They say behind every great man there is a woman. In his intimate story about the early years of Islam, Kamran Pasha suggests that behind a historical giant such as Muhammad there is a girl, her co-wives, a community, and of course the creator. Although Pasha tries to tell a story of an individual woman, Aisha bint Abu Bakr, the youngest wife of the Messenger of Islam, the story cannot but be about a community, which developed from a crowd of both slaves and nobility, both women and men, and children, rich and poor, all burning for social changes in the sixth century Arabia. This community was formed in response to the Divine revelation of The Qur’an. After the death of Muhammad’s wife Khadija, nine-year-old Aisha becomes the mother of the believers, of the ever growing Islamic Ummah that would become a vast empire within her life time.
I must admit I envy Pasha for writing this book. I have always wanted to write a novel about Aisha and when my publisher asked me what my next project would be, I said the life of Aisha. I have waited too long and Pasha beat me to it. Just like he puts it in his introduction, most of us, both Muslim and people of other faiths or no faith who know her history have been besotted with Aisha. As a man in his thirties I can hardly imagine taking on even the fraction of the responsibility Aisha had as the teacher-mother of her community, the guardian of Islamic knowledge who came to lead an army and forever be held responsible for some internal struggles between Muslims.
I was at first put off by Pasha’s writing because it did not meet my artistic expectations, but I do not want to quibble about that. Pasha’s book oozes with the kind of passion and intimacy that made it difficult for me to put it down even though I actually know exactly what will happen next. I would have used a much more realist style to emphasize that which Pasha is after, the everyday lives and struggles of those people, who were by no means saints or holy figures and therefore much easier to identify and enter into dialogue with. Pasha’s is not just another from the historical fictions genre. There is too much heart invested in it. It is project. It has an agenda, a part of which could be expressed as “Cut Aisha some slack.” Aisha raises everything from love to hate in Muslim hearts, so Pasha deliberately emphasizes everything about her that could be considered a fault, a moral deficiency, and even a little bit of evil, and challenges the judgmental readers to cast the first stone at her. He has Aisha frequently examine the fitna of her own heart, and thus asks the readers to check what small-time or big time evils they succumb to. Aisha learns she harbors one fitna, of which she has never been conscious, is her excessive love of her husband. Pasha dramatizes this self-revelation in connection to the false accusations of adultery. Aisha, who is supposed to be the prime example of virtue in love/marriage is suspected of having had a relationship with a man who when he saved her from the burning desert. Aisha is shattered in that not even her husband nor her parents believe her innocence. When the Divine revelation vindicates her, making it punishable by law to spread malicious gossip about people and display distrust that is not grounded in hard evidence, Aisha realizes she has not been a complete Muslim, half her Islam having consisted of her devotion to Muhammad and not exclusively God. She says, “I had loved him with such youthful ferocity that I had turned him into an idol, a pristine icon of perfection, when in truth he was of the same flesh and blood as the rest of us, with same doubts and fears that plagued the hearts of other mortals.” Her new love becomes “without the taint of idolatry.” This particular struggle against fitna is what to Aisha is the greatest jihad. This makes Pasha’s decision to tell the history of Islam as a love story a good one.
Pasha dramatizes, of course, many more beautiful and intriguing episodes from Aisha’s life, like the time when Muhammad forgets about his statemanship and plays with Aisha’s dolls, or races with her, or when he decides to die lying in her lap and not any of his other wives, or relatives. Pasha does not miss to point out that despite the centuries of enmities between the Muslims and the Jew, one must not forget the fact tha it was only after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem (from Byzantine rule) that the Jews were allowed to return to their native Palestine.
Pasha’s agenda seems to be to show the complexities of the early Islamic community that orthodoxy has neglected over centuries and especially in our modern times. This is gesture I call fundamentalizing of fundamentalism, a deep look into the origins of the faith one confesses to to escape ideology and dogma that keeps haunting it. Although I quite dislike many of the books termed page-turners, Mother of the Believers is one worth reading and remembering.