Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Interview with Kamran Pasha

I recently had the opportunity to interview Kamran Pasha, author of Mother of the Believers. You can see my review of the book below this post. I recommend it to all historical fiction readers and to those who want to learn more about early Islam.

1) For what reasons did you choose Aisha, Muhammad's wife, to tell this story?

I have always been fascinated by Aisha. She single-handedly shatters every stereotype of the oppressed and submissive Muslim woman. A scholar, a poet and a warrior, Aisha led a life that is comparable with the most remarkable men in history. She was a passionate and fiercely intelligent woman who changed the course of human civilization, yet has received almost no attention in Western literature. In writing Mother of the Believers, I wanted to bring Aisha to life for Western readers who have never heard of her and who would be fascinated by her incredible story.

2) As the story progresses, Aisha's actions become controversial. How is Aisha viewed in the Islamic community today?

Aisha remains a controversial figure today. Most Muslims revere her as the Prophet’s beloved wife, and respect her scholarship and contribution to Islamic law and theology. Aisha recounted thousands of hadith, or oral traditions, about Prophet Muhammad’s life and teachings, and her service in preserving Islamic history is admired by most people in the community. But her later actions, specifically her military activities during the first Islamic civil war, remain problematic for many Muslims. Aisha led a battle against Ali, the Prophet’s cousin who had been elected Caliph, or leader, of the Muslim community.

As I recount in my novel, Aisha had a long-standing personal grudge against Ali and refused to accept his legitimacy as the new leader. Her agitation against Ali ignited the civil war and led to the split of Islam into two sects, Sunnis (Muslims that believe the leadership of Islam should be chosen by consensus) and Shia (those who believe Ali and his descendants are the only legitimate leaders of Islam).

The Sunnis, who constitute the vast majority of Muslims, rarely talk about Aisha’s role in the civil war, saying at most that she was mistaken in her political activities, but generally forgive her participation in the conflict. The minority Shia have a more negative reaction, as Aisha’s actions are seen as a direct affront to their beloved leader Ali. Some Shia go as far as to vilify Aisha and view her as a sinner and a curse on the Muslim community. And as we see tragically in modern Iraq, this ancient dispute from Aisha’s time continues to lead to bloodshed today between Sunni and Shia.

3) Do you expect that people in the West and those in the Islamic world will react differently to the book? Are you trying to communicate different things to these two groups?

I think that there are two kinds of people inside both communities – those who see Islam as a religion of love, and those who see Islam as a religion of hate. Among the latter, you have the Islamic fundamentalists and the anti-Muslim bigots who share the same distorted vision of Islam, the vision that is often pushed by the media, of a religion that is steeped in extremism. One group embraces that interpretation of Islam, and the other vows to fight it.

But neither group understands the true Islam of love, compassion and human brotherhood, which is the religion Prophet Muhammad taught, and the religion I follow, as do the vast majority of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. My book is not written for Islamic extremists and their Western counterparts, and neither will appreciate my efforts to portray Islam as a deeply human faith, a religion founded on love by spiritual but fallible human beings. But that vision will appeal to everyone else. I believe Muslims who are secure in their faith will find my book to be inspiring, while others who want to learn ore about Islam will find it enlightening.

4) What lessons do you think the story of Aisha has for today's women?

Aisha shows all women, Muslim and non-Muslim, that they can have a powerful impact on the world if they follow their hearts. Aisha was a strong woman who refused to be intimidated by men and forged her own destiny. And she made mistakes along the way, but she kept learning and growing throughout her life. In that respect, Aisha led a truly human life and her example is an inspiration for both men and women throughout the ages.

5) How would you compare the interest in historical fiction in Islamic countries as compared to the United States?

I think the market for historical fiction in the Islamic world has been smaller primarily because few authors have written books targeted to the Muslim community in the first place. That is one of the reasons I wrote this book, to show Muslims that they have incredible stories from within their own historical tradition. I hope that my novel inspires a whole new genre of historical fiction set in the Muslim world. I think at this moment in history, such novels are needed to build bridges of understanding across civilizations. Despite our differences in religion, language and culture, we all share a common love for great storytelling. Stories are the ultimate bridge between worlds.

6) Which, if any, historical figures would you like to portray next?

My next novel, Shadow of the Swords, is set during the Crusades, and follows the conflict between King Richard the Lionheart and the Muslim leader Saladin for Jerusalem. But at its core, it is a love story, which shows how the human heart can survive even under the shadow of war and destruction. It is a story that I hope will heal some of the wounds that have poisoned the relationship between the West and the Islamic world since the Crusades.

No comments: