Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mother of the Believers

There are lots of excellent books about Islam and the Middle East available to the Western reader today. Depending on your political bent you might prefer Karen Armstrong or Bernard Lewis, but regardless there is a book for you. The problem is that many readers just do not like nonfiction. They would rather read a shorter piece somewhere like the Atlantic or the New Yorker, but big histories are not their thing. Unfortunately, when trying to learn about topics as large as entire cultures, magazine articles probably won't cut it.

Historical fiction has plenty of great books about European, American and Western history. Most of my understanding of the English treatment of the Welsh comes from Sharon Kay Penman. The historical fiction looking for the depiction of the Islamic world, from an Islamic perspective, has not had much to choose. With his new Mother of the Believers, Kamran Pasha is giving Western readers an opportunity to learn more about early Islamic history through a narrative novel, rather than a history book.

The titular Mother of the Believer is Aisha, one of Muhammad's wives. Her story begins in Mecca, where her father is an early adherent to Islam. At that point, the religion was a despised minority often abused by the powerful clans of the town. The story then follows the Muslim flight and eventual return to Mecca thanks to the diplomacy of Muhammad and the dedication of the devoted Muslims. After Muhammad's death, Aisha became involved in politics and in some of the early stirrings of the Sunni - Shia split, much to her eventual dismay.

Pasha does an excellent job maintaining the narrative drive. Despite our knowledge of the eventual outcome, the story of the early Muslims trial in Arabia is nail biting as it seems unlikely that they could survive the range of tribulations they faced. Those familiar with early Christian history will see similarities in the trials of the early adherents and then the rise of politics as the religion gained power.

As noted in the interview posted above, Pasha is working on another work of historical fiction. This one will be in the time of the Crusades. Let's hope his work opens the door to more.

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