Deep in the heart of seventh-century Arabia, a new prophet named Muhammad has arisen. As his message of enlightenment sweeps through Arabia and unifies the warring tribes, his young wife Aisha recounts Muhammad's astonishing transformation from prophet to warrior to statesman. But just after the moment of her husband's greatest triumph the conquest of the holy city of Mecca Muhammad falls ill and dies in Aisha's arms. A young widow, Aisha finds herself at the center of the new Muslim empire and becomes by turns a teacher, political leader, and warrior.
Written in beautiful prose and meticulously researched, Mother of the Believer is the story of an extraordinary woman who was destined to help usher Islam into the world.
|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.40(d)|
Read an Excerpt
1 Mecca AD 613
I was born in blood, and its terrible taint would follow me all my life.
My mother, Umm Ruman, cried out in agony as the contractions increased in severity. The midwife, a stout woman from the tribe of Bani Nawfal named Amal, leaned closer to examine the pregnant woman's abdomen. And then she saw it. The line of blood that was running down her patient's thigh.
Amal looked over to the young girl standing nervously to the side of the wooden birthing chair where her stepmother was struggling to bring forth life.
"Asma," she said in a soft voice, trying to mask the fear that was growing in her chest. "Get your father."
Your mother, Abdallah, was no more than ten years old at the time, and she paled at Amal's words. Asma knew what they meant. So did Umm Ruman.
"I am dying," Umm Ruman gasped, her teeth grinding against the pain. She had known something was wrong the moment her water broke. It had been dark and mottled with blood, and the subsequent horror of the contractions was far beyond anything she had experienced at the birth of her son, Abdal Kaaba, so many years before.
At the age of thirty-eight, she had known that she was too old to bear another child safely and had greeted the news of her pregnancy with trepidation. In the Days of Ignorance before the Revelation, perhaps she would have turned to Amal or the other midwives of Mecca for their secret draft that was said to poison the womb. But the Messenger of God had made it clear to his small band of followers that the life of a child was sacred, despite the many pagan Arab customs to the contrary. She had sworn an oath of allegiance to his hand, and she would not go against his teachings, even if they meant her demise. Unlike most of her neighbors and friends still clinging to the old ways, Umm Ruman no longer feared death. But she grieved to think that her child, the first to be born into the new faith of Islam, might not survive to see the sunrise.
Amal took her hand and squeezed it gently.
"Do not despair. We will get through this together." Her voice was kind, but Umm Ruman could see in the stern lines around her mouth that Amal had reached her professional conclusion. The end was nigh for mother and child.
Umm Ruman managed to turn her head to her stepdaughter, Asma, who stood frozen at her side, tears welling in her dark eyes.
"Go. Bring Abu Bakr to me," she said, her voice growing faint. She stroked the girl's still plump cheeks. "If I die before you return, tell him my last request was that the Prophet pray at my funeral."
Asma shook her head, refusing to face that possibility. "You can't die! I won't let you!"
The girl was not of Umm Ruman's flesh, but the bond between them was as strong as that of any mother and daughter. Perhaps stronger, for Asma had chosen her over her actual mother, Qutaila, who had refused to accept the new faith. Abu Bakr had divorced his first wife, for it was forbidden for a believer to share a bed with an idol worshiper. The proud Qutaila had left their home in a furious rage, vowing to return to her tribe, but Asma had refused to go with her. The girl had chosen the Straight Path, the way of the Messenger and her father, Abu Bakr. That had been three years ago, and Asma had not seen her mother since. Umm Ruman had felt sorry for the abandoned child, still too young to understand the enormity of her choice, and had raised the girl as her own.
She wondered what would happen to Asma once she was gone. Abu Bakr would likely look for a new wife, but there were only a handful of believers, and the Message was spreading slowly because of the need for secrecy. If the pagan leaders of Mecca learned the truth of what the Prophet was teaching, their wrath would be kindled, and the tiny community the believers had founded in the shadows would be exposed and destroyed. In all likelihood, Asma would be alone, without any foster mother to guide her through the journey of womanhood. The girl was past due for her cycles, which usually began at the age of ten or eleven for those born under the harsh Arabian sun. The menstrual flow would erupt any day now, but Umm Ruman would not be there to comfort her through the shock of first blood.
She ran her hand through Asma's brown curls, hoping to bequeath a soft memory with her touch that would comfort the child in the days to come. And then a shock of pain tore through Umm Ruman's womb and she screamed.
Asma broke free of her stepmother's grasp. She fell back, stumbling over one of the bricks that the midwife had placed at Umm Ruman's swollen feet. As Amal searched desperately through her midwife's stores for a salve to ease her patient's agony, the girl turned and ran in search of her father.
Umm Ruman closed her eyes and said silent prayer even as her body burned from within.
As her uterus contracted with increasing urgency, she could feel the baby shifting, preparing to emerge into the world. A process that in all likelihood would lead to her death, and possibly the baby's as well.
It was the beginning of the end, she thought sadly.
Umm Ruman was right. But in ways she could not have expected.
My father, Abu Bakr, walked through the quiet streets of Mecca, his head bowed low, his back hunched slightly, as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Which, of course, it was.
Tonight everything had changed. And he needed to tell someone. Normally he would have gone straight home after emerging from the Prophet's house, as their dwellings were next door to each other. But after what he had seen and heard tonight, he needed to take a walk.
And besides, his wife had entered labor earlier that day, and his home was now the exclusive domain of the midwife. Abu Bakr had learned through the birth of two sons and a daughter to give the tribe of women its privacy at such moments. A man could only serve as a bumbling annoyance or a dangerous distraction to the sacred rituals of birth. And the safe delivery of this child, the first to be born into the Revelation, was important not just to him, but to the entire Muslim community.
All twenty of them.
His child. Abu Bakr wondered for a moment what kind of world the baby would grow into. For years he had hoped that the Truth would spread discreetly and in secret until the masters of Mecca were surprised to see that their tribal religion had died in its sleep, to be replaced quietly with the worship of the One God. But tonight had shown him that whatever path Islam would take among these people, it would not be a quiet one.
He paused to look up at the heavens. There was no moon tonight and the sky was aflame with a legion of stars, the sparkling strands of a cosmic web that testified to the glory of the Lord. The foolish among his people believed that the future could be discerned in the shimmering patterns that played across the heavens. But Abu Bakr knew that such superstitions were a delusion. Only God knew the future. The greatest of storytellers, every day He surprised man with a new tale. Those who thought they could encompass His grand plan with their puny calculations were always humbled.
Turning a corner in the walled district of Mecca where many of the chieftains of the city lived, he found himself looking out past the hills that surrounded the desert valley to Mount Hira the place where God had spoken to a man, even as He did to Moses at Mount Sinai to the north. The mountain, which soared two thousand feet above the desert floor, tapered into a rocky plateau, at the pinnacle of which was hidden a tiny cave. A small, cramped space where no light could enter. And from which Light itself had sprung forth.
When his childhood friend Muhammad, the orphan son of Abdallah of the clan of Bani Hashim, had emerged from that cave three years ago, he was transformed. He had seen a vision of an angel named Gabriel who had proclaimed him to be God's Messenger to mankind, the final Prophet sent to bring the world out of darkness into light. It was an audacious claim, one that would understandably invite ridicule had it been made by any other man. But Muhammad was different.
Abu Bakr had known him since they were excited boys traveling with a caravan to the markets of Palestine and Syria. And from the first day he had set eyes on the young Muhammad, Abu Bakr had known that his friend had a destiny. Raised in poverty and humiliation, the boy nonetheless exuded a dignity, a power, that seemed to emanate from another realm. While other youths quickly embraced the sharp business tactics of the Meccan traders as a means of getting ahead in the harsh world of the desert, Muhammad had gained a reputation as Al-Amin the Honest One. His reputation for fair dealing brought him respect but little profit, and Abu Bakr had been heartbroken to see his friend live in destitution while less scrupulous young men advanced rapidly.
And he had been overjoyed as Muhammad's luck finally turned, when he won the heart of Khadija, a lovely and wealthy widow who had employed the youth to manage her caravans. Khadija had proposed to the penniless Muhammad, and Abu Bakr took great pleasure in seeing his boyhood comrade finally living in affluence among the nobles of Mecca. But Muhammad had never seemed comfortable around wealth, and his sudden prosperity and entry into elite society had only increased his concern for the many who remained poor in the desert valley.
Abu Bakr had spent many nights talking with his friend through the years as he expressed agitation over the worsening plight of the lower classes of the city. Women and children starved in the valley of Mecca, even as flourishing trade with the Byzantine and Persian empires to the north enriched its tribal chiefs. Muhammad had become increasingly distraught at the daily injustices he witnessed, as the strong preyed on the weak and men used and discarded women, leaving their bastard children to fend for themselves in the worst cases, killing infant girls, whose birth was seen as socially undesirable.
Abu Bakr had not been surprised to see his tormented friend embark on a spiritual path, meditating every night and spending his days conversing with people of other nations and faiths he met on the caravan routes. Muhammad had never been interested in the religion of their people. The crude idols that the Arabs worshiped had repelled him, and he was drawn instinctively to the People of the Book, Jews and Christians, and their remarkable stories of the One God who stood for justice and compassion. And the People of the Book would remind him that this God had once also been worshiped by the ancestors of the Arabs, who had been descended from the prophet Abraham through his firstborn son, Ishmael. This God, whom the Jews called Elohim, was still known to the Arabs as Allah, the Creator God. But the Arabs now worshiped hundreds of other deities that were seen as intermediaries of Allah, who was too powerful and remote to care about the daily lives of men. Every tribe in the desert had its own god, and each held its god out to be better than the others, leading to division and warfare among the clans. These competing deities, like the untamed elements of nature they symbolized, were capricious and lacked any sense of morality or justice. Seeing the chaos engendered by these warring and cruel gods, Muhammad longed for his people to return to the old ways of Abraham and his simple, pure vision of Allah.
When Abu Bakr would come to visit him, Muhammad would often stay up late into the night sharing tales he had heard from these foreigners, stories about Moses and the haughty Pharaoh, Joseph and his conniving brothers among the Children of Israel, and Jesus the son of Mary, God's most recent Messenger to mankind, who had healed the blind and raised the dead. Abu Bakr was swept away by his friend's passion for this God and His prophets, which awakened within him a similar longing for the Divine. Like Muhammad, Abu Bakr found the gods of the Arabs to be petty and small. But Allah, this God of Abraham, had never spoken to the Arabs, and Abu Bakr longed to hear from this mysterious, invisible being who had forgotten the children of Ishmael.
And then it had happened. Muhammad's vision on Mount Hira had left his friend shaken and confused. Seeing the winged angel first inside the cave and then standing on the horizon, its wondrous form expanding in a cloud of light until it stretched to the heavens, Muhammad became convinced that he was mad or possessed by a djinn. He had wanted to kill himself in despair, but his wife, Khadija, had comforted him. She told him that a man of his character would not be misled or abandoned by Allah, and that his experience must be true. Over the next several months, the visions intensified, and the angel told Muhammad that he had been chosen to follow in his ancestor Abraham's path to abolish idolatry and establish the worship of the One God among the Arabs, who would then spread the faith of their forefather to all mankind.
Muhammad was overwhelmed. He was being asked to undertake an impossible task. To turn a land of warring tribes who venerated hundreds of tribal deities into a unified nation under one God. How could he begin? Unable to find an answer beyond the loving circle of his wife and family, he had taken a risk. Muhammad had turned to his friend Abu Bakr and shared what was happening to him.
So it was that one peaceful evening three years ago, Abu Bakr had sat on the floor in the quiet of Muhammad's sparsely furnished private study as his old friend revealed the angelic visions and the Voice that had called to him from the heavens. As Abu Bakr heard him speak, he felt something stirring inside his heart. It was as if he had been waiting his whole life for this moment. It was as natural and inevitable as falling in love. Even before Muhammad finished speaking, Abu Bakr knew that his inner longing had been answered. Allah, the God who had spoken to Moses and Jesus, had not forgotten the Arabs, the children of Abraham. Abu Bakr had known Muhammad for over thirty years and had never had reason to doubt one word spoken by Al-Amin. If God would choose anyone to prophesy to the Arab nation, it would be this man. It had to be this man.
Without hesitation, Abu Bakr had accepted his claim to be the Messenger of God and promised that he would be Muhammad's righthand man on his mission. And for the next three years, he had quietly spread the word to a few trusted friends and kinsmen that there was a Prophet in their midst, one who would bring their people to salvation. Abu Bakr acted in absolute secrecy, as the leaders of Mecca, whose trade was done in the name of the ancient gods, would have moved quickly to destroy this new religious movement.
While he succeeded in persuading a small handful of associates to accept Muhammad's teachings and join his faith, he was devastated that he failed to win over some in his own family. His first wife, Qutaila, had refused to break the idols of her gods and he had divorced her. And to add to his grief, his beloved son Abdal Kaaba also proved unwilling to turn his back on the ways of their people. Their arguments grew so bitter that Abdal Kaaba had left his home and gone to live among kinsmen, refusing to speak with him until Abu Bakr renounced his foolish new ideas. His alienation from his son weighed heavily on his heart, and the Prophet gently reminded Abu Bakr that Noah, too, had been estranged from his son, whose resistance to God's message had ultimately led to his death in the Flood. Abu Bakr understood that a father could not be responsible for the choices of his son, but his failure haunted him nonetheless.
Despite the personal losses he had endured in his family, Abu Bakr had not faced any major social consequences for his involvement in Muhammad's new group. The chieftains of Mecca had heard rumors that Al-Amin was quietly playing the role of spiritual teacher to a handful of locals, but they paid little attention. As long as his small band of followers kept to themselves and did not create trouble in Mecca, they could worship whatever god they wished, believe whatever they wanted. As long as Muhammad's teachings remained quiet and did not disrupt the profits of the tribal chiefs, everything would be fine.
But that had all changed tonight.
Abu Bakr turned away from the towering vision of Mount Hira and looked back to the Prophet's home in a distant corner of the city. The two-story edifice sparkled under the starlight, its white stone walls shimmering with a faint, unearthly glow. For the past few years, that house had been a secure gathering place for Abu Bakr and the nineteen other believers. There they prayed together and listened to the Prophet as he shared God's words that had been revealed through Gabriel. That home was their sanctuary.
It would now have to be their fortress. For the leaders of Mecca had learned tonight what Muhammad's true message was.
And they had declared war.
Asma raced out of her father's home. She had seen Umm Ruman's ghostly pale face, the blood on her thighs, and had known that the birthing had gone terribly wrong. Asma had already lost one mother she could not bear to lose another.
The girl ran down the steps and stepped out into the narrow alley between her father's home and the house of the Prophet. She splashed her feet in a pool of dark mud, residue of the rare and welcome rainfall of the night before. Her friends had all gone this morning to pray at the sacred temple the Holy Kaaba and thank their gods for the life-giving water that so rarely fell from the sky in the desert valley. But Asma had not joined them. Her father had taught her that the idols in the Kaaba were abominations, false gods whose worship angered Allah. The believers had gathered instead inside the Prophet's home to thank the One God in secret. They had bowed in unison, their foreheads touching the dark earth as the Prophet recited the most recent verses of the Qur'an, the Book that God was revealing to him bit by bit, in small poetic stanzas, every day.
Asma always enjoyed their services, partly because of the secrecy, the thrill of doing something that was forbidden. And partly because it was a special time that she could share with her father. Abu Bakr was a prosperous merchant who was forever busy inspecting caravans from Yemen, buying and selling frankincense, carpets, and pottery in the marketplace, and serving as an arbiter of commercial disputes among the various trading parties of Mecca. She rarely saw him during the day and relished the few hours every night when he would set aside the ledger of a businessman and take on the robes of a believer.
Asma had always been amazed by how he would change in the presence of the Prophet at these meetings. Abu Bakr was a dignified man, masculine and strong, a man accustomed to quiet leadership. But in the presence of the Messenger, he became as a slave before its master enthusiastic, nervous, anxious to please. The stern cynicism of the trader was replaced with wonder, the complete and absolute trust of a child. His long face, tired and worn from a day of haggling with Abyssinian, Greek, and Persian traders, would suddenly come alive with enthusiasm and joy. When her father had first approached Asma and told her of his new faith, she was too young to understand the intricacies of theology. But she saw how the Revelation had changed him, how it breathed life into a man who once seemed like a stone, perennially weary of the world, and she knew she that she, too, would embrace this path.
Her love for her father had given her the strength to turn her back on her mother, Qutaila, and her half brother, Abdal Kaaba, who had refused to join the new movement. When they left, a pall had fallen over the house of Abu Bakr. They were outcasts in their own home, adherents to a strange new religion that had the temerity to put the bonds of the soul before the ties of blood. Asma had felt her father's silent despair grow as his efforts to spread the Prophet's teachings among his kinsmen were met sometimes with incomprehension, more usually with laughter, and a few times with anger. As fewer and fewer of Abu Bakr's clansmen and family members came to visit their home, she had felt her own growing isolation. The girls she played with would sometimes whisper about the rumors spreading through Mecca, that Abu Bakr and his family had been possessed by djinn or had been placed under a spell by a sorcerer. She wanted to tell them, tell everyone in the city, the truth. That God had spoken to them, was speaking to them every day, through the lyrical voice of a man who had never before recited any words of power or poetry. That they were being told truths far greater than any relayed by the kahins, the mystical soothsayers who wandered through the villages of Arabia, sharing their visions for a price.
But her father had forbidden her to speak of their community and its beliefs. So she had kept silent, and the shared secret created a lasting bond with the few other believers. They were her new family.
A family that would now be torn asunder if her stepmother died. Umm Ruman had become a mother to the whole community, second only in importance to Khadija, the Prophet's wife and the first to embrace the new faith. The handful of believers turned to Umm Ruman for hope and inspiration. They relied on her patient ears to unload their tales of loneliness and sorrow, the price that came with their newfound faith. Her kind smile had lifted the hearts of many who had been consumed by grief and rejection, and her soft hands had wiped many cheeks of tears in the past few years. Her death would be a devastating blow to the faithful. But they would ultimately be consoled by turning to the Prophet and his family, the Ahl al-Bayt, the People of the House, who served as the heart of the new religion. The believers would move on, Asma thought ruefully, but she would be bereft of a mother. Again.
She ran down the narrow path toward the Messenger's home, stopping in front of the wrought-iron gate. As always when she approached the beautiful stone house, with its sturdy pillars and delicately tapered arches, she detected the distinct smell of roses in the air, although she could see no blooms in the courtyard. Asma caught her breath and glanced up. The silver latticed windows on the second floor, the family area, were dark. Although she knew there had been a large gathering inside earlier in the night, no sound emerged from within. The eerie chirping of crickets echoed around her mournfully. Perhaps the Prophet was asleep or immersed deep in prayer.
Even though she knew that her mission was one of life and death, she still hesitated to knock and disturb the holy family. Although her father always reminded her that Allah was merciful and compassionate, she had heard the frightening tales of those who earned His wrath the tribe of 'Ad, which had mocked their prophet Hud and been struck down by wind and storm, or Thamud, which had hamstrung the she-camel of its prophet Salih and been consumed by an earthquake.
Asma realized that she was shaking. Whether it was from fear of losing her stepmother or fear of inciting God's anger by troubling his Prophet, she could not say. She took a breath and took hold of the silver knocker that hung just above her head. Asma rapped the gate three times and was surprised by how deeply the sound echoed inside.
For a long moment, she heard nothing. She tentatively reached for the knocker a second time, when the sound of approaching footsteps halted her. The gate swung inward and a shadow fell upon her. Asma looked up to see a handsome boy of thirteen with emerald-green eyes and hair the color of a starless night. She immediately knew who he was and for a second had difficulty speaking. His intense eyes seemed to peer straight through her in the dark, as if they were lit by their own fire. She blushed and looked down at her feet, and was suddenly mortified to see her slippers, feet, and ankles caked in mud.
"Peace be upon you, daughter of Abu Bakr." The boy spoke cheerfully, apparently oblivious to her embarrassment. He smiled at her softly, but what he was thinking as he looked at the panting and bedraggled girl on his doorstep, she had no idea. Ali, the son of the Meccan tribal chief Abu Talib, was a cipher, a mystery to even those closest to the Prophet and his family. He was the young cousin of the Messenger and had been adopted into the Ahl al-Bayt when the Prophet's elderly uncle Abu Talib could no longer afford to feed him. Muhammad was very close to the lad, perhaps viewing him as the brother he had never had, or the son who could have been.
But Ali was not like other youths, and he remained aloof from the boys of Mecca. He showed little interest in their sports, races, or kites, preferring to spend his time watching people in the marketplace as if trying to understand a strange and different species. As a result, the other young men of the city were always a little nervous and uncertain in Ali's presence. Even the believers around the Prophet were not sure what to make of him. He never quite appeared to be with them in spirit, even if he was there in body. Even now, Ali was like an apparition from a dream. She suddenly had a strange thought. What if Ali is the dreamer and Asma the dream? What happens to me when he awakes?
"I am looking for my father," she said, pushing the troubling thought aside. "Umm Ruman is ill. Her womb is bleeding."
Ali blinked at her as if he did not understand her words. Asma got the unnerving feeling again that he was not quite with her but was gazing at her from across some vast distance.
And then he nodded, as if suddenly snapped back to the present moment.
"I am sorry to hear that," he said softly. "I will inform the Prophet. He will pray for Umm Ruman and, if God wills, she will be healed."
Ali stepped back and moved to close the gate, when Asma shifted on to the threshold and took hold of its iron latch.
"And my father?" Asma insisted.
"Your father is not here," Ali said gently. "Abu Bakr went to see Talha and tell him the news."
The light in Ali's eyes seemed to brighten.
"It has begun," he said simply. And with that, Ali nodded a farewell to the perplexed girl and closed the gate.
Asma stood frozen for a moment. There was perfect silence all about her, and the air felt heavier, as if a mysterious blanket had covered the street. It felt as if time had somehow stopped during her brief talk with Ali and that the world itself had been holding its breath.
And then the crickets chirped again in a steady, flowing cadence. Asma shook off the uncomfortable sensation of having just returned from a strange and distant land and focused her mind on what she had to do. She turned and ran away from the Prophet's house toward the main streets of Mecca and her cousin Talha's home.
Abu Bakr warmed his hands by the fire as Talha poured him some goat's milk in an old wooden bowl. The young man, recently turned eighteen, was one of the most recent converts to the new faith. The Prophet's teachings of charity and justice for the poor had ignited Talha's youthful idealism and had given him a cause more worthy of dedicating his life to than simply driving camels for his wealthy cousin. He was eager to share the Revelation with his young friends, to recruit them to the cause, but he had sworn a vow of secrecy. Talha had passionately counseled the Messenger to let him spread the word among the stable boys and shepherds of God's Word. He argued that the new way would be resisted by Abu Bakr's generation, long trapped in the rites of their fathers, but that it was among the shabab of Mecca, those too young to be subdued by the overpowering weight of tradition, that they would find their strongest supporters. The Prophet had smiled and gently admonished him to be patient. Allah had a plan and none could rush the Divine into action. They day would come, Talha had been assured, when they would emerge from the shadows and proclaim the One God openly in Mecca, and eventually the world.
And now, at last, that day had come.
"So he told the tribal chiefs tonight?" Talha's eyes glittered with excitement as he handed his elder cousin the bowl of milk.
"Yes." Abu Bakr held the bowl to his lips, softly whispering the invocation Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Raheem "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate." It was the sacred formula that the Prophet had been taught by Gabriel, the words by which believers began the recitation of their prayers. It was the blessing that they uttered every time they started something anew, whether it be as simple as eating or drinking or tying their shoes, or as meaningful and profound as making love. The bismillah sanctified even the smallest moments of life, elevating the mundane to the holy with every breath.
Abu Bakr sipped the milk, let its soft curds flow down his throat and cool the fire he had felt growing inside his belly through the night.
"What happened?" Talha leaned forward, his hands gripping the edge of the old cypress table that Abu Bakr had given him as a gift the day he embraced Islam.
Abu Bakr sighed and put down the bowl.
"The Prophet received a revelation from Gabriel that he must now openly proclaim the Message, beginning first with his own family members," Abu Bakr said, looking into the flames as he recounted the tale. "And so he asked Ali to gather the heads of Quraysh for dinner tonight."
The Quraysh were the Prophet's tribe, who had long administered the city of Mecca and organized the annual pilgrimage that brought Arabs from all over the desert to worship their gods at the Kaaba, the holy temple at the center of the city. They were the de facto rulers of the most important religious site in all of Arabia, and their support would have given Muhammad's new movement the prestige to win over the hearts of their countrymen.
"It was a sparse meal," Abu Bakr said softly, remembering the strange events of the evening with a hint of wonder in his voice. "Just a leg of mutton, the meat of which barely filled the bowl the Prophet gave to Ali. And one cup of milk that I saw him fill from an earthen jug. I asked the Messenger if I should go and bring more food from my house, for there was barely enough to feed one man, much less the gathered dignitaries of the Quraysh. He simply smiled and reached into the bowl, taking a small strip of meat. He chewed a morsel and then threw it back into the bowl. And then I saw him turn to Ali and tell the boy to take it in the name of Allah."
Talha clasped his hands eagerly as Abu Bakr recited the inexplicable events that had followed.
"Ali passed the bowl from man to man, thirty in all, and each reached in and took his fill. Yet the meat did not diminish and the bowl remained always full. Ali poured them milk from the goblet, filling each man's glass, and yet I never saw him refill his own."
Talha gasped at the remarkable tale.
"And you saw this? With your own eyes?"
Abu Bakr nodded. "It was like the tale the Messenger once told me when we were boys, a story passed along to him by a Christian monk he met on the caravan to Syria. A tale of the prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, who multiplied many fish and loaves as a sign from God."
Talha felt a chill go down his spine, and his heart began to thud in his chest. The Prophet had never claimed to perform any miracles, saying that the fact that God was speaking through an illiterate Arab was enough of a miracle in itself. Talha had accepted the truth of the Prophet's words because they touched his heart. He had never needed any such signs or proofs of his divine mission. But now, listening to Abu Bakr's tale, he fervently wished that he had been there tonight. But Talha was not a tribal chief. Far from it. He had little wealth or influence of his own and often regretted that he could offer little to the Prophet in terms of material support. But if what Abu Bakr was saying was true, perhaps their little community no longer needed material help. If food could rain down from heaven as it had in the days of Jesus, then the age of miracles had been reborn. Their new faith would triumph, shining a light on what was true and pushing away the darkness.
"Surely the Quraysh must have seen what was happening," Talha said excitedly. "Surely their hearts must have been moved by the miracle."
Abu Bakr looked down sadly. "Their hearts were indeed moved, but in the wrong direction. They hardened, like the heart of Pharaoh when confronted by Moses and his miraculous rod."
Talha was stunned. "They denied the sign?"
"When murmurs of surprise spread through the hall at the miracle, Abu Lahab, the Prophet's uncle, rose and proclaimed that their host had bewitched them." Abu Bakr shook his head at the memory of the old man's fury. "The tribal chiefs rose to leave, but the Prophet begged them to stay, to hear his message. He told them at long last the truth. That he was the Messenger of Allah, and that he had been sent to destroy the idols and false gods that had corrupted the religion of the Arabs. They were shocked and outraged, and for a moment I thought their fury would lead to a riot there in the very home of the Prophet."
Talha sat back, his heart sinking. "What did the Prophet do?"
"He called out to his clansmen and asked who among them would help him in his mission and thus become his brother, his executor and successor among them." Abu Bakr looked into Talha's eyes. "None spoke in his favor. And then Ali stood up before all the lords of Mecca and proclaimed that he would be the Prophet's helper."
Talha was perplexed. "Ali? He is just a boy."
Abu Bakr nodded. "A boy, perhaps, but with the heart of a lion. He showed more courage in that moment, standing firm before the jeering chieftains, than most men show in a lifetime. The Prophet touched Ali's neck and commanded the tribal chiefs to hearken to Ali and obey him."
Talha was speechless for a moment. Abu Bakr saw his consternation and smiled.
"The chieftains had the same reaction," he said. "There was a silence in the room, like the quiet that falls upon the earth before the wrath of heaven is unleashed. And then they began to laugh and mock the Prophet, who had ordered them to obey a boy whose voice had only recently hardened, whose cheeks were still without a beard. I looked across the room to see Ali's father, the Prophet's uncle Abu Talib, bow his gray head in shame, as the lords heaped abuse on his son and nephew. And then they all turned and stormed out of the hall, leaving us alone and in silence."
Talha shook his head in dismay. He ran his hand through his dark curls as if trying to pull off the cobweb of despair that had suddenly fallen on him.
"So now they know. And they will try to destroy us."
Abu Bakr nodded.
Talha looked across the small room that served as his only shelter in the barren valley of Mecca. He had only the table his cousin had given him and a small leather cot across from the open fireplace. That was the extent of his worldly goods. And he was considered richer than many of the believers. How were they going to stand up to the might of Mecca, whose lords lived like kings, whose coffers were filled with gold, whose clansmen were armed with the finest swords and spears?
"So what do we do now?"
Abu Bakr gazed out the small window of the stone cottage. Outside, the stars sparkled and danced across the firmament. A heavenly flame flew past his vision, followed by another.
"A new day is upon us," Abu Bakr said thoughtfully. "The secret has been revealed, and the world will now conspire against the believers," he said softly.
And then he reached over and touched Talha on the shoulder. "Like you, my heart was heavy tonight. But as I moved to leave the empty hall, the Messenger took me aside and comforted me. He said these words that had been revealed by Gabriel:
"In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate By the flight of Time Man is indeed in loss Except for those who believe And do good And persevere with truth And persevere with patience."
Talha felt the words flow through his heart, like a stream bringing life to the dead earth. These words, which rhymed with majestic poetry and perfect meter in Arabic, had been spoken by God Himself tonight. Tears suddenly welled in his eyes. The God of Abraham, who had chosen to speak to man one last time. And in His inexplicable plan, He had chosen to speak through them, a barbaric, uneducated, and primitive people. A nation forgotten by history and mocked by the grand civilizations that surrounded them. They were the worst of the sons of Adam. And yet He had chosen them.
Talha followed his elder kinsman's gaze at the stars outside. They had circled the earth for countless millennia. Had seen empires rise and fall, had seen mighty kings and warriors crumble into dust, their names forgotten, the songs of their deeds lost in the mists of time. And yet the stars remained firm, sparkling in the heavens, as a sign of that which would never die, that which would never be lost to time.
Talha understood. Though the entire world might work against them, God's plan would triumph. It was not for them to know the how or the when. Their task was to begin writing the tale, even though its final chapter was hidden from them.
Abu Bakr leaned closer to him and spoke softly, conspiratorially. "Do not sleep tonight, but stay awake and bow in worship."
Talha looked at him. "I will do as you say."
Abu Bakr nodded. He looked directly into Talha's eyes. "The Messenger said that there will be Signs tonight. The angels are writing the future of our faith even as we speak. The destinies of men and women will be inscribed in the Tablet of Heaven, and the writing will be made clear to those whose hearts are ready. For it is tonight that our faith will be born anew and shall light a fire that will consume the old world and bring in the new."
Talha nodded, his soul stirring with awe at Abu Bakr's words.
And then he saw the first Sign.
An angel clad in white, its gown glittering in the starlight, was flying down the path toward his home. Talha's mouth fell open. He stared at the apparition in wonder, like a parched traveler gazing at a mirage, hoping beyond hope that what he saw was real and not a ghost of his imagination
And then he saw that the angel was a child, whose face was white with fear.
"Father!" It was Asma, Abu Bakr's daughter, who cried to them from across the dirt road as she caught a glimpse of their silhouettes standing near the window of the tiny mud brick cottage.
Abu Bakr turned to stare out the window in surprise. And when he saw the look on his daughter's face, the blood emptied from his own. Talha watched in shock as his cousin's serene composure shattered and was replaced by a look of pure terror. Abu Bakr staggered toward the door, his heart in his throat. He stumbled and Talha reached to help him, but the older man swatted him away.
Abu Bakr threw open the small arched door to Talha's cottage just as Asma fell inside the threshold. He held his daughter close as she tried to catch her breath. But even before the child spoke, Talha knew what she would say. Her red-rimmed eyes burned their message to any who looked into them.
Abu Bakr stroked his daughter's brown curls softly, let her lean into his chest to gain strength from the power of his beating heart. A heart that was now thundering so loudly that Talha fancied he heard it pounding in his ears. Or was it his own?
"Umm Ruman..." Asma gasped, trying to choke out the words. "Umm Ruman...the baby...is dying..."
Amal the midwife wiped the sweat-drenched brow of her unlucky ward. She barely noticed that her own face, indeed her arms and breasts, were bathed in sweat from her efforts to save the life of the mother and child. By all accounts, both should be dead by now. The blood from Umm Ruman's womb had flowed like honey from a beehive, slow, dark, and persistent. She had lost more blood in the past hour than Amal imagined could have possibly flowed through the veins of the tiny woman. But the delicate lady, with bones as dainty and small as a bird, had proven a warrior in spirit. Umm Ruman had screamed and screamed in agony, but she remained stubbornly alive, refusing to give in to the inevitable.
Amal had finally been able to stem the hemorrhage, which had drained the dark-skinned Umm Ruman and left her soft skin a sickly yellow, like a full moon low on the eastern horizon in midsummer. The midwife had breathed a sigh of relief and muttered a prayer thanking the goddess Uzza, when her patient sharply forbade her to mention the name of the divinity. "If you pray, do so to Allah," Umm Ruman had croaked out between labored breaths. Amal was surprised at the strange request. Allah, the High God, was too far away to hear the prayers of mortals. That is why their people worshiped His daughters Allat, Uzza, and Manat, and a host of other gods who had the time and patience to deal with the petty affairs of mankind.
Umm Ruman was clearly light-headed and confused from her ordeal, but Amal knew enough to remain silent. Now that the bleeding had stopped, she needed to help bring forth the remains of the baby. The child would in all likelihood be stillborn, but she needed to clear the dead fetus from Umm Ruman's womb and cleanse her of the poisonous afterbirth if there were to be any hope of saving her patient.
Amal had pressed her hand along Umm Ruman's stretched belly and was surprised to feel the unmistakable tremor of movement beneath her flesh. The child lived! Amal's heart soared with hope for a second and then was dashed as she pressed farther along Umm Ruman's stomach. She felt a soft pressure near the birth canal that she immediately recognized as the baby's feet. Her spirit sank. The baby was improperly positioned. If Umm Ruman pushed the child out feetfirst, it would suffocate before it had a chance to enter the world.
Amal knew what had to be done. She looked up at Umm Ruman, whose bloodshot eyes shone with grim determination. "The child..."
"I know," was all Umm Ruman said, and Amal knew that she understood. The tiny woman with the heart of a soldier grinded her teeth in preparation. "Do it."
Amal nodded. She hesitated and then made a loud prayer to Allah for the safe delivery of the child. She did not really believe that the Lord of the Worlds would take a moment from turning the stars in the heavens to care for the plight of one small, forgotten mother, but Amal wanted to give Umm Ruman hope. The odds were she would die from what happened next, but at least she would die with her heart satisfied.
The midwife took a deep breath and put her hands on Umm Ruman's belly. Remembering the ancient techniques taught to her by her own mother, Amal placed pressure on her patient's womb in order to turn the child headfirst.
Umm Ruman screamed, an agonized cry that echoed across the valley of Mecca and traveled high into the starry heavens.
Abu Bakr stood outside his wife's birth chamber, shaking with fear. He could hear Umm Ruman's horrific wails, which seemed only to increase in intensity. Every fiber in his body cried for him to rush inside and comfort his dying wife through her final moments. But Talha held him back. "Let the midwife do her job," the boy had said, and Abu Bakr knew he was right.
He looked down at Asma, his loyal daughter, who had chosen him and his faith even over her own mother, and squeezed her tiny hand. She was strong, stronger than he would have been in her position. He had torn their family apart with his decision to follow Muhammad, and she had never complained. Abu Bakr had always been close to his own parents, and he had found it beyond comprehension how his young friend Muhammad had endured the horrific loss of his beloved mother, Amina, when he was only six years old. Abu Bakr's heart was heavy with the knowledge that he had orphaned Asma once already by renouncing Qutaila. And now, with Umm Ruman's impending death, the child would be doubly motherless.
He looked around the antechamber where they waited for the screams to abruptly end and the midwife to emerge with her dreaded tidings. It was well furnished, as befitted a prosperous merchant of Quraysh. Thick rugs imported from Persia covered the marble floors. The stone walls were whitewashed and held many trophies and trinkets from his travels on the caravan routes. Silver plates from Syria, their tiles swirling in intricate geometric designs, lined one wall, while another was covered in an assortment of swords and daggers from Byzantium, their hilts embedded with precious emeralds and rubies. The arched windows were covered in thick curtains made from Abyssinian cotton. Couches covered in rich silk brocade had entertained many nobles from Mecca and beyond in the years past, although now that Abu Bakr's true beliefs were known, he was likely to have few such visitors in the future.
Abu Bakr was by every account a wealthy man, but he would readily trade all the gold in his coffers for a miracle tonight.
Perhaps sensing his thoughts, Talha touched his shoulder.
"Let us pray the Fatiha. Perhaps it will be of help," the boy said softly.
Abu Bakr looked at the sensitive young man and then at his brave little daughter, and nodded.
The three believers stood in a circle, their hands upraised to heaven in humble supplication, and recited in unison the Seven Oft-Repeated Verses that the believers read daily in their prayers:
In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds The Merciful, the Compassionate King of the Day of Judgment You alone do we worship, and Your aid alone do we seek. Show us the Straight Path The path of those who incur Your favor Not the path of those who earn Your wrath Nor of those who go astray.
Abu Bakr, Talha, and Asma recited the prayer out loud, their voices melding in lyrical unison. They repeated it again, and a third time. Perhaps it was Abu Bakr's imagination, but each time he recited the sacred verses, the cries from the adjoining room seemed to lessen in intensity.
Again and again they repeated the holy words. And then, at the seventh recitation, a silence fell over the house, a quiet so sudden and so complete that Abu Bakr's heart chilled. Umm Ruman was dead.
Tears welled in his eyes, and his heart started pounding. She was his strength, his soul. How could he live without her? He realized that Asma was now crying openly, but he found he could not move to comfort her.
Talha moved to take the weeping child out of the room, to leave Abu Bakr to the privacy of his grief.
And then they heard it. A strange, impossible, glorious sound.
The cry of a baby.
Abu Bakr raised his head and stared at the door to the birthing chamber. There was silence again. Had he imagined it? And then the child wailed louder and he felt a burst of light illuminate his heart, like the sun emerging from behind the empty blackness of an eclipse.
Talha looked up at him in wonder. And Asma laughed, clapping her hands with the unfettered delight that only a child can know.
Abu Bakr felt his legs go weak, and he grabbed hold of an intricately carved chair made from Iraqi cypress. And then he stumbled forward and threw tradition to the wind. He flung open the door to the forbidden chamber and rushed inside.
Umm Ruman was still seated on the sharply angled birthing chair, her tunic covered in blood and the fluids of childbirth. Her face was sickly pale, but her eyes were open and alert. And she breathed deeply, like a woman trapped at the bottom of a well longing for air. She was alive!
Abu Bakr looked at her in wonder and she smiled weakly. He would remember that smile in years to come, when the storm clouds that had been gathering would be unleashed and the armies of men and the devil would seek to destroy the believers. It would give him strength and hope and power to battle on in the cause of God and His Messenger. For in a cruel world where the only certainty was death, their way was the way of life.
The child's cries turned his head and Abu Bakr looked at the midwife, who had just finished washing the baby and had wrapped it in a green swaddling cloth. Amal's face was haggard and she looked as if she herself had endured the pangs of childbirth. She looked up at him and nodded a greeting, the lines of her mouth too tired to form into a smile.
"I give you glad tidings of a girl," she said weakly. Abu Bakr saw the strain in her face and worried that she barely had the strength to hold the precious baby. He moved to take the child into his arms, and the midwife did not protest.
Abu Bakr took hold of the tiny child as Talha and Asma tentatively entered the birthing chamber. He looked down at the wrinkled face and ran a finger across the girl's cheeks, pink like a rose blossom. His daughter had a healthy brush of hair, a fiery red that glittered like copper in the pale torchlight. As Abu Bakr held his child, he realized that she was a true miracle the first child to be born into the new religion. He wanted his first words to her to impart the truth he had come to believe with all his heart. He bent down carefully and whispered into the infant's ears the formula of faith: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
The child opened her eyes for the first time at the sound of his words. Abu Bakr caught his breath. She had eyes unlike any he had ever seen before. Golden, like those of a lion, they seemed to glow with their own fire.
He felt rather than saw Asma step up behind him, and he turned to her.
"Come, see your sister," he said to his daughter, who looked down nervously at the little girl. Asma hesitated and then bent down to kiss the baby on its forehead. Abu Bakr turned to Umm Ruman, who weakly reached out to him. He moved to show their daughter to his wife, when the midwife made a cry of alarm.
"Manat protect us! The tidings are ill!" Amal squawked unexpectedly.
Abu Bakr looked over to see the midwife staring out of a small window facing east. Her eyes were wide, and she was slapping her head furiously in the ancient gesture of grief and terror.
"What's the matter?" Abu Bakr asked sharply.
"The baby...she is born under a dark star," Amal said. She pointed out the window to a constellation that was rising on the eastern horizon. It was a swirling cluster of lights, with the ominous red star Antares pulsating in its center.
Al-Akrab. The Scorpion. To the pagan Arabs, the stars of the zodiac were gods in their own right, beings that ruled men's affairs from the heavens and set their destinies at birth. And al-Akrab was the lord of death.
Before Abu Bakr could react, Amal rushed to his side, her eyes wide with fear.
"The child...cast it into the desert...bury it under stones before it can wreak its havoc!" she said, her voice frantic, her leathery face contorted with a kind of madness.
Abu Bakr felt his fury rise. He pushed Amal away from him forcefully.
"Get away from my daughter!" he said with terrifying ferocity. A mild and restrained man by nature, his anger was a rare and terrible thing to behold. Even Asma shrank back at the sudden rage in his voice.
Talha quickly moved forward and put a steady hand on the agitated midwife. "Do not utter your blasphemies in this house, which God has blessed."
But Amal ignored the boy.
"She is a curse...wherever she will go, chaos and death will follow her," Amal said, her eyes brimming with the intensity of her superstitious belief. "Slay her now, before the wrath of the gods is kindled!"
Abu Bakr held the baby closer to his heart, which was pounding with anger.
"I will slay your gods instead, and the wrath of the One will be kindled against your lies for all time!" Abu Bakr's voice boomed with such power and authority that Amal was struck speechless.
He turned to Talha, his eyes burning with righteous indignation.
"Pay this midwife what she is due, and then let her not darken my doorstep again," he said.
Talha pulled the trembling woman away and led her out of the birthing chamber. She bowed her head and did not struggle with him, nor did she make any move to take the gold dirham that he offered her. He finally pushed it into her hand and closed her fingers around it.
As Talha pushed Amal out the door, she looked up at him with her dark eyes, which now shone with the frenzy that he had seen among the kahinas, the medicine women of the desert whom the foolish people consulted for their oracles.
"The child will lead you to your death someday," Amal said softly.
Alas, poor Talha, how I wish he had but listened to her portent!
But he only looked at her with contempt.
"If that is the will of Allah, I will happily embrace it."
His confident response surprised the woman, who suddenly looked confused and lost. Who were these strange people who ignored the ancient traditions of the gods and put their trust in a God that no one could see or hear or touch? She turned and gazed out across the stone settlements of Mecca as if seeing the city for the first time. Amal looked up at the stars for an answer but found none.
"The child is the beginning of the end," she whispered. "It is all ending. Everything. And I cannot see what will take its place."
Talha looked at the strange woman and shook his head.
"The Truth," he said simply, before closing the door on the midwife.
Talha returned to find Abu Bakr leaning close to Umm Ruman, who now held the swaddled baby in her arms. The drama of the midwife appeared to be forgotten amid the family's joy at her safe delivery.
He went up to his kinsman and smiled.
"The madwoman is gone," he said.
Abu Bakr looked up at him and shook his head.
"She was not mad," he said softly. "This little girl will bring death."
Talha was stunned by these words.
"I don't understand" was all he could say.
Abu Bakr stroked his newborn daughter's soft cheek gently.
"She will bring death to ignorance, which will allow the light of knowledge to be born," he said simply.
Abu Bakr took the girl from Umm Ruman and held her close.
"In a world of idolatry, she is the first to be born a believer," he said softly. "She has already conquered death and has brought life." He gazed into the child's golden eyes, which were alert and seemed to exhibit an ancient intelligence.
"I will name her Aisha," Abu Bakr said.
A name that Talha knew in the old language meant "She Lives." Copyright © 2009 by Kamran Pasha
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kamran Pasha. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In the desert of seventh century Arabia, a new prophet named Muhammad has arisen. After he beholds a beautiful woman in a vision and resolves to marry her, the girl’s father quickly arranges the wedding. Aisha becomes the youngest of Muhammad’s twelve wives, and her fierce intelligence establishes her as his favorite. But when Aisha is accused of adultery by her rivals, she loses the Prophet’s favor—and must fight to prove her innocence.
Pardoned by her husband after a divine revelation clears her name, Aisha earns the reluctant respect of fellow Muslims when their settlement in Medina is attacked and she becomes a pivotal player on the battlefield. Muhammad’s religious movement sweeps through Arabia and unifies the warring tribes, transforming him from prophet to statesman. But soon after the height of her husband’s triumph—the conquest of the holy city of Mecca—Muhammad falls ill and dies in Aisha’s arms.
A widow at age nineteen, Aisha fights to create a role for herself in the new Muslim empire—becoming an advisor to the Caliph of Islam, a legislator advocating for the rights of women and minorities, a teacher, and ultimately a warrior and military commander. She soon becomes one of the most powerful women in the Middle East, but her passionate nature leads to tragedy when her opposition to the Caliph plunges the Islamic world into civil war. Her legacy remains one of the most compelling stories of Islam.
Questions for Discussion
1. “God had chosen me to marry His Messenger. It sounded laughable, but somehow it felt right. As if some part of my soul had always known that was my purpose.” To what extent does Aisha feel conflicted about her sudden transformation from child to Mother of the Believers? In what ways does her betrothal and marriage to the Prophet challenge some of his most faithful believers? What accounts for the unique nature of Aisha and Muhammad’s emotional connection with each other?
2. How do the climactic events of the Battle of Badr—particularly the deaths of many prominent Quraysh leaders—serve to galvanize the Muslims in their efforts to rally future believers? What does the defeat of the Meccan army by the vastly outnumbered followers of the Messenger represent to leaders of the Assembly? How does the Meccan defeat further empower Hind, the lascivious wife of Abu Sufyan, to incite further violence against the Muslims?
3. Aisha finds herself in trouble with the Messenger and her faith when she ventures places she shouldn’t go, such as when she comes to the assistance of Salim ibn Qusay, a thief who attempts to rape her; when a young Jewish goldsmith, Yacub, is punished with death for insulting her honor; or when she is suspected of infidelity for having gotten lost in the desert. To what extent can these mishaps can be attributed to Aisha’s youth and inexperience? What role does her personality play in leading her into these morally compromising situations?
4. “The whole ceremony seemed appropriately ethereal for this enigmatic couple and I was glad when the Prophet rose and kissed them, signaling that we had returned to the world I knew and understood.” Why does the marriage of Ali to Fatima seem symbolic to Aisha of some more momentous alliance than that of a customary wedding ceremony? How would you describe the roles Ali and Fatima play in the life of Muhammad and in the history of Islam? What accounts for Aisha’s troubled relationship with Ali?
5. What role does a young Jewish woman named Safiya, the daughter of the prominent Jewish leader Huyayy ibn Akhtab, play in alerting Aisha to an assassination plot against Muhammad by the Bani Nadir? How does the treachery of the Bani Nadir lead to an affiliation between the Arab and Jewish forces against the Muslims? What does Muhammad’s later marriage to Safiya suggest about his ability to accommodate marriage to his political advantage?
6. “You should not leave your houses unless necessary. It is for your good and for the good of the Ummah, he said . . . We were now expected to stay inside our homes like prisoners.” What does Muhammad’s commandment to his wives to veil themselves to strangers and to stay confined to their homes reflect about his culture and society? How would you describe the modern-day effect of this commandment on faithful Muslim men and women?
7. Why does Muhammad’s death, after several days of illness, lead to unrest and uncertainty in his immediate circle? How does his lack of an immediate male heir complicate his succession? What does his death, as witnessed by Aisha, reveal about his spiritual nature?
8. “And so, for the first time in centuries, the Children of Israel returned to the Holy Land from which they had been expelled, ironically at the generosity of a religion they had rejected.” How do the actions and policies of Muslims, even in the midst of conquering territories and transforming regions, reflect the tenets of their faith? To what extent does the spread of Islam across the Middle East unite former enemies and transform the city of Medina?
9. How does Aisha’s political alignment with her brother, Muhammad, challenge the rule of the Caliph Uthman and lead to his death? To what extent does Aisha’s subsequent rejection of Ali as Muslim leader stem from her longstanding grudge against him for suggesting to the Prophet that she was an expendable wife? How does the civil war that arises between Muslims lead directly to Aisha’s renunciation of involvement in politics, and how does it connect to a foreboding prediction made by her husband?
10. At the opening of Mother of the Believers, Aisha poses the rhetorical question, “What is faith?” But by the end of her memoir of her life, she has answered her own question in her letter to her nephew. How does her answer relate to her experiences as the beloved wife of Muhammad? Based on what you know about her faith, how would you characterize its role in her life?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Are you interested in learning more about Kamran Pasha, the author of Mother of the Believers? To read about Pasha’s recent visit to the plain of Arafat during the Hajj, or to find out more about his experience in paying homage to his novel’s heroine, Aisha, at the site of her burial, visit the blog on his website: http://blog.kamranpasha.com/.
2. Mother of the Believers offers Aisha the opportunity to reflect on her life and her many experiences in the form of a memoir that she shares exclusively with her nephew. Have you ever considered your own life experiences in light of your successes and failures? To whom would you choose to address your final remarks? If you already keep a diary or journal, you may want to revisit it and chart some of the many important moments in your life. Consider sharing your findings with your fellow readers. Aisha marks the important events of her life in terms of private rites of passage and victories for Islam. How do you mark your most significant moments?
3. How has your knowledge about the religion of Islam changed or been affected by reading Mother of the Believers? Would you like to know more about the underpinnings of this faith, or about its practice around the world? If so, you may want to arrange to visit a mosque in your community. For a virtual exposure to the many facets of Islam in contemporary society, visit http://www.islam.com/, which is a wonderful reference for thousands of subjects inspired by and directly related to Islamic worship.
A Conversation with Kamran Pasha
Q: Mother of the Believers is your first novel. What first drew you to Aisha and her remarkable story?
A: I have always been fascinated by strong women, and growing up as a Muslim in the United States, I found myself intrigued by how Aisha breaks every negative stereotype that Americans have about Islam and women. A scholar, a poet, a statesman, and a warrior, Aisha lived a life that rivals those of the greatest men in history. She was a passionate and fiercely intelligent woman who changed the course of human civilization, yet has received almost no attention in Western literature. It has been a lifelong dream to write a novel about Aisha, and I’m frankly still a little stunned that I have been given the opportunity to actually make that dream come true. I always wanted to highlight those aspects of her character that make her stand out among the accounts of early Muslims—her powerful will, her sharp mind, and the intensity and depth of her emotions.
In researching Aisha’s life, it became clear that she possessed rare gifts that made her destined for greatness—traits that Prophet Muhammad, a master judge of human character, would have noticed immediately. His decision to marry young Aisha and bring her into the center of the community was, I believe, motivated in part by his recognition of her genius and his desire to place Aisha in a position where she could fulfill a destiny that would have been otherwise stifled in the primitive desert world in which she was born. And the fact that the Prophet loved her first and foremost among all his wives in Medina reveals a great deal about how forward thinking he was. In many ways, Prophet Muhammad can be considered a proto-feminist, and the fact that he loved Aisha’s fiery nature and independent spirit reveals his own progressive attitudes toward women. In Aisha, we see a mirror of the Prophet’s own revolutionary nature, as well as a glimpse of the reverence for the sacred feminine in Islam that many contemporary Muslim men have perhaps forgotten.
Q: What were some of the challenges you experienced as an author in getting into the perspective of a female protagonist?
A: It is of course impossible for a man to truly know how a woman sees and experiences life, and it would be disingenuous for me to claim that I have accurately done so. But I have the benefit of being raised in a family of powerful Muslim women who continue Aisha’s legacy of independence and intellectual curiosity. A lifetime of conversations with my mother, sisters, and other Muslim women gives me at least an observer’s insight into the challenges faced by women in society, both in the Islamic world and the West. To the extent that I succeeded in creating an authentic female voice for Aisha, the credit belongs to all the women in my life who guided me over the years. To the extent that I failed, I hope the reader will excuse it as the natural shortcomings of the masculine perspective in that regard.
Q: Why did you decide to frame Aisha’s narrative in terms of a memoir and letter to her nephew?
A: I felt that Aisha’s voice is so unique that the novel had to be presented from her point of view. She was such a complex person whose attitudes and opinions evolved so much over the course of her lifetime that the only way I felt I could do justice to her tale was to set it as a memoir. Aisha on her deathbed looking back at a life of great triumph and tragedy allowed me to explore her passionate youthful nature, as well as the more sober perspective of a mature woman who has had a chance to consider her legacy. Many readers may be surprised at how sad and wistful the memoir seems to be at times, but I am only following Aisha’s own accounts, where she admitted in later years to regretting many of her youthful follies. But it is that regret, that poignant longing to correct the mistakes of the past, that makes her especially human for me. Aisha, by her own admission, was a brilliant but flawed human being, and it is that stark humanity that brings her closer to us. Aisha was no plastic saint. And that is exactly why we can learn from her and honor the remarkable things she accomplished. If Aisha, with all her passions, jealousies, and rage, can become the most beloved and revered of the Prophet’s wives, there is hope for all of us in finding redemption.
Q: You are well acquainted with fictional portrayals of Muslims from your work as a writer and coproducer of the television series Sleeper Cell. How would you compare the experience of writing historical fiction about the earliest Muslims with the process of creating portrayals of Muslims in the modern world?
A: I think one of the biggest differences is that Sleeper Cell dealt with the modern phenomenon of Muslim terrorists, villains who are attempting to hijack the beautiful religion of Islam. This novel, on the other hand, focuses on the revered heroes of my faith. What became evident as I researched this tale is that Prophet Muhammad, Aisha, and the rest of the early Muslims would have been horrified to learn that Islam would one day be painted as a religion of terror. Islam began as a pacifist movement that only took arms after being pushed to near extinction by the idolaters of Mecca. Even after military engagement became part of Muslim experience, strict rules of war were adopted. Women and children were to be spared in combat. Priests and rabbis of the People of the Book were protected from attack. Environmental warfare, including burning trees and poisoning water supplies, was forbidden, even though such tactics were considered acceptable by neighboring cultures (and remain common today). Muslims throughout the past 1,400 years took great pride in following strict rules of war, even as many in the West justified indiscriminate slaughter from the Crusades up until modern day. It is an incredible tragedy that there are people in the Muslim word today who feel that the only way they can fight political oppression is to engage in terror against civilians, which goes against the vast corpus of Muslim tradition and history. In writing this book, I have sought to remind both Muslims and non-Muslims that Islam stands for justice and human equality, as evidenced by the lives of the Prophet and the early community. The word “Islam” derives from the Arabic root meaning “peace.” The idea of “Islamic terrorism” is as much of a non sequitur as the phrase “loving murder.” I hope that this novel will inspire people to reexamine what Islam has stood for throughout history, and what it offers humanity today.
Q: How do you respond to critics who contend that fictional accounts of religious figures are potentially blasphemous?
A: I think such accusations are misguided and fail to understand the magnificent role literature and storytelling have played in Islamic civilization throughout history. Muslims have been telling stories about Prophet Muhammad, his wives, and companions around campfires and in books for centuries. The Modern Library has recently published The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a beautiful translation of a medieval Islamic epic about the Prophet’s uncle Hamza. The book contains dozens of incredible—and fictional—adventures that Muslim storytellers attributed to Hamza over the centuries. Like The Arabian Nights, the stories about Hamza were hugely popular throughout the Islamic world as tales of wonder and faith, both serving to entertain and educate the masses. One of my favorite books of all time is Yusuf and Zulaikha, an epic tale written in the fifteenth century by the Persian poet Jami (translated in English by David Pendlebury). It is a fictionalized account of the story of the prophet Joseph in the Qur’an and his star-crossed romance with an Egyptian princess. The tale is treasured by Muslims as both a beautiful love story and a deeply mystical allegory of worshippers seeking the Divine. The Muslim community has always understood that stories can teach and inspire us and that the line between historical fact and creative imagination is less important than the wisdom one gains from the tale. I have written my novel as part of that proud literary tradition, and I hope that many more historical fiction accounts about the great figures of Islam will be published to enlighten new generations about the richness of Muslim civilization.
Q: Your portrait of Muhammad’s relationship with Aisha emphasizes the uniquely mystical nature of their connection as husband and wife. How much of that relationship did you base on historical accounts of their marriage?
A: I have tried to base my story on as many historical accounts as feasible. According to early Muslim traditions, Prophet Muhammad was told in a mystical dream by Gabriel that Aisha was destined to be his wife. And the Prophet is reported to have said that among all his wives, he only received divine revelation when in bed with Aisha. She served as a profound inspiration to the Prophet, and it is not surprising that as he felt death approaching he chose to spend his final moments in Aisha’s arms. Their spiritual bond was clearly unique, and I have tried to capture the essence of their relationship in this novel.
Q: What did you discover in the course of researching and writing Mother of the Believers that surprised you?
A: I was surprised and delighted by how deeply human and relatable the great heroes and heroines of Islam were according to early historical accounts. Aisha’s triumphs and tragedies were recounted by Muslim historians without any effort to sugarcoat or mythologize her or the other founding figures of Islam. Love, passion, jealousy, hate, and forgiveness all played very real roles in the lives of these remarkable people. It is that humanity that makes Aisha and her contemporaries accessible to modern readers. And, on a personal note, it is the stark realism of the depictions of the early Muslim community that strengthened my own personal faith. That God can speak to and through fallible human beings like ourselves adds to the appeal of Islam as a practical revelation for the real world, not a fairy tale set in the clouds.
Q: To what extent is the intense jealousy you depict among Muhammad’s many wives something that you extrapolated from historical accounts?
A: The jealousy among the Mothers of the Believers is well documented, with Aisha by her own admission being particularly guilty. There are accounts that she would actually secretly follow Prophet Muhammad around at night to see if he was going to spend the evening with one of his other wives. It is that passionate, stubborn nature that both bonded her deeply with the Prophet and also led to some of the terrible mistakes she made in the first Islamic civil war. But it is that fiery personality that also makes Aisha the most endearing of his wives. In her jealousy and possessiveness, we see our own insecurities, fears, and desires. And it is the Prophet’s incredible patience with the rivalries between members of his household that reveals how remarkable a man he was. Prophet Muhammad was a spiritual teacher to thousands, as well as a politician, statesman, and military commander, and yet he managed to find time to bring together not only the warring tribes of Arabia, but also the competing groups inside his own home with expert diplomacy. The Prophet truly serves as an example to human beings of how to master challenges in all aspects of life, public and private.
Q: As a Muslim yourself, what kind of obligation did you feel as an author to your representation of your faith in this novel?
A: I feel a great burden of responsibility in writing this tale. Islam is the most misunderstood religion on Earth is and subject to a great deal of propaganda in the media today. As a believer I am aware that anything I write could be misconstrued or used by anti-Muslim bigots to advance their agendas. And there are, of course, a few radical Muslims who might take offense at something I have written and denounce me. But at the end of the day, I cannot predict every possible outcome that could arise out of the words I have put on paper. My intention is simple and straightforward—to write an exciting work of historical fiction that educates readers about Islam and honors the legacies of Prophet Muhammad, Aisha, and the early Muslim community. How the world responds to my efforts is beyond my control. But I rest secure in knowing that my intentions are good and sincere. The rest I leave in God’s hands.
Q: If you could have been present for any event of early Muslim life that you describe in your novel, what would it be?
A: It is hard to choose any one moment, as there are so many remarkable events that I have chronicled and would love to have witnessed with my own eyes. But if I can single out any moment in this history of early Islam that I would have liked to have seen, it would be the peaceful fall of Mecca to the Muslims in AD 630. I can only imagine what it must have been like for the Muslims to return to the holy city from which they had been expelled, and to do so with such honor. The Prophet could have massacred the entire city for its crimes, and yet he chose in victory to be magnanimous, establishing a general amnesty that spared the people who spent years trying to kill him and murdered his loved ones. I would have loved to walk at his side into the courtyard of the Holy Kaaba and watch as the Muslims destroyed the 360 idols that littered the Sanctuary, rededicating it to the One God. I think our forefather Abraham would have been proud to see his children through Ishmael renounce idolatry and return to the pure monotheism that he had expounded to mankind. Even now, I get emotional at the image of Islam’s final—and highly improbable—triumph against all the forces that had been aligned against it for decades. The Prophet’s victory over the idolatry of Mecca is one of the greatest spiritual moments in history, and I would have loved to see it with my own eyes. The victory of Islam was the victory of human unity over tribal division, the triumph of equality and brotherhood over racism and class distinctions. That to me is the greatest gift of Islam to the world.
In December 2008, I went to Mecca for the first time to participate in the Hajj, the grand pilgrimage. And there I saw the Prophet’s triumph in full glory—four million people, of every nation, every skin color, every language on Earth, together. Mankind in all of its wondrous diversity coming together to worship One God in love and companionship. The desert wastes became a paradise of human unity, a beautiful sign of what men and women could be if they chose to transcend superficial distinctions and embrace a common destiny. This was the greatest legacy of Prophet Muhammad, Aisha, and the early Muslims to mankind. And in that moment, I truly understood the power of the sacred words that define my faith.
There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A relative of mine bought this book and recommended I buy and read it. At the BN bookstore I just couldnt put this book down. I probably read 1/4 of the book before heading to the cashier. This book is just so captivating! It moves back and forth through time, all taking place in the 600s. The stories are so interesting! The book is narrated by Ayesha, one of the wives of the Prophet Mohammed. The struggles she faced with the other "believers of Islam", before and after the "revelation of the Quran". Her journey is one of great importance to the beginnings of Islam. This book is great for those who want to learn about how Islam was born and the struggles of the early Muslims.
Kamran Pasha has done an amazing job. Mother of the Believers is a fictional, but true, biography that gives the reader an insight into the beginning and the spread of religion Islam. The author has successfully managed to retell the history without being biased. The book gives the understanding of the sensitivities and temperament of the Muslims around the world. The best thing about the book is that it is written so well that you won't put it down until it is finished.
Great read! I recommend this book to everyone who wants to learn more about the Birth of Islam, the history of the religion, the role of women played in the support and spread of the faith and everything else about it. It is a fiction but it is full of historical facts and can be considered as a little "Hadith" on its own. I look forward to more novels by Kamran Pasha.
In the seventh century in the Arabian Desert, Muhammad has surfaced as a prophet who is gaining a loyal following. He envisions a woman as his wife and arranges with her father to marry Aisha, who may be his youngest wife, but by far the most intelligent and spirited of Muhammad's dozen. She is his favorite, but loses her place when the other wives accuse her of adultery to the Prophet. She tries to prove her innocence, but he receives a revelation from God that regains her position. When Medina is attacked, Aisha's bravery and leadership help save the day, but the Muslim men prefer docile women so she earns some respect but also perhaps more loathing. Muhammad becomes more than just a prophet as he becomes the Prophet uniting the Arabian tribes. However, God works in mysterious ways as soon after he succeeds in conquering the holy city of Mecca, Muhammad dies.-------------- His nineteen year old youngest widow Aisha earns a position as advisor to the Caliph of Islam pushing for universal civil rights. Aisha becomes a teacher and a commander as perhaps the most powerful known female in the Muslim Empire. However, her efforts for the rights of women lead to civil war. ------------ This work of biographical fiction is a great historical tale that brings insight to the early growth of Islam, the Muslim Empire, and the role of women in that society. Aisha is a brave person who does what she believed is morally right; which led to the "least" wife becoming the most spouse through conviction and courage. Ironically as Islamic women placed her on a pedestal as their champion, Aisha had become less confident that she chose right and suffered remorse for those who died for her cause. Readers will appreciate this excellent historical fiction that depicts the key Muslim woman during the cradle years of Islam.------- Harriet Klausner
Let me preface this "review" of my thoughts by stating that there were times when I had personal religious "issues" with this book, but had to tell myself to put all of that aside and simply read this as just a good story. So that's what I tried to do.The story is told by the central character Aisha, who is known as the "Mother of the Believers", as she was the wife of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of the Muslim religion.Aisha is an intelligent and strong-willed young child when we are introduced to her. Her father is one of the first followers of Muhammad, The Messenger of God who brought the Muslim religion to the world. The Messenger has a vision that reveals to him that Aisha is to be his wife. By their cultural "rules", Aisha cannot be married to him until she begins her cycles, which is at the tender age of nine.The story goes on to follow the early years of the Muslim religion-- the battles that occurred, both on the field and in the private lives of The Messenger and his family and followers.Moments of this book were very difficult to read. There were moments of incredible brutality, and most disturbing is knowing that this is not fantastical brutality, but that these are the types of things that do commonly occur in some other countries, especially areas like Saudi Arabia and Iran.Aisha's character is strong, courageous and full of life. As just a child, her older half-sister Asma chose the new religion over her own mother.Aisha and Asma's father, Abu Bakr, is one of the first followers of Islam. He is an honorable man and a loving father who expects a lot of his children.The Messenger, Muhammad, is a strange mixture. Generally just and peaceable, he can exhibit great cruelty and heartlessness in the name of God.I know that I prefaced this by saying that I tried to put my own religious views aside and view this simply as a good story. However I have to say that the things that I couldn't get past were the contradictions. You have men professing their faith in God, and using violence and murder to push their agenda. Not simply in defense of themselves, but in offense to gain ground with their religion and to garner more power. This bothered me.You also had men "preaching" piousness, and at the same time taking young girls as slaves and raping them as war trophies, and keeping mistresses and such. None of this did much in gaining my sympathy. I always viewed the Muslim religion as a peaceful and pacifist and most assuredly pious religion (excluding the extremists who use terror for their own benefit), but this book has actually changed that. Now I'm not sure how I feel about it or what the true nature of the Muslim religion is. However, when it all boils down, it comes to this very basic fact: We're all human. And the author Kamran Pasha does a good job at portraying these characters as very human, just as flawed and vulnerable as the rest of us. Even The Messenger was really just a man.The book also tells a story of what inspired the "law" that required women to be sheltered behind a veil-- one dealing with a wife of the Messenger of God flirting mercilessly with other men after she allows her jealousies get the best of her. There is a passage that says:From now on, my life was to become a prison, even when I was not confined to the tiny apartment whose mud walls seemed to be closing in on me. For whenever I ventured out into the sun, my face would be hidden away behind a veil. The bars of my jail would follow me everywhere and were unbreakable, forged from a tiny strip of cotton that was stronger than the mightiest Byzantine steel.This passage really drove it all home to me-- what it's like to be a woman of this culture. Previously when I saw the elaborate hijab that women are required to wear in many middle eastern areas, I would mainly think of the physical discomfort of doing so: the weight of it, the heat in a stifling climate, the claustrophobia of having cloth sitting on my face all
I have to come clean and say I was a little reluctant about reading this book. I picked it up not really expecting to get that into it as I usually avoid books revolving around religions. So imagine my shock when I did not want to stop reading this book. My disclaimer is I know extremely little about Islam and cannot agree or disagree with how characters or beliefs were treated. That said I did get completely drawn into Aisha¿s story and could not wait to finish the book.I did find certain parts disturbing like the fact that Aisha was only 9 years old when she marries Muhammad. Somehow it just seemed wrong to have her sleeping with him on one page and then playing with her toy horses in another. I also don¿t know if Pasha meant to portray Muhammad in this way but the way he went about collecting his wives just ticked me off. I mean I can¿t judge, maybe he did really have these revelations that he should marry so and so but to me he just seemed to make excuses that would allow him to marry and lie with women that caught his eye. Not the sort of behavior I would expect from a messenger of God.Both of these issues were outweighed by the intricate dances Muhammad had to dance in order to protect his followers and spread word of this new religion. If you really think about how hard it is for new religions to really god mainstream and then go on to become a dominant force within such a short period of time it is mind blowing. I think even readers who are not religious will enjoy this story.
Pasha has taken historical facts and created a fictional tale out of them. Ayesha was not born when the Prophet Muhammad began his prophethood. At that time his wife was Syeda Khadija and it was her efforts that caused Islam to be born and had nothing to do with Ayesha. This book should not be toted as an advocate or educational book if you're wanting to know any truths about Islam and/or muslim. It is a fictional book no different from fairy tales that one reads to their children at night and no importance should be given to what it says regarding Islam or Prophet Muhammad.
What held out much promise disappointed in a big way. Not only is the book rife with typos, leaving one the impression that it was never edited or proofread, but the typical and tired Muslim perspective of the Jews being obsolete and archaic gets a renewed platform with the narrative. Pasha tries to come across as a moderate, but his less-than-subtle depiction of the Jews in Yathrib (Medina) exposes his deep-seated polemics. What could have been employed as a bridge and a reconciliation gets stuck in one-sided portrayals and perverted theology. In the end, this overly long fiction serves only to promote a plagiarized and perverted religion by an author who by all rights should have been a Hindu as per his ancestors, but instead promulgates the wild and revisionist fantasies of the Arabs who conquered them. A wasted and unoriginal effort, especially on the heels of the much better (though itself imperfect) Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones which debuted a year before this. Sadly, this superfluous novel adds nothing to fiction or real-world rapprochement between the Judeo-Christian and Muslim faiths.
Quite well-written and full of adventure and conflict, this story is told by the central character Aisha, who is known as the "Mother of the Believers", as she was the wife of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of the Muslim religion. Aisha is an intelligent and strong-willed young child when we are introduced to her. Her father is one of the first followers of Muhammad, The Messenger of God who brought the Muslim religion to the world. The Messenger has a vision that reveals to him that Aisha is to be his wife. By their cultural "rules", Aisha cannot be married to him until she begins her cycles, which is at the tender age of nine. The story goes on to follow the early years of the Muslim religion-- the battles that occurred, both on the field and in the private lives of The Messenger and his family and followers. Moments of this book were very difficult to read. There were moments of incredible brutality, and most disturbing is knowing that this is not fantastical brutality, but that these are the types of things that do commonly occur in some other countries, especially areas like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Aisha's character is strong, courageous and full of life. One issue with the book (which probably really can't be helped, as I think that it is simply being authentic) is trying to keep people straight. Within just a few paragraphs, I had to deal with Abu Sufyan, Abu Talib, Abu Jahl and Abu Bakr. I sometimes had to read it over a few times in order to sort how who was doing what. The Messenger, Muhammad, is a strange mixture. Generally just and peaceable, he can exhibit great cruelty and heartlessness in the name of God. I tried to put my own religious views aside and view this simply as a good story. However I have to say that the things that I couldn't get past were the contradictions. You have men professing their faith in God, and using violence and murder to push their agenda. Not simply in defense of themselves, but in offense to gain ground with their religion and to garner more power. This bothered me. I don't know how much of this story is based on fact and actual truth of who Muhammad was, but I have to take definite issue with a "man of God" issuing people's hands cut off for thievery and declaring war on Jews because they retaliated when one of his followers killed a Jew for a mere "prank". Definitely not the acts of a man of God. You also had men "preaching" piousness, and at the same time taking young girls as slaves and raping them as war trophies, and keeping mistresses and such. None of this did much in gaining my sympathy. I always viewed the Muslim religion as a peaceful and pacifist and most assuredly pious religion (excluding the extremists who use terror for their own benefit), but this book has actually changed that. Now I'm not sure how I feel about it or what the true nature of the Muslim religion is. However, when it all boils down, it comes to this very basic fact: We're all human. And the author Kamran Pasha does a good job at portraying these characters as very human, just as flawed and vulnerable as the rest of us. Even The Messenger was really just a man. All in all, this was a good book. It was very well-written-- I can't fault the author in that. Most of my issues with the book are personal religious issues or moral issues. The book itself is well thought out and put together, with an exciting storyline that just keeps go
What a great way to lead about the Islamic faith. The stories are so simular to the Christian and Judaism writings. We are all brothers and sisters with one God.
Mother of the Believers: A Novel of the Birth of Islam Author: Kamran Pasha Washington Square Press, 1230 Avenue of the Americas ISBN: 978-1-4165-7991-5 $16.00 Reviewed by: Emily Decobert For most of us, the beginnings of Islam is a great mystery. We understand that it is based on the teachings of Muhammad, but we know little of the man himself. This book is the story of his rise from a few believers to the great Muslim empire. It is told not by Muhammad himself but from the point of view of Aisha, his youngest and most beloved wife. She was the first child born into the community of believers, her father was Muhammad's right-hand man, and she wed him at the tender age of nine and spent the rest of the Prophet's life beside him. This book is a wonderful way to learn about the start of this religion, which at the time was radical to the people of Arabia. It is told in a easy to understand narrative of a first hand witness, so detailed readers see in their minds the vibrant world of Arabia in the early 600's. Little girl Aisha quickly fills us in on what happened before she enters the scene and immediately takes a place in the unfolding drama. The story makes Muhammad into a real human, perhaps too real. To the modern reader, his revelations appear to be the nature illness of epilepsy and his seizures lead to revelations. The people of the time were convinced because he was illiterate but in his trances he composed beautiful poems on the word of Allah. However, many times the episodes were very convient. If he was opposed, he would have a spell and Allah would tell him he was right. Also, the messages tended to suit his wants. When he became jealous of his wives being seen by men, Allah told him to make them wear the veil and stay hidden. While a skeptic may raise an eyebrow at a few parts, the telling is solid and informative and the story entertains. Over five hundred pages, readers will enjoy each one and keep eagerly reading to find out what happens next.
Good historical fiction transports readers to a different time and place. Wonderful novels immerse their readership in worlds so realistic that it is disorienting to stop reading and re-enter day-to-day life. Kamran Pasha takes his readers to the seventh century in the Arabian peninsula. It is an uncommon time and place for novels, but one that provides rich dramatic material. The subtitle accurately describes this as "a novel of the birth of Islam." Pasha tells his tale through the eyes of Aisha, one of Muhammad's wives, who had been born into a family of believers. The followers of Muhammad and his faith were still quite small at the beginning of the story, but they were being watched closely by the powerful families in Mecca. This small band of followers were viewed first as an amusement, later as an annoyance, and finally as a threat by the power elite. There were assassination attempts, plots to isolate and oppress them economically, and later outright declarations of war against the Companions of Muhammad. Pasha wove a beautiful tale showing the humanity of these historical figures. This novel is designed to be enjoyed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike as the customs of Islam are subtly explained in the text. It is a wonderful story detailing the history and culture of one of the great religions of the world. In these troubled times, it is important to remember that what unites us is greater than that which divides us. I recommend this book highly.
Kamran Pasha in an interview about this book states, "In Aisha, we see a mirror of the Prophet's own revolutionary nature, as well as a glimpse of the reverence for the sacred feminine in Islam that many contemporary Muslim men have perhaps forgotten." This quote seems likely to draw a bevy of responses which will probably be supportive, critical and those in-between the opposing spectrum. It's a great place to start the discussion about this controversial novel. Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr, becomes the youngest wife of the Prophet, Muhammad. She's a bit of an enigma to the Prophet's other followers because of her obvious intelligence and her favored status in the Prophet's harem. Gifted with what would now be called a photographic memory, she remembers every word spoken by Muhammad as part of the Qur'an left to the followers of Islam. But in the beginning of this novel, she is a 9 year-old girl attempting to bridge the normal gap of a young girl to a venerated wife of the founder of this small band of believers. Mecca and Medina are avowed enemies as Muhammad's power rises, attracting more faithful followers. The famous Battle of Badr seems miraculous to all, with the result of awing some and galvanizing both more followers and more enemies who fear the unexplainable power of this new religion. The reader meets Hind, a powerful enemy, who incites war and treachery with her fiery, almost demonic, spirit, as well as a young Jewish woman who betrays her own people for the Islamic cause. Many more battles follow, at first from enemies of the Islam faith and later from civil disputes over who should lead the Islamic faith after Muhammad's death. The purity, wisdom and power of Islam seems shattered by the behavior of leaders with mixed motives, in spite of the fact that Islam now spreads to almost all of the Persian Gulf and encroaches on the Byzantine empire. The novel carefully treads the path which Aisha herself may have influenced, favoring her father's rule, bringing about the fall and death perhaps of Ali (the Prophet's adopted son who at one time called for the Prophet to divorce Aisha), and so much more. The pace of this novel never slackens, with wars, intrigue, betrayal and what seems to be temporary reconciliation among the men and women in the Prophet's world. Certain stories within this novel provoke many questions in this reader's mind. As Muhammad faces the petty jealousies and squabbling of the men and women in his surround, he seems to experience revelations as solutions, such as marrying the wives of fallen enemies and more. My only criticism of this novel is that it is more about the organizational and faithful formation and adherence to this religion and its political and geographical spread and not enough about what would inspire one to want to join this faith other than loyalty to Muhammad's wise, kind and compassionate leadership. There is more about the man than his message in this riveting, dynamic tale of the Mother of the Believers who continues to sway influence in the Islamic world to this day! Very, very nicely done and memorable for sure! Reviewed by Viviane Crystal on May 7, 2009