By Kamran Pasha
My new novel “Mother of the Believers” tells the story of the birth of Islam from the perspective of Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha. A similar book, “The Jewel of Medina” by Sherry Jones, caused much controversy last year after her initial publisher withdrew for fear of inciting Muslim protests. With my own novel coming out in a few days, it is inevitable that people ask whether I am worried that the book will generate controversy.
My response is that controversy is inevitable when it comes to writing about Prophet Muhammad, who has the distinction of being simultaneously the most beloved and hated man in world history. Revered by his followers as God’s last messenger to humanity, and vilified by others as a false prophet, the founder of Islam has always been a figure that excites passionate emotions. So in writing a novel that looks at his life from the perspective of the woman he loved most, I have no doubt that I will become the target of those feelings.
Some Muslims have already expressed concern that presenting the Prophet’s life in a work of literary fiction is potentially blasphemous. As a believer myself, I wholeheartedly disagree. In 1977, the great filmmaker Moustapha Akkad made a wondrous movie about Prophet Muhammad called “The Message.” Despite his efforts to do a respectful, indeed reverent, portrayal of the early Muslim community, Akkad was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists for having created a “blasphemous” work by daring to re-imagine sacred history as cinema. And yet, thirty years later, his movie can be found on DVDs in Muslim homes throughout the world, and Akkad (who was murdered by terrorists in 2005) is remembered fondly as a visionary who spread the message of Islam through filmmaking.
Still, some scholars have raised objections to Akkad’s film, citing a list of historical inaccuracies, as I’m sure some will with regard to my novel. But Akkad was not making a documentary – he was filming an epic movie, and he tailored the storyline according to the demands and limits of cinema. I have done the same with my novel. It is impossible to tell the story of Islam’s birth in three hours of film, or in 500 pages of literature, without artistic license. What Akkad sought, and what I seek, is to give millions of people who would never read a history book on Islam a sense of the magic and wonder around the Prophet’s life, and to provide insight into the powerful appeal of Islam through the centuries.
Indeed I would argue that Muslims have always engaged in this kind of artistic storytelling. Many of the hadiths, the oral accounts about the Prophet’s life, are historically questionable (as are many of the Christian accounts about the life of Jesus), but they have been passed on for generations exactly because they are powerful stories that appeal to the human heart. The Modern Library recently published “The Adventures of Amir Hamza,” a remarkable collection of legends and myths around the Prophet’s uncle Hamza (played by Anthony Quinn in Akkad’s movie). These stories are clearly fictional, but they were used as wisdom tales throughout the Muslim world and were more widespread and beloved than The Arabian Nights.
Muslims have always understood that storytelling is a way to inspire faith and love for God and the Prophet. Stories bridge the gap of centuries and make the magic of Islam’s birth feel as real today as it did for those present during those remarkable times. Without that deep, joyous love at the center of one’s heart, religion becomes an empty shell of rules that can be easily twisted into fundamentalism and fanaticism. Muslims of the past knew this instinctively, and embraced art as a way of igniting that love. It has only been in recent years that a small but irritating minority has adopted a blanket anti-intellectualism regarding art and its purpose in Islamic civilization. My novel seeks to remind Muslims that storytelling is their proud heritage, and that if their intentions are good, they can uplift the hearts of mankind with the power of the pen.
So I urge my fellow Muslims to read my novel before coming to a conclusion. And if you hate what I have written, if you find it somehow blasphemous, then please, by all means, write your own books that will correct my flaws and mistakes. If Mother of the Believers ends up spawning a hundred new books about the Prophet and the birth of Islam, then I will consider my efforts to have been successful, even if my own work is forgotten in the annals of time.
Kamran Pasha is a Hollywood filmmaker and the author of “Mother of the Believers,” a new novel on the birth of Islam published by Atria Books. For more information, go to www.kamranpasha.com.