This reading group guide for Shadow of the Swords 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.
In this sweeping historical novel, Kamran Pasha brings to life the Third Crusade and the epic battle between Richard the Lionheart, King of England, and the Muslim Sultan, Saladin. Just when Saladin has finally taken Jerusalem for the Muslims and believes a time of peace is setting in, King Richard is departing from England to regain the Holy City for Christianity. Another bloody war is launched in the name of God, as these two men fight for the honor and glory of their faiths and the love of one beautiful Jewess. In this deeply moving and thought-provoking novel, Pasha recreates some of the most earth-shattering moments in history that still impact us today.
1. Many examples of leadership are presented throughout the book: Saladin, King Guy, King Henry, Richard, Conrad. Discuss the leadership style of each of these characters. Is it better to be feared than loved? What makes each of these rulers successful or not?
2. Sir William muses that love is “the antidote to power” (p. 137). He believes that if more of his people were capable of reading the Bible and interpreting Christ’s teachings for themselves, they would not be so eager to pursue a holy war. Reread this passage and discuss whether or not you agree with William. Could his thoughts also imply that knowledge is an antidote to power?
3. Miriam often serves to expose the weaknesses and human nature of the male protagonists. What do her relationships with Saladin and Richard show us about each of these men?
4. While the Muslims and Christians fight for Jerusalem, Maimonides reminds us that the Holy City had once belonged to the Jews; that “his people had once ruled this land where he now stood, from the emerald sea to the sparkling waters of the Jordan, and beyond.” Does Saladin have any more right to the Holy City than Richard does?
5. Many references are made throughout the book to God’s love of irony. How does irony play a role in the book and in the basic notion of the Crusades?
6. “Such was the nature of all men—they would move heaven and earth to protect their loved ones, but would rarely raise a finger to save a stranger, even if they were bound by all the laws of God and men” (p. 348). How is this notion supported in the book? Do you believe this is true of human nature?
7. The Sultana is a jealous, conniving, and manipulative character. Do you think her death was justified? Why do you think her maid was put to death as well?
8. Discuss Maimonides’ act of revenge. Was it out of character? Can you sympathize with him? Do you think he regrets his decision when everything is said and done?
9. William is both a loyal friend to Richard and an admirer of Saladin. Why do you think he remains so loyal to Richard when it is clear that he has disagreed with this war all along? How is it possible for William and Saladin to be both friends and enemies at the same time?
10. What symbolism do you interpret from Richard’s dream in which Saladin’s face appears on the crucified body of Christ, Miriam is the Virgin Mary, and Richard himself drives a spear into the body on the cross?
11. It might be said that war was both more savage and more civilized during the Crusades than it is today. In what ways is this demonstrated in the novel? Do you agree with this statement?
12. Reread Saladin’s speech on page 465. How does this put the jihad in perspective? In what ways does it move you?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. What would it really have been like for a woman during the time of the Crusades? Find out at www.crusades-encyclopedia.com/womenandthecrusades.html.
2. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are the three main forms of the Abrahamic religions. To learn more about the similarities and differences among these three faiths, visit www.spiritus-temporis.com/abrahamic-religion/.
A Conversation with Kamran Pasha
Q. Have you always been interested in the Crusades? What inspired you to write a book about this particular moment in history? How did you decide where to begin your story and where to end it?
A: I have always been interested in the subjects of religion and history, and the Crusades represent one of the most important periods historically in the relationship between Christianity and Islam. Indeed, the conflict between these two civilizations that began when Pope Urban called the First Crusade in 1095 C.E. arguably continues to this day, with extremists in both cultures seeking to continue the deadly feud between these religions that was ignited almost a thousand years ago. The horrific events of September 11, 2001 served as the specific catalyst for me to write this story. The terror attacks on that day had a deep impact on my soul as a Muslim and as an American. Like my fellow Americans, I felt as if a dagger had been struck in my heart when I watched the World Trade Center come crashing down in a cloud of fire and death. But as a Muslim, I had the added burden of knowing that evil men who claimed to be following my faith had done these acts. As September 11 soon gave way to America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it became clear that we were entering a new period in this age-old conflict between the West and the Muslim world. And I wanted to write a story that examined the ancient roots of animosity between these two cultures.
I specifically chose to write about the Third Crusade for a variety of reasons. First, it truly was an epic tale in which the protagonists were some of the most important people in world history. Both Richard the Lionheart and Saladin remain archetypal heroes of their respective civilizations, and this moment where both men clashed on the battlefield is truly a remarkable convergence of history. But more importantly, the Third Crusade represents in my view the closest analogy to the events of today, with one crucial difference—the “heroes” and the “villains” are reversed. The Crusaders were the terrorists of their time, slaughtering innocents, including women and children, without remorse, and Saladin was considered by both sides to be a man of great honor and civility. This was a time when Islam was the dominant world civilization, advanced in every area of science, art, and culture, while the Christian West had slipped into illiteracy, feudalism, and barbarity. The destructive social problems in Europe led to violence and the use of terror by Christians to regain their lost dominance. In my view, this is exactly parallel to what is happening in parts of the Muslim world today, a thousand years later. Al-Qaeda and its sympathizers seek to reverse the flow of history in which the West has become dominant and the Muslim world feels militarily and culturally besieged by outsiders. Like the Crusaders, the Muslim extremists are resorting to barbarism and brutality to fight a war they feel they cannot win any other way. But as a practicing Muslim myself, I know that Al-Qaeda and its supporters violate the fundamental precepts of Islam and I oppose them with all my being. In some ways, the character I personally feel most connection to in this novel is that of the Christian knight William, who sees some of his fellow believers acting in ways that violate his faith and must make a moral stand against extremists among his own people. That is why I wrote this novel, and I hope it will open many eyes among people of all faiths.
Q. Which of your main characters are completely fictitious? How do you manage to seamlessly blend fact and fiction?
A: There are several important characters that are the product of my imagination. Miriam is fictitious, as is Sir William Chinon, although the latter is based loosely on William Marshal, an important knight who lived during Richard’s time. These characters were created in order to voice important perspectives in the narrative. Miriam is the heroine of the story and she serves to give a woman’s point of view of the war as well as a Jewish perspective on both Christian and Muslim actions. She is the necessary observer who is distinct from all the principals in terms of gender as well as faith, and in many ways Miriam serves as the reader’s guide into this unfamiliar world. Sir William is an important character because he represents what I believe is the true face of Christianity, a religion like Islam that at its best is about love, humility, and service. Saladin amply reflected those values from the Muslim side, but regrettably Richard in my view is not a noble exemplar of the Christian faith, and so I created a character to fulfill that role. In writing this novel as a Muslim, it was very important for me to avoid the impression that the actions of the Crusaders represent the teachings of Christ. They do not. William exists to remind the readers that the Crusades were a perversion of the Christian faith, just as modern terrorism is a perversion of Islam. William represents the core values of Christianity, and it was important that his character stand for truth and justice even when faced with wrongdoing by men in his own community. With regard to blending fact and fiction, I made sure that the major events described in the book—the battles, the political intrigues—were accurate to history, and then I allowed my fictional characters to behave as their personalities naturally would under the circumstances. Whether I have done so successfully must, of course, be judged by the reader.
Q. By writing this book in the third person, you give readers the privilege of direct access to many characters’ thoughts. Why did you decide to write it this way? Did you ever consider focusing on one perspective?
A: In my first novel, Mother of the Believers, I wrote from one perspective, Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad. But here I chose a third-person narrative. The primary reason for the shift in storytelling is that I wanted to be fair and true to the varying points of view about faith, politics, and warfare presented in the book. In Mother of the Believers, it was very important for me to show one perspective that has rarely been explored in Western literature—that of a devout Muslim woman. That book’s purpose was to present how Muslims in general, and Muslim women in particular, see their faith and understand their history. But in Shadow of the Swords, we have an epic moment in history where three major religions are caught in a vortex of conflict. Each side—Jew, Christian, and Muslim—has a perspective of the events that unfold, and I was excited to examine these different points of view authentically. The third-person narrative device was the most appropriate way to show each character’s thoughts and highlight how people of different backgrounds can interpret the same event in completely different ways.
Q. Was there a lot of research involved in creating this story? How did you go about it?
A: I researched the story for several years. In my author’s note, I discuss some of the scholarly works and resources I turned to in crafting this tale. The Crusades have been heavily documented by historians, but rarely has the Muslim perspective been examined in Western literature. Being raised in a Muslim family, I had access to a perspective that is often ignored or misunderstood by other writers. I am hoping that my novel will inspire readers to learn more about this historical period and to examine it from new and important points of view.
Q. What was the most interesting thing you learned while conducting your research?
A: What fascinated me in my historical research was the extent to which Jews and Muslims were not only allied during the time of the Crusades, but how intimate the relationship between the two communities really was. In our current moment in history, there is a great deal of tension between the two faiths over Middle Eastern politics, and yet during most of the past thousand years, Jews and Muslims were considered natural compatriots. The two religions, Judaism and Islam, are remarkably similar in theology and ritual, as they both emerge from a common Semitic cultural heritage. Christianity, by comparison, is a very distinct tradition that owes much of its intellectual and theological heritage to Greco-Roman civilization. Christians and Jews often have difficulty understanding each other’s theologies and concepts of God and salvation, because they are actually speaking very different languages even though they share a common scripture, the Bible. Judaism and Islam have different scriptures, but their understanding of God and approach to worship are deeply parallel. I have suggested throughout this novel that “God loves irony,” and perhaps that statement is proven true in the dynamic triangle of these three faiths. Jews and Muslims have the most in common and were historically friendly, and now they are often at each other’s throats. Judaism and Christianity have much greater theological differences and were historically antagonistic, and yet today we talk of a common Judeo-Christian heritage in America. That is true irony. I hope that in this novel, particularly in how I draw the relationships among Saladin, Maimonides, and Miriam, I am able to awaken a memory in both the Muslim and the Jewish communities of a time not long past when they saw each other as family and not as enemies.
Q. How did the love story aspect of the book evolve?
A: I understood when I crafted this novel that the fictional love story between Saladin and Miriam was a potentially explosive device that could offend some readers, both Jews and Muslims. And yet for the reasons I discuss above, it was very important for me to bring these two characters together in an intimate way, so that the true commonalities and differences between their communities could be examined. Saladin has been portrayed as such a saintly figure in the Islamic tradition that I realized that depicting a covert affair with a Jewish woman was liable to upset many people. And yet I do not believe in placing human beings on idolatrous pedestals. I hope that the love story I have crafted will help readers to embrace Saladin as a real human being with a heart and soul. And I hope that romantic aspects of this story will only serve to highlight the noble aspects of Saladin’s character in not just grandiose mythic terms, but in very relatable and believable human experiences, too. Saladin was our brother, and I hope we can learn from him and emulate his nobility in our daily lives. Turning him into a plastic saint incapable of feeling the emotions that we all share does a disservice, in my view, to his incredible life example.
Q. As a Muslim, did you find it hard not to take sides and let your personal beliefs influence your portrayal of certain characters?
A: I do not believe there is such a thing as objectivity when writing about matters of faith. Everyone has an opinion on religion, and that perspective serves as a paradigm in how one views the actions of men like Richard and Saladin. I am a believing Muslim and for me the Crusades represent an act of unholy terror and aggression. And yet I am honest enough to know that the Crusaders saw themselves as heroes fighting the forces of evil. What I hope I accomplished here is to present each character’s perspective as he would have authentically seen things, and let the reader judge for himself or herself where the truth lies.
Q. Is there anything in particular that you would hope your readers will take with them after reading this book?
A: I hope that my readers will walk away with an understanding of the importance of seeing things from someone else’s point of view, especially if that perspective appears hostile or opposed to our own. The only way we human beings can transcend the cycle of fear and hate that feeds war is to learn empathy. And the first step in that journey is to recognize the humanity of our adversaries and the authenticity of their viewpoints. It does not mean we have to change or abandon our own beliefs, but in order to live in this world in peace, we must give others the right to have different views from our own. It is a lesson that I sought to have the characters in my novel learn, and I hope that it is a lesson that we can all incorporate in our lives.
Q. In what ways did the experience of writing Shadow of the Swords differ from that of writing your first book, Mother of the Believers?
A: Shadow of the Swords was actually written before Mother of the Believers, even though the latter was published first. In many ways, this novel was far more challenging for me as I had to incorporate multiple viewpoints about the Crusades, many of which conflicted with my own personal perspectives on the conflict. Mother of the Believers gave readers an intimate view of what Islam means to me as a believer. But Shadow of the Swords will, I hope, give my fans a deeper sense of my values as a human being independent of my particular religious or cultural heritage. It is a book that perhaps reveals the universal aspects of my own soul, and I hope that it will encourage my readers to look within their own hearts to find what truly matters to them about being human in a world full of diversity and conflict.
Q. What do you think your next project will be?
A: I have a few projects I am developing. They are all works of historical fiction, but my readers may be surprised at the new genres I plan to explore. One project that I intend to complete in the near future is a novel on the birth of Christianity, told from the point of view of Jesus Christ’s family and friends. I have been heavily researching the world in which Jesus lived, and I hope that it will provide real insight into how his life and teachings impacted the people of his time. And I think many people, both Christians and Muslims, will be surprised by some of my conclusions as to what Jesus was really about and how the religion founded in his name evolved in its early years. A second project that I am very excited about is actually a vampire epic set in the world of Victorian England! Many of my readers may be startled that I would choose to go from writing about matters of religion and history to the horror genre, but I think that they will be intrigued by how I meld the spiritual questions I love into a rollicking, fun vampire story. A friend who has read an early outline of the novel jokingly commented that I am becoming Anne Rice in reverse—a serious writer focusing on faith who evolves into a purveyor of vampire stories! Since I have the greatest respect for Ms. Rice’s talent and career, I took that as a compliment.