Three Legends: Portraits of Islamic Heroes

One of the hallmarks of any society are the legends that it tells, and often, these legends take the form of biographies. Perhaps some of the best known legendary biographies are the Gospels, which detail the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In a similar vein, the legendary biography of the Prophet Muhammad has provided centuries of Muslims with material for dealing with their existential concerns. Yet the life of Muhammad is interwoven with other legendary biographies, which have historically also been invoked -by everyone from court jurists to itinerant preachers- as sources of sacral power. Amongst the most powerful of these legends are those of Muhammad's wife, daughter, and granddaughter. The stories of these heroic figures, which are constantly being created and recreated throughout time, are crucial sources of virtue and strength even today.

Khadija, wife and companion of Muhammad, was an entirely extraordinary being. She was born in the city of Makka into a society where women were often "inherited" by men as goods, traded as commodities, and executed at birth by fathers who preferred sons. Orphaned around the age of twenty and twice-widowed soon after, she carved a place for herself in Makkan society as a businesswoman whose caravans ran from Yemen to the Roman Empire. Despite the various cults of idols present in Makka at the time, legend has it that she did not subscribe to the oppressive practices of her society, earning instead a reputation for spending her considerable wealth in the way of the poor. After losing her first husbands to the perennial wars of pre-Islamic Arabia, Khadija remained independent for some time, despite numerous proposals from men of stature and several children to care for.

When she did choose to remarry, it was to a younger man, illiterate and destitute, who was in fact her employee -Muhammad. Her marriage would last twenty four years, until she was killed through the effects of economic sanctions leveled on Muhammad's followers by the Makkan leadership. Though the Prophet Muhammad would remarry after her death -almost exclusively to widows, divorcees, religious minorities, and the daughters of hostile confederations in hopes of reconciliation- the memory of Khadija is said never to have left him. After facing over a decade of exile, when Muhammad at last returned to Makka, the first thing he is said to have done was set his tent beside her grave. In life, she dared violence and persecution to openly worship at the central temple of Makka (the Ka'ba), spent her entire treasure in support of her community, and raised both the knight of Islam -'Ali, the Lion of God- and her own daughter Fatima.

Fatima holds an unparalleled rank in Islamic history, with one narration -said to have been spoken to Muhammad by God- claiming that the entirety of the cosmos had been created for her sake. In a society where female children were habitually executed at birth, she was the inheritor of Muhammad and Khadija. She joined her parents in public devotion, despite fierce opposition, and was first to care for her father when he was abused. As an adolescent, she lost her mother and was exiled from her home, braving a long journey under heavy pursuit from Makkan hunters. Upon reaching her new home of Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad and his companions had settled, she refused marriage proposals from every eager suitor, choosing for herself none other than the knight 'Ali, who was homeless and owned nothing but his clothes, sword, and shield. She spent her early days of marriage on the battlefield, wrapping 'Ali's wounds and bringing water to the front as war broke out between Makka and Medina.

In the days after her father Muhammad's death, Fatima exemplified her father's principle of "speaking a word of truth to an unjust ruler," even if those rulers supposedly shared a confessional identity with her. The authorities who took power, including the caliph Abu Bakr, seized the lands owned by Prophet Muhammad for their own disposal. Fatima stormed into the mosque where Abu Bakr was sermonizing and interrupted the caliph himself to deliver a counter-sermon still remembered today, where she employed Qur'anic verses to prove her claim to her inheritance and condemned the power-hungry authorities. She went so far as to say that in the final judgment, she would stand opposed to Abu Bakr and his cronies in the eyes of God. On her return home, she was accosted and assaulted, but that did not deter her. She and 'Ali refused to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr, barricading themselves in their house even as the caliph's thugs came with torches and swords to lay siege. It was Fatima who castigated and berated the caliph's servants while besieged, until -some reports have it- her house was breached and she herself wounded. Fatima died weeks later, with some citing depression and others claiming she was fatally injured. Most agree that she was in her middle twenties.

Fatima's daughter Zaynab would carry on the legacy of her mother and grandmother. Barely fifty years after Muhammad's death, the Islamic nation fell into the hands of the tyrant Yazid, who slaughtered the Prophet's grandson al-Husayn and his revolutionary partisans. Zaynab, al-Husayn's sister, survived the massacre only to be captured. She was paraded in chains along with other women through the streets of the capital, denuded in the timeless practice of publicly humiliating women that is common to so many cultures. However, when she was brought before Yazid himself, Zaynab delivered a blistering sermon to the authorities which condemned them for their deeds. Her speech is still recited by her loyal followers today. After her release, she spent her life as an itinerant preacher, moving about the lands and spreading dissent by immortalizing the tale of her brother's revolution.

Today, Islam stands accused by many of being bereft of virtue. The lives of Khadija, Fatima, and Zaynab -only briefly sketched here- are evidence to the contrary.