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41 C h a p t e r T h r e e Virgins and Wombs In her work Purity and Danger, the anthropologist Mary Douglas explains that concerns for the physical body—its intactness, purity, and integrity—reflect concerns held by the body politic.1 Douglas sees purity and pollution rituals relating to the body as symbols for society and social boundaries. The Israelites’ halakhic (legal) preoccupation with bodily issues and orifices, for example, ultimately reveals their political and cultural apprehension about unity and security as a minority group.2 In effect, legalistic obsessions with menstruation and ejaculation might tell the historian more about how Jews distinguished themselves from their Gentile neighbors than about how they viewed women’s and men’s bodies. Gender historians of early Christianity have recently expanded Douglas’s approach to reevaluate the early church fathers’ admonitions against the female form. From this perspective, patristic texts and hagiography offer more than misogynistic ranting against the female body and instead identify a late antique body metaphor concerned for the social and political boundaries of a newly converted Roman Empire.3 These writings rely particularly on the idealized virgin—disciplined through asceticism, sustained in chastity, and purified by God—to signify the orthodox , undefiled, and intact Christian church. 42 Chosen among Women A similar body metaphor emphasizing purity instead of integrity evolved in Shi`ite Islam regarding Muhammad’s prophetic status and the Imams’ religious authority.4 Some traditions explain that Allah formed the Prophet as pure light before he created time. This light is referred to as the nur Muhammad, which is the essence of the Prophet’s being. With the light (nur) Allah engraved Muhammad’s name on his throne.5 The nur symbolizes Muhammad’s favored status among the other prophets and his commission to transform a dark and corrupt world with Islam’s radiance. After the creation of the heavens, earth, and humanity, Allah removed the light from his throne and translated it through the Prophet’s ordained ancestry until it finally reached Muhammad ’s mother, Amina. During this conveyance, Allah carefully preserved the nur through a special covenant requiring all males to place the light only within the wombs of pure females. This provision was necessary because a woman’s body might provide either an immaculate vessel for the light’s containment and gestation or a ritual contagion if unclean, tainted, or impure.6 As Adam prepared to transmit the nur Muhammad to Eve, for example , he required her to perform ritual ablutions before sexual intercourse . When Eve finally conceived Seth, the light moved safely from Adam’s loins to Eve’s womb without contagion.7 Adam later explained the responsibilities of the unique covenant to his son: Allah has ordered me to impose on you a covenant and a compact for the sake of the light on your face, to the effect that you shall deposit it only within the purest woman of all mankind. Let it be known to you that Allah has put upon me a rigid covenant concerning it.8 Allah commanded Muhammad’s male ancestors to protect the divine light from the female body’s potential threat. Shi`ite sources employ the body metaphor to emphasize the transmission not only of the nur Muhammad but also of the preexistent Imams.9 According to classical hadith esteemed by Twelvers, Allah created Muhammad, Fatima, and the twelve Imams as divine light and engraved all their names on his throne. Each light assumed corporal form only after miraculous conception, gestation, and birth free from ritual pollutants such as blood. Fatima, as the only female sharing in the holy family’s divine light, transcends mundane limitations ascribed to the female form: she neither menstruated nor experienced blood loss during childbirth. Fatima was born and continued to exist without impurities or pollution and, unlike Eve, presented the ever-immaculate vessel for the Imamate. Fatima’s body, like Christianity’s idealized virgin, presents a metaphor imbued with symbolic formulations of theological, political, and communal purity. While the virgin symbolized the church—immaculate, pure, and intact—Fatima signifies pristine Islam and the Shi`ite Imams’ sublime status. Although male authors translated Mary’s and Fatima’s virginal bodies into metaphors for communal identity and purity, these metaphors did not remain static. Hagiographers instead merged conflicting descriptions of purity and integrity with fecundity and creativity. The virgin’s physical chastity ultimately led to spiritual fertility. Hagiographers revealed such dynamism...


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