Sayyida Fatima – A Social Activist in Life and Death

Bashir A Datoo, Ph.D., Orlando Florida

As the only daughter of the last of the prophets, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and the first wife of the first of the imams, Imam Ali (a), Sayyida Fatima (sa) was at the nexus of the two institutions of Islamic leadership, namely, Nubuwwah and Imamah.  She played a crucial role under both those institutions. Under Nubuwwah, she complemented a key function of the Prophet — to live Islam. Under Imamah, she had to defend the wilayah of the progeny of the Prophet — to fight for the right of Imam Ali (a) as the legitimate successor of the Prophet. Thus her role underwent a radical shift from one to the other institution, from being a devoted partner to being a social activist in the cause of Islam.

This article is about Sayyida Fatima’s second role under Imamah. A social activist is a principled person who is passionate about a socio-economic cause that affects not just themselves but also the welfare of the society as a whole. Furthermore, they take concrete action in support of their cause.  Sayyida Fatima was forced into this role when, following the demise of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), a cabal of his companions met in haste in Saqifa, an assembly hall in Medina, to select one of their own as a khalifa, styled as the  “successor” of the Prophet. This was done both in contravention of the Prophet’s unambiguous and repeated words and actions in regard to his anointed successor, Imam Ali (a), and in the latter’s absence along with his close associates at Saqifa as they were at the time busy with the funeral rites of the Prophet.

Activism in Life

Two related events will be described in which Sayyida Fatima (sa)  participated soon after the selection of the new khalifa. The “new leaders” (as the cabal will be referred to hereafter) sought to seal the khalifa’s appointment, so they quickly acted to cajole the residents of Medina into swearing an oath of allegiance to him. Many Medinites did so but the new leaders knew that the khalifa’s position would not be legitimized unless Imam Ali (a) publicly endorsed him.  The Imam and his family had retired to their home after the burial ceremony, so the new leaders appeared at their door demanding that the Imam should come out to pledge his allegiance. When they were rebuffed, they struck down the door and, in the process, knocked unconscious Sayyida Fatima (sa) and caused the death of her unborn child. Imam Ali (a) was then dragged to the Prophet’s mosque and, when Sayyida Fatima (sa) regained consciousness, she rushed to the mosque. The situation was extremely delicate. If the Imam had refused to swear allegiance, he would have probably been killed. Sayyida Fatima (sa) intervened and tearfully threatened to remove her veil. Such an unusual protest unnerved the khalifa and he backed down from his demand with the face-saving formula that he would not force the Imam to submit while Sayyida Fatima was still alive.

Having averted an immediate crisis, Imam Ali (a) and Sayyida Fatima (sa) decided to go from house to house at night to meet with the prominent Medinites. The couple reminded them of the public pronouncements of the Prophet, including the most recent installation of Imam Ali (a) as his successor at Ghadir-e-Khum on his return from the farewell pilgrimage to Mecca.  The Medinites claimed that they would have supported the Imam had he approached them first but now they had already made their pledge to the new khalifa. Imam Ali (a) realized that he would not have the unanimous support of the community in claiming the succession through evidence and reason, so he decided he would not fight for it by force of arms. He feared that he would divide the ummah while Islam was still in its infancy and had to sink its roots more deeply within the community and more widely across the region.  Furthermore, Imam Ali (a) did not, in modern parlance, wish to “burn his bridge,” not because he entertained the wish of becoming a khalifa at a later time, but because he wanted the new leaders to call upon him for advice and counsel whenever they were stumped, so Islam’s message could be secured and Muslim unity preserved. Sayyida Fatima (sa), however, was free from such constraints and so could continue with her social activism.

Activism in Death

Two additional associated actions of Sayyida Fatima (sa)will be discussed that demonstrate how she persisted with her protest even in death. When the Prophet was on his deathbed, he confided in Sayyida Fatima (sa) that she would be the first from his Ahl al-Bayt to follow him soon after his demise. Sayyida Fatima (sa) thus knew that she did not have much time left. She next resorted to an extraordinary form of protest designed to eternalize its impact. In her testament, one of the instructions she gave Imam Ali (a) was that the new leaders who had usurped his right to the khilafat should not be allowed to participate in her funeral rites. Hence she asked to be buried in the dead of night, so that they do not learn of her death and burial until the next day.

One other instruction in her testament was that her grave should be flattened so that her burial site remains a secret, hidden from the new leaders (mystery still surrounds the place of her burial; three possible places are mentioned, though Jannat al-Baqee is thought to be the most likely). At first sight, these instructions are highly unusual for any Muslim to give, let alone for the daughter of the Prophet. Muslims are obligated to perform ghusl and conduct the burial of a dead believer and none is absolved from these obligations until some members of the community come forward to fulfil them. However, she knew that the Medinites would wonder aloud why the daughter of their Prophet had been buried secretly which is exactly what Sayyida Fatima (sa) wanted; the inquiry would awaken their consciences and lead to the realization of the injustices that had been done to her. Her protest, in fact, constituted a classic instance of the practice of tabarrah, that is, avowed disassociation with the wrongful actions of the enemies of the Ahl al-Bayt.


Modern-day social activists use a spectrum of forms to protest in support of their chosen cause. They range from letter-writing campaigns (to leaders and the press) and sign-up petitions (to leaders and relevant organizations), though sit-ins and demonstrations in public places, to hunger strikes and self-immolation.  These protests are championed by individuals or by organizations. The success of the protests depends upon a number of factors, among them, the public’s embrace of the cause, and the effective implementation of and the period over which they are sustained. Depending upon the degree of success of the protest movements in bringing about the desired change, the leaders may be honored at the time or posthumously and/or remembered on the anniversary of a memorable event associated with the protest.

None of the forms used by modern-day social activists were available to Sayyida Fatima (sa) in the early part of the seventh century. She had to contrive unique – nay, unorthodox – means to register her stark disapproval of the events that transpired after the Prophet’s demise. The two distinguishing features of her protests were that each was a one- or two-person protest and a one-time protest. Despite these limiting features, her protests were remarkably effective. When she was taken seriously ill, the new leaders sought to visit her to ward off her wrath. She refused them permission but when they pleaded with Imam Ali, she granted them audience but informed them of her determination to complain about their oppression in the presence of Allah (swt) and His Prophet. Following her burial, the new leaders threatened to exhume fresh graves to ascertain the site of her entombment presumably with a view to seeking her forgiveness for the grievous pain that they had caused her. Imam Ali (a) warned them that he would draw his sword to keep them from following through with their act of desecration, so they desisted. Such was the impact of her protests that Sayyida Fatima (sa) forced the new leaders to come to fear, albeit belatedly, the dire warning of the Prophet: “Fatima is from me and I am from her, whoever hurts Fatima hurts me and whoever hurts me hurts Allah, and whoever hurts her after my death it is as if he has hurt her during my life, and whoever hurts her during my life it is as if he hurt her after my death.”

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