In April, Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books will publish my first novel “Mother of the Believers” which tells the story of the birth of Islam from the point of view of Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha.
A similarly themed book, “The Jewel of Medina” by Sherry Jones, was released last year under much controversy, after her initial publisher cancelled her contract for fear of inciting Muslim protests. 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. 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 shock people in both communities.
In “Mother of the Believers,” I attempt to bring to life the remarkable voice of Aisha, the Prophet’s youngest wife, who was a scholar, a politician and a military commander who led battles into Iraq. Aisha’s life single-handedly challenges the prevalent stereotype of the oppressed and submissive Muslim woman, and she remains a role model for Muslim feminists today.
Aisha is revered throughout the Islamic community. But in researching her life story, I found intriguing accounts that are probably unknown to many Muslims, stories that portray the early Muslims as deeply human and fallible. My inclusion of such accounts may upset some. I think 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 had feelings for Aisha, and he once even publicly suggested that he would marry her when the Prophet died – an incident I portray in the novel. (See Imam Jalaladeen Suyuti’s commentary on the Holy Qur’an 33:53, where he explains that the verse prohibiting believers from marrying the wives of the Prophet after his death was revealed after Talha said that he would marry Aisha).
Talha’s unwavering loyalty to Aisha led to his support for her military activities, and ultimately his death on the battlefield. The idea that one of the most beloved figures of Islam might have had secret feelings for the Prophet’s wife would shock many modern Muslims, but the early Islamic historians did not seem to have any problem preserving such accounts. Unfortunately, most Muslims today don’t know these stories, and some might be offended at my very human portrayal of the early Islamic community.
Some Muslims might also be uncomfortable with 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. Traditionally Muslims had a very healthy attitude toward sex, as it was considered a normal part of daily life. In modern day, under the heavy influence of British Victorian values left over from 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 whom were expelled, and a third whose men 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 seventh 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 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 evil Shylock is no longer a defensible archetype in Western literature. So I realize that by portraying the Jewish tribes as wrongdoers 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 constant warfare 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 first century Palestine (which was civilized compared to the Arabian wilderness). Yet no one claims Mary’s youthful pregnancy was somehow perverse, because she lived in a world where reproduction took place immediately upon menstruation.
An interesting anthropological analysis of the onset of puberty in ancient and modern times can be found in the book “Mismatch” by Peter Gluckman and Mark Hanson. Their study shows that modern social norms have evolved in ways that conflict with evolutionary pressures for girls to menstruate and bear children at a young age. These conflicts were less apparent in ancient times, where survival trumped other concerns. Girls in many ancient cultures were considered adult women immediately upon the onset of their cycles. To project modern social norms backwards into that environment is disingenuous and reflects a failure to understand history and human nature. It is for that reason that I have chosen to use the most controversial account of Aisha’s age as a framework for my story.
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 defending the Prophet and suggesting that their critiques are unfair and motivated by a bigoted agenda. And some conservative Muslims will not like the book, because I show the early Muslims as fallible human beings, and 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.