Muslims Must Embrace the Power of Storytelling

With my new novel out in bookstores, people often ask whether I am worried that the book will generate controversy.  My response is that controversy is inevitable when it comes to writing about Prophet Muhammad, who has the distinction of being simultaneously the most beloved and hated man in world history.  Revered by his followers as God’s last messenger to humanity, and vilified by others as a false prophet, the founder of Islam has always been a figure that excites passionate emotions.  So in writing a novel that looks at his life from the perspective of the woman he loved most, I have no doubt that I will become the target of those feelings.


Some Muslims have already expressed concern that presenting the Prophet’s life in a work of literary fiction is potentially blasphemous.  As a believer myself, I wholeheartedly disagree. In 1977, the great filmmaker Moustapha Akkad made a wondrous movie about Prophet Muhammad called “The Message.”  Despite his efforts to do a respectful, indeed reverent, portrayal of the early Muslim community, Akkad was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists for having created a “blasphemous” work by daring to re-imagine sacred history as cinema.  And yet, thirty years later, his movie can be found on DVDs in Muslim homes throughout the world, and Akkad (who was murdered by terrorists in 2005) is remembered fondly as a visionary who spread the message of Islam through filmmaking.


Still, some scholars have raised objections to Akkad’s film, citing a list of historical inaccuracies, as I’m sure some will with regard to my novel.  But Akkad was not making a documentary – he was filming an epic movie, and he tailored the storyline according to the demands and limits of cinema.  I have done the same with my novel. It is impossible to tell the story of Islam’s birth in three hours of film, or in 500 pages of literature, without artistic license.  What Akkad sought, and what I seek, is to give millions of people who would never read a history book on Islam a sense of the magic and wonder around the Prophet’s life, and to provide insight into the powerful appeal of Islam through the centuries.


Indeed I would argue that Muslims have always engaged in this kind of artistic storytelling.  Many of the hadiths, the oral accounts about the Prophet’s life, are historically questionable (as are many of the Christian accounts about the life of Jesus), but they have been passed on for generations exactly because they are powerful stories that appeal to the human heart.  The Modern Library recently published “The Adventures of Amir Hamza,” a remarkable collection of legends and myths around the Prophet’s uncle Hamza (played by Anthony Quinn in Akkad’s movie).  These stories are clearly fictional, but they were used as wisdom tales throughout the Muslim world and were more widespread and beloved than The Arabian Nights.


Muslims have always understood that storytelling is a way to inspire faith and love for God and the Prophet.  Stories bridge the gap of centuries and make the magic of Islam’s birth feel as real today as it did for those present during those remarkable times.  Without that deep, joyous love at the center of one’s heart, religion becomes an empty shell of rules that can be easily twisted into fundamentalism and fanaticism.  Muslims of the past knew this instinctively, and embraced art as a way of igniting that love.  It has only been in recent years that a small but irritating minority has adopted a blanket anti-intellectualism regarding art and its purpose in Islamic civilization.  My novel seeks to remind Muslims that storytelling is their proud heritage, and that if their intentions are good, they can uplift the hearts of mankind with the power of the pen.


So I urge my fellow Muslims to read my novel before coming to a conclusion.  And if you hate what I have written, if you find it somehow blasphemous, then please, by all means, write your own books that will correct my flaws and mistakes.  If Mother of the Believers ends up spawning a hundred new books about the Prophet and the birth of Islam, then I will consider my efforts to have been successful, even if my own work is forgotten in the annals of time.

2 Responses to “Muslims Must Embrace the Power of Storytelling”

  1. Hassan Says:


    I recognize the importance of inspiring Muslims with epic stories, especially those that are true. The stories are so fractured and hidden in multiple locations that most Muslims do little more than find random events from time to time, absent of context.

    I saw your novel in a bookstore and opened to what i believed would be the most contentious parts (as i have a habit of doing with books concerning Islam, as well as Qur’an translations), and found the explanations and portrayal sympathetic, humanizing, and cerebral at the same time.

    The only problem i see, and something that still bothers me, is that the novel is in Aisha’s own voice, which puts words in her mouth, and presumes to know how she felt about certain events. I’m not sure whether that’s really safe ground, especially when she is characterized as being regretful or bitter.

    I’m also a bit concerned about the practice of inventing fictional stories about such important people. I haven’t read very far into it, but i get the impression some events were invented to better flesh out a character, and i worry about the morality of attributing wrongdoing to a Sahabah who, though being equally weak in some other respect, did not have do or say the same things you present.

    Could you address this concern in some way? How did you decide which events to draw from well-known accounts, obscure accounts, and which could be tweaked? What principle did you follow concerning that? I recall back when i used to complain about the Fitna during the Sahaba, a brother told me that the prophet said “the flesh of my companions is poisonous, so don’t chew it.”

  2. Hassan Says:

    Looking over my comment, i notice it ended on a prohibitive note. Instead I’d like to emphasize that what i’ve seen of the novel is stirring and respectful, and your blog posts are encouraging. If anyone were to write such a novel, i would prefer it be you. I do plan on buying a copy and starting on it straightaway, but i admit i’m worried about adding potentially fictional accounts to my modest knowledge of what occurred.