Book "Mother of the Believers"
A warrior and a woman
By Uzma Mariam Ahmed, May 16, 2009
There is much to recommend about Kamran Pasha's powerfully and sensitively written new novel Mother of the Believers, where Pasha proves his mettle as a writer representing the voice of a fiery and controversial female protagonist who lived fourteen hundred years ago.
Aisha bint Abu Bakr, the youngest wife of Prophet Muhammad, is one of the most controversial and pivotal figures in early Islamic history. Not only did she witness the Prophet actually receiving revelations, she was purportedly the reason why one of the verses in the Quran was revealed. In Surah Al-Noor, God Himself exonerated Aisha from the accusations of adultery that marred her name and created conflict in her marriage. She is remembered by Muslims not only as a scholar, poet, and historian, but also as a warrior and a woman involved in the politics that deeply shaped the Muslim empire, having led an army of a thousand men against Ali ibn Abi Talib in the Battle of Bassorah.
The story of Aisha stands in stark contrast to the Muslim woman as she is conceptualized by the popular media today. We are daily deluged with images and stories of Muslim women who are essentially the voiceless and passive victims of Muslim men, who are flogged in public, killed in the name of “honor,” beheaded in abusive relationships. This is truly a time to look not only for the many real modern Muslim women who do not fit these stereotypes, but also to turn to the very roots of Islamic history and focus on the strong women who were an integral part of the rise of Islam. Given the urgent need for Muslims to define themselves through the lens of the popular media and take back our image, Kamran Pasha’s debut novel Mother of the Believers: A Novel of the Birth of Islam could not be more timely.
Pasha’s novel is a fictionalized account of Aisha’s life, told in the form of Aisha’s memoirs. There is much to recommend about this book. It is written powerfully and with sensitivity, and Pasha proves his mettle as a writer through his ability to represent the voice of a fiery and controversial female protagonist who lived fourteen hundred years ago. Though Aisha is the central character in the book, Pasha spends substantial ink in sketching the characters of many of the other important women of the time, and highlighting through these depictions the bravery, faith, and strength of these strong historic female figures.
Pasha shows Sumaya, the first martyr of Islam who was tortured and killed for refusing to relinquish her faith. He focuses on the central role of Khadija, who is depicted as a majestic woman who was Muhammad’s greatest support and who became the first Muslim. He sketches out the motivations and strength of Umm Ruman, Aisha’s mother, who gave birth to Aisha, the first child born into Islam, at the age of thirty-eight, and who suffered heartache and great sacrifices in her will to follow Muhammad. Aisha’s sister Asma, a central character in the novel, is shown as a resolute young girl who gave up her mother to embrace Islam, as a young woman who risked her life to bring provisions to her father Abu Bakr and Muhammad when they escaped from Mecca and hid in a cave, and as an adult who was Aisha’s greatest support and confidant.
Interestingly, aside from Aisha, one of the stars of this
book is Hind bin Utbah, the wife of Abu Sufyan. As Aisha states: “History
follows the deeds of men, but often ignores the women who influenced momentous
events, for good or for evil.” (229). In Pasha’s finely crafted portrait of
Hind, we find every trait that is abhorred by hard-line Muslims today. She is
openly seductive and uses her sex-appeal to control and motivate the men of
Pasha’s other great achievement in this book is that he
manages to place Islam, its key early events, and even some of its core
principals within the context of a great historic story. Rather than choosing a
complicated narrative style and moving back and forth between various phases of
Aisha’s life, Pasha sets out the tale in a neat chronological order. This
format also helps the reader understand the background of many verses of the
Quran, and the logic behind some of the Prophet’s decisions in both peace and
war. A particularly moving scene is when the Prophet gives his final sermon,
and the reader is swept into the vividly described moment, in which Muhammad
stands on the
As I looked upon the sea of white-garbed pilgrims, all dressed in equal humility regardless of wealth or status, with fair-skinned and dark-skinned believers praying side by side to the same God, I was struck by my husband’s remarkable triumph. He had taken a group of fiercely divided tribes, at war with one another for centuries, and had forged them into a single nation. A community that valued moral character over material success, an Ummah in which the rich eagerly sought to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Such a feat could not have been accomplished by a thousand great leaders over a thousand generations. And yet my love had done it single-handedly over the course of one lifetime. (441)
Because the reader has followed the trials and tribulations of the Muslims and particularly of Muhammad that preceded this historic day, it is difficult not to be awed by this scene and by Muhammad’s accomplishments.
While this, and many other well-crafted scenes in this book make it both informative and entertaining, it could have been even better and less controversial if Pasha had included a bibliography keyed to each chapter at the end of the book. Though it is of course a work of fiction, the story depicted is based on historic events. Given the deep sensitivity of the Muslim community to anything relating to the Prophet and his life, Pasha’s oversight was puzzling. It is possible that Pasha, a trained lawyer, deliberately chose to forgo a bibliography in order to make the point that it is the greater story and not the details that matter.
The extent to which the book focuses on the sexual
relationships between various people is both surprising and unnecessary. Even
some of the critical developments in early Islam are introduced through their
relationship to some sex-related subject. For instance, when the Prophet
reveals his night journey to
Furthermore, throughout the novel there are many sex-related scenes that would seem more appropriate in a romance novel. Many of these scenes involve the Prophet himself, and I found these to be simply offensive. These scenes seemed gratuitous and detracted attention from many of the important religious and historic events developing at the time. While Pasha may have meant to humanize Muhammad through this detailed focus on his relationship with his wives, I found that they instead took attention away from his skills as a leader and statesman.
Pasha’s treatment of the controversy surrounding Aisha’s age at the consummation of her marriage to Muhammad is another disappointment. In the novel, Aisha is nine years old at the time of the consummation. There are many different views on the subject of her actual age, and by choosing the age of nine Pasha clearly wanted to rise to the challenge of explaining within the context of the time and place the reasons for this union. I personally did not find his treatment of the subject particularly adept or on-point, because Pasha’s representation of Aisha’s thoughts seemed so far removed from the probable reality of the situation.
Despite these criticisms, I was gratified to read this book and relearn so much of what I had forgotten about early Islamic history and the struggles of the early Muslims. Pasha brought these people to life, assigned to them colorful and memorable personalities, and laid out in vivid detail the chronology of seminal events in early Islam. Pasha has provided in an entertaining form a clear story of the roots of Islam, the context for its fundamental tenets, and the real rights of women in Islam. It is a great accomplishment for a first time novelist and a must-read for both Muslims and those seeking to learn the basics of both the history and fundamentals of Islam.
Uzma Mariam Ahmed is a Contributing Writer to Altmuslimah
5 COMMENTS ON THIS ARTICLE
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@Uzma: The Prophet was a very sexual man and the texts of a number of hadith could themselves be considered X-rated. Point: they themselves weren’t shy to talk about it whenever and wherever, so why would we be?
Anyway, Islam’s positive views of sexuality (within marriage) is a tremendous asset, especially in today’s (?) sexually-charged American culture.
- Posted by OmarG on May 16, 2009 at 05:00 PM
You bring up an important and very true point. There are many hadith that deal with this topic, and some are so explicit that they would indeed be considered X-rated by today’s standards. In fact in my article on the taboos surrounding sex trafficking, I stated that our current unwillingness to discuss sexual topics is not rooted in our traditions. I also said that these inhibitions sometimes prevent us from discussing certain issues such as prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases, and infertility in a more open manner.
However, I felt on both an intellectual and emotional level that there is a serious difference in simply citing to a version of a hadith that deals with an explicit issue and to write a fictionalized account of the Prophet’s sexual practices. Example: “The Messenger consummated his marriage that night with Hafsa, to her quite vocal satisfaction. I covered my ears with a rough leather pillow, but her throaty cries wafted through the thin mud walls between our apartments. . .“ (243). Now just imagine if this was a movie instead of a book, and they actually showed this scene—of Ayesha sitting outside with these sounds coming through the wall. Wouldn’t it be disturbing? Wouldn’t it seem a violation of his privacy and an entirely gratuitous scene meant more to entertain the viewer than to inform her of the early history of Islam? Furthermore, details such as this focus the reader’s attention so much on his sexual life that they take away from other (and what I would certainly consider more important) aspects of his life and habits, such as his overall treatment of women, his interaction with the non-believers, his great personality traits which so deeply touched and influenced the early Muslims. Obviously, there is only so much you can discuss in any one book, and I felt like this discussion took away from what could have been a more interesting, appropriate, and relevant focus on some of the Prophet’s other attributes.
Furthermore, the emphasis on sexual relations seems
ill-placed in several instances. For
example, in the discussion of his night journey, the discussion turns to
details of the virgins in heaven. It
seems odd that the believers would focus so much on that when there were so
many other important questions they could have asked. For instance, questions about the details of
his journey, his time in
It is ultimately an interesting question of balancing fact with fiction and entertainment with information. I do not think that my view is the only or the most correct one on this subject, and it certainly is based on some of my visceral reactions to the book which I’m sure will not be shared by all. I look forward to hearing other readers’ thoughts and impressions.
- Posted by uma1 on May 16, 2009 at 07:48 PM
I think it was also interesting how many of the characters - and the society in general - was portrayed as highly sexualized. Aisha at the mere age of 4 and 6 seemed to have really intimate knowledge of sexual relations. Whereas she was described as a ‘child’ and thought of herself as one, she seemed to have a lot of adult knowledge way before she was ever married.
- Posted by asmauddin on May 16, 2009 at 11:32 PM
From the excerpt, the writing seems very good. I get uncomfortable with too much fictionalization of the Prophet’s life and would question if its right to have graphic details of intimate relations in this regard as well.
But at least it will go down as fiction. On the other hand, Aisha’s reported age when she was married should be subject to some rigorous historical re-examination.
- Posted by Saadia on May 19, 2009 at 12:35 AM
But in any case, I’d love to read more.
- Posted by Saadia on May 19, 2009 at 12:37 AM
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