According to this hadith, she completely disassociates with Abu Bakr for the rest of her life. In the Shi’i sources, of course, there is even more detail given about her position on this issue, and why she did so. One cannot read such a statement and wonder what was going on. It is not a minor issue for one of the four greatest women in all of human history to stop speaking to the first ruler of the Muslim community after the death of her father, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family. Many Sunnis believe that Abu Bakr is the best Muslim after the Messenger of God, peace and blessings upon him and his family, so in that context his spiritual status would supercede Fatima’s. And ultimately for Sunnis, both are acting on their ijtihad (learned but ultimately fallible judgement call about what is best to do), and so neither should be blamed for their choices. The Shi’is however see it clearly as an example of a powerful man in search of more power acting unjustly towards an oppressed woman who has no means to get her financial rights vindicated. In addition, the Imami Shi’a believe Fatima is infallible (ma’sum), and therefore she is always on the side of Truth.
Of course at this point, someone will interject, “who are you to be talking about such great people?” And the answer is that I am nothing but a seeker after God. Before I was Muslim, I did not know Muhammad, and through God’s grace and my consistent effort, I discovered Muhammad and learned that he truly was and is the Messenger of God, blessings and peace be upon him and his family. But before reaching that point, I had to honestly ask myself all the questions I mentioned before that a pious Muslim should never even think, let alone say out loud (such as whether or not Muhammad’s career was driven primarily by an urge for more sex or power). The only reason I read about Abu Bakr and Fatima is because I cannot follow Muhammad directly. I live in the year 2016, and Muhammad was buried in Madinah in the year 632. There are centuries of history between he and I, and I have to understand that history if I am going to make a claim about who he was and what he taught (read Jonathan Brown’s “Misquoting Muhammad” for more details). As such, I cannot avoid the question of Abu Bakr’s caliphate and the decisions he made in the two years after the death of the Messenger of God. For the Sunnis, his rule is unquestioned and full of wisdom. For the Ibadis, he is revered. For the Shi’is (except for some Zaydis), he misrepresents the teachings of Muhammad and commits a variety of injustices against the prophetic family. And what one thinks about him has an impact on one’s beliefs and practices, and thus can have an impact on one’s otherworldly fate.
So if Fatima disassociated from Abu Bakr, that is something I have to take seriously, as both Sunni and Shi’i narrations claim that to anger Fatima is to anger her father, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family. And these are very serious issues for someone like me who believes in the reality of Hell, due to the Qur’an’s vivid insistence on its existence and the hundreds, if not thousands, of narrations in both Sunni and Shi’i texts that discuss its details. It is not just a matter of historical interpretation – there is also an internal spiritual battle that accompanies the intellectual struggle to discern the Truth. Of course, the Sunni mystic will claim that spiritual purity will lead to understanding Abu Bakr’s wisdom, and the Shi’i mystic will claim that those closest to God are unanimous in shedding copious tears for Fatima. As for what I think…I am still trying to figure that out. I have never met Abu Bakr nor Fatima; I only know them through texts transmitted in history. And those texts have different contexts and points of emphasis.
But there is one key point for me – both rival historiographical traditions, Sunni and Shi’i, claim to love Fatima. My studies are an attempt to know Fatima – maybe once I know her better, I can understand what it might feel like to love her. But what I do know of her makes me feel sad. She was buried at night in an unmarked grave, apparently according to her own instructions to her husband ‘Ali. In the words of Denise Soufi, who wrote a PhD dissertation at Princeton entitled “The Image of Fatima in Classical Islamic Thought”:
“[Stories about her] involvement in the events which took place after the death of the Prophet seem to contain some truth despite their partisan biases. This is due to the fact that the Sunnis were unable to completely suppress what was so obviously detrimental to their reconstruction of religious history: namely, that Fatima quarreled with Abu Bakr over his seizure of the caliphate and the Prophet’s properties, that she never forgave him for his actions and that her death was kept secret for some time, probably at her request, in order to prevent him from presiding over her funeral rites.” (p. 206)
Clearly she felt deep alienation from the community built by her father, blessings and peace be upon him and his family. As someone who has worked with a variety of Muslim women who felt wronged and alienated by powerful male voices in the community, I can’t help but feel the similarity. And the image of a man of position quoting a singular hadith to silence a woman’s perspective is eerily familiar. Every one of those pastoral care situations that I have experienced personally has made me ask myself, “have I failed the women of our community, or this woman in particular?” In grappling with that question at one point, I wrote a sermon which invoked the memory of Fatima. But now I ask myself one of the most painful questions I have ever faced – have I failed Fatima?
I don’t know. I just don’t know. It makes my heart hurt inside my chest just to think about it. How could I ever be worthy of supporting “the master of the women of all realms (sayyida nisa’ al-‘alamin),” and yet how could I ever hope for mercy if I did not?
In the study of history, the truth is often elusive, but because I believe in God, and the Messenger of God (upon him and his family peace), and Heaven and Hell, as long as I breathe I must continue to seek the truth as best as I know how. It is part of the human condition, as creatures created by God and put to the test in this life. Ultimately, God has never disappointed me, even when it has taken years of “living in the tension,” as I like to say. Moments of hardship lead to ease, questions lead to answers, and then new hardships emerge and new questions as well. All I can do is trust in what God said, and keep trying my best:
“And for those who strive [towards] Us, we will surely guide them to our paths, and God is most certainty with those who do good.” (29.69)
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