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Mother of the Believers

A Novel of the Birth of Islam
By Kamran Pasha

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kamran Pasha. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

    Introduction

    In the desert of seventh century Arabia, a new prophet named Muhammad has arisen. After he beholds a beautiful woman in a vision and resolves to marry her, the girl’s father quickly arranges the wedding. Aisha becomes the youngest of Muhammad’s twelve wives, and her fierce intelligence establishes her as his favorite. But when Aisha is accused of adultery by her rivals, she loses the Prophet’s favor—and must fight to prove her innocence.

    Pardoned by her husband after a divine revelation clears her name, Aisha earns the reluctant respect of fellow Muslims when their settlement in Medina is attacked and she becomes a pivotal player on the battlefield. Muhammad’s religious movement sweeps through Arabia and unifies the warring tribes, transforming him from prophet to statesman. But soon after the height of her husband’s triumph—the conquest of the holy city of Mecca—Muhammad falls ill and dies in Aisha’s arms.

    A widow at age nineteen, Aisha fights to create a role for herself in the new Muslim empire—becoming an advisor to the Caliph of Islam, a legislator advocating for the rights of women and minorities, a teacher, and ultimately a warrior and military commander. She soon becomes one of the most powerful women in the Middle East, but her passionate nature leads to tragedy when her opposition to the Caliph plunges the Islamic world into civil war. Her legacy remains one of the most compelling stories of Islam.

    Questions for Discussion

    1. “God had chosen me to marry His Messenger. It sounded laughable, but somehow it felt right. As if some part of my soul had always known that was my purpose.” To what extent does Aisha feel conflicted about her sudden transformation from child to Mother of the Believers? In what ways does her betrothal and marriage to the Prophet challenge some of his most faithful believers? What accounts for the unique nature of Aisha and Muhammad’s emotional connection with each other?

    2. How do the climactic events of the Battle of Badr—particularly the deaths of many prominent Quraysh leaders—serve to galvanize the Muslims in their efforts to rally future believers? What does the defeat of the Meccan army by the vastly outnumbered followers of the Messenger represent to leaders of the Assembly? How does the Meccan defeat further empower Hind, the lascivious wife of Abu Sufyan, to incite further violence against the Muslims?

    3. Aisha finds herself in trouble with the Messenger and her faith when she ventures places she shouldn’t go, such as when she comes to the assistance of Salim ibn Qusay, a thief who attempts to rape her; when a young Jewish goldsmith, Yacub, is punished with death for insulting her honor; or when she is suspected of infidelity for having gotten lost in the desert. To what extent can these mishaps can be attributed to Aisha’s youth and inexperience? What role does her personality play in leading her into these morally compromising situations?

    4. “The whole ceremony seemed appropriately ethereal for this enigmatic couple and I was glad when the Prophet rose and kissed them, signaling that we had returned to the world I knew and understood.” Why does the marriage of Ali to Fatima seem symbolic to Aisha of some more momentous alliance than that of a customary wedding ceremony? How would you describe the roles Ali and Fatima play in the life of Muhammad and in the history of Islam? What accounts for Aisha’s troubled relationship with Ali?

    5. What role does a young Jewish woman named Safiya, the daughter of the prominent Jewish leader Huyayy ibn Akhtab, play in alerting Aisha to an assassination plot against Muhammad by the Bani Nadir? How does the treachery of the Bani Nadir lead to an affiliation between the Arab and Jewish forces against the Muslims? What does Muhammad’s later marriage to Safiya suggest about his ability to accommodate marriage to his political advantage?

    6. “You should not leave your houses unless necessary. It is for your good and for the good of the Ummah, he said . . . We were now expected to stay inside our homes like prisoners.” What does Muhammad’s commandment to his wives to veil themselves to strangers and to stay confined to their homes reflect about his culture and society? How would you describe the modern-day effect of this commandment on faithful Muslim men and women?

    7. Why does Muhammad’s death, after several days of illness, lead to unrest and uncertainty in his immediate circle? How does his lack of an immediate male heir complicate his succession? What does his death, as witnessed by Aisha, reveal about his spiritual nature?

    8. “And so, for the first time in centuries, the Children of Israel returned to the Holy Land from which they had been expelled, ironically at the generosity of a religion they had rejected.” How do the actions and policies of Muslims, even in the midst of conquering territories and transforming regions, reflect the tenets of their faith? To what extent does the spread of Islam across the Middle East unite former enemies and transform the city of Medina?

    9. How does Aisha’s political alignment with her brother, Muhammad, challenge the rule of the Caliph Uthman and lead to his death? To what extent does Aisha’s subsequent rejection of Ali as Muslim leader stem from her longstanding grudge against him for suggesting to the Prophet that she was an expendable wife? How does the civil war that arises between Muslims lead directly to Aisha’s renunciation of involvement in politics, and how does it connect to a foreboding prediction made by her husband?

    10. At the opening of Mother of the Believers, Aisha poses the rhetorical question, “What is faith?” But by the end of her memoir of her life, she has answered her own question in her letter to her nephew. How does her answer relate to her experiences as the beloved wife of Muhammad? Based on what you know about her faith, how would you characterize its role in her life?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Are you interested in learning more about Kamran Pasha, the author of Mother of the Believers? To read about Pasha’s recent visit to the plain of Arafat during the Hajj, or to find out more about his experience in paying homage to his novel’s heroine, Aisha, at the site of her burial, visit the blog on his website: http://blog.kamranpasha.com/.

    2. Mother of the Believers offers Aisha the opportunity to reflect on her life and her many experiences in the form of a memoir that she shares exclusively with her nephew. Have you ever considered your own life experiences in light of your successes and failures? To whom would you choose to address your final remarks? If you already keep a diary or journal, you may want to revisit it and chart some of the many important moments in your life. Consider sharing your findings with your fellow readers. Aisha marks the important events of her life in terms of private rites of passage and victories for Islam. How do you mark your most significant moments?

    3. How has your knowledge about the religion of Islam changed or been affected by reading Mother of the Believers? Would you like to know more about the underpinnings of this faith, or about its practice around the world? If so, you may want to arrange to visit a mosque in your community. For a virtual exposure to the many facets of Islam in contemporary society, visit http://www.islam.com/, which is a wonderful reference for thousands of subjects inspired by and directly related to Islamic worship.


    A Conversation with Kamran Pasha

    Q: Mother of the Believers is your first novel. What first drew you to Aisha and her remarkable story?

    A: I have always been fascinated by strong women, and growing up as a Muslim in the United States, I found myself intrigued by how Aisha breaks every negative stereotype that Americans have about Islam and women. A scholar, a poet, a statesman, and a warrior, Aisha lived a life that rivals those of the greatest 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. It has been a lifelong dream to write a novel about Aisha, and I’m frankly still a little stunned that I have been given the opportunity to actually make that dream come true. I always wanted to highlight those aspects of her character that make her stand out among the accounts of early Muslims—her powerful will, her sharp mind, and the intensity and depth of her emotions.

    In researching Aisha’s life, it became clear that she possessed rare gifts that made her destined for greatness—traits that Prophet Muhammad, a master judge of human character, would have noticed immediately. His decision to marry young Aisha and bring her into the center of the community was, I believe, motivated in part by his recognition of her genius and his desire to place Aisha in a position where she could fulfill a destiny that would have been otherwise stifled in the primitive desert world in which she was born. And the fact that the Prophet loved her first and foremost among all his wives in Medina reveals a great deal about how forward thinking he was. In many ways, Prophet Muhammad can be considered a proto-feminist, and the fact that he loved Aisha’s fiery nature and independent spirit reveals his own progressive attitudes toward women. In Aisha, we see a mirror of the Prophet’s own revolutionary nature, as well as a glimpse of the reverence for the sacred feminine in Islam that many contemporary Muslim men have perhaps forgotten.

    Q: What were some of the challenges you experienced as an author in getting into the perspective of a female protagonist?

    A: It is of course impossible for a man to truly know how a woman sees and experiences life, and it would be disingenuous for me to claim that I have accurately done so. But I have the benefit of being raised in a family of powerful Muslim women who continue Aisha’s legacy of independence and intellectual curiosity. A lifetime of conversations with my mother, sisters, and other Muslim women gives me at least an observer’s insight into the challenges faced by women in society, both in the Islamic world and the West. To the extent that I succeeded in creating an authentic female voice for Aisha, the credit belongs to all the women in my life who guided me over the years. To the extent that I failed, I hope the reader will excuse it as the natural shortcomings of the masculine perspective in that regard.

    Q: Why did you decide to frame Aisha’s narrative in terms of a memoir and letter to her nephew?

    A: I felt that Aisha’s voice is so unique that the novel had to be presented from her point of view. She was such a complex person whose attitudes and opinions evolved so much over the course of her lifetime that the only way I felt I could do justice to her tale was to set it as a memoir. Aisha on her deathbed looking back at a life of great triumph and tragedy allowed me to explore her passionate youthful nature, as well as the more sober perspective of a mature woman who has had a chance to consider her legacy. Many readers may be surprised at how sad and wistful the memoir seems to be at times, but I am only following Aisha’s own accounts, where she admitted in later years to regretting many of her youthful follies. But it is that regret, that poignant longing to correct the mistakes of the past, that makes her especially human for me. Aisha, by her own admission, was a brilliant but flawed human being, and it is that stark humanity that brings her closer to us. Aisha was no plastic saint. And that is exactly why we can learn from her and honor the remarkable things she accomplished. If Aisha, with all her passions, jealousies, and rage, can become the most beloved and revered of the Prophet’s wives, there is hope for all of us in finding redemption.

    Q: You are well acquainted with fictional portrayals of Muslims from your work as a writer and coproducer of the television series Sleeper Cell. How would you compare the experience of writing historical fiction about the earliest Muslims with the process of creating portrayals of Muslims in the modern world?

    A: I think one of the biggest differences is that Sleeper Cell dealt with the modern phenomenon of Muslim terrorists, villains who are attempting to hijack the beautiful religion of Islam. This novel, on the other hand, focuses on the revered heroes of my faith. What became evident as I researched this tale is that Prophet Muhammad, Aisha, and the rest of the early Muslims would have been horrified to learn that Islam would one day be painted as a religion of terror. Islam began as a pacifist movement that only took arms after being pushed to near extinction by the idolaters of Mecca. Even after military engagement became part of Muslim experience, strict rules of war were adopted. Women and children were to be spared in combat. Priests and rabbis of the People of the Book were protected from attack. Environmental warfare, including burning trees and poisoning water supplies, was forbidden, even though such tactics were considered acceptable by neighboring cultures (and remain common today). Muslims throughout the past 1,400 years took great pride in following strict rules of war, even as many in the West justified indiscriminate slaughter from the Crusades up until modern day. It is an incredible tragedy that there are people in the Muslim word today who feel that the only way they can fight political oppression is to engage in terror against civilians, which goes against the vast corpus of Muslim tradition and history. In writing this book, I have sought to remind both Muslims and non-Muslims that Islam stands for justice and human equality, as evidenced by the lives of the Prophet and the early community. The word “Islam” derives from the Arabic root meaning “peace.” The idea of “Islamic terrorism” is as much of a non sequitur as the phrase “loving murder.” I hope that this novel will inspire people to reexamine what Islam has stood for throughout history, and what it offers humanity today.

    Q: How do you respond to critics who contend that fictional accounts of religious figures are potentially blasphemous?

    A: I think such accusations are misguided and fail to understand the magnificent role literature and storytelling have played in Islamic civilization throughout history. Muslims have been telling stories about Prophet Muhammad, his wives, and companions around campfires and in books for centuries. The Modern Library has recently published The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a beautiful translation of a medieval Islamic epic about the Prophet’s uncle Hamza. The book contains dozens of incredible—and fictional—adventures that Muslim storytellers attributed to Hamza over the centuries. Like The Arabian Nights, the stories about Hamza were hugely popular throughout the Islamic world as tales of wonder and faith, both serving to entertain and educate the masses. One of my favorite books of all time is Yusuf and Zulaikha, an epic tale written in the fifteenth century by the Persian poet Jami (translated in English by David Pendlebury). It is a fictionalized account of the story of the prophet Joseph in the Qur’an and his star-crossed romance with an Egyptian princess. The tale is treasured by Muslims as both a beautiful love story and a deeply mystical allegory of worshippers seeking the Divine. The Muslim community has always understood that stories can teach and inspire us and that the line between historical fact and creative imagination is less important than the wisdom one gains from the tale. I have written my novel as part of that proud literary tradition, and I hope that many more historical fiction accounts about the great figures of Islam will be published to enlighten new generations about the richness of Muslim civilization.

    Q: Your portrait of Muhammad’s relationship with Aisha emphasizes the uniquely mystical nature of their connection as husband and wife. How much of that relationship did you base on historical accounts of their marriage?

    A: I have tried to base my story on as many historical accounts as feasible. According to early Muslim traditions, Prophet Muhammad was told in a mystical dream by Gabriel that Aisha was destined to be his wife. And the Prophet is reported to have said that among all his wives, he only received divine revelation when in bed with Aisha. She served as a profound inspiration to the Prophet, and it is not surprising that as he felt death approaching he chose to spend his final moments in Aisha’s arms. Their spiritual bond was clearly unique, and I have tried to capture the essence of their relationship in this novel.

    Q: What did you discover in the course of researching and writing Mother of the Believers that surprised you?

    A: I was surprised and delighted by how deeply human and relatable the great heroes and heroines of Islam were according to early historical accounts. Aisha’s triumphs and tragedies were recounted by Muslim historians without any effort to sugarcoat or mythologize her or the other founding figures of Islam. Love, passion, jealousy, hate, and forgiveness all played very real roles in the lives of these remarkable people. It is that humanity that makes Aisha and her contemporaries accessible to modern readers. And, on a personal note, it is the stark realism of the depictions of the early Muslim community that strengthened my own personal faith. That God can speak to and through fallible human beings like ourselves adds to the appeal of Islam as a practical revelation for the real world, not a fairy tale set in the clouds.

    Q: To what extent is the intense jealousy you depict among Muhammad’s many wives something that you extrapolated from historical accounts?

    A: The jealousy among the Mothers of the Believers is well documented, with Aisha by her own admission being particularly guilty. There are accounts that she would actually secretly follow Prophet Muhammad around at night to see if he was going to spend the evening with one of his other wives. It is that passionate, stubborn nature that both bonded her deeply with the Prophet and also led to some of the terrible mistakes she made in the first Islamic civil war. But it is that fiery personality that also makes Aisha the most endearing of his wives. In her jealousy and possessiveness, we see our own insecurities, fears, and desires. And it is the Prophet’s incredible patience with the rivalries between members of his household that reveals how remarkable a man he was. Prophet Muhammad was a spiritual teacher to thousands, as well as a politician, statesman, and military commander, and yet he managed to find time to bring together not only the warring tribes of Arabia, but also the competing groups inside his own home with expert diplomacy. The Prophet truly serves as an example to human beings of how to master challenges in all aspects of life, public and private.

    Q: As a Muslim yourself, what kind of obligation did you feel as an author to your representation of your faith in this novel?

    A: I feel a great burden of responsibility in writing this tale. Islam is the most misunderstood religion on Earth is and subject to a great deal of propaganda in the media today. As a believer I am aware that anything I write could be misconstrued or used by anti-Muslim bigots to advance their agendas. And there are, of course, a few radical Muslims who might take offense at something I have written and denounce me. But at the end of the day, I cannot predict every possible outcome that could arise out of the words I have put on paper. My intention is simple and straightforward—to write an exciting work of historical fiction that educates readers about Islam and honors the legacies of Prophet Muhammad, Aisha, and the early Muslim community. How the world responds to my efforts is beyond my control. But I rest secure in knowing that my intentions are good and sincere. The rest I leave in God’s hands.

    Q: If you could have been present for any event of early Muslim life that you describe in your novel, what would it be?

    A: It is hard to choose any one moment, as there are so many remarkable events that I have chronicled and would love to have witnessed with my own eyes. But if I can single out any moment in this history of early Islam that I would have liked to have seen, it would be the peaceful fall of Mecca to the Muslims in AD 630. I can only imagine what it must have been like for the Muslims to return to the holy city from which they had been expelled, and to do so with such honor. The Prophet could have massacred the entire city for its crimes, and yet he chose in victory to be magnanimous, establishing a general amnesty that spared the people who spent years trying to kill him and murdered his loved ones. I would have loved to walk at his side into the courtyard of the Holy Kaaba and watch as the Muslims destroyed the 360 idols that littered the Sanctuary, rededicating it to the One God. I think our forefather Abraham would have been proud to see his children through Ishmael renounce idolatry and return to the pure monotheism that he had expounded to mankind. Even now, I get emotional at the image of Islam’s final—and highly improbable—triumph against all the forces that had been aligned against it for decades. The Prophet’s victory over the idolatry of Mecca is one of the greatest spiritual moments in history, and I would have loved to see it with my own eyes. The victory of Islam was the victory of human unity over tribal division, the triumph of equality and brotherhood over racism and class distinctions. That to me is the greatest gift of Islam to the world.

    In December 2008, I went to Mecca for the first time to participate in the Hajj, the grand pilgrimage. And there I saw the Prophet’s triumph in full glory—four million people, of every nation, every skin color, every language on Earth, together. Mankind in all of its wondrous diversity coming together to worship One God in love and companionship. The desert wastes became a paradise of human unity, a beautiful sign of what men and women could be if they chose to transcend superficial distinctions and embrace a common destiny. This was the greatest legacy of Prophet Muhammad, Aisha, and the early Muslims to mankind. And in that moment, I truly understood the power of the sacred words that define my faith.

    There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger.

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