Medieval Shi‘i writers compiled books of praise narratives devoted to the twelve male imams, but these works also include the stories of various women who are lauded for their exceptional qualities. Foremost among these is Fatima, who is often considered the greatest of women. Classical biographers extolled her virtues in a manner that elevated her to the level of the imams, and she was numbered among the “fourteen infallibles.” Stories about Fatima make excellent jumping-off points for evaluating the gendered perspectives within Islamic praise narratives, and this lecture explores questions of how Fatima is idealized and what purposes such stories serve. Portrayals of Fatima’s intimate relationships with the Prophet and the imams not only reflect and reinforce certain notions of gender; they also have broad implications on religious practice, shaping expectations for how religious devotees ought to orient themselves to the objects of their devotion. Moreover, accounts about Fatima form a backdrop against which we can better evaluate the representations of less-revered women.
Matthew Pierce is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Centre College, where he teaches courses on religion, gender, and Islam. He received his PhD in religious studies from Boston University, where he specialized in pre-Modern Islamic history and thought. His publications include contributions to the Journal of Shi’a Islamic Studies, to The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (2012), and to an edited volume entitled Women, Leadership, and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority (Brill, 2012). He is currently working on a book entitled Twelve Infallible Men: Imams and the Making of Shiʿism, which is slated for publication by Harvard University Press in 2015. This work analyzes early-classical Shiʿi biographical literature and its role in the development of Sunni and Shiʿi identities in the medieval period. Pierce has traveled widely in the Middle East and Central Asia and has spent time living in Egypt, Yemen, and Iran.