A few years ago, I lived for over two years in a rooming house in Jersey City, as I daily ruthlessly crawled my way to literary fame. The person in the room next to me was a devout Muslim from Pakistan.
He was a handsome young man, beaming with health and well-being, and with an impressive stock of rich looking black hair; that often made me reluctant to take off my hat in his presence. No point in embarrassing myself.
His father, I was to soon learn, was a high ranking General in the Pakistan army; and that bold confidence on my new young friend’s handsome face was always reminding me of that.
One day, as we stood in the shared kitchen, me cooking pork chops, which he didn’t blink from, but would never take a bite, but seemed to enjoy the smell, I got up the courage to ask him what he thought of all the fuss going on in the Mideast and the attack on America on 9/11.
“That’s not Islam!”
In many ways, I found this novel, the first of the well-known The Islam Quintet, highly interesting, mainly because of remembering the strong reaction of my young friend from Pakistan. For those who know little about Islam, what we hear often is “That’s not Islam.” Even our President says that what is happening in the Middle East is not Islam.
It turns out that this has been a long, centuries-old struggle to define just what is Islam, if we are to believe Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree.
This novel, a reissue for Verso, was first issued by them it in 1993.
There were some novelistic conventions I found distracting, and it was mostly all talk, and strange names, with different names for the same person, much like you will find in a classic Russian novel. Still, I found it hard to put down, and couldn’t wait to get back to it when I awoke. And I read every page.
Part of the reason was because we see an entire, proud society now forced to choose between religious conversion, exile or the sword.
Here is the real bare bones history behind Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, courtesy of Wikipedia:
The Spanish occupation by the Moors began in 711 AD when an African army, under their leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa and invaded the Iberian peninsula.
The Moors, ruled Spain for 800 years. The Moors called the territory Al-Andalus, which at its peak included what is today most of Spain and Portugal. The differences in religions and cultures led to a centuries-long conflict with the Christian kingdoms of Europe, as they tried to reclaim control of Muslim areas,
The Moors were initially of Arab and Berber descent at the time of the Umayyadconquest of Hispania in the early 8th century. Later the term covered people of mixed ancestry (including black Africans), and Iberian Christian converts to Islam (the Arabs called the latter Muwalladun or Muladi)
As the novel begins, we are now near the end of what Christian Spain called “The Reconquista.” Under the leadership of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, Muslim and Jewish subjects were offered conversion, exile, or death.
The last Muslim Sultan had fled to North Africa, a place where neither he, nor members of the prominent, prosperous, upper class family at the center of this novel, have only imagined.
Spain was their home. They knew little else. What should they do?
At the heart of this novel, author Tariq Ali, gives us a long, philosophic conversation of what went wrong for the Muslims, after so many years of ruling over Al-Andalus. For example, this early passage sets the stage for the rest of the novel in many ways:
The old uncle’s mocking voice was still resounding in Umar’s head. ’You know the trouble with your religion, Umar. It was too easy for us. The Christians had to insert themselves into the pores of the Roman Empire. It forced them to work below the ground. The catacombs of Rome were their training-ground. When they finally won, they had already built a great deal of social solidarity with their people. Us? The Prophet, peace be upon him, sent Khalid bin Walid with a sword and he conquered. Oh yes, he conquered a great deal. We destroyed two empires. Everything fell into our lap. We kept the Arab lands and Persia and parts of Byzantium. Elsewhere it was difficult, wasn’t it? Look at us. We have been in Al-Andalus for seven hundred years and still we could not build something that would last. It’s not just the Christians, is it, Umar? The fault is in ourselves.’
Near the end of the novel, another character echo’s this: “Our own fault,” declared Ibn Hisham without a shadow of a doubt. “We always look for answers in the actions of our enemies…Our Prophet died too soon, before he could consolidate the new order. His successors killed each other like the warring tribesmen that they were. Instead of assimilating the stable characteristics of civilizations which we conquered, we decided instead on imparting to them our own mercurial style.”
Shades of Pat Roberson!
The novel goes on like this, always pointing to the bickering among Muslims about just what did the Prophet Mohammed really say, and how should it be interpreted. This first book was published in 1991. All hell had not yet broken out in the Middle East between Muslims. This is a thoughtful book that explains much of what we witness almost every time we turn on the news.
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