Utpal Borpujari

August 10, 2009

Novel on Prophet’s wife gives debate on Islam a fresh angle

By Utpal Borpujari

Kamran Pasha has received “angry” emails from fundamentalist Muslims who think he is somehow trying to attack Islam by writing a fictional novel on Prophet Mohammad’s wife Aisha. He has also received similar emails from “anti-Muslim bigots” who have called him an apologist for presenting a positive image of Islam and the Prophet.  But Pasha, a Hollywood-based writer-director, is unperturbed. “I’ve learned that you cannot really argue with such people, who are usually just interested in hearing themselves speak rather than in engaging in dialogue,” he says, before adding, “Thankfully, they are a small minority.”

The reason behind such emails is Pasha’s Mother of the Believers (Simon & Schuster), the first-ever novel on the extraordinary life of Aisha, the wife of the Prophet who after becoming a young widow helped usher Islam into the world. The novel, since being published in the United States, has drawn critical acclaim and much praise from readers too, and Pasha’s stress on the fact that it is a work of fiction based on historical events, but not history itself, seems to have been well received. “The initial reaction to it has been extremely positive, at least from those who have actually read the book,” says Pasha almost tongue in cheek. “Muslims have emailed me their gratitude that I have written a novel that presents the birth of Islam in a beautiful and positive light.  And people of other faiths have thanked me for sharing my insight into Islam and how the mainstream Muslim community differs from the ugly vision of the extremists and terrorists,” he says. The “few” negative responses have come mainly from people who have not actually read the book but have some kind of political agenda, he says. 

At 527 pages, it is not slim, but Pakistan-born Pasha says the book, though officially not yet released in India, is being read in India. Pasha, who has written TV series like “Kings” and “Bionic Woman” for NBC, and Showtime Network’s Golden Globe nominated “Sleeper Cell” about a Muslim FBI agent who infiltrates a terrorist group, in an extensive note at the very beginning makes it clear that the book has nothing to do with actual history, and even gives a list of books on Islam that should be read for historical facts should anyone be interested. Did he do it because he was overly cautious about handling a potentially-controversial subject – well, he does not think so. “As a practicing Muslim myself, I would take offence if someone presented a fictionalised account of Prophet Muhammad’s life and pretended it was an accurate history book. The underlying subject matter of the birth of Islam is very important to me as a believer, and I do not wish to muddy sacred waters.  I have written this novel in order to present to the world a glimpse into the Muslim soul, why Islam matters and has grown into a global religion.  I want to do what history books often fail to accomplish, to bring life to the world of Prophet Muhammad and explain his remarkable legacy to a modern audience.  In order to do that, I had to take literary licence and try to go into the minds of historical figures and present how they might have seen things,” he explains. 

Pasha, who is already writing his next novel, started researching the subject after getting fascinated by Aisha’s life story. “Aisha was Prophet Muhammad’s youngest and most beloved wife.  Her story single-handedly challenges every stereotype about Muslim women.  She was a scholar, a poet, a historian and a military leader who commanded armies.  In many ways, Aisha represents the feminist roots of Islam and Muslim women continue to revere her example as an empowered female archetype.  And Aisha is portrayed in Islamic history as very much a flesh-and-blood human being with passions, jealousies and faults, and yet she was the one who was closest to Prophet Muhammad.  In fact, he died in her arms.  So her character presents an incredible basis for story telling,” he explains. 

The writer of video games like “Blood on the Sand” and “Bulletproof” as well as a feature film script on the story behind the making of the Taj Mahal, did a lot of reading of historical books as also now-forgotten, older fictional stories before writing the novel, given the sensitivity of the subject,. Among them was the oldest biography of Prophet Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq, written within a century of Islam’s birth. “Aisha herself narrated over 2,000 Hadiths, or oral traditions, about her life with the Prophet and as a result we have intricate details about how Prophet Muhammad looked, how he dressed and performed daily activities.  In fact, the challenge became trying to make sense of all the accounts and synthesise a novel from the huge amount of information about the Prophet recorded by historians,” he recalls. 

Pasha has also used verses from the Holy Qur’an throughout the story, which he says was not difficult because many of the verses deal with specific historical events in the Prophet’s life.  “I was able to present a context for many verses in the Qur’an that are controversial today, including those that relate to warfare and women’s role in society,” he says. 

According to the author, the novel is an attempt to show how the Qur’an was trying to make people’s lives better and protect them from harm in a very dangerous and primitive world, not to oppress people or incite extremism.  “Traditional Muslim scholars have always believed in analyzing the historical context of Qur’anic verses in order to make sure that the message is properly understood.  Unfortunately today there are people, both among Muslim extremists and anti-Muslim bigots, who prefer to read only the surface verses of the Qur’an and ignore context and scholarly analysis in order to present Islam as a violent and primitive religion,” he says contextualizing the importance of the subject of his novel. “When the Holy Qur’an is read properly in its historical context, Islam can be seen as a very progressive religion seeking to improve human life,” he says. And that is what he hopes to have accomplished with his use of Qur’anic verses in his novel. 

While the book is already being translated into Turkish, Pasha is looking to have Arabic, Persian and Urdu translations as well so that it can reach across the Muslim world. “My book seeks to present Islam as I and most other Muslims view it – a religion of peace, compassion and justice.  There are evil people that are seeking to destroy my faith, both externally and from within, and I felt it was important to present Islam as it is actually practiced by the vast majority of the community.  I think most Muslims are tired of having a tiny group of extremists hijack our faith and present their crimes as normative for the community.  And this book is a chance to set the record straight and show people why Islam has succeeded as a religion over the past 1,400 years, and why it will continue to do so, by bringing peace and fulfilment to human beings all over the world.  No matter how hard the extremists try, they will never be able to poison the heart of Islam, which is about surrendering oneself to God and living an ethical life, not about hurting other people,” says Pasha passionately, hoping that his book will play a role in the current debate about Islam, especially at a time when “the rise of Islamic extremists groups has come as challenge to mainstream Muslims to stand together to protect the honour of our faith from such people”.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 09-08-2009)


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