I’ve been interested in the ancient and medieval Middle East for a long time – since I was a teenager, really, but this current flurry of reading on the subject dates back to my reading of The House of Wisdom at the beginning of the summer. I thought I knew the story of how and why Muhammad’s followers split into two opposing factions, and I did know part of it, but I was placing too much emphasis on the twelfth imam, who is a messianic figure in Shia Islam. I missed the role of a horrific massacre of Hussein, the son of Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali, and 72 of his followers; the descendants of the people who committed that massacre became the Sunnis; the descendants of Hussein and his followers are the Shia.
Cultural appropriation is on my mind when I review books like this one. Every time I write the word “they” or “them” about a racial, ethnic, or religious group not my own, I start stealing cryptic little looks over my shoulders looking for angry readers. Nobody is actually reading this, right? I ask myself nervously. I mean, this is the internet. People are just here for the porn, right? Someday, when linguists look back on the early 21st century, they’ll call the 2010’s “the decade when pronouns got complicated.” Complicated in good ways, sure – but complicated nonetheless.
So since I’m loathe to tell you what “they” and “them” did in the Arabian desert 1500 years ago that still reverberates today, I’m going to grab onto a little tangent and run with it. First I’m going to tell you that I enjoyed this book a good deal, that it’s very readable, and that I recommend it. Then I’m going to talk about Shakespeare. Shakespeare was on my mind while I was reading this book because I found myself wishing that Shakespeare had known this history and could have written a play about it. My favorite of Shakespeare’s themes (and, I think, his favorite too) is the question of what constitutes legitimate authority.
Muhammad died without naming an heir, which seems like an awfully obtuse thing for a prophet to do, though Hazleton provides the fascinating detail that many of Muhammad’s followers expected him to rise from the dead three days after his death, like Jesus. She never states or implies that Muhammad himself expected a quick resurrection, but it seems the idea was floating around. Anyway, in the days and weeks after Muhammad’s death, various whispered conclaves were held around Medina. There were several qualified candidates: the elderly Abu Bakr, father of Muhammad’s favorite wife Aisha, a stern military commander named Omar, a wealthy aristocrat named Othman, and a young philosopher-warrior named Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law. Hazelton devotes the first third of her book to the events that transpired just before and after Muhammad’s death: bodies being spirited away and buried in strange places, gate-crashers disrupting secret conclaves, and something called “the episode of the pen and paper,” when Muhammad (who was illiterate) asked for a pen and paper moments before his death and the dozens of people at his bedside kept stalling one another, preventing the prophet from writing down (he was illiterate!) the name of his successor because they wanted to continue to duke it out for their preferred candidates after his death. And duke it out they did.
The circumstances surrounding Muhammad’s death would make for great intrigue in a Shakespeare play (consider the soliloquies!), but the main reason I invoked Shakespeare in this review is that Muhammad’s youngest and favorite wife would make a fantastic Shakespearean heroine. Aisha hated Ali ever since an incident called “the affair of the necklace” (no joke, the incidents surrounding Muhammad’s life and death all sound like the titles of Friends episodes), when Aisha left the caravan during a journey in order to find a place to pee. While she was gone, she snagged her necklace on a branch and the beads scattered all over the place. By the time she gathered them all up, the caravan had left without her. Since she was the prophet’s favorite wife and the daughter of one of his closest advisors, she assumed they would notice her absence and immediately turn around. But that didn’t happen, and she ended up having to resort to the 7th-century equivalent of hitchhiking, which is to say that she accepted an offer from a young warrior who was heading in the same direction of the caravan. Of course, when the teenaged Aisha turned up on a strange man’s camel, many in Muhammad’s household – who hated her for her brazenness, for her youth, for her status as Muhammad’s favorite, or for all three – were ready to cast her out for adultery. In Hazleton’s words: “Overnight, the poets got busy. They were the gossip columnists, the op-ed writers, the bloggers, the entertainers of the time, and the poems they wrote now were not lyrical odes, but the other great form of traditional Arabic poetry: satires. Laced with puns and double entendres, they were irresistibly repeatable, building up momentum the more they spread. The barbed rhyming couplets acted like lances, verbal attacks all the more powerful in a society where alliances were made on a promise and a handshake, and men were literally taken at their word” (28).
Muhammad asked Ali for advice, and Ali recommended that he divorce Aisha and move on. Muhammad did not accept this advice, and soon he had received a revelation declaring Aisha innocent – a revelation that, long story short, led to the veiling of women in Islam, but I’m not going to go into detail about that. What I do want to tell you about is “the Battle of the Camel,” in which Aisha led an army into battle against Ali’s forces. She rode a camel into battle all decked out in chain mail and very much in command of her men. Hazleton reports that “this was the traditional role of women in battle, though never before from the center” (114) and provides examples of other women who were famous not only for screaming and ululating during battles to motivate the troops but also for performing acts of – ummm – courage (?) like slicing open the abdomen of an enemy soldier, pulling out his liver, and then tearing the liver apart with her teeth à la Daenerys Targaryen. So Aisha’s antics on top of her camel were not as singular as one might expect. The battle ended when Aisha’s best warriors were killed and Ali made the decision to hamstring the poor camel and take Aisha into custody rather than let the prophet’s favorite wife be killed. When one of Ali’s lieutenants opened the chain mail compartment and asked Aisha how she was doing, she replied, “I have an arrow in me” (121).
In other words, Aisha was a badass, perfect for Shakespeare’s stage – or for any stage, really. I enjoyed this book all the way to the end, though it was never quite the page-turner that it was when Aisha was at center stage. The rest of the book includes plenty more carnage, leading up to the horrific murder of 72 warriors (and their wives and children) who were followers of Ali’s son Hussein – a massacre that formalized the split that already existed between Shia and Sunni Islam.
I recommend this book for the general reader. A historian might find it too sensationalized (and you should be able to tell from this review that I am no historian), and God knows what a scholar of Islam would think of it. Looking back on this review, I seem to have indulged in more irreverence than I’d planned, and I hope no one is offended. Where is the line drawn between cultural appropriation and loving a story and wanting to make it my own? Wherever the line is, we can be sure it’s a fine one, and I would rather walk that line, even clumsily sometimes, than never approach it at all.