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History Buff is a site
for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women
of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives
in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's
sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!
historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the
past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
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Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Kamran Pasha
*Your novel, MOTHER OF BELIEVERS, tells the story of Aisha, who married the leader Muhammad and eventually became a leader herself. What drew you to this period in history?
As a practicing Muslim, I have always been fascinated by the stories around the birth of Islam. This was the defining period that shaped Muslim civilization, much like the Exodus is a pivotal historical period for Jews and the ministry of Jesus is for Christians. But unlike the earlier religions in the monotheistic family, Islam was born in the full light of history. The amount of historical data around Prophet Muhammad, his family and followers is staggering. We know facts as minute as how the Prophet tied his shoes and how he ate, along with surprisingly intimate details of his life with his wives. Much of this is due to Aisha, the Prophet’s youngest and most beloved wife, who is the central hero of MOTHER OF THE BELIEVERS. She transmitted over 2,000 historical accounts about her life with the Prophet and the early Muslim community, providing a wealth of detail that created an embarrassment of riches when I was researching the book. In fact, the challenge was trying to get in as much historical detail as I could while keeping the novel to a readable length. Had I followed my original story outline, the book would have been over 1,000 pages, and my publisher would probably have fainted. I had to drop many chapters I loved in order to make it more manageable. Still, the first draft came in at over 700 pages, and it took more painful editing until I got it down to a little over 500 pages. But as a result it is a better book. It’s tighter, and manages to convey the epic nature of the origins of Islam while still retaining an intimate feel.
*How much of MOTHER OF BELIEVERS is based on fact, and how much is fiction?
I state in my foreword that my novel is a work of fiction, as I wanted to make it clear that I am not claiming to present a textbook of Islamic history. Still, I tried to stay within the framework of the major historical events, partly due to my affinity for the underlying history as a Muslim, and partly because when it comes to the events I recount, truth is more remarkable than fiction. The birth of Islam is one of the most improbable and majestic moments in human history, filled with surprise twists and incredibly complex characters motivated by faith, passion, love and revenge. It is such an amazing tale that I really couldn’t “improve” on it with my creative imagination. The main area I allowed myself to indulge in speculation was in looking inside the hearts and minds of the characters, trying to imagine what they were thinking and feeling, what motivated them to take the actions that have been recorded by history. It is in that arena that my novel might generate some controversy, but my interpretations regarding the thoughts and motivations of these historical figures are well within the analysis of Muslim historians. There is really nothing in my book that cannot be found in the opinions of traditional scholars, although the choices I make might surprise some readers. In some ways, the book represents my own personal interpretation of Islamic history as a believer. I synthesized the world as my heart saw it. Perhaps we all do that every day when we look not only at the past, but also at our own lives and try to make sense of it all. The novel is written as a memoir, and I think all memory is a creative act. We remember events not necessarily as they were, but as they fit into our image of ourselves. So, in that sense, I think everyone is living a life that is historical fiction.
*Tell us about women's lives in 7th century Arabia.
Prior to the rise of Islam, women had a very difficult time in Arabia. It was a brutal wilderness with no central authority and a “kill or be killed” mindset that led the strong to prey on the weak. Women suffered tremendously, with no guaranteed rights, since there was no legal code. Arab men regularly performed female infanticide, burying unwanted baby girls alive in the desert. Kidnapping and rape were commonplace, and many women survived through prostitution. Although a few women had the protection of wealthy clans and were able to become prosperous businesswomen in the trading cities like Mecca, for most women pre-Islamic Arabia was a miserable environment. Islam in many ways began as a proto-feminist movement meant to alleviate the suffering of women and children in this chaotic world. Prophet Muhammad was himself an orphan and had grown up in poverty in Arabia after his mother died when he was six. He personally experienced the misery of life for the poor and the weak in the old system and he was very sensitive to the suffering of the less fortunate. And when the Prophet embarked on his mission to bring the Arabs to monotheism, his initial followers came primarily from that impoverished underclass. Women in particular were drawn to his new religion, as he banned female infanticide and started promulgating laws meant to make their lives easier. Muslim women secured the right own property and inherit from the beginning, rights that were not granted Christian women in Europe and America until the 19th century. The Prophet also worked to limit the pre-Islamic custom of polygamy and emphasized that multiple marriages should be undertaken primarily to help poor widows and orphans who needed the security of a family unit. These were remarkable reforms and Arab women flocked to the Islamic movement, which was finally bringing law and order to a barbaric world. And Muslim women continued to play major roles in every aspect of life in the Islamic community. Aisha, the Prophet’s wife and the main character of MOTHER OF THE BELIEVERS, is a remarkable example of an empowered Muslim woman. She was a scholar, a poet, a political leader, and a warrior who led armies into battle. In modern times, many Muslim feminists look back to her example as they fight for their own rights in the Islamic world. Unfortunately, Islam has gotten a bad rap as a misogynistic religion in the modern day, which is ironic considering that it began as a movement meant to liberate women and make their lives easier. But issues of sexism and oppression of Muslim women are very real today, and I hope that my novel will remind people of that liberating spark that is the heart of Islam. I hope that I can remind Muslim men and women what Islam stood for at its beginning and inspire believers to follow the best that is within the Islamic historical tradition.
*How did you go about researching your novel?
I looked at a large collection of historical sources that have been translated into English. I don’t speak Arabic and I had to rely on translations of early Arabic works by Muslim scholars. Thankfully, many of the most important sources have indeed been translated into English and provided a rich level of detail into the world in which Islam was born. As I mentioned earlier, the amount of historical information that is available on Prophet Muhammad is staggering, and the difficult part was not in finding material from which to write a novel, but in picking and choosing which stories to weave into the narrative. At the end of the day, I chose accounts that moved me emotionally, and I hope my love for these stories is evident to the reader of my MOTHER OF THE BELIEVERS.
*What are you working on next?
My next book, SHADOW OF THE SWORDS, is a historical novel on the Crusades. The tale follows the battle between King Richard the Lionheart and the Muslim sultan Saladin for control of Jerusalem. But at its heart, it is a love story with a young Jewish girl at the center who serves as a spy during the conflict. In many ways, I think the book will intrigue many people as it looks at what the Holy Land means to all three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And it looks at how the human heart can find love and beauty even in the midst of war and death. I think that SHADOW OF THE SWORDS asks some very profound questions about the nature of religious faith and human conflict, and is in some ways a direct analogy to some of the events happening in the Holy Land today. But it is ultimately a story of hope, reflecting my own desire to see reconciliation one day between all the Children of Abraham.
Thank you Kamran! And feel free to visit Kamran Pasha online for more information about his amazing new novel Mother of Believers.