During Ramadan, my bedside novel happened to be Mother of the Believers by Kamran Pasha. It’s a work of fiction about the youngest and most beloved wife of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Pasha has brought to life the story of A’isha, one of Islam’s most controversial and enigmatic characters. Only the right amount of poetic license, coupled with a lot of accuracy and consistency, can make historical fiction a success, as Mother of the Believers is.
It is important to note that Muslims and non-Muslims alike dispute everything about A’isha: her age, her actions and even her intentions. I can only imagine the daunting task of putting together a story about her without offending anyone and yet remaining true to her legacy. Some have criticized Pasha for abiding too much by the book, especially with regard to A’isha’s age at the time of her marriage to the Prophet, which he depicted as the traditionally held nine years. In the preface of the novel, Pasha defends his position—one that I agree with—at length: we must face controversial issues within the Muslim community by creating dialogue about them. This is what will create real change about the image of Islam.
The book is a staggering 527 pages, and holds detailed insight into early Islamic life from the eyes of A’isha as an old woman. I particularly enjoyed the first person narrative. That Pasha gave A’isha her own voice is so refreshing in a world where the Muslim women is always spoken about, spoken to, and seldom heard. I am not sure if Pasha intended this, but by allowing A’isha to tell her own story, he has created a powerful image of an independent, fiery and outspoken woman. I also feel he has honored the memory of A’isha by doing so (sentimental that I am).
Something else I must bring up is Pasha’s apparent maleness in the face of A’isha’s obvious femininity. I am awe-struck that a man could write so sensitively and in depth about a woman, from her perspective. Nowhere in the book did I feel any projection from a male perspective of how a woman “should” feel or behave. Throughout the book, Pasha remained consistent in giving voice to A’isha’s story from her own perspective, even if a fictional one. Even though he let A’isha take over, Pasha’s love and reverence for her and the Prophet shines through.
This is not to suggest that Pasha paints an overly rosy picture of early Islam. He deals with issues in this novel that scholars and historians have grappled with for centuries, such as the strained relationships between A’isha and the Prophet’s family, the accusation of adultery made against her, her role in the Battle of the Camel, the bloody and tragic events at Karbala, and the power politics amongst members of the Prophet’s community. Pasha manages to confront all these issues, with both the objectivity necessary and the poetic license in order.
It is worth noting how other women in the book, from early Islam, are depicted. Pasha gives them life too, through A’isha’s eyes. A’isha is known in the traditions to have been a fiercely jealous woman, and her relationships with the Prophet’s other wives, even with the “memory” of the deceased Khadija, are known to have been strained. Yet Pasha does not turn A’isha into a crazed, possessive wife.
Another sore point in A’isha’s life is her inability to conceive. Pasha lets her speak of her own anguish at witnessing her husband with other women, her own pain at being barren, without suggesting that barrenness or jealousy make a women any less worthy. A’isha spent the most part of her life as a widow, in fact her story only really begins after the death of her husband, when she takes up her role as scholar, preacher and advisor. Pasha rations the story accordingly, without focusing too much on her marriage, but on her independence, her own worth separate from her husband, father and other male figures.
Pasha even managed to maneuver sexuality its own place in the novel. The book maintains both the Prophetic example of openness and transparency about taboo subjects, as well as the Islamic principle of modesty. This is certainly not one of those historical fiction novels filled with sexual encounters at the turn of every page, but neither is it a trapped within a chastity belt. Pasha presents sex in a healthy way, associated with love, marriage and fidelity. Pasha speaks of nothing the Prophet and A’isha themselves did not speak about in the Hadith.
As a Muslim woman, I am immensely proud of this novel. It is a pioneer in that practically non-existent genre of Islamic fiction (fiction written within the framework of Islamic ethics and principles). I am also greatly moved that a Muslim man could write with such depth about such a complex female character as A’isha.
As I progressed through this novel, I cried with A’isha and laughed with her. 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. So poignant was Pasha’s writing (and being the romantic that I am) that I enjoyed every page. The heart of this novel and the center of Islamic history itself, after all, is a love story—between the Prophet and his wives.