Last year, first-time novelist Sherry Jones inadvertently found herself at the center of a media controversy when Ballantine Books decided to cancel its contract with her to publish The Jewel of Medina, her version of the life of Aisha, the wife of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, citing fears that releasing the book would expose the publishing company to terrorist attacks. Beaufort Books quickly stepped in to bring the novel out, and faced no violent retribution for its actions (though somebody did try to firebomb the original British publisher). Meanwhile, Kamran Pasha—a Hollywood screenwriter currently working on the NBC drama Kings—watched and waited; his own novel about Aisha, Mother of the Believers, was scheduled for publication in April 2009 and, to their credit, Atria Books never backed down from its original support for his work.
“With my own novel coming out in a few days, it is inevitable that people ask whether I am worried that the book will generate controversy,” Pasha wrote recently. “My response is that I have no doubt that the book will generate controversy and create a passionate debate among both Muslims and non-Muslims, as there are aspects of my novel that will offend people in both communities.” He elaborates upon that statement in an essay I’m happy to be able to present to you here.
Aisha—the Prophet’s youngest wife, a scholar, a politician and a military commander—is revered throughout the Islamic community. Her life single-handedly challenges the prevalent stereotype of the oppressed and submissive Muslim woman, and she remains a role model for Muslim feminists today. But in researching her story, I found intriguing accounts that are probably unknown to many Muslims, and my inclusion of such events may upset some. One thing that might startle some Muslims is my suggestion that one of the main characters, Talha, an early follower of Prophet Muhammad, was in love with Aisha, even though it was unrequited.
Talha is a revered figure in Islam, but early Muslim sources suggest that he did have feelings for Aisha, and he once even publicly suggested that he would marry her if the Prophet died or divorced her (an incident I portray in the novel). Talha’s unwavering loyalty to Aisha led to his support for her military activities, and ultimately his death on the battlefield. Being raised as a Muslim, I had never heard these accounts and was startled to find them in the early Islamic histories. Most other Muslims don’t know these stories, either, and some might be offended at their inclusion in my novel.
Some Muslims might also be shocked at my (very light) treatment of sexuality in the story. There are no graphic scenes, but there is an open discussion of sex, which is true to Islamic history. Muslim historians had no problem talking openly about sex, even the Prophet’s sex life with his wives, and there are early accounts of one of his wives even discussing the fact that she had “wet dreams”. Traditionally Muslims had a very healthy attitude toward sex, as it was considered as a normal part of daily life. In modern day, under the heavy influence of British Victorian values left over from the colonization, some Muslims might find even my light treatment of sexuality too much.
So there will be things in my book that surprise and shock some Muslims. But there are many aspects of Mother of the Believers that will startle, and perhaps anger, non-Muslims as well. The story is told from a Muslim point of view and directly addresses many of the critiques raised against Prophet Muhammad by non-Muslims. The Prophet was a compelling spiritual figure who was famed for remarkable acts of generosity and compassion, and his words still ring true with wisdom today. But he has also been maligned by Westerners for many aspects of his life.
Specifically, non-Muslims critics point to the fact that Prophet Muhammad practiced polygamy, with a household of a dozen wives near the end of his life. For many Christians, whose spiritual archetype is Jesus Christ, an apparently celibate man, this has always been shocking. The Prophet is also criticized for engaging in military battles against his enemies. Again, Jesus never raised a sword, so the Prophet’s battles are often decried as unworthy of a spiritual leader. And he has been accused of anti-Semitism for his conflict with the Jewish tribes of Arabia, two of which were expelled, while the men of a third tribe were executed and the women and children sold as slaves.
Finally the Prophet’s marriage to Aisha itself has come under great criticism by non-Muslims, as some accounts suggest she was as young as nine years old when he consummated the wedding. This has led to the inflammatory charge of pedophilia by some modern critics.
As a practicing Muslim, I felt it was my duty to directly address these attacks on Prophet Muhammad. And in my novel, I endeavor to realistically portray the world in which he lived to give context to his actions. The Prophet lived in 7th-century Arabia, a world that was more like the savage days of the Old Testament prophets than the cosmopolitan Hellenistic society of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus Christ, a great prophet in Islam, lived in a world defined by the Pax Romana. Roman soldiers kept order in the Holy Land, and courts of law functioned to address disputes between neighbors. Jesus could travel in security and preach a message of love and non-violence, as he did not have to deal with creating basic social order first. Christ did not have to establish a civilization from scratch while preaching the word of God.
But the birth of Islam was radically different. The world that Prophet Muhammad confronted was the world of Abraham, Moses and David—a vicious wilderness where survival was questionable. In such a world, life and death was the daily concern. Polygamy was the normal lifestyle of the Biblical patriarchs and kings, as reproduction in a world with such low life expectancy was the primary concern for both men and women. And harsh military action in the Bible was about survival in a world where an enemy could come upon you at any time and massacre your entire tribe.
Similarly, Arabia at the time was a in a state of chaos, with no central government, no police, no rules. It was truly a Hobbesian state of war, with every man for himself. The weak and the poor, particularly women and children, lived in a daily state of abject terror until the Prophet established order in this brutal world. And to do so, he had no choice but to fight the armed thugs who had turned Arabia into a war zone.
But what of the Prophet’s treatment of the Jewish tribes of Arabia? The truth was he initially allied with the Jewish tribes as fellow monotheists. But his rising power threatened their leaders, who broke their treaty with the Muslims and joined the pagan Arabs to fight Islam. The Prophet was thus forced to confront them militarily as well. And I show in my novel that he dealt with them in a manner that came directly out of commandments of the Hebrew Bible.
In my novel, I go out of my way to explain the Jewish point of view about the Prophet and why the Jewish leaders decided to break their treaty with him. But, in the end, the story is from a Muslim perspective and their actions are seen as treacherous. This may be troubling for some Western readers. In the post-Holocaust world, Jewish villains are perhaps uncommon in American literature due to fear of being labeled anti-Semitic. Shakespeare’s villainous Shylock is no longer a defensible archetype in Western literature. I realize that by portraying the Jewish tribes as the villains in my novel, I am courting accusations of being anti-Semitic myself, but I am accurately portraying the realities of life and tribal politics in that world.
Polygamy was similarly a normal reality of life in a world where women outnumbered men due to the daily battles between tribes. In my novel, I show how the Prophet made women’s lives easier and was seen by women as a champion for their rights. The issues that generate controversy today were part of a struggle for survival in a primitive world, a struggle which I vividly portray in my novel, and I think many non-Muslims will find my account eye opening.
But if the Prophet’s polygamy and battles can be understood historically, what of his marriage to young Aisha? Accounts of Aisha’s age at her wedding range from the early teens to early twenties. In my novel, I have chosen to directly face the controversy over Aisha’s age by using the most contentious account, that she was nine at the time she menstruated and consummated her wedding. The reason I have done this is to show that it is foolish to project modern values onto another time and world. In a desert environment where life expectancy was extremely low, early marriage was not a social issue—it was a matter of survival. Modern Christian historians have no problem suggesting that Mary was around twelve years old when she became pregnant with Jesus, as that was the normal age for marriage and childbearing in 1st-century Palestine. Yet no one claims Mary’s youthful pregnancy was somehow perverse, because she lived in a world where reproduction took place immediately upon menstruation.
All in all, there is enough in my novel to offend and outrage anyone who has a specific agenda regarding Islam. Some non-Muslims will label me as an apologist for suggesting that their critiques of the Prophet are unfair and motivated by a bigoted agenda. And some conservative Muslims will not like the book, because their agenda is to portray Islam and its heroes in as perfect and pristine ways as possible.
But as a believing Muslim myself, I embrace the humanity of these people, as did the early Muslim historians. There is nothing to learn from a plastic saint who does not share our foibles and weaknesses. The point of Mother of the Believers is that if flawed, passionate, complex people like the founders of Islam could find spiritual enlightenment, maybe we can too.
25 March 2009 | guest authors |