Recently, AltMuslimah reviewed my novel Mother of the Believers, a book that follows the birth of Islam from the perspective of Aisha (RA), the wife of Prophet Muhammad (SAWS). I would like to thank the reviewer, Uzma Mariam Ahmed, for taking the time to read my book and for writing a very gracious and positive review. And I would also like to take a moment to comment on the points that Ms. Ahmed raises as small problems for her that detracted from her overall warm response to the book.
Specifically, Ms. Ahmed criticizes me for my (extremely light) treatment of sexuality in the novel, which she found discomfiting. And she also takes me to task for my use of the most controversial account regarding Aisha’s age at the time of her marriage to the Holy Prophet (SAWS). These are important points that she has raised, and I would like to respond to them.
First, I make no apologies for my very limited use of sexuality in the tale. As some of the readers to her post have already commented, the hadith literature which served as the primary source material for my book is very open about sexual relations, to the degree that many in modern Western society would find shocking. Sex has always been considered a natural part of life in Islam, and neither the Holy Qur’an nor the hadiths have any problem discussing sex with the same straightforwardness as daily matters of life such as proper eating etiquette or the how to correctly cleanse oneself after defecating.
Islam is a religion for every aspect of the human condition, and sex is central to human life and affairs. There is no shame in lawful sexual relations in Islam, and the hadiths say that the angels bless a husband and wife during intercourse. Indeed, this openness regarding sex is very clear in the hadiths where Aisha (RA) talks about how she and the Holy Prophet (SAWS) would bathe together after intercourse, their hands touching as they performed ghusl, the ritual bath required after sex. There are other hadiths that say that one of the wives of the Holy Prophet (SAWS) approached him and said she was embarrassed to admit that she had “wet dreams.” The Messenger of God (SAWS) is reported to have told her that she had no reason for embarrassment, and then gave her advice as to how to cleanse herself properly after nocturnal emissions.
The Companions (RA) regularly asked the Holy Prophet (SAWS) about explicit details regarding sex, and he answered in a straightforward fashion so that there would be no misunderstanding over what is halal and what is haram in Islam. Muslims would ask the Messenger (SAWS) if anal intercourse is forbidden (it is) and whether withdrawing before ejaculation is an acceptable means of birth control (it is permissible). And the Holy Prophet (SAWS) also told his Companions that it was their duty to bring their wives to orgasm, as sexual pleasure was a blessing and strengthened the bond between husband and wife.
Indeed, it is Islam’s openness toward discussing sex that has historically brought great criticism from Christians, whose own religious attitudes toward sexuality have been deeply confused and ambiguous over the centuries. Most Christians believe that Jesus (AS) was never married (which is highly unlikely for any Jewish man in his 30s in first century Palestine). But the real problem in Christian attitudes toward sex arises from the teachings of Paul (who most Muslims would reject as a true apostle of Christ). Paul’s letters in the New Testament reveal deep issues about sex as inherently sinful, and he recommends celibacy and virginity as the Christian norm, with marriage accepted as a last resort for the weak of flesh (i.e. – “it is better to marry than burn.” 1 Corinthians 7:9)
These attitudes have led to a great deal of guilt and shame in the Christian community toward sex. And this repression has naturally created an extreme backlash by people in the West who have heralded a new “sexual revolution” of casual relations in response. In Islam, neither of these extremes is healthy. Sexual intercourse between a husband and wife is natural and should be encouraged and applauded, and neither celibacy nor hedonism are seen as wise lifestyles. But the Muslim approach understandably outrages many Christians who are committed to their faith and must defend the sexual psychoses that result from their scriptural legacy. As a result, one of the most common attacks on the Holy Prophet (SAWS) by Christians throughout the centuries is to portray him as a licentious and lustful figure living in decadence with his harem. But, as Edward Said pointed out in his seminal book Orientalism, that image is really the result of projecting Christian neuroses on to Muslim culture.
And unfortunately many Muslims today have absorbed these neuroses as a result of Christian cultural influences. In India, during the British Raj, Muslim scholars were pressured by repressed Victorian officials to edit Islamic religious works on sexuality to remove “offensive” and “explicit” details that were seen as evidence of the barbarism of Islam. That British cultural influence remains deeply embedded in the Indian subcontinent. I was born in Pakistan and raised by Muslim parents who had been educated in British Catholic schools. Sex was not something that was ever talked about in my household except in embarrassed euphemisms. So I was shocked when I went to college and started studying pre-British Muslim culture in India and discovered that sex was a normal part of life for my ancestors. Two hundred years ago, it was considered completely acceptable for Indian Muslims to joke about sex with their grandmothers!
And now we have degenerated under repressed Christian influence to a community with deep ambiguity over the most blessed human experience that Allah has created. Indeed, I was reading about how some Muslim women in (surprise) Britain were shocked to discover that Saudi businessmen were planning to open a lingerie store in Mecca. Their great-grandparents would not have thought twice about it. (And the lingerie stores proved to be a huge success, although many Muslim women are rightly complaining about Saudi rules that require the shops to be run by men, when most customers would prefer to buy their underwear from other women.)
This confused attitude toward sexuality has also led Muslims to forget that the early Islamic historians embraced the notion of the Holy Prophet (SAWS) as a virile, masculine and sexual man. In fact, many of the hadiths go out of their way to portray the Messenger of God (SAWS) as a sexual superman. There is one hadith (much mocked by Christians) that even says Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) would go to each of his wives and sexually satisfy all of them in the course of one night! Compared to these hadiths, my novel’s references to sex are quite tame and boring. There are no graphic sex scenes. Sexual references make up a few lines out of a 500-page novel that is primarily dedicated to making the history of Islam come alive and feel real to the reader. And I do not actually adopt the more fanciful hadiths about the Prophet’s sexual prowess. As one Western scholar has noted, Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) was an incredibly busy man with little time for indulgence in normal marital relations. He was single-handedly creating both a religion and a civilization from scratch. The Prophet (SAWS) spent his days and nights teaching, feeding the poor, administering justice, engaging in military activities and serving as a diplomat and a statesman. And according to the hadiths, he only slept a few hours every night, the rest spent in prayer.
It is therefore not surprising that during the ten years he spent in Medina, the Messenger of God (SAWS) had only one child, a son named Ibrahim (RA), despite maintaining a household of nearly a dozen wives. The obvious historical truth is that the Holy Prophet (SAWS), a man aged over 50 when he arrived in Medina, simply did not have the ability as a human being to engage in the intense sexual lifestyle that Muslims glamorize in their histories and that Christians mock. And my novel reflects that human reality. I show the Holy Prophet (SAWS) as balancing an impossible burden on his shoulders, and sex was a rare and much needed release from his overwhelming responsibilities.
Ms. Ahmed’s review creates, I believe, a false impression that I have written some kind of sleazy romance novel rather than a serious work of literature. She cites one scene where I mention Aisha’s jealousy when she hears sounds of sexual intercourse coming from the next room, where the Prophet (SAWS) is spending the night with his new wife Hafsa (RA). The Prophet’s wives lived next to each other in tiny mud cottages and the idea that they would never have heard any such thing through these thin walls is ridiculous. It would be an act of literary dishonesty for me to have pretended otherwise, and the line merely gave me a chance as a writer to explore how Aisha (RA), with her famed jealousy and fiery personality, felt as other women joined the Prophet’s household.
Indeed, there is a hadith where Aisha (RA) said that she used to follow the Prophet (SAWS) secretly at night to spy on him and see if he was spending his time with his other wives. It is this utter honesty and humanity that made me love our Holy Prophet (SAWS), our Mother Aisha (RA) and the other wives and Companions (RA) who serve as our role models. They were not plastic saints, but flesh and blood human beings just like us, and it makes their spiritual successes even more remarkable. And it is to highlight their humanity and educate the Muslims about how incredible the founders of Islam were that I chose to write this book.
With regard to the second issue that Ms. Ahmed disagrees with, my treatment of Aisha’s age, I make no apologies for my choice to portray her as nine years old at the time she menstruated and consummated her wedding. I will quote from my preface in the novel to address this issue:
“I would like to take a moment to comment on one of the most controversial aspects of my story, at least for many modern readers. In recent years there has been a great deal of discussion regarding Aisha’s age when she married Prophet Muhammad. Estimates of her age have ranged from early teens to early twenties. The most controversial account is that she was nine years old at the time of her wedding, which some modern critics have attempted to use to smear the Prophet with the inflammatory charge of pedophilia. In response to these charges, many Muslims are now performing all kinds of historical analysis to attempt to clear his name and reputation. What is evident is that Aisha was a young woman at the time of the wedding, but that her marriage was not in any way controversial and was never used by the enemies of the Prophet as a critique in his lifetime, unlike his marriage to Zaynab bint Jahsh. So clearly whatever Aisha’s age was, it was irrelevant to her contemporaries and considered mainstream in the social context of seventh century Arabia.
In my novel, I have chosen to directly face the controversy over Aisha’s age by using the most contentious account, that she was nine at the time she consummated her wedding. The reason I have done this is to show that it is foolish to project modern values onto another time and world. In a desert environment where life expectancy was extremely low, early marriage was not a social issue – it was a matter of survival. Modern Christian historians have no problem suggesting that Mary was around twelve years old when she became pregnant with Jesus, as that was the normal age for marriage and childbearing in first century Palestine. Yet no one claims Mary’s youthful pregnancy was somehow perverse, because it is easy to understand that life expectancy was so low in that world that reproduction took place immediately upon menstruation.”
The fact is, whether Muslims like it or not, people who hate Islam are using this account in the hadith to insult our Holy Prophet (SAWS). And until these attacks began in the past few years, there was no controversy among Muslims over the idea that Aisha (RA) could have been nine when she married the Messenger of God (SAWS). Indeed, one of the most popular modern biographies of the Holy Prophet, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, by Martin Lings uses that account. Mr. Lings was a British convert to Islam and his biography is beloved throughout the Muslim world. But this issue of Aisha’s age clearly did not cause Martin Lings any problems, as he understood the historical context of such a marriage. Nor did Muslim readers raise an outcry over the story, until enemies of Islam started using it as a slur.
So in adopting this account, I have simply attempted to present why such a marriage would not have been controversial or even noteworthy to the contemporaries of the Prophet (SAWS). In doing so, I am seeking to end the spiteful attacks on the Messenger of God (SAWS) by pointing out that his attackers are simply bigots who are twisting history and conveniently projecting 21st century values backward into an ancient desert world where these values would have made no sense. In relying on this “controversial” account, I am seeking to dethrone Western critics from their self-righteous perches and reveal the cheap hypocrisy of those who would insult our beloved Prophet (SAWS), who was sent by God as a Mercy for all the Worlds.
So that is my response to the criticisms that have been raised against my book. And I want to thank again Ms. Ahmed and AltMuslimah for the very generous and supportive review, which does capture my overall intentions in writing Mother of the Believers. I sought to bring to life the remarkable story of Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) for a new generation that frankly does not read “boring” history books. In doing so, I have followed in the footsteps of people like filmmaker Moustapha Akkad, who made the remarkable movie “The Message” about the birth of Islam. Like Akkad, I have sought to use modern media (in my case, literature) to spread the message of Islam as a religion of love and beauty.
I hope that Muslims will read Mother of the Believers and come to their own conclusions about my novel and whether I was indeed successful in increasing love for Islam and our Holy Prophet (SAWS) through its pages. That was my only desire, and if I have succeeded, the credit belongs to Allah alone. And if I have failed, not only is the fault mine, but I also encourage Muslims to correct my mistakes and write a hundred new novels about Islam in response. If you find fault with my effort, then please, by all means, improve on what I have done with your own books. It is your duty as Muslims to do so.
By the mercy of Allah, I was able to release my novel through a top publisher, Simon & Schuster, and in doing so I have shown Muslim writers that they can distribute their works of literature at the highest levels of the publishing industry. It is now up to the next generation of Muslim artists to follow the path that I and other Muslim authors have blazed for them, and to expand and create new opportunities to share the message of Islam with the world.
And despite whatever ways we disagree as Muslims, let us all agree on one thing. That there is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger.
(Photo source: Beatrice.com)
Kamran Pasha is a Hollywood filmmaker and the author of Mother of the Believers, a novel on the birth of Islam as told by Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha (Atria Books; April 2009). For more information please visit http://www.kamranpasha.com