restricted access One: Holy Women in Context
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11 C h a p t e r O n e Holy Women in Context Hagiographers certainly embellished Mary and Fatima’s roles in Christianity and Shi`ite Islam for rhetorical purpose. Throughout sacred texts these women perform various miracles such as healing the (pious) sick and punishing the (heretical) evildoers with righteous anger. Historians, on the other hand, have struggled to locate Mary and Fatima chronologically, in their sociopolitical contexts. Although their historical personae might be forever shrouded in sacred memory, scholars can identify some of the pivotal moments in theological debates and dynastic lineages when Mary’s and Fatima’s veneration proliferated most fervently. Late antique Christian theologians, for example, invoked the Virgin Mary as an image of orthodoxy; Mary’s body displayed the church’s purity and incorruptibility. Battling theologians, arguing most ardently over Christ’s nature, articulated their ideas by describing Mary’s nature . Early medieval dynasties depended on the same didactic technique. Families such as the Merovingians aligned themselves with the Blessed Virgin and orthodox Christianity against their barbarian counterparts (who adhered mostly to Arian Christianity; i.e., those Christians who denied that Jesus was cosubstantial with the Father). In a similar fashion, the evolving shi`at ` Ali (party of `Ali) came to de- fine themselves through their connection with Fatima. While all Muslims 12 Chosen among Women esteemed Fatima as the Prophet’s daughter, she uniquely symbolized the reverence for and status of the Prophet’s family among the early Shi`a. Shi`ite theologians developed a distinctive notion of authority that they believed passed from the Prophet to `Ali and his descendants (the Imams) through Fatima. Fatima’s maternity became increasingly important as Shi`i scholars defined her miraculous, pure, and intercessory capacities to strengthen a definition of power imbued with spiritual significance and unique to `Ali’s patriline and Fatima’s matriline. As Fatima’s descendants became more privileged, various Shi`ite groupings emerged, sometimes arguing over the Imams’ true identity and then forging separate dynastic claims. The historical personae of both Mary and Fatima thus may be hidden within layers of hagiographic formulas and sacred memory, but the sociopolitical contexts from which they emerge can be reconstructed to some degree. Hagiographers and theologians, Christians and Shi`ites, retold and reformulated the women’s lives to reflect and refine emerging notions of sanctity, community, and dynastic authority. Mary and Fatima, shaped and reshaped through time, demonstrate the importance of women in constructing a sense of historical anamnesis and identity.1 Mary, the Church, and the Merovingians Mary’s greatest contribution to Christian theology is perhaps that she literally conferred flesh upon Jesus, the Christ. Yet early Christian sects considered this seemingly basic point the most controversial; many groups argued over the exact nature of Jesus well into the fourth and fifth centuries. Gnostic groups questioned whether Divinity could be encapsulated in flesh; Arian Christians suggested Jesus was created in time and thus was unlike God the Father. Only by the fifth century did an emerging Christian orthodoxy firmly claim that Christ, fully divine and equal to the Father, bore a human body composed of flesh and blood that suffered and died at Calvary. Theologians made such assertions by designating Mary Theotokos, or God-bearer, to prove Christ’s unique composition.2 Nestorian Christians quickly countered this claim and forced the church to finally, and very distinctly, define the God-Man’s nature and birth. The church confirmed Mary as Theotokos at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE (although the title had appeared throughout theological discourse since the time of Origen, d. 254 CE). The council acted after a heated dispute developed between two important church leaders. Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, considered the title Theotokos an infringement on the God-Man’s divinity.3 The appellation, he feared, implied that the deity required a natural birth, a mundane gestation; to suggest that Mary contained God within her womb bordered on paganism . Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, insisted that Mary as Theotokos verified the unity of Christ. The Marian appellation showed clearly, he believed, that Christ was God and Man simultaneously. At the hastily convened council, church leaders sanctioned Cyril’s position, condemned Nestorius , and presented Mary’s new title to a boisterous crowd. The Council of Ephesus generated Marian devotion almost as a byproduct of Christological explanation. Popular piety had already revealed a vibrant Marian devotion evidenced in prolific tales of her infancy and...


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