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Mother of the Believers

Tamam Kahn

At last—I can suggest a page-turner to the reader who wants to catch the sense of early seventh century Arabia and experience the colorful, brilliant, contradictory woman who was Aisha. Perhaps Pasha goes a bit overboard in describing her as a beautiful white-skinned redhead based on the nickname “Little Reddish One” given by her husband, Muhammad, but that’s poetic license. He has brought sensitivity and respect to the characters and followed the general story line known to Arabic readers.

The best way to comment on this book would be to draw a comparison to The Queen, the Helen Mirren film released in 2006. We believe Helen Mirren as the persona of Queen Elizabeth; similarly, we are taken with Aisha. Both are fictions that lead us deeply into the lives of these women.

Aisha’s connection with the great villainess, Hind—wife of Abu Sufyan—is fiction, but makes for a spicy tale. On the other hand, the relationship between Aisha and an important wife, Zaynab bint Jahsh, reads true, and is portrayed with skillful insight. We are told that fourteen-year-old Aisha is accused of plotting a rendezvous with a young man; the older wife stands up for her.

Zaynab had never liked me, that was true, and my hold on Muhammad’s heart would always be a source of jealousy for her. But in her heart she knew I was innocent of the slander... I was not guilty of adultery. Idiocy, yes. Immaturity, yes. But she knew I would not, could not be unfaithful to Muhammad any more than the moon could refuse to follow the sun.1

Aisha's role in the Battle of the Camel has been argued and discussed by historians for centuries. Pasha covers most of the prevailing views, and I’m thankful that he depicts how, with her help, enemy factions agree to combine forces and bring the actual killers of the murdered caliph, Uthman, to justice. Tragically, before dawn, an attack occurs in the soldiers’ camp and war breaks out—with no one able to stop it.

In several places Pasha bends history a bit too much for me. At Hudaybiyya, where the first peace treaty is forged, the pledge of Bayat al-Ridwan, (the sacred taking-hand-with-Muhammad of the thousand men) is followed by the descent of the Sakina—the spirit of peace and tranquility, a transcendent moment. This mystical event is described by the author as a pledge to avenge Uthman if the Meccans kill him during negotiations. Pasha writes that Aisha witnesses the scene—but she was absent in the oral accounts of Hadith. The wife at this event was actually Umm Salama, who advised Muhammad. One thousand men refused to obey him after their bayat pledge, and Umm Salama saved the day—a well-known moment in this history.

Pasha places Aisha in Mecca for the Breaking of the Idols—instead of having Umm Salama tell her about it—and even has her follow Muhammad on her camel and enter the sacred Ka’ba shrine with him. Not so. Also, tradition recounts that Muhammad broke the statues in the courtyard in front of all, not just his wives, daughter Fatima and her family. Pasha writes that Ali cuts down the idols, while the Hadith does not mention Ali doing this.

My favorite parts were those moments where Pasha’s film-like vision takes us along the path described in historical records. I love the scene at the cave where Muhammad and Abu Bakr hide from their assassins. It begins with their seeming last moments before detection. Abu Bakr can see the pursuers—“They have found us! We are lost!”—and then Khalid (the enemy) says, “No one has been in here for months, if ever.” When Abu Bakr goes to the front of the cave to discover why the search party gave up, “...his mouth fell open.” Finally, Abu Bakr’s daughters, Asma, and her sister, little Aisha (who knew where they were hiding and brought food and water) arrive at the cave hours later—“The entrance was covered with a heavy spider web, and a small nest stood at its base. Two rock doves awakened at the sound of our approach and flew off in terror.” Abu Bakr extends a hand and the girls scream in surprise and terror. The scene comes alive and lifts off, taking us beyond the stiffly translated Hadith.

The night Fatima dies, Aisha is visited by her in a vision.

Gone were the plain, harsh features, the long face that was always drawn in sadness. In its place was the face of a new Fatima, a woman of such intense beauty and perfection that she no longer looked human... The only thing about her that was unchanged were her eyes, the same black eyes that belonged to her father...2

With this kind of imagined moment, Pasha is drawing together the torn strands of Sunni (Aisha) and Shia (Fatima). He goes on to have Fatima tell Aisha that she forgives Abu Bakr, Aisha’s father, interweaving the factions of the family through his gentle telling. This is the deeper gift of this book, which, insh’Allah, will build further bridges between East and West, Muslims and non-Muslims.

Books on Aisha: the “classic” in English is Nabia Abbott’s Aisha, the Beloved of Muhammad; good also is Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad, A Prophet for Our Time; and a more scholarly treatment is Politics, Gender and the Islamic Past: the Legacy of Aisha Bint Abi Bakr, by D.A. Spellberg. I do not recommend Jewel of Medina by Sherrie Jones.

Tamam Kahn is a pilgrim and storyteller. She has co-led groups to Morocco, Damascus, and India, visiting the dargahs of Sufi saints and sharing practices and zikrs with local Sufis of various lineage families. She is a poet and author of Untold, A History of the Wives of Prophet Muhammad, Monkfish Books, fall 2010, available now in limited edition by the author.

Read more about Tamam Kahn

Comments (1)
  • Thanks, Tamam, for this helpful review. I too find that Kamran Pasha has brought the scenes, people, and events of the early history of the Muslim community vividly to life with more color and meaning than most other books on this subject. I recommend “Mother of the Believers” book for anyone who wants a deep feeling for this history.

    — Talat Halman on June 11, 2009

9 June 2009

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