/ Language: English / Genre:prose_contemporary

Mother Of the Believers

Kamran Pasha

Deep in the heart of seventh-century Arabia, a new prophet named Muhammad has arisen. As his message of enlightenment sweeps through Arabia and unifies the warring tribes, his young wife Aisha recounts Muhammad's astonishing transformation from prophet to warrior to statesman. But just after the moment of her husband's greatest triumph – the conquest of the holy city of Mecca – Muhammad falls ill and dies in Aisha's arms. A young widow, Aisha finds herself at the center of the new Muslim empire and becomes by turns a teacher, political leader, and warrior. Written in beautiful prose and meticulously researched, Mother of the Believer is the story of an extraordinary woman who was destined to help usher Islam into the world.

Kamran Pasha

Mother Of the Believers

Copyright © 2009 by Kamran Pasha

A Novel of the Birth of Islam

“ Paradise is at the feet of the mothers.”

– Prophet Muhammad

Dedicated to my mother,

who is the living proof of these words.

Author’s Note

This book is a work of fiction. Though based on historical events, it is not a history of those events. Readers who are interested in learning more about the history of Islam and the lives of Prophet Muhammad and his wife Aisha are encouraged to read some of the wonderful reference works that I have relied on to write this tale. These books include the brilliantly crafted biography by Martin Lings entitled Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, as well as the excellent works by Barnaby Rogerson, including The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography and Heirs of Muhammad.

Those interested in seeking a Western scholarly perspective on Muhammad’s life and legacy are referred to Montgomery Watt’s seminal work Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, as well as Karen Armstrong’s influential book Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet.

Readers seeking more knowledge about Aisha will find a wealth of information on her and other prominent Muslim women in Jennifer Heath’s The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam. For those fascinated by the military history surrounding the rise of Islam, a wonderfully readable analysis can be found in Richard A. Gabriel’s Muhammad, Islam’s First General. Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests is also a fine resource for those seeking insight into how a small band of desert warriors improbably created a vast empire and a civilization that remains vibrant and influential in the world today.

Readers interested in a general introduction to the faith and practices of Islam are referred to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Islam by Yahiya Emerick and No god but God by Reza Aslan. Those who wish to gain deeper insight into the spiritual values of Islam and what the religion offers the world today are referred to Islam and the Destiny of Man by Charles Le Gai Eaton and The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. A deeper look at the spiritual heart of Islam can be found in The Vision of Islam by Sachicko Murata and William Chittick and in the classic text Understanding Islam by Frithjof Schuon.

There are many translations of the holy Qur’an on the market today, but I have found three to be particularly helpful to Western readers. Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s The Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary is one of the most beloved of English translations and is helpful to those who are new to studying the Muslim faith. Muhammad Asad’s monumental translation The Message of the Holy Qur’an is both scholarly and written from the point of a view of a European convert who understands how to explain the scripture to the Western mind. For those seeking a simple translation that is not bogged down with commentary, I recommend The Qur’an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem and published by Oxford University Press. An older but still popular translation is The Glorious Qur’an by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, a British convert.

Writing a novel about the birth of Islam and the remarkable personalities of the Prophet Muhammad, Aisha, and the rest of the early Muslim community has been an extremely challenging and rewarding process. Compared to the limited historical data available on Jesus, the origins of Islam and the life of the Prophet have been documented with a degree of historical detail that is mind-boggling to many Westerners. It has been said that we know more about Muhammad than we do about any other man in history, as his followers meticulously recorded everything they could about their beloved teacher, from how he looked, to his daily mannerisms and eating habits, to surprisingly intimate details about his personal life with his wives. Much of this can be credited to the remarkable memory of Aisha, who was responsible for transmitting over two thousand individual hadiths, or oral accounts of her life with the Prophet and his teachings.

The corpus of historical data about the Prophet Muhammad is staggering in its depth and detail, but his life remains a matter of controversy. Believers and nonbelievers will obviously interpret the tales about Muhammad in accordance with their own perspective about the truth of his spiritual mission. And within the Muslim community itself, interpretation of historical events is often hotly debated among the different sects of Sunni and Shia Islam.

For the record, I am a believing and practicing Muslim. Theologically I consider myself a Sunni, and spiritually I am drawn to Sufism, the mystical heart of Islam. By lineage, I am a sayyid, a direct descendant of the Prophet through his daughter Fatima and his grandson Husayn. For me, this novel has been both a rewarding journey into the heart of my religious tradition and an eye-opening study of the passionate and complex people who were my ancestors. They were simple men and women, living in a remote desert, who should have been forgotten by history. And yet through the sheer power of faith, they managed to turn the world upside down.

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 on 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.

An interesting anthropological analysis of the onset of puberty in ancient and modern times can be found in Mismatch by Peter Gluckman and Mark Hanson. Their study shows that modern social norms have evolved in ways that conflict with evolutionary pressures for girls to menstruate and bear children at a young age. These conflicts were less apparent in ancient times, when survival trumped other concerns. Girls in many ancient cultures were considered adult women immediately upon the onset of their cycles. To project modern social norms backward into that environment is disingenuous and reflects a failure to understand history and human nature.

It is for that reason that I have chosen to use the most controversial account as a framework for my story.

In closing, I should note that not all Muslims would agree with my interpretation of Islam in these pages or with my portrayal of the Prophet’s life and of Aisha’s role in Muslim history. And that is fine. I encourage those who disagree with my presentation to write books that reflect the truth as their hearts see it. In fact, I hope a day comes when novels about Prophet Muhammad, Aisha, and Ali become as commonplace in Western literature as the diverse and beloved books on historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Queen Elizabeth I.

My intention in writing this novel has been to give Westerners a glimpse of the richness that exists within the Muslim historical tradition and to invite all my readers to learn more about Islam and draw their own conclusions. To the extent that I have succeeded, the credit belongs to God alone. The failures, however, are all mine.

Prologue. The Beginning of the End

In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate

What is faith?

It is a question I have asked myself over the years, dear nephew, and I am no closer to the answer now than I was when my hair was still crimson like the rising dawn, not the pale silver of moonlight as it is today.

I write this for you, because I know I am dying. I do not complain, for there are times I wished I had died many years ago or, better yet, had never been born. My heart looks at the trees, whose life consists of no more than dreams of the sun and memories of the rain, and I envy them. There are times when I wish I were one of the rocks that line the hills beyond Medina, ignored and forgotten by those who tread upon them.

You will protest, I am sure. How could I, Aisha the daughter of Abu Bakr, the most famed woman of her time, wish to trade in my glorious memories for the sleep of the deaf and the dumb of the earth? That is the tricky thing with memories, dear Abdallah, son of my sister. They are like the wind. They come when they wish and carry with them both the hope of life and the danger of death. We cannot master them. Nay, they are our masters and rejoice in their capriciousness, carrying our hearts with them wherever they wish.

And now they have taken me, against my will, to this moment, where I sit in my tiny bedroom made of mud brick, only a few feet away from the grave of my beloved, writing this tale. There is much I do not want to recall, but my memories cry out to be recorded, so that they can live in the memories of others when I am gone.

So I shall start at the beginning. At a time when one world was dying and another was about to be born. There is much glory in my tale, much wonder, and a great deal of sorrow. It is a story that I hope you will preserve and take with you to the farthest reaches of the empire, so that the daughters and granddaughters of those who are still being suckled today will remember. Much of what I shall relate, I witnessed with my own eyes. The rest I recount as it was recounted to me by those who were present.

It is a tale of great portent, and the bearer of my words must shoulder a weighty burden before God and man. And of all those who dwell on earth, there is none whom I can trust more than you, Abdallah, to carry my tale. In my days of honor and of disgrace, you have stood by my side, more loyal than any son of my flesh could have been. I look upon your smiling face and see all that I have gained and lost as the price of my destiny. A fate that was written in the ink of dreams when I was still a child.

I was six years old when I married the Messenger of God, although our union was not consummated until I began my cycles at the age of nine. Over the years, I became aware that my youthful marriage was considered shocking, even barbaric, by the haughty noblewomen of Persia and Byzantium, although none would have dared to say so to my face. Of course I am used to the cruel whispers of the gossipmongers. More so than most women of my time, I have been subjected to the hidden daggers of jealousy and rumor. Perhaps that is to be expected. A price I must pay as the favorite wife of the most revered and hated man the world has ever known.

Tell them, Abdallah, that I loved Muhammad, may God’s blessings and peace be upon him, and that he loved me, for all that I proved unworthy of it. Of the many twists and turns that have guided the caravan of my life, there are none that I treasure more than my ten years with him as his wife. Indeed, there are many days that I wished I had died with him, that Gabriel would have taken my spirit with his and I could have left this valley of tears for others to conquer. I torment myself with the knowledge that many thousands would have lived had I simply died that day. An army of believers who followed me to their doom. Good men, who believed that I acted out of idealism rather than pride and a hidden lust for revenge. Good men like your father. Had my soul departed along with the Messenger, he and so many others would have lived.

But that was not my destiny.

My fate was to be the mother of a nation, even though my womb has never borne a child of its own. A nation that was chosen by God to change the world, to destroy iniquity, even as it is forever tempted to succumb to it. A nation that defeated every adversary, despite all the forces of Earth marshaled against it, and then became doomed to fight itself until the Day of Resurrection. A nation whose soul, like mine, is filled with God and yet consumed with earthly passion. A nation that stands for victory and justice, yet can never hide its own failures and cruelties against the terrible judgment of the One.

This is my Ummah, my nation, and I am its face, even though no man outside my family has looked upon my face since I was a little girl.

I am the harbinger of joy and anger. The queen of love and jealousy. The bearer of knowledge and the ultimate fool.

I am the Mother of the Believers, and this is my tale.

Book One. Birth of a Faith

1 Mecca-AD 613

I was born in blood, and its terrible taint would follow me all my life.

My mother, Umm Ruman, cried out in agony as the contractions increased in severity. The midwife, a stout woman from the tribe of Bani Nawfal named Amal, leaned closer to examine the pregnant woman’s abdomen. And then she saw it. The line of blood that was running down her patient’s thigh.

Amal looked over to the young girl standing nervously to the side of the wooden birthing chair where her stepmother was struggling to bring forth life.

“Asma,” she said in a soft voice, trying to mask the fear that was growing in her chest. “Get your father.”

Your mother, Abdallah, was no more than ten years old at the time, and she paled at Amal’s words. Asma knew what they meant. So did Umm Ruman.

“I am dying,” Umm Ruman gasped, her teeth grinding against the pain. She had known something was wrong the moment her water broke. It had been dark and mottled with blood, and the subsequent horror of the contractions was far beyond anything she had experienced at the birth of her son, Abdal Kaaba, so many years before.

At the age of thirty-eight, she had known that she was too old to bear another child safely and had greeted the news of her pregnancy with trepidation. In the Days of Ignorance before the Revelation, perhaps she would have turned to Amal or the other midwives of Mecca for their secret draft that was said to poison the womb. But the Messenger of God had made it clear to his small band of followers that the life of a child was sacred, despite the many pagan Arab customs to the contrary. She had sworn an oath of allegiance to his hand, and she would not go against his teachings, even if they meant her demise. Unlike most of her neighbors and friends still clinging to the old ways, Umm Ruman no longer feared death. But she grieved to think that her child, the first to be born into the new faith of Islam, might not survive to see the sunrise.

Amal took her hand and squeezed it gently.

“Do not despair. We will get through this together.” Her voice was kind, but Umm Ruman could see in the stern lines around her mouth that Amal had reached her professional conclusion. The end was nigh for mother and child.

Umm Ruman managed to turn her head to her stepdaughter, Asma, who stood frozen at her side, tears welling in her dark eyes.

“Go. Bring Abu Bakr to me,” she said, her voice growing faint. She stroked the girl’s still plump cheeks. “If I die before you return, tell him my last request was that the Prophet pray at my funeral.”

Asma shook her head, refusing to face that possibility. “You can’t die! I won’t let you!”

The girl was not of Umm Ruman’s flesh, but the bond between them was as strong as that of any mother and daughter. Perhaps stronger, for Asma had chosen her over her actual mother, Qutaila, who had refused to accept the new faith. Abu Bakr had divorced his first wife, for it was forbidden for a believer to share a bed with an idol worshiper. The proud Qutaila had left their home in a furious rage, vowing to return to her tribe, but Asma had refused to go with her. The girl had chosen the Straight Path, the way of the Messenger and her father, Abu Bakr. That had been three years ago, and Asma had not seen her mother since. Umm Ruman had felt sorry for the abandoned child, still too young to understand the enormity of her choice, and had raised the girl as her own.

She wondered what would happen to Asma once she was gone. Abu Bakr would likely look for a new wife, but there were only a handful of believers, and the Message was spreading slowly because of the need for secrecy. If the pagan leaders of Mecca learned the truth of what the Prophet was teaching, their wrath would be kindled, and the tiny community the believers had founded in the shadows would be exposed and destroyed. In all likelihood, Asma would be alone, without any foster mother to guide her through the journey of womanhood. The girl was past due for her cycles, which usually began at the age of ten or eleven for those born under the harsh Arabian sun. The men-strual flow would erupt any day now, but Umm Ruman would not be there to comfort her through the shock of first blood.

She ran her hand through Asma’s brown curls, hoping to bequeath a soft memory with her touch that would comfort the child in the days to come. And then a shock of pain tore through Umm Ruman’s womb and she screamed.

Asma broke free of her stepmother’s grasp. She fell back, stumbling over one of the bricks that the midwife had placed at Umm Ruman’s swollen feet. As Amal searched desperately through her midwife’s stores for a salve to ease her patient’s agony, the girl turned and ran in search of her father.

Umm Ruman closed her eyes and said silent prayer even as her body burned from within.

As her uterus contracted with increasing urgency, she could feel the baby shifting, preparing to emerge into the world. A process that in all likelihood would lead to her death, and possibly the baby’s as well.

It was the beginning of the end, she thought sadly.

Umm Ruman was right. But in ways she could not have expected.

MY FATHER, ABU BAKR, walked through the quiet streets of Mecca, his head bowed low, his back hunched slightly, as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Which, of course, it was.

Tonight everything had changed. And he needed to tell someone. Normally he would have gone straight home after emerging from the Prophet’s house, as their dwellings were next door to each other. But after what he had seen and heard tonight, he needed to take a walk.

And besides, his wife had entered labor earlier that day, and his home was now the exclusive domain of the midwife. Abu Bakr had learned through the birth of two sons and a daughter to give the tribe of women its privacy at such moments. A man could only serve as a bumbling annoyance or a dangerous distraction to the sacred rituals of birth. And the safe delivery of this child, the first to be born into the Revelation, was important not just to him, but to the entire Muslim community.

All twenty of them.

His child. Abu Bakr wondered for a moment what kind of world the baby would grow into. For years he had hoped that the Truth would spread discreetly and in secret until the masters of Mecca were surprised to see that their tribal religion had died in its sleep, to be replaced quietly with the worship of the One God. But tonight had shown him that whatever path Islam would take among these people, it would not be a quiet one.

He paused to look up at the heavens. There was no moon tonight and the sky was aflame with a legion of stars, the sparkling strands of a cosmic web that testified to the glory of the Lord. The foolish among his people believed that the future could be discerned in the shimmering patterns that played across the heavens. But Abu Bakr knew that such superstitions were a delusion. Only God knew the future. The greatest of storytellers, every day He surprised man with a new tale. Those who thought they could encompass His grand plan with their puny calculations were always humbled.

Turning a corner in the walled district of Mecca where many of the chieftains of the city lived, he found himself looking out past the hills that surrounded the desert valley to Mount Hira-the place where God had spoken to a man, even as He did to Moses at Mount Sinai to the north. The mountain, which soared two thousand feet above the desert floor, tapered into a rocky plateau, at the pinnacle of which was hidden a tiny cave. A small, cramped space where no light could enter. And from which Light itself had sprung forth.

When his childhood friend Muhammad, the orphan son of Abdallah of the clan of Bani Hashim, had emerged from that cave three years ago, he was transformed. He had seen a vision of an angel named Gabriel who had proclaimed him to be God’s Messenger to mankind, the final Prophet sent to bring the world out of darkness into light. It was an audacious claim, one that would understandably invite ridicule had it been made by any other man. But Muhammad was different.

Abu Bakr had known him since they were excited boys traveling with a caravan to the markets of Palestine and Syria. And from the first day he had set eyes on the young Muhammad, Abu Bakr had known that his friend had a destiny. Raised in poverty and humiliation, the boy nonetheless exuded a dignity, a power, that seemed to emanate from another realm. While other youths quickly embraced the sharp business tactics of the Meccan traders as a means of getting ahead in the harsh world of the desert, Muhammad had gained a reputation as Al-Amin-the Honest One. His reputation for fair dealing brought him respect but little profit, and Abu Bakr had been heartbroken to see his friend live in destitution while less scrupulous young men advanced rapidly.

And he had been overjoyed as Muhammad’s luck finally turned, when he won the heart of Khadija, a lovely-and wealthy-widow who had employed the youth to manage her caravans. Khadija had proposed to the penniless Muhammad, and Abu Bakr took great pleasure in seeing his boyhood comrade finally living in affluence among the nobles of Mecca. But Muhammad had never seemed comfortable around wealth, and his sudden prosperity and entry into elite society had only increased his concern for the many who remained poor in the desert valley.

Abu Bakr had spent many nights talking with his friend through the years as he expressed agitation over the worsening plight of the lower classes of the city. Women and children starved in the valley of Mecca, even as flourishing trade with the Byzantine and Persian empires to the north enriched its tribal chiefs. Muhammad had become increasingly distraught at the daily injustices he witnessed, as the strong preyed on the weak and men used and discarded women, leaving their bastard children to fend for themselves-in the worst cases, killing infant girls, whose birth was seen as socially undesirable.

Abu Bakr had not been surprised to see his tormented friend embark on a spiritual path, meditating every night and spending his days conversing with people of other nations and faiths he met on the caravan routes. Muhammad had never been interested in the religion of their people. The crude idols that the Arabs worshiped had repelled him, and he was drawn instinctively to the People of the Book, Jews and Christians, and their remarkable stories of the One God who stood for justice and compassion. And the People of the Book would remind him that this God had once also been worshiped by the ancestors of the Arabs, who had been descended from the prophet Abraham through his firstborn son, Ishmael. This God, whom the Jews called Elohim, was still known to the Arabs as Allah, the Creator God. But the Arabs now worshiped hundreds of other deities that were seen as intermediaries of Allah, who was too powerful and remote to care about the daily lives of men. Every tribe in the desert had its own god, and each held its god out to be better than the others, leading to division and warfare among the clans. These competing deities, like the untamed elements of nature they symbolized, were capricious and lacked any sense of morality or justice. Seeing the chaos engendered by these warring and cruel gods, Muhammad longed for his people to return to the old ways of Abraham and his simple, pure vision of Allah.

When Abu Bakr would come to visit him, Muhammad would often stay up late into the night sharing tales he had heard from these foreigners, stories about Moses and the haughty Pharaoh, Joseph and his conniving brothers among the Children of Israel, and Jesus the son of Mary, God’s most recent Messenger to mankind, who had healed the blind and raised the dead. Abu Bakr was swept away by his friend’s passion for this God and His prophets, which awakened within him a similar longing for the Divine. Like Muhammad, Abu Bakr found the gods of the Arabs to be petty and small. But Allah, this God of Abraham, had never spoken to the Arabs, and Abu Bakr longed to hear from this mysterious, invisible being who had forgotten the children of Ishmael.

And then it had happened. Muhammad’s vision on Mount Hira had left his friend shaken and confused. Seeing the winged angel first inside the cave and then standing on the horizon, its wondrous form expanding in a cloud of light until it stretched to the heavens, Muhammad became convinced that he was mad or possessed by a djinn. He had wanted to kill himself in despair, but his wife, Khadija, had comforted him. She told him that a man of his character would not be misled or abandoned by Allah, and that his experience must be true. Over the next several months, the visions intensified, and the angel told Muhammad that he had been chosen to follow in his ancestor Abraham’s path-to abolish idolatry and establish the worship of the One God among the Arabs, who would then spread the faith of their forefather to all mankind.

Muhammad was overwhelmed. He was being asked to undertake an impossible task. To turn a land of warring tribes who venerated hundreds of tribal deities into a unified nation under one God. How could he begin? Unable to find an answer beyond the loving circle of his wife and family, he had taken a risk. Muhammad had turned to his friend Abu Bakr and shared what was happening to him.

So it was that one peaceful evening three years ago, Abu Bakr had sat on the floor in the quiet of Muhammad’s sparsely furnished private study as his old friend revealed the angelic visions and the Voice that had called to him from the heavens. As Abu Bakr heard him speak, he felt something stirring inside his heart. It was as if he had been waiting his whole life for this moment. It was as natural and inevitable as falling in love. Even before Muhammad finished speaking, Abu Bakr knew that his inner longing had been answered. Allah, the God who had spoken to Moses and Jesus, had not forgotten the Arabs, the children of Abraham. Abu Bakr had known Muhammad for over thirty years and had never had reason to doubt one word spoken by Al-Amin. If God would choose anyone to prophesy to the Arab nation, it would be this man. It had to be this man.

Without hesitation, Abu Bakr had accepted his claim to be the Messenger of God and promised that he would be Muhammad’s right-hand man on his mission. And for the next three years, he had quietly spread the word to a few trusted friends and kinsmen that there was a Prophet in their midst, one who would bring their people to salvation. Abu Bakr acted in absolute secrecy, as the leaders of Mecca, whose trade was done in the name of the ancient gods, would have moved quickly to destroy this new religious movement.

While he succeeded in persuading a small handful of associates to accept Muhammad’s teachings and join his faith, he was devastated that he failed to win over some in his own family. His first wife, Qutaila, had refused to break the idols of her gods and he had divorced her. And to add to his grief, his beloved son Abdal Kaaba also proved unwilling to turn his back on the ways of their people. Their arguments grew so bitter that Abdal Kaaba had left his home and gone to live among kinsmen, refusing to speak with him until Abu Bakr renounced his foolish new ideas. His alienation from his son weighed heavily on his heart, and the Prophet gently reminded Abu Bakr that Noah, too, had been estranged from his son, whose resistance to God’s message had ultimately led to his death in the Flood. Abu Bakr understood that a father could not be responsible for the choices of his son, but his failure haunted him nonetheless.

Despite the personal losses he had endured in his family, Abu Bakr had not faced any major social consequences for his involvement in Muhammad’s new group. The chieftains of Mecca had heard rumors that Al-Amin was quietly playing the role of spiritual teacher to a handful of locals, but they paid little attention. As long as his small band of followers kept to themselves and did not create trouble in Mecca, they could worship whatever god they wished, believe whatever they wanted. As long as Muhammad’s teachings remained quiet and did not disrupt the profits of the tribal chiefs, everything would be fine.

But that had all changed tonight.

Abu Bakr turned away from the towering vision of Mount Hira and looked back to the Prophet’s home in a distant corner of the city. The two-story edifice sparkled under the starlight, its white stone walls shimmering with a faint, unearthly glow. For the past few years, that house had been a secure gathering place for Abu Bakr and the nineteen other believers. There they prayed together and listened to the Prophet as he shared God’s words that had been revealed through Gabriel. That home was their sanctuary.

It would now have to be their fortress. For the leaders of Mecca had learned tonight what Muhammad’s true message was.

And they had declared war.

ASMA RACED OUT OF her father’s home. She had seen Umm Ruman’s ghostly pale face, the blood on her thighs, and had known that the birthing had gone terribly wrong. Asma had already lost one mother-she could not bear to lose another.

The girl ran down the steps and stepped out into the narrow alley between her father’s home and the house of the Prophet. She splashed her feet in a pool of dark mud, residue of the rare and welcome rainfall of the night before. Her friends had all gone this morning to pray at the sacred temple-the Holy Kaaba-and thank their gods for the life-giving water that so rarely fell from the sky in the desert valley. But Asma had not joined them. Her father had taught her that the idols in the Kaaba were abominations, false gods whose worship angered Allah. The believers had gathered instead inside the Prophet’s home to thank the One God in secret. They had bowed in unison, their foreheads touching the dark earth as the Prophet recited the most recent verses of the Qur’an, the Book that God was revealing to him bit by bit, in small poetic stanzas, every day.

Asma always enjoyed their services, partly because of the secrecy, the thrill of doing something that was forbidden. And partly because it was a special time that she could share with her father. Abu Bakr was a prosperous merchant who was forever busy inspecting caravans from Yemen, buying and selling frankincense, carpets, and pottery in the marketplace, and serving as an arbiter of commercial disputes among the various trading parties of Mecca. She rarely saw him during the day and relished the few hours every night when he would set aside the ledger of a businessman and take on the robes of a believer.

Asma had always been amazed by how he would change in the presence of the Prophet at these meetings. Abu Bakr was a dignified man, masculine and strong, a man accustomed to quiet leadership. But in the presence of the Messenger, he became as a slave before its master-enthusiastic, nervous, anxious to please. The stern cynicism of the trader was replaced with wonder, the complete and absolute trust of a child. His long face, tired and worn from a day of haggling with Abyssinian, Greek, and Persian traders, would suddenly come alive with enthusiasm and joy. When her father had first approached Asma and told her of his new faith, she was too young to understand the intricacies of theology. But she saw how the Revelation had changed him, how it breathed life into a man who once seemed like a stone, perennially weary of the world, and she knew she that she, too, would embrace this path.

Her love for her father had given her the strength to turn her back on her mother, Qutaila, and her half brother, Abdal Kaaba, who had refused to join the new movement. When they left, a pall had fallen over the house of Abu Bakr. They were outcasts in their own home, adherents to a strange new religion that had the temerity to put the bonds of the soul before the ties of blood. Asma had felt her father’s silent despair grow as his efforts to spread the Prophet’s teachings among his kinsmen were met sometimes with incomprehension, more usually with laughter, and a few times with anger. As fewer and fewer of Abu Bakr’s clansmen and family members came to visit their home, she had felt her own growing isolation. The girls she played with would sometimes whisper about the rumors spreading through Mecca, that Abu Bakr and his family had been possessed by djinn or had been placed under a spell by a sorcerer. She wanted to tell them, tell everyone in the city, the truth. That God had spoken to them, was speaking to them every day, through the lyrical voice of a man who had never before recited any words of power or poetry. That they were being told truths far greater than any relayed by the kahins, the mystical soothsayers who wandered through the villages of Arabia, sharing their visions for a price.

But her father had forbidden her to speak of their community and its beliefs. So she had kept silent, and the shared secret created a lasting bond with the few other believers. They were her new family.

A family that would now be torn asunder if her stepmother died. Umm Ruman had become a mother to the whole community, second only in importance to Khadija, the Prophet’s wife and the first to embrace the new faith. The handful of believers turned to Umm Ruman for hope and inspiration. They relied on her patient ears to unload their tales of loneliness and sorrow, the price that came with their newfound faith. Her kind smile had lifted the hearts of many who had been consumed by grief and rejection, and her soft hands had wiped many cheeks of tears in the past few years. Her death would be a devastating blow to the faithful. But they would ultimately be consoled by turning to the Prophet and his family, the Ahl al-Bayt, the People of the House, who served as the heart of the new religion. The believers would move on, Asma thought ruefully, but she would be bereft of a mother. Again.

She ran down the narrow path toward the Messenger’s home, stopping in front of the wrought-iron gate. As always when she approached the beautiful stone house, with its sturdy pillars and delicately tapered arches, she detected the distinct smell of roses in the air, although she could see no blooms in the courtyard. Asma caught her breath and glanced up. The silver latticed windows on the second floor, the family area, were dark. Although she knew there had been a large gathering inside earlier in the night, no sound emerged from within. The eerie chirping of crickets echoed around her mournfully. Perhaps the Prophet was asleep or immersed deep in prayer.

Even though she knew that her mission was one of life and death, she still hesitated to knock and disturb the holy family. Although her father always reminded her that Allah was merciful and compassionate, she had heard the frightening tales of those who earned His wrath-the tribe of ‘Ad, which had mocked their prophet Hud and been struck down by wind and storm, or Thamud, which had hamstrung the she-camel of its prophet Salih and been consumed by an earthquake.

Asma realized that she was shaking. Whether it was from fear of losing her stepmother or fear of inciting God’s anger by troubling his Prophet, she could not say. She took a breath and took hold of the silver knocker that hung just above her head. Asma rapped the gate three times and was surprised by how deeply the sound echoed inside.

For a long moment, she heard nothing. She tentatively reached for the knocker a second time, when the sound of approaching footsteps halted her. The gate swung inward and a shadow fell upon her. Asma looked up to see a handsome boy of thirteen with emerald-green eyes and hair the color of a starless night. She immediately knew who he was and for a second had difficulty speaking. His intense eyes seemed to peer straight through her in the dark, as if they were lit by their own fire. She blushed and looked down at her feet, and was suddenly mortified to see her slippers, feet, and ankles caked in mud.

“Peace be upon you, daughter of Abu Bakr.” The boy spoke cheerfully, apparently oblivious to her embarrassment. He smiled at her softly, but what he was thinking as he looked at the panting and bedraggled girl on his doorstep, she had no idea. Ali, the son of the Meccan tribal chief Abu Talib, was a cipher, a mystery to even those closest to the Prophet and his family. He was the young cousin of the Messenger and had been adopted into the Ahl al-Bayt when the Prophet’s elderly uncle Abu Talib could no longer afford to feed him. Muhammad was very close to the lad, perhaps viewing him as the brother he had never had, or the son who could have been.

But Ali was not like other youths, and he remained aloof from the boys of Mecca. He showed little interest in their sports, races, or kites, preferring to spend his time watching people in the marketplace as if trying to understand a strange and different species. As a result, the other young men of the city were always a little nervous and uncertain in Ali’s presence. Even the believers around the Prophet were not sure what to make of him. He never quite appeared to be with them in spirit, even if he was there in body. Even now, Ali was like an apparition from a dream. She suddenly had a strange thought. What if Ali is the dreamer and Asma the dream? What happens to me when he awakes?

“I am looking for my father,” she said, pushing the troubling thought aside. “Umm Ruman is ill. Her womb is bleeding.”

Ali blinked at her as if he did not understand her words. Asma got the unnerving feeling again that he was not quite with her but was gazing at her from across some vast distance.

And then he nodded, as if suddenly snapped back to the present moment.

“I am sorry to hear that,” he said softly. “I will inform the Prophet. He will pray for Umm Ruman and, if God wills, she will be healed.”

Ali stepped back and moved to close the gate, when Asma shifted on to the threshold and took hold of its iron latch.

“And my father?” Asma insisted.

“Your father is not here,” Ali said gently. “Abu Bakr went to see Talha and tell him the news.”

“What news?”

The light in Ali’s eyes seemed to brighten.

“It has begun,” he said simply. And with that, Ali nodded a farewell to the perplexed girl and closed the gate.

Asma stood frozen for a moment. There was perfect silence all about her, and the air felt heavier, as if a mysterious blanket had covered the street. It felt as if time had somehow stopped during her brief talk with Ali and that the world itself had been holding its breath.

And then the crickets chirped again in a steady, flowing cadence. Asma shook off the uncomfortable sensation of having just returned from a strange and distant land and focused her mind on what she had to do. She turned and ran away from the Prophet’s house toward the main streets of Mecca and her cousin Talha’s home.

ABU BAKR WARMED HIS hands by the fire as Talha poured him some goat’s milk in an old wooden bowl. The young man, recently turned eighteen, was one of the most recent converts to the new faith. The Prophet’s teachings of charity and justice for the poor had ignited Talha’s youthful idealism and had given him a cause more worthy of dedicating his life to than simply driving camels for his wealthy cousin. He was eager to share the Revelation with his young friends, to recruit them to the cause, but he had sworn a vow of secrecy. Talha had passionately counseled the Messenger to let him spread the word among the stable boys and shepherds of God’s Word. He argued that the new way would be resisted by Abu Bakr’s generation, long trapped in the rites of their fathers, but that it was among the shabab of Mecca, those too young to be subdued by the overpowering weight of tradition, that they would find their strongest supporters. The Prophet had smiled and gently admonished him to be patient. Allah had a plan and none could rush the Divine into action. They day would come, Talha had been assured, when they would emerge from the shadows and proclaim the One God openly in Mecca, and eventually the world.

And now, at last, that day had come.

“So he told the tribal chiefs tonight?” Talha’s eyes glittered with excitement as he handed his elder cousin the bowl of milk.

“Yes.” Abu Bakr held the bowl to his lips, softly whispering the invocation Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Raheem-“In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” It was the sacred formula that the Prophet had been taught by Gabriel, the words by which believers began the recitation of their prayers. It was the blessing that they uttered every time they started something anew, whether it be as simple as eating or drinking or tying their shoes, or as meaningful and profound as making love. The bismillah sanctified even the smallest moments of life, elevating the mundane to the holy with every breath.

Abu Bakr sipped the milk, let its soft curds flow down his throat and cool the fire he had felt growing inside his belly through the night.

“What happened?” Talha leaned forward, his hands gripping the edge of the old cypress table that Abu Bakr had given him as a gift the day he embraced Islam.

Abu Bakr sighed and put down the bowl.

“The Prophet received a revelation from Gabriel that he must now openly proclaim the Message, beginning first with his own family members,” Abu Bakr said, looking into the flames as he recounted the tale. “And so he asked Ali to gather the heads of Quraysh for dinner tonight.”

The Quraysh were the Prophet’s tribe, who had long administered the city of Mecca and organized the annual pilgrimage that brought Arabs from all over the desert to worship their gods at the Kaaba, the holy temple at the center of the city. They were the de facto rulers of the most important religious site in all of Arabia, and their support would have given Muhammad’s new movement the prestige to win over the hearts of their countrymen.

“It was a sparse meal,” Abu Bakr said softly, remembering the strange events of the evening with a hint of wonder in his voice. “Just a leg of mutton, the meat of which barely filled the bowl the Prophet gave to Ali. And one cup of milk that I saw him fill from an earthen jug. I asked the Messenger if I should go and bring more food from my house, for there was barely enough to feed one man, much less the gathered dignitaries of the Quraysh. He simply smiled and reached into the bowl, taking a small strip of meat. He chewed a morsel and then threw it back into the bowl. And then I saw him turn to Ali and tell the boy to take it in the name of Allah.”

Talha clasped his hands eagerly as Abu Bakr recited the inexplicable events that had followed.

“Ali passed the bowl from man to man, thirty in all, and each reached in and took his fill. Yet the meat did not diminish and the bowl remained always full. Ali poured them milk from the goblet, filling each man’s glass, and yet I never saw him refill his own.”

Talha gasped at the remarkable tale.

“And you saw this? With your own eyes?”

Abu Bakr nodded. “It was like the tale the Messenger once told me when we were boys, a story passed along to him by a Christian monk he met on the caravan to Syria. A tale of the prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, who multiplied many fish and loaves as a sign from God.”

Talha felt a chill go down his spine, and his heart began to thud in his chest. The Prophet had never claimed to perform any miracles, saying that the fact that God was speaking through an illiterate Arab was enough of a miracle in itself. Talha had accepted the truth of the Prophet’s words because they touched his heart. He had never needed any such signs or proofs of his divine mission. But now, listening to Abu Bakr’s tale, he fervently wished that he had been there tonight. But Talha was not a tribal chief. Far from it. He had little wealth or influence of his own and often regretted that he could offer little to the Prophet in terms of material support. But if what Abu Bakr was saying was true, perhaps their little community no longer needed material help. If food could rain down from heaven as it had in the days of Jesus, then the age of miracles had been reborn. Their new faith would triumph, shining a light on what was true and pushing away the darkness.

“Surely the Quraysh must have seen what was happening,” Talha said excitedly. “Surely their hearts must have been moved by the miracle.”

Abu Bakr looked down sadly. “Their hearts were indeed moved, but in the wrong direction. They hardened, like the heart of Pharaoh when confronted by Moses and his miraculous rod.”

Talha was stunned. “They denied the sign?”

“When murmurs of surprise spread through the hall at the miracle, Abu Lahab, the Prophet’s uncle, rose and proclaimed that their host had bewitched them.” Abu Bakr shook his head at the memory of the old man’s fury. “The tribal chiefs rose to leave, but the Prophet begged them to stay, to hear his message. He told them at long last the truth. That he was the Messenger of Allah, and that he had been sent to destroy the idols and false gods that had corrupted the religion of the Arabs. They were shocked and outraged, and for a moment I thought their fury would lead to a riot there in the very home of the Prophet.”

Talha sat back, his heart sinking. “What did the Prophet do?”

“He called out to his clansmen and asked who among them would help him in his mission and thus become his brother, his executor and successor among them.” Abu Bakr looked into Talha’s eyes. “None spoke in his favor. And then Ali stood up before all the lords of Mecca and proclaimed that he would be the Prophet’s helper.”

Talha was perplexed. “Ali? He is just a boy.”

Abu Bakr nodded. “A boy, perhaps, but with the heart of a lion. He showed more courage in that moment, standing firm before the jeering chieftains, than most men show in a lifetime. The Prophet touched Ali’s neck and commanded the tribal chiefs to hearken to Ali and obey him.”

Talha was speechless for a moment. Abu Bakr saw his consternation and smiled.

“The chieftains had the same reaction,” he said. “There was a silence in the room, like the quiet that falls upon the earth before the wrath of heaven is unleashed. And then they began to laugh and mock the Prophet, who had ordered them to obey a boy whose voice had only recently hardened, whose cheeks were still without a beard. I looked across the room to see Ali’s father, the Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib, bow his gray head in shame, as the lords heaped abuse on his son and nephew. And then they all turned and stormed out of the hall, leaving us alone and in silence.”

Talha shook his head in dismay. He ran his hand through his dark curls as if trying to pull off the cobweb of despair that had suddenly fallen on him.

“So now they know. And they will try to destroy us.”

Abu Bakr nodded.

Talha looked across the small room that served as his only shelter in the barren valley of Mecca. He had only the table his cousin had given him and a small leather cot across from the open fireplace. That was the extent of his worldly goods. And he was considered richer than many of the believers. How were they going to stand up to the might of Mecca, whose lords lived like kings, whose coffers were filled with gold, whose clansmen were armed with the finest swords and spears?

“So what do we do now?”

Abu Bakr gazed out the small window of the stone cottage. Outside, the stars sparkled and danced across the firmament. A heavenly flame flew past his vision, followed by another.

“A new day is upon us,” Abu Bakr said thoughtfully. “The secret has been revealed, and the world will now conspire against the believers,” he said softly.

And then he reached over and touched Talha on the shoulder. “Like you, my heart was heavy tonight. But as I moved to leave the empty hall, the Messenger took me aside and comforted me. He said these words that had been revealed by Gabriel:

“In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate

By the flight of Time

Man is indeed in loss

Except for those who believe

And do good

And persevere with truth

And persevere with patience.”

Talha felt the words flow through his heart, like a stream bringing life to the dead earth. These words, which rhymed with majestic poetry and perfect meter in Arabic, had been spoken by God Himself tonight. Tears suddenly welled in his eyes. The God of Abraham, who had chosen to speak to man one last time. And in His inexplicable plan, He had chosen to speak through them, a barbaric, uneducated, and primitive people. A nation forgotten by history and mocked by the grand civilizations that surrounded them. They were the worst of the sons of Adam. And yet He had chosen them.

Talha followed his elder kinsman’s gaze at the stars outside. They had circled the earth for countless millennia. Had seen empires rise and fall, had seen mighty kings and warriors crumble into dust, their names forgotten, the songs of their deeds lost in the mists of time. And yet the stars remained firm, sparkling in the heavens, as a sign of that which would never die, that which would never be lost to time.

Talha understood. Though the entire world might work against them, God’s plan would triumph. It was not for them to know the how or the when. Their task was to begin writing the tale, even though its final chapter was hidden from them.

Abu Bakr leaned closer to him and spoke softly, conspiratorially. “Do not sleep tonight, but stay awake and bow in worship.”

Talha looked at him. “I will do as you say.”

Abu Bakr nodded. He looked directly into Talha’s eyes. “The Messenger said that there will be Signs tonight. The angels are writing the future of our faith even as we speak. The destinies of men and women will be inscribed in the Tablet of Heaven, and the writing will be made clear to those whose hearts are ready. For it is tonight that our faith will be born anew and shall light a fire that will consume the old world and bring in the new.”

Talha nodded, his soul stirring with awe at Abu Bakr’s words.

And then he saw the first Sign.

An angel clad in white, its gown glittering in the starlight, was flying down the path toward his home. Talha’s mouth fell open. He stared at the apparition in wonder, like a parched traveler gazing at a mirage, hoping beyond hope that what he saw was real and not a ghost of his imagination

And then he saw that the angel was a child, whose face was white with fear.

“Father!” It was Asma, Abu Bakr’s daughter, who cried to them from across the dirt road as she caught a glimpse of their silhouettes standing near the window of the tiny mud brick cottage.

Abu Bakr turned to stare out the window in surprise. And when he saw the look on his daughter’s face, the blood emptied from his own. Talha watched in shock as his cousin’s serene composure shattered and was replaced by a look of pure terror. Abu Bakr staggered toward the door, his heart in his throat. He stumbled and Talha reached to help him, but the older man swatted him away.

Abu Bakr threw open the small arched door to Talha’s cottage just as Asma fell inside the threshold. He held his daughter close as she tried to catch her breath. But even before the child spoke, Talha knew what she would say. Her red-rimmed eyes burned their message to any who looked into them.

Abu Bakr stroked his daughter’s brown curls softly, let her lean into his chest to gain strength from the power of his beating heart. A heart that was now thundering so loudly that Talha fancied he heard it pounding in his ears. Or was it his own?

“Umm Ruman…” Asma gasped, trying to choke out the words. “Umm Ruman…the baby…is dying…”

AMAL THE MIDWIFE WIPED the sweat-drenched brow of her unlucky ward. She barely noticed that her own face, indeed her arms and breasts, were bathed in sweat from her efforts to save the life of the mother and child. By all accounts, both should be dead by now. The blood from Umm Ruman’s womb had flowed like honey from a beehive, slow, dark, and persistent. She had lost more blood in the past hour than Amal imagined could have possibly flowed through the veins of the tiny woman. But the delicate lady, with bones as dainty and small as a bird, had proven a warrior in spirit. Umm Ruman had screamed and screamed in agony, but she remained stubbornly alive, refusing to give in to the inevitable.

Amal had finally been able to stem the hemorrhage, which had drained the dark-skinned Umm Ruman and left her soft skin a sickly yellow, like a full moon low on the eastern horizon in midsummer. The midwife had breathed a sigh of relief and muttered a prayer thanking the goddess Uzza, when her patient sharply forbade her to mention the name of the divinity. “If you pray, do so to Allah,” Umm Ruman had croaked out between labored breaths. Amal was surprised at the strange request. Allah, the High God, was too far away to hear the prayers of mortals. That is why their people worshiped His daughters Allat, Uzza, and Manat, and a host of other gods who had the time and patience to deal with the petty affairs of mankind.

Umm Ruman was clearly light-headed and confused from her ordeal, but Amal knew enough to remain silent. Now that the bleeding had stopped, she needed to help bring forth the remains of the baby. The child would in all likelihood be stillborn, but she needed to clear the dead fetus from Umm Ruman’s womb and cleanse her of the poisonous afterbirth if there were to be any hope of saving her patient.

Amal had pressed her hand along Umm Ruman’s stretched belly and was surprised to feel the unmistakable tremor of movement beneath her flesh. The child lived! Amal’s heart soared with hope for a second and then was dashed as she pressed farther along Umm Ruman’s stomach. She felt a soft pressure near the birth canal that she immediately recognized as the baby’s feet. Her spirit sank. The baby was improperly positioned. If Umm Ruman pushed the child out feetfirst, it would suffocate before it had a chance to enter the world.

Amal knew what had to be done. She looked up at Umm Ruman, whose bloodshot eyes shone with grim determination. “The child…”

“I know,” was all Umm Ruman said, and Amal knew that she understood. The tiny woman with the heart of a soldier grinded her teeth in preparation. “Do it.”

Amal nodded. She hesitated and then made a loud prayer to Allah for the safe delivery of the child. She did not really believe that the Lord of the Worlds would take a moment from turning the stars in the heavens to care for the plight of one small, forgotten mother, but Amal wanted to give Umm Ruman hope. The odds were she would die from what happened next, but at least she would die with her heart satisfied.

The midwife took a deep breath and put her hands on Umm Ruman’s belly. Remembering the ancient techniques taught to her by her own mother, Amal placed pressure on her patient’s womb in order to turn the child headfirst.

Umm Ruman screamed, an agonized cry that echoed across the valley of Mecca and traveled high into the starry heavens.

ABU BAKR STOOD OUTSIDE his wife’s birth chamber, shaking with fear. He could hear Umm Ruman’s horrific wails, which seemed only to increase in intensity. Every fiber in his body cried for him to rush inside and comfort his dying wife through her final moments. But Talha held him back. “Let the midwife do her job,” the boy had said, and Abu Bakr knew he was right.

He looked down at Asma, his loyal daughter, who had chosen him and his faith even over her own mother, and squeezed her tiny hand. She was strong, stronger than he would have been in her position. He had torn their family apart with his decision to follow Muhammad, and she had never complained. Abu Bakr had always been close to his own parents, and he had found it beyond comprehension how his young friend Muhammad had endured the horrific loss of his beloved mother, Amina, when he was only six years old. Abu Bakr’s heart was heavy with the knowledge that he had orphaned Asma once already by renouncing Qutaila. And now, with Umm Ruman’s impending death, the child would be doubly motherless.

He looked around the antechamber where they waited for the screams to abruptly end and the midwife to emerge with her dreaded tidings. It was well furnished, as befitted a prosperous merchant of Quraysh. Thick rugs imported from Persia covered the marble floors. The stone walls were whitewashed and held many trophies and trinkets from his travels on the caravan routes. Silver plates from Syria, their tiles swirling in intricate geometric designs, lined one wall, while another was covered in an assortment of swords and daggers from Byzantium, their hilts embedded with precious emeralds and rubies. The arched windows were covered in thick curtains made from Abyssinian cotton. Couches covered in rich silk brocade had entertained many nobles from Mecca and beyond in the years past, although now that Abu Bakr’s true beliefs were known, he was likely to have few such visitors in the future.

Abu Bakr was by every account a wealthy man, but he would readily trade all the gold in his coffers for a miracle tonight.

Perhaps sensing his thoughts, Talha touched his shoulder.

“Let us pray the Fatiha. Perhaps it will be of help,” the boy said softly.

Abu Bakr looked at the sensitive young man and then at his brave little daughter, and nodded.

The three believers stood in a circle, their hands upraised to heaven in humble supplication, and recited in unison the Seven Oft-Repeated Verses that the believers read daily in their prayers:

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.

Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds

The Merciful, the Compassionate

King of the Day of Judgment

You alone do we worship, and Your aid alone do we seek.

Show us the Straight Path

The path of those who incur Your favor

Not the path of those who earn Your wrath

Nor of those who go astray.

Abu Bakr, Talha, and Asma recited the prayer out loud, their voices melding in lyrical unison. They repeated it again, and a third time. Perhaps it was Abu Bakr’s imagination, but each time he recited the sacred verses, the cries from the adjoining room seemed to lessen in intensity.

Again and again they repeated the holy words. And then, at the seventh recitation, a silence fell over the house, a quiet so sudden and so complete that Abu Bakr’s heart chilled. Umm Ruman was dead.

Tears welled in his eyes, and his heart started pounding. She was his strength, his soul. How could he live without her? He realized that Asma was now crying openly, but he found he could not move to comfort her.

Talha moved to take the weeping child out of the room, to leave Abu Bakr to the privacy of his grief.

And then they heard it. A strange, impossible, glorious sound.

The cry of a baby.

Abu Bakr raised his head and stared at the door to the birthing chamber. There was silence again. Had he imagined it? And then the child wailed louder and he felt a burst of light illuminate his heart, like the sun emerging from behind the empty blackness of an eclipse.

Talha looked up at him in wonder. And Asma laughed, clapping her hands with the unfettered delight that only a child can know.

Abu Bakr felt his legs go weak, and he grabbed hold of an intricately carved chair made from Iraqi cypress. And then he stumbled forward and threw tradition to the wind. He flung open the door to the forbidden chamber and rushed inside.

Umm Ruman was still seated on the sharply angled birthing chair, her tunic covered in blood and the fluids of childbirth. Her face was sickly pale, but her eyes were open and alert. And she breathed deeply, like a woman trapped at the bottom of a well longing for air. She was alive!

Abu Bakr looked at her in wonder and she smiled weakly. He would remember that smile in years to come, when the storm clouds that had been gathering would be unleashed and the armies of men and the devil would seek to destroy the believers. It would give him strength and hope and power to battle on in the cause of God and His Messenger. For in a cruel world where the only certainty was death, their way was the way of life.

The child’s cries turned his head and Abu Bakr looked at the midwife, who had just finished washing the baby and had wrapped it in a green swaddling cloth. Amal’s face was haggard and she looked as if she herself had endured the pangs of childbirth. She looked up at him and nodded a greeting, the lines of her mouth too tired to form into a smile.

“I give you glad tidings of a girl,” she said weakly. Abu Bakr saw the strain in her face and worried that she barely had the strength to hold the precious baby. He moved to take the child into his arms, and the midwife did not protest.

Abu Bakr took hold of the tiny child as Talha and Asma tentatively entered the birthing chamber. He looked down at the wrinkled face and ran a finger across the girl’s cheeks, pink like a rose blossom. His daughter had a healthy brush of hair, a fiery red that glittered like copper in the pale torchlight. As Abu Bakr held his child, he realized that she was a true miracle-the first child to be born into the new religion. He wanted his first words to her to impart the truth he had come to believe with all his heart. He bent down carefully and whispered into the infant’s ears the formula of faith: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.

The child opened her eyes for the first time at the sound of his words. Abu Bakr caught his breath. She had eyes unlike any he had ever seen before. Golden, like those of a lion, they seemed to glow with their own fire.

He felt rather than saw Asma step up behind him, and he turned to her.

“Come, see your sister,” he said to his daughter, who looked down nervously at the little girl. Asma hesitated and then bent down to kiss the baby on its forehead. Abu Bakr turned to Umm Ruman, who weakly reached out to him. He moved to show their daughter to his wife, when the midwife made a cry of alarm.

“Manat protect us! The tidings are ill!” Amal squawked unexpectedly.

Abu Bakr looked over to see the midwife staring out of a small window facing east. Her eyes were wide, and she was slapping her head furiously in the ancient gesture of grief and terror.

“What’s the matter?” Abu Bakr asked sharply.

“The baby…she is born under a dark star,” Amal said. She pointed out the window to a constellation that was rising on the eastern horizon. It was a swirling cluster of lights, with the ominous red star Antares pulsating in its center.

Al-Akrab. The Scorpion. To the pagan Arabs, the stars of the zodiac were gods in their own right, beings that ruled men’s affairs from the heavens and set their destinies at birth. And al-Akrab was the lord of death.

Before Abu Bakr could react, Amal rushed to his side, her eyes wide with fear.

“The child…cast it into the desert…bury it under stones before it can wreak its havoc!” she said, her voice frantic, her leathery face contorted with a kind of madness.

Abu Bakr felt his fury rise. He pushed Amal away from him forcefully.

“Get away from my daughter!” he said with terrifying ferocity. A mild and restrained man by nature, his anger was a rare and terrible thing to behold. Even Asma shrank back at the sudden rage in his voice.

Talha quickly moved forward and put a steady hand on the agitated midwife. “Do not utter your blasphemies in this house, which God has blessed.”

But Amal ignored the boy.

“She is a curse…wherever she will go, chaos and death will follow her,” Amal said, her eyes brimming with the intensity of her superstitious belief. “Slay her now, before the wrath of the gods is kindled!”

Abu Bakr held the baby closer to his heart, which was pounding with anger.

“I will slay your gods instead, and the wrath of the One will be kindled against your lies for all time!” Abu Bakr’s voice boomed with such power and authority that Amal was struck speechless.

He turned to Talha, his eyes burning with righteous indignation.

“Pay this midwife what she is due, and then let her not darken my doorstep again,” he said.

Talha pulled the trembling woman away and led her out of the birthing chamber. She bowed her head and did not struggle with him, nor did she make any move to take the gold dirham that he offered her. He finally pushed it into her hand and closed her fingers around it.

As Talha pushed Amal out the door, she looked up at him with her dark eyes, which now shone with the frenzy that he had seen among the kahinas, the medicine women of the desert whom the foolish people consulted for their oracles.

“The child will lead you to your death someday,” Amal said softly.

Alas, poor Talha, how I wish he had but listened to her portent!

But he only looked at her with contempt.

“If that is the will of Allah, I will happily embrace it.”

His confident response surprised the woman, who suddenly looked confused and lost. Who were these strange people who ignored the ancient traditions of the gods and put their trust in a God that no one could see or hear or touch? She turned and gazed out across the stone settlements of Mecca as if seeing the city for the first time. Amal looked up at the stars for an answer but found none.

“The child is the beginning of the end,” she whispered. “It is all ending. Everything. And I cannot see what will take its place.”

Talha looked at the strange woman and shook his head.

“The Truth,” he said simply, before closing the door on the midwife.

Talha returned to find Abu Bakr leaning close to Umm Ruman, who now held the swaddled baby in her arms. The drama of the midwife appeared to be forgotten amid the family’s joy at her safe delivery.

He went up to his kinsman and smiled.

“The madwoman is gone,” he said.

Abu Bakr looked up at him and shook his head.

“She was not mad,” he said softly. “This little girl will bring death.”

Talha was stunned by these words.

“I don’t understand” was all he could say.

Abu Bakr stroked his newborn daughter’s soft cheek gently.

“She will bring death to ignorance, which will allow the light of knowledge to be born,” he said simply.

Abu Bakr took the girl from Umm Ruman and held her close.

“In a world of idolatry, she is the first to be born a believer,” he said softly. “She has already conquered death and has brought life.” He gazed into the child’s golden eyes, which were alert and seemed to exhibit an ancient intelligence.

“I will name her Aisha,” Abu Bakr said.

A name that Talha knew in the old language meant “She Lives.”

2 Mecca-AD 617

My first real memory is the day I witnessed death.

Ever since that day, I have been blessed-and cursed-with perfect memory. I can recall words said forty years ago as if they had been uttered this morning. The scent of a moment is forever impressed on my heart, as if I live outside time, and every moment of my life is now. The Messenger, may God’s blessings and peace be upon him, used to say that I was chosen for that reason. That his words and deeds would be remembered for all time through me, the one he loved the most.

But there is a darkness behind every gift, like the veil of night that remains hidden behind the sun, waiting patiently for its moment to cast the world in gloom. My gift of memory is like that. For even as I can remember every moment of joy, every instant of laughter in my life, I can also remember the pain with absolute clarity. There are those who say time heals all wounds, but that is not so for me. Every wound I have suffered, I relive with terrifying precision, as if the knife, once embedded in my heart, leaves behind a shard of crystal sharpness ready to cut me again should I turn my thoughts in its direction.

It is that perfect memory that has made me the most prized recounter of hadith, the tales of the Prophet’s life and teaching to be recorded for future generations of believers.

And it is that perfect memory that brought war upon my people and splintered our nation forever.

But every memory, even one as pristine as my own, must begin in earnest one day. Mine begins the day of the great Pilgrimage. My father had decided that I was old enough to attend the annual ritual, where tribes from all over Arabia descended on the arid valley of Mecca to worship at the House of God.

I ran shoeless out of the house when Abu Bakr called, and my father sternly sent me back, telling me that I could not accompany him unless I wore the tiny blue sandals he had bought from Yemeni traders earlier that summer. I pouted and stamped my feet, but Abu Bakr simply raised his eyebrows and refused to open the gate until I hung my head and sullenly went back inside in search of them.

I hunted through the house, trying to remember where I had thrown them in one of my tantrums earlier that morning. I searched in my small bedroom, beneath the tiny cot with its knotted rope fibers supporting the soft Egyptian cotton mattress. I looked through the mountain of dolls and toys that were piled in a corner, throwing the little wooden and rag figures everywhere and making a mess that my mother would assuredly chide me for later that day. But that inevitable reckoning did not concern me, a young girl who only cared for the moment. The future, as every child knows, is little more than make-believe. All that ever exists, all that ever matters, is now.

Frowning, I ran out of her bedchamber and looked in the main sitting room, underneath the emerald brocaded couches from Persia that were among the few luxuries that still remained inside our home. My mother told me that our house used to be filled with beautiful and expensive furnishings in the Days of Ignorance but that Abu Bakr had sold most of his worldly goods since I was born, dedicating his wealth to the spread of the Truth. I always wondered why spreading the Truth should be expensive, since it was obvious and free to all, but when I asked Umm Ruman once, my mother gave me the stern glance that was her practiced response to my litany of impertinent queries.

Looking around in frustration, I suddenly saw a hint of blue in a corner. I ran over, my crimson hair flying behind me. There they were! My Yemeni sandals were tucked behind an intricate vase that my mother said was made in a faraway city called Damascus. I paused to admire the swirling floral designs in carnelian, citrine, and olive that circled the ivory vase in crisscrossing patterns.

Umm Ruman had taught me the names of the different blooms depicted on the vase-hyacinths, jasmine and lotus-flowers that grew in faraway cities with mysterious names like Aksum, Babylon, and Persepolis. I loved flowers, but so few grew in the hot desert sun. I had yelped with delight a month before when I had found a small abal bush growing in a gulley just outside the perimeter of the holy precinct, at the base of the sacred hill of Safa. I had plucked its red, lantern-shaped blooms, which I had seen the older girls use to rouge their cheeks, but its thorns had torn into my tiny palm and I had run home crying.

My mother had gently removed the needles from my hand and salved the little wounds with dried sap from the thornbushes that grew in our courtyard. After drying my tears, Umm Ruman had gently chided me for wandering so far away from home. From now on, I was to play only within sight of their house. Mecca was a dangerous city for little girls…especially girls whose families supported the heretic Prophet in its midst.

I remembered her words as I grabbed the sandals and slipped them on. They were pretty enough, with little white stars woven though the tiny blue throngs, but I didn’t like them. Although other girls were obsessed with shoes, spending hours in silly talk about the merits of various designs, the newest fashions arriving on caravans from north and south, I found shoes to be an irritant. Instead, I loved the tingly feeling of the warm sand on my bare feet, even the tiny pricks caused by the pebbles that littered the streets of the ancient city. Shoes made me feel restricted and caged, like one of the goats my father had kept in a pen behind the old stone house in preparation for the sacrifice at the apex of the Pilgrimage.

I ran back to my father, who was still waiting by the gate. Seeing the look of mild irritation on his face at the delay, I quickly kicked up my feet and showed off the little shoes, and then danced an excited jig around him, until his stern face broke into an exasperated smile. I always knew how to melt Abu Bakr’s serious mood. I was too full of life to allow others the luxury of gloom.

My father took my hand and together we walked through the dusty streets of Mecca. Smoke rose from the chimneys of hundreds of small stone cottages and mud-brick huts, clustered together in expanding concentric circles around the central plaza known as Al-Haram-the Sanctuary. As we walked toward the heart of the city I saw children racing through the streets, chasing one another or a variety of animals-goats, lambs, and a few wayward chickens-that had escaped their pens.

I also saw dozens of beggars, mainly women and bastard children who had been abandoned by their fathers. They held out their hands, their pathetic cries for compassion largely ignored. My father handed an old woman a gold dirham. Her eyes went wide in shock at his generosity, for she had come to expect little more than a copper piece accompanied by a grudging look. We were suddenly surrounded by what appeared to be every beggar in town, their hands reaching out for this source of bounty. I was frightened by this excited crowd of young and old, dressed in rags and smelling worse than the rabid dogs that prowled the streets at night. But Abu Bakr was patient with them, handing to each a single gold coin from his leather purse until he had nothing left.

They followed him through the streets, pleading for more, but my father simply smiled and shook his head.

“I will be back tomorrow with more, insha-Allah,” he said, using the phrase “if God wills” that was a signature of the Muslims. The Messenger had taught us that we should say insha-Allah whenever we spoke of the future, even if referring to events only an hour away. It kept man humble and forced him to acknowledge that he was not solely the master of his destiny.

My father managed to slip away from the more persistent and aggressive of the beggars, pulling me into a side alley and taking a circuitous route to the Sanctuary. We were now in the oldest section of the city, whose buildings were said to have stood for hundreds of years, since the earliest tribes had settled the valley. The ancient houses looked like grand towers to me, but in truth most were ramshackle constructions of wood and stone, few rising higher than a second story. I could see people standing on rooftop terraces, their eyes on the horizon as the steady stream of Bedouin pilgrims emerged from the dead hills in search of Mecca ’s gods-and its life-giving wells. My eyes went wide as I watched the strangers ride by, their camels covered in colorful mats of wool and leather, their faces cracked and blackened by years of harsh work under the unforgiving sun.

My father sensed I was dawdling and he pulled forward with a gentle tug until we had cleared the narrow stone alleys and stepped onto the red sand that marked the boundaries of the Sanctuary. The plaza was spread open in a wide circle and my eyes immediately fell on the Kaaba, the grand temple that was the heart of Mecca and all of Arabia. Shaped like a majestic cube, it towered forty feet above the ground and was the tallest building in the settlement. The granite walls were covered in a variety of rich curtains of wool, cotton, even silk-crimson, emerald, and sky blue-that were brought by tribes from every corner of Arabia to mark their Pilgrimage to the sacred house.

As we approached the Kaaba, I saw my father frown. The plaza was covered with a bewildering collection of idols, stone and wood icons that represented the various gods of the desert tribes. There were 360 in all, one for each day of the year. Some were elegantly fashioned, chiseled in marble to an almost lifelike representation of a man or an animal-lions, wolves, and jackals seemed particularly popular. But others were little more than misshapen clumps of rock that required much imagination before any semblance of recognizable form could be imputed to them.

My eyes fell on two large rocks that looked vaguely like a man and woman entwined in the act of love. My friends had giggled and told me that they were once two romantics named Isaf and Naila who had consummated their lust in the Kaaba and had been turned to stone for defiling the Sanctuary. I was not sure why these two sinners who had been punished for their indiscretion should now be worshiped as gods, but they were apparently quite popular, and many young men and women bowed before them and tied tiny strings in the nooks and crannies, praying for the deities to win them the heart of their beloved, or at least bring ill fortune to their rivals in the game of love.

“Barbarism,” my father uttered under his breath. He grimaced at the sight of middle-aged women kneeling before a red-flecked rock shaped like a pregnant woman with bulbous breasts and hips. This was Uzza, one of three “daughters of Allah” who were worshiped by the pagans. She was said to be the goddess of fertility, and her favor was much sought after by those who wished to conceive. The women, their eyes brimming with hope and despair, tore open their tunics and rubbed their naked breasts against the cold stone, pleading in loud wails for Uzza to reverse the course of time, to begin their cycles again so that they could bear the children that had been denied them.

I was fascinated by these strange rituals, but my father pulled me away and led me toward the Kaaba. A crowd of hundreds of pilgrims was steadily circumambulating the House of God, moving like the stars around the earth, circling seven times while praising Allah, the Creator of the Universe. The pilgrims were dressed in a variety of robes reflecting their wealth and social power, with the tribal chiefs wrapped in silk and endowed with glittering jewels commanding the right to walk closest to the temple, while others encircled at the outskirts in filthy rags-and a few even danced around the Kaaba naked.

“Don’t look at them,” my father warned sternly as my eyes fell on these hairy nude men, their organs hanging like the sagging genitals of a dog in the open. I giggled, but a stern look from Abu Bakr forced me to hide my amusement. We walked around the holy house at a steady pace, while my father prayed aloud for the mercy of God on his wayward and ignorant people.

When we finished the sacred rite, my father, who was now drenched in sweat from the noon sun, led me away from the Kaaba and guided me to a blue pavilion at the outskirts of the Sanctuary. Under the merciful shade of the tent was the well of Zamzam, which had provided the city with a steady supply of water since the days of the first settlers. Its miraculous existence in the middle of an otherwise dead wilderness had made Mecca a necessary stop for all trading caravans that traveled between the fertile lands of Yemen to the south and Syria to the north.

This strategic location and life-giving water supply had brought much prosperity to the city’s traders-but not for most others. For the merchants of Mecca believed in only one rule-the survival of the strong. Those who were smart enough to take advantage of the opportunities provided by trade deserved to lord their wealth over others. Those too weak to do so best hurry up and die, freeing up the resources they left behind for those who were more worthy. It was this heartless mind-set that the Messenger of God had challenged, and his calls for economic justice and redistribution of Mecca ’s wealth were a direct threat to the philosophy of the city’s ruling class.

As we joined the line of thirsty pilgrims eager for a drink of the sacred water, I saw a newly arrived caravan of Bedouin pilgrims approach the Sanctuary. Their leader, his face scarred and his beard dyed red, disembarked from a gray camel and helped the others of his clan climb off their horses and mules. Their faces had the dark complexions and high cheekbones of the men of Yemen, and I realized even at my tender age that they must have traveled at least twenty days in the harsh desert to attend the Pilgrimage. Their faces were covered in coarse sand that was turning into mud under rivers of perspiration.

As I watched them, I saw a tall man dressed in rich silk robes approach them, a blue turban on his head. Abu Sufyan was not the king of Mecca, but he certainly acted like it. He walked with a royal flourish, his hands held wide in welcome of the new arrivals. Beside him I saw a short boy of about fifteen years of age with a hooked nose and unblinking black eyes that made him look like a hawk. Muawiya, Abu Sufyan’s son, was more reserved than his expressive father and looked over the newcomers with shrewd appraisal. I sensed that he was calculating their wealth and value to Meccan trade even as his father embraced the Bedouin leader as if he were a long-lost relative.

“Welcome my brothers, my friends!” Abu Sufyan’s voice boomed with the practiced good cheer of a salesman. “Welcome to the House of Allah! May the gods bless you and grant you all that you seek!”

The Bedouin leader wiped his brow as the river of sweat threatened to blind him.

“We seek water, for the journey has been trying and the sun god merciless.”

Abu Sufyan’s eyes fell on the heavy emerald rings that covered he chief ’s fingers and he smiled greedily.

“Of course, my friend.”

And then Abu Sufyan’s saw that the traders were carrying arms. Swords and daggers in sheaths on their rough leather belts, and spears and arrows tied to the sides of their horses. Necessary protection for their journey through the wild-but a potential threat to order inside Mecca itself.

“But first, I must ask that you lay aside your weapons, for they are forbidden inside the precincts of the holy city,” Abu Sufyan said with an apologetic smile.

The Bedouin looked at him for a moment and then nodded to his fellow pilgrims. They removed their various weapons and dropped them at their feet.

Muawiya stepped forward to pick up the blades, but the Bedouin leader moved to block him, his eyes filled with suspicion at the boy.

Aware of the sudden tension, Abu Sufyan immediately put on a gracious smile and stepped between the scarred Bedouin and the youth.

“My son Muawiya will take personal responsibility for all your weapons,” the Meccan chief said smoothly. “He will hold them in trust at the House of Assembly, and will return them to you at the conclusion of your Pilgrimage.”

The Bedouin spat on the ground at Muawiya’s feet.

“We are warriors of Bani Abdal Lat,” he said, his face hard. “We do not leave our weapons in the care of children.”

Abu Sufyan’s ingratiating smile vanished. The pride and power of his lineage suddenly shone through.

“My son is a lord of Quraysh, and there are no children among us. Only men of honor,” he said, his cold voice suggesting that the Bedouin had overstepped the bonds of hospitality.

Muawiya quickly interceded. “I will serve as surety over your goods,” he said, demonstrating the natural diplomacy that would serve him well in years to come. “If you do not receive them all back when you leave, you may take me as your slave in return.”

The gruff Bedouin looked over the small boy, who gazed at him steadily, never breaking eye contact. The pilgrim finally nodded, satisfied.

“The boy is strong. He has the eyes of an eagle,” the man said in clipped tones. “Your surety is accepted.”

He nodded to his people, who stepped aside as Muawiya quietly gathered the blades, spears, and arrows. Abu Sufyan’s gracious smile returned and he led the dust-covered pilgrims toward the tent of Zamzam. But when he saw my father and me standing near the well, a dangerous look came into his eyes. It was if he were communicating a wordless warning to my father. Abu Bakr met his gaze without flinching and then turned to me and held me up by my arms so that I could reach for the bucket of water he had pulled out of the well. I grasped a small bronze cup that hung from a ring at the side of the wooden bucket and drank to my little heart’s content.

Abu Sufyan turned back to his visitors.

“Behold the sacred well of Mecca, which never runs dry, nor do its waters suffer from disease or pollution. A sign of God’s favor on this blessed city.”

The Bedouin gathered around the well and dipped their leather pouches into its waters, scooping up the precious liquid and consuming it in quick gulps.

My father looked at Abu Sufyan and then laughed loudly.

“You are a strange man, Abu Sufyan,” my father said. “You acknowledge God’s favor on Mecca, and yet you still refuse to obey Him.”

The chief of Mecca turned red with suppressed anger.

The Bedouin leader saw his reaction and gazed at my father with sudden interest.

“Who is this man?”

Abu Sufyan turned his back on us.

“Just a madman spouting nonsense,” he said, waving his hand in dismissal. “Unfortunately the time of Pilgrimage draws many such fools, like the flood brings out the rats.”

Hearing him speak of my father like that ignited a fire in my child’s heart. I broke free of my father’s grasp and ran over to Abu Sufyan. “Don’t talk about my father that way! You’re the fool! You’re the rat!”

The Pilgrims laughed at my childish outburst, and my father quickly pulled me back with a scolding look.

“Aisha! We are Muslims. We do not speak to our elders with disrespect. Even if they are unbelievers.”

Now the Bedouin were intrigued. Their chief stepped forward

“What is a Muslim?”

Which was, of course, the question my father had been waiting to answer.

“One who has surrendered to God alone,” he said solemnly, like a teacher imparting wisdom to a young pupil.

But Abu Sufyan was not about to let this happen. He stepped right in front of my father and looked down at him with fury.

“Do not pester these pilgrims any further, Abu Bakr,” he said through gritted teeth. “They are tired and thirsty. Let them drink the sacred water of Zamzam in peace.”

Abu Bakr looked at the Bedouin, quenching their thirst from the well.

“I will do as you say. If you can tell me why this well is so sacred.”

Abu Sufyan stiffened.

“It is sacred because our forefathers have said so. That is enough for me.”

My father turned to the Bedouin.

“Tell me, my brother, is that enough for you?” he asked softly. “Do you know why the water you drink is blessed?”

The Bedouin looked perplexed. He ran a hand over the scar that disfigured his left cheek.

“I have never asked. But now I am curious.”

The Bedouin glanced at Abu Sufyan, but the tribal chief had no response.

And then my father turned to me.

“Tell them, little one,” he said with a gentle smile.

I looked up at the dark and dusty men from the desert and recited the story I had been raised with.

“The well of Zamzam is a miracle from God, written in the Book of the Jews and Christians,” I told them. “When our father Ishmael was sent into the desert by Abraham, his mother, Hagar, looked for water so that her child would not die of thirst. Seven times she ran between those hills.”

I pointed to the peaks of Safa and Marwa that overlooked the city. Even then, dozens of pilgrims were racing between the hills as part of the Pilgrimage ritual, though they had long forgotten its meaning or origins.

“But when she could find no water, she came back here,” I continued. “And the angel Gabriel appeared and told Ishmael to strike his foot. And the well of Zamzam sprang from beneath his feet, bringing water to the desert. And life to Mecca.”

As I spoke, I could tell that I had caught the attention of the Bedouin. They listened raptly to the story I wove, which suddenly brought a new meaning to the ancient rites they had crossed the desert to perform.

Abu Sufyan snorted.

“A child’s fable. Come, let me take you to the House of God.”

The Bedouin looked at me and my father, intrigued.

“Perhaps it is a child’s tale, but it is a good one,” he said, his eyes wide with wonder.

Abu Sufyan could no longer hide his irritation. He pushed his Bedouin guests toward the Kaaba as if they were wayward mares. My father and I followed. Even though we had completed our rites for the morning, Abu Bakr had sensed that the Bedouin were ready to hear more about our faith. We would wait until the men had finished their circumambulation and Abu Sufyan attended to other newcomers. And then my father would likely take them back to the House of the Messenger, where they could hear the Truth and be saved.

But as we approached the Kaaba, where the perpetual whirlwind of pilgrims was in motion, I heard shouts from across the Sanctuary. The enraged, booming voice of a man echoed through the plaza and drowned out even the loudest of prayers.

“What is it?” I asked my father, more intrigued than frightened.

“It is Umar. As usual.”

Ah, of course. Umar ibn al-Khattab, one of the most virulent of the lords of Mecca in his opposition to God’s Messenger. I saw him across the open space, towering like a giant over a small African man I immediately recognized as a former slave named Bilal. My father had bought Bilal’s freedom from his ruthless master, Umayya, who had tortured the poor man after he had embraced Islam. Umayya had dragged his rebellious slave into the marketplace, tied him to the ground under the blazing Meccan sun, and placed a heavy boulder on Bilal’s chest until it cracked his ribs and made it almost impossible to breathe. Umayya demanded that Bilal return to the worship of his master’s gods, but all the courageous slave would croak out under torture was “One God…One God…” Bilal would have died there that day had my father not intervened and paid Umayya’s outrageous price of ten gold dirhams for his freedom.

And now Umar tormented the poor freedman, who lay prostrate on the earth before the House of God, a gesture that immediately identified him as a follower of Muhammad’s new religion.

“You son of a dog! Get up!” Umar’s voice was like an elephant’s cry, terrifying and unearthly at once. He was the tallest man I had ever seen, with a bushy black beard that grew down to his waist. His arms were as thick as tree trunks, the muscles bulging clearly from the thin fabric of his red tunic. Umar reached down with hands that were larger than my head and grabbed Bilal by the scruff of his threadbare white robes. Bilal did not struggle but looked into Umar’s eyes with a serenity that only seemed to enrage the monster more.

Umar slapped Bilal hard, and I saw a flash of white as one of the African’s teeth flew out of his mouth. Alarmed, my father ran over to his side.

“Umar, leave Bilal in peace. Do not profane the Sanctuary with your wrath.”

The son of al-Khattab stared at my father, who barely came up to his chest, with contempt.

“It is you who profane the Sanctuary with your lies, Abu Bakr!” his voice thundered. “You spread discontent and rebellion, turning slaves against their masters!”

My father remained calm, refusing to let Umar get a rise out of him.

“Bilal is no longer a slave to any man,” he said firmly.

Umar spat in contempt.

“Just because you bought his freedom does not make him any less a slave.”

Bilal looked at his tormentor with a steady gaze. When he spoke, it was with a deeply melodious, musical voice. A voice for which he would be renowned in years to come.

“You are right, Umar. I am still a slave. A slave to Allah.”

Umar’s face reddened until it became the color of an angry sunset.

“You dare speak to me about Allah before His very House!”

Umar kicked Bilal hard in the gut, knocking the small man to the ground. The tiny African cried out in pain, grasping his stomach and writhing in pain. Umar pushed my father out of the way when he leaned over to help Bilal and then kicked him again.

Furious, I ran over to Umar and kicked him in the shin.

“Stop it! Stop hurting him!”

By then, a crowd of pilgrims and locals had formed around us, watching the ongoing drama. When I lashed out at Umar, many laughed at the madness of a child taking on one of the most feared men in Arabia.

Hearing their jeers, Umar looked up and saw the men for the first time. Alarmed at the sudden public spectacle his temper had created during the sacred Pilgrimage, Umar attempted to reassert his dignity and power over the bemused crowd.

“Step back! I am a guardian of the Holy Kaaba!”

But I wouldn’t let him get away with that.

“No! You’re just a bully!” I threw my tiny arms around his legs to prevent him from kicking Bilal again, causing a greater eruption of laughter from the spectators. I looked up to see that while some were mocking, others, especially pilgrims who were foreigners to the city, were shaking their heads in disgust at the violent display before the House of God.

And then I saw Talha, my favorite cousin, push his way through the crowd. My face lit up. Of all my relatives, he was the one I was closest to. There was a natural sweetness to him, like the honey from a bee’s comb. And he was so handsome, with his flowing brown hair and expressive gray eyes that always showed what he was feeling. And in them now I saw terrible anger.

Talha stormed up to Umar, unafraid of the towering blowhard.

“How brave of you, Umar. Fighting a man half your size, and then a little girl. Shall I bring you a cat to test your prowess next?”

Umar stepped back, stunned by Talha’s reproach. He looked confused, as if he could not understand how a powerful man like himself had lost control of the situation so quickly. He finally stared down at Bilal, eager to have the last word.

“Leave the Sanctuary and darken not its stones again with your black flesh,” he said contemptuously.

Bilal stood proudly, wiping blood from his mouth.

“God made me black and I praise Him for it,” he said with dignity. And then he raised his beautiful voice to recite a verse from the Holy Qur’an.

“We take our colors from God, and who is better than God at coloring?”

There was a murmur of interest from the crowd at the lyrical sound of the holy words. I saw several of the dark-skinned nomads, who were accustomed to being treated with contempt, take in these words with a look of delight. They started whispering to one another, and I knew that soon they would learn about the Messenger from whose mouth these strange words had emanated. Words that broke the rules of Arab culture and yet touched the heart. Words that could give a slave strength to stand up to a tyrant. Now the crowd wanted to know more about these words and who was spreading them.

I saw in his sudden flash of regret that Umar had realized this as well. In his explosion of rage, he had only managed to bring attention to Muhammad’s message. Shaking his head, he grumbled to himself as he turned away from us.

“You are all mad,” Umar said dismissively. And then he faced the crowd and raised his hands for their attention.

“Know all present that I would not have harmed this girl,” he said, pointing at me in the desperate hope of regaining some dignity. “Umar ibn al-Khattab does not hurt children.”

Umar turned to walk away from the scene, when Talha laughed bitterly.

“Really? So why did you bury your daughter alive, you pagan wretch?”

Umar froze.

Time itself seemed to stop at that moment.

When Umar turned around to face Talha, there was a terrifying madness in his eyes.

“You…you dare…”

My father realized that Talha had gone too far.

“Leave it be, Talha,” he warned.

But my cousin was filled with righteous indignation. It was an open secret in the city that Umar’s wife, Zaynab bint Madh’un, had recently given birth to a girl. Ashamed and embittered that Zaynab had failed to produce a son, Umar had taken the infant child into the desert. In accordance with the practices of the idolaters, he had left the child on the searing sand and covered her with stones until she died. The Messenger of God had condemned this horrifying practice, which had further alienated him from the rulers of Mecca, who viewed infanticide as a man’s privilege.

“Murderer!” Talha cried, burning with the fire of outrage. “When you are raised on Judgment Day, you will account for your crimes!”

And suddenly, as if a dam had broken, Umar rushed at Talha and threw him to the ground.

Abu Bakr tried to pull Umar off him, to no avail. Umar threw my father aside as if he were one of my rag dolls. I saw him hit his head hard on the ground, drawing blood.

“Father!” I ran to his side in horror. I had never seen my father bleed before and it terrified me. As I helped my father up, Umar violently hit and kicked Talha, who endured his painful blows with dignity.

“Go…go find Hamza…” my father said softly. “He went to Mount Hira…I am too weak…”

Hamza was the Messenger’s uncle, a bear of a man who was the only one of the believers of sufficient strength and stature to challenge the formidable Umar. I raced out of the Sanctuary toward the surrounding hills that led to Mount Hira.

I DESPERATELY CLIMBED THE ROCKY hills in search of Hamza, hoping that I could somehow get him back in time to save Talha’s life. The thought of losing him, the cousin I loved the most, terrified me. Talha was the only one who did not treat me like a baby. He was strong and handsome and charming and always made me laugh. My gossipy friend Rubina thought I had a crush on him and teased me relentlessly that we would marry someday. Once she said this loud enough for him to hear, to my mortification. But Talha did not mock me. Instead he looked at me with a warm smile and said, “It would be an honor of which I am unworthy.”

Oh, poor Talha. There are times that I think I should have left him to die at Umar’s hand. Then he would have been the first martyr and no man would question his honor or place in paradise.

But I was only a child and did not have the gift of prophecy. All I could see was that he would die at that moment unless I could save him. And I, whose name meant life, would not let him die.

I stumbled on the rocks and cut my hand against the edge of a jagged boulder. A streak of blood ran down my palm, but I ignored it and clambered up toward the hilltop.

And then I saw a sight that has been forever burned into my soul. Two men and a woman, emaciated and roasted by the sun, tied to the thorn trees like scarecrows. I recognized them immediately. Sumaya, who was often in my mother’s kitchen, fussing over the proper number of onions to put in the lamb stew. Her quiet, kindhearted husband, Yasir, and their small but stout boy, Ammar.

I stood frozen, my young mind unable to process what I saw.

THIS WAS NOT THE fate Sumaya had wanted for her family when they left their lives as wandering goat herders and sought a more sedentary experience in the city. She had come to Mecca hoping to find a wife for Ammar and steady employment so that her son could build a life for himself and perhaps one day his children. But all they had found was misery.

Sumaya quickly discovered the rule of Mecca that newcomers had no rights unless they secured the protection of a powerful clan. But protection was expensive, and the few goatskins they owned would not suffice. So her family worked like slaves for whoever was willing to offer a few copper coins. Cooking and cleaning were her lot, while her son and husband would tend to the animals of the wealthy or provide help with their hands, laying stone and brick for the expanding mansions of the town’s wealthy lords. Sometimes the pay was good. But if their money was stolen, as it often was, they had no recourse. If their employers beat them and refused to pay after a hard day’s work, they could not protest or raise any objection. Without the protection of a clan, their lives were worth nothing in Mecca, and if they were killed no one would notice, much less raise a sword to avenge them.

And then Sumaya had met the Messenger of God. She had been warned to stay away from his house by the families she cooked and cleaned for. Muhammad was a dangerous sorcerer, they said, and he would place a spell on any who came near. But after a week without food and no one willing to pay for their services, Sumaya, Ammar, and Yasir wandered over to the forbidden quarter of the city where the sorcerer was reputed to live. She had found a small crowd of beggars gathered outside his house, and saw a lovely woman named Khadija handing out fresh meat to the desperate poor. Sumaya had fallen before the noble lady’s feet and begged her for food and work. Muhammad’s wife had brought them inside, and given her family warm soup and shelter for the night.

And then she was brought before the Messenger, heard his gentle words of hope, his teaching that the poor would sit on thrones of gold in Paradise if they renounced false gods and dedicated themselves only to Allah. It was a message that Sumaya and her family had embraced eagerly. And it was their embrace of the message that had now brought them here, tortured and left to die in the wilderness.

SUMAYA’S SON, AMMAR, GAZED at me, his eyes alert and full of pain.

“Aisha…daughter of Abu Bakr…help us…”

For an instant, I forgot all about Talha. I ran toward them and desperately tried to tear apart their bindings with my small hands. His father Yasir was unconscious. Still breathing but weakly.

“Who did this to you?” I asked, unable to keep the horror out of my voice.

“Abu Jahl…”

And then I understood. The Meccan lord who was the most vehement foe of Islam. The monster whose name was told to Muslim children when they were naughty. “Behave, or Abu Jahl will come for you.”

Abu Jahl had come for them.

I tore the flesh from my hand trying to break the cruel knots, but to no avail.

“I can’t do it!” I felt hot tears coming to my eyes. Today was a day of death and destruction. Everyone I loved was in trouble, and I was powerless to help them.

And then I heard footsteps. Someone was coming. Ammar heard it, too. He looked down the hill and saw a figure approaching.

“It’s him! Hide!”

I turned and saw a man dressed in rich purple robes, a lavender turban wrapped across his head, climbing toward us.

Abu Jahl, the monster of my childhood nightmares, was here.

My heart in my throat, I looked around desperately. And then I saw a fallen tree trunk lying to the side. I jumped inside the trunk, ignoring an enraged spider whose web I tore apart as I hid from this demon.

Abu Jahl clambered over the ridge and stood only five feet away from me. He did not look like a monster. In fact, he was quite elegant in his rich robes, laced in gold filigree. His face was handsome and evenly proportioned, his cheekbones high, and his skin unusually fair for a native of the desert heat. He had a small and well-trimmed mustache that gave him a dapper look. His real name was Abu al-Hakam, which meant “Father of Wisdom” but the Muslims always called him Abu Jahl, “Father of Ignorance.”

I saw that his hands were full. In his right hand, he held a spear, the jagged head polished to sparkle in the sun. In his left, I saw an idol. A small, curvaceous stone made of shining obsidian. Even from the distance, I could tell that it was an icon of Manat, Abu Jahl’s patron goddess, to whom he attributed his remarkable wealth.

He looked at the three prisoners whom he had been left to die here. Abu Jahl smiled almost apologetically.

When he spoke, his voice was soft, almost soothing.

“I hope the sun god has taught you reason, Ammar,” he said, without any hint of the rage or madness that possessed Umar.

Ammar looked him in the eye, ignoring the persistent flies that were buzzing around his sweat-drenched face.

“There is no sun god. There is only Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.”

Abu Jahl shook his head, looking deeply disappointed. He sighed, as if filled with regret.

“Even to the end, you remain dedicated to your heresy,” he said. “Think, boy. If Allah cared about your singular devotion so much, why would He leave you to die in the desert?”

Ammar’s lips curled in fury.

“You did that, not Allah.”

Abu Jahl shrugged and turned to Sumaya, who looked up at him serenely despite her pain.

“You are Ammar’s mother,” he said, his voice eminently reasonable. “Tell me, Sumaya. Do you remember his birth? The agony of labor. The pain almost killed you. Yet your midwife prayed to Manat and you lived. Without the mercy of the goddess, how could you have endured those pangs?”

He held up the idol and dangled it right in front of Sumaya’s face.

“Manat ended your pain and gave you and your son life that night. And she can give it you again. Right now.” He leaned forward, holding the idol close to Sumaya’s lips. “All you have to do is kiss her holy image. And I will release you and your family from your bonds.”

Sumaya looked at him, and then at the idol.

I held my breath, praying that she would do it. The Messenger had said that anyone who was forced to renounce his faith for fear of his life, but kept it in his heart, would be forgiven by God. My soul screamed to Sumaya from inside the darkness of the tree trunk: Do it! Save yourself! Save your son!

Sumaya smiled at Abu Jahl gently, almost gratefully.

And then she spit on the idol of Manat.

And then I saw Abu Jahl change. Something terrible came over his face. Not rage, like Umar’s, but an emptiness. A lack of feeling. In that instant, he looked more like a corpse than a living man. And he frightened me more with the rigid calm of his face than Umar had with all his bluster.

“So you would choose death over life,” he said softly.

Sumaya laughed suddenly, as if she finally realized that she had been wasting her time arguing with an imbecile.

“No…I choose life…eternal life,” she said. She steeled her eyes on him, and I saw no fear. “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger.”

Abu Jahl gazed into her face, and then nodded. He stepped back, locking his eyes on hers.

And then, in one fluid movement that was so fast my eyes barely captured it, he stabbed her through her vagina, pushing the spear up into her womb!

“No!” Ammar’s scream was the most terrifying sound I had ever heard. I bit my hand in horror, letting my own stifled cry shudder through my body.

Sumaya cried out in terrible agony. She writhed on the tree trunk as blood poured out from her womb and into a thick crimson puddle at her feet. Abu Jahl continued to push the spear higher, tearing open her intestines and stomach from the inside.

And then her screams ended. And there was only silence.

As Ammar wept, I saw Abu Jahl casually remove the spear. He used Sumaya’s threadbare tunic to clean the blood off his weapon, before turning to face Ammar.

“The gods have won,” he said simply, as if stating an obvious truth to the child.

Somehow Ammar found his voice in the midst of terrible grief.

“No…my mother has won…she is the first of the martyrs.”

Abu Jahl allowed a small smile to play on his full, sensuous lips.

“She will not be the last.”

He turned and climbed back down the hill, whistling a happy tune.

When he was gone, I emerged from the tree trunk. I felt like I was in a dream. The entire day had to have been a nightmare. Nothing I witnessed could happen in the real world.

I stared at the dead woman, hanging ignominiously, her lower body drenched in the blood that had only moments before flowed through her veins.

This was not real. It couldn’t be.

And then the screech of vultures tore me out of my trance and I ran away, racing from the specter of death that would forever haunt me, even as the midwife had prophesied the night I was born.

3

Alone figure knelt on the sacred ground of Mount Hira, where the Revelation had begun. He flexed his powerful muscles and then raised his hands in prayer to the One God that had chosen his family to redeem mankind.

Hamza had always known that his nephew Muhammad had been destined for greatness. They were close in years and the man who was now called Messenger of God had been more of a younger brother to Hamza than a nephew. But even when they would race each other across the stone alleyways of Mecca, or wrestle playfully in the sand, Muhammad had never quite seemed like a child. There had been a wisdom in his eyes, a sadness that seemed to belong to someone who had already lived a lifetime of struggle, loss, and triumph. Perhaps it was the sorrow of an orphan, having lost his father before he was born and his mother at the age of six.

But there was something else different about the boy. A sense of destiny that hung around him like an aura. It was a power that others in the family had sensed as well, and not all were comfortable with it. Hamza’s half brother, Abu Lahab, in particular had taken an early dislike to their nephew, seeing Muhammad as a dreamer and an idealist, someone who refused to adapt to the harsh realities of life in the desert.

When Muhammad had come to Hamza and told him about his vision, in a cave not far from where Hamza sat now, he had been fascinated but not really surprised. Still, Hamza had been set in his ways and found it difficult to renounce the gods of their fathers. But as he watched the growing opposition of the Meccan lords to his nephew’s teaching and their increasing cruelty toward his followers, he had felt a growing passion within his breast. Hamza had always believed in living life with honor and justice, and he began to see that the followers of the old ways displayed few of those traits.

And then one day he heard how the wretch Abu Jahl had insulted Muhammad viciously while he prayed at the Kaaba, raining obscene curses on him and his family, and his nephew had simply taken in the abuse and walked away with dignity. At that moment, Hamza had made a decision. He had taken the powerful bow with which he had famously killed lions and cheetahs in the desert and strode over to Abu Jahl, who was rallying a crowd against the Muslims in the Sanctuary. Without hesitating, Hamza struck Abu Jahl across the forehead with the bow, knocking him to his knees. And then, before the whole city, he proclaimed faith in his nephew’s religion.

And now he sat here, praying as the Messenger had taught him, his knees on the ground, his head bowed in surrender to God. He found peace at Hira, and he could understand why his nephew found solace here. The air was pure, crisp and clear, not filled with the smell of the burning offal of the city. And instead of the cacophony of loud voices, squawking chickens, and braying camels that arose from the streets of Mecca, there was silence. It was a silence so deep, so still, that a man could finally hear the beating of his own heart, the gentle whispers of the soul.

And then the silence of mountain was shattered by a child’s cry.

“Hamza! We need you!”

He turned and saw me scrambling up the rocks like a redheaded spider. My dress was torn from this terrible journey and my face covered in the gray dust that covered the mountain like soot.

Hamza moved to intercept me. He climbed down several sharply inclined boulders that I could never have scaled. We finally reached each other and I collapsed in his thick arms, panting for breath.

“Aisha? What is it?”

I wheezed, trying to get the words out, as my heart beat in my ears.

“My father…Sumaya…They need you…Abu Jahl…Umar…No one can stop them…”

I didn’t make much sense. But I didn’t need to. Mention of Abu Jahl and Umar was enough.

“God will stop them, little one.”

He rose and took my tiny hand and then gently led me down the rocky slope.

4

There was one more death that day.

Hamza carried me on his iron shoulders as I guided him to the hilltop where the three prisoners of Abu Jahl were still tied to the thorn trees. Hamza checked on them and found that only young Ammar still breathed. His father, Yasir, had succumbed to the heat, having never regained consciousness. Perhaps it was the mercy of God that he had died without knowing the horrific suffering his beloved wife, Sumaya, had endured.

While I stood to the side, sucking my thumb in a gesture of insecurity that should have been long behind me, Hamza released Ammar, who immediately sank to his knees, his body shaking with shock. Hamza poured water from his cowhide flask directly into Ammar’s mouth, but the lad barely moved to drink it. His eyes never left the corpses of his parents. The Prophet’s uncle then untied the bodies of Sumaya and Yasir and laid them side by side.

“Can you walk?” Hamza asked Ammar gently. “If so, come with me back to Mecca. We will bring a party of believers to bury your parents.”

Ammar shook his head.

“I’ll stay with them.”

Hamza nodded. He put a comforting hand on Ammar’s shoulder, but knew there was nothing he could do or say to ease the young man’s pain. So he turned to me.

“You are very brave,” he said, rustling my hair affectionately.

“We have to go! Talha and my father need us.”

Hamza lifted me on his shoulders and stormed off toward Mecca. I looked back to see Ammar stroking his mother’s hair, his eyes staring ahead, vacant.

IN THE END, HAMZA arrived when he was no longer needed. Umar had beaten Talha to a bloody pulp but had spared him his life. Even the fiery son of al-Khattab was unwilling to risk the retaliation of Abu Bakr’s clan, the Bani Taym. Not that he was afraid, he boasted loudly to the crowd that watched him ruthlessly break Talha’s arm. “But this little worm is not worthy of a challenge to my life.” And with that, he had stormed off to get drunk, hoping to erase the memory of Talha’s insult-and his wretched guilt over an infant girl who had lovingly squeezed his finger even as he covered her with stones.

When Hamza heard that Abu Bakr had taken the badly injured Talha to the Messenger’s house, he left the Sanctuary and strode quickly there. I was slow to follow, my young mind still reeling from the madness of the day’s events. As I picked up my pace to catch up to Hamza, I saw an embarrassed-looking Abu Sufyan attempting to convince the grim-faced Bedouin to stay and spend his gold in the marketplace.

“My people have performed their duties and wish to depart,” the Bedouin chief said. “Send your son to retrieve our weapons.”

“But you have just arrived!” Abu Sufyan gesticulated in exagerated surprise. “Come, I will arrange for guest lodgings.”

“That will not be necessary.”

But Abu Sufyan had the persistence of a born merchant.

“You must come to the bazaar in the morning,” he said smoothly. “We recently received a shipment of the finest silk from Persia.”

The Bedouin shook his head.

“My people have no need of silk.”

Abu Sufyan’s frustration was beginning to show.

“But there is so much more that Mecca has to offer!”

The Bedouin grimaced as he looked back to the scene of the bloody brawl just outside the gates of the Sanctuary.

“I have seen today what Mecca has to offer. I wish to see no more.” And with that, he turned his back on Abu Sufyan and rejoined his people, who were already beginning to pack their camels’ bags with food and water for the journey home.

Abu Sufyan shook his head in frustration at the loss of commerce. I turned to rejoin Hamza, when my legs froze.

Walking toward me in all his purple finery was Abu Jahl. His face was calm and undisturbed and there was not a shred of evidence that he had just ruthlessly killed an innocent woman.

For a moment a mad terror engulfed me. Had he seen me running down the hill? Would he now seek to kill me to cover up his crime?

Abu Jahl approached and my heart skipped a beat.

And then he walked right past me, blissfully ignorant of a redheaded child who had seen the depth of his evil up close.

Abu Jahl walked to Abu Sufyan, who was still scowling over lost business

“More incidents like today’s will drive away pilgrims,” Abu Jahl said with a disapproving tut of his tongue. “If these renegades persist in challenging us, the Pilgrimage will end. Without the Pilgrimage, we will be without trade. And without trade, Mecca will vanish into the sands.”

Abu Sufyan nodded.

“This has gone too far. It is time to act.”

Abu Jahl smiled, his eyes gleaming.

“I agree.”

As the two walked away in quiet converse, I managed to regain strength in my knees and I ran off to the House of the Messenger.

5

That night I sat by my father as the Messenger of God held council with his family and most trusted followers.

There were two dozen of us, mainly the original families that had embraced Islam in the early years and had proven loyal to the Prophet in the first days of persecution. My mother, Umm Ruman, sat next to my father, her auburn hair hidden behind a modest blue scarf. To her left was my elder sister, Asma, now fourteen years old, her brown eyes intent and darting about the room like a bird. I was wondering what she was looking for, and then I saw a tall young man with perfect white teeth enter and Asma seemed to stop breathing. It was your father, Zubayr, and I suddenly understood.

We were in what had once been Muhammad’s grand guest room, where the family would entertain friends and visiting dignitaries from the trading caravans. The room was vast, at least to my young eyes, forty feet wide and twenty-five in length. Sturdy pillars supported a row of rounded arches that buttressed a circular balcony from the living quarters above. The roof soared thirty feet above my head and was not flat in the ordinary custom of the city but curved upward to form a majestic dome. An architectural style adopted from the Byzantines with whom the Messenger had had much interaction as a merchant in his youth. It would be a motif that would become commonplace among our people in years to come when the lands of the Greeks fell to our swords.

But as I sat there in a clandestine meeting with a handful of believers, such a mighty destiny would have seemed laughable, a fantasy unworthy of even the most foolish drunk sleeping in the gutters of Mecca. Who could entertain thoughts of empire when our movement was pathetically small and now appeared ripe for extinction? Abu Jahl had been right when he said that Sumaya’s death would not be the last. The dread of what was to come hung over us like a cloud of locusts, gathering in preparation for an unstoppable swarm.

But when the Messenger of God entered the room, for a moment a ray of light broke through those dark clouds and we felt hope again,

How can I describe to those who were not there what it was like to be in the presence of the Prophet? It was as if I had entered another world or was seeing this world through reborn eyes. In the years that followed, I would share his life and his bed, and yet every time I saw him, my heart would beat faster. It was as if he were life itself.

You will remember him, my nephew, from your own youth. Yes, by then he had changed some, there were a few gray hairs in his beard, caused by the burden of war and politics that would preoccupy his final years. But he was naturally ageless, and as I sat looking at him that night, I marveled to think that he was two years older than my father and yet looked a dozen years younger.

Muhammad, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him, was middling in height, but his wide shoulders and barrel chest exuded power and strength. His hair in those days was ebony black, darker than the veil of night, darker than the deepest levels of sleep when even our dreams vanish and only silence remains. His skin was white like alabaster. As I became older and more aware of my own beauty, I prided myself on the fairness of my skin, a rarity in our sunburned land. But the Messenger of God’s face was still fairer than mine, almost ethereal, like the sparkling white of the moon.

His hair was not straight but curled gently, flowing like a lion’s mane from his forehead down below his ears. His beard curled similarly and was thick and always well brushed. I often wondered at some of the believers who claimed to imitate him by donning beards and then let them grow wild like the quills of a porcupine. The Messenger of God would never be seen looking like a mangy dog dragged in from the desert, although there are many who style themselves worse and proclaim themselves followers of his way, his sunna. He was a man of dignity who loved beauty and grace and exhibited these qualities in the way he groomed himself.

But the most striking thing about the Prophet was his eyes, so black that it was difficult to discern his pupils and yet always filled with light. Few men could gaze deep into them for long. It is said that the eyes are the mirrors of the soul. In the case of the Messenger, his eyes were the mirrors of our souls. Anyone who looked into those majestic obsidian orbs would see the depths of his own heart reflected back. And not everyone could bear what he saw.

The Messenger smiled often but rarely laughed, although in later years I was one of the few who could make him throw his head back and rejoice with hearty abandon. His laugh, uncommon as it was, was deep-throated and infectious. And when he laughed, few could resist joining in.

The same was true for his tears, which came more often. And tonight he had shed many. After Hamza had returned and told him of Sumaya and Yasir’s fate, the Messenger had wept deeply. Together they had led a small band of believers into the wilderness, where they had rescued Ammar, still sitting forlorn by his dead parents, and then buried the first martyrs of Islam.

The Messenger had returned with a heavy heart and had found comfort, as he always did, in the arms of his wife, Khadija. I looked at her now as she sat next to him on the marble floor of the palatial house that she had owned before she met and fell in love with the young Muhammad. Together they looked like king and queen, except that they had no thrones. Most of the luxurious furnishings in the house had long ago been sold, the proceeds given to the poor, and the beautiful mansion with its whitewashed walls and polished floors was almost as empty as a tomb.

The Prophet squeezed Khadija’s hand and she smiled at him encouragingly. Looking at them, it was clear that there was a substantial age difference. Muhammad had only been twenty-five when she hired him to manage her trading caravans. Rumor had it that Khadija was a wealthy widow of forty years when she first saw him and that she had been so taken aback by his nobility and generous spirit-and his handsome features-that she had proposed shortly after he had returned from Syria with a substantial profit for her account. Others said she was only twenty-eight, just three years older than him, when she made him her husband, and that her age had been exaggerated by the pious in order to signify her wisdom.

I think the truth is somewhere in between. When I looked at her, she was still beautiful, but her dark hair had turned to silver, although there were only a few lines around her eyes and mouth. She had borne him six children in the first ten years of their marriage-four girls who had lived and two boys who had died as infants. As a woman, I find it hard to believe that Khadija would have been so fertile at an age when most other women’s courses had long ceased. But, after living with the Messenger of God myself, I have seen many strange and improbable things, so perhaps the rumors of her advanced age may indeed have been true. And it was certainly the will of God that she alone would bear him children that would survive, while my womb, young and fertile as it was, would remain inexplicably barren.

The Messenger looked at Khadija for a long moment, before turning to those he had gathered in council.

“Today has been a sad day for the believers,” he began softly, when Hamza, who had been pacing back and forth with barely restrained fury spoke up.

“They have crossed all boundaries!” the Prophet’s uncle said, his face racked with emotion.

My father stirred next to me.

“This day was long coming,” Abu Bakr said, trying to calm the agitated giant. “Sumaya and her family did not have the protection of the tribes. Abu Jahl knew he could act without fear of retaliation.”

Hamza sat down, growling like an angry lion.

“Now that they have tasted Muslim blood, they will hunger for more.”

Across the room I saw Talha, whose face was bandaged and right arm was cast in a sling of leather, lean toward the man who had belatedly appeared to rescue him.

“So what do you counsel?

Hamza looked across the room at the Messenger.

“Emigrate! We must send the rest of our people to Abyssinia,” he said forcefully.

There was a murmur of assent among the believers. A year before, several of the poorest Muslims had emigrated with the Prophet’s blessing across the western sea to the African nation of Abyssinia. The land was ruled by a wise Christian king called the Negus, who had taken the refugees in and offered them protection. The Meccans had sent Amr ibn al-As, one of their most charming and diplomatic envoys, to the Negus with gold and promises of discounted trade for his people-if he surrendered the Muslims, whom Amr branded as criminals. The Negus had been impressed by the faith and devotion of these Arabs to the God of Abraham and had denied the request. His clemency came despite the grumblings of his Christian priests, who saw the Muslims as troublesome heretics who denied that the prophet Jesus had ever claimed to be divine. The Muslims had been safe for the past year, and Hamza’s suggestion was well received by the believers.

But the Messenger turned his attention to his cousin Ali.

“What do you think?”

The lad was now seventeen years old, but his strange and ethereal personality had not changed from his boyhood. The believers still felt a rush of complex emotions when the Prophet deferred to the youth. They trusted the Messenger but found his singular faith in this dreamy young man to be unusual and hard to understand.

Ali stood up, his eyes looking to an empty corner of the room as if he could see something no one else could.

“I do not advise it. Uthman already has his hands full,” he said, referring to the Messenger’s son-in-law, who had married Muhammad’s ravishing daughter Ruqayya before leading the Muslims across the sea to Abyssinia.

I heard a small cough from across the room and turned to see your father, Zubayr, rise. At the same moment, I felt my sister, Asma, who was sitting to my left, tense with excitement, as she always did when the dashing young man spoke.

“The Negus has treated us kindly. Surely it is worth pursuing for those who have no clan protection,” he said, his voice measured and calm as it always was. He had great influence over the community as a cousin of the Prophet, the son of his aunt Safiya, and as one of the earliest believers.

Ali looked at Zubayr with his intense green eyes and shook his head.

“The Negus is under pressure from his priests to expel the newcomers. So far, he has restrained them. But under the current climate, it would be unwise to send more refugees into that nation. It could make the situation worse for those already established.”

But Zubayr did not give in that easily.

“We must do something. The Quraysh will soon call a counsel against us.”

And then a deep voice resonated from the entry hall and we all whirled in surprise.

“They already have.”

6

A shadow fell across the doorway behind me, and I looked up to see a bent old man with a frosty beard enter slowly, his hands wrapped around an ivory walking stick. Here was Abu Talib, the Messenger’s uncle and father of Ali. He had been like a father to Muhammad, raising him after he was orphaned and standing by his side as the lords of Mecca turned against his new religion. The Prophet rose when he saw him, a sign of his deep love and respect, even though Abu Talib still clung to the way of their ancestors and worshiped the pagan gods. We all followed suit. Ali walked across the room and helped his father step across the black-and-white marble floor until he came to sit by the Messenger and Khadija.

Abu Talib looked frail and his hands shook, but his voice did not waver.

“The leaders of Quraysh are meeting in the House of Assembly to tonight to determine how to deal with your people,” he said with an air of regret. “Son of my brother, please listen to reason,” Abu Talib said to the Prophet. “Once the fire of Quraysh’s wrath is kindled, it will not be quenched. Your followers will all be consumed, as that poor woman was today. If you do not wish to follow our gods, that is your right. But please do not speak out against them anymore. Let the people of Arabia follow their traditions in peace. Despite their misgivings about your beliefs, the Quraysh respect and admire you, and I am sure they will be willing to offer anything you ask-if only you desist from denouncing their gods.”

A silence fell over the crowd of believers. We looked at the Messenger uncertainly, wondering how he would respond to a plea from this beloved old man to compromise with the idolaters.

I saw the Messenger turn to Khadija, who looked him in the eye and nodded firmly. Whatever he decided, she would support him as the Mother of the Believers.

The Prophet looked down for a moment, breathing slowly and deeply. When he finally raised his head, I saw a fire in his eyes that both excited and terrified me. He took Khadija’s hand in his right, and Ali’s in his left.

“By God, even if they place the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left, I will not be dissuaded from my mission.”

That was it, and we all knew it. There would be no compromise, even if the Meccans declared war on the Muslims.

Abu Talib shook his head despairingly.

“But my nephew-”

Khadija interrupted, holding the Prophet’s hand high for all to see that her fingers remain firmly clasped in his.

“You have my husband’s answer, dear uncle. He is Al-Amin, the Truthful, and he can no more hide the truth than the sun can rise in the west. God has commanded him to speak the Truth to Mecca and all mankind, and he will do so, regardless of the schemes of those who spin webs in the shadows.”

Her words stirred my heart and I could see that they had the same effect on the others. One by one, each member of the community, man or woman, adult or child, loudly voiced assent.

Seeing our unity and determination, Abu Talib finally bowed his head, accepting his nephew’s choice. He rose to his feet, gripping his cane as he prepared to leave.

“Then I fear for you. All of you,” he said sadly. “May your God protect you from that which is coming.”

“But what is coming? What is it that they are planning? If we know, we can protect ourselves.” It was the quiet voice of Fatima, the Prophet’s youngest daughter. She was a shy girl, about ten years older than myself, with a perpetually sad face. Unlike her older sisters, who were gregarious and full of life, Fatima was like a ghost who appeared and disappeared wordlessly and was rarely noticed by others. I saw several people start at the unexpected sound of her voice and I realized that I was not alone in wondering when she had entered the room or if she had been there the whole time without anyone noticing.

Abu Talib answered the girl by turning to face his son Ali.

“The doors of the Assembly have been shut to me this night. But I fear the worst.”

Ali put a kind hand on his father’s arm.

“Fear not, my father. God promises us that ‘the righteous will neither fear, nor will they grieve,’” he said, quoting the holy Qur’an.

“I wish I could share your faith, my son,” he said, and I heard real regret in his voice. “But alas, I am old and all I know is that nothing good can come out of secret counsels held by angry men.”

As Ali led his father out of the room, I looked around. There was a hubbub of commotion as the believers argued and debated among themselves as to what to do. Everyone seemed to have an opinion, but it was all speculation. Without knowing what was said in the Hall of Assembly, there would be no way to defend our people against this new threat.

And then an insane idea came to me. Of course I thought it was ingenious at the time, but I was a child, and did not know the difference between brilliance and madness. There are many who believe I have never learned the difference, and perhaps they are right.

I saw that my father was preoccupied by the debate, and my sister was preoccupied with staring at Zubayr. No one noticed or cared what I was thinking, and no one noticed or cared as I quietly slipped away toward the door.

But as I turned to leave, I thought I saw from the corner of my eye the Messenger watching me with an amused smile.

7

The Hall of Assembly sparkled like ruby in the moonlight. It was the second largest building in Mecca, with only the Kaaba standing taller. It had been built years before by Qusay, one of the most revered of the ancestors of Quraysh, a statesman who had ended the blood feuds of rival clans and created a unified oligarchy that brought stability to the Pilgrimage and prosperity to the city. The Hall of Assembly was the symbol of his legacy. A sprawling complex that spread out over two hundred feet of polished red stone and marble, it was the closest thing to a palace in the wastes between Yemen and Syria and served as a meeting ground for tribal leaders, as well as a festival hall and the seat of rough desert justice.

Normally, the arched doors, inlaid in silver and polished bronze, were flung open to the public, allowing the average citizen of Mecca the necessary illusion that he had access to the corridors of power. In truth, everyone knew that decisions made in the Hall were based on the cold calculations of gold and political expediency; but the semblance of justice was necessary to prevent complete social breakdown.

But today the needs of appearances were secondary to the demands of secrecy and the mighty doors were shut to all except those who wielded unquestioned power. Guards in heavy leather armor, ringed in steel, stood outside each of the doors, bearing long swords held to the ready. The deliberations tonight were essential to the future of the city, and they had been ordered to cut down anyone who attempted to enter without permission.

A sound like a footfall made one of the guards, a grim-faced brute named Husam, turn his head with a start. It had come from around the corner, where a small alley ran between the southern wall of the building and the gated home of Abu Sufyan. The guard signaled to his broken-toothed colleague Adham. Weapons poised, they stealthily turned around the corner, prepared to kill anyone hiding in the shadows.

They saw nothing except a gray cat looking up at them with unblinking yellow eyes. Satisfied, the two men returned to their posts protecting the eastern gate to the Hall.

I LOOKED DOWN FROM my precarious perch ten feet above the ground as the two angry-looking guards exited the alley. I had often played hide-and-seek with my friends and the alley beside the Hall of Assembly was one of my favorite haunts. I had always been a limber child and I had climbed up the iron drainpipe before, confident that the playmates trying to find me would not think to look up. I loved spying on them while they were unaware. That little skill had proved useful to me that night and had likely saved my life.

When the guards had disappeared from my sight, I allowed myself to breathe again. Looking up, I saw a window on the second floor that was partially open, the gap just small enough for a cat to climb through. Or a small child.

My heart beat with the excitement that comes more from doing the forbidden than from any awareness of the danger I was placing myself in. I dug my fingers into the pipe, my fingernails already black with grime and pigeon droppings, and climbed higher, until I was just parallel to the window. If I had looked down, I probably would have fainted from vertigo, but I had always been a focused girl, and right now my eyes were on nothing except the small sill that jutted out beneath the window. I closed my eyes for a second and said the benediction that I had been taught almost as my first words: Bismillahir-rahmanir-raheem, In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.

And then I swung over like a monkey and grasped the sill, clinging to its jagged stone outline. With a grunt that I prayed would not be heard by the nearby guards, I heaved myself higher until my skinny body was lying flat on the sill. Then, with the impossible dexterity of youth, I managed to squeeze through the window opening and tumbled inside.

I blinked, adjusting my eyes to the dark interior. I was on the floor of what appeared to be a circular walkway overlooking the central assembly chamber. Doors spread out to either side, leading to smaller meeting lounges. For an overly inquisitive girl, this vast building, with its many passages, doors and mysteries was a treasure trove of discovery. But I had a self-appointed mission tonight and exploration would have to wait for another day.

The sound of voices pulled me toward a wood railing made of expensive acacia imported from the Sinai. I peered through the lattices that had been designed in swirling geometric forms-stars, octagons, and other pretty shapes that I didn’t recognize-and peered down on the meeting in progress.

I immediately recognized most of the men as tribal chiefs who had come to my father’s house at various times to plead with him to end his preaching and abandon the new religion that was undermining their trade. My heart froze at the sight of Abu Jahl, dressed in robes of rich blue, a black velvet vest covering his broad chest. Of course he would be here. His decision to elevate the persecution of the Muslims to murder had been the basis of tonight’s emergency council.

And then I saw something that surprised me. Among all the men with their bright turbans and ceremonial daggers tied to leather belts was seated one woman.

Hind bint Utbah, the wife of Abu Sufyan and daughter of one of the most powerful chieftains of Quraysh. I had seen her before in the marketplace, examining jewelry or rows of cloth with an expert eye. Unlike the other women of Mecca, she did not haggle over prices. She immediately knew what an item was worth and never asked the merchant. She would the name the price, and there would be no argument. The traders often gave her an extra discount in a kind of backward negotiation where they sought to gain more in Hind’s favor and political patronage than they lost on their merchandise.

She had a proud, steady walk, graceful and terrifying at once, like a lioness in motion. She was the tallest woman I had ever seen, easily dwarfing many of the men in the room. Her hair fell to the small of her back in waves, the dark locks fashionably streaked with henna. Her skin was olive and glistened like a polished mirror. But it was her eyes that always caught my breath. Yellow green like a cat’s, piercing in their intensity. They exuded pride and disdain, as well as a clear hint of danger. Whatever demons hid behind Hind’s cruel gaze, it was safer to leave them undisturbed.

“Muhammad’s followers have become a grave problem for the people of Mecca,” Abu Sufyan proclaimed, his voice booming with authority. “It is time that we take action.”

Abu Jahl stepped forward smoothly.

“Today the first of their blood was spilled. More must follow if we are to put an end to this.”

The crowd murmured its assent and I saw Hind smile. And then I noticed that there was a friend among the gathered nobles.

The Messenger’s uncle Abbas rose. While he had not embraced our faith, he was always kind to Muslims and we counted on him to be a voice of reason among the lords. A role that he was clearly alone in tonight.

“It is time for patience, not hasty deeds,’” Abbas said, his silky voice seeking to quench the fire that had been ignited by Abu Jahl.

But his sympathies were an open secret among the chiefs, and Abu Jahl turned to face Abbas with a cold eye.

“Is it patience that stays your hand, or cowardice?”

Abbas bristled with the pride of his clan, the Bani Hashim. He walked right up to Abu Jahl until their beards were almost touching.

“You dare call me a coward? How much courage does it take to kill an old woman tied to a tree?”

Abu Jahl’s handsome smile suddenly curled into a cruel grimace. A dead silence fell over the crowd. For an instant, I thought he would draw his dagger and plunge it into Abbas’s chest to avenge this open attack on his honor.

And then Hind stepped between the men, her long elegant fingers positioned on the chests of the adversaries as she separated them gracefully.

“Enough! Save your rage for our common enemy, Muhammad.”

Amr ibn al-As, the Meccan envoy with the honeyed tongue who had unsuccessfully sought to repatriate the Muslim refugees from Abyssinia, politely raised his hand. I saw that it was covered in silver rings with expensive stones-garnets, carnelian, and amber.

“But alas, what can we do against Muhammad? He is protected by the clan of Hashim.”

Even as he spoke, all eyes fell on another member of the Messenger’s tribe, his uncle Abu Lahab. Fat, bald, and perpetually sweating, he always reminded me of a garden slug, although with a less appealing personality.

Abu Lahab snorted in contempt at the thought of his wayward nephew. Unlike his half brothers Abu Talib and Abbas, Abu Lahab despised Muhammad, may God’s blessings and peace be upon him, and had made no secret of his belief that the Messenger was simply creating a new religion to monopolize the city’s lucrative Pilgrimage trade.

“The sanctuary of our clan will not last forever,” Abu Lahab said. “My brother Abu Talib is old. When he dies, I will lead the Bani Hashim and will revoke his protection.”

Abbas gave his brother a contemptuous stare, which Abu Lahab met with studied indifference.

Abu Jahl shook his head.

“We cannot wait that long,” he said bluntly. “The tribes will grow weary of his disruption of the Pilgrimage. They will take their pilgrims-and their gold-to Taif and the temple of the goddess Allat.”

Abu Jahl had chosen his words well. Taif was a prosperous trading center to the southeast, on the caravan route to Yemen. The denizens of that settlement had long envied Mecca’s preeminence and had built a sprawling shrine to the “daughter of Allah” to rival and, they hoped, one day eclipse the Kaaba. If Muhammad’s preaching against their gods made the annual Pilgrimage an inconvenience and source of turmoil for the desert tribes, it made sense that many would switch their allegiance to the goddess. And take their trade with them.

Seeing that he had hit he proper nerve with the other chiefs, Abu Jahl smiled.

“We must make a decisive move now,” he said forcefully. “Muhammad must die.”

There was an immediate uproar as various members of the Assembly shouted their opinions on this extremely controversial suggestion. I could see Hind smiling, her eyes glowing. She stood motionless in the middle of the loud debate, like the heart of a whirlwind. There was something both terrifying and mesmerizing about her at that moment, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck tingle.

Finally Abu Sufyan raised both his hands and spoke loudly, asserting his authority over the tumult.

“No,” he said firmly. “If we attack Muhammad, his clan will be forced to avenge him against the murderer. It will start a blood feud that will consume Mecca.”

He glanced at Abbas, who nodded coldly. Abu Lahab looked to his feet, knowing that no matter how much he wished it were otherwise, what Abu Sufyan said was true. His cousins in the Bani Hashim would slaughter anyone who attacked Muhammad.

Abu Sufyan’s calm voice served to quell the passion of the crowd, to Abu Jahl’s clear annoyance. But the weight of his words had put an end to this dangerous line of talk. Abu Sufyan, perhaps better than any of them, understood the threat posed by Muhammad’s movement, but he also knew that killing him would be like using oil to put out a kitchen fire.

Satisfied that he had cut off Abu Jahl’s provocations before they could grow like weeds in a garden, killing the fruits of wisdom that kept the peace in Mecca, he stepped back.

And then Hind spoke, and everything changed.

8

Why do you fear the spilling of a little blood, my husband?” Hind said in a husky voice. “No nation can stand that will not pay the price of order.”

All eyes were on her as she moved toward her husband. Abu Sufyan saw the hungry yet terrified gaze of the crowd on his beautiful wife and his face reddened at her blatant defiance of his authority.

“A wise merchant always weighs the price with a cold heart,” he said, an edge entering his voice. “He does not allow himself to be swayed by the emotions of a woman.”

Hind turned to face her husband and I saw a dangerous look in her eyes. I saw her right hand move back as if to slap him, and my eyes fell on a golden armlet that wrapped around her olive-colored forearm. It looked Egyptian in design, two snakes curling around her wrist, their jaws meeting behind her hand, a glittering ruby held between their savage fangs. It was beautiful and terrifying, much like Hind herself.

But if she had desired to strike her husband in public for his de-meaning words, Hind thought the better of it, and she merely turned her back on him in open contempt.

Seeing the spell her sultry voice had cast on the men and their looks of despairing desire as she moved, Abbas walked to the center of the room to regain their attention.

“Abu Sufyan is right,” he said loudly. “Killing Muhammad will prove too costly. Even if the blood feud were settled, his followers would proclaim him a martyr. A ghost is the most dangerous adversary, for it can never be killed.”

Abu Sufyan nodded in assent, although he could not completely hide his irritation that his wife’s gambit had allowed one of his rivals to state his primary case. But before he could add a word in support of Abbas, Abu Jahl clapped loudly, his hands coming together in slow, mocking strokes.

“Spoken like a true advocate for your nephew.” he sneered. “I think it is safe to say that your loyalties lie with your kinsman and not with the people of Mecca. And it is the people of Mecca who are suffering under the lies of this sorcerer. Our city cries for a hero, a man who stands tall and does what needs to be done, without fear of consequences.”

This high-flown but calculated appeal to idealism struck an immediate chord with the Arabs, a people who prided themselves on their epic stories of heroes who risked their lives for the honor of the tribe. Abu Sufyan watched in frustration as the fire of aggression he had extinguished began to blaze brightly again.

It was a shift in sentiment that Hind sensed as well. She raised her hands above her head, posing like the alluring idol of Astarte, the Phoenician fertility goddess, which stood in the Sanctuary.

“Who among you is a real man? A man who does not fear retribution? A man who will stand for Mecca and the religion of our fathers, even if it means his own death? A man who prefers the honored sleep of eternity to the shameful comfort of a coward’s bed? Is there no such man among you?”

Her words were dripping with promise and warning. Even as a little girl, I knew what was being said beneath those words. Who among you is man enough to please me? To give me everything that is inside you, even if it means losing yourself in the flame of my heart?

I saw the lords of Mecca looking at one another in confusion and uncertainty. Hind’s passion was too extreme, even for them. And then a man arose, one of the few who stood taller than the queenly Hind. It was Umar. There was a dark intensity in his face similar to what I had seen earlier in the day when Talha had humiliated him.

“I will do it. I will bring you the head of this liar who has profaned the Holy Kaaba.”

There were gasps of surprise-or perhaps relief-that Umar had taken up Hind’s challenge. He was essentially agreeing to his own death. While no one had any doubt that Umar had the courage and pure physical viciousness to take on the role of assassin, even he would not be able to defend himself against the retaliation of the men of Hashim.

Hind smiled at him and I saw a glance pass between them that I did not understand. But whatever it was that I saw, I was not alone, for Abu Sufyan caught it as well and looked away, his face red from anger. Or humiliation.

Realizing that Umar’s declaration meant almost certain death for his nephew, Abbas tried to reason with him.

“Think, Umar, of what you are saying-”

Umar responded by unsheathing his sword.

“No! I have thought enough!” Umar turned to face Abbas and Abu Lahab, the two representatives of the Messenger’s clan. “Know, O sons of Hashim, that I fear not your reprisals. I will kill this renegade, and if any among you has the courage to hold me accountable, then do so. You will find my blade a worthy match.”

Abbas saw the madness in Umar’s eyes and looked down quickly, before the giant brute lost control and smashed that broadsword on his skull. I saw his brother Abu Lahab smirk with glee. If Umar succeeded in ridding Mecca of his troublesome nephew, Abu Lahab would counsel his clansmen to forgo retribution and allow Umar to pay a blood debt to Muhammad’s family rather than risk an all-consuming blood feud that would destroy Mecca. With the Prophet out of the way and the clan divided over how to respond to Umar’s act of violence, Abu Lahab would be perfectly positioned to seize the scepter of authority from his aging brother Abu Talib.

I watched as Hind moved forward, her body flowing like silk in the wind, and touched Umar on the cheek with affection.

“I always knew you were the greatest man of Quraysh,” she said, her words like nectar dripping from her full, red lips.

Her husband Abu Sufyan turned and walked out, unable to bear the humiliation of his wife’s open flirtation with the son of al-Khattab. In later years, I would learn that Umar’s affair with Hind had been the worst-kept secret of Mecca, but the two had been discreet in public until this moment.

A strange look came over Umar’s face as he gazed at Hind. The harshness vanished and for a moment he looked like a child seeking to please his mother. Or perhaps more accurately, a condemned soul seeking forgiveness from his judge.

“Tomorrow, I will end this scourge,” he said, his booming voice suddenly soft like a dove. “Muhammad will die. And the gods will be appeased.”

He broke free of Hind and walked out, preparing to kill and be killed. And I later learned the thought that tore through his heart at that moment. That when he died under the vengeful blows of the men of Hashim, perhaps the child he had buried alive would be avenged.

9

The next morning Umar set out to fulfill his mission. As he rounded a corner, the Messenger’s house came into view and he froze, looking at it with the perverse curiosity of a man peering into his grave. Umar hated Muhammad with a passion and was glad that he would be the one to eliminate this blot on the holy city. It was not that Umar cared deeply for the cult of his ancestors. He was intelligent enough to sense that most of the rituals of worship in the Sanctuary were a cheap amusement offered to the gullible and the hopeless, two categories of mankind that were predominant in Arabia and perhaps in all the world. He didn’t care for the crude idols and icons that littered the Haram like prostitutes around an army camp.

But ever since he was a boy, he had felt something special around the Temple, the Kaaba itself. He was not a poet and had difficulty putting the emotions the House of God inspired into words. Perhaps it was impossible for any man to do so when faced with the Divine.

As a youth, Umar and his friends had made a sport of spending evenings inside old caves or abandoned huts that the superstitious claimed were haunted by djinn. But he had never felt anything supernatural at any of those places. Yet whenever he approached the granite cube that soared over Mecca, his heart skipped a beat. Every time he entered the confines of the Sanctuary, he felt as if he were being watched from all sides. Umar had a reputation for being fearless, a reputation that he nurtured and protected with great care, and in truth nothing on earth really did frighten him. Not the sword of an enemy nor the jaws of a lion. He knew how to deal with foes that bled, enemies that had weaknesses, that could be killed by strength and cunning.

But whenever he approached the Kaaba, he was afraid. Whatever spirit was there, it was invincible and could not be killed. And that truly terrified him. The night after he murdered his infant daughter, Umar had gone to the Kaaba in hopes of silencing the guilt and horror that gripped his heart. But when he crossed the circle of the Sanctuary and stood before the gold inlaid door of the House, his knees had given way and he felt something pressing him from all sides.

He was alone in the courtyard, but he kept hearing terrible whispers all around him. Whenever the wind rose, he could have sworn he heard cold laughter in its echo. The world began to dissolve and swim before his eyes and Umar felt as if he were falling. Convinced that he was dying, that the power that haunted the Kaaba had come to claim him, he had cried out to Allah, begging for mercy and a chance to expiate his sins by serving as a protector of the Holy House.

And then the delirium left him and all was silent. Yet he felt that whatever presence dwelt in those ancient stones had heard him and would hold him accountable to his oath. Since that day, Umar had lived up to his vow, standing watch whenever the pilgrims came, a self-appointed Guardian of the Kaaba. If a drunk or beggar profaned the grounds, he quickly tossed them off. Once he had caught and beaten a teenage thief who had picked the pocket of a wealthy pilgrim from Taif who was circumambulating the shrine. When the grateful merchant offered him a reward of silver from his purse, Umar had refused, explaining proudly that he was there to serve the Sanctuary and could not accept any compensation.

With Umar’s formidable presence, the Pilgrimage had become a safer experience and the numbers of pilgrims had increased every year. He had fulfilled his vow to the Spirit whom he could still feel watching him every day.

But now Muhammad and his heretics had decided to use the Pilgrimage as a venue to preach and spread their new religion, and the peace of the Sanctuary was again threatened. Incidents like the one the day before, when slaves spoke arrogantly to their betters, threatened to tear apart the social fabric of Mecca and poison the atmosphere for worship and trade. Umar realized that the Spirit of the Kaaba was testing him and he resolved that would not be found wanting. If killing this sorcerer Muhammad would restore peace to the Sanctuary, then Umar would fulfill his oath-even at the risk of his own life.

With these thoughts raging in his head, Umar stepped onto the cobbled path leading to the Prophet’s house. As he approached the gates, his hand moved closer to the hilt of his sword. He would likely have only one chance to tear it loose from the scabbard and strike the deathblow before the sons of Hashim brought him down. But Umar was not afraid. The Spirit of the Kaaba was with him, and it was greater than this magician. He muttered a final prayer to himself as he stood outside the iron gate from which he would likely not emerge again.

“O Allah, give me the strength to do what is right, that Your House may forever be sanctified.” With that, he reached to push open the latch.

And then a shadow fell on him from behind.

Umar whirled, his hand reaching for his sword instinctively. And then he saw that it was a member of his clan, a slight fellow named Nuaym who was perpetually cheerful and posed no threat.

Nuaym smiled and clasped his hand and then looked carefully at his tall clansmen’s face.

“Umar! Are you all right? You look feverish.”

Umar stared at the little fellow with irritation. He was not about to be distracted from his mission by this silly fool.

“I burn with the fire of justice.”

Nuaym raised his bushy eyebrows in surprise.

“What are you talking about?”

There was no harm in telling him. He was a member of his own clan and could be trusted. And if Umar did not emerge alive from the house, Nuaym would tell the other sons of the Bani Adi to sing songs of his heroism.

“Today I have sworn a vow to kill that heretic Muhammad and end this sedition in our city.”

Nuaym’s mouth fell open in shock.

“Are you mad? The Bani Hashim will kill you in retaliation!”

Umar shrugged, his shoulders rising and falling like two mountains in an earthquake.

“So be it.”

Nuaym put a friendly hand on his clansmen’s arm as if to pull him away from this madness.

“Come, let us return to my house,” he said brightly. “The heat of the day makes it hard to think wisely. We can talk about this over a cold drink in the shade.”

Umar removed Nuaym’s hand, squeezing the fingers painfully in warning.

“Get out of my way, old friend.”

“Umar, listen to reason-”

Umar gabbed Nuaym by his collar and lifted the small man off his feet until their eyes met.

“No! I have sworn a vow to set things right today, and no man can stop me.”

He dropped his clansman and turned back to face the house. Unsheathing his sword, he pushed open the gate.

“If you wish to set things right, you should look closer to home!”

Umar froze. Slowly, like a stubborn boulder finally giving way under the force of an avalanche, he turned to face Nuaym.

When Umar spoke, his voice was soft. But there was an edge there that was more terrifying than the roar of a thousand charging elephants.

“What are you saying?”

Nuaym looked deeply frightened, but he managed to meet Umar’s gaze. He hesitated, his eyes flicking to the sword that now glittered lethally in the assassin’s hand.

“Your sister Fatima is one of them.”

Umar’s eyes went wide. Of all the possible things that Nuaym could have said, this was the one he had not expected.

“You lie!” Umar’s sword began to rise into attack position.

“She has embraced Muhammad and follows his path. Ask her yourself.”

Umar’s face turned bright red. He stepped forward and for a moment Nuaym believed the sword would soon slice open his neck. Umar bent down until his face was right next to his clansman and Nuaym could see the redness that ringed his dark eyes.

“If you are spreading calumny against my family, your blood will join Muhammad’s on my sword.”

And then, without another word, Umar turned and stormed down the path toward his sister’s home.

Nuaym fell to his knees and buried his head in his hands, grateful to still be alive. At that moment, I emerged from the shadows of the alley where I had been secretly watching Umar’s approach.

I walked over to Nuaym and saw that he was shaking. Not knowing what else to do, I put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

Nuaym started at my touch, half expecting that Umar had returned to finish him off. When he saw it was just me, he breathed deeply to calm himself. And then he took my hand in his. I could feel the cold dampness on his palm.

“Thank you, little one, for your warning.”

Even though I was a child, I knew what Nuaym had done. He had run out of options, but I was still upset that he had betrayed Umar’s sister Fatima, who had been a secret believer for the past year and had always been kind to me and my family.

“But Umar’s sister-”

Nuaym shook his head, and I could see shame written on his gaunt features.

“I had no choice,” he said, regret filling his voice. He stared down the path where Umar had charged off, still bearing his sword. “May God protect her from Umar’s wrath.”

10

Fatima bint al-Khattab sat inside the small living quarters of her stone hut in the southern quarter of Mecca. She had covered her mousy brown hair with an indigo scarf that her brother Umar had given her for her wedding. Her husband, Said, knelt beside her, his head bowed reverently as she read from the leather hide that she had received that morning from Ali, containing words from the holy Qur’an that had just been revealed to the Messenger the night before.

She swayed back and forth like a candle rustling in the wind as the Words of God fell from her lips in the form of majestic poetry.

In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.

Ta Ha.

It was not to distress you that We sent down the Qur’an to you

But as a reminder for those who hold God in awe

A Revelation from the One who created the Earth and the high Heaven

The Lord of Mercy Established on the Throne.

Everything in the Heavens and on Earth

Everything between them

Everything beneath the soil

Belongs to Him

Whatever you may say aloud

He knows what you keep secret

And what is even more hidden.

God-there is no god but Him

The most excellent Names belong to Him.

As she recited in her soft, melodic voice, she saw Said wipe tears from his eyes. She understood his emotion, although she had always kept a tight lid on expressing her own. A trait learned under the harsh hand of her father, al-Khattab, who brooked no weakness in his off-spring, whether male or female.

Said was so different from him and from her fiery brother, Umar. He had a gentle soul and was more comfortable playing with children and tending to sheep than engaging in the cruelties of war or the hunt. Other women might have thought him weak, but Fatima loved the softness of his heart. For a girl who had been raised in a house where anger was demonstrated more than love, his kindness and sweet touch were like the calm breeze that brought peace when a storm had subsided.

Said gently touched the cowhide parchment in her hands, stroking it like a lover. Like most men she knew, he could not read or write and relied on her to express the sounds that came with the strange lines and jots that he had never been taught to understand. Though Fatima had much bitterness toward her father for the roughness of her upbringing, she was grudgingly thankful that he had forced her and her brother to learn to read and write. Said had long felt ashamed that his wife was better educated than he, but when he discovered that the Messenger of God himself was illiterate and relied on his wife, Khadija, to read to him and write his correspondence, he had been comforted.

“What do those words mean at the beginning?” he asked. “Ta Ha. I’ve never heard that before.”

“I don’t know,” she answered with a small shrug. “I asked Ali and he said they were sacred letters wrapped in mystery, and only God knew what they signified.”

Said nodded. He was a simple man and he easily accepted that there were things that were beyond his comprehension. The fact that God was actually speaking to them right now, in their very city, through the mouth of Muhammad, was itself more than his mind could comprehend, and he had no desire to burden himself with deeper mysteries.

“Read it again,” he said, and she nodded.

She began to recite again, letting the rhythm of the words flow through her. It was when believers read the holy Qur’an out loud that they were closest to God. The very words that the Lord of the Worlds had spoken vibrated through her being and lifted her soul.

But when she said the words “He knows what you keep secret,” the stillness of her home was shattered and her heart jumped into her throat.

“Fatima! Fatima! Come out here!”

Umar’s voice boomed from just beyond the door. Panic gripped her. Had her brother heard her recitation? She looked down at Said and saw that his rosy cheeks had drained of color as the same thought crossed his mind.

And then, without any further prompting, she realized that the end was at hand.

“He knows” was all she could say, her throat closing in on her in terror. Umar began to bang on the door and she knew she had no time to place the leather hide with the holy verses in its proper place, a silver jewelry box that she kept on the top shelf of their kitchen cupboard.

Even though she hated treating the Words of God without proper decorum, she had no choice but to slip the parchment inside her dark woolen tunic, close to her breast.

She squeezed Said’s hand and took a deep breath, and then opened the door.

Umar stormed inside without any greeting, his face livid. She saw that he was carrying his sword in his hand and her stomach sank. Umar slammed the door behind him and then pushed up uncomfortably close to his sister, his weapon held in a steel grip.

“What was that gibberish I heard you reciting?” There was a dangerous rumble to his voice that Fatima recognized. It was the tremor before the earthquake was unleashed.

“We were just talking,” she said with a small laugh that immediately sounded false to her.

Umar grabbed her by the arm with crushing strength.

“Don’t lie to me!”

Said stepped forward. Although he was as terrified of Umar as his wife, he knew that his brother-in-law was violating every rule of Arab etiquette and he hoped that a stern call to honor would calm the brute.

“Who are you to come into our home and proclaim us liars?” he said with as much bravado as he could muster.

Umar looked at him incredulously, as if noticing him for the first time in his life. And then he raised his sword threateningly, the razor-sharp edge glistening in the morning light that poured in from the windows.

“I am a Guardian of the Kaaba who has sworn to kill any who follow Muhammad!”

In later years, Said would say that he had no idea where he had found the courage to stand up to Umar. But seeing the look of fear in the eyes of the woman he loved, she whose strength he always admired, set his blood on fire, and he took his hand and pushed the sword out of his way.

“You have lost your mind! Get out of my house!”

Umar was shocked at Said’s sudden defiance, as men always are when those they assume are weak finally reveal a backbone.

“Tell me the truth!” he said, and Fatima could almost hear a desperate plea in his voice. And then when Said did not answer, Umar grabbed him by the neck and threw him across the room. Said fell against a table made of carved olive wood, which splintered with the force of his fall. Said dropped hard amid the jagged wreckage and lay there unmoving.

“No!” Fatima could hear herself scream, but it sounded strangely distant, as if echoing across a canyon in the barren wastes of the Najd to the east. Forgetting about her brother’s sword, which could at any moment sever her head in the madness of fanaticism, she threw herself on Umar and slapped him ferociously.

Umar pushed her off him and she felt as if she had been grabbed by a dust devil and flung across the sky. And then her flight was cut short by a cold, cruel stone wall. She struck her head on the whitewashed rock and fell to her knees as lightning seared through her skull.

Fatima’s eyes blurred and she felt as if warm water were flowing down her face. And then she realized it was blood. She touched her forehead and saw that her palm was stained in crimson.

Umar was looking at her, breathing hard, as if he had climbed high into the mountains. His eyes were fixed on the blood that flowed steadily from the cut just above her right eye.

Fatima saw that his sword was raised and she realized that the demon that had possessed him would soon kill her. She touched her breast and felt the comfort of the leather strip on which the verses of the holy Qur’an were written. If she was going to die, at least the she would meet her Maker with His Words embedded next to her heart.

“You want the truth? Then, yes! We are Muslims and we believe God and His Messenger! Go ahead! Kill me! Kill your sister like you did your own daughter!”

She did not know what madness possessed her to say the last, but Umar staggered as if he had just been struck by a spear in the gut. He dropped his sword, which fell to the ground with a clang that echoed relentlessly.

Umar sank to his knees and buried his face in his hands for a long moment. And then, when he finally looked up, there was confusion on his face, like a child awakening from a bad dream.

“What is this spell he has cast on you?” he asked, and she knew he referred to the Prophet.

She managed to get to her feet and stumbled over to check on Said. He was regaining consciousness and she helped him sit up slowly. After checking to make sure that no bones were broken, she finally turned to her brother.

“It is not a spell but a Revelation,” she said softly as she found a clean rag and wiped the blood from her face. The blood had stopped flowing and had begun to clot. “God himself speaks through Muhammad, and His words can change men’s hearts.”

Umar looked at her for a long moment. When he spoke, there was weariness in his voice.

“Show me these words and let me judge for myself.”

She looked into his eyes and saw no sign of the demon. Fatima hesitated, then reached into her blouse and removed the leather strip.

Umar held out his hand for the parchment, but she shook her head.

“Only the clean may touch the Word of God.”

Umar saw that she was serious. He rose and took a jug of water from the kitchen. First he poured it over her wound and helped her wash away the rest of the blood that stained her cheek.

And he followed her instructions as she taught him wudu, the sacred ritual of ablution that Muslims performed before praying or reading the holy Qur’an. He washed his hands, face, and feet as she instructed.

Fatima finally handed him the strip of cowhide, the text standing out in bright green paint. Umar looked down at the page, his brow creasing as he read the mysterious letters that opened the text.

Ta Ha…

11

We waited inside the Messenger’s house in silence, a cloud of dread hanging over the small community of believers. I saw my father looking down at his hands, unable to meet the eyes of Nuaym, who sat across from him on the cold marble floor. It was Abu Bakr who had asked Nuaym to intervene with his clansman after I returned that night, breathless from my tale of intrigue inside the Hall of Assembly. I had expected my father to be angry with me for taking such a mad risk, but he had listened gravely and then gone to the Messenger with news of the plot. My mother, however, had been furious when she heard how I had risked my life and had spanked me until my throat was sore from crying.

My rump still sore from the beating, I sat on my haunches. I had never seen the Messenger so quiet. The Prophet had been deeply distressed to hear that his life had been saved by placing Umar’s sister, Fatima, at risk. He stared out a window at a palm tree that grew just outside the wall of his wife’s home, as if he could find some hope in its steady defiance of the desert winds that buffeted the city that morning. Perhaps I imagined it, but I did not see him blink at all for minutes. He seemed to be in a trance, but it was not like the terrifying seizures that overtook him when the Revelation came. He seemed like a man sleeping with his eyes awake, his powerful chest moving up and down steadily as he breathed.

The silence in the Prophet’s house was so strong that it was an eerie sound in itself. And then a loud steady knock resounded through the hall, like the trumpet of the angel shattering the stillness of death and summoning men to the Resurrection.

Ali rose from his place at the Messenger’s feet. He walked over slowly to the main door and peered through a tiny peephole before turning to face the gathered crowd.

“It is Umar,” he said matter-of-factly. “He comes bearing a sword.”

A murmur of fear spread among the believers. My sister, Asma, suddenly burst into tears, assuming the worst for poor Fatima. The Messenger’s uncle Hamza stood up.

“Let him in. If he has come with good intent, we will give him a mountain of good in return. And if his intent is evil, we will kill him with his own sword.”

Ali looked to the Prophet, who stood up with dignity and moved toward the door. I noticed again how his strides were not like those of any other man I had ever seen. Though the Messenger was not as tall as Hamza, he walked with a speed and determination that made those with longer legs pant to keep up with him. It was as if he were the wind itself, forever outracing the fastest of the sons of Adam.

The Prophet stopped a few feet away from the door. He was now positioned so that his followers were grouped behind him, as if he would single-handedly shield us from Umar’s vengeance. Hamza stood behind his right shoulder and Ali was to his left. The Messenger nodded to his young cousin, who threw open the door.

We all stopped breathing. I thought I could hear the steady thrum of our hearts, as if they were pounding in unison.

And then Umar stepped inside, his sword unsheathed and glistening in his hand. I looked with morbid curiosity to see if there was any blood drying on the blade. But if he had killed his sister, as we all expected, Umar had wiped the sword clean before returning to fulfill his vow.

I watched his face with fascination. He appeared different from the man I had seen only a few hours before. There was no more rage on his face, and he appeared uncertain, almost afraid, as he stood before the Messenger.

For a moment, no one moved. It was as if the slightest tremor would set into motion events that would change everything.

And indeed it did.

The Prophet stepped forward and grabbed Umar by his studded belt, suddenly pulling the giant who towered a full head over the tallest men in the room as if he were an unruly child. He dragged Umar unceremoniously to the center of the hall, where the assassin was forced to stand among a crowd of two dozen believers staring at him with fear.

“What has brought you here, O son of al-Khattab?” the Messenger said, his eyes never leaving his adversary’s bushy bearded face. “I cannot see you desisting until God sends down some calamity on you.”

Umar hesitated. I saw him move his sword arm and Hamza instantly had his bow in his hand, an arrow nocked and pointed right at Umar’s chest.

And then I saw something that made my heart leap into my throat.

Tears welled into the giant’s eyes and poured down his weathered cheeks like the well of Ishmael suddenly erupting from the bowels of the desert and bringing hope of life where there had been only death.

Umar dropped the sword at the Messenger’s feet and knelt in humility until his head was positioned beneath the Prophet’s chest. And then he said words that no one in all of Mecca would have ever expected.

“O Messenger of God, I have come to you that I may declare my faith in God and in His Messenger and in what he has brought from God.”

There was moment of stunned silence. This had to be a trick, some ruse Umar had devised to startle us and lower our guard so that he could strike unexpectedly.

But then the Prophet smiled warmly, his face glowing like the sun breaking through dark clouds.

“Allahu akbar!” the Messenger cried in a voice that thundered throughout the hall and poured out into the dusty streets of the holy city. “God is great!”

And then Muhammad, may God’s blessings and peace be upon him, embraced Umar like a brother whom he had not seen in many years.

We looked at one another in wonder. And then I started clapping, a flurry of giggles erupting from my lips. The sound of my laugh was throaty and contagious, and soon others joined in. We raised our voices in joy, marveling at the power of faith and the inexplicable depths of the human heart.

12

A few hours later, Umar strode through the streets of Mecca, walking as if in a dream. Everything had changed the moment he had read the Words of God. It was as if someone had reached inside his breast and torn out a deadly snake that had been wrapped around his heart, squeezing out any love for life or his fellow man. And then he had understood. The Spirit that he sensed around the Kaaba, the Being that he had vowed to serve at the cost of his own life, had a voice, and it had spoken to him through a book revealed to an illiterate man. All this time, he had been fighting the very force to which he had dedicated his soul.

Umar had read the words that were painted on the leather strip and had fallen back as if struck by an invisible hand. He had started shaking with violent tremors and his head had felt warm and dizzy. But he knew that he was not suffering from fever or plague. It was the same dizzying sensation that had torn through him the day he had sought solace for murdering his daughter by kneeling at the Sanctuary. But this time, instead of cruel laughter mocking him, he heard a gentle voice in his heart, filled with compassion, saying: “Go to him.”

And like a child who does not dare question his elders, Umar had gotten up without a word to his sister and walked straight to the Messenger’s house. When he had declared his newfound faith, he felt as if a stone had lifted from his shoulders and that someone who had been imprisoned inside of him had suddenly been set free. The man Umar had once been was gone, like a shadow that vanishes when light is shone upon it.

He had not cried since he was a child. His father, al-Khattab, would beat him ferociously each time he sniffled, calling him weak and threatening to cut off his male organ if he kept weeping like a girl. But today he had wept for hours, as if a dam had burst and all the pain he had bottled inside himself for years had come out. He could not control it if he wanted to. And, in truth, he did not want to.

The Messenger had accepted him and forgiven him his treachery, but Umar found he still could not stop crying. He kept seeing the image of his precious baby daughter looking up at him with a smile even as he covered her tiny body with stones. She had kept squeezing his finger until the breath had finally left her and her little hand had dropped.

He had looked at the Messenger and asked that God punish him for his sin. He had handed his sword to Muhammad and begged him to avenge the girl and cut off his head. But the Prophet had put a gentle hand on his arm, his own black eyes welling with tears of empathy.

“You have already punished yourself enough, son of al-Khattab,” he had said softly. “Islam is like a river. It cleans those who immerse themselves of their past sins.”

Umar had bowed his head, still not willing to accept the forgiveness he was offered.

“You say that all men will be resurrected one day and the girls who were slain by their fathers will confront them on the Day of Judgment,” he said, repeating the teachings that he had reviled and mocked only a few hours before. “What will I say to my little girl when I face her?”

The Prophet looked past Umar’s shoulder, as if staring at some grand vision on the horizon of his mind’s eye.

“I see her holding you by the hand, squeezing your finger, as she leads you to Paradise.”

At that moment, Umar ibn al-Khattab was freed. The man he had been, the murderer, the drunk, the adulterer, died. And the man who now walked purposefully through the cobbled alleys of Mecca had been born.

He noticed that people in the streets were staring at him, looking confused as he passed them. And then he realized it was because he was smiling. Not the smile of a man with a deadly scheme in his heart, but one of pure and unconditional joy. As he passed by a street merchant selling coral combs, agate rings, and vials of rosewater perfume to a group of black-veiled Bedouin women, he caught a reflection of his face in the polished silver mirror the merchant had erected to promote his wares to the vanity of his customers.

He did not recognize himself. The cruel scowl that he had once believed to be a sign of power and masculinity was gone, replaced by a look of childlike wonder. Umar grinned and found that he liked the way the lines around his lips and cheeks crinkled when he did so.

And then he forced himself to adopt a serious, stoic face. For now he was on a new mission and he could not allow himself to be distracted by the unfamiliar face that stared back at him from the mirror.

Umar moved forward with steady strides, his eyes focused on a grand house of yellow stone, the walls decorated with carved flowers and wreaths of silver. He knocked harshly on the dark wooden doors made of cedar imported from Lebanon.

He heard the sound of movement and caught a glimpse of a dark eye gazing at him through a tiny peephole. And then the door swung open and Abu Jahl emerged, his face eager with expectation.

“Is it done? Is the man dead?”

Umar looked at him for a long moment. He had once secretly envied Abu Jahl’s chiseled good looks, but now he saw only a demon whose ugliness was evident in the cruel gaze of his eyes.

“One man is dead,” Umar said slowly, pronouncing each word as if it would be his last. “Another has been born.”

Abu Jahl furled his brow in confusion.

“What are you saying?”

Umar leaned close to him, a triumphant smile slowly crossing his face.

“I have come to tell you that I believe in God and His Messenger, Muhammad, and that I testify to the truth of what he has brought.”

Abu Jahl stared at him blankly. And then his face twisted into a violent scowl, and his handsome mask was shattered, revealing a darkness that few had ever witnessed beneath his studied diplomatic veneer.

“God curse you, and may His curse be on the tidings you have brought!”

Abu Jahl slammed the door in Umar’s face. The redeemed assassin stood quietly for a moment and then burst out laughing, his beard shaking with violent mirth at the precious sight of Abu Jahl’s discomfiture.

He turned and walked back toward the Kaaba, where he would proclaim his rebirth before the entire city. And for an instant, he thought he heard in his ears the joyful laugh of a little girl who should have lived to see this day.

13

Abu Sufyan leaned back on the dais as the dancing girls whirled before him. Their dark skin contrasted vividly with their pink and saffron robes, their skirts twirling sensually with their measured steps, revealing just enough to ignite a man’s desire before disappearing in a swirl of mystery.

His eye fell on a doe-eyed girl of fourteen who smiled at him, flashing ivory teeth that seemed to sparkle in the torchlight that lit the audience hall of his grand manor. He felt a stirring within his loins and he glanced over to his wife, Hind, who had her eyes on the same courtesan. She met his gaze and winked, and he knew that she would be open to having the harlot join them in their bed tonight.

Normally the thought would have pleased him, but his mind was distracted tonight. He brooded over the mad scene at the Sanctuary that morning, when Umar had proclaimed his conversion to Muhammad’s religion and had announced himself a guardian of the Prophet. With Umar and his terrifying sword in Muhammad’s hands, the balance of power in the city had shifted decisively. The Muslims were no longer a troublesome cult of dreamers but an influential tribe of their own, backed by the protection of one of the most powerful leaders of Mecca.

As he glanced sideways at Hind, who was watching the buxom dancer like a cat waiting to devour a mouse, he thought bitterly that the only good thing that could come out of Umar’s betrayal was that he would no longer be a cloud darkening their marriage. Abu Sufyan had endured the rumors and innuendoes, publicly denouncing any who would sully the reputation of his honorable wife. But he secretly knew that her frequent evening visits to “her aunts” were mere diversionary tactics and that her true destination was Umar’s bed.

Why had he put up with it for so long? He had a wise fear of Umar’s temper like everyone else. But in his heart he knew that he would not have interfered even if Hind had taken up with some lesser man whose sword was more easily faced in battle. Was it because his marriage to her had sealed his alliance with her powerful father, Utbah, and guaranteed his unchallenged leadership of Mecca? No, he would like to think that he was politically skilled enough to retain his position as the chieftain of chieftains even if he divorced Hind or killed her to restore his honor.

But the thought of leaving her, or worse, murdering her, left him feeling cold and sick. He looked over at her and saw the faint smile on her lush lips, the savage glint in her eyes that hinted at dark thoughts and darker lusts. And he knew the truth, painful as it was. He loved Hind, more than he loved anything else in this world. Abu Sufyan could not imagine life without her, and he was willing to turn away from her dalliances with men-and women-if only to preserve their marriage. Even after all these years, she ignited his passion as no other woman could. And even more important, she comforted his soul with her innate understanding of the difficulties of leadership and the loneliness of power. She was the only person he could talk to, to unburden his mind when the pressure became too great.

As it had tonight. Abu Sufyan clapped to signal he was tired of the performance. The musicians who had been steadily pounding drums made of camel hide and bone ended their play and the girls stopped their sensual dancing, the rustle of their skirts quieting like the sudden fall of a heavy wind.

Abu Sufyan threw them a handful of gold coins and waved them away. The dark-skinned dancer with the luminous eyes looked at Hind, who nodded, and then she joined her sisters in the adjoining antechamber, where they would be fed roasted lamb and poured wine by the servants before being sent on their way.

When the last of the dancers had left and they were alone, Hind turned to face Abu Sufyan, putting her long-fingered hand over his. He always marveled at the heat she exuded, as if she were a walking torch.

“What is wrong, my husband?” she said softly, her piercing eyes tearing into his soul.

“Umar’s conversion is a turning point,” Abu Sufyan said with a sigh. He quietly noted the flicker of emotion that crossed her face at the mention of the man who had only days before been her lover and was now an open enemy. “These Muslims are no longer afraid. They will spread their poison openly now, knowing that Umar will protect them.”

Hind looked away for a second, her eyes on the lush maroon carpet where the dancers had been swaying only moments before.

“Umar is but one man,” she said, as if trying to convince herself. “He cannot hold back the wrath of Quraysh.”

Abu Sufyan laughed bitterly.

“What wrath? Our tribe is like a hamstrung camel. Even Abu Jahl is now afraid of igniting an all-out war with these heretics. We cannot risk killing any of them as long as Umar’s sword hangs over our heads.”

Hind turned to face him, and he saw the raw cunning in her eyes that both excited and terrified him. She stroked the golden snake armlet that she always wore, and he felt his desire rising.

“You men always see things so simply. Night and day. Sun and moon. There are no stars in your world, no clouds or mists. You lack subtlety.”

Abu Sufyan leaned closer. “What do you mean?”

“One does not need to kill another man in order to wage war on him,” she said, squeezing his hand until he winced in pain. “What is Mecca known for, besides its gods?”

Abu Sufyan had learned over the years to answer her questions, as they were usually meant to guide him to a truth he had not yet seen but was already evident to her.

“Its trade. Our merchants are the heart of all commerce between Yemen, Byzantium, and Persia.”

Hind leaned even closer and he could feel her firm breasts rub against him, arousing his desire again.

“And what happens when blood from the heart fails to reach an organ?”

His own organ was engorged with blood and he had difficulty thinking because of the pounding in his loins. But as he let her words penetrate the haze of lust, understanding began to dawn on Abu Sufyan.

“It dies,” he said simply.

Hind smiled, and her hand touched his excited flesh.

“Exactly.”

He ran a finger across her neck, long and elegant like a gazelle’s.

“We will use trade as a weapon.”

Hind smiled, delighted as always that the pupil had finally caught up to the teacher. She reached over to a basket of red grapes and took one in her lips. And then she kissed Abu Sufyan and let the grape fall into his mouth. He sucked on it and her tongue at the same time.

She finally broke off the kiss and looked him deep in the eyes.

“You do not need to kill them. If you starve them, they will kill themselves.”

The full plan was now coming into view, with all its cold brilliance. Abu Sufyan gazed at Hind with admiration.

“If the Quraysh would accept a woman as their leader, they would have chosen you,” he said.

Hind did not deny this. She ran her nails across his chest, feeling the harsh beating of his heart.

“But since they would not, I chose you.”

Abu Sufyan smiled.

“I thought you married me because you loved me.”

She kissed him again, letting her soft pink tongue play across his lips.

“I do.”

And then Abu Sufyan leaned back and looked at her as if appraising the true value of a rare gem.

“Is it me, or is it my power that you love?”

Hind smiled mischievously.

“Defeat Muhammad, and you will never need to know the answer to that question.”

She leaned forward and kissed him for a long moment. When she broke free, he saw that they were not alone. The dancer with the lustful eyes had returned to the hall unbidden, perhaps summoned by the magnetic heat that Hind’s body exuded.

His wife smiled and pulled Abu Sufyan up with her right hand. She held out her left and grasped the dancer’s small fingers, and then she quietly led the two back to her bedchamber.

14

I stood holding my father’s hand as Abu Sufyan, dressed in the formal black robes of judgment, led a group of similarly clad chieftains before the golden door of the Kaaba. I saw that he held a heavy lambskin parchment in his hand and that Abu Jahl stood to his right, a triumphant smile playing across his face.

When they were all gathered in the courtyard of the Sanctuary, I counted over forty of the most powerful men, not only of Mecca but of the Bedouin tribes who grazed their flocks just beyond the black hills that served as the borders of the city.

My eye caught movement to my left, and I saw Abu Talib, the Prophet’s uncle and the head of the clan of Bani Hashim, standing with his brothers, Hamza and Abbas. He looked even more aged and tired than when I had last seen him, and Hamza held his shoulder firmly to help Abu Talib maintain his balance. I saw the three brothers looking at the gathering of the chieftains, from which they had been pointedly excluded, with evident concern.

And then Hamza scowled and I followed his eyes across the courtyard to see his half brother and spiritual enemy, Abu Lahab, standing by his wife, Umm Jamil. She had become one of the most vocal female voices against the Prophet and his Message. Umm Jamil’s petty vindictiveness was legendary, and I remembered how the Messenger had limped to my father’s house after she had carefully strewn thorns behind him while he prayed at the Sanctuary so that he when finished and turned to leave, his feet had been torn and bloodied.

The persecution by his own uncle and aunt had so upset the Messenger that God had come to his defense, sending a Revelation that condemned both of them to hell for eternity. This had only enraged Umm Jamil even more, and the next time she had seen the Messenger, she had thrown a pot full of steaming goat feces and entrails over his head.

Now she and her slug of a husband stood gloating as the lords of Mecca moved to destroy our faith once and for all.

Abu Sufyan looked sternly at our small crowd of believers, who had been summoned to hear the proclamation that had been decided in secret council that morning. And then he read from the document, his voice firm with authority.

“In your name, O Allah, we the leaders of Quraysh proclaim this solemn oath. The Children of Hashim have harbored a dangerous sorcerer named Muhammad, a madman whose lies defile the sanctity of Your House and Your children, the gods of the Arabs. His sedition has driven men away from the sacred Pilgrimage and has covered Your holy city with the shadow of poverty and fear. As custodians of Your Sanctuary, we can no longer stand by and watch corruption spread through the earth. We therefore proclaim this day that the clan of Hashim is outlawed. No man of Quraysh may marry a woman of Hashim or give his daughter in marriage to a man of Hashim. And no one of Quraysh may sell anything to anyone of Hashim, nor purchase anything from them. And this proclamation shall stay in force until the Bani Hashim lifts its protection of the heretic Muhammad or the sorcerer renounces his false claim of prophecy.”

He finished reading and raised his head to face us again.

“So say we all.”

The other tribal chiefs loudly declared their support of the proclamation, raising their right hands in affirmation.

I saw my father’s face fall as he watched the chiefs move forward one by one to place their individual wax seals on the document. A crowd of hooligans and rabble-rousers had been strategically gathered by the chieftains, and they now played their designated role by shouting practiced curses and slurs at the Muslims, inviting the gods to rain punishment on us from the heavens.

Abu Sufyan bowed to the angry mob with a deep flourish, as if accepting the will of the people. He took the proclamation and climbed the stone steps leading up to the gold-embossed door of the Temple. I gasped, as I had never seen anyone go inside the Kaaba. It was said that the lords of Mecca would enter the Holy of Holies only on extremely rare occasions when the future of the city was at stake, such as when a Yemeni army had besieged Mecca fifty years ago, shortly before the birth of the Messenger.

Clearly, this proclamation of exclusion was seen by the chieftains as requiring the highest divine endorsement. Never before had the lords gathered together to denounce and expel one of their own, not just one man but an entire clan, and deny by common agreement a whole caste of people any source of food or income to survive.

Abu Sufyan entered the Kaaba, his head bowed in humility and recognition of the fact that he was stepping on sacred ground that was normally forbidden. When the doors swung inward and sunlight flooded the normally dark interior, I saw a flash of crimson inside and caught sight of a towering cornelian quartz idol that I had heard about but never seen before.

Hubal, the god of Mecca, an ancient idol that had been brought all the way from Syria hundreds of years before. Its carved right hand had broken off during the long caravan ride from the north, and the ancestors of the Quraysh had fashioned for the idol a new hand of solid gold. The Messenger had said that of all the pagan abominations that corrupted the sacred ground of the Sanctuary, none was more hateful to Allah than this monstrosity that sat inside the House of God, its jagged face smiling obscenely at its usurpation of the authority of the One.

As Abu Sufyan stepped inside and nailed the proclamation to the dark stone wall behind Hubal, I saw his ally Abu Lahab look across the courtyard to Abu Talib, a victorious gleam in his beady eyes. The ban had cut Abu Talib’s leadership of the Bani Hashim at the knees, leaving Abu Lahab rich ground to agitate for new leadership. And then Abu Jahl approached Abu Lahab, shaking his black-turbaned head and placing his jeweled fingers on his friend’s meaty shoulder. Abu Jahl sighed in exaggerated sympathy, speaking loud enough so that we could all hear him.

“If only your clansmen had your vision, my friend,” Abu Jahl said pointedly. Clearly the campaign to replace the head of the Bani Hashim had begun in earnest.

Abu Lahab wrung his hands in mock despair.

“They have been blinded by my nephew’s magic. But the ban will wake them from their dream.”

“I hope so,” Abu Jahl said. “And then perhaps they will choose someone who can lead the clan of Hashim back to its hallowed seat at the table of Quraysh.”

Clucking like old women who have been scandalized by the foolishness of the young, they walked away together, leaving us to the jeers of Abu Sufyan’s hired demonstrators.

Abu Talib watched sadly as his estranged brother departed. Having swallowed the worst humiliation of his years as a chieftain, the old man turned to leave the Sanctuary. Hamza and Abbas helped Abu Talib cross the courtyard slowly, his head held high in dignity even as the drunken crowd flung insults upon him.

I watched as Abu Sufyan emerged from the Kaaba and closed the glittering doors with reverence. He turned to join the gathered chieftains and thank them for their unified support of his plan to expel the Bani Hashim from Mecca. And then he saw me, a thin little girl who would soon be denied food and medicine under his orders, and I thought I saw a flash of shame and regret on his face before he turned his back on me.

I was young, but I understood enough of what had happened to know that the world had changed and that we were in an extremely precarious situation. I tugged on my father’s sleeves.

“If no one will buy or sell to us, how will we eat?”

Abu Bakr bent down and put a gentle hand on my shoulder.

“When the Children of Israel fled Pharaoh and wandered in the wilderness, God gave them food. Even so, He will feed us.”

His face was calm and composed as always. But in his eyes, I saw fear.

15 Mecca-AD 619

The boycott by the Quraysh forced the Muslims to evacuate the city. Forbidden to buy food or the basic necessities of life within the boundaries of Mecca, we sought refuge in the blackened hills beyond its precincts. But as we quickly learned, the borders of a city are determined not by walls, rivers, or mountains but by the sphere of influence dictated by the might of its armies, by the network of its merchants. And Mecca’s circle of power extended well beyond arbitrary lines drawn in the sands of Arabia.

With neighboring Bedouin herders and passing caravans refusing to take our money or accept our services in trade, the believers were forced to forage in the wilderness like jackals or vultures. We pitched camp by a small wadi owned by my father. A tent city sprang up by the muddy stream that provided our only source of water in the midst of a gray wasteland.

I was only six years old, but whatever innocence of childhood I possessed had died. My pale face had become the shade of burned copper and my small hands were chafed from carrying pails of water that were almost as tall as I was. My knees were perennially scratched and scarred, the tender flesh torn from climbing through the rocky hills looking for precious eggs at the first sight of a hovering pigeon that might have built a nest nearby.

I rarely laughed anymore and had adopted the grim stoicism that I saw carved on my mother’s worn face. Her soft skin had lost its luster and had taken on the hardness of dry leather. At night, I could hear her crying in the small weather-beaten tent next to the one where Asma and I slept. Our mattresses were nothing more than a collection of rags that served many purposes in the camp of the exiles. At night we would spread them on the ground and lie upon them. In the morning, they would be rolled up and used to clean any pots that had been fortunate enough to be filled with food the night before. And once they had been washed in the questionably potable water of the spring, they would serve as our change of clothes for the day.

Childhood should be a time of play, of running through the streets with joy in one’s heart, of flying kites and letting the soul soar with them beyond the dome of the sky into a world of dreams and possibilities. In my old age, I look back and remember the countless crimes our enemies subjected us to in the early days of Islam. I have forgiven most of these transgressions, as the Messenger enjoined us. But the pain of those childhood years, spent hovering under the shadow of starvation, pestilence, and death, has been so deeply imprinted in my heart that I cannot let it go. Whenever I think back on those dark days, I feel anew the rage and despair that come with being small and powerless in a world that rewards only cruelty and strength.

It was the memory of that deprivation and fear that would drive me in years to come to seek power when I should have sought wisdom. And my grief is that many men would die because of a child’s terror of the scorpions that crawled past her as she lay on hard desert ground in the night.

Eventually the end came, as it always does. If I have learned one thing in the years of my existence, one nugget of wisdom from having lived in the midst of disputations over faith and the nature of the world, it is that everything ends. This is both the blessing and the punishment of God upon the foolish tribe that calls itself man. We can embrace the end or we can weep, but the ghost of time closes all doors with a finality that can never be gainsaid.

So it was that one night, I emerged from a torn green tent and looked out at the dozens of believers, dressed in dirty rags, sitting by makeshift campfires along the tiny riverbed. The sparks crackled and flew into heaven, like desperate prayers. I felt a terrible weight in my heart, for I carried news that would extinguish many hopes tonight.

I saw my father at the edge of the camp, gathering acacia leaves from a scattered copse of trees. We had been reduced to rationing these prickly green sprouts that even our animals were dubious of as our supply of dried meat dwindled. Some of the refugees would eat them raw, while others, especially the children, could stomach them only if they were cooked into a thin broth.

Abu Bakr saw the look on my face as I ran over, and he stopped in his tracks, dropping the basket of leaves.

“How is Khadija?” he said, a hint of dread in his voice, as if he already knew the answer.

I had spent the last two days at the side of the Mother of the Believers. She had been struck by the potentially deadly camp fever and had been fading in and out of consciousness for the past hour.

“She is still feverish,” I said, panting to catch my breath. I paused, fearful to say what my father already suspected. “Mother worries for her life.”

I saw the color drain from his tired face.

“I seek refuge in Allah! Without Khadija, I do not know how he will go on.”

Abu Bakr looked across the camp and I saw that he was gazing at the Messenger, who stood alone at the top of the hill, his head bowed in prayer or sadness. Or both.

And then I felt the ground shudder as Umar stormed over. His dark face was contorted in rage as usual. He stared at the emaciated faces of the refugees kneeling by the wadi and then turned to my father with a now-familiar rant.

“It’s been two years! When will this end? Where is God’s help?”

My father was the only one besides the Messenger who seemed to have a soothing effect on Umar’s volatile emotions. Abu Bakr was as much of a doctor as a friend to this volcano of a man, whose fire easily consumed lesser souls.

“Calm yourself, Umar,” my father said patiently. “The people need you to be strong.” He did not add what I knew he was thinking-especially if the Mother of the Believers died. The Muslims would need men who were made of granite rather than flesh to guide them through the madness and despair that would follow.

But Umar as usual failed to read that which was underneath the words. He was never a subtle man.

“How can you be so calm?” he said with increasing fury, like a child demanding an answer to an inexplicable mystery. “You’ve lost everything. You were once one of the wealthiest men of Mecca, and now there is no difference between you and the slaves whose freedom you bought!”

Abu Bakr sighed. Even my father’s impatience with this moody giant had its limits.

“Whatever I had was on loan to me from God,” he said. “Were I given tenfold what I have lost, I would gladly spend it all for God and His Messenger.”

Apparently, he had found the words that Umar needed at that moment, and the son of al-Khattab stopped shaking. A gentle calm descended on him. My father looked again to the Prophet, who now sat down upon a mottled gray rock and buried his head in his hands as if weeping. I saw deep pity on Abu Bakr’s face. Few knew as well as he the anguish of the Messenger, who had been preaching One God for almost ten years and had achieved nothing but exile and starvation for his followers.

“Go to him,” my father said softly. He knew that the Messenger saw me as one of the few bright lights in this vast blanket of night that covered his life. Even though I rarely laughed on my own anymore, I was still a performer at heart, and I had been the only one who could bring a smile to his face with my games and antics.

I walked over to the Prophet and saw that his face was wet with tears. For a moment, I stopped breathing. If the Messenger of God had been reduced to despair, what hope would there ever be that I could find joy in my dead heart again?

I put a hand on his shoulder and tried to keep it from shaking.

“Don’t be sad,” I said, and it was more of a desperate plea than a compassionate request. “God is with us,” I added, despite all evidence to the contrary.

The Prophet raised his head and looked at me for a long moment. He took my hand and squeezed it gently, and I pretended to cry out in exaggerated discomfort and then danced a silly jig at his feet. He laughed, then scooped me into his arms, smiled into my golden eyes. It was as if my presence gave him renewed strength and purpose. Looking at me, he saw the future that he and his followers were struggling to create.

And gazing into his unfathomably dark eyes, I sensed that I had reminded him of the past as well. In later years, the Messenger told me that my childish defiance of the world, my embrace of life when those with allegedly greater wisdom had resigned themselves to death, had taught him again the lesson of his own youth. For I was the same age as he when his mother had died and he lost what little standing and hope he had in the strict social hierarchy of Mecca. It was a harsh lesson that the orphan had learned that night and relearned again and again, every night for two decades, until God had brought him to Khadija and ended one chapter of his life to begin another. It was the cruel but necessary truth that pain is an unavoidable part of any struggle, as are the inevitable defeats and humiliations of the journey. Loss is the fire that tempers steel and forges it into a sword of victory. Failure is the currency by which success is eventually purchased in bulk.

And then I saw the Messenger’s face change. The smile that lingered on his lips froze. I watched in shock as his dark eyes flew back up into his head until all I could see was the ivory white orbs that encased them. His hands began to tremble and he let go of me as tremors tore through his body like terrifying bolts of lightning.

I fell to the ground, my throat constricted in fear. I felt rather than saw my father come running up behind me. Abu Bakr scooped me into his arms and held me tight, but his eyes never left the Messenger, whose face was bathed in sweat and who fell to his side, convulsing like a fish that had suddenly been pulled out of the sea.

The Trance of the Revelation.

We had both seen this happen before, but it never ceased to fill us with awe and terror. For we knew that the Messenger’s body shook with the unimaginable power of two worlds colliding. Of the entire might and vastness of heaven itself curling into a ball and descending into the tiny and weak form of a mortal man.

It was at the moment of the Revelation that we had a sense of the power of an Infinite Mind that had created the cosmos with a single word. And now that very same power, the overwhelming energy of the Divine Word, was tearing into the sinews and muscles of this one man who had been chosen to be its herald to mankind.

I saw Ali approach with a blanket. He wrapped the Messenger around the shoulders and sat by him, brushing his dark curls lovingly as he shivered and shuddered under the weight of the Revelation.

And then, so fast that I gave a little scream of surprise, the Messenger’s eyes flew open and he bolted upright. The tremors immediately ceased, but I could still feel the air around him vibrating, as if the world itself shook with the force that coursed through his soul.

And then Muhammad, may God’s blessings and peace be upon him, spoke. But the voice was not his own. It was deeper, unearthly, like an echo rising up from a chasm between life and death. And it said:

“Do you suppose that you will enter the Garden

Without first having suffered like those before you?

They were afflicted by misfortune and hardship

And they were so shaken that even their Messenger

And the Believers with him cried,

‘When will God’s help arrive?’

Truly God’s help is near.”

I saw a crowd of believers gathering around us, their eyes wide with wonder as the Words of God descended into their midst. The Lord of the Worlds was speaking right now, through the tortured tongue of the man whom they had followed willingly to what appeared to be their deaths.

People were crying, not from grief or fear but from joy. God had just reminded them that this terrible period they had endured was nothing more than a test that would end at its appointed time.

And strangely enough, they found deep comfort in the admission of despair on the part of the Prophet. God had lifted the stoic veil over their leader’s heart, revealing that the doubts they had all secretly harbored were in fact shared by the Messenger himself. Their fears were his.

There is no greater revelation in life than to learn that those whom we admire share our faults and our weaknesses. In that moment, stone idols fall from their pedestals and the gulf between the lover and the beloved vanishes in the joyful embrace of the beautiful imperfection of humanity.

The Messenger blinked and I saw that the angel had departed and his soul had returned to him.

He took me by the hand and ran his sturdy fingers through my crimson hair.

“Thank you,” he said.

“For what?” I could not imagine that the most important person in my life, the man whom my father and mother called master, would have any reason to thank me.

He smiled and spoke loud enough for the eager crowd of believers to hear.

“For reminding me that God’s help is always near.”

And then he stood and raised his hands in gratitude to God. And even though we were all still cold and hungry, standing there on the dead hill that was our wretched home, I felt as if a curtain had lifted. The air smelled different. The stench of disease and decay was gone.

And in its place was the unmistakable, and inexplicable, scent of roses.

16

I walked proudly beside my father as we broke the law and stepped onto the ground of the Sanctuary for the first time in two years. We were followed by several dozen of the believers, as well as a crowd of sympathizers from the city who had grown ashamed of watching their kinsmen struggle like rats in the shadows.

We should have been afraid of retaliation. Of an arrow shot by one of Abu Sufyan’s men positioned on the rooftops. Or a turbaned warrior emerging from an alley at a warhorse’s pace and letting his sword sing the harsh ballad of Meccan justice.

But we were not. The Messenger, when he had recovered from his trance, had told us that an army of angels would surround us and protect us from the wrath of the idolaters.

I did not see any winged beings of light. But as I looked around at the men and women of the city pouring out when they saw us, many clapping with joy, their eyes wide with wonder at our defiance of the elders, I wondered if he had been talking about them. They were the masses of the poor, the wretched, who had benefited in the old days from the largesse of our charity. The last two years had been hard on them as well. Through us, they had experienced the possibility of another Mecca, one in which the powerful aided the weak rather than exploited them, and then it had been torn away from them. But having seen a few rays of light illuminating their lives, they had been changed forever and would not go easily back into the darkness.

I realized at that moment why we were so dangerous to the lords of Mecca. Once a fire is ignited in the brush, it cannot easily be put out. Perhaps it was for that reason that we were allowed to move through the city unmolested. Whatever guards or assassins had been positioned to stop us saw the enthusiastic crowd that cheered us and realized that swordplay would likely spark a riot and then a revolution. As I was to learn to my grief in later years, once the passion of rebellion has been unleashed, it cannot be easily countered or controlled

As we approached the holy Kaaba, I saw our greatest enemy, Abu Jahl, standing before it, arms crossed, a look of contempt on his face but a hint of fear in his eyes. He was surrounded by seven of the largest men I had ever seen, black as night, their muscles rippling like the flesh of a running lion as they raised their swords to the ready. Abyssinian slaves, but not gentle and small like my friend Bilal. These were warriors who had been purchased specifically for their might and cruelty.

My father stopped and stared at Abu Jahl, who smiled in challenge. Clearly he was willing to risk violence in the streets to maintain the ban. My father let go of my hand and stepped forward alone.

As Abu Bakr strolled toward the House of God, Abu Jahl nodded to his men, who stepped forward in perfect unison. They crouched like panthers preparing to strike, their ugly swords glinting red in the morning light.

And then I saw a flash of indigo robes out of the corner of my eye and saw Abu Sufyan enter the circle of the Haram. I watched him assess the situation. The agitated crowd, the drawn swords facing an unarmed old man. His politician’s instincts overcame his outrage at our defiance and I saw his angry face become calm and neutral as he calculated the best way to resolve this standoff to his advantage.

And then Abu Sufyan moved forward, placing himself strategically between my father and Abu Jahl’s soldiers.

“What is the meaning of this, Abu Bakr? You are banned from the Sanctuary!”

My father walked confidently until his face was only inches away from his adversary.

“The ban is over, Abu Sufyan,” he said, to loud cries of support from our army of beggars.

Abu Jahl went to place his hands on a nearby idol, that of Abgal, a god from the northern sands of Palmyra, a ferocious-looking boar with giant tusks carved out of ivory.

“Blasphemer! The ban was placed in the name of Allah, and only Allah himself can lift it.”

My father looked at him with an amused smile that appeared to infuriate Abu Jahl more than his proud defiance.

“You speak the truth for once,” he said, pointing his finger at the golden doors of the Kaaba. “Go inside and see for yourself.”

Abu Jahl looked at my father as if he were insane, but Abu Sufyan saw something in his eyes that troubled him. And then without any ceremony, he turned and walked up the seven stone steps and pushed open the gate of the Holy of Holies.

Abu Sufyan walked quickly past the three marble pillars that held up the roof from within, toward the crimson idol of Hubal, its gold hand sparkling from the rays of sunlight that poured inside.

He walked over to the back wall, where he had hung the proclamation two years before, and gasped.

The wall was infested with an army of red ants. They marched across the granite interior in majestic unity, coursing right and left as if guided by an invisible hand. The feared desert insects with razor pincers that could tear a man’s flesh to shreds in seconds had unleashed their hungry wrath on the sheepskin hide that memorialized the ban. The document was gone as if it had never existed.

Abu Sufyan leaned forward in shock to see that one small section of the parchment remained untouched. Indeed, the ants seemed to be moving around it in a circle, much as the worshipers did around the Kaaba itself.

It was a sliver of sheepskin that simply said: In your name, O Allah…

17

Despite the objections of Abu Jahl and a few diehards in the Hall of Assembly, the ban was formally lifted that night. Abu Sufyan knew that the passions of the crowd had been excited by word of the “miracle of the ants” and that the superstitious citizens of Mecca believed that God had spoken. In truth, he understood that the shame of expelling a whole clan, including women and children, had burdened the hearts of the citizens. Mecca prided itself on being a city of hospitality, and yet every time a trading caravan or a train of pilgrims approached its borders, they had to cross a pathetic tent city of hungry people who had been driven from their homes. The ban had proven bad for business, and many of the chieftains had been looking for any excuse to end this embarrassing chapter in their history.

The next day, I helped my mother and sister pack what few belongings we still had left-a copper pot, six rusty ladles, a knife whose blade had long since dulled to the point of uselessness, as well as the rags that had once been pretty clothes that Asma and I would proudly wear when we went to visit our friends’ homes in the city.

I had never felt such excitement as Asma and I raced down the black hills toward the haze of chimney smoke that covered Mecca. The world felt reborn. The sky was bluer than I had ever noticed, and everywhere I looked, I saw hints of emerald beneath the rocks, as if a new spring had come to the deserts. Even the stones sparkled, their veins of quartz and calcite glittering under the blazing sun.

There were no welcoming crowds when we crossed the threshold of the city. The poor of the town had decided not to press their luck after demonstrating their unity and courage the day before. It made more sense to let the Muslims return and engage in the commerce of the city without further fanfare that might upset the Meccan lords and compel them to reconsider their magnanimity.

Asma and I walked hand in hand through the quiet streets as we headed home. I looked at her and smiled. She winked at me, and then I saw a hint of sadness in her eyes. I realized that returning to the city meant different things for us. She was now sixteen and unmarried, an old maid by the standards of our people. The past two years had been particularly hard on her and had taken away the youthful vibrancy that could have helped her attract a husband. Her curly hair was now a tangled mess of rushes, and I had a sudden image of her wearing a bird’s nest on her head that would have made me laugh if I were truly heartless. Her skin had suffered worse than mine in the unforgiving desert air, and there were unhealthy splotches of white across her sunburned face and neck that were never to disappear. Her breasts, once ripe and plump, were shrunken such that her bosom looked more like mine, and I was ten years her junior. Asma had never been beautiful, but now she looked utterly wretched and I suddenly felt sorry for her.

But your mother, Abdallah, was always strong, and if she suffered, she did so in silence. A smile played across her face as she recognized the orange and yellow facades of the stone huts that stood by the cobbled street leading to our house.

“Race you,” she said to me with a grin. Asma knew that I prided myself on my speed and I was immediately off and running to our home. She tried in vain to catch up, but I moved like a falcon, soaring with ease over the cracked stones and potholes that lined the route back to our personal sanctuary.

I laughed with delight as I rounded the corner that would lead to our gate. But when I saw our house, I stopped so suddenly that I almost lost my balance.

Our once-beautiful home, with its blue and green walls and lofty marble pillars, was a ruin. Angry vines rose from our weed-infested garden and wrapped themselves defiantly around the gates, which were rusted to an ugly orange. The windows that we had boarded against burglars had been torn open and I could see rats crawling on the sills, watching us approach, without trepidation.

The paint that my mother had so carefully renewed every year was faded and peeling. But there was new and unwelcome paint strewn across the walls by vandals, spelling out words of contempt for my family: Traitors…Gutter filth…Blasphemers…

My vision blurred as tears welled in my eyes. I heard Asma come up behind me, panting for breath, the laughter dying in her throat when she saw the building.

In that moment, I realized that Mecca was no longer our home. The ban may have been lifted, but the hate had not been vanquished, and like a stubborn disease, it would reassert itself inevitably. The hope of return to the past was an illusion, and we would now need to find a new home, a new hope. A new future.

That evening, as my family began the arduous process of cleaning and restoring the house to its former dignity, I had a nagging sense that we were wasting our time. Even as I slept for the first night in two years inside the delightfully cool walls, on a soft bed with cushions, my heart felt trapped. The house was no longer our haven but a prison holding us until the day of execution. We had to escape.

As the annihilation of sleep finally took me in its embrace, I had one last terrifying thought. An image, really, but one more vivid than any my childhood imagination had ever conjured.

A vision of Hind standing over me, looking down with a smile that was neither welcoming nor comforting. Then the gray walls were closing in on me until my bed was surrounded on all sides and I was trapped in a constricted space like a shallow grave. I felt my breathing become more desperate. In my mind’s eye, I saw Hind raise her long arms and the golden snakes that wrapped around her wrist came to life and slid down into the darkness with me. I could feel their slippery flesh gliding up my hips, their coldness wrapping around my waist as they slithered higher.

I wanted to move, but my legs were tied by the writhing snakes that squeezed as they climbed and wrapped themselves around my throat, cutting off the scream of horror that was struggling to burst free. And then darkness covered me and the steady stream of time dried up forever…

18

Death is always a catalyst, and it was death that finally forced the believers to face the truth that my young heart knew already. That we needed to leave the city, before the unsteady truce ended and the dogs of war were unleashed.

A few weeks after we had restored ourselves to the city, Talha ran breathlessly up to our home. “The exiles have returned!” he said, his voice quivering with delight. For a moment, I was confused. What was he talking about? We were the ones who had been exiled to the barren hills, and we had long since come back. And then I remembered.

Abyssinia. Nearly fifty of our people, mainly the weakest and the poorest of the believers who lacked clan protection, had escaped across the sea three years before and found refuge with the kindly Christian king known as the Negus. They included some of my favorite playmates, like Salma, the daughter of an unwed Bedouin woman who had worked the streets as a prostitute before she had embraced Islam. I had despaired of ever seeing them again, and when Talha’s words finally registered, a broad smile erupted on my face and I clapped with glee.

My mother immediately packed a shank of roast mutton she had been preparing for dinner into a leather sack and without another word raced out the door toward the house of the Messenger. Asma and I joined Talha on her heels.

The house of the Messenger was livelier than I had ever seen it. Word had spread through the city like a brushfire after a lightning storm and the main hall was packed with well-wishers seeking to welcome our long-lost brethren. I squeezed through the crowd and for a moment I had an uncomfortable understanding of the life of a chicken fighting its way through a coop to peck at a few seeds.

I finally crawled under a pair of stout legs and shimmied between two short women, twin sisters wearing olive-colored abaya s. I found myself near the center of the spacious room, where the Messenger was tearfully embracing his reclaimed brood.

I saw the Prophet hug a remarkably attractive young girl whom I did not recognize, and I felt a stab of jealousy that at the time did not make sense to me. I was confused, since the Prophet always maintained a respectful distance from his female followers, and I had never seen him touch a young girl so lovingly before.

And then I saw her intense dark eyes and I immediately realized that she was no stranger for whom the embrace would be a source of rumor and scandal. It was Ruqayya, the Prophet’s daughter, who had married the Meccan nobleman Uthman ibn Affan and had emigrated with him when he had been designated the leader of the Abyssinian exiles. The Prophet’s other daughters Zaynab and Umm Kulthum were both lovely creatures. Even his youngest child, Fatima, would have been considered pretty had she ever bothered to put on a little rouge or scent her hair like others. But Ruqayya was a woman from another world. She was then, and remains today, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her skin was flawless, even paler than her father’s, and her auburn hair peeked out from beneath the modest silk scarf she wore over her head. She had the tiniest waist I had ever seen. Her aquamarine robes did nothing to hide the generous curve of her breasts, and she seemed to exude a natural scent of tangerine. Staring at her perfect poise and grace, I was reminded of the ancient Greek idol of Athena that stood in the Sanctuary, brought by an Arab trader who had found the goddess in ruins outside Byzantium and carted her back to be displayed by the Kaaba.

I caught my own reflection in a bronze mirror that hung on the wall to my right, and I suddenly felt small and ugly. That sensation worsened when I saw a tall man with a perfectly groomed beard step up next to Ruqayya. He bowed his head before the Messenger and kissed his hand. When he rose, I realized that he was Ruqayya’s husband, Uthman, and he was a match for her in beauty. A perfectly proportioned face, with steady gray eyes that always seemed misty and sparkling, like the well of Zamzam in the dawn light. He was elegantly dressed, with embroidered green robes that sparkled with the hint of tiny gems set in the hem. When he smiled, he exuded unlimited kindness and compassion.

Admirable traits that would one day be his undoing and would plunge our nation into a chaos from which it has never recovered.

But that future was long away and could never have been divined by any in the room, except perhaps the Messenger himself. In my final days, looking back at my life to see if I could have read the signs better and prevented the bloodbath for which I was partly responsible, I remember that every time the Messenger looked at Uthman, I would see a hint of sadness in his eyes.

Muhammad never claimed to predict the future-only God knew the details of His plan for mankind-but I believe the Messenger had a remarkably astute sense of the men and women in his life, both his friends and his enemies. And in Uthman’s case, he may have felt more than known that his generous soul, his childlike innocence, was ripe for being manipulated by the unscrupulous, with terrifying consequences for the Ummah.

But that is a tragedy to be told at another time, and one that you know too well in any case, Abdallah. Returning to the events of that day, I watched as Khadija stepped up to greet the newcomers. She looked so old and frail, her once-smooth skin crushed into a sea of wrinkles. Her face was thin, as was her now snowy white hair. The years in the desert, and her recent bout with camp fever, had aged her to a frightening degree. As the Messenger supported her with a loving hand, I saw how he looked more like her son than her husband, his hair still glossy and black, his masculine face unlined and only a strand or two of gray in his beard.

It was a contrast that the exiles had not been prepared for, and I saw tears welling in Ruqayya’s crystal eyes. Khadija could see the shock on her daughter’s face, and I can imagine that it broke her heart, but whatever pain she felt, the Mother of the Believers was an expert at hiding it behind her gentle smile.

“My beautiful daughter,” she said in a hoarse voice and put her arms slowly around the girl, who shook with open grief. Khadija stroked her hair with her bony fingers and then she let go, a look of extreme exhaustion on her face. The Prophet’s cousin Ali moved quickly to her side and helped her sit down on a velvet cushion. Khadija breathed in with an evident struggle, and her hand flitted to her chest as if to remind her tired heart to keep beating.

Ruqayya knelt down beside Khadija, alarm clouding her perfect face.

“Mother, what’s wrong?”

Khadija smiled weakly, her eyes distant and unfocused.

“I’m just a little tired, dear,” she said faintly.

The Messenger’s youngest daughter, Fatima, sat beside her, taking Khadija’s hand in hers. She was such a remarkable contrast to her glamorous sister Ruqayya, her black hair tied haphazardly in an old yellow scarf, her tunic made of harsh wool, and her face devoid of even the most basic cosmetic enhancements that might reveal her femininity.

“Mother is sick, but she won’t admit it,” Fatima said reprovingly.

Khadija’s eyes flashed and for a moment I saw the strength and dignity that I had long associated with the Mother of the Believers.

“Nonsense!” she said proudly. “My feet are old, that’s all. But enough about me. How have you returned?”

Uthman bent down and kissed her on the forehead, kneeling before Khadija like a slave before a queen.

“We heard about the ban and the suffering of the Muslims. We could not sit in comfort in Abyssinia while you starved.”

I felt Asma stiffen behind me and I immediately saw why. The Prophet’s handsome cousin Zubayr stepped through the crowd and clapped his hands on Uthman’s shoulder in greeting.

“By God’s mercy, the ban has been lifted. We are free to live and trade in Mecca as before.”

Uthman’s lovely features lit up with his incomparable smile.

“Allahu akbar! God is great!” he proclaimed, hope dancing on his tongue. “The tide has turned, then.”

And then my father stepped forward, his face grave. Unlike the Messenger, who was two years his senior, Abu Bakr’s now-salty beard could not deny its age.

“I fear that there will be many more turnings of the tide, for good and for ill, before all is done,” he said, shaking his head sadly.

As the men began to talk with the newcomers, I found myself gazing at Ruqayya and Uthman like a child pulled into a dream by a campfire. I suddenly heard the rustle of a skirt beside me and looked to see that Fatima had come to sit at my side.

“They are beautiful, aren’t they?”

I blushed hot, realizing that my eyes had betrayed me. But Fatima smiled in silent understanding. I looked at the quiet, plain girl and asked an impertinent question that a more mature lady would not have voiced.

“Is it hard, having a sister who looks like that? I mean, when you-” I stopped, realizing suddenly that I was being horribly rude. But the question to my childish mind was a legitimate one. I was the pretty girl in the house, and I often wondered how my sister, Asma, felt, knowing that even as a girl who had not yet bled, I attracted attention from men, who rarely gave her a second look. Still, it was a stupid thing to say out loud, and I immediately regretted my wild tongue.

But Fatima did not seem to take offense.

“When Ruqayya is in a room, all other girls disappear, like the stars vanish when the sun rises,” she said with a shrug. “One grows accustomed to it.”

There was something so simple, so unpretentious, about Fatima that I felt an immediate liking for her. Seeking to change the topic to more pleasant and hopeful affairs, I turned to face her with an enthusiastic smile.

“Your sisters are all married. When will you join them?”

Fatima looked at me with those dark eyes, so much like her father’s. When she returned my smile, there was a sadness in her gaze that chilled my heart.

“I don’t know if I will ever marry,” she said bluntly.

I was surprised at this answer.

“How can you say that? Every girl gets married!” Which was true. In the end, even the homeliest girl in Mecca eventually found a mate, although he was unlikely to be a prize catch.

Fatima’s eyes twinkled mysteriously, as if tears welled in them, although they remained dry.

“I am not like every girl,” she said softly.

But before I could ask her what she meant, I heard the harsh croak of painful coughing. I looked up in alarm to see Khadija holding her chest tight, her face drained of all color.

The Messenger was immediately at her side. He leaned down and spoke to his wife in whispered tones that I could not decipher. She nodded slowly and then covered her mouth as another eruption of coughing coursed violently through her chest and throat.

And when she finally lowered her hands, I saw they were covered in blood.

There were screams of horror and everyone came running to her side.

“Stand back!” Ali rose and pushed the frightened crowd back forcefully, giving Khadija room to breathe, however weakly.

Fatima had disappeared from my side, although I never saw her move. It was as if one moment she was sitting beside me, and the next she was holding her mother’s hand and helping her to her feet. I always marveled at her remarkable ability to appear and disappear without anyone noticing, but I always dismissed it as a trick of the eye, the inheritance of her father’s fast gait combined with her naturally quiet demeanor. Now I wasn’t so sure, and looking at this strange, ethereal girl who moved like a ghost, I felt a sudden chill go up my spine.

19

The Mother of the Believers, the foundation stone of our hopes, was dying. As the Messenger and Ali helped her up the winding marble staircase that led to the family’s private rooms on the second floor, my father took it on himself to restore calm and order to the gathered crowd of believers.

After clearing the Prophet’s house of all except the closest members of his family and a few trusted advisers such as Umar and Uthman, we climbed upstairs to check on Khadija. I held on to the cold brass banister like a girl clinging to the edge of a cliff. Every footfall I made on the polished stone seemed to thunder like the beat of a war drum, announcing the arrival of death and pestilence in its wake.

When I followed my mother and father into the Messenger’s bedroom, I saw that Khadija was lying on a mattress of goose feathers that been imported from the north. The Messenger had rid himself of nearly all luxuries since the beginning of his mission, but he could not part with this one item that brought comfort and ease to his aging wife.

She looked so peaceful, lying there with her bony hands across her chest, that for a moment I thought she was already dead. But the gentle rustle of her gray tunic as it rose and fell with her breathing said that her soul still dwelled among us for a short while longer. Beads of pearly sweat ran down her lined face and her daughters quickly moved to wipe her brow with a clean rag.

The Messenger dropped to his knees beside her and closed his eyes, his hands uplifted in fervent prayer. I had never seen him so focused, so utterly unmoving. If I had not caught the steady pulse of a vein in his temple, I could have imagined that he had been turned to stone from grief, like the very idols that he despised.

Silence fell upon the room like the closing doors of a crypt. Even the wind outside became utterly still, like the mournful quiet before the rains are unleashed. No one moved; all eyes were on the elderly woman on the bed. Hours passed as if they were moments, and eventually Fatima left her mother’s side to light a small copper lantern as the sun’s rays dipped beneath the horizon.

When the disk of the sun vanished and the evening star ruled the sky, Khadija’s eyes opened and I saw her smile at the Messenger, who was looking at her like a frightened child. Seeing the lost look on his face, this man who was the center of our community, the rock that gave us stability while the deadly waters of the world raged and churned about us, I suddenly felt very small and alone.

I realized at that moment that it was Khadija who had been the heart of Islam the whole time. Without her initial acceptance of his vision, Muhammad would have dismissed his experience on Mount Hira as a dream or a delusion engendered by a capricious djinn. Had she not believed him and encouraged him, he would have eventually become like the madmen I saw wandering the streets of Mecca in putrid rags, whose disturbed minds had tortured them until even their families had driven them out and left them to die. Whatever this new religion called Islam was, whatever it was going to be, was the product of one woman’s faith in a man. And now that woman was dying and I was left to wonder whether our faith would die with her.

I saw a figure enter the room, a man with a deeply pockmarked face and thinning hair, despite his youth. It was Zayd ibn Haritha, the adopted son of Muhammad and Khadija. He had just returned from an unsuccessful hunt in the hills where a leopard had been seen the night before and had been told by the believers what had transpired at the Messenger’s house this morning.

Zayd leaned down beside Khadija and she ran her hand across his cheek. He had once been her slave, but he had grown so attached to her and her husband that they had freed him and adopted him as a son after the tragic death of their own infant boy Qasim. Next to Ali, Zayd was the closest person to a male heir in the Messenger’s household, and many of the believers looked to him as a future leader of the community. The fact that a slave could rise to become a master over the believers was a matter of great pride for the Muslims and a subject of intense mockery for Abu Lahab and our other enemies.

I watched as Khadija gestured to Zayd, Ali, and her daughters to come close. The rest of us kept respectfully back. The fact that we were even allowed in the inner sanctum to share her final moments was enough. Family had certain rights and prerogatives that needed to be respected.

As each member of the Ahl al-Bayt, the People of the House, approached, Khadija said a soft, almost inaudible prayer of benediction upon her loved ones and then whispered into each of their ears. I saw them nod and rise after she shared her private farewells, tears streaming down their cheeks. First her eldest daughter, Zaynab, then Ruqayya, even more beautiful as her black eyes shone with grief, followed by rosy-cheeked Umm Kulthum and dour Zayd.

And then she took Fatima’s hand in her right and Ali’s in her left and kissed them both on the foreheads. When Fatima stepped back, the look of grief on her face was so painful that I dropped my eyes for fear of being consumed by it.

“Aisha…”

I was startled to hear my name and looked up to see Khadija looking at me with compassion. She gestured weakly for me to come.

Stunned and unsure as to why I was being included in this special circle of family, I stood there, my finger in my mouth like a shy toddler. My mother, Umm Ruman, took my hand and pulled me to Khadija’s side, before stepping back and leaving me alone with her.

The Mother of the Believers ran her hands through my red hair like a child playing with a favorite doll. And then she moved her head a little and I sensed she wanted me to come close so that I could hear her better. I leaned forward until my ears were almost touching her cracked lips.

She whispered, but her words sounded through my heart like a trumpet.

“Take care of him when I’m gone,” she said inexplicably. “You were made for him.”

I had no idea what she meant, but there was something both exciting and terrifying in her words. As if she were using her final breath to pass on to me a secret that I was to guard with my life.

I sensed the Messenger standing behind me and scrambled back to my mother’s side, unsure of what to make of the strange words Khadija had bequeathed me.

When I looked up, I saw that the Prophet was crying. With what appeared to be a difficult effort, Khadija raised her hands and wiped his tears in front of us the way she had wiped them in private all those years. In that instant, I understood the truth of their relationship. The Messenger had seen his mother die when he was only six years old and had longed all his life for the nurturing touch of which he had been deprived. Khadija was more than just his wife and best friend, more than the first Muslim. She was also the mother that God had taken away from him once before, and I realized as I looked at Muhammad’s face that he was reliving the horror of the loss that had haunted him since he was a boy.

“I am summoned to the Abode of Peace…Beloved, it is time for me to go…”

I saw through my blurred eyes the Prophet lean down and place his cheek next to hers.

“I knew the moment I saw you that you were special…Had God never spoken to you, even then would I have known that you were His chosen…”

She was looking up, her eyes staring dreamily at the ceiling, at something only she could see.

“The men in white are here…I see where they are taking me…It’s so beautiful…so full of light…”

She turned to face the Messenger, peering deep into his fathomless eyes.

“There is no god but God, and you, my love, are His Messenger…”

She sighed and went still.

There was a moment of silence so great that it reverberated like an earthquake. And then cries of grief erupted all around me. I saw the Messenger of God touch the Mother of the Believers’ lips, stroking them in final farewell.

He looked like a shadow from another world. When he spoke, his soft voice cut through the din of mourning. He spoke the Words of God that had come to him in a Revelation at the moment of Khadija’s death, words that Muslims speak even today to grieve loss and to remember who we are and where we are going.

“Truly we belong to God, and truly to Him are we returning…”

IT WAS TIME TO leave Mecca. Shortly after Khadija died, the Muslims were struck with another loss. The Prophet’s uncle and guardian, Abu Talib, passed away, and the reprobate Abu Lahab became the chief of Bani Hashim. We could no longer count on the Prophet’s clan for protection from the dogs of Quraysh. The persecution would only grow worse and now there would be no recourse to the rough justice of the tribes. But where could we go? The Quraysh guarded the roads to the sea, so Abyssinia was cut off to us. But even if we could escape the nightly patrols and find a boat willing to take us west, the Negus was no longer in a position to give us sanctuary.

The great king had suffered politically for having given refuge to our people once before. The priests of his African nation had decried the Muslims as dangerous heretics, because we believed in Jesus as a human prophet but denied that he had ever claimed to be the Son of God. Our people were branded as the resurgence of the Arians, a group of Christians who had questioned the Church’s teachings on Christ’s divinity but had been denounced by the Byzantine emperor Constantine as unbelievers. The Negus still sent kindly letters to the Messenger inquiring about his views on matters of theology, but they contained nothing that would suggest an invitation to come in person and debate these great truths.

There was a cloud hanging over the Prophet in those bleak days, and my sister was already referring to it as “the Year of Sadness.” The Messenger had been struck by two powerful blows in sequence. The death of Khadija, the source of his spiritual support, and the death of Abu Talib, the foundation of his earthly protection. Having lost both poles of his compass, he walked among us like a man who was unsure of who he was, where he was going. In later years, he admitted to me that he had been crushed with self-doubt during those terrible months. If these visions were real, if what he saw was truly an angel and not some mischievous desert sprite mocking him, then why had his God abandoned him and left him without any light of hope?

But, as we all learned, the Divine is a teacher who sometimes shows men what they are made of by taking away everything they have, so that the truth of their character is finally revealed. At his lowest moment, the Messenger’s soul was now as naked and vulnerable as a newborn baby’s flesh.

And it is in that vulnerability, where there are no veils anymore between a quivering, tormented heart and its master, the Lord of the Worlds, that the inner eye awakens from its slumber and true Vision is born.

Perhaps because of a destiny that I did not yet know awaited me, I was given the precious gift of sharing in that Vision. So it was that one night, after a long day of struggling with the monotonous chores of the household, I crept into my small bed to sleep. I was tired and yet I tossed and turned for hours before finally rising to answer the persistent call of nature.

But as I passed a window on the way to the latrine, I saw a flash like a bolt of lightning. At first, I thought it might be the start of a rainstorm, which we desperately needed owing to drought. Pausing to look out the window, I saw that the sky was clear and not a single cloud blotted the twinkling army of stars. The full moon appeared low in the sky, hovering just above the sacred walls of the Sanctuary. And then I realized with a start that it was the twenty-seventh night of Rajab and the moon should have been a thin crescent waning into nothingness.

As I focused my eyes, I saw that whatever it was that rose over the Kaaba was not the pockmarked moon but a blue-white disk with no discernible features. A ball of pure light. And then, faster than any celestial body I had ever seen move across the heavens, the light rose upward like a shooting star in reverse and vanished into the northern horizon.

I stood frozen at the window, my heart racing. I suddenly had no urge to use the latrine and quickly ran back to my bed and hid beneath the woolen coverlet, trying to understand the strange event I had witnessed. I suddenly felt very drowsy and I surrendered as my soul slipped into the void. My last thought was that I would never know for sure if what I had seen was real. I should forget all about the strange light before my parents started worrying and asked the Messenger to drive away the djinn that were haunting me.

I would forget about it, and the world would never know.

But that was not God’s plan.

THE NEXT MORNING, MY father and I walked to the bazaar after my mother insisted that we trade a recent surplus of eggs from our coop of chickens for some fresh mutton. We walked down the streets carefully, my father’s eyes darting back and forth. With the death of Abu Talib, violence against Muslims was on the rise again, but Abu Lahab refused to pursue claims on our behalf in the Hall of Assembly. Just a week before, my poor cousin Talha had been attacked by the thugs in the middle of the street. When my father had sought to intervene and pay them off, they had beaten him as well and taken his purse. Abu Bakr and Talha had been left on the side of the road, tied together and covered in refuse, until a woman of the Bani Adi had had mercy on them and unloosed their bindings.

But there were no such incidents today. In fact, we were surprised at the emptiness of the cobbled streets, which were normally filled with people and animals heading to market at this hour.

And then we heard the sounds of raucous laughter coming from the Sanctuary, and my father turned and saw a large crowd gathered before the Kaaba. Over the din of jeers and catcalls, we could hear the distinctly rich voice of the Messenger.

“Let’s go,” my father said, and I followed him without hesitation. The Messenger had not preached openly in the Sanctuary since Abu Talib had died and Abu Lahab had warned him that the clan would not protect his followers from violence if they insulted the gods in front of the Holy House. Something had happened that made the Messenger risk a riot and speak before the pagan worshipers who had monopolized the shrine.

As Abu Bakr pushed forward, Abu Jahl suddenly appeared and blocked his way, his handsome face lit with a triumphant smile.

“What do you think of your Prophet now?” he said with unfettered glee. “He claims he went to Jerusalem last night and came back before the sun rose!”

My father paled at this strange news. The Messenger’s words always had the clear ring of truth, appealing to reason rather than superstition, and this was too fantastic a story to have come from his lips.

“You lie!” Abu Bakr said, refusing to let Abu Jahl spread obviously malicious stories against the Messenger.

“Don’t blame his madness on me,” he said with a smirk. “But what did you expect from a soothsayer whose craft is to befuddle simple minds? Yet in this, Muhammad has gone too far and his tall tales have been revealed for what they are. Even a child knows it takes a month for a caravan to travel to Syria and a month to return!”

And then Abu Jahl glanced down at me to further his point. I saw him pause and take a lascivious look at my small body. I realized that the softness on my chest was already becoming noticeable to the eyes of men. My courses had not begun, but I was clearly becoming a woman, and I felt my cheeks flame at his evident lust.

Something about his disgusting stare lit a fire of defiance in me, and I spoke words that I had promised to forget.

“It’s true, Father!” I said before I could stop myself. “I saw it with my own eyes last night. A star arose from the Kaaba and flew north! That must have been the Messenger!”

Unfortunately, my passionate defense of Muhammad’s audacious claim only increased the amusement of the crowd, and I heard cruel laughter now directed at me, as well as vulgar comments about my maturing body.

My father grabbed me by the shoulder.

“Quiet! Let me handle this.”

And then he took the small white scarf that I wore around my shoulders and put it over my head, wrapping the cloth modestly around the budding nubs of my breasts.

My father led me through the crowd until we saw the Messenger standing just outside the golden doors of the Temple. I caught my breath at sight of his smiling face, which looked as fresh and untroubled as a newborn’s. Gone was the sad and lonely man who had become increasingly quiet in the days since Khadija’s death. The vibrant, masculine man who exuded power and dignity had been resurrected.

Abu Bakr leaned close to him and whispered.

“Is what they say true? Did you go to Jerusalem and return in one night?”

The Prophet nodded. He lowered his voice until only Abu Bakr and I could hear him.

“Yes. And there is more. But they are not ready for it.” He paused and looked deep into Abu Bakr’s eyes. “Are you?”

My father looked into those bottomless black pools. And then without any hesitation, he turned and faced the jeering crowd.

“If he says he went to Jerusalem in one night, then it is true,” Abu Bakr said loudly, his voice echoing across the ancient stones of the Sanctuary.

The laughter of the crowd died instantly and was replaced by surprise and confusion at my father’s unashamed embrace of this ludicrous claim.

Abu Bakr strode forward, looking men in the eye as he passed them, his arms sprung wide.

“And why do you wonder?” he asked defiantly. “Muhammad tells me that he receives tidings from heaven every day, and I know that he is speaking the truth. And that is a miracle beyond anything you marvel at!”

There was an uncomfortable buzz, like the confused hiss of a bee that can no longer find the security of its hive. I saw men looking at Abu Bakr as if he were insane. But when he met their glare with utter confidence, they began to look at one another, as if wondering whether perhaps they were the ones who were insane.

The Messenger moved forward and grasped my father’s right hand and held it aloft.

“I hereby proclaim Abu Bakr by a title borne by no other man. As-Siddiq-the Great Witness to the Truth!”

It was a powerful honorific, and one that my father carried with dignity for the rest of his life. In the years that would come, certain vile men would question his loyalty to the Prophet, accuse him falsely of acting in his own interests rather than in accordance with the will of God and His Messenger. Yet standing there, I saw the look of deep love and trust in the Messenger’s eyes as he gazed at my father, and my heart overflowed with emotions that have no name.

If it be true that Abu Bakr was the calculating politician that his detractors have claimed, then I know not what truth there is to anything I witnessed in all my years at Muhammad’s side. For those who claimed in the days to come that Abu Bakr became an enemy to the Messenger, claimed that the Prophet himself was deluded and trusted in a false front. If the Messenger of God could call a man by the great title of As-Siddiq and that man proved to be a liar and a thief, then there is nothing to our religion but foolishness and cruel mockery.

They say that I am biased because I am Abu Bakr’s daughter. They warn that I am destined for hell for the crimes I have committed in the heat of passion. And for that I have no clear response. I accept their condemnation for my sins, and it may indeed be that I will go to hell for the blood that is on my hands.

But I will not see my father there.

20

When word spread of the miraculous night journey, the tribe of believers gathered excitedly in the Messenger’s home. It was the largest such congregation since Abu Talib’s death, as it was now considered unsafe for the Muslims to meet in large groups and potentially be accused of plotting insurrection. The main hall was overflowing, and I saw men and women of all ages cramming together to hear the full story. I marveled for a moment at how much we had grown. Despite the Quraysh’s best efforts to crush our movement, there were now several hundred committed believers, most still from the poorer classes but a surprisingly large number from the ruling elite.

One of the most improbable converts was a tall and proud woman named Ramla, the eldest daughter of Abu Sufyan. Her conversion had been a shock to the lords of Mecca, and the Messenger had arranged for her to travel across the sea and take refuge with the Negus in case her father sought to force her back into the fold. Though the Muslims could no longer count on his protection as a group, the Christian king had invited Ramla to come as a “princess of Quraysh” and be housed in a palace reserved for foreign dignitaries.

Ramla sat near the Prophet and I could see her resemblance to her father. With her steely eyes that shone with dignity and authority, she had the aura of a queen, even though she was dressed in modest white robes, her light brown hair covered in a blue scarf. I saw the coquettish way she looked at the Messenger, who was now a widower, and I felt my cheeks burn hot with jealousy. I was not sure why I felt so possessive about the Prophet, but Khadija’s last words to me kept echoing in my heart. She had asked me to take care of her husband, and I did not feel that letting him fall into Ramla’s seductive web was what she had in mind.

Of course, my nephew, you know the bad blood that existed between us in later years, and even now I have difficulty writing her name without my hand shaking in fury. What she did to me, in my moment of terrible grief, may be forgiven by Almighty God, but my human heart cannot extend to her that clemency.

In those early days, I did not know the depth of her cruelty, and yet I still had a visceral dislike for Ramla the moment I laid eyes on her. There was something about her that struck me as dangerous, far more so than open enemies like her father or her conniving stepmother, Hind. In one glance, she sized up others as if weighing them and calculating their worth, and I never knew for what purpose. And yet Ramla was charming and I saw how she could make the Messenger laugh with her worldly stories from her travels to the courts of Yemen and Persia as part of Abu Sufyan’s trading ventures. And I hated her.

In truth, I hated her because she was beautiful and young, and her breasts were well shaped and firm, unlike my own, nothing more than tiny buds that barely rose from my chest. Yes, I had childish fantasies that I would grow up and marry the Messenger someday, as did every other young girl among the believers, and seeing Ramla sitting near the Prophet and her cousin Uthman, I felt the cold, harsh flash of reality. I was a child and she was a woman.

When dreams shatter, Abdallah, they can leave mighty scars that are always raw to the touch.

That night we sat and listened as the Messenger told us more about his wondrous journey to Jerusalem. Of how the angel Gabriel had come to the Messenger while he had slept near the Kaaba, leading a wing horse named Buraq. Together they had flown to Jerusalem, where they landed at the ruins of the Jewish shrine the Temple of Solomon, which was called in the holy Qur’an Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa-the Farthest Place of Worship. There, amid the fallen stones of God’s other House, sister to the Kaaba, the Prophet had prayed with the spirits of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

And then he revealed a secret that we were sworn to keep from the unbelievers, who were unworthy of the highest Truth. From a rock that stood at the site of Solomon’s Temple, the Messenger had ascended into heaven and traveled through the many realms of Paradise until he stood before the Throne of God. The Prophet had never before claimed to have spoken directly with Allah, who had communicated with him for the past ten years through angels as intermediaries. But this night, he had crossed the farthest reaches of Creation, past the Lote Tree of the Utmost Boundary beyond which even Gabriel could not ascend. And there, outside time and space, where there was neither light nor darkness, Muhammad communed with his Lord.

We listened with rapt attention, and many wept, as he described the glories of Paradise, the rivers of milk and honey, and wine that did not befuddle the senses. Of perfect trees that provided eternal shade and fruits whose scent was enough to quell the hunger of mankind for eternity. And there were youths like sparkling pearls that served the residents of Paradise with any food or drink that they desired, and houris, beautiful virgins whose touch made men forget all the earthly pleasure they had ever known.

At the mention of these delightful creatures, I saw many of the women’s faces fall. The thought of their men traipsing about in the afterlife with such perfect beauties did not seem like much of a paradise for them. But the Messenger kindly told us that all believing women who entered Paradise would become houris themselves and that there would be no jealousy or loneliness in eternity. Men and women would enjoy one another’s company and the ecstasies of one another’s bodies in a way that would make the coupling of this world seem like brief and fleeting pleasure, like a tickle from a feather.

The Night Journey had given the Prophet renewed hope and faith. Now that he had seen the wonders of the spiritual realm, the daily struggle of life on Earth held little fear. But most important for the community, God had sent the Messenger back from heaven with a new set of rules for our daily lives.

First and foremost, the ritual prayers and prostrations that we had performed haphazardly over the past ten years were now to be organized and made a daily practice. Five times a day-before sunrise, in the early and late afternoon, after sunset, and in the darkness of night-the Muslims would be required to bow before God in formal worship. And perhaps most startling, God had commanded us to face the holy city of Jerusalem when we prayed. We were accustomed to facing the Kaaba, even though the Messenger had never specifically commanded it, but now we were being told to turn to the north, to a city most of us had never seen and knew of only through myth and legend. But the Messenger was clear. Jerusalem was the home of the Prophets, and he was the last in their line. So we grudgingly obeyed.

He listed for us further commandments that he had been given in heaven. We would be required to fast for thirty days during Ramadan, which was the sacred month in which the Revelation had begun ten years before. That meant no food, water, or sexual relations from first light until sunset. I saw the look of general dismay at word that even intercourse would be banned during the fast, and the Prophet smiled gently, reminding us that sexual relations were a blessing from God, just like food and water, and restraining our lust would purify our souls and allow us to couple with deeper meaning and intensity when the fast was over.

And finally, we would be required to pay zakat, or alms, to the poor. Before this day, we had been encouraged but not commanded to share our wealth with the less fortunate. But now one-fortieth of every believer’s wealth officially belonged to God and the community and must be given freely to feed and clothe the needy. I stole a glance at Ramla to see how this proud woman, reared in the wealthiest home in Mecca, would react to being forced to give up a portion of her riches every year, but she was all pleasant smiles and graciousness, which only angered me more.

These were the Pillars of Islam, the Messenger announced, commanded by God from His Throne. Along with the testimony of faith, that there is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger, they would serve as the formal tests of a Muslim’s basic commitment to his or her faith.

The Messenger paused and then added that there was one final Pillar, which was obligatory only for those who had the necessary wealth to undergo the journey and were healthy enough to perform its requirements: the Pillar of Pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, which every Muslim who was capable should perform once in his or her life.

We all looked at one another, confused.

Finally, Umar spoke up.

“But, Messenger of God, we all live in Mecca,” he said with his usual bluntness. “The Holy Kaaba is down the street. Why would we need to travel to perform the Pilgrimage when we do so every year with ease?”

I saw a strange look of sadness cross the Messenger’s face.

“It may not be so easy in the years to come, my friend.” And with that he rose, and we knew that the audience was over.

As the excited crowd cleared the hall, I saw the Messenger smile at Ramla and speak to her in low tones. A gesture of intimacy. My stomach twisted painfully.

And then, to my surprise the Prophet looked at me across the room and his eyes sparkled. And then he waved to my father to come to his side.

Abu Bakr nodded to my sister, Asma, and me.

“Go home. I will join you soon, insha-Allah.”

I did as I was told and stepped outside, before I realized that Asma was no longer at my side. I looked up to see her standing beside the gate to the Messenger’s house, speaking with his cousin Zubayr. The handsome young man leaned in and whispered something in her ear and she laughed, her cheeks flushing.

I smiled to see them together and walked home alone.

21

That night, after Asma returned home late to a harsh scolding by Umm Ruman for her unseemly flirtations, I sat in a corner of the living room, playing with my favorite dolls, ugly little things made from rags and robe fiber, which I had named Akil and Akila.

I acted out the wedding between these two figures, a favorite game, but in my mind’s eye, instead of my dolls, I saw my beloved sister finally wedding the boy she had secretly loved for years. Your father, Zubayr, was considered a great catch by the girls of the city, and I had never really believed that Asma had a chance with him. But the Messenger said that God holds the hearts of men between His two fingers, and turns them any way He wishes. It was evident that God had turned Zubayr’s heart to your mother at last.

I heard the door open and saw Abu Bakr return. I rose to greet him, but he looked at me with intense eyes.

“Go to your room, little one.”

There was something in his tone that frightened me, and I stood rooted on the spot.

“But, Father-”

“Go,” he said forcefully. “I need to speak to your mother.”

Somehow I knew that whatever had upset him had to do with me. I scoured my memory for all the naughty things I had done recently and I wondered which of them had finally gotten me in trouble.

Pondering my childish sins, I turned and went to my room and closed the door. But instead of playing with my dolls on my bed, I leaned up against the door to listen. I heard muffled voices and I strained to make sense of them. Finally I decided to risk it and I opened the door a crack, just enough to hear my parents’ words with some clarity. I grimaced as the acacia wood creaked against the marble floor and I wondered whether they had heard and knew I was eavesdropping.

“What’s wrong?” My mother’s voice was hushed but brimming with concern.

“Nothing is wrong,” my father said. “I…just need a moment.”

I heard my mother pour him a glass of water. After a moment, he spoke, and his words were filled with both fear and wonder.

“The Prophet had a dream,” he said softly.

“I know. He told us all about the Night Journey,” my mother responded.

“No. This was many nights ago,” Abu Bakr said. “It was only after his vision during the Night Journey that he decided it was time to share it with me.”

My father had always been respected as an interpreter of dreams, even in the days before the Revelation. He was like the prophet Joseph, a man who had been gifted with such a keen understanding of the human heart that he could easily read the symbols locked inside the hidden imaginings of the mind.

“The angel Gabriel game to him carrying a bundle of green silk,” Abu Bakr said slowly. “When the Prophet asked what was in the bundle, the angel said: ‘Your wife.’ And then he unrolled the silk and the Prophet saw a girl.”

Abu Bakr stopped. For a moment, I saw an image of Ramla wrapped in Gabriel’s silk, and I wanted to vomit. This beautiful and cunning daughter of Abu Sufyan would soon be in the bed of the Messenger of God. My heart beat fast with indignation.

But when my father spoke next, my heart stopped

“He saw Aisha.”

For the next several minutes, I heard nothing more. It was as if I had been struck deaf and even the torment of the damned in hell would have passed by my ears unnoticed.

When the world started again, the sounds came rushing at me faster than I could comprehend.

“What do we do?” My mother’s voice was shrill, like a lamb bleating at the first sight of the sacrificial knife.

“We obey God,” he said simply.

I heard my mother slam something down on the table and the door shook with its vibrations.

“But Aisha…she is promised to Jubayr ibn Mutim!”

This was news to me.

I had met Jubayr a few times, but I could barely remember what he looked like. I was aware that he was a cousin of the hated Hind, and I had heard rumors that he had been considering converting after Ramla had joined the new faith. Apparently, I was being used as a negotiating chip by my father to entice this powerful lord of Quraysh to embrace our faith. My heart, which had soared moments before to know that I was chosen to be the Messenger’s wife, now sank into rage and despair at the thought that my own family could bargain my life away so casually.

“Jubayr’s father has always opposed the marriage and will be relieved when we rescind the proposal,” he said matter-of-factly, as if discussing the proper value of onions in the marketplace. “If Jubayr is destined to come to Islam, God will find him a virtuous wife, I’m sure.”

I felt rage building in my young veins. Nowhere in this discussion had anyone mentioned or cared what I might have thought of any of this.

I heard my mother’s skirts rustling as she paced across the room, a habit whenever she was nervous or unsure.

“She is so young-” Umm Ruman objected, but my father cut her off.

“No younger than most brides these days,” Abu Bakr said simply. “The marriage will not be consummated until her cycles begin.”

There was a long silence in which the only thing I could hear was the pounding of my heart.

When my mother spoke again, I could hear deep concern in her voice.

“She will become the Mother of the Believers, a role only held by Khadija. How can a child take her place?”

“The Messenger understands the delicacy of her youth,” Abu Bakr said. “He will also marry an older, more mature woman who can run the household.”

I saw Ramla in my mind’s eye and felt my stomach sink. How could I be a cowife to the daughter of Abu Sufyan? She was so much prettier than me and was older, would know how to please a man. The Messenger would grow bored with me and toss me aside for a woman who was more his equal.

“Who?” my mother asked, with the excited curiosity of a gossipmonger.

My father paused, and I prayed to God: Please, don’t let it be Ramla.

“Sawda bint Zama,” he said at last.

I fell back with a thud and for a moment I was convinced that my parents had heard and knew I was listening. But they did not come into my room, and I sat in shock, absorbing this information.

And then I bit down on my hand to keep from laughing.

God had answered my prayer.

Sawda bint Zama was a sweet but elderly woman, a widow of considerable wealth, as Khadija had been. She was an excellent cook and would be a valuable addition to the Messenger’s household. But she was old and her body worn. If I were indeed meant to marry the Prophet, at least I would not have to compete with her in the bedroom. And even at that tender age, I knew that men valued young and beautiful women who could give them pleasure and bear them sons. Muhammad was the Messenger of God, but he was a man like any other in that respect, and I almost clapped with glee knowing that I could give him joys that Sawda would be incapable of providing.

When I crawled back to the crack of he door and listened, I heard my father speaking.

“I knew the night Aisha was born that she was special,” he said wistfully. “When the Prophet told me of his vision, I knew that the moment of her destiny had come.”

My mother sighed loudly

“Everything will change.” There was resignation in her voice and I knew that she had accepted the will of Allah.

“Everything must change,” my father responded. “With Khadija gone, the Muslims are in despair, walking like dead men. Aisha is a fountain of life. She will resurrect them.”

My mother was silent for a moment, lost in reflection.

“The midwife said our daughter would bring death.”

“Life and death are bound by a power beyond understanding. The power of transformation,” Abu Bakr waxed philosophical. “Aisha wields that power. She is the sword of transformation. Some things must die so that others may be born. That is her birthright.”

In later years, when my hand held that sword and rained death upon the Ummah, I wondered if my father had had some prophetic insight of his own.

“I am afraid,” my mother said simply.

And then I heard my father, the bastion of strength in our household, admit something that I could not have imagined.

“So am I, my love. So am I.”

I closed the door and crawled into bed. My mind was racing almost as fast as my heart.

God had chosen me to marry His Messenger.

It sounded laughable, but somehow it felt right. As if some part of my soul had always known that was my purpose. I took my dolls and put them aside with a pang of loss that comes when one period of life ends and another begins.

Yet I did not know where I was in the journey of life, or who I was to be, walking the path that I had been set upon.

I felt trapped between two worlds. I was no longer a child, but I was not yet a woman.

And yet, soon, I would be the Mother of the Believers.

22

One night, several months after I learned that I was betrothed to the Messenger of God, my father pulled me out of bed and told me to dress quickly. My mother and sister were still asleep and Abu Bakr told me to move quietly so as not to wake them up. We had an appointment tonight that it was best not to let them know about.

Confused and a little intrigued, I threw on a woolen robe over my cotton tunic. I tied my hair in a yellow scarf, but my father made me take it off and replace it with a black one that would not reflect the moonlight and draw attention to my presence. We tiptoed through the house, past my mother’s bedroom, where I could hear her snoring steadily.

I felt a sudden rush of excitement as we stepped out into the cold night. I knew that all this secrecy had something to do with my new status, and I was eager to unravel the mystery.

My father, wrapped in dark blue robes, his mouth covered by a strand of loose cloth from his brown turban, led me through the abandoned streets of Mecca. Normally there would be at least a few citizens sleeping in bunks outside their doors, as was the custom during the summer months when the cooling winds helped ease the raging heat that made sleeping indoors unbearable. But tonight was unusually cold and everyone was indoors.

I could see the air steam from my breath, and the chill only worsened as we left the city behind and crossed into the moonlit hills. I began to feel a tug of fear. What was this all about? Where was my father taking me in the dead of the night? For a moment, I had a terrible vision of Abraham leading his son into the wilderness in order to sacrifice him to God. I loved Allah and I loved my father, but I did not think that I could surrender willingly to the knife as the boy had.

Now that we were far away from Mecca and no one was likely to hear us, I tentatively spoke up.

“Where are we going?”

My father hesitated, as if debating whether to reveal his true purpose yet.

“To Aqaba,” he said finally, and pulled me along faster across the rocky earth.

Aqaba? That made no sense. It was barren area at the base of a volcanic mound where caravans stopped to let their camels rest before the final climb through the hills and into the heart of Mecca.

“But there is nothing there except stones and sand!” Suddenly I didn’t like this mystery at all.

“Tonight there will be more,” my father said. Despite my continuous barrage of questions, he said nothing else.

We climbed over the last hill that formed the official boundary of the holy city. My father stopped at the peak and looked down into the valley of Mina below. I could see a haze of campfire in the distance, illuminating a vast tent city that must have housed a thousand pilgrims. These were people who could not afford lodgings in Mecca itself and camped outside while they were performing the rites of Pilgrimage.

We started to climb down and I nearly lost my footing. My father grabbed my hand and held it tight as I saw a shower of pebbles race down the hill to shatter on the jagged rocks below. When we finally made it to the base of the hill, I started to move toward the tent city on the horizon, assuming it was our destination. But my father tugged on my hand and pulled me back. He started walking across the base of the hill away from the brightly lit camp until we reached a place shadowed between two hills and surrounded by rocky boulders.

The moon was behind the hills and no light shone down upon this craggy section of desert. It was pitch black, nearly impossible to penetrate, even after my eyes had adjusted to the darkness.

As we moved forward into this void that was darker than any cave, I finally saw the outlines of figures up ahead, heard the soft murmur of voices.

I suddenly heard a clink of metal and saw the quick flash of a blade in the dark. My father stopped dead in his tracks as a boulder moved and I realized that it was not a stone, but a mountain of a man-the Prophet’s uncle Hamza.

“Who goes there?” he snarled, and I sensed that the sword would slash down without any hesitation if he didn’t like the answer.

“Softly, Hamza. It is I.”

Hamza leaned forward until he could see my father. He nodded, but then his eyes went wide when he saw me standing beside Abu Bakr.

“You brought this child?” he asked incredulously. Whatever was happening here tonight, it was clearly not the place for a small girl. A conclusion I had already come to on my own.

“She is not like other children, a fact you know well,” my father said, a hint of pride in his voice. “It is fitting that she should be present at the Messenger’s side tonight.”

The mighty Hamza scowled, but he stepped aside.

My father led me toward the voices, and I saw a circle of unfamiliar men, along with a few women I also did not recognize. The Messenger of God was speaking in hushed tones to these strangers. When he saw my father and me, he smiled widely, but he continued conversing with the people in the group.

I tugged on my father’s sleeve.

“Who are these men?”

He bent down to whisper in my ears.

“Tribesmen of the Aws and Khazraj in Yathrib.”

Of all the possible answers, that was one I did not expect. Yathrib was an oasis ten days’ camel ride to the north of Mecca. It had the blessing of fresh water and plentiful date trees and was a regular stop for merchants heading to the markets of Syria and Persia.

But despite its strategic positioning, the city had failed to achieve the level of prosperity of Mecca, which lacked agriculture but had the benefit of peace. Yathrib was a cautionary tale for the people of Arabia. Divided between two rival clans, the Aws and the Khazraj, the city had been consumed by a century of blood feuds whose origins were long forgotten. Several Jewish tribes lived in the vicinity and had survived the constant state of warfare by strategically shifting alliances whenever the balance of power necessitated. I knew little about the politics of Yathrib, but I did know that the men of Aws and Khazraj hated each other, and I could not understand what these bitter enemies were doing here, meeting the Messenger in the dead of night.

“What do they want?” I asked, my curiosity having reasserted itself as apprehension waned.

My father looked at the Messenger with warm eyes.

“An arbitrator.”

And suddenly it all began to make sense.

The Messenger finished his converse with these foreigners and waved with his right hand to Abu Bakr to come join him. I walked rapidly by my father’s side, almost tripping over a troublesome rock that rolled under my slippers.

When I entered the circle by the Prophet, I saw his uncle Abbas talking animatedly with the newcomers.

“Why is he here?” I whispered. “He’s not a Muslim.” Abbas was known to be sympathetic to his nephew, but like Abu Talib, he had not formally embraced the new Way and had never been included in the secret deliberations of our community.

“No,” my father acknowledged. “But he loves his nephew and will do what he must to protect him.”

Abbas looked at the Messenger, who nodded, and the lord of Quraysh turned to address the small crowd.

“People of Yathrib!” he said, and his voice echoed in the small enclosure. “You know the esteem in which we hold Muhammad, and we have protected him from his enemies. But he has resolved to turn to you and bind himself to you. So if you think you can keep your promises to him and protect him, the burden will be upon you. But if you fear that you will betray him and fail in your obligations, then leave him now.”

I did not fully understand what he was saying, but the words he has resolved to turn to you hit me in the stomach. Was the Prophet leaving us?

A chief of the Khazraj, a thin man with a prominent wart on his left cheek, stepped forward. I would later learn that his name was Bara.

“We are ready, Messenger of God,” Bara said solemnly. “What say you?”

The Messenger raised both his hands. And when he spoke, it was as if a lion were thundering through the darkness.

“I make with you this pact on condition that the allegiance you pledge to me shall bind you to protect me even as you protect your women and children.”

Muhammad, may God’s blessings and peace be upon him, then lowered his left hand and extended his right. Bara stepped forward and took his hand, his head lowered in humility.

“By Him who sent you with truth, we will protect you as you protect him,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “So accept our pledge of allegiance, O Messenger of God!”

As I watched, one by one the men stepped forward and took the Prophet’s right hand and pledged the same. Then my father lifted a silver bowl that was at the Messenger’s feet and I saw that it was filled with clear water. Muhammad dipped his right hand into the bowl, and the women of Yathrib came and placed their fingers at the other end of the bowl, the water linking them, a symbolic act through which the Prophet accepted the allegiance of the women while respecting their dignity.

As the women proceeded to make the same oath, I turned to my father, confused.

“What does this mean?”

His answer would change my life. As well as the history of the world.

“It means, sweet girl, that we are leaving Mecca.”

23

Despite our best efforts to keep our plans secret, the steady flow of Muslims out of the city soon became evident. An emergency council of elders was called, and the men gathered in Abu Sufyan’s sitting room. The chieftains had been summoned hastily when the word first spread of the silent exodus of Muhammad’s followers. Normally they would have met inside the lofty-pillared Hall of Assembly, but even the seat of Mecca’s power was infested with the spreading disease of rebellion and was no longer a safe haven for discussing matters of state. It was for this reason, more than any other, that Abu Sufyan hated Muhammad. His stubborn movement had forced the tribal leaders to deliberate in secret like criminals, for fear of inciting further strife. To Abu Sufyan, it was a sad-and dangerous-world where kings hid like rodents from their own subjects. And it was a state of affairs that could not be allowed to continue.

Abu Sufyan turned his attention to a tall man with a well-trimmed beard, a scar under his left eye marring his otherwise well-crafted features: Khalid ibn al-Waleed, the mightiest warrior of the Quraysh and captain of its armies. Khalid had been charged with organizing nightly patrols to make sure that no Muslims escaped the city, but his efforts had clearly failed.

“How could this have happened?” Abu Sufyan barked. “Where were the sentries?”

Khalid stepped forward. His robes were of midnight black and silver, and his leather belt was studded with dozens of emeralds-allegedly one for each man he had slain in battle.

“My men were positioned to the west to prevent escape by the sea,” Khalid said, no hint of apology in his proud voice. “But the refugees have turned north.”

Abu Sufyan raised his eyebrows. There was only one place he could imagine they would go. But it made no sense.

“To Yathrib?”

Khalid shrugged, but his brown eyes suggested that this was his own suspicion.

“The rumor is that they are seeking Muhammad to serve as an arbitrator in their never-ending disputes with each other,” Abu Lahab said, rising with some difficulty from the purple cushions that had been crushed by his generous posterior.

Abu Sufyan considered this. It was a surprising development. But perhaps a welcome one. The Aws and the Khazraj had been at one another’s throats for a century. Perhaps the gods had given them a great gift. Muhammad would eventually become a victim of their fratricidal hate, and the hands of the Quraysh would be clean of his blood.

“Good. Let them have this troublemaker,” Abu Sufyan said.

There was a murmur of agreement among the nobles, and Abu Sufyan saw on their weary faces the same light of hope that had just been lit in his heart. Maybe this nightmare would at last be over.

“Letting Muhammad go to Yathrib is a mistake.” Hind chose this moment to speak, and the tentative looks of relief vanished across the room.

“And why is that, my dear?” Abu Sufyan, said, hiding his irritation.

Hind stood up, ignoring her husband and addressing her response to the chieftains. He saw her move among them like a cheetah, exciting their passion as she had the night she had entranced Umar into her web.

“The men of Yathrib have long looked upon this city with envy,” she said, her voice cold with calculation. “They could use Muhammad’s religion as a rallying cry to attack us.”

Abu Sufyan snorted, trying to regain his authority.

“Unlikely,” he said flatly. “Mecca has always had good relations with the Jewish tribes of Yathrib, who benefit from the perpetual war between Aws and Khazraj. They will never allow them to unite.”

But Hind, as always, cut away at his confidence.

“And what if the Jews embrace him?” she taunted. “His religion is much like theirs, and he claims to be a prophet like their Moses. Would you risk bringing down their wrath upon us as well?”

Abu Sufyan tried to find a response, but for once he was struck dumb. He had never paid much attention to Muhammad’s theology. It was enough that his One God would obliterate the multiple deities of the Arabs, leading to the end of the Pilgrimage and Mecca’s prosperity. That was all he had cared about. But now, as he thought about what Hind was saying, he was furious to discover that she had a point. The Jews also worshiped One God and were expecting a prophet to come and grant them victory over the nations. If they fell for Muhammad’s delusions, a new and more devastating war might be ignited in Arabia.

The grotesquely obese Abu Lahab spoke out loud what Abu Sufyan was thinking but was still too proud to admit.

“Your wife is right,” he said. “Letting Muhammad go is too dangerous. Here in Mecca, we have some control over his poison. But once he is free from our watchful gaze, his words will spread like the sands on the wind.”

“We’ve been down this path before,” Abu Sufyan said. “Even if Muhammad is killed, the men of your clan will be honor bound to avenge him. Umar was willing to face the daggers of Bani Hashim. But who among us is willing to sacrifice his life to silence this man?”

As he looked at the perplexed men, he realized that there were no Umars among them. Even the brave Khalid had no desire to subject himself to the wrath of Muhammad’s fanatics.

He looked up to see Hind scanning their faces. Her cheeks flushed as she came to the same conclusion. Whatever hold her flesh had once held over Umar’s heart, she did not have any lovers among these old and tired men, at least as far as Abu Sufyan knew. And if she had bedded any of the chieftains, her charms had clearly proven to be a poor enticement.

Hind suddenly stormed over to Khalid and tore his jeweled dagger from its scabbard. She held it high and let the blade glint in the harsh sunlight. Her pose was like that of a goddess of war in an old Arab poem, and it had its desired effect.

“You men are such simpletons! Why must you send a single assassin to kill this heretic? If one man from each major clan of Quraysh joins in the deed, you will all share the blood guilt. Is there any among Bani Hashim who can take on all of Quraysh?”

She looked directly at Abu Lahab.

“Regrettably, the task would be too great for even the most avid supporter of Muhammad in my clan,” he said with an exaggerated sigh. “I would be forced to accept compensation to end the matter.”

Abu Sufyan looked at his wife’s triumphant smile and he shook his head, both surprised with the simple elegance of her plan and exasperated that it had taken a woman to come up with it. Maybe he should just step aside and let Mecca be ruled by this ruthless queen rather than his circle of impotent old fools.

Abu Jahl clapped loudly his assent, his eyes looking with approval at Hind.

“Then it is settled,” he said, beaming with satisfaction. “We will join together and kill Muhammad. And this madness will finally be at an end.”

“So be it,” Abu Sufyan said, rising to remind them that it was he, rather than his wife, who made the decisions in Mecca.

“When shall we act?” Abu Lahab asked, his pudgy hands clasped in excitement at the thought of his nephew’s imminent death.

“Tonight,” said Hind. “The new moon will provide a cover of darkness for the assassins.”

“Darkness for dark deeds,” Abu Sufyan said wearily. “I never thought we, the rulers of Mecca, would be forced to hide in the shadows like thieves in our own city.”

Hind reached forward and ran her hand across his leg. Despite his best efforts at control, his member hardened. She took the studded leather pouch from his belt and poured into her hands a dozen gold dirhams. And then with an instinctive flair for drama, Hind turned and threw the gold across the room into the crowd of chieftains. She smiled with contempt as the powerful men fell to their knees to pick up the valuable coins. It was a simple moment that revealed everything, as Hind had intended. For, like Muhammad, the nobles of Mecca had only one god, and they bowed even now before it.

“Never fear, my husband,” she said in a soft voice, meant only for him. “Once Muhammad is dead, we shall return to stealing openly under the sun.”

It was the sultry tone Hind used exclusively in bed, and suddenly Abu Sufyan had to fight the urge to throw her on the ground and take her like a dog in heat. The lord of Mecca looked at her with both desire and despair. The chieftains worshiped a god of gold. And he, a goddess of fire.

THE ASSASSINS GATHERED OUTSIDE Muhammad’s home, their black cloaks melding perfectly into the shadows cast by the small sprinkling of stars in the overcast sky. The Meccan general Khalid crouched beside his old friend Amr ibn al-As and Hind’s arrogantly handsome brother Waleed ibn Utbah. They could see the lights flickering on the second level, in the family living quarters, and the distinct sound of women’s lyrical voices could be heard from within. The heavy iron gate, normally left open, had been chained, a precaution that the Muslims were taking in all their homes since the death of Abu Talib.

Waleed argued for scaling the wall and taking Muhammad by surprise. Amr was shocked at the suggestion, reminding Waleed that there were women inside. Waleed sneered at Amr’s sense of propriety, but Khalid silenced him.

“Amr is right,” the warrior said, his shrewd eyes taking in everything at once as he developed a strategy of attack. “Muhammad’s followers will defend him to the death. If we hurt one of the women, the honor of Quraysh will be sullied, and even Abu Lahab will be unable to quell the fire of revenge among his clan.”

Waleed shook his head, unconvinced.

“Muhammad emerges every morning before sunrise to pray,” Khalid continued. “He uses the well in his yard for ablutions.” The Meccan general nodded to an ancient circle of stones at the edge of the property.

“We will kill him the moment he steps outside,” Amr said with a smile, satisfied that decorum would be preserved even in the act of murder.

Khalid lay back against the cold pebbles of the earth and slowed his breathing. He needed to preserve his energy for the moment the door opened. Khalid closed his eyes and time passed in silence. The world seemed to slip away from him. And then he jolted upright. The eastern sky was brightening in herald of the sun god. Khalid looked at the others and saw their eyes were closed, too. He stifled a curse. In all his years as a sentry, he had never once fallen asleep as he spied on an enemy camp. His eyes immediately flew to the gate, which he saw with some relief was still chained. Unless Muhammad had scaled the wall as Waleed had planned to do, he was still inside.

He gruffly shook his comrades awake, covering their mouths so that they did not cry out in surprise. The minutes raced by as tension increased, but there was no sign of movement from the house. As a cock crowed loudly somewhere in the city, Khalid sensed that their plan had somehow gone awry.

“We’ve waited long enough,” Waleed said, moving into a forward crouch, his sword gleaming red in the early light of dawn.

This time, Khalid did not argue.

“All right. Do what you must,” he said, rising from the ground. “Spare the women and children if you can. But don’t let anything get between you and Muhammad.”

They moved out of the shade of the trees like black cats. Khalid clambered up the outer wall and jumped down into Muhammad’s courtyard, the others following. They landed softly in the carefully tended bushes and raced toward the main door.

Unlike the gate, the paneled wooden entrance was open. Khalid pushed it slowly, hoping that its distinctive creak would not alert the women inside. But no one stopped them. The house appeared almost abandoned, and the three men crept through the barely furnished interior, their bare feet wrapped in soft strips of goat wool to muffle footsteps on the icy marble floor. Khalid climbed the winding staircase, looking for any sign of a concealed opponent on the balcony above. He led the three toward the heavy door made of carved palm wood at the eastern end of the corridor. This was Muhammad’s bedroom and the most likely place to find him. As Amr and Waleed stood on opposite sides of the door, Khalid nodded. He raised his sword and kicked it in with such force that it tore off its hinges. The three men rushed inside. The room was bare, containing nothing except a comfortable down bed, the only furnishing of any value Khalid had seen inside the cavernous home. A figure lay in the bed, covered with a green Hadrami cloak that Muhammad was often seen wearing as he preached in the streets of Mecca.

There he was, the man that had caused such fitna, such chaos, in Arabia for the past ten years. In seconds it would all be over, and the Meccan lords could begin the process of restoring order to Arabia.

Khalid stooped, watching the cloak rise and fall steadily as the sleeping figure within breathed his last. Obviously Muhammad was so deep in sleep, perhaps under the spell of his so-called revelations, that even the thunder of the door breaking could not awake him.

This would be easy.

Too easy.

Khalid felt his stomach fall as the truth hit his warrior’s soul. He lowered his sword, prepared to order his men back.

But before Khalid could stop him, Waleed rushed forward, his weapon poised.

“In the name of the gods!” Waleed threw off the cloak, his sword moving to strike…only to reveal young Ali lying in the bed, looking up at Waleed with those strange and frightening green eyes.

Waleed’s face froze in shock. And then it twisted with ugly rage. He raised the weapon to strike Ali dead, when Amr threw himself against the youthful hothead.

“No!” Amr managed to knock Waleed’s blow to the right, and it slashed down into the bed, releasing a cloud of feathers that glittered in the morning air.

They had been tricked. Muhammad was gone and the assassins had failed. Waleed glanced over at Amr with gratitude, and his friend nodded, panting from the sudden exertion. Had Waleed killed an unarmed Ali, Abu Lahab’s promise of accepting blood money in exchange for the death of a clansman could not be honored. Khalid would have spent the rest of his life waiting for the retaliatory strike that would inevitably come from the men of Bani Hashim.

“Let’s go,” Khalid ordered.

“But Muhammad-”

“He’s not here, you fool!” Khalid looked at Ali with grudging respect. The boy had risked his life for his cousin Muhammad. And he was known to wield a sword as if it were his third arm. Such a youth would have been an invaluable asset for Khalid’s army.

Ali nodded to Khalid, as if reading his thoughts. The kahina s, the wandering witches of the desert, sometimes claimed that Ali possessed a second sight that allowed him to see into men’s hearts. They even sold bronze charms to shield one’s thoughts from the strange youth. Khalid had always laughed at their superstition, but as he looked into those mysterious eyes, he felt a strange chill. As Khalid led the men out of the room, he saw Ali gazing at Waleed, who had almost killed him moments before.

“Next time we meet,” Ali said softly, “I will have a sword in my hand. And you will die.”

Waleed began to laugh, but Ali’s piercing gaze slit the sound from his throat. The proud son of Utbah, the brother of the powerful Hind, suddenly looked confused and uncertain. Ali’s tone was not that of a threat or a challenge. His voice was actually filled with an inexplicable kindness. As if Ali had read the book of their lives and seen how it would end for Waleed, and was graciously preparing him for the inevitable.

Khalid suddenly wanted to find one of the wrinkled old kahinas. And he was ready to give away his fortune for a charm to protect against this terrifying youth whose eyes gazed into another world.

24

My father knelt in prayer inside the dark cave on Mount Thawr. He had been there now for three nights along with the Messenger, who had joined him at the rendezvous point in the hills outside Mecca in the early morning hours after his escape from the assassins. When he prodded the Prophet about how he had managed to escape the gang of murderers who had surrounded his home, Muhammad merely smiled enigmatically and praised God. Together they had ridden out by camel into the wilderness to the south, in the opposite direction of the road to Yathrib, where they assumed that the Quraysh would be looking for them.

For the past two days, my sister Asma had stolen away in the dead of the night and brought water and supplies to the refugees hidden inside the cave. She had brought along a small herd of sheep to cover her tracks, just as my father had done to hide the footprints of the camels that carried them to Mount Thawr. Asma also carried with her the latest news and rumor from Mecca, which was aflame with word of the Messenger’s disappearance.

Abu Bakr had initially been nervous that their simple stratagem would not work, but after three uneventful days, he gave thanks to Allah that the Quraysh had underestimated them. He bowed his head on the cold earth, facing north to Jerusalem, and a part of his soul took delight that he was also facing the Kaaba. He had not questioned the Prophet when the command came to face Al-Quds, as the Muslims called the holy city in the heart of Palestine, but like all Arabs, the Sanctuary remained uppermost in his heart.

He finished his prostration and turned right and left, softly intoning blessings upon the guardian angels that accompanied each man. And then he rose to look for the Prophet, who had disappeared deep inside the blackness of the cave to meditate. Dhikr, the Messenger called it-the Remembrance of God. But before his eyes could adjust further to the gloom, he heard the sound of men’s voices and his heart leaped into his throat.

Moving stealthily, he grasped hold of a thick stalagmite pillar as he slowly approached the entrance to the cave. He did not peer through the shaft of light pouring in from the tiny crawl space, but moved just close enough to put his ear to the gray earth and catch the vibrations.

Footsteps were approaching. The thud of heavy boots against rock. And then he heard the voices rising as their owners approached the crest of stone just below the cave. He prayed desperately that the voices would be those of Umar or Hamza or Ali, but a booming echo tore away at his hopes. It was a regal voice, masculine and tinted with cruelty. A voice that could belong to only one man.

Khalid ibn al-Waleed had found them. And soon they would be dead.

Despite the cool interior of the cave, Abu Bakr felt drops of thick sweat rolling down the side of his face. After everything they had done, after everything they had sacrificed, would this be how it would end?

The Messenger had always said that God did not need man to fulfill his plan. If they failed and were slain today, Islam would continue. The worship of One God was the destiny of mankind, whether they lived to see it spread beyond the wastes of Arabia or not.

Abu Bakr was not afraid to die. But he felt great grief that his friend, who had sacrificed wealth, comfort, and status to take on the thankless burden of prophecy to a barbaric people, would meet such an ignominious end.

As the footfalls sounded perhaps no more than twenty feet away, Abu Bakr hurried back into the depths of the cave. He almost yelped in fright as the Messenger emerged at the same time and the two nearly collided. Muhammad, may God’s blessing and peace be upon him, saw that Abu Bakr was shaking and took my father by the shoulders to calm him.

Even in the darkness that entombed them, Abu Bakr could see the Prophet’s eyes gleaming.

“O Messenger of God,” he whispered urgently. “They have found us! We are lost!”

The Prophet went very still for a moment, his fingers tightening around Abu Bakr’s shoulders. My father thought for a second that he was undergoing the Trance of Revelation, and he silently thanked God. The Messenger would lose all awareness of the world when he fell into that mystical state, and if he was destined to die here, Abu Bakr hoped that Muhammad would be taken while in ecstatic communion with his Lord.

“Grieve not, for truly God is with us,” Muhammad said softly.

Abu Bakr’s heart fell. The Messenger did not understand what was happening.

“But…but we are only two men, without arms. We are trapped!”

The Prophet leaned close and whispered in my father’s ear.

“What think you of two, when God is their third?”

The serenity in his voice, the absolute trust and surrender of his words, was like the breaking light of dawn after a stormy night. Suddenly my father’s fear was gone, like a man awakening from a nightmare and forgetting the dreamworld he had only seconds before taken for reality.

Abu Bakr turned and faced the cave entrance as the voices of Khalid and Amr ibn al-As echoed at the threshold. He was ready for God’s judgment.

25

The tracker, a grime-covered Bedouin named Fawad, excitedly pointed to the cave entrance.

“They are in there!”

For the past seven hours, Fawad had led these Meccan aristocrats through the southern wilderness in search of their mad poet. Though their prey had made an effort to cover his tracks, it had been an amateurish effort at best. City dwellers might have been fooled by the sheep footprints, but Fawad’s trained eye immediately saw the unique indentations of camel hooves beneath the veneer of a shepherd’s crossing.

He had followed the telltale marks to the foot of Mount Thawr, a blackened volcanic peak that was a jumble of jagged boulders. He had studied the dark ash atop the stones and quickly saw the disruption in the layers that had been caused by hands struggling to find a grip, by leather boots kicking small rocks aside to ease the ascent.

Whether or not this Muhammad was a prophet was outside the scope of Fawad’s expertise, but he was definitely not an expert in evasion. Any child of Fawad’s tribe of Bani Duwasri would have been able to find him before the sun had set.

The Bedouin could see that the trail led to a small cave opening carved into a flat ridge. This was it, the end of their journey. The Meccans had promised him a hundred gold dirhams if he successfully located the renegade. Such wealth was beyond anything Fawad had ever imagined. Hopefully the refugees were still inside the cave (he saw no receding tracks to suggest otherwise) and the Meccans could dispatch them without difficulty. But if Muhammad and his companions were armed and a struggle ensued, Fawad could see four places amid the rocks where he could hide until the matter was resolved with some finality. He glanced at the leather purse on Khalid’s jeweled belt and reminded himself to scavenge what he could in the unlikely event that the scarred warrior did not survive the encounter.

Khalid and Amr approached the cave, their swords glinting in the afternoon sun. But instead of crouching and entering, Khalid whirled, his face twisted in fury, his sword pointing accusingly at Fawad.

“You fool!” he bellowed. “How could they possibly be in there?”

Amr tuned to face him, too, and his genial face was dark with anger.

“No one has been here in months, if ever.”

Fawad did not understand what they were saying. Clearly they had not seen the tracks that showed human presence within the past few days. He stepped forward, one eye on the weapons that were now trained on him.

And then he saw what they had seen and his face paled.

“I don’t understand,” he said, panic rising at the irrefutable evidence of his mistake.

Khalid spit at Fawad’s feet and began to climb back down the ledge. Despite his rage, the cringing Bedouin was too pathetic to kill with any semblance of honor.

“We have wasted enough time,” Khalid hissed. “Let us go back and join the northern search parties.”

ABU BAKR STARED AT the cave entrance as the men’s voices receded and disappeared back down the mountainside.

He turned to the Messenger, perplexed.

“They’re leaving. I don’t understand.”

Abu Bakr sensed more than saw that the Messenger was smiling in the darkness, but he made no reply.

Curiosity finally overcoming his hesitation, my father climbed up to the entrance and peered outside, his eyes blinking rapidly at the sudden intensity of the light. When he could finally see, his mouth fell open and a gasp escaped from between his parched lips.

The Messenger came up beside him and placed a hand on his shoulder. Abu Bakr turned to look at him, his face broad with wonder. And the Messenger grinned, his teeth sparkling in the sun’s warm rays.

And he quoted a verse from the Qur’an.

“Glory be to God, who when He decrees a thing, simply says, ‘Kun fa yakun.’

“Be…and it is.”

26

I hugged my shoulders to fight off the bitter cold of Mount Thawr. The woolen shawl I had wrapped around my bosom could not protect me from the icy wind as we climbed two thousand feet above the sand dunes. I had trekked through the hills around Mecca, but never a mountain this steep and definitely not in the dead of night. As I watched Asma trudging beside me without complaint, the sack of provisions hefted onto her thin shoulders, I wondered how she could have made this difficult journey for the past three nights. I had volunteered to come those times, of course, but my mother had forbidden it. But last night, Asma had returned, looking even more exhausted than usual, her hands scraped and bloody from navigating the sharp rocks, and announced that the Messenger had summoned me. I was so excited at the thought that I was to be included in the Great Secret and would be able to join my father in his hiding place that I jumped up and down and clapped.

I was not clapping now and was deeply regretting my earlier enthusiasm. My hands burned from the bite of the rope that secured the bundle hefted over my back. There were dried meats inside the cloth, carefully wrapped in lambskin, as well as several water skins made of sturdy camel hair that would provide just enough hydration for the torturous journey north.

As I climbed up a slippery rock, the moon disappeared behind a cloud and I tripped. Suddenly the rope slid from my hand, shredding the delicate skin of my palm. I cried out as a sensation of fire surged up my hand. And then I saw with horror my bundle of supplies break open against a boulder, the precious provisions scattering over the side into darkness. Without thinking, I jumped down from my perch and tried to grab hold of the package before it vanished over the mountainside.

And then I felt the earth slipping from my grasp and I was falling, tumbling down the side of the mountain to a grave blanketed in darkness…

“Aisha!” I could hear Asma’s horrified scream as I fell and it seemed so distant. I wondered in a strange, detached way if death would be painful or if the girl betrothed to the Messenger of God would be allowed a reprieve, like easing gently into slumber as the earth reached up to reclaim one of its wayward children.

“Hold on!” Asma’s voice sounded clearer and nearby, and for a second I wondered whether she had jumped after me. And then the moon emerged from the clouds and I realized that I was clinging to a thistle bush, its ragged thorns digging into my hands, but I felt no pain. I was still in a dreamlike state of disbelief, which vanished at once as I looked down to the jagged teeth of boulders that circled the mountain’s base, thousands of feet below.

At that moment, I felt the terrible sting of needles in my hand and my heart exploded in a burst of desperate fire. Somehow I managed to cling to the thistles, and then I felt sturdy hands pulling me up and away from the precipice and I collapsed onto hard stone, which had never felt so wonderful under my feet. I looked up in gratitude at Asma’s face, but my sister’s mouth was hard and her eyes cold. I realized later that she was doing her best to hold back terror, but I was hurt in that moment to see the angry jut of her chin.

“Are you mad?” she said, pointing to the wreckage of supplies that I had risked my life to salvage. In the bitter moonlight I could see that most of the provisions were scattered within easy reach. Apparently I was the only thing that had gone over the edge in the ruckus.

“I was just trying to help!” I said, but I felt suddenly very stupid and small.

Asma sniffed haughtily.

“You won’t get into Paradise by killing yourself.”

There are many nights when I wished I had gone over the edge that night and fallen like a rag doll onto the rocks below. There are countless others who no doubt have wished the same. And yet it was not the will of God. I still had a role to play in the history of our faith, and I hope that some of my contributions were of value to our people, despite all the pain and death that I would unleash in the years to come.

Asma got up and brushed the black dust off her hands. She tore a strip of cloth from her tunic and wrapped it around my bleeding hands before turning to gather the dropped supplies. She moved around carefully, testing the ground with each step, as she collected the provisions.

I saw her frown, her forehead crinkling as she looked at the water skins and the various packages of food. Her eyes fell to the torn rope that I had used to bind my bundle and she sighed.

“I can’t carry all of this without a rope.”

My eyes flew instinctively to her long blue pantaloons.

“Use your girdle,” I said after a moment’s hesitation.

Asma threw me a sharp glance and I felt my cheeks flush. But then she proceeded to untie the strip of rope that held her pants up and tore it in half. Taking the loose section of her girdle, she tied the supplies together and then pinned her pantaloons to her blouse with a pretty pink brooch that her sweetheart, Zubayr, had given her.

Throwing me a nod that meant “Let’s move,” my sister took hold of both my bundle and her own and trudged up the mountainside. Her pantaloons sagged and looked in danger of falling down, and she cursed as she was forced to adjust them regularly as we climbed the rocks to the summit.

Despite everything we had just gone through (or perhaps because of it), I could not restrain my sisterly compulsion to tease. When Asma’s pantaloons slipped down past her rear, she tried with some effort to cover herself again. She scowled to see me grinning.

“Don’t just stand there, help me!” she barked.

“If Zubayr was here I’m sure he’d help,” I said with a wink.

Asma gave me a withering look but I could see the flush of color on her face at the thought. She pulled her pants over her exposed buttocks and clambered up the mountain with what little dignity she could preserve.

We finally made it to the ledge near the peak. A conical rock face soared twenty feet above us, and I watched as Asma scoured its base for the cave opening. She stopped, looking confused.

“I thought you knew where it was,” I asked. Suddenly I wondered whether this was even the right mountain, and not one of the sister peaks that surrounded Thawr. The thought of climbing another five thousand feet in the dark was beyond daunting.

“I do,” Asma replied unconvincingly. “It should be right down there.”

Asma climbed down into a rocky crevice and stood before the entrance of what appeared to be a small cave, just large enough for a man to enter if he bent down and ducked.

But it was clearly not the right opening. The entrance was covered with a heavy spider web, and a small nest stood at its base. Two rock doves awakened by the sound of our approach flew off in terror.

There was no way that any man could be inside there. The web would have been torn by anyone climbing in and the nest overturned.

“That can’t be right,” I said.

Asma leaned forward, confused. She peered at the web…when a hand suddenly emerged from inside the cave and pushed it aside!

I don’t know who screamed louder, my sister or I. The cries of shock echoed from the mountaintop and shook the very stones around us. Had the searchers from Quraysh been in the vicinity, we would have easily been discovered.

And then I watched in utter surprise as my father emerged from inside the cave, beaming.

“What took you girls so long?” he asked.

We stared at him as if he were a ghost in the night. And then we raced each other to his arms, still strong despite his age.

The Messenger of God emerged from the cave, his eyes on me, and I felt my face grow warm. I had rarely seen him since we had been betrothed, and I felt a new bashfulness in his presence.

Abu Bakr kissed me on the forehead and hugged Asma. And then he glanced down, his eyebrows rising at the sight of her sagging pantaloons.

“What’s wrong with your clothes?” he asked, a little scandalized.

“Don’t ask,” she said through gritted teeth.

Asma handed my father the bundle of supplies, and his eyes went wide when he saw that part of it was tied together with a piece of her girdle.

There was a moment of silence. And then I was shocked to hear the Messenger laugh. He threw his head back, his mouth wide in amusement. The Prophet often smiled, but I had rarely seen him give in to humor so enthusiastically. His laugh was throaty and infectious and soon we were all giggling with him.

The Messenger finally regained his composure and then looked at both of us with twinkling eyes.

“Welcome, daughters of Abu Bakr,” he said, as if inviting us inside a grand palace rather than a rocky hole in the earth. “On this momentous night, when Islam itself has been given a new life, you have been reborn. And as such, I shall give you all new names.”

The Prophet turned to my father.

“God himself has chosen this name for you, Abu Bakr-As-Siddiq- and it has been revealed in the Qur’an,” he said warmly. “Henceforth, you will also be known as The Second in the Cave.”

I saw tears well into my father’s eyes. In later years, he would tell me that his greatest honor was to have spent those days at the Messenger’s side in the cave, such that even the Lord of the Worlds had recognized him as Muhammad’s only companion when their lives were truly at stake.

The Messenger then turned to Asma and took the bundle that was tied by her girdle. I saw an amused smile playing on his lips.

“And you, Asma, shall be forever called She of Two Girdles,” he said, and I saw my sister blush with shyness at the Prophet’s attention.

I have always been cursed with impatience, and in those days I had the impetuousness of youth as well. I stamped my foot at being left out of the naming ceremony.

“And me?” I asked fearlessly, ignoring the pained look on my father’s face.

The Messenger leaned down next to me and stroked my cheeks, which were red from exertion and cold.

“And you will be my Humayra-the Little Red-Faced One.”

I heard Asma laugh and I gave her a stare that would have melted steel. The Messenger laughed again, and everyone joined in, including eventually myself.

When the laughter died, I finally asked a serious question that had been haunting me since that night at Aqaba.

“Are we really leaving our homes behind?”

The smile faded from the Messenger’s face and I saw ineffable sadness take its place. He turned to look out past the summit into the valley of Mecca, the city’s lights twinkling like stars thousands of feet below. In the moonlight, I thought I saw the sheen of tears on his cheeks.

My father put a gentle hand on my shoulder and turned me away, giving the Messenger a private moment of grief at the loss of the city he loved. A city that had rejected him and forced him into exile.

“We will have new homes soon, little one,” Abu Bakr said to me reassuringly. And then he raised his head and looked northeast, past the fires of Mecca, into a horizon that was covered in clouds, glittering turquoise with the first hint of dawn.

27

I grimaced as the camel lurched forward. My legs were hurting from days of sitting on the beast’s hard back, and my thighs were rubbed raw by the saddle. The journey that had begun ten days before, when my mother had left to follow Abu Bakr to Yathrib, had proven to be less of an adventure and more of a grueling ordeal, as we followed the ancient caravan path north.

My initial fascination with the sprawling sand dunes had turned to boredom as the monotony of the desert took its toll. The fresh, clean smell of the sand had been long overpowered by the musky odor of the beasts that carried us, and I thought with disgust that I would never be able to wash the pervasive smell of camel dung off my clothes.

Even the excitement and intrigue that had surrounded the Messenger’s departure was denied us, as the Quraysh had made no effort to intimidate us or block our passage to Yathrib. Now that the Muslims had settled into the oasis, it made no sense for them to antagonize Yathrib by threatening the women and children who went to join their loved ones. And so my mother, my sister, and I had left to join my father in exile, my cousin Talha serving as our guide and protector.

I grimaced as we crossed over yet another mountainous sand dune, only to see more of the same stretching out to the horizon. I had never realized how vast the ocean of the desert was, and I wondered if perhaps it never ended. If Yathrib was just a legend told to little children, like the lost cities of djinn that were said to rule the wastes of the Najd in the east.

“I hate this place,” I said with an exaggerated sniffle. “How much further?”

“Patience, little one. Yathrib is just beyond those hills,” Talha said with a smile.

I should have let it go, but my stomach was rumbling from a nasty case of the runs, putting me in a particularly crabby mood.

“You said that three hills back,” I said resentfully. “And then seven hills before that.”

Talha laughed. “I forgot that you have a memory like a hunting falcon,” he said, and bowed his head to show that he accepted my reproach as well earned.

I managed a smile. Talha always knew how to put me in a better mood. He had always been like an elder sibling to me, and when my sister Asma used to tease me that we would marry one day, I was always appropriately mortified. He was like a brother to me. In the days before my betrothal to the Messenger, Asma would laugh and say that I might see Talha as a brother, but he definitely did not see me as a sister. I had never taken her seriously. Looking back at the terrible direction our lives were to take and the loyalty that Talha showed me even as I led him into a valley of darkness, I sometimes wonder whether my sister saw more than I wanted her to.

I gazed out across the horizon and tried to imagine a world beyond this vast nothingness. A world of majestic cities with towers and paved streets, gardens and fountains. A world where women dressed in flowing gowns and men rode magnificent stallions, carrying flowers to woo the beautiful maidens. It was a peaceful world, one where Muslims could walk down the street without fear of being molested, robbed, and beaten. The cold brutality of Mecca could not live up to the world of my imagination, and I did not know if our new home would be anything like that as well.

“Will we be safe there? Yathrib, I mean,” I asked my cousin who rode beside me.

Talha shrugged.

“As safe as any can be in this changing world.”

His words opened a strange thought in my heart. The question that I was too young to understand was the oldest question of the human race, perhaps first asked by our parents Adam and Eve when they were expelled from the Garden.

“Why do things have to change?”

A thoughtful look crossed Talha’s thinly bearded face.

“I don’t know, Aisha. But sometimes change is for the best.”

I did not know if I believed that, and I could not tell if Talha believed it himself.

“I miss our home,” I said simply.

Talha looked away sadly.

“I do, too. But we will build a new home in Yathrib.”

“Will we have to stay there long?”

“Yes, in all likelihood,” Talha said firmly. “But it is a beautiful city with abundant water and tall trees. You will get to play in the shade. And one day, your children will do the same.”

I made a face.

“I’m never going to have children,” I said provocatively, knowing full well that my parents were hoping that I would quickly give the Messenger a son once we were married.

Talha gave me a strange look, more intrigued than reproachful.

“Why would you say that?”

I shuddered, remembering the babies that I had assisted my mother in delivering. The screams of the women were terrifying, and the blood and gore of childbirth disgusted me.

“It’s too painful. And children are a bother. How can you run free if you have little ones clinging to your skirts? I’m never going to have any children if I can help it,” I said, speaking with childish impudence. I have often wondered whether God heard my words that day and decided to grant me my impulsive wish, which I would grow to regret as my years increased and my womb remained barren.

Talha smiled at me gently.

“Your husband might have something to say about that.”

I knew that my engagement to the Messenger was widely suspected, but it was supposed to be secret for the time being, and I chose not to acknowledge what Talha obviously knew.

“Then I’m never going to get married,” I said with a toss of my head, letting my crimson hair fly in the wind.

“I see,” Talha said, playing along with my game. “And what will you do with yourself as a spinster?”

I spread my hands wide as I laid out a dream that even then I knew was impossible.

“I will travel the world. I want to fly like a bird and see every nation under the stars. The gardens of Syria. The rivers of Iraq. The streets of Persia, lined with gold and rubies. And maybe even go to China, where they say the sun is born.”

When I looked at Talha, I saw his eyes glistening with a sadness that I did not understand. I could see Asma riding to my left, unsmiling, her eyes watching us carefully. I suddenly felt the nagging tug of guilt, as if I had done something wrong, but I could not understand why.

Talha saw Asma’s stern glance and he blushed.

“I hope your wish comes true, little one,” he said simply, and then rode ahead over a hill and vanished.

I wanted to ride after him, to ask what I had done wrong, when I heard Asma’s voice cut like a dagger through the dead air.

“Stop it,” she said with a hiss.

“Stop what?” I turned to look defiantly into her eyes.

“Stop torturing him. You are promised to the Messenger. Never forget that.”

I was about to retort in anger, when I heard a shout. It was Talha, racing back toward us, pointing to the horizon excitedly.

We spurred our camels up the flowing expanse until we reached the summit of the dunes and could see what lay beyond.

My heart soared as I saw it for the first time. An emerald valley lovingly planted between a circle of volcanic hills, blackened by sun and lava, the majestic palm trees swaying in the wind as if waving to greet us.

There was the sheen of water that I had seen many times in the past few days, but for once it was not a mirage. The flowing wastes gave way to a paved road that wound past the yellow stone walls of a stern fortress, an imposing edifice I would later learn belonged to the Jews of Bani Qurayza.

A crowd of men and women, dressed in flowing white abaya s, was moving down the road toward us, bearing baskets of dates and pitchers of cold water. Tears welled in my eyes when I saw the Messenger of God leading the welcoming party, my father at his right hand.

After days of wandering through a hellish wasteland that was home only to snakes and scorpions, we had emerged from the fire and found paradise. My heart filled with glee, I spurred my camel down the hill and raced toward Yathrib, my new home.

28 Yathrib-AD 622

The day my courses began was also the day that Yathrib received a new name-Madinat-un-Nabi, City of the Prophet, or Medina for short. Over the past several months, the Messenger had proven to be a just arbitrator and had settled the daily disputes between the tribesmen in a manner that left both parties feeling respected. His growing reputation as a man of honor had opened more and more people to his message of the Unity of God and the brotherhood of man, and the majority of the town had embraced Islam before that first winter. The Prophet had further earned the people’s respect by living with modesty, in contrast with their chieftains like Abdallah ibn Ubayy, who always made a deliberate show of his wealth and power to keep the crowds awed and docile.

When the Muslims decided to build a Masjid-a house of worship-the Messenger joined in with the poorest of workers, regardless of their tribes or ancestry, and laid the foundation blocks with the sweat of his own hands. This rejection of class differences and tribal affiliation moved the hearts of the citizens of Yathrib, who saw in Muhammad a chance to end the centuries of division that had led only to bloodshed and grief. And when the Masjid was finished, the Messenger declined the offers of his ardent followers to build a palace for himself, carving out only a one-room stone cottage in the courtyard of the Masjid, where he lived with the elderly Sawda, the only furnishing a straw mat on the ground for sleep.

His personal example of austerity and humility had done more to spread Islam than a hundred preachers, and that day, when the city was renamed in his honor by a council of its citizens, it was clear to all that the Messenger was not just the arbitrator but for all intents and purposes the unquestioned leader of the oasis. I was too young to understand that Ibn Ubayy, lord of the Khazraj, and other rivals were not pleased with this course of events, but it would soon become evident even to those who had no understanding of politics.

In those early days, I lived with my father in a small hut that was nothing like the grand home we had abandoned in Mecca. But that palatial estate had long felt like a prison to me, and I was delighted to be able to run and play openly in our tiny yard without fear of being harassed by an angry Meccan who bore a grudge against my faith.

And so it was that the afternoon my life changed, I was chasing my new friend Leila through the tiny garden my mother had planted in our yard. Leila was the daughter of a widow whose inheritance the Messenger had restored after her father’s relatives sought to deny her a claim to a well on the outskirts of the city. Without access to the well, which they rented out to trading caravans that passed through the city, her mother would have had no source of income and would likely have been forced to turn to prostitution, an exploitative (and prevalent) profession that the Messenger was working diligently to eliminate.

In the distance, I could hear the sweet, melodious voice of Bilal, the African slave my father had freed after he had been tortured by his master, Umayya, for renouncing the pagan gods. He was standing on the roof of the Masjid calling out the beautiful, haunting words of the Azan, the Muslim call to prayer:

God is Most Great. God is Most Great.

I testify that there is no god but God.

I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.

Come to Prayer. Come to Felicity.

God is Most Great.

There is no god but God.

As Leila and I played a game of tag, racing between the two palm trees that marked the boundary of my father’s small property, I laughed with the fearless delight that only a child who knows no concerns can experience. I sometimes think that was the last moment of my life when I was totally innocent and unburdened, and there are days even now when I return to that tiny strip of land, the palm trees long since cut down, and remember.

My stomach had been hurting all day and I guessed that last night’s roasted lamb had not sat well with me. But when I ran through the yard, feeling the tiny blades of grass tickling my bare toes, the kiss of budding hyacinth and chrysanthemums at my ankles, I forgot all my discomfort in the unfettered joy of being alive.

I was faster than Leila, as I was faster than almost anyone I knew, and the poor girl was huffing and puffing with exhaustion as she desperately tried to catch hold of my skirt. I feinted and dodged her giggling attack with the agility that would have made a cheetah proud. But Leila was persistent and came after me with renewed vigor, when her foot was caught in the loop of a weed and she fell, scraping her knee against the warm, rich earth.

“Are you all right?” I called as I ran over to help.

Leila cried as if the foot had been amputated and I looked her over to check the extent of the injury. But as far as I could tell, she had just scraped her knee, not even broken the skin.

“Stop being silly,” I said, annoyed at her need for drama. “You’re not even bleeding.”

Leila sniffed and wiped her eyes, and then I saw her look at me with shock.

“But you are.”

With those three words, my childhood ended.

I glanced down to where she was pointing and froze. My dress had ridden up as I sat on the grass and a dark trickle of blood was running down my thigh.

THE NEXT FEW DAYS were uneventful, and I was in obstinate denial that anything had changed. I could hear my parents whispering urgently late into the night, but for once I was not curious as to what they were talking about. Perhaps it was because I already sensed in my heart that the life I had known was over. I was a woman now, and I was betrothed to a man. It was only a matter of time before those two realities would lead to an inevitable conclusion, but I didn’t want to face it. I kept playing with Leila and my dolls and stubbornly refused to don the scarf that adult Muslim women used to cover their hair in modesty. My mother decided not to press the point, letting me have a few days where I could pretend to be a child still.

Of course, in truth I was still a child. At the age of nine, my menses had come a year or two earlier than most girls’, which perhaps should have been anticipated, as my breasts had begun budding in earnest a few months before. But my heart was that of a little girl. And my father and mother had gone out of their way to let me stay that laughing, dancing child who could put a smile on their faces when the burdens of age pressed down upon them.

But everything comes to an end. We can either fight that truth and be consumed in grief, or we can surrender and flow to the new world that the river of life is taking us. Surrender is what I had been taught since my earliest days, for that was the meaning of Islam itself-surrender to the Will of God.

I was playing on the seesaw with Leila when the time came

“Aisha! Come inside!” my mother called one afternoon.

I could hear a catch in her throat, a suppressed welling of emotion. In that moment, I knew what was happening, and I surrendered. I climbed down from the seesaw and kissed Leila tearfully, as if saying good-bye forever, and then walked with my head bowed back into the house.

29

My mother and Asma washed my face with clear well water they had gathered in an iron pot. They made me change out of my play clothes and helped me put on a new red-and-white-striped gown that they said had been imported from the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain to the east. This was to be my wedding gown. I would be married tonight to the Messenger of God. And at the tender age of nine, I was about to become a Mother of the Believers, a revered status in this world and the hereafter. Yet I felt small and unworthy, unready for the responsibility.

My mind raced with questions to which I had no answer. How was I going to be a wife in any sense of the word to a man over forty years my senior, whose own daughters were older than me? And how could I, who barely knew a handful of verses of the Qur’an by heart, serve as any kind of spiritual guide or mentor to the Muslims? I remembered my parents’ conversation from years before, when my father had said that Gabriel had announced my wedding to the Prophet in a vision. Surely the angel had a made a mistake! For the past three years, I had let that story of the Messenger’s dream puff me up with vanity and pride, but now I wanted nothing more than to be forgotten and ignored.

As my mother closed the clasp of my dress around my neck, it felt as if she were putting a shroud over me. She kissed me on the forehead and smiled, and I wanted to smile back but I could not remember how.

My father entered, wearing a long yellow robe and turban. His shoulders were stooped lower than usual, and he nervously pulled at his wispy beard, which was dyed red with henna. Abu Bakr looked at me in my striped dress, a saffron veil covering my hair, and I could see tears welling in his eyes.

He held out his hand. I clasped his palm, felt the familiar roughness of the calluses that cracked even as he squeezed my fingers. He said nothing, and neither did I. We walked out, hand in hand, followed by Umm Ruman and Asma, and strolled through the gently paved streets of Medina. I could smell jasmine in the air, sensuous and pleasing. But it did not alleviate my fear, the fear of every virgin on her wedding night. I had learned the facts of life by watching the stray dogs in the alleys of Mecca and had always found the idea that men and women did the same both amusing and repulsive. I had heard that the first night was painful for many women, and I was suddenly terrified of whatever lay ahead. I wanted to run back to the safety of my bed and have my mother sing me to sleep with a lullaby.

As we walked through the streets, I saw eyes on me from every direction. Women wearing aprons emerged from their homes to gawk, and men in colorful tunics stared at me and then whispered to one another, perhaps acknowledging that the Messenger’s new wife was indeed as beautiful as rumor had it. I noticed that their eyes never went to plain Asma, and I felt a pang for her. I prayed in my heart that Zubayr would emigrate to Medina and marry her, so that the old matrons would stop clucking their tongues. The fact that I was ten years her junior and was marrying the most respected man in the city, while Asma lived alone pining for a love that might never be, added fuel to their catty gossip. The injustice of how women are judged, by their features rather than the character of their souls, never outraged me more than at that moment.

And then my thoughts stopped along with my breath as we stood before the Masjid. It was more of an open courtyard than a building proper, with walls made of mud brick and the trunks of palm trees. The sun had set an hour before and the Maghrib worship ceremony was finished, so the prayer ground was largely empty, except for a few devout men and women who were still kneeling in prayer. Their devotion and focus on Allah were so great that they paid no attention as my wedding party entered the courtyard.

I saw Sawda’s tiny brick hut that had been built on the southeast corner of the courtyard and then gasped when I noticed that another brick cell had been hastily built adjoining it, a structure that I had not seen a week ago when I came with my father for Friday communal prayers. I realized that this must be my new house and noticed with a little dismay that, like Sawda’s modest dwelling, the entire building was a single room, not much larger than my bedchamber back in Mecca.

I could see the flickering of candlelight from within and my heart pounded as my father led me to the place that would be my new home. As we approached, I noticed for the first time a group of women gathered outside, wives and daughters of the Prophet’s closest Companions from among the Muhajirun (the immigrants from Mecca) and the Ansar (the helpers who protected them in Medina).

“For good and for happiness-may all be well!” they called out cheerfully. I followed my father inside and saw that the Messenger was sitting on a small spread of soft lambskin that I realized with some trepidation would be our bed. His dark eyes were glowing with that strange fire and I immediately looked down, feeling my face raging with the heat of my emotions.

The women who had come to greet us decked me out in small ornaments-a thin coral bracelet, an ivory brooch for my hair, a ring made of silver with a tiny bluish gem that might have been an amethyst or a sapphire.

When they were done, they took me to the Prophet’s side and placed me on the lambskin, the only furnishing inside that tiny cell. The Messenger smiled at me gently and then opened his hand. In it I saw a necklace made of onyx beads. My frightened eyes must have sparkled with a little life when I saw the pretty black stones flecked with white and gold, because everyone in the room laughed as if the tension had been released.

The Messenger tied the necklace around my throat, which was, even in my tender youth, long and elegant. He fumbled with the clasp for a second before finally managing to seal it. I thought for a second that he might be as nervous as I was, but of course that was ridiculous. He was a grown man who had already been married twice and had four daughters who were old enough to give him grandchildren.

When he let go, my hand was drawn like a magnet to the necklace, which was Muhammad’s first gift to me as my husband and lover. In the years to come, I would treasure that necklace above all my other possessions, and it would repay my devotion by leading me into scandal and grief. How strange it is now to think that such a small thing could change a girl’s life? But that necklace had a terrible destiny, one that would change not only my life but the history of the world.

But none could have foreseen that, except possibly the Prophet, and I often wonder if he ever knew what destruction would come from that little present. The necklace that began as a blessing, a symbol of love, would end as a curse and a harbinger of death.

The Messenger raised a small wooden bowl filled with clear milk, the curds and fat having been carefully strained away. He sipped it and then looked into my eyes as he offered it to me. As I met his gaze, I felt a flash of something I did not understand in my foolish youth but I now know to have been desire. My body grew hot and I could feel my stomach flurrying as if overrun by tiny hummingbirds. I looked down, embarrassed and intrigued by this strange new sensation, and refused the bowl with a terrified shake of my head.

The Messenger nonetheless brought it to my lips and spoke softly.

“Drink, Humayra.”

There was something about the way he spoke his pet name for me that set the hummingbirds fluttering again. I could feel a bead of sweat drifting down the nape of my neck past my shoulder blades.

I looked at him again and he nodded. I bent forward and kissed the edge of the bowl, letting the icy cool milk flow down my throat. My heart began to beat faster as I did so, and it was no longer just with fear.

When I had drunk my fill, I passed the bowl to my sister, who sat beside me. Asma took a sip and then handed it to our mother, and then it was passed along among all who were present. When the bowl returned to the Messenger’s hand, I was surprised, because it did not look as if the liquid were any less than when we had first tasted it, but I dismissed the thought as just a fantasy of my excited mind.

The ceremony was over and I was now Muhammad’s wife. I had become what the angel had promised and what every other girl I knew secretly wished to be.

I was the Mother of the Believers.

My father arose. He kissed the Prophet’s hand and then placed his warm lips on my forehead.

“May Allah bless the two I love most in this world,” he said. And then he turned to leave, as did the women.

The simple door of palm wood closed behind them and we were alone. The Messenger smiled at me and took my hand in his. I noticed that despite the lingering heat of the evening, his hand was unusually cold, as if cooled by some mysterious breeze. I could feel the steady calm beat of his pulse. Its gentle rhythm soothed me, and the pounding in my chest gradually slowed until it was as if we shared one heart, one breath.

I gazed into his ebony eyes, blacker than midnight, and could see my own reflection in those bottomless pools. But it was not the reflection I witnessed every morning in the mirror. I looked older, wiser, my girl’s body blossomed to full womanhood. My hair was no longer crimson like the sunset but a warm auburn like embers of a dying fire. But I was not smiling. There were pride and righteous anger in my golden eyes that I could not understand. And then I watched as I aged, my hair turning to silver, my face lined but still regal in its beauty. My eyes seemed even older, now filled with regret and shame. And then the vision changed and I was something else, both human and angel, my body at once young and ancient, my hair and the bones of my face glittering with moonlight that seemed to emanate from within. As I looked into the eyes of this otherworldly woman, this spirit from beyond time and space, I saw that there was no more anger or sadness.

Only love.

The vision ended and I was alone with the Messenger. He was looking strangely at me, and for a moment I wondered if he saw what I had seen. But he said nothing about it and simply ran his hand across my face, savoring the delicate softness of my flesh that no man had ever touched before.

He leaned close to me and whispered softly.

“Don’t be afraid.”

I looked into those unearthly black eyes and answered truthfully.

“I’m not.”

He smiled warmly and took me in his arms.

I let myself go and fell into his embrace, losing myself in the wondrous sensuality of his body pressed against mine.

There was no fear. There was no pain.

There was only light.

Book Two. Birth of a City

1 Mecca-AD 623

The Muslims had escaped Mecca, but our enemies gave us no respite.

The establishment of an independent Muslim community outside the control of the Arab oligarchs was an even greater threat than the presence of believers inside the holy city. From our new vantage point in Medina, we were strategically placed to block caravan routes to the north. The Muslims had gone from being a persecuted rabble to an organized force with the ability to cut off the lifeblood of Meccan trade. Realizing that confrontation between our communities was inevitable, Abu Sufyan decided to take preemptive action.

And so it was that one day Umm al-Fadl, the comely wife of Muhammad’s uncle Abbas, stood outside her home, gazing in shock at the scene playing out before her. A group of men, their faces covered in dirty cloths and scarves, had broken open the sealed doors of the Muslim refugees. The houses of her kinsmen and friends had been locked since they had fled to Medina, and the property was under the protection of her husband’s clan, until they returned one day to reclaim it.

She watched in growing outrage as these thieves brazenly violated the honor of the Bani Hashim in broad daylight. The bandits kicked down doors, smashed windows that had been boarded with planks of acacia bark, and threw their ill-gotten booty into the street. Everything that her kinsmen owned-carpets, mirrors, tables, chairs, even cooking utensils-was removed and cast onto waiting donkey carts.

Umm al-Fadl saw the men of the clan standing by, their heads hanging with shame, as these sword-wielding burglars plundered freely. She could not let this go on. Her throat constricting with rage as well as terror, she stepped forward, blocking the path of a particularly loathsome-looking bandit, his cheeks scarred with a thief ’s brand he had probably received as punishment in Taif or one of the southern towns.

“Stop! What are you doing?” She cast a sideways glance, hoping that the frightened men of her clan retained a few shards of masculine honor to protect her if the burglar turned violent.

The branded thief, his mouth reeking of onions and cheap wine, just looked at her for a moment, then snickered and went about his business. He tossed a silk-cushioned chair onto his cart and turned to go back inside one of the houses his men were ravaging, when Umm al-Fadl ran over and stood in the door frame. Her brown eyes challenged him to touch her, the wife of one of the most respected members of Quraysh. The bandit rubbed his scar in irritation and then decided not to risk inciting an honor feud.

“The goods of the heretics are to be sold in the market,” he said through a nest of broken and blackened teeth.

“Under whose authority?” she said, like a teacher scolding a naughty child.

The thief looked over his shoulder at the crowd of nervous onlookers and then spoke loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Abu Sufyan.”

Umm al-Fadl felt the color drain from her face. If Abu Sufyan could act with such impunity, then her clan was in severe danger. With the most influential Muslims gone, her husband would not have the backing to protect the community if Abu Sufyan decided to unleash vengeance on those who remained. It would start with stealing the property of the refugees. And it would end with the expulsion of her people. Or worse.

“These are the homes of the Bani Hashim,” she said, her outrage heightened by fear. “Abu Sufyan has no authority over our clan.”

And then a familiar leering voice she hated came from behind her.

“But I do.”

Umm al-Fadl turned to face the wormlike face of Abu Lahab.

Her brother-in-law, the chief of Bani Hashim, had always repelled her with his crude comments and suggestive glances at her breasts, which were still shapely and firm despite the onset of her middle years. His betrayal of his own nephew Muhammad, whom Abbas loved and who was always kind to her, had sealed her loathing for Abu Lahab.

“Go on with your work,” he said, in his high-pitched, almost effeminate voice.

“How can you let this happen?” she asked indignantly, even though her heart knew the answer. “These goods belong to men of your own clan!”

Abu Lahab shrugged. The sickly odor of his sweat was overpowering and she wanted to retch.

“Men who have renounced the gods and have fled our noble city like petty criminals have no clan,” Abu Lahab said loudly, ensuring that the crowds could hear his rationale. “Their goods belong to Mecca and will be sold to promote its commerce.”

Umm al-Fadl bit her lip hard, trying to restrain the compulsion to strangle him in the open street. She tasted blood in her mouth, like hot iron scathing her tongue. And then she turned to face the crowd, beating her chest in an ancient gesture of mourning.

“Is this what you have fallen to, Abu Lahab? Sanctioning theft and robbery as commerce?”

There were murmurs of shame among the men, and she saw several of the younger clansmen looking at their leader with open reproach.

Abu Lahab’s face turned dangerous. He suddenly grabbed her by the arm and pushed her against the stone wall of the house.

“You should learn to respect your elders, wife of my brother,” he said, a red glint in his tiny eyes.

Umm al-Fadl felt her skin crawl at his touch and she shook off his clammy hand with revulsion.

“A man has to earn respect, brother of my husband,” she said with as much dignity as she could muster. “It is gained through honor-which you have long since traded for power.”

There was a strange flicker his eyes and his tongue flitted in and out of his mouth like a hungry snake.

“Since you are so concerned with matters of trade and commerce, may I propose a business transaction to satisfy the debts of our wayward clansmen?”

She didn’t like where this was going. No one ever did business with Abu Lahab and profited. Umm al-Fadl knew that she had to take control of the conversation and the terms of any negotiation if she wanted to help her kinsmen.

“Abbas will ransom their goods,” she said with more confidence than she felt. Her husband was wealthy, but even he did not have the resources to buy back all of the stolen property in the marketplace.

Abu Lahab smiled. “It is not from my brother that I seek to collect payment.”

He ran his pudgy fingers, slick with the oil and sweat, through her hair. He leaned close to her, and she could feel the nub of his aroused member pressing against the thin cotton of his robe.

She slapped him, letting years of disgust pour through her hand.

Abu Lahab stepped back, stunned. His pale cheeks burned with surprise and embarrassment as the crowd of onlookers murmured at her audacity. The chieftain of a clan was a tent pole of Mecca’s social structure, and striking one in public would have many consequences. None of them good.

Abu Lahab’s eyes narrowed so much that she could no longer see his pupils. And then he struck back, slapping her with such force that she spun and struck her head hard against the stone windowsill behind her right shoulder.

The world scattered for a moment and she felt fiery needles pushing into her skull. Umm al-Fadl reached for her forehead, which was throbbing from the blow. When she looked down at her hand, she could see it was covered in blood.

Abu Lahab smiled viciously at the sight of his sister-in-law’s wound.

“Alas, it appears that we cannot agree to the terms of a deal. Pity.”

With that, the giant snail of a man turned and walked away, waving absentmindedly to his hired thieves to continue their work.

Umm al-Fadl looked at him through eyes that blurred with pain.

“Abu Lahab!”

The chieftain turned to face her, his eyebrow raised contemptuously.

“Every debt is repaid, brother of my husband,” she said coldly. “Remember that. Every debt.”

Abu Lahab snickered. But when he saw the darkness in her eyes, his smile faded and he hurried away.

2 Medina-AD 624

I crawled across the floor of my small apartment, the wooden horse gripped in my hand. It was a toy that belonged to my sister, Asma, from her own youth, part of a collection of farm animal figurines that my father had purchased as a present on a trading mission to Sanaa two years before the Revelation. When my father had embraced Islam and destroyed the idols in his house, he had prepared to throw the tiny figures made of sandalwood into our fireplace. Asma had sat outside and wept at the loss of her toys to the new faith, and the Messenger had seen her crying and told Abu Bakr to give her back her playthings. Dolls and toys were not idols meant to represent false gods but simply amusements that gave children comfort.

In later years, when zealous believers began to prohibit all forms of images as idolatry, I shook my head in frustration as I remembered the gentle wisdom of my husband, who had always preached a religion of moderation. The stubborn resistance of some Muslims to common sense and their obsession with the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit has always been the bane of our community. With the Messenger no longer alive to restrain such foolishness, I fear that dogmatism and extremism may only worsen with time.

But in those days, with the Messenger’s tolerant and patient approval, I could still play with my toys and did so with abandon. My friends Leila, Munira, and Reem visited me that day, and we had spent the morning giggling and teasing one another as we had done before I married the Prophet. The three of us were on the cold stone ground, chasing one another’s toy animals in a mock race, when a shadow fell over the threshold.

I looked up to see the Messenger watching us, an amused smile on his face. The other girls shrieked with embarrassment and tried to run past him out of the house, but he blocked the doorway with his powerful legs.

“What are you doing?”

The girls blushed and mumbled terrified apologies, but I could see that he was not angry.

“We’re playing,” I said breathlessly. My friends had given me a brief and desperately needed respite from the serious responsibilities of my new role in the community. They had made me feel like the child I still was, and I did not want to go back to being a married woman and Mother of the Believers just yet.

The Messenger leaned down to see what I was holding. His eyes fell on the horse and he smiled, perhaps remembering how he had made Asma clap with joy when he had saved this little toy from the fire.

He took the horse in his hand and examined it, as if admiring the delicate Yemeni craftsmanship that made the little figure so lifelike.

“What game?” he asked simply.

I picked up the other farm figures that had been scattered on the floor-cows, camels, a lamb that had been covered in a thin layer of real wool-and showed them proudly to my husband.

“It’s called Solomon’s horses,” I said.

The Messenger’s smile made my heart quicken and a familiar quiver in my stomach reminded me that I was a woman and not just a girl, no matter how much I pretended otherwise.

The Prophet could see the look in my eye that always came with the surge of desire, and he winked playfully. And then he waved to the other girls, who were quivering in a corner, to come over.

“Solomon is my brother,” he said, getting on his hands and knees and grabbing one of the toy horses, which had been painted white. “Come, I will join you.”

My friends looked at him, startled. The Messenger of God wanted to play with them?

And then the Prophet lined up his white horse with my tiny black stallion. And he raced across the floor on his knees, daring me to catch up. I laughed and crawled after him, my horse moving swiftly to overtake his in the race.

The girls stared at us in disbelief. And then they laughed and joined in the play. Soon the Messenger’s steeds were being chased by a handful of small animals as Solomon’s horses galloped toward victory.

I beat the Prophet to the far wall of our tiny apartment, which was still furnished with the lambskin bedspread, along with the addition of a small wooden tray that served as our dining table. I leaped my toy stallion over the table as if it were flying like the winged horses of Paradise and raced toward the door.

And then I froze when I saw it was blocked by a towering figure, whose thick body eclipsed all the sunlight. Even before my eyes adjusted to make out his face, I knew that it could only be Umar ibn al-Khattab. He stood with his arms crossed across his powerful chest and looked down at us playing with the Messenger, his face twisted into a disapproving scowl.

My little friends shrieked and raced for the door again. Umar stepped aside and let them run past in terror. I scrambled up from the ground and ran to the corner where my head scarf lay discarded. I quickly covered my crimson hair under the midnight blue cloth as Umar bent down to speak to the Prophet, who was still on his knees, the toy in his hand.

“O Messenger of God, we need your counsel,” he said, and the gravity of his voice caused a change in my husband’s demeanor. He was again the leader of a desperate community that had been facing disease and starvation ever since seeking refuge in the oasis. I saw in an instant the weight of the world fall on his shoulders, and I suddenly understood why the Messenger took such delight in playing with innocent children. In a world where the shroud of death hung over his people daily, where any mistake he made could tear apart the fragile peace we had secured at such a terrible cost, the children made him forget the burdens of leadership for just a few wonderful moments.

The Messenger walked out grimly into the courtyard. I sat by the open door, looking out at the walled, dusty field that served as both house of worship and hall of assembly for the nascent community of believers. A crowd of prominent Muslims was gathered, and I could feel the cloud of tension that hung over the jamaat.

As the Messenger sat in a circle with his followers, Umar spoke of the current crisis.

“We have received troubling word from Mecca,” he said. “The Meccans have stolen the property of the Muhajirun and have sold it in the marketplace.”

There was angry murmuring at this news, until the mighty Hamza raised his hand for silence.

“They have used the profits to buy goods in Damascus,” Hamza said, his booming voice vibrating into the palm trunks that supported the walls. “The caravan returns from Syria in a fortnight.”

Umar pulled at his thick beard with rage.

“The Meccans grow fat off our belongings, while the believers struggle to find enough food to end the ache in their stomachs!”

The Messenger looked at the men, staring at each of them for a long moment as if reading the secret book of their hearts.

“And what counsel do you seek?” he asked quietly.

Umar stood up and began to pace around the circle, the nervous anger in his joints needing to be released.

“We seek to retake what belongs to our people!” he said. “The caravan is rightfully ours. We must seize it!”

I watched from the doorway of my apartment as the men nodded their heads, their voices rising in firm agreement.

But then I saw Uthman, the handsome son-in-law of the Prophet, rise, his face troubled and sad.

“The Meccans will not surrender their goods without a fight,” he said with a gentle voice. “Are we ready to wage war upon them?”

Ali, who sat at the Messenger’s feet, rose and faced Uthman.

“It is not a question of readiness,” he said, his mysterious green eyes unreadable as always. “Every man here is willing to fight and die for God and His Messenger. But we cannot do so without the permission of our Lord.”

With that, Ali looked at the Messenger. My husband met his glance and then glanced down at his hands without answering.

Abu Bakr touched the Prophet’s shoulder. When he spoke, his voice was calm and firm.

“For the past fourteen years, we have stood back and responded to every provocation with patience and forbearance,” my father said. “But our restraint has only emboldened the idol worshipers further. They have driven us from our homes. And now they seek to deprive us of our means to live. We do not seek war. But it is upon us.”

The Messenger looked into his friend’s eyes for a long moment. And then he turned to Hamza.

“What say you, Uncle?”

Hamza lifted his heavy bow from across his shoulders and laid it in the Messenger’s lap.

“There is a time for peace. And a time for war.”

When the Prophet said nothing in response, Hamza knelt before him and took his hands in his. “I know that you hate bloodshed. But if we do not stand firm now, the Meccans will see it as weakness. And their armies will be soon be on the doorsteps of Medina. It is time to fight.”

My husband finally rose to his feet.

“I will pray to my Lord for guidance.”

And without another word, the Prophet left the gathering of men and walked back to my apartment, closing the door behind me as I followed him in.

I saw the conflict on his face and it tore my heart in two. Muhammad, may God’s blessings and peace be upon him, was not a violent man. I had never seen him strike anyone, and his anger was rarely voiced and could be read only by the frown on his beautiful face. He told me once that when he was a child, he had been mocked by other boys for refusing to brawl with them in the streets. His gentleness had no place in the harsh desert, where men were taught that cruelty and masculinity were one and the same. Muhammad had lived for over fifty years according to a code of pacifism that was becoming more and more difficult to uphold.

The influx of the refugees had taxed Medina’s resources to the breaking point, and a poor date harvest had only worsened the lot of the newcomers. Food was as valuable as gold, and without more resources, famine would decimate Muhammad’s followers. Men, women, and children who had lost everything because they believed in him. People who had followed him across the desert wastes and were now facing the certitude of a slow and painful death as hunger set in.

Attacking the Meccan caravan and taking its goods would alleviate our immediate desperation, with the added wealth purchasing food and medicines from visiting traders. But it would open us up to retaliation from Mecca. And the Messenger knew that once the drums of war began to pound, their thunder would echo for eternity.

My beloved husband lay down on our lambskin bed, his eyes closed as he pondered what path to take. Do nothing and watch his people die in quiet dignity, the faith of One God stillborn and buried in the sands of hunger and disease. Or unleash the sword and let forth a spring of blood that might one day become a raging flood. There was no easy answer, and I did not envy the choice that was before him.

Not knowing what else to do, I crawled up beside him and put my arms around his chest. I pressed my small breasts against his chest, hoping the nurturing comfort of my budding womanhood would bring him some peace.

I felt him grow still as slumber came upon him. My own eyes were heavy and I began to drift away. As I fell into the strange shadow land of dreams, I could hear the thunder of hooves as Solomon’s horses raged across the earth, and I sensed that they were charging toward war.

3

I awoke in the middle of the night as the Messenger shook violently in his sleep. His face was bathed in sweat, despite the coolness of the hour, and I felt a flash of fear that he had been struck ill by the oasis fever. I shook him with increasing agitation, but he did not respond.

And then, without any warning, his eyes flew open and I could see them shine with the terrifying fire of Revelation. His mouth moved and I could hear that strange Voice that was his and not his emerge from Muhammad’s lips. And he spoke the Words of God that would forever change the course of history.

Fight those who fight you, but do not commit aggression.

Truly God does not love aggressors.

Tears welled in my eyes. The choice had been made, and the simple purity of Islam would now be tinted forever with the crimson hue of blood.

The next morning I stood behind the Messenger with my elderly sister-wife, Sawda, as he announced God’s will to a packed crowd inside the courtyard of the Masjid.

“And behold!” the Messenger said, a sword raised high in his hand for the first time in my memory. “God has revealed these words in his Book:

“And slay them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out, for persecution is worse than killing.

But do not fight them at the Sanctuary

Unless they first attack you there

But if they attack you there, then kill them.

Such is the reward of disbelievers.

But if they cease, God is Forgiving, Merciful.

And fight them until there is no more persecution and worship is only for God.

But if they cease, let there be no hostility except for those who practice oppression.”

I saw the excited looks on the faces of the worshipers, who murmured in delight that Allah had given them permission to fight back against their persecutors. The verses were repeated and passed among them, although I noticed that the words counseling restraint were not mentioned as readily by some believers as those counseling military action.

It was a fact that was noted by Uthman, who shook his head at the fury he saw in the eyes of some of the younger men. Ali, who stood beside him, saw Uthman’s gesture of disgust and looked at him sharply.

“Why do you not rejoice at the commandment of God?”

His voice rang out in the Masjid and suddenly everyone’s attention was on Uthman.

“I rejoice at the words of God, but I sorrow for this Ummah,” the kindhearted man said. “I fear that once blood has been spilled by the believers, it will flow with no end.”

The Messenger met his eyes and I could see the sadness in his glance, as if in his heart my husband feared the same outcome.

But Uthman’s words of gentle reproach were seen by some of the hotheaded youths as treason.

“You are a coward, old man,” said a brown-haired boy who could not have been older than thirteen. “The only blood you are afraid of spilling is your own. May Medina be washed in it one day!”

The youth’s words were met by a stream of laughter from some of the people in the crowd, and a few of the urchin’s friends spit at the helm of Uthman’s rich blue robe. The Prophet’s lovely daughter Ruqayya put her hand protectively on her husband’s arm as the jeering worsened into threatening catcalls. She had been ill for several days with the oasis fever. Her normally rosy cheeks were pale, and dark circles marred the beauty of her eyes. But I saw in the firmness of her jaw her defiance of those who would insult her husband or malign his loyalty.

In the sudden rage of that mob, for the first time in my young life I saw the possibility that Muslims might turn against Muslims. And my stomach was sick with the thought that the bloodlust that had been kindled to defend our community might one day tear it apart. Standing there, my heart pounding in self-righteousness disgust at this rabble, I could never have imagined that I would be the one who was destined to release that dam of death upon on us.

I saw Muhammad’s face grow dark, and he suddenly moved with his lightning speed to stand at Uthman’s side. He took Uthman’s right hand in his and sheathed the sword that he had been bearing moments before. The Messenger raised the red leather scabbard for all to see.

“Know that God has a sword which remains sheathed in its scabbard as long as Uthman lives,” the Messenger said sternly. “If he is slain, then the sword will be drawn and it will not be sheathed until Judgment Day.”

His powerful words immediately silenced the crowd, and I saw Uthman’s eyes well with tears. This gentle man who alone among the Quraysh shared my husband’s revulsion at bloodshed was horrified to be the cause of turmoil in the community. Seeing the anger in the Messenger’s eyes and the sorrow in Uthman’s, the believers were ashamed and began to disperse.

As the crowd parted, my eyes fell on the urchin boys. These young troublemakers, whom the Prophet had reprimanded in the past for their antics, stared at Uthman with undisguised hatred. And a chill closed in on my heart. A premonition of something terrible to come.

I fervently prayed to Allah that the preparations we were making for war would prove unnecessary. The Messenger was dispatching a raiding party to the outskirts of Medina. Once the Syrian caravan passed by, the men would surround it with their horses and disarm the guards, taking the goods back to Medina. If this could be accomplished without the loss of life, perhaps wiser heads in Mecca would prevail.

The Meccans knew they had stolen from us and we were retaking what was ours, so perhaps they would consider the matter closed with honor. As long as no blood was shed in the raid, there was hope that war would be avoided and the sword would forever remain in its sheath.

I raised my eyes to heaven and saw storm clouds gathering on the horizon, and I knew in the cold pit of my stomach that my prayer would not be answered.

4 The Wells of Badr-March 17, AD 624

In the end, war came to us with the dread certainty of death itself. It could no more be resisted than the angels who arrive at the appointed hour to claim the soul. And like the inexorable force of death, the war brought both an end and a beginning for our people.

The caravan, with its riches of gold and spices from Jerusalem and Damascus, had been a ruse to bring us out of our homes onto the battlefield. Abu Sufyan had followed Hind’s carefully crafted strategy to the letter. Instead of passing by the black hills of Medina along the normal trading route, he had ordered the caravan to follow the coastal road along the great sea that separated Arabia from Egypt and Abyssinia.

And even as the Messenger ordered a small party of three hundred men to lie in wait for the caravan at the outskirts of Medina, an army of a thousand heavily armed Meccans was marching north to trap us.

We would meet our destiny on a rocky strip of land to the southwest called Badr. It was a regular stopping point for traders headed toward Yemen, as it contained reliable wells of clean water that could replenish a caravan’s most precious resource. The Messenger set out with his raiding party, which was equipped for only a minor skirmish and was woefully unprepared for what was awaiting us. We were accompanied by a train of seventy camels and three horses, and I rode behind my husband on his favorite red she-camel named Qaswa. Though it may have surprised the sheltered ladies of Byzantium and Persia, used to hiding behind perfumed walls while their men risked their lives, Arab women regularly accompanied our warriors to inspire them and remind them what they were fighting for. It was a tradition that the Messenger respected, and as a result, I would be witness to many battles over the years to come. It was perhaps this comfortable familiarity with the heart of warfare that would cause me to overreach on that day of infamy that was still decades away.

We rode through the northeast mountain pass until we entered the valley of Badr. It was almost completely surrounded by hills and there were only three gateways into or out of the watering hole-the route we had come upon, a pass leading northwest toward the Syrian road where we expected the caravan, and a southern track that faced Mecca. The valley itself was surprisingly cheerful, with verdant foliage watered by the rich collection of wells. The Messenger pitched camp near the Medina road and the men set up a cistern with which they could more easily access the well waters. A small command station was established by placing several poles made of palm trunks in a circle and then covering the top with a black canvas to shield it from the cruel sun. Here the Prophet held strategic meetings with his generals, while I looked to the north, my heart racing with the nervous anticipation that is the breath of a battlefield.

We were elated. The wells had fallen to us with ease and the caravan would follow suit soon. And then word came from a pair of sentries we had sent to check on the caravan’s progress that Abu Sufyan had diverted his train, and excitement turned to frustration. The Messenger had been prepared to pack up the camp and return home, when the steady roll of drums echoed from the south.

The trap had been sprung and Mecca’s armies were at our doorstep.

Soon the southern pass was swarming with warriors in glittering mail, waving defiant flags of red and blue. Their cries of challenge and their mockery of our puny force echoed across the valley and a terrible dread fell upon our camp.

I sat beside the Prophet, who had retired to the command station at first sight of the Meccan expedition. He knelt on the ground in quiet prayer, his eyes closed and his brow furrowed as he attempted to contact the angels and find some guidance. My father stood behind, a heavy broadsword in his hand, ready to defend the Messenger should the Meccans break through the line of defense that was even now forming around the command post.

As I shaded my eyes from the blazing sunlight, I looked down at the advancing Meccan army and my heart fell. We were heavily outnumbered, although the haze that covered the southern passage made it difficult to determine the true numbers of our adversaries. I guessed that Mecca had a two-to-one advantage (I would later learn that it was three to one) and the odds of victory against this numerically superior and better-armed foe were not worth calculating.

A sad thought crossed my mind. After everything I had been through in my young life, at only eleven years of age it might all come to an end right here, before the sun went down. Though even the pagans did not condone killing women and children (I was both), I could smell the bloodlust from across the valley-feral, animal, unthinking. When the fire of war was ignited in men’s hearts, women and children could and would die, as they always had throughout history, and I had no guarantee of clemency. Then again, perhaps death beside my husband and my father would be preferable to what would be done to me if I were captured and taken back to Mecca as a slave.

And then I heard a shout from the enemy lines. I looked across the valley and saw three men step away from the Meccan forces and walk fearlessly into the rocky plain between camps. I recognized them immediately as three of the most prominent leaders of Mecca. Utbah, the father of Hind, led his brother Shaybah and his son Waleed, their swords sparkling under the glare of the cloudless sky. This was an ancient ritual of warfare that I had heard about but never witnessed with my own eyes. Before the Arab tribes fought, they always sent their most feared warriors to face each other in a duel of honor. And the Meccans had sent Utbah, whose yellow-green eyes were so much like his daughter’s that I wondered if Hind herself had come disguised as a man.

As Utbah approached the middle ground between armies, he looked over the rows of Muslim men, wearing old leather armor and carrying rusty blades and spears, and laughed. He spit at the ground before him, as if challenging men of this lowly caliber were an insult to his honor. And then I saw his eyes fall on a young man who stood by Hamza at the front line and Utbah’s sneer twisted into a gape of shock.

And then I realized that the thin and tall youth he gazed at was Abu Huzayfa-his son. Like Abu Sufyan’s daughter Ramla, Utbah’s son Abu Huzayfa had defected to the Muslims, adding to the enmity between Muhammad and the tribal chiefs, who accused him of seducing their children with sorcery. I saw the troubled look on my husband’s face as he saw father and son stare at each from across the battle lines, and I realized that the Messenger would never have allowed Abu Huzayfa to come with the raiding party had he known this would be the outcome.

But then Utbah regained his composure, a mask of iron covering his raging emotions. He waved his sword defiantly and issued the ancient words of challenge.

“Muhammad! Here stand the lions of Quraysh,” Utbah said. “Send forth worthy men to face us-or surrender in shame.”

To my horror, I saw Abu Huzayfa unsheathe his sword and move forward, ready to duel his own father to the death. And then Hamza caught the stern look on my husband’s face and he put a restraining arm on the boy’s shoulder.

“No. Not you.”

Abu Huzayfa stepped back and his own mask of defiance fell, and I saw in his eyes terrible grief.

And then I felt a rustle of movement beside me as the Prophet rose and chose the champions who would defend the Muslims. He gazed at the eager faces of his warriors, and then made a decision that I knew was tearing his heart in two. The best men to face Utbah’s challenge were those who shared his own blood. He pointed to three of his most beloved family members-his cousin Ubayda ibn Harith, his uncle Hamza, and Ali, the boy he treated like a son. I felt tears burning my eyes. I could not imagine how hard it was to send the people he loved the most to face the possibility of death before his very eyes.

The three chosen ones of the Ahl-al-Bayt, the House of the Prophet, stepped forward proudly onto the field, facing their opponents. Hamza had tossed aside his bow for a broadsword, and Ubayda held aloft a saber with a jewel-encrusted hilt that shimmered in his hands.

And then Ali unsheathed his sword and I heard a gasp and realized with some surprise that it was my own. He held in his hand a blade unlike any I had ever seen. Two blades actually, for the sword split in half as it tapered to the point, making it look like a forked serpent’s tongue. The hilt was made of polished silver, and gold filigree was etched onto the dual blades, which had a black sheen that suggested they were forged not from steel but from some other metal I had never encountered. I would later learn that this sword was called Dhul Fiqar and belonged to the Messenger himself. Whenever I asked him in later years where he had acquired such an unusual and magnificent blade, he merely smiled and changed the subject.

Ali flicked his wrist and Dhul Fiqar cut through the air, making a strange singing sound that added to its mystery. He moved forward to face his opponents, and I saw his eye fall on Waleed-one of the men who had tried to assassinate the Prophet the night he escaped Mecca. There was a strange look between them, and I remembered what Ali had said of that night and the promise he had made to Waleed that the next time they would meet, the brother of Hind would die.

A shadow fell over the battlefield and I looked up to see that a heavy cloud blanketed the sun. Which was peculiar, as the sky had been absolutely clear only moments before.

There was a moment of terrible silence, as if history itself were holding its breath. And then, with a cry of fury, Utbah rushed at the men who had answered his challenge. Ubayda moved to intercept him and their swords met with a terrifying crash. And then Hamza was upon Shaybah and Ali faced young Waleed.

Sparks flew as the three men struck at one another, and there was a terrifying beauty to their dance. Despite his age and bulk, Hamza spun and parried like a youth, and Ubayda struck at Utbah’s sword with such fury that I was surprised it did not shatter under the blows.

My eyes flew to Ali, who seemed to be moving at a different speed from the others. It was as if time around him slowed; his sword movements were elegant and beautiful, like those of a fish swimming in a gentle stream. Waleed looked confused as he met Ali’s attack, as if he also sensed something was different about his opponent. I saw the looks of consternation from men on both sides of the divide as Ali fought from inside the strange dreamworld that he alone seemed to inhabit.

And then I thought the sun must have emerged from behind the cloud, as Dhul Fiqar began to sparkle and glow, the blade shining brightly as if it were a torch in Ali’s hand. But I soon realized with some shock that the field was still covered in shadow and I could not account for the strange light that was emanating from the sword.

Waleed saw it, too, and his mouth fell open in shock. And at that moment, Ali raised the sword and, with the grace of an eagle racing toward its prey, he ran the blade through Waleed’s neck. The young man’s head fell cleanly off its shoulders with one stroke and blood erupted like a volcano from the severed neck. Waleed’s headless body stood frozen as if in disbelief and then fell to the side.

Ali’s prophecy had at last come true.

I heard a soft moan and saw that Abu Huzayfa was struggling to keep his composure at the sight of his brother’s decapitation. And then the cloud that had unexpectedly covered the sun evaporated just as mysteriously, and the field was burning with light again. I saw Utbah’s face go white as he saw his son’s head lying only a few feet away from him, and then, with the terrible cry of a man who no longer wished to live, he threw himself at Ubayda.

An instant later I saw Hamza slash down onto Shaybah’s shoulder. Hamza’s broadsword tore through muscle and bone until Shaybah’s sword arm was ripped away, and the champion of Quraysh died in a flood of blood and convulsions.

Utbah now stood alone against three men, and yet he continued to fight as if he were supported by an army. There was a madness in his eyes that gave him a ferocity I have never seen before on any battlefield. The Prophet’s cousin Ubayda fell back under Utbah’s furious blows and then suddenly made a swift kick with his leg, catching the Meccan chieftain behind the ankle. Utbah stumbled and fell.

But as he did so, he swung his ugly sword and cut off Ubayda’s leg above his knee. Ubayda screamed in agony as a river of gore erupted from his stump, and I heard a terrible sound of grief erupt from Muhammad’s throat.

Utbah managed to get to his feet and moved toward Ubayda, ready to deliver the deathblow. He raised his sword high…and Ali threw Dhul Fiqar across the battlefield. It spun in the air like a disk, flying with perfect precision, until the double blades connected with Utbah’s sword arm and severed his wrist.

Utbah did not cry out, did not appear to feel any pain. He stood weaponless and alone, his eyes glistening as he stared at the headless body of his beloved son. And then Hamza was upon him and the mighty broadsword tore through Utbah’s rib cage and emerged from his back, like a knife cutting through a milk curd.

Utbah stood there, impaled through the heart. I saw him gaze across the field to his surviving son, his traitorous boy who had chosen Muhammad over him. Abu Huzayfa’s face was frozen in horror as he met his dying father’s gaze.

And then Utbah did something that I will never forget or perhaps understand. He smiled at Abu Huzayfa and nodded, as if he were proud of him. With a final shudder, the father of Hind fell to his knees and returned to the God he had denied.

Silence reigned over the battlefield as the horrified Meccans dispatched sentries to recover the bodies of their slain champions. Hamza and Ali lifted Ubayda, who was swimming in a pool of his own blood but somehow managed to live. They carried their kinsman to the Messenger’s command post, resting his head in my husband’s lap. My father immediately knelt down and tried to bandage the stump and cut off the bleeding, but we all knew that Ubayda had lost too much blood for Abu Bakr’s efforts to matter.

A shadow fell over us and I saw Abu Huzayfa standing there, looking down at the men who had killed his father, uncle, and brother. He reached for his belt, his hand floating toward the hilt of his own blade. I felt a scream of warning rising in my throat…and then Abu Huzayfa removed a wolfskin flask that was buckled near his scabbard. And he knelt down and poured water into Ubayda’s lips, giving him one final drink before the angel took him.

Ubayda sucked on the flask, and then coughed up blood. He looked gratefully at Abu Huzayfa, and I thought I saw in his eyes a plea for forgiveness. Abu Huzayfa did not smile in return, but he nodded slowly and walked off to grieve alone.

Ubayda turned to his cousin Muhammad, whom he had followed to his death.

“Am…am I not a martyr…?”

I saw tears glistening in my husband’s black eyes.

“Indeed you are.”

Ubayda smiled at that and went still.

The Prophet closed Ubayda’s eyes with his hand and then rose to face the Meccan army. The ritual of challenge had been completed.

The Battle of Badr was about to begin.

5

I gazed across the field to the massive army that was ready to move and avenge the deaths of its heroes. The acrid smell of blood was in the air, and I could taste the sweat and fear that covered the valley like the cloud that had appeared during the challenge.

And then I saw a tall and handsome figure emerge from the Meccan lines and my blood ran cold. Abu Jahl moved forward with dignity to stand near the pool of blood that marked Utbah’s fall. He stared across the field to the command post and then clapped his hands contemptuously.

The Prophet met his gaze without a word. And then I saw Abu Jahl’s eyes fall on me and a smile played across his sensuous lips. I wrapped my scarf closer across my breasts, and he smiled wider at my discomfiture, like a wolf that had found the weakest lamb in the flock. I suddenly had a terrible image of what would happen if our men were defeated and I was taken back to Abu Jahl’s tent as a slave. The memory of how his well-manicured hands had torn apart Sumaya’s womb without any hesitation haunted me.

“It appears that consorting with pretty girls has not drained you Muslims of your valor,” Abu Jahl said with an exaggerated bow. “But three against three is an even match. Is your puny band ready to face the might of a thousand? You will all die before the sun sets.”

The Messenger bent down to the ground. I watched in confusion as his sturdy fingers reached for the earth underneath my sandals. He picked up a handful of orange pebbles and then closed his fist around them.

And then my husband rose and stepped forward until he, too, stood alone on the battlefield, his eyes locked on Abu Jahl only twenty feet away from him.

“By Him in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad,” he began, “no man will be slain this day, fighting against them in steadfast hope of his reward, advancing, not retreating, but God shall straightaway enter him into Paradise.”

His words reverberated throughout the plain as if the rocks themselves were speaking. And then I saw the front lines of our raiding party move into perfectly straight formation behind the Prophet, heads held up, weapons at the ready. The contrast between them and the disorganized and slouching Meccan soldiers was striking. At that instant, I understood why the Prophet had insisted that men and women line themselves in perfectly straight rows every Friday for communal prayers. The discipline and the unity they had practiced for the past few years was now second nature. The Muslims were not three hundred individual men facing a thousand. They were one giant body that moved and acted in unison. As I witnessed the martial discipline on display, I felt a stirring of hope in my heart that we might just survive this encounter.

The Messenger stepped forward and raised his clenched fist as if he held an invisible javelin. Abu Jahl moved back warily, sensing something was about to happen. His eyes darted to the Muslim archers, whose deadly arrows were all trained on him.

At that instant, the wind rose and began to howl like a jackal. The sudden gusts stirred the sands, causing clouds of dust to rise from the rocky earth.

And then I saw Muhammad, may God’s blessings and peace be upon him, shake his fist and then throw the pebbles he had gathered from beneath my feet toward the army of Quraysh. The tiny rocks flew across the plain like a thousand spears hurtling forward to rain death.

“Defaced be these faces!” The Messenger’s words rang with authority, and I felt a flash of awe when I recognized the Voice that came during Revelation thundering from his lungs.

And then all hell broke loose. The Muslims charged straight at the Meccan army even as the wind raged and sent a cloud of sand toward the Quraysh. I heard screams of rage and triumph as our soldiers tore across the field and engaged the surprised enemy. The Meccans fought back desperately, but their efforts were impeded by the sudden raging sandstorm that had descended on them from all sides.

I strained to see what was happening, but the whirling clouds of dust made it almost impossible. I could hear the clang of metal and the painful screams of the injured. The dry air was suddenly filled with the terrible scent of blood, gore, and feces, the three odors that dying men exude as their final curse on a cruel world that brought them this fate. My mouth was painfully dry and I could taste fiery salt from the wind as it tried to find its way into my lungs. I fell back, coughing and struggling to breathe. The earth beneath me felt cold and clammy, as if I were already locked inside a grave.

The madness of battle always plays tricks on the mind, and as I staggered to find refuge from the biting wind, I thought I heard the sound of horses thundering all around me. Since we had brought only three and the Quraysh had dozens in their camp, I felt a flash of panic as I looked around for any sign of enemy horsemen racing up to deliver death.

But the whinnying and hooves that I heard seemed to be moving toward the Quraysh, not away from them. I looked up in confusion and for a moment the cloud of dust parted and I thought I saw men dressed in white riding mighty stallions racing through the sand, trampling the Meccans under their relentless assault.

Whatever it was that I saw, whether an illusion of the wind or a ghostly army riding down from heaven, Abu Jahl seemed to see it as well. I could see him standing alone amid the chaos, looking around in disbelief as his men fell to the slaughter. And then he dropped to his knees amid the whirling sand and raised his hands to the sky, calling out to his gods.

“Allat! Al-Uzza! Manat! Daughters of God, help us!” he cried out in despair. “Hubal, lord of Mecca, vanquish your enemies!”

And then I thought the wind changed and I could hear cold, terrifying laughter in its midst. The sand flew around us and it appeared that we were alone in the center of a dust devil that swirled up into heaven. I struggled to stay standing as earth and air became one flowing dune.

As I fell to my knees and tried to cover my face from the burning sand, I saw something that I will never forget. Abu Jahl was kneeling, his hands in front of his face, his mouth contorted in horror. And then out of the wall of flying sand, I saw what looked like a figure emerge, dressed in a gown of flowing white and gold.

It was Sumaya.

The phantom raised a hand and reached out to the man who had ended her life. But I saw no anger or bitterness in her gaze. Just an infinite compassion that overwhelmed my heart.

Whether it was the product of my fevered imagination or a vision from the afterlife, perhaps I will never know. But Abu Jahl recoiled as if he, too, saw something in the veil of dust. I heard him scream and strike out at the ghostly figure with a sword.

Sumaya, if that is truly who it was, lowered her hand sadly and vanished into the ethereal swirl from which she had emerged. And then the sands parted as Muslim soldiers of flesh and blood, not these strange hauntings of the wind, descended on Abu Jahl from all sides and cut off his head.

I saw the disembodied head fly across the sky, carried by the unearthly wind, until it landed at my feet. I stared down at Abu Jahl’s face, his thick lips curled in fear, and then saw a hand reach down and grab the grisly remains by a tuft of gray hair.

It was the Messenger of God, who held up the decapitated head of his worst enemy, blood still pouring from the severed neck tendons.

I recoiled in horror at the sight of the man I loved holding this macabre trophy. And then the Messenger turned to me and I saw that he was not exulting in the downfall of his foe. Instead he looked sad.

“He was my friend once” is all he said. And at that moment, I realized the true burden that he carried.

The wind died down and I could see that Muslims had broken through the Meccan defenses. The enemy camp was uprooted and the pagans were in disarray.

The Messenger turned to the southern face of the valley and held up the head of Abu Jahl for all to see.

“Behold the enemy of God!”

The sight of Abu Jahl’s severed skull cheered the Muslims and sent the Meccans into a panicky retreat. I watched as our enemies, armed with the finest weapons and sparkling ringed armor, fled over the southern pass, leaving the field of Badr covered in a sea of corpses.

EVERY VICTORY HAS A price.

That night we returned to Medina, the younger men joyfully boasting of their prowess, while the more mature thanked God for His miraculous aid on the battlefield. We had killed over seventy of the most prominent leaders of Quraysh, the “best morsels of Mecca’s liver,” as the Messenger called them. Aside from Abu Jahl and Utbah, the day had seen the death of Umayya-at the hands of his former slave Bilal, whom he had once tortured in the public square of Mecca. The gentle African whose beautiful voice summoned us to prayers had avenged himself on the battlefield, impaling his former master on the end of a spear.

Along with the mighty lords who had been slain, we had captured over fifty of the highest-ranking noblemen of the city, who were now tied together like common slaves and dragged back to the oasis. Some would be ransomed in the weeks to come. And others would be executed for their past crimes. In one day, nearly the entire leadership of Mecca had been killed or captured.

We were giddy with joy, overwhelmed with our feeling that God was truly with us. As the men sang songs of victory, I ignored the demands of modesty and loudly joined in. Only the Messenger remained silent, pensive, although he finally smiled when we entered the streets of Medina and were met with the jubilation of the crowds.

The captives were taken away to be temporarily housed in barns and storage rooms, since the city as yet had no prisons. Those who were to be spared execution would eventually be allowed to live with some dignity in the houses of Muslim families until their people ransomed them. The Messenger had made it clear that prisoners of war were guests and had to be treated with the Arab tradition of hospitality until their fate was determined.

The Prophet led the joyful warriors to the Masjid, where he was planning to deliver a sermon to mark this momentous occasion. But as he approached the courtyard, I saw him stop in his tracks and grasp at his heart.

For a moment, terror gripped me that he was ill or had been injured unknowingly during the battle. But then he stood up tall and turned, his face full of grief more than physical pain. And then I saw a man standing alone by the doorway of a grand house that stood near the Masjid. It was the kindly Uthman, who had been excused from battle to take care of Ruqayya, whose fever had returned.

I saw tears glistening on Uthman’s cheeks and felt a terrible sense of foreboding.

“What has happened?” the Messenger asked, his voice cracking.

Uthman bowed his head, breathing in rapid gulps of grief.

“Your daughter Ruqayya…she fell ill…and…and…I’m sorry…”

I suddenly felt my husband teeter, as if his legs were giving way. I grabbed him from behind, but I was too small to keep him standing. Umar saw what was happening and grasped the Messenger by the shoulders to keep him from collapsing.

And then a sudden scream erupted from inside Uthman’s house. The doors flew open and I saw Fatima emerge. Faster than my eye could capture, she was in the Messenger’s arms, crying out in such horrifying wails of grief that my blood filled with ice.

There was something so visceral about Fatima’s screams that I felt myself being swept up into another world. A primordial realm where the idea of sorrow itself is born in the mind of God. Her wails spread like a brushfire and suddenly all the women in the city were caught in her grief, beating their breasts and weeping for the Prophet’s daughter.

Ruqayya, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, was gone.

As the Prophet held Fatima close, I looked at her in awe and fear. The unearthly sounds that were coming from her throat had a power unlike any I had ever heard before.

It was as if when Fatima wept, the world itself wept.

6

Muawiya, the son of Abu Sufyan, watched as the defeated Meccan army sulked back into the city. The men looked more confused than humiliated, unable to understand what had happened on the battlefield of Badr. The exhausted soldiers, dehydrated from the long trek through the desert, slumped toward the well of Zamzam, ignoring the accusing looks of the women who had heard of their devastating defeat at the hands of a pathetic little raiding party.

His father gazed at his vanquished comrades in shock. Abu Sufyan looked through the crowd, stinking of blood and urine, for the other leaders of the Assembly. But he saw no sign of the great lords who had controlled the city for decades.

“Where is Abu al-Hakam?” he called out loudly for the man whom the Muslims referred to as Abu Jahl.

A young man whom Muawiya recognized as a silversmith named Nawaf bin Talal stumbled by with the help of makeshift crutches of palm wood. His right foot had been shattered by a spear and had turned an ugly green, almost definitely requiring amputation.

“Slain” was all Nawaf said as he stopped to rest against a wooden post used to tie camels.

Muawiya’s eyebrows rose. This was an important development. Abu Jahl had been his father’s long-standing rival for control of the council. With him out of the way, there were few impediments to Abu Sufyan seizing total control over Mecca. Perhaps, he thought with a secret smile, his childhood dream of becoming the king of the Arabs might still be realizable.

And then Muawiya felt the air grow colder around him as it always did when his mother appeared. Hind had heard the news of the Meccan defeat and had come to personally release her rage on the incompetents who had ruined her well-crafted plan.

She spit at the train of wounded and tired soldiers and let her voice rise until it resounded off the stone walls of the ancient city.

“Maybe next time we should send the women of Mecca to fight, since there are clearly no men among you!”

Nawaf ’s weary face contorted and he stepped forward, despite the obvious agony of his crushed heel. And then he did something that no one had ever dared.

He spit in Hind’s face.

“Hold your tongue, woman, for you speak ill of your own father.”

Hind stood there, her mouth open. The glob of mucus hung from her cheek like a yellow tear. Muawiya had never seen her so taken aback. All the blood drained from Hind’s face, leaving her olive skin a sickly green not dissimilar to Nawaf ’s dying foot.

“Father…no…” She gripped her chest as if she had to pressure her heart to keep beating.

“Not just your father, Utbah.” Nawaf sneered. “But your brother Waleed and your uncle Shaybah as well.”

Hind’s eyes flew to the back of her head, and she fell to the ground, wailing like a madwoman. She tore her clothes with her talonlike fingernails and poured sand over her hair in grief.

“Who did it?! Who killed my father?!”

Nawaf gathered his crutches and began to hobble away, undoubtedly toward a surgeon who could do the ugly work that was needed to save his life. He turned back and threw out a name, like a man tossing scraps to a dog.

“Hamza.”

Hind’s face went from green to bright red as her fury built inside her. She began to dig her nails into her own cheeks, drawing blood.

Muawiya saw the crowd’s fascination with his mother’s performance, both riveted and repulsed, and decided that it would be a good time to announce what needed to be said at long last in public.

“We must end this before more good men of Quraysh die. It is time for a truce with Muhammad,” Muawiya said, his young voice echoing through the streets. He saw the warning look on his father’s face but ignored it. If he were ever going to fulfill his destiny as the leader of the Arab nation, he had to reach an accommodation with the man who was doing the hard work of uniting the desert tribes for him.

There were loud murmurs of assent from the people, but his words were like a hot needle tearing into Hind’s wound.

“No!” she screamed, more demon than woman. “There will be no truce!”

And then she was on her feet and racing toward the Sanctuary. She tore open her robes, exposing her perfectly rounded breasts to the idols. She ran her bloodstained hands across her flesh sensuously.

“Hear me, O sons of Mecca!” Hind cried out in a voice that was not quite human. “The martyrs of Badr will be avenged! The enemy will be crushed beneath our feet! If you do not have the courage, then your women will march without you! We will tear their eyes from their skulls! Rip off their ears and wear them on our necklaces! We shall eat of their flesh! Their hearts! Their livers! Who among you is man enough to join us?!”

Her throaty screams, her sheer insane passion, boiled the blood of the Meccans. Muawiya watched in despair as the crowd fled from his side and surrounded her, spinning and dancing with the frenzy she inspired. Soon, both men and women were chanting along with Hind, mesmerized by her spell.

Muawiya shook his head, awed and frightened by his mother’s ability to capture the minds of the masses. They were like flies caught in a glittering web as she steadily crept up to feed upon their souls. He turned to Abu Sufyan, who had just been handed the keys of Mecca with Abu Jahl’s death and yet looked increasingly old and irrelevant.

“Behold, Father, how a woman steals your throne,” Muawiya said contemptuously. “But fear not, one day I shall regain the honor of the House of Umayya.”

And with that, the brooding young man walked away, his mind racing with thoughts of how to turn the troubling course of events to his advantage.

7

Even as our enemies plotted against us in Mecca, a new threat was rising on our very doorsteps. The Muslim victory at Badr had changed the political map of the peninsula. The Ummah had been transformed from a small and insignificant community into a force to be reckoned with, not just for Arabs but for Jews.

Yathrib was the ancient home of three Jewish tribes-the Bani Qaynuqa, the Bani Nadir, and the Bani Qurayza. In the beginning, the Jews had cautiously welcomed the Messenger’s arrival as the new arbiter. Muhammad was clearly a man committed to establishing justice and order in the oasis and ending the tribal wars that pitted not only Arabs against Arabs but sometimes Jews against Jews. The Messenger had drafted a treaty of mutual defense whereby the Jewish and Arab tribes would unite against any attacker but both would be free to follow their own religion.

But it was that very matter of religion that had quickly led to strife. My husband claimed to be a prophet in the line of Moses and the Jewish messengers. He had ordered us to pray toward Jerusalem and even fasted on the Jewish Day of Atonement, which they called Yom Kippur and we knew as Ashura. And yet the Jews had made it clear that he could not possibly be a prophet of their God, since they alone were the Chosen People. The Arabs, even though they were descended from Abraham through his first son, Ishmael, were not included in God’s covenant. The Messenger had been shocked and saddened by their rejection. To him, God’s message was for all mankind. How could it be that only one tribe would be privy to His Word? And yet the Jews held steadfast to their ancient beliefs and did not shy away from branding Muhammad as an impostor. And the relations between our communities had quickly chilled.

But not all of the Jews of Medina were hostile to us. A rabbi named Husayn ibn Sallam had come to respect the Messenger as a sincere man seeking to bring the Arabs a better religion than the barbaric idolatry in which they were immersed. Ibn Sallam worked tirelessly to build bridges between the two faiths, to the derision of many among his own clan. His public show of friendship with Muhammad had cost him dearly, and the rabbi had become increasingly isolated from his fellow believers.

And there was another, more private, supporter among the Jewish tribes. A beautiful girl named Safiya, daughter of the Jewish chieftain Huyayy ibn Akhtab of the Bani Nadir. When she had first heard that a prophet had arrived from the south, claiming to bring the Word of God to a wayward people, Safiya had been swept away by the romance of the idea. She had always loved her father’s tales of Moses confronting the Pharaoh and leading God’s people to freedom. Of Elijah standing up to the hubris of Jezebel and her Israelite puppet Ahab. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezra-all messengers of the God of Israel who had stood in defiance of power with the humble strength of truth.

Ever since she was a girl, Safiya had fantasized about living in those days, when God spoke to men and the world was renewed by heroes of faith. Growing up as the daughter of a tribal leader and politician, she had watched the difficulties of ordering life in the desert and the troubling choices her beloved father, Huyayy, had to make to keep his people safe in the wilderness. Safiya had longed for God to send another prophet and take away her father’s burdens. To clarify right from wrong with the sword of justice so that the shadows of ambiguity that weighed on men’s souls would vanish under the rays of divine law.

So when word spread through the oasis of a prophet who spoke words of power that changed men’s souls, she had been filled with wonder. Could it be that her prayer had been answered, that she had indeed lived to see the coming of God’s Chosen One, the man whom her people had hoped for since the days the Temple walls fell into oblivion? But she had quickly learned that her people did not share her enthusiasm and that her father in particular viewed the rise of this Arab prophet as a threat to Jewish survival.

Safiya had buried her fascination with Muhammad in her heart. She kept wisely silent when she heard her father mock the man, denigrating the claim of this illiterate Arab to divine inspiration. And yet, over the past two years, this illiterate Arab’s power had only grown, and her father no longer dismissed him as a madman. Muhammad’s movement could not be ignored as a foolish cult anymore. The world was changing around them, and Muhammad’s increasing power had become a source of alarm for the Jewish tribes.

And so it was that Safiya watched one night as three men sat glumly in her house, trying to make sense of a world they no longer recognized. Her father had invited Kab, the chieftain of the Jewish tribe Bani Qurayza, as well as their Arab ally Ibn Ubayy for what had become a weekly meeting to discuss the changing political face of Medina. But the three chieftains had sat around Huyayy’s elegant cedar table for almost an hour without a word, each lost in his own thoughts about the remarkable Muslim victory at Badr and what it meant for the oasis. Safiya served them honey cakes, which remained untouched. Unable to bear the silence any longer, she finally decided to speak up.

“Why do you not rejoice, Father?” she asked casually, but with full knowledge that the subject was no casual matter. “Your allies have won a victory against the idolaters.”

Huyayy gave her a sharp look. “These men of Quraysh I have known for many years,” he responded. “Idolaters they may have been, but they were honest in their trade. I take no pleasure in their deaths.”

The Arab chieftain Ibn Ubayy grasped his wine goblet and took a long sip. He appeared calm, but anger burned inside him.

“Muhammad’s victory has convinced these Muslims that God is truly on their side,” he said with an incredulous tone.

Safiya hesitated. She knew that she was pushing her luck, but she needed to say what was in her heart.

“Perhaps he is,” she said courageously. “Rabbi Ibn Sallam says-”

Huyayy knocked over his wineglass, the purple stain rapidly spreading over the beige table coverlet.

“Don’t quote that old fool to me!” Like many, Huyayy was discomfited by the broad-minded rabbi’s willingness to test the boundaries of Jewish tradition and scripture.

Safiya recoiled as if she had been slapped. She could feel her cheeks grow warm with hurt. Her father had changed so much since Muhammad had arrived in Medina. Normally boisterous and kind, he had become increasingly brooding and prickly. And she blamed the treacherous Ibn Ubayy for poisoning his mind with plots and fears.

As Safiya turned to leave, her head held proudly, she was surprised to feel her father’s strong hand take hold of her wrist.

“Forgive me, my daughter,” he said softly. “The world is changing so rapidly. I feel lost.”

It was the first truly honest thing he had said to her in months.

“You should indeed feel lost,” Ibn Ubayy said with a sympathetic look. “The balance of power has shifted dangerously. The Muslims have been emboldened by their victory at Badr. They consider it a clear miracle for such a small band to rout a powerful army.”

Kab, the chieftain of Bani Qurayza, laughed coldly.

“Miracle? Bah. The Meccans were overconfident and underprepared. There is no miracle in hubris and poor planning.”

“Be that as it may, Muhammad’s victory will raise his standing among the tribes of Arabia,” Ibn Ubayy said pointedly. “He has proven that Yathrib is a formidable threat to the northern caravan routes. Soon the tribes will send him heralds seeking alliance in order to protect their trade. And where will that leave your people, my friend?”

“Where it always does,” Huyayy answered bitterly. “As outsiders.”

Safiya knew that this Arab was seeking to use her people to advance his own ambitions, regardless of what the consequences might be for the Jews. And she would be damned if she would let him play her father like a Bedouin flute.

“Do not rush to such judgments, Father,” she said quickly, ignoring Ibn Ubayy’s piercing gaze. “Muhammad has kept his end of the treaty. As long as we remain steadfast to the truce, we will prosper from the trade that these new alliances will secure for Yathrib.”

Ibn Ubayy rose and approached her. She instinctively moved back. The chieftain of Khazraj maneuvered himself between Huyayy and his daughter, his eyes never leaving hers.

“You have a good heart, my dear, but alas, you are a rare and precious flower,” he said with an air of affected sorrow. “The truth is, most men’s hearts are not like yours. They are filled with greed and jealousy. Even if your people prosper under Muhammad’s reign, what do you think will happen? The Muslims will resent you for your skill in bargaining. They will claim that you are stealing from them, hoarding the wealth that belongs to their community.”

He was, of course, striking the very nerves that had been rubbed raw in the memories of her people. Their history was filled with such betrayals and Ibn Ubayy knew exactly the impact his calculated words would have. And to make matters worse, his old ally Kab, the head of Bani Qurayza, nodded in quick agreement.

“It is what always happens to our people, Safiya,” he said, sounding like a wise uncle reasoning with a stubborn child. “Since the days of Jacob and his sons, the world has resented our tribe for its prowess in commerce. Whenever we flourish, the nations conspire to take it away from us.”

“You are wise to look at history, my friend,” Ibn Ubayy continued. “This is not the first time that an impostor has risen, claiming to speak for your God. And what do your rabbis say must be done when a false prophet is in your midst?”

Kab began to glean where his Arab friend’s argument was leading. He leaned close to Huyayy, who looked weary from the weight of the conversation.

“He must be opposed. His lies must be unmasked before the people.”

Ibn Ubayy grabbed a velvet-backed chair, plumping himself down next to Huyayy. With Kab to his right and the Arab to his left, Safiya thought her father looked liked a tiny mouse trapped between the talons of a mighty bird.

“Follow the wisdom of your fathers, Huyayy,” Ibn Ubayy said, his eyes burning with the fire of intrigue. “Muhammad claims to be a prophet like Moses, your lawgiver. Yet he cannot even read or write. He only knows of your Torah what he has heard from the mouths of others. Fragments of tales, misunderstood and misconstrued. His entire claim to power lies in his alleged revelations from God. Challenge Muhammad on his knowledge of scripture, show that his Qur’an differs from your Torah. Undermine the credibility of his prophecy, and you will defeat him in a way that no army ever could. That is the only way that you will protect your people from this new religion that seeks to dispossess you from your rightful status as the Chosen People.”

Safiya knew that what Ibn Ubayy was proposing was far more dangerous than any contest of swords. Men could make war over land, water, or women, and still peace could be achieved, for the underlying matter under dispute was tangible, rational. But if Ibn Ubayy convinced her father to launch an ideological war against the Muslims, if they tried to insult or denigrate their neighbors’ faith, then there could be no reconciliation.

If there was one thing Safiya had learned from arguing about the Torah with her own people, it was that fighting over intangible ideas was a losing proposition for all sides. Opinions hardened and conflict became a matter of hazy beliefs, phantoms that could never be satisfied, no matter how much blood was spilled. If the Jews allowed themselves to fall into this trap, they would become like a gazelle prodding a sleeping lion.

“Father, don’t listen to him!” she cried, falling at Huyayy’s feet and clinging to his knees. “It is not the way of our people! Jews do not ridicule the beliefs of others! Let them have their religion and we ours. Or we risk bringing war upon us.”

Huyayy gazed at her and she could see how tired he was. The lines around his eyes had become so thick that he looked like an owl. He ran a hand through her sandy hair as he had when she was a little girl.

“War is already upon us, my child,” he said softly. “The Quraysh were the first to fall. We will be next. Unless the fire of Muhammad’s religion is quenched, it will consume the world-and our people with it.”

Safiya looked at her father with pleading eyes, but he rose and gently nudged her away. The Jewish chieftain turned to his guests with a look of grim determination.

“The time has come to show the world that this Arab who claims to speak for the God of Moses is a liar,” he said.

Ibn Ubayy and Kab smiled in satisfaction. They had finally come up with a plan they believed could tear Muhammad off the throne that he had steadily been building himself for the past two years.

The three men turned to walk into the courtyard and continue their conversation. Safiya stayed back, her heart heavy. There was no point in pursuing them, for she had lost the argument. She watched her father step through the carved oak doors into their manicured garden. And she had a vivid image in her heart of Huyayy walking into a lion’s den from which he would never return.

8

I sat near the Messenger in the courtyard of the Masjid as he shared with the worshipers the wondrous tale of Moses and Pharaoh. He was a remarkable storyteller, his hand gesticulating as he drew for his followers a vivid picture of the ancient prophet and his confrontation with the king of Egypt. All eyes were on him as Muhammad recited the newly revealed words of the Book.

Moses said, “Pharaoh, I am a messenger from the Lord of the Worlds

Duty bound to say nothing about God but the truth

And I have brought you a clear sign from your Lord.”

Pharaoh said, “Produce this sign you have brought, if you are telling the Truth.”

Then Moses threw down his staff, and behold, it was a serpent!

And he drew out his hand, and behold, it appeared white to the onlookers!

Gasps of awe spread through the crowd of worshipers at the startling images. As the words of the Qur’an flowed from the Messenger’s lips in magnificent Arabic verse, the serpent and the white hand were so clear that we could almost see them with our eyes.

And then I heard a loud cough coming from the back of the crowd. I looked up to see Huyayy, the Jewish chieftain of Bani Nadir, standing near the entrance to the courtyard. In his hand he held what appeared to be a scroll wrapped in blue velvet, although I did not recognize the writing that had been embossed in gold over the coverlet.

There were murmurs of surprise at Huyayy’s unexpected appearance. The Messenger had long invited the Jews to come hear him preach, but they had politely refused, saying they did not need him to teach them what they already knew. And now the leader of one of the most powerful tribes had come on Friday, when the Masjid was overflowing with believers who had flocked to hear the Messenger’s weekly sermon.

“Excuse me, but may I ask a question?” Huyayy’s voice was polite, but I sensed an edge there that I did not like.

I turned to my husband, who looked at the visitor warily before nodding.

“Who did you say it was that threw down the staff before Pharaoh?”

The Prophet met the other man’s challenging gaze calmly.

“It was not I that said it, for I only recite the words of God,” the Messenger responded. “God says in the holy Qur’an that it was Moses who threw the staff.”

Huyayy’s face contorted as if he were confused.

“How interesting. And yet the Torah says that it was Aaron that threw down the staff while Moses looked on.”

There was a murmur of surprise in the crowd. It was such a minor difference that I did not care-the point of the story obviously wasn’t whether Moses or Aaron had thrown the staff but Pharaoh’s defiance of God’s clear signs. And yet some of the less sophisticated believers, unable to grasp the subtleties of poetry, found this seeming discrepancy troubling.

Sensing that his challenge had the desired effect on at least some of the worshipers, Huyayy stepped closer to the Messenger and held aloft the velvet-covered scroll. He kissed it reverently before removing its wrap and unfurling the parchment to a page of what I assumed was Hebrew writing.

“Perhaps you can show us where in the Holy Torah it says that Moses threw down the staff?”

I felt the Messenger stiffen beside me.

“I cannot read,” he said, a matter that had once been a source of shame for him but had since the days of Islam been the one clear sign of God’s favor. That a man who was illiterate could suddenly recite such great words of poetry had been the proof for many Muslims of Muhammad’s divinely inspired mission. And now Huyayy was using his unlettered past as a sword to mock the Revelation.

“Oh yes, I forgot. I apologize,” he said, with no hint of apology in his tone. “But if you would indulge me, I have another question.”

I saw the Messenger’s dark eyes beginning to narrow in irritation.

“Ask, and if God has revealed it to me, I will answer.”

Huyayy looked at the men and women seated on the floor of the Masjid as he spoke.

“How many signs did God send to Pharaoh to let the Children of Israel go?”

That was easy. Even a young girl like me who was not well versed in theology had heard the story of Moses enough times to know the answer.

“The holy Qur’an says nine,” the Prophet responded with dignity.

Huyayy made an exaggerated look of surprise, his dark lips curling back to reveal yellowing teeth.

“Really? But the Torah claims that there were ten plagues. Perhaps God forgot one when He spoke to you.”

Now I could sense real unrest among the crowd. There was a rumble of conversation as people asked one another how the Messenger of God could have made a mistake like that. Even an illiterate man could still count, they whispered.

“Another question, if I may-”

I had had enough of this uninvited guest insulting my husband. I leaped to my feet and shouted at the top of my lungs.

“No, you may not! You only seek to mock him!”

Huyayy looked at me with amusement, and his contemptuous gaze made my heart pound in anger.

“I did not know that the child bride speaks for the Prophet. It was not so in the days of Moses.”

I felt a cooling hand against my forearm. The Messenger shook his head slightly and I felt a flush of embarrassment. I sat back down, suddenly wanting to be unseen and forgotten.

The Messenger turned is attention to Huyayy. He spoke calmly, but I could see the vein at his temple beginning to throb.

“Ask, and I will answer if God has revealed it to me.”

Huyayy stepped forward, his eyes glistening like a falcon on its prey.

“Who was Haman?”

The Messenger glanced at his followers, who were looking at him eagerly, pleading with their eyes from him to best this arrogant interloper.

“He was the Pharaoh’s adviser,” the Messenger said, repeating the verses of a Revelation that had come a few months before. “Haman built a tower of baked bricks so that his king could see if the God of Moses lived in heaven.”

Huyayy smiled triumphantly.

“Alas, I am confused. The only Haman I know of in the books of my people is in the legend of Esther. He was the adviser to the Persian king Ahasuerus, many centuries after Pharaoh. And the only tower I know of that is as you described is the Tower of Babel, built in the days when all mankind spoke one tongue. But that was centuries before Moses.”

Huyayy turned his attention the crowd with a look of pity.

“Surely if you were the Messenger of God, you would know that which was revealed to the prophets before you.”

I could feel a terrible wave of anger and confusion building among the worshipers. It was like the rumble preceding an earthquake. Some of the people looked at the Prophet with newfound distrust, as Huyayy had intended. But most were glaring at the Jew who had come to make a mockery of their most treasured beliefs.

In the dark silence that followed, I heard the rustle of robes as the Prophet rose to his feet. His eyes were shining with a fiery light that suddenly made me feel afraid. I had never seen him so angry.

“I am indeed the Messenger of God, as were my brothers the prophets Moses, David, and Solomon before me.” His voice was soft, but there was more danger in his tone than any angry shout.

Huyayy smiled in his sickly sweet falseness.

“You see, that really confuses me. For the books of my people say that David was a king, not a prophet. And Solomon-well, the books say that he was a reprobate who worshiped idols and cavorted with evil spirits.”

I had never heard this. The Solomon in the Messenger’s stories was always a man of great wisdom and piety.

“If your books say that, then they lie,” Muhammad said sharply, as if someone had impugned the reputation of his daughters. “Solomon was a sincere servant of God.”

“But how could that be?” Huyayy responded with the rhetorical flourish that now filled me with rage. “You claim that your Qur’an and our Torah come from the same God. Surely they could not contradict each other if that were so.”

I looked at the Messenger and saw him struggling for an answer. He was accustomed to defending his claim to prophecy from the pagan Arabs who rejected his words as mere poetic fables. But no one had ever dissected the stories of the Qur’an to show that they differed from the Book of the Jews-whose God the Messenger claimed had sent him. I suddenly realized that Huyayy’s gambit was a grave threat not only to the Prophet’s credibility but to the entire basis of our faith.

The Prophet’s teachings had taken the ancient gods away from us, and we could not go back to them any more than an adult can revert to being an infant. But now, in one fell swoop, Huyayy had threatened to take away also the One God for whom we had suffered for so many years. He was like a thief who steals everything a man owns and then returns one night to take his life as well. If the Messenger was not who he claimed to be, we were worse off than the pagan Arabs who still believed in something, even if it was nothing more than a dream wrapped around rocks and carved pieces of wood.

Without Allah, we had nothing but despair and emptiness. Huyayy wanted to take away the very meaning of our lives.

And then I saw the Prophet go terribly still. His body began to shake violently as the familiar tremors set in. I jumped to my feet as he fell to the ground, convulsing wildly. Sweat poured down his face and neck. I pushed the men around him aside and threw my cloak over him as he shivered violently.

“Stay back!” I shouted with all my authority as Mother of the Believers, and the crowd that threatened to surround him and cut off the precious flow of air obeyed. Through the corner of my eye, I could see Huyayy shaking his head in amusement, as if he had just seen a monkey perform a clever trick.

The Messenger’s tremors calmed and then stopped altogether. His eyes opened and I saw peace and tranquillity on his face. Muhammad rose to his feet slowly, and there were murmurs of relief from his followers. He turned to face Huyayy, the confusion gone and confidence shining from his handsome features.

“Behold what God has revealed to me,” he said, and then recited new verses of the Qur’an with flowing harmony.

There is among them a section who distort the Book with their tongues

You would think it is a part of the Book, but it is not part of the Book

And they say, “That is from God,” but it is not from God.

It is they who tell a lie against God, and well they know it.

Huyayy looked at him with raised eyebrows, as if demanding an explanation of these strange words.

“What nonsense is this?” he said, but I heard the first hint of uncertainty in his voice.

“God has revealed to me a great secret that your forefathers have hidden from mankind for centuries,” the Prophet said, his voice raised for all to hear. “The words you claim to be revealed to Moses in the Torah have been changed. Your priests and rabbis have corrupted the Book, distorting the true teachings of the prophets. That is why He has sent the holy Qur’an now, to bring mankind out of darkness and into the light.”

There was a moment of utter silence, like the stillness of night before the break of dawn. And then the Masjid erupted in pandemonium as Muslims excitedly repeated his words and debated their meaning.

I saw the looks of distrust vanish, and the confusion was replaced by cries of subhan-Allah-Glory be to God.

Huyayy was flummoxed. In this one stroke, the Messenger had taken away his entire argument, and indeed had flipped it on its head. Suddenly the subtle differences between the Book of the Jews and the Qur’an were no longer evidence of forgery on Muhammad’s part. Instead they were evidence that the Jews had continued their tradition of rebelling against their prophets and had even altered their own scriptures to suit themselves. Their failures to uphold their own religion had stripped them of their pretentious claim to be God’s Chosen, and Allah had sent his Message to a new people who were not trapped in a web of falsehood. The Messenger’s claim to prophecy was actually strengthened by the distinctions between his faith and that of his predecessors who had corrupted God’s Word.

Huyayy had tried to destroy our religion, but he had given it new life. Islam was no longer an upstart faith forever destined to suck on the teat of another people’s past. It now held itself as a restoration of ancient truth, the original religion of Abraham and Moses that had been corrupted over the centuries. Huyayy had tried to show that Islam was a deviation from Judaism, and the Prophet instead had shown that Judaism was a deviation from Islam. Huyayy’s people would no longer be looked upon by their Arab neighbors as wise sages whom Muslims should defer to but as heretics who had broken their own covenant with God.

I saw his face betray anger as his stratagem fell apart. As the crowd turned to jeer at him, he squared his shoulders and left the Masjid before the rules of hospitality were forgotten.

I looked at the Prophet, who was beaming like a child. The Revelation had freed him from having to show any deference to the Jews and Islam could now spread on the strength of its own authenticity. The shackles of the past were lifted. Instead of being the moon, shining with the reflected light of the People of the Book, Islam was now the sun. It could burn with its own fire and blot out the other stars, the earlier religions that had sought to illuminate men’s hearts.

A FEW WEEKS LATER, the final break from our Jewish brothers came. The Messenger received a Revelation that the believers were no longer to face Jerusalem in their daily prayers. Instead we would kneel toward the Kaaba at Mecca, the House that had been built by Abraham hundreds of years before the Temple of Solomon rose. It was a welcome change, for our hearts had always belonged to the Sanctuary.

The mihrab, the small prayer niche of palm wood that indicated the direction of Jerusalem, was boarded up. A new mihrab facing south was carved. As the Muslims bowed to Mecca for the first time in years, I could feel the collective longing in their souls for the city we had lost.

As I bowed my forehead to the cold earth, a thought flashed through my mind that I knew must be in the breasts of my neighbors. Now that the center of Islam was Mecca, we could not let the pagans hold on to the Sanctuary.

Mecca had so kindly brought war to our doorstep, and perhaps the time had come to return the favor.

9

Umm al-Fadl, the wife of Abbas, bent down to lift a bucket of water from the sacred well of Zamzam. She passed along the wooden casket to Abu Rafi, a freed slave who had been quietly teaching her about Islam. After the defeat of Badr, more and more people in Mecca were interested in learning about this strange faith that could give three hundred men victory over a thousand. Like her husband, who was an uncle to Muhammad, she had been slow to give up on the traditions of her ancestors, but the deaths of Mecca’s ruling elite at Badr had shaken her stubborn respect for the old ways.

As Umm al-Fadl dropped another bucket into the dark waters below, she heard familiar voices approaching. Abu Sufyan, who was now the unchallenged ruler of Mecca, was conversing in an urgent tone with her hated brother-in-law Abu Lahab.

“Our caravans are no longer safe to travel north, even along the coast,” Abu Lahab said grimly. “Muhammad’s forces control the passes and they have vowed to seize any Meccan goods heading for Syria.”

“Then we must take the eastern path through the Najd,” Abu Sufyan responded, reaching for a copper jug to lower into the well.

“The Najd is a barren waste with few wells!” Abu Lahab hissed. “Even our sturdiest camels risk death in that terrain.”

Abu Sufyan filled his jug and then took a long drink.

“It seems your nephew has us trapped,” he said after a pause. “As long as Medina blocks the northern passes, our trade with the Byzantines and the Persians is at a standstill.”

Abu Lahab leaned close to him, lowering his voice conspiratorially.

“Your wife is right. We must avenge Badr. We must destroy Muhammad once and for all.”

Abu Sufyan’s jaw flinched at the mention of Hind, but he nodded.

“I agree. Once the winter has passed, we will launch an attack on Medina,” he said, knowing that he really did not have any other choice. “We will gather our finest men and marshal all of our allies. I hope it will be enough.”

Abu Lahab snorted contemptuously.

“What do you mean, ‘you hope’?”

Abu Sufyan shrugged.

“Muhammad is a survivor. For almost fifteen years we have sought to defeat him. Yet he only grows stronger with time.”

Abu Lahab’s tiny eyes narrowed further.

“Well, his reign is at an end. Our men will destroy him!”

Abu Sufyan looked at the fat slug of a man who had never held a weapon his life and shook his head. Abu Lahab was exactly the kind of chieftain he despised. Unwilling to risk his own life but perfectly content to send young men to their deaths.

“Our people fear him,” he said. “Whatever happened at Badr, it has left a dark impression on their minds. The men believe Muhammad is a sorcerer who can control the wind. That he has armies of djinn at his command.”

Abu Lahab laughed, an ugly sound that lacked any humor.

“Don’t tell me you believe that nonsense?”

Abu Sufyan turned his head to face the Kaaba. For so many years, he had felt as if he were trapped in a bad dream, and some voice inside him was saying that it was time to wake up and face the world.

“I don’t know what to believe anymore,” he said with a sigh. “Men whom I have always considered to be sober-minded came back from Badr weeping in terror over the djinn who they say fought alongside the Muslims. Warriors on white horses who emerged from the wind.”

Umm al-Fadl had been listening unobtrusively to their conversation, pretending to be absorbed in the work of filling her water cans. But her ears pricked up at this. She looked at Abu Rafi, who had silently stood at her side, ignored by these noblemen like all low-class workers. But his eyes went wide at the strange story and he spoke before Umm al-Fadl could stop him.

“Those were not djinn! They were angels!”

The chieftains turned and saw the tiny man with the pockmarked face for the first time. Abu Sufyan smirked and turned his back. It was beneath him to address this freed slave who was worth less than the mule droppings that littered the streets of Mecca.

But Abu Lahab was outraged at the stranger’s audacity.

“You! You’re one of them!”

Umm al-Fadl put a restraining arm on Abu Rafi, trying to lead him away from the confrontation. But he shook her off.

“Yes! I am a Muslim, and I no longer fear to reveal it. Not when the angels themselves descend to the Prophet’s aid.”

Abu Lahab’s face turned purple and he looked like an overstuffed grape, ready to burst.

“Let’s see if the angels will descend to your aid!”

And then he grabbed a sharp stone and slammed it into Abu Rafi’s face, knocking out his front teeth. Abu Rafi fell to the ground in pain, but Abu Lahab was not finished. He continued to pummel him until his features had devolved into a mass of blood.

Umm al-Fadl watched the unbridled cruelty with mounting rage.

“Stop it! You’ll kill him!”

Abu Lahab cast an amused look at his sister-in-law. His eyes locked on the curve of her breasts as they always did.

“So what? I am the chief of the clan! I determine who lives and who dies among the Bani Hashim.”

Umm al-Fadl turned to Abu Sufyan, the plea written on her face. But the lord of Quraysh merely turned away with distaste. Abu Lahab kicked Abu Rafi in the crotch, and she could see the poor man crying like a baby.

And then something broke inside of her, like a rusty latch that has kept an old door closed. And like the waters of Zamzam, something bubbled up inside of her that was very cold, very ancient.

She grabbed a tent pole that lay fallen on the ground.

“Abu Lahab!” she cried out in a voice she did not recognize. “Remind me. When you die, who will be the head of the clan?”

Her brother-in-law looked up at her, startled.

“What?”

And then the force that was raging within her took hold of her arm. Umm al-Fadl raised the tent pole and brought it crashing down with terrifying fury on Abu Lahab’s head.

There was a sound like a melon falling off a merchant’s cart and splattering on the cobbled street. Abu Lahab’s skull cracked and a burst of gore erupted from an exposed sliver of brain.

Abu Lahab fell back against the well, his tiny eyes now wide open in shock, as blood and gray tissue streamed out of the wound and down the side of his fat face.

He managed to turn his head and look at Umm al-Fadl, who still held the tent pole in her grasp. Her hand was shaking, but when she spoke, her voice was as clear as the spring waters of Yemen.

“Our debt has been repaid.”

Umm al-Fadl dropped the pole and turned away from the dying man. She wanted to run away, but a crowd was forming around her, staring at her in shock. And then a horrible scream pierced the open plaza around the Sanctuary.

A woman with dirty white hair and a face lined like a shriveled pear burst through the crowd and ran to Abu Lahab’s side.

This was Umm Jamil, his wife, who had a reputation for petty cruelty that made Abu Lahab seem like a diplomat in comparison. She wailed over her bleeding husband, beating her sagging breasts in fury.

“Who did this?” she screeched.

Umm al-Fadl saw her husband, Abbas, push his way toward them. He looked at his injured brother, the head of their clan, and then at his wife. There was no escaping responsibility for what she had done.

“I did,” she said with quiet dignity.

And then Umm Jamil was upon her like a bat, the old woman’s clawlike nails trying to tear her eyes from her skull.

Umm Jamil’s brother, Abu Sufyan, pulled her off Umm al-Fadl and held her forcefully as she screamed vile curses that even drunken men would hesitate to utter.

“If my husband dies, I will have your head!”

Umm al-Fadl turned to Abbas.

“If your husband dies, I believe the question of my fate will reside with the new chieftain of Bani Hashim.”

Abbas was shaken by her words. But she persisted, taking his hand in hers and squeezing it softly.

“What say you, husband? Will you kill me? Or will a blood payment suffice the clan’s honor?”

Abbas dropped her hand as if it were made of live coals.

“You women are all mad.”

He shook his head and walked away, looking very much as if he wanted to wash his hands of the entire affair.

Umm al-Fadl smiled at the elderly witch triumphantly.

“I believe a hundred camels will settle our debt. Don’t you agree?”

Umm Jamil spit in her face.

“I curse you and all the children of your loins!”

Umm al-Fadl wiped off the mucus with her sleeve. She looked one last time at the dying Abu Lahab and his wife, her eyes cold with contempt.

And then she remembered something Muhammad had said years before. At that moment, her resistance was gone and she accepted the truth of the new religion that her nephew had brought.

“There is none more accursed than those who are cursed by God Himself,” Umm al-Fadl said.

And then she recited a verse from the Qur’an that had been revealed years before when Abu Lahab had led the persecution of Muhammad. A verse that she had first heard her nephew recite when Umm Jamil had carried a bundle of thorns and had flung them upon him during prayers. A verse that somehow came back to her memory as if it had been branded into her heart.

The power of Abu Lahab will perish, and he will perish.

His wealth and gains will not exempt him.

He will be plunged in flaming Fire

And his wife, the wood carrier,

Will have upon her neck a halter of palm fiber.

She saw the color drain from Umm Jamil’s face as the shriveled crone, too, remembered the verses that she had dismissed so many years before.

Umm al-Fadl walked out of the Sanctuary quietly, leaving Umm Jamil to ponder the terrible prophecy that had come back to haunt her.

The old woman suddenly seemed like a lost child, looking around in confusion. She saw people staring at her and backing away. Umm Jamil could feel something happening to her as chills ran up her arms and legs. And then she looked down at her hands and saw ugly red pustules spreading across her flesh like a wild rash.

She turned to her brother, who was looking at her face in shock. Umm Jamil touched her cheeks and could feel the hard bumps that were breaking through the maze of wrinkles that had long since taken away her beauty.

Umm Jamil knew what these pustules were. She had seen them once before when she was a child. They were the markings of the same disease that had destroyed the invading army of Abraha, the Yemeni king who had brought an elephant to lay siege to the Kaaba. That same year that her nephew Muhammad had been born.

It was the plague.

And then she saw with horror that Abu Lahab’s blood-soaked face was erupting in the same warts. He, too, was being eaten alive by the monstrous disease that always came without warning and could kill an entire city in a day.

“Help me…help us…” Her voice sounded distant and small.

But the crowd saw the telltale signs of plague and the plaza was quickly empty.

Only Abu Sufyan stood alone by the well of Zamzam, staring in horror at his sister.

She reached for him, seeking his comforting embrace. Just as when they were children and he would hug her when she skinned her knee and the pain would vanish.

But Abu Sufyan backed away, tears flowing down his face.

“I’m sorry.”

She felt as if a hot sword had been thrust through her neck.

“No…my brother…please don’t leave me… I need you…”

And then he was gone.

Umm Jamil stood alone by her dying husband, the ugly pustules racing like ants across her body. And then she fell to her knees and screamed. The terrible wail resounded through the city, carrying her horror across the valley of Mecca.

But her cries soon stopped and the echo vanished in the wind, to be forgotten forever.

10

One night, when the Messenger was out late for a meeting of tribal leaders at Uthman’s home, I decided to step outside my tiny apartment, which was beginning to feel like a prison cell.

Covering my hair with a dark woolen scarf and throwing on a cloak of golden camel skin, I slipped out of my house and left the Masjid courtyard by the northern gate. I had lived in Medina for over two years, but I rarely went out alone and there were many small avenues and streets I had not explored. I was not especially nervous, as the avenues of the oasis were patrolled by large numbers of Bedouin guards. The newcomers had sensed that the sands were shifting in Muhammad’s favor and they had sworn fealty to the man who was bringing order at least to the northern valleys of the peninsula. Even as Mecca and the cities to the south were suffering from a disruption of trade, the lands around Medina were booming.

As I strolled through the streets, I marveled at how wonderful it was to feel safe. I had been born into persecution and my earliest memories were of death and suffering. But since our victory at Badr, the storm had subsided and I suddenly felt free, like an eagle soaring through the skies unchallenged.

I was admiring the delicate arches of a house that stood on the outskirts of the oasis, where the paved roads melded with the sand, when a group of young men saw me standing alone. They whistled appreciatively and called out a variety of indecent proposals. Shocked at this crass impropriety, I turned to scold them and my face was suddenly lit by the full moon. Instantly their amorous attentions turned to embarrassment and fear as they recognized me. They had just propositioned the Mother of the Believers and risked bringing the wrath of God upon them!

The youths quickly bowed and scraped at my feet, asking forgiveness. I smiled, exulting in my young power, and warned them that if they ever spoke to a girl like that again, they would face grave punishment, which I left sufficiently vague to allow their own imaginations to take hold.

The boys scampered away, terror in their eyes, and I laughed. I was alone again and closed my eyes and let the warm wind caress my skin. I opened them again after a moment and looked north, through a gap in the hills that cleared a view all the way to the horizon. There was a whole world there that I hoped to see someday. Magical cities like Jerusalem and Damascus where the ancient prophets had lived. Or even further, to the famed seat of the fabled Byzantine empire. Constantinople, the largest city on earth, whose streets were rumored to be paved in silver and where the churches were as large as mountains. Or perhaps even beyond, to the ruins of a city called Rome that had once been the capital of the world but was now ransacked and forgotten. And if I made it that far, then I would of course go farther, to the lands where the sun is said to never shine and the world is lit only by stars.

It was a beautiful dream, and in my girlish heart perhaps I believed it would come true. I, who had been born with a wanderlust and a need for adventure, had known only two cities my whole life, both surrounded by sand dunes and policed by vultures and wolves. I longed to see flowing rivers and trees that carpeted the earth with life. To gaze upon mountains crowned in ice, where the clouds themselves fell like the rain. And it all seemed possible. I would never have believed that I would spend most of my life trapped inside the confines not only of this small town but ultimately inside the tiny walls of my home. Had I known what was to come, perhaps I would have kept walking that night into the desert, following the shooting stars to the wondrous world over the horizon. A world that would forever be outside the limits of my destiny.

A sudden cry awoke me out of my reverie. I pushed aside a strand of hair that blocked my ear and then listened carefully. There it was again. It was the distinct sound of weeping. Of a man crying in terrible grief.

I looked around to find its source. The only building nearby was a small barn that stood near the edge of the oasis. As I moved closer to the mud brick stable, the sound became clearer. I felt my heart pounding. Someone was hurt, perhaps had fallen and injured himself. God must have sent me here tonight to help this poor soul.

I approached the barn and pushed open the heavy wooden doors that had been bolted from outside. I was too naive to stop and ask myself why someone would be in a barn that had been locked from without, but I must have reasoned that the poor fellow had gotten stuck inside and had hurt himself trying to get out.

The door opened with a steady creak and the weeping stopped instantly. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness within and then cautiously stepped inside. It was an old structure, supported by beams of palm wood. There were open stalls for horses, the ground littered with fresh grass, but I could see no animals within. I began to wonder if I had imagined the sound when I saw a flash movement against one of the walls. My heart leaped and I cried out.

And then I saw him. A wretched-looking man was curled into a ball inside the stall, his face bruised and caked in dried blood. As the moonlight strengthened my vision, I noticed that his hands were tied with a thick rope and were bound to a post.

He looked at me with wild eyes full of fear.

“Help me…”

I had never seen anything like this. Someone had beaten this poor man and left him here to die. I stepped inside cautiously, my eyes looking out for any sign of rats or other unpleasant creatures in the corners.

“Who are you?”

The man spoke with a raspy voice.

“My name is Salim ibn Qusay…I am being held against my will…please help me…”

I saw his face better now. He as young, perhaps only twenty years old, and he had bright eyes that seemed to glitter like a cat’s in the dark.

“How did this happen to you?”

Salim bowed his head.

“I was a traveler in the desert…” he said slowly. “A merchant from Taif…There was a young girl in the caravan…Yasmeen…I fell in love with her…I came to Medina to propose marriage…but her father has promised her to someone else…When he found us together, he tied me up and left me here to die…Please…help me…”

I felt a flash of righteous anger at his story. Despite the Messenger’s best efforts to eradicate the practice, such “honor killings” were still commonplace. The thought that someone could murder another human being for the crime of being in love repulsed me.

With a sudden yearning for justice and the sweet foolishness of a teenage girl who wanted to play a heroic role in this tragic tale of love, I tore my long nails into the heavy knot that bound him. After struggling with the rope valiantly for several minutes, my fingertips were rubbed raw, but I finally managed to loosen the bindings. At last, the rope came undone and Salim’s hands were free…to wrap themselves around my throat!

I tried to scream but his hands quickly moved to cover my mouth.

“You little girls always fall for the love story.” His whimper was gone and his voice was laced with menace.

I struggled as he pushed me against the wall. A flash of moonlight from a crack in the roof above illuminated my face for the second time that night.

Salim’s eyes flickered with recognition.

“You…you’re the child bride of the sorcerer…”

But instead of falling to his knees and pleading for forgiveness as the youths had done, he smiled wickedly.

“Well, then I’m truly going to enjoy this.”

As he leaned closer to me, I could smell the wine on his breath and the sick aroma of arousal that covered him like a cloud of flies.

He threw me down to the floor and then reached for my pantaloons. My heart pounded with the terrible anticipation of violation.

And then it was as if something took possession of my body. I was barely twelve years old and only half his size, when a fire ignited in my veins, giving me strength I had not imagined hid inside my tiny body.

I bit down against his hand, my teeth tearing a chunk of flesh from his fingers. He screamed and fell off me, and my feet swung hard into his crotch. Salim doubled over in agony. My pulse thundering in my ears, I ran past him. But he threw out his leg and tripped me. I fell face-first into the mud of the stables. Tears welled in my eyes. I could feel his cold hands lock around my ankles as he dragged me back into the cell.

I screamed with such force that I felt like my lungs were flying out of my chest to escape the terrible fate awaiting the rest of my body.

And then I heard the sound of voices. Men shouting from outside! As the steady drumbeat of footsteps raced toward the barn, I felt Salim let go of my ankles. There was a rush of air as he fled past me and escaped into the night.

My vision blurred and I saw no more.

11

I blinked heavily as sunlight poured over my eyelids. When I opened them, I saw a bright haze that slowly came into focus. A figure moved in front of me and I instinctively backed away in terror. But then his strong, manly features came into view and I gasped.

It was the gentle face of the Messenger smiling at me. He bent down over me and stroked my hair.

“Are you all right, Humayra?”

I managed a nod, and then looked around the barn, which had appeared cavernous the night before but was much more modest in the daylight.

“The man…Salim…where is he?”

A shadow fell over us and I saw my father, his face full of relief.

“He was a thief,” Abu Bakr said. “We caught him stealing in the marketplace. This criminal was to be punished tomorrow under God’s law, but now someone has helped him escape.”

I suddenly felt like the greatest fool on earth.

“Not someone, Father. It was I.”

The Messenger stared at me in shock.

“What?” both men asked in unison.

The back of my neck began to burn with shame.

“He told me a story…about how he loved this girl…and her father was keeping them apart…I felt sorry for him…So I loosened his bonds…”

I suddenly saw a dark cloud cover my husband’s face. His smile vanished and there was cold anger in his eyes.

“May Allah cut off your hand!”

I sat stunned for a moment, unable to process his fury. And then tears erupted from my eyes. The Prophet had never been angry with me before and I felt as if someone had just thrust a flaming arrow into my stomach.

The Messenger saw my grief but his anger did not abate. He turned away from me and I saw that there was a group of men standing by the door of the barn, keeping a respectful distance from this unfolding family drama.

“Organize a search party,” he said forcefully. “We must find him before he hurts anyone else!”

The men nodded and disappeared. My husband turned to look at me one last time, but I did not see any forgiveness in his glance. And then he stepped through the door and was gone.

I shook violently with grief and I turned to my father for his support. But Abu Bakr looked as stunned as I felt at Muhammad’s uncharacteristic rage, and he backed away from me as if I were a demon and not his daughter.

He left me alone on the cold floor of the barn. I stared around me at the gray walls that seemed to be closing in, burying me alive with my shame.

And then I remembered my husband’s curse and I lifted my hands and stared at them, waiting for the judgment of God that I knew would come upon me any moment.

I WAS STILL SITTING there like that hours later when I heard the sound of men approaching. And then the criminal Salim was dragged unceremoniously past me and thrown back into the cell from which I had freed him.

My father stood over the guards as they held the struggling captive down.

“Tie him doubly and post an armed guard at the door,” Abu Bakr said wearily. “He will be tried in the public square after midday prayers, and I would prefer that he actually show up for his judgment.”

The men tied Salim’s arms and legs, and gagged him for good measure.

I saw all of this from the corner of my eyes, but my focus remained on the palms of my hands.

I felt rather than saw the Messenger enter, for the hot morning air suddenly became cooler, as it always did in his presence. He watched me as I sat unmoving, staring at my hands with horrible anticipation.

“What’s wrong with you? Are you possessed by a djinn?”

I did not look at him. I found that I could look at nothing but my hands, which were pale and bloodless.

“I’m waiting to see which hand Allah cuts off.”

I heard the Messenger gasp as he realized I had taken his angry words at face value. And then he reached down and took my hands in his. He squeezed them tightly and I saw tears in his eyes.

We sat there, husband and wife, looking at each other. No words were said. None were needed.

And then the Messenger let go of my hands and raised his own upward in supplication.

“O Allah, Merciful and Compassionate Lord, forgive me for cursing this child. Bless her and anyone whom I have ever cursed.”

And then he lifted me to my feet and led me out of the barn, his fingers wrapped tightly around mine. As I walked past Salim, bound and guarded by men with swords, I saw the hint of a desperate plea for clemency in his eyes.

But my heart was not as big as my husband’s, and I had no forgiveness to offer.

SALIM WAS PUNISHED THAT afternoon for his crimes. He was dragged out in front of a crowd of witnesses by Umar, who tied him spread-eagled to iron stakes that had been hammered into the dark oasis earth. I watched without any emotion as Umar raised his sword and cut off Salim’s hands for theft. He screamed in agony, a sound that would have made me cover my ears and hide my face in horror and empathy the day before. But the girl who came out of the barn that morning was not the same girl who had entered. I watched him writhe like a fish pulled from a stream, blood erupting in thick spurts from his severed wrists. And then Umar raised his sword again and chopped off Salim’s head as punishment for assaulting the Mother of the Believers.

The screams stopped instantly and there was only silence in the public square. I looked around to see the men’s heads bowed in silent prayer, the women’s faces covered in tears. They were all shaken by the severity of the punishment. But now there was no doubt in anyone’s mind what the price would be for breaching the hard-won peace of Medina. There would be no backsliding to the days of anarchy. Law had come to Arabia, and crimes carried consequences.

I took one last look at the grisly remains of the man who had taken advantage of my innocence, who had sought to mount me like a pig in the mud. And then I turned and walked away in silence.

12

A few weeks later, I strolled through the central marketplace of Medina with my friend Huda. She was sixteen and almost as tall as a man, with legs that seemed to stretch toward the sky. Huda was everything I longed to be, worldly and sophisticated. She regularly went with her father on trading missions to Persepolis and knew the latest fashions of all the beautiful women to the east.

The bazaar was one of my favorite places in the city. It was full of life and there was always some new merchant there, selling some rare item that I had heard about only in stories from cosmopolitan travelers like Huda. The stands carried everything from oranges and pomegranates that had been shipped from Egypt by sea to colorful spices from the east that smelled sweet and sour at the same time. Sometimes there were pets for sale, and I remember how delighted I was the time I saw a cage full of striped cats that I learned were baby tigers. But my favorite section of the bazaar was the long line of tables displaying jewelry-silver rings, sapphire earrings, and jade necklaces that the merchants claimed came from the mythical land of China, where the sun is born each day.

We passed by the rainbow maze of jewelry stands, cooing at the wonderful items and giggling like little girls, until we reached a table manned by a Jew from the Bani Qaynuqa. They were goldsmiths and master craftsmen, and it was rumored that their unique designs were sought by customers as far north as Babylon.

My eyes fell on a remarkable bracelet made of pressed gold and engraved with lifelike images of doves in flight, emeralds studding their outstretched wings.

I tried it on under the watchful gaze of the old vendor, admiring how beautiful it looked against my skin. It fit my tiny wrist perfectly, as if it had been made for me.

“It looks wonderful on you,” Huda said excitedly. “You should buy it.”

I felt a pang of longing, but I knew it was impossible. I took off the bracelet and returned it to the shop owner.

“I don’t have enough money.”

Huda looked at me as if I were insane.

“But your husband is the Messenger of God! Surely he must be the richest man in all Medina. Doesn’t he take one fifth of all the booty from the raids on the Meccans?”

This was the normal Arab custom. The tribal chief was allotted one-fifth of any booty secured by a raid or a military operation. With the Muslims adopting a policy of economic siege against Mecca, my husband was in a position to secure tremendous wealth from the successful capture of caravans. Huda was right. I should have been the wealthiest woman in the oasis.

“He gives it all away to the poor,” I said in explanation. “The People of the Bench.”

The People of the Bench were a group of Medinese beggars who regularly sat near a stone bench that stood in a corner of the Masjid courtyard. Anyone who came there was entitled to a share of food and whatever booty was to be redistributed by the Messenger. His daughter Fatima sometimes spent hours standing in the sun and attending to the long lines that gathered there every morning after Fajr prayers. I usually saw the same people, some of them able-bodied men who should have been working instead of begging, and had grumbled to the Messenger that they were lazy scamps who took advantage of his generosity. But he had simply smiled and said that even such men serve a purpose. When I looked at him doubtfully, he explained. “They teach us to give without any expectations. That is true compassion.”

I had shaken my head in disbelief, even as Huda shook her head now to learn that the Messenger was as poor as he’d been the day he arrived from Mecca, despite the massive wealth that passed through his hands every day.

“The prophets of the Jews were rich,” she said. “Why does the Prophet of the Arabs have to be poor?”

I laughed.

“Maybe the Jews get a better deal because they are Chosen.” It was a stupid comment by a girl too young to know that words have power. We laughed at my minor witticism and continued looking around the jewelry stands.

But as we moved away from the table of the Jewish goldsmith, our words lingered. A young man named Yacub, the hotheaded nephew of the old merchant, heard us and was angered. He must have recognized me as the Mother of the Believers and added my comment to the litany of offenses that the Jews of Medina attributed to my husband. The Messenger’s unification of the oasis and his successful military expeditions had raised their fears that he would soon turn against them.

If I have learned anything in my life, dear Abdallah, it is that fear is the worst enemy of a man’s soul. For whatever it is that we fear comes rushing to us like an arrow across the fields of time.

As we stepped away from the table and turned our attention elsewhere, Yacub took a gold brooch from the stand and in one swift movement pinned Huda’s flowing skirt to a wooden post as she passed by. When Huda crossed over to a nearby stall, the thin fabric tore open and her skirt fell to her ankles, exposing her womanhood to the gathered crowd of shoppers.

I heard the sharp rip and then Huda’s horrified scream. I whirled to see the poor girl desperately trying to cover her privates, tears falling from her face as men in the marketplace whooped and jeered.

Acting faster than I could think, I ripped the scarf off my head and tied it around my weeping friend’s waist. I suddenly saw that everyone’s attention had left Huda and all eyes were on me. My scarlet hair glistened in the sun and I felt a flush of horror that strangers were now gazing lustfully at my exposed locks. It was a shameful violation of a woman’s honor, but not as shameful as what Huda was enduring. I lifted my head with dignity and met the men’s probing gazes with my own defiant eyes.

“Stare at us all you wish, you fools! The sin is on you!”

My words shamed them, and the men quickly looked away. I reached down to pick up the pieces of Huda’s skirts and saw the gold pin that was responsible for her embarrassment.

I looked up to see Yacub staring at me with anger.

“I guess it’s our turn to laugh, you little wench.”

A shadow fell over us and I saw a young Muslim man named Muzaffar standing there. He did not look at me, but I saw that he held out a cloak in his right hand. I quickly took it from him and covered my hair again.

Muzaffar challenged the Jewish prankster, his face red with rage.

“How dare you speak to her that way! She is the Mother of the Believers!”

Yacub laughed with exaggerated bravado. He could see other young men of his tribe watching his confrontation with the Muslim and he was now trapped in a deadly contest of virility.

“You Arabs call your children your mothers.” He sneered. “No wonder you can’t tell your head from your asses! Although as mothers’ asses go, she certainly has a nice one. Maybe next time we’ll see hers, not just her friend’s.”

Faster than my eye could follow, Muzaffar pulled out a small knife and slit Yacub’s throat with the practiced skill of a butcher. The boy fell forward, his face frozen in a deadly grin. The blood from his gaping neck wound poured out over the beautiful golden jewelry that his uncle had spent many months crafting with such great love.

I screamed in horror, but my voice was drowned out by the shout of Jewish men rushing to avenge their fallen comrade. They threw Muzaffar to the ground and beat and kicked him until I heard the sickening crunch of his skull shattering.

The marketplace devolved into chaos as Muslims and Jews attacked one another with righteous indignation. As I fled with Huda to safety, my heart tightened at the knowledge that a terrible new day was upon us.

The first blood between the sons of Isaac and Ishmael had been spilled. And I had a dark vision in my mind’s eye that the trickle of death would soon become a flood.

13

The peace of Medina had been shattered from within, and retribution was swift. An army of a thousand men surrounded the walled district to the southwest that housed the Jewish tribe.

In the days following the marketplace brawl, the Messenger had sent Ali to negotiate blood payment to resolve the tensions between the Muslims and Jews. Each side had lost a man in the scuffle, and according to the terms of the treaty, the matter had to be submitted to Muhammad for arbitration. But the Jews of Bani Qaynuqa turned back Ali, saying they considered the alliance void after the murder of one of their men by a Muslim.

Tensions had risen as the Jews barricaded themselves inside their walls, and there were rumors that that the chiefs of Qaynuqa were sending urgent messages to Abdallah ibn Ubayy, the treacherous leader of the Khazraj. The Jews allegedly promised that they could marshal seven hundred men to their defense. If the Khazraj matched them, then perhaps together they could wrest the oasis from the sorcerer.

But if such an offer was indeed made, Ibn Ubayy declined it. Though we had heard talk that he had been happy to incite the Jews to do his dirty work in antagonizing Muhammad, Ibn Ubayy was not the kind of man who would be willing to risk his own life to settle their scores.

And so the day had come when the Bani Qaynuqa were friendless and alone. The Messenger considered their renunciation of his treaty an act of war and had besieged the settlement. The Muslims had cut off the roads leading to their sister Jewish tribes, the Bani Nadir and the Bani Qurayza, and the fortress had no independent wells. Soon the Bani Qaynuqa would run out of water, and they would have to fight or surrender.

I watched as the Prophet strode among the Muslim soldiers who surrounded the gates of the Jewish fortress. He was dressed in glittering mail made of concentric steel rings, and his helmet covered most of his face. His black eyes glistened from behind his steel visor.

A battering ram had been devised to tear down the heavy wooden doors that protected the Qaynuqa. It was a long pole made of a series of thick palm trunks tied together and reinforced with steel plates. Thirty of the strongest Muslims would join forces to pummel the gates until they fell and the fortress was overrun. The soldiers had been ordered to kill any man who was armed but to spare the women and the children.

As war drums resounded, announcing to the Bani Qaynuqa their approaching end, I saw a man who was dressed in flowing scarlet robes approach the Messenger. It was Ibn Ubayy come to bargain on behalf of the Jews, whom he would not defend with arms.

He pushed past Umar and Hamza, who scowled at his presence, and walked up to the Prophet, addressing him from behind as he surveyed his men.

“O Muhammad, treat my allies well.”

The Messenger glanced at Ibn Ubayy briefly and then continued on his tour of the company, his presence inspiring courage among the warriors.

But Ibn Ubayy was persistent. He followed the Prophet and shouted for all to hear.

“Muhammad! Have mercy on my allies!”

The Messenger pretended not to hear him, even though his cries could have woken the dead in Jannat al-Baqi, the graveyard outside Medina.

Frustrated, Ibn Ubayy came up behind the Messenger and grabbed him by the collar of his mail shirt.

“Listen to me!”

Instantly a dozen swords were drawn and held to Ibn Ubayy’s neck. And yet he held on firmly. The Prophet turned to face him and a silence so great fell over the field that all I could hear was my pounding heart.

“Let go.” There was more danger in those two words than any lengthy tirade could have held.

And yet Ibn Ubayy, for all his flaws, could not be called a coward. Feeling the prick of blades against the skin of his neck and back, he nonetheless refused to release the Prophet’s armor.

“By God I will not, until you promise to treat them well,” he said, and I saw in his face what appeared to be real pain. “The Bani Qaynuqa have four hundred men without mail and three hundred armored. Not much of an army, but in all the years before you came to Medina, those men were my sole protection from my enemies. This Arab lives because those Jews saved him.”

He paused and his eyes glistened with grief. If he was performing, he was an astounding actor.

“Seven hundred men who kept me alive before you brought peace to this oasis,” he said, his voice choking. “Will you cut them down in one morning?”

The Messenger looked at him. I could not see his face through the visor of the helmet, but I saw the tension in his shoulders fall as ibn Ubayy’s plea touched his heart.

When he spoke, his voice was firm but compassionate.

“I give you their lives,” was all he said.

Ibn Ubayy’s hand fell and the Messenger walked away. He stood for a while staring after the man who had stolen his crown, who ruled Medina while he watched from the sidelines. I do not know what he was thinking, but he looked shaken and confused. Finally, he turned toward the gates of the fortress and went to deliver the good news to his erstwhile allies.

14

Safiya stood by the desert road, watching her kinsmen from the tribe of Bani Qaynuqa abandon their homes and leave the city forever. They loaded their carpets and small furnishings on the back of hundreds of camels and donkeys, along with whatever household items they could carry-utensils, scrolls, small pots and pans. Heavy bundles contained food for the trek through the wilderness, including stores of dates, olives, and dried meats. Her eyes caught the eye of a young boy sitting on a mule, crying that he wanted to stay, but his mother shushed him and told him to always look forward, never back.

It was happening again, Safiya thought bitterly, just as her father had feared. The world was always changing, but one thing remained the same-Jews were being expelled from their homes. She felt a flash of anger at Muhammad, and she wanted to embrace it and fan its fire until it consumed her heart. But she couldn’t silence the small voice within her that said her people were not blameless in this matter. Had they listened to wiser voices like her own, they would have welcomed the Muslims and become their allies in bringing peace and prosperity to Arabia. But their own fears, the centuries of loss and betrayal, had conditioned them to resist change. They had sought to undermine the new order and inevitably brought upon themselves its wrath.

Tears in her eyes, she turned to the elderly rabbi Husayn ibn Sallam, himself a member of the Qaynuqa, but one who had been granted express permission to remain because of his cordial relationship with Muhammad.

“What will happen to them?” she asked softly.

Ibn Sallam wiped his nose on his sleeve. His eyes were red but dry, and she guessed that he had no more tears left to shed.

“They will go north to Syria,” he said quietly. “Our people still have a few settlements that survive under Byzantine rule. They will find refuge there.”

“But you will stay.” It was not a question, and there was no hint of reproach in her voice, but the rabbi flinched as if he had been struck.

“I have to.”

She had not expected this as a response.

“I don’t understand.”

Ibn Sallam sighed heavily.

“The sands of time are shifting, but I fear that our people do not see it,” he said as if he had read her thoughts. “The Bani Qaynuqa let their pride blind them to the new reality. I will stay and counsel the Bani Nadir and the Bani Qurayza to flow with the stream of history, not against it.”

Safiya watched the lengthy train of her brethren pass outside the hills of Mecca toward an unknown destiny in the north.

“Do you really think our people would risk further confrontation with Muhammad?” she asked wearily. She could not bear to witness this exodus again. “Why would they be so foolish?”

The rabbi smiled sadly.

“Our people take great pride in the fall of Masada,” he said, referring to the fortress where Jewish zealots had killed themselves and their families rather than surrender to Roman hordes. “I fear that our hearts secretly long to relive it. To die in glorious sacrifice against an invincible foe.”

Ibn Sallam turned his eyes away from the heart wrenching sight of his tribe vanishing forever into the sands of time.

“May God protect us from the folly of our own dreams.”

And with that, he walked away, head bowed. Safiya could hear the mournful tune of an old Hebrew prayer on his lips, one commemorating the tragic destruction of the Temple on Tisha b’Au.

Safiya watched as the last of the camels left the precincts of the city, taking a proud people away from everything they knew. She gazed at the yellow walls of the fortress that had housed the Bani Qaynuqa for hundreds of years. Safiya knew that by nightfall the abandoned quarter would be looted, and the empty houses would soon be occupied by Muslim families. Within a few months every trace of the ancient Jewish tribe would be lost and forgotten.

She walked back home slowly, wondering how long it would be before she, too, would be forced to look forward, even when her heart cried like a child to go back, to cling to a past that was no more tangible than a mirage.

Her mother had said before she died that home is where the heart is. Safiya’s heart had been made from the dust of Medina, and it deserved to return to the dust from which it had been born.

Safiya made a silent prayer to God, Elohim, Allah, Deus, or whatever it was He preferred to be called:

Even if you wish to take me away from this city, let it be that one day I will return. However the winds of history may blow, let them guide the ship of my destiny home. Lord of the Worlds, King of the Heavens, let me die where I have lived. Amen.

15

While the Muslims and Jews came close to war in Medina, the Meccan army was regrouping under the watchful eyes of Hind. History follows the deeds of men, but often ignores the women who influenced momentous events, for good or for ill. It is time for me, Abdallah, to reveal more about the queen of Mecca. Many know her terrible crimes, but few understand the woman who perpetrated them. It is not easy to descend into such dark depths. But I have seen a shameful hint of that darkness within myself, so perhaps it is only fitting that I do so for Hind.

Ever since their defeat at Badr, Hind had encouraged the Meccan soldiers to conduct regular drills to sharpen their skills. A second defeat was unthinkable, and Hind had promised that any man who sulked back home bearing the flag of loss would be torn to shreds by the women of city before he entered its holy precincts.

Not that she considered Mecca holy. Hind had long ago given up believing in any divine force, plural or singular. The last time she had prayed was when she was six years old. Her mother was dying of a terrible wasting disease, and Hind had watched in grief as her beautiful face had collapsed in on itself until all that was left was a skull barely covered by flesh. The night her father, Utbah, had told her that her mother was leaving them, she had run to the Kaaba. Having stolen the sacred key from her father’s den, she had broken the ancient taboo and had climbed inside, falling prostrate before the crimson idol of Hubal. The little girl had stayed in that position until sunrise, her forehead pressed against the cold marble floor of the House. During that time, Hind had prayed to every god whose icon stood in the sanctuary, begging the deity to spare her mother. She had cried out to the daughters of God-Allat, Uzza, and Manat. The Phoenician goddess Astarte. Nergal, the angry god of war. The sun god Shams. Abgal, the lord of camel drivers. Munaf, the goddess of fertility. Aglibol, the Palmyran god of the crescent moon. The snake god Wadd. Qawm, the Nabatean protector of caravans. Even Isaf and Naila, the lovers who had defiled the Kaaba with their unbridled lust.

And finally, when she had named every god she knew and had heard no response, she had cried out to Allah, the High God who created the heavens and the earth before retiring to his Throne beyond the stars. Surely the One who had made the gods themselves, who had created life and death, surely He could save her mother.

But when the sun rose, Hind felt the gentle hand of her father, lifting her from her prostration. Her mother had passed away in her sleep, he said.

Hind had not wept. She had gone home and played with her dolls, apparently accepting the tragic news with the stoic dignity that was required of a great house of Quraysh.

But the tears that she did not release remained locked inside her, eating away at her heart like a worm at a corpse. The pain inside her breast became like a poison that ate away at her soul, building over the years until there was nothing left inside her but anger.

The gods had abandoned her. And so she abandoned them. A fair trade, all in all.

Over the years, Hind had never paid much attention to the stupid cult of her people, who continued to delude themselves that there was some higher order behind life. Hind had learned that night her mother died that there was no meaning, no purpose to existence. Love was an illusion, a painful trick of an uncaring cosmos. Joy a fleeting moment, lost in the wind. The only thing that was real was the body, for it alone felt pleasure and pain. So she concluded that the purpose of life, if there was any, was to heighten pleasure and deaden pain.

And thus her life had become an endless quest for ecstasy, for stretching the body’s ability to experience pleasure to its limit. She surrounded herself with amusements to enhance her senses. The most harmonious music to delight her ears. The softest clothes to caress her skin. She had tasted every wine and every rare meat. And she had spent a lifetime exploring the forbidden pleasures of the flesh, with both men and women and with many partners, often at the same time. She had sworn an oath that if there were any pleasure to be plucked out of life, she would experience it all before the darkness took her and she remembered no more.

The gods of Mecca played no role in her life except as a source of income to support her sensual lifestyle. If there were any part of her that still believed in them after her mother died, it vanished two years later when her father invited a wandering kahin, a soothsayer who claimed to commune with the gods, to stay in their home and bless their family with his powers. The man had slipped into her bedroom one night, naked except for an armlet of gold shaped like intertwining snakes, the symbol of his sacred familiar. In his hand, the kahin held an ivory idol of some Yemeni fertility god whose name she never learned. He had told her to say nothing about what had happened, for it had been a sacred rite and a curse would fall upon her if she told anyone the mysteries of the god.

Spent from his “sacred rites,” the man had slept beside her. The eight-year-old Hind had risen from her bed and crawled into the kitchen, ignoring the stream of blood that ran down her leg. She wordlessly pulled out the sharpest meat cleaver she could find and went back and slit the kahin’s throat without any hesitation. She then placed the Yemeni idol under her bare feet and crushed it, ignoring the shards of ivory that tore into her flesh. And then Hind had taken the kahin’s armlet, the symbol of his power, placed it on her own wrist, and climbed back into bed, falling into dreamless sleep beside the corpse.

Her father had found the “holy man’s” naked body in her room the next day and had quietly buried him in their backyard. Utbah had never spoken about it with Hind, but no more kahins were invited to stay with them.

After that incident, she had never paid the gods or their self-appointed mouthpieces any attention.

Until Muhammad, the low-class merchant who had climbed into wealth by marrying a rich old woman, decided to enter the prophecy business. He spoke pretty words of poetry and the fools of Mecca were suddenly willing to give not only their wealth to him but also their very lives. Instead of embracing the only truth of life, the pursuit of pleasure, they adopted his austere teachings, denying themselves the good things and wandering around with empty stomachs and praises to an imaginary God on their lips.

This new religion was more sophisticated in its teaching than the nonsense her people believed, and that was exactly why it offended Hind even more. It was such a well-crafted tale that even intelligent men like Umar, men she had admired and exchanged pleasures with, had given up life in order to embrace its walking death. Islam was exactly the kind of delusion that men craved, with its promises of eternal life and cosmic justice, when neither state of affairs was true.

Hind hated Muhammad for giving false hope to people-a hope that made the strong weak and ensured that men would trade the pleasures of the moment for an illusory promise of reward beyond the grave. Hind had made it her mission in life to shatter this illusion, to take away the lie so that men and women could be free to embrace the world as it was, not as they wished it to be.

Since her father’s death at Badr, Hind had been consumed with vengeance. She often accompanied her husband to military training exercises in the desert outside Mecca. Her eyes swept across the field in search of a champion, someone who could strike a blow for truth and reveal Muhammad for the sham he was.

She watched her husband calling out to the men, encouraging them as they practiced sparring with swords and thrusting with their spears.

“Train hard, O sons of Mecca! The day of retribution is coming.”

The men responded to Abu Sufyan’s cries by accelerating their moves, hoping to please the man who was for all intents and purposes their king. Hind had considered discarding her husband after the disaster of Badr, make his death appear to be an accident. But she realized now that she had been wise to restrain herself. She could see that Abu Sufyan held the soldiers’ respect and was still useful to her. Still, she knew that he was old and she would need a more youthful body to advance her cause and please her body.

And then, quite unexpectedly, she saw him.

Hind’s eyes fell upon a tall Abyssinian slave. He was as black as night and moved like a panther. In his hand, the slave held a powerful javelin, carved in accordance with the traditions of his people, who were masters of the art of spear throwing. He darted through a crowd of defenders, slipping between men like a snake winding through the rushes.

His eyes fell upon a target, a wooden pole that had been erected in the midst of the rocky field. The slave held the javelin to his shoulder and gracefully threw the weapon a hundred feet across the field. It landed straight in the heart of the pole and tore through to the other side.

Hind felt a swelling in her heart as well as in her loins. She walked over to the slave, and felt her desire growing as his skin shone with sweat and his musky odor flooded her senses.

“What is your name?” she asked.

“Wahsi,” he said, panting for breath. “I belong to Jubayr ibn Mutim.”

Hind smiled. Jubayr was her cousin and she knew him well. There had been a time when Hind had worried that he would defect to the Muslims after she learned that Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s chief sycophant, had proposed engaging his daughter Aisha to Jubayr. But the lustful Muhammad had decided to take the child for his own bed, and Jubayr had remained loyal to Mecca.

She stepped closer to Wahsi, put a hand on his powerful arm that was almost as thick as a tree.

“Do you know Hamza ibn Abd al-Muttalib?”

She spoke the name of her father’s murderer with difficulty.

Wahsi looked uncomfortable, but he nodded.

“I know him,” he said, then hesitated. “He was always kind to Bilal and myself.”

Hind frowned. Bilal, the slave who had become Muhammad’s chief singer, had killed his former owner, Umayya, at Badr. The bond between slaves in the city was as tight as brothers, and it was certainly possible that Wahsi’s loyalty had been corrupted by the connection. She would have to gauge where his affinities truly lay.

“Would you consider Hamza a friend?”

Wahsi paused, measuring his words.

“To the extent that a slave and a free man can be friends, yes, I would.”

That was disappointing, but not an insurmountable obstacle.

“Tell me, Wahsi, what is your freedom worth to you?”

Wahsi stepped back, his eyes looking over Hind carefully.

“I don’t understand.”

Hind moved again to his side. This time she let her hand touch his bare chest. She closed her eyes and felt the steady, powerful rhythm of his heart beating against her fingers.

“Is earning your freedom something you would risk your life for?”

“Yes,” he said, without any hesitation.

She opened her eyes and looked deeply into his black pupils.

“Is it something you would kill for?”

His eyes narrowed but he did not look away.

“Yes.”

Hind smiled and caressed his flesh. The muscles of his abdomen were hard and well defined. She could feel her thighs growing wet, and the salty aroma of her arousal filled the air between them.

“No doubt. But is your freedom so precious that you would kill a friend to secure it?”

Wahsi hesitated for a moment. And then he lifted his shoulders proudly.

“If that is the price for the key to my chains, then yes.”

Hind squeezed his forearm, let the tip of her fingernail nick his skin, drawing blood. Wahsi stood impassive as she brought her finger to her lips and sucked the tiny drop of his life fluid into her mouth.

“I will speak to my cousin Jubayr,” she said in a husky voice. “He will give you a furlough for the evening. Come to my house tonight. There is much to discuss.”

AND SO HIND FOUND at last a champion for her revenge. A vengeance that would prove far uglier than any of us could ever have imagined.

You may wonder, dear Abdallah, why I take the time to detail her role in these events. She was a monster, you say, unworthy of being recorded in the annals of our faith. And perhaps you are right. Her crimes have justly earned her the condemnation of history. Hind was indeed cruel, vindictive, and manipulative. And yet she was also more than that. Strong. Proud. Passionate. A woman who refused to let the world conquer her. A woman who could have done so much good had the wound in her heart been healed with the balm of love. And despite my hatred for her memory, I sorrow for the child that still lived within her. A little girl on her knees, crying out to the heavens for her mother. A cry that was met with silence.

16

I rested my thighs on our lambskin mattress as the Messenger placed his head in my lap, as he often did when he was having difficulty relaxing after a long day. I ran my fingers through his mass of black curls that had begun to gray in a few patches. He looked up at me with a familiar twinkle in his eye and I sensed that he wanted me. The Messenger had been so exhausted in recent weeks that we rarely made love. The crushing burden of his daily life as prophet and statesman had made him too tired to meet even his personal needs as a man. Every minute of his waking hours was spent either teaching, judging disputes, enforcing new laws that God revealed in the Qur’an, or leading raids against Meccan caravans. The Messenger would come home tired and fall asleep in my arms almost instantly.

I missed our nights of intimacy, the powerful warmth of his body entwined with mine. And I longed to give him a son. We had been married now for almost three years and my courses had continued unabated. I prayed every night for the Lord to quicken my womb, but my supplications had remained unanswered.

I moved to blow out the single candle that adorned the room, as my husband was exceedingly modest and shared intimacies only under the cover of darkness. And then I heard a furious hammering at the door and Umar’s booming voice calling out for the Messenger. My husband sighed, and I could sense his desire cooling. At that moment, I wanted to grab Umar by the beard and slap him, but instead I went to a corner, sullenly covering my hair as the Prophet opened the door and let the raving giant in.

“O Messenger of God, the honor of my house has been sullied!” he said dramatically.

“What is wrong?” The Messenger’s tone was polite but tired.

Umar noticed me sitting in a corner, glaring at him. He suddenly appeared uncomfortable and looked down at his huge feet without speaking further.

My husband turned to me with a sympathetic grin.

“Aisha, please leave us.”

I nodded glumly and stepped outside into the courtyard. The Messenger closed the door behind me. Unable to suppress the curiosity that is both my gift and my curse, I pressed my ear to the door, made of thin palm wood, and listened in to his conversation with one of his most trusted advisers.

“As you know, my daughter Hafsa is a widow,” Umar said, speaking rapidly. “I approached Uthman ibn Affan with an honorable offer to marry her. And he refused!”

I smiled. Of course Uthman had refused. Hafsa was a beautiful girl, but her temper was as volatile as her father’s and no man who valued peace of mind would take her.

“Uthman is still grieving for Ruqayya,” the Messenger said diplomatically. “Do not take it to heart.”

He did not mention what he had said to me in private, of his intention of marrying one of his younger daughters, Umm Kulthum, to Uthman. That bit of news might not go over well with Umar.

“Be that as it may, and yet I suffered a second indignity,” Umar rambled on. “I went to Abu Bakr and offered him Hafsa’s hand and he, too, refused! I thought he was my best friend, but he has left me in shame.”

I tried hard not to giggle. The idea of my elderly father marrying this twenty-year-old firebrand was beyond comical. His heart would give out on the wedding night, not from Hafsa’s passion but from her ceaseless nagging.

“Abu Bakr loves Umm Ruman very deeply. He could not share his heart with another.” My husband, as always, knew exactly the right words to say.

“Be that as it may, and yet I am ruined!” Umar said, panic filling his voice. “Even now the gossips are spreading vile stories in Medina. The rumor that Hafsa has been refused by the greatest men of Islam because she is ill-tempered and mean! How could they say such a preposterous thing?”

I trembled with laughter and had to bite my hand to keep from revealing my eavesdropping presence.

“It is best to ignore the slanders of misguided folk,” the Messenger said mildly. “Allah will bring them to account. Gossips and backbiters will eat the flesh of their dead brothers on Judgment Day.”

It was a vivid image, but one that did not appease Umar.

“I cannot wait until Judgment Day, O Messenger of God! My daughter’s honor has been soiled today! No man will marry her once they learn that Uthman and Abu Bakr have rejected her!”

“Have faith, Umar.” I could hear the exhaustion entering the Messenger’s voice as his efforts to mollify Umar only made him more agitated.

“I have faith in God, but not in the fickle cruelty of men,” Umar said, his voice trembling. “In the days before Islam, I would have challenged Uthman and Abu Bakr to a duel. But now they are my brothers and I will not shed their blood. So I have no choice.”

“No choice?” Now I could hear alarm in Muhammad’s tone.

“I must leave Medina and take Hafsa with me,” Umar explained. “I must go where she can escape the shame and rebuild her life.”

Umar paused a moment and then I could hear new excitement entering his voice.

“O Messenger of God, deputize me so that I may serve as your envoy to the disbelievers! To Syria or Persia. Send me to share the Word of God in these foreign lands!”

I could hear my husband clap Umar on the shoulder in support.

“A day shall come when you will go to these lands, Umar, but not as an envoy. Insha-Allah, you will enter them as a conqueror.”

If the Messenger had meant these grand tidings to lift Umar’s soul, his efforts were unsuccessful.

“Then what am I to do? I cannot stay in Medina as long as my family’s honor is stained.”

There was a long silence and I finally felt the humor of the situation vanishing, replaced with a troubling problem for the community. Umar was a powerful leader who was feared and respected by both friend and enemy alike. If he left the oasis, it would create a power vacuum that would encourage our enemies to make aggressive moves against Medina. I knew that my husband was thinking of a solution to put Umar’s mind off his daughter’s marital difficulty and keep him focused on protecting the nascent city-state.

“Now I must reveal to you the truth,” the Messenger said at long last. “Do not judge Uthman or Abu Bakr harshly. They were acting on my orders.”

This was unexpected. I leaned closer to hear better and almost pushed the door open.

“I don’t understand.” Umar’s voice was both confused and hurt.

“When you approached Uthman with the proposal, he came to me and I told him to say no. As did Abu Bakr.”

Umar was clearly shocked at this revelation.

“O Messenger of God, why?”

I was eager to hear the answer myself. My husband’s natural statesmanship was at work here, and I was always fascinated by his ability to make wise decisions that benefited everyone.

“It is because Hafsa is special. She has been chosen for a higher purpose.”

Suddenly I didn’t like where this was going.

I heard Umar rise to his feet, his powerful legs creaking like the hinges of a giant fortress gate.

“Are you saying…?”

All at once my heart was racing and I wanted to run back inside and prevent my husband from finishing this conversation. But my legs were frozen to the spot.

“Yes. It is my desire to marry Hafsa and make her a Mother of the Believers. If her father will permit it.”

The blood drained from my face. I was suddenly dizzy and I could taste bile in my throat.

“Allah be praised!” Umar shouted wildly. “I would give you my daughter and anything else that you asked!

I could hear the rustle of robes as Umar gave the Messenger an embrace that would have crushed a lesser man. The two spoke more words, but I did care to listen further.

My heart pounded with jealousy. The Messenger loved me! How could he marry another woman, even as a political maneuver? Suddenly I had a vision of my beloved Muhammad entwined in passion with the beautiful Hafsa, and I felt rage burning inside my soul.

I turned and ran out of the courtyard to my mother’s house, where I spent the rest of the night crying in her arms.

17

I watched tight-lipped as a group of workers built another small stone apartment just north of my cell in the Masjid courtyard. They were working quickly, as the Prophet’s marriage to Hafsa was set for a week from that day, and they wanted to be finished in time for the mud cement to dry. No one wanted to be responsible for the Messenger of God spending his wedding night in a room that smelled like a tar pit after a flash flood.

I looked at that room and saw again an image of my husband in the arms of another woman and I could feel icy claws closing in on my throat. And then, as if she had read my thoughts, the proud Hafsa stepped inside the courtyard, taking off her dainty thong slippers and storming over to inspect her new home.

I stepped into the shadows of my doorway and hoped she didn’t see me. The last thing I wanted to do was exchange pleasantries with this pretty girl with the curly black hair who would soon be sharing the Messenger’s bed.

As it turned out, she was so focused on her own concerns that she was unlikely to have noticed me had I stood in front of her naked. Her eyes went wide when she saw the state of disarray around her future home, and she immediately began to berate the poor builders.

“What shoddy workmanship is this!” Hafsa shouted in a husky voice that sounded remarkably like her father’s. “No, I don’t want a window looking to the back wall! I am to be a Mother of the Believers! My window must face the courtyard!”

The harried workers endured her foot-stomping harangue with weary obsequiousness. Hafsa was not as tall as Umar, but she had broad, mannish shoulders that made her unmistakably his child. Her eyes were light brown, as was her unblemished skin. She had ample curves and wide hips and I felt a flash of terror as I realized that her body was better suited than my own thin frame for carrying a child. If she bore the Prophet a son before I did, then she would likely become his primary consort and my hold over his heart might become as brittle as a rusted lock that shatters under the heavy wind.

“Do not fear, Aisha,” a soft voice beside me intoned. “You will always be his favorite.”

It was my elderly sister-wife, Sawda, who had read my eyes with the wisdom of a woman who remembers the follies of youth. I smiled at her gratefully, but an ungenerous thought flashed across my mind. Her face was wrinkled and her breasts sagging, and her courses had long since dried up. It was easy for her to speak so confidently, since she shared the Messenger’s bed without passion and could never provide him a child. If Muhammad’s heart turned to Hafsa, it would make no difference to Sawda’s status in the household.

It was a nasty thought, cruel and mean-spirited, and I tried (without complete success) to banish it from my mind.

“What kind of wood is this?” Hafsa shouted, and my thoughts fled under the force of her cry. I looked up to see that she was yelling at the foreman of the workers, a burly man who was almost as tall as her father. “Do you want the roof to fall down on the Messenger when he is in bed?”

The heavily muscled foreman looked as if he wanted to say something unkind to this twenty-year-old girl who was acting like the queen of Arabia. But he bit his lip and restrained himself. At that moment, the Messenger entered the courtyard and the foreman gave him a pleading glance for intervention.

My husband walked up beside Hafsa. I saw him take a deep breath as if he were girding himself for battle. But before he could calm his bride-to-be, his eyes fell on me, standing in the threshold of my tiny room, and he smiled warmly. My heart felt as if it would burst, and I had to stop myself from running into his arms, telling him that I was the only one who could ever truly give him happiness. But something in the way his eyes lit up told me that I didn’t need to. That he already knew.

THE MESSENGER WAS MARRIED to Hafsa in a grand ceremony to which all the leaders of Medina were invited, including the Jewish chieftains, who sent presents of gold and spices but did not attend in person.

Watching the Messenger unite with Hafsa in front of a gathering of honored nobles, the bride dressed in a silk gown of scarlet, I felt a new pang of sadness. A sense of my own smallness came to me. My own wedding had been an exceedingly modest affair and I felt as if I had been cheated out of the pomp and circumstance that was being showered upon the daughter of Umar.

I murmured a complaint to my mother, who gave me a sharp look of reproach.

“This is a political marriage meant to keep Umar happy and the Muslims united,” Umm Ruman said in a hurried whisper. “But your wedding was ordained by God and reflected the Messenger’s heart, not his needs as a leader. Be grateful.”

Of course she was right. But at that moment I didn’t care. I got up and stormed off in indignation. I exited the colorful pavilion that had been erected in the marketplace, past a line of beggars who had come seeking alms from the Messenger on this momentous occasion. I hugged my scarf closer to my chest, hoping that it would warm the chill I felt despite the dry heat of the night.

I strode out of the bazaar, walking without purpose or direction. And then I stopped in my tracks as my eyes fell on a young woman leaning against a crumbling wall, staring quietly at the stars.

It was the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t seen her inside the pavilion with her sisters, Zaynab and Umm Kulthum, and wondered why she was not with her father celebrating his marriage. And then I thought that the fact that she was two years older than her father’s new bride, Hafsa, and yet had no suitors, must have weighed heavily on her.

Fatima seemed lost in a dream and did not react to the approach of my footsteps. I should have turned away and left her to her thoughts, but I felt drawn to her that night for reasons I could not voice. Fatima had always been so ethereal that she seemed like a spirit more than a creature of flesh and blood, and there was something about her that unnerved me. And yet she was my husband’s favorite child, and perhaps I felt a connection to her because I was his favorite wife-a status that I fervently hoped to retain after the Messenger spent the night with his new bride. Along with being older and possessing a more mature body, Hafsa had already been married once and was presumably experienced in the arts of love. My stomach curled at that thought and I forced it out of my heart as I slid in beside Fatima.

The girl looked at me with a ghostly smile, and then turned her attention back to the stars. The Milky Way ran like a vast caravan route through the heavens, and I saw that her attention was focused on the constellation of the al-Jabbar, the Giant, that hung low in the night sky. I stared up at the three stars that formed his belt and caught from the corner of my eye a glimmer of the tiny lights that formed his scabbard. But whenever I looked directly at them, they vanished, like djinn in the desert.

The silence between us grew uncomfortable and I groped for something that might spark a conversation.

“So…do you still think you’ll never marry?” I winced even as I said these words, but it was too late to take them back.

Fatima looked at me and I saw her black eyes suddenly focus as if she recognized me for the first time.

“No. I will actually be married soon, insha-Allah.”

This was news to me.

“You have chosen someone, then?” I tried unsuccessfully to keep the disbelief out of my voice.

Fatima shrugged and looked back up at the stars.

“No. He was chosen for me.”

Now, this was definitely surprising. My heart sank at the thought that the Messenger had not shared his plans for his beloved daughter with me. I wondered if he had told Sawda. Or worse, Hafsa.

“By your father?” I asked, my voice sounding squeaky like a mouse.

“No. By God.”

And with those strange words, the mysterious girl smiled sadly and gazed back up to the heavens. I looked down at my hands and pondered her words for a moment. When I turned to ask her what she meant, the hair on my neck stood up. The street was empty. Fatima had vanished.

18

The Messenger consummated his marriage that night with Hafsa, to her quite vocal satisfaction. I covered my ears with a rough leather pillow, but her throaty cries wafted through the thin mud walls between our apartments, adding to my misery.

A few days later, while I was still raw from the addition of this spirited girl to the harem, a second wedding was held. Fatima, I learned, was to marry Ali, and somehow that felt right. They were both strange, otherworldly creatures and their union felt almost destined.

The ceremony was not as grandiose as Hafsa’s nuptials, but there was a great dignity to the event. I felt an inexplicable solemnity to the wedding, as if this were something momentous in the history of the world rather than the union of two poor misfits who were lucky to find each other.

The Messenger was solemn and quiet as Ali and Fatima sat before him. The groom was dressed in a simple robe of black, his green eyes sparkling in vivid contrast. Fatima wore a russet gown, her face completely covered by a thin veil. Only a few intimates were invited, the heart of Muhammad’s family-his wives and daughters, Uthman the widowed son-in-law, and the Messenger’s two fathers-in-law, Abu Bakr and Umar. I was delighted to see Talha there, and my sister, Asma’s, eyes never left Zubayr, who had finally emigrated to Medina with a promise to marry her and end her spinsterhood.

Ali and Fatima signed the wedding contract and we all raised our hands to pray the Fatiha, as was customary. Normally the ceremony was completed with the supplication, but the Prophet did something unusual that night that I never saw before or again.

The Messenger of God raised a small bowl of carved acacia wood and poured it full of clear water from an earthen jug. He then rinsed his mouth with the liquid and spit the water back into the bowl and it seemed to sparkle as if he had cast diamonds into the bowl. And then Muhammad took the water and sprinkled it on Ali and Fatima, and the strange shimmer seemed now to emanate from then. Finally, my husband reached for a small glass vial of olive oil and touched it to his fingers before anointing Ali’s forehead. He then reached inside his daughter’s veil and did the same to her. It felt as if he was anointing them king and queen, as the prophets of Israel were said to do with their regal charges in days long past.

“May God bless you and your descendants,” he said with a look that somehow managed to combine joy and sorrow at once.

The whole ceremony seemed appropriately ethereal for this enigmatic couple and I was glad when the Prophet rose and kissed them, signaling that we had returned to the world I knew and understood.

The women took hold of Fatima’s hand and with the usual giggles and knowing glances led her to the adjoining bedchamber, where a sheepskin mattress similar to my own was laid out on the stone floor.

As I adjusted Fatima’s veil, which had shifted awkwardly as we moved her, I saw that her eyes were filled with tears and her mouth was a solid line.

“Smile!” I said with a wide grin of my own, hoping to lift her inexplicable gloom. “This is the most important night of a woman’s life.”

Fatima looked at me as if seeing me, truly seeing me, for the first time. And then she said words that I would never have expected.

“I wish I could be like you, Aisha.”

“Why?” I asked, sincerely surprised.

“You live your life freely, embracing every moment,” she said softly. “You are not troubled by the past. Or the future.”

It was a strange comment from a strange girl, and I responded as best as I knew how.

“My father says that the past is like a dream from which one has awakened. Why look back on it? And the future is like a mirage in the desert. We keep racing after it, and it keeps running away from us.”

I was startled at my own words, which had a flourish of poetry that I had not realized was in me.

Fatima smiled sadly, and there was something so tragic in her look that I felt my heart break.

“And yet sometimes the mirage runs toward us,” she said. “And then we see it is made not of water but of fiery sand, sweeping away everything we love into the wind.”

I looked at her, confused, even frightened. And then the women ushered me out as Ali entered the room, his green eyes as distant and unreadable as ever.

19 Mountain of Uhud-March 23, AD 625

The day of reckoning came at last, and war was upon us. The Meccans had come to avenge the dead of Badr and destroy Medina. It was the first day of spring and the sparrows sang from the palm trees as our soldiers marched out to defend the oasis from the invaders. Abu Sufyan led a force of three thousand men and three hundred horses, while we were able to put together only seven hundred Muslims, along with three hundred tribesmen allied to the shadowy Ibn Ubayy. Despite the overwhelming superiority of our adversary’s numbers, the Muslims remained confident. After all, we had seen the miracle of Badr, where we had defeated an army three times our size.

And there had been a special sign of favor in the days just before the battle. The Messenger’s daughter Fatima had given birth to a son, a chubby and smiling little boy named Hasan. The Prophet’s own infant sons from his marriage with Khadija had died many years before and Hasan was now the only living male heir to the Messenger of God. His birth had come after a difficult pregnancy during which Fatima had spent weeks confined to her bed. The old women of Medina had begun to whisper sadly that the Prophet’s daughter was not strong enough to carry the child to term, and my husband’s face had become increasingly bleak and despairing in the days before her labor had set in.

But then, as if God had decided that the poor girl had suffered enough, Fatima’s pains vanished and she easily gave birth to the plump, curly-haired boy. The successful delivery of the Prophet’s heir represented a clear sign of hope for our Ummah. None of the Mothers had borne the Messenger any children, a fact that was the source of my greatest personal sorrow. But I took some comfort in the knowledge that if Hasan lived past the difficult weaning years, when most children succumbed to the cruelties of the desert, he would carry in him the sacred blood of the Messenger and ensure the survival of Muhammad’s family. The fact that Hasan was Ali’s son had instantly pushed the strange young man to even greater prominence in the community, a reality that was greeted with some bemusement by the elders among the Muslims.

But now all rivalries were set aside, for the enemy was at the gates of the oasis. The two hosts met on a valley just beyond a craggy volcanic mountain called Uhud, where the Messenger made camp and awaited Ibn Ubayy’s reinforcements. I sat beside my husband as he looked down from the heights to the plain below. The Meccan forces were like shiny beetles, their mail coats glinting up at us in defiance. With my falcon’s gaze, I could see the cavalry being led by a powerful, chiseled face man I recognized as the great Khalid ibn al-Waleed. He raised the visor of his helmet and scanned the battlefield, his eyes expertly following the curvature of the mountain, searching for any weak points in our defenses.

As I looked down at the Meccan camp, with its red, purple, and blue flags bringing color to the dead valley, I remembered how similar the scene was to the one I had witnessed a year before. Except that the enemy had tripled its forces and was motivated by vengeance rather than hubris.

If they succeeded, we all would be dead. And if they failed, they would be back again next year, with a larger force and a greater hunger for vengeance. It was as if every victory the Muslims secured only placed them on a new and more dangerous battlefield.

I sighed wearily and put a hand on my husband’s arm, more for my own comfort than his.

“Will there ever be peace, my love?”

“Yes. In Paradise,” he responded wistfully. “This world was born in war, and will one day perish in it.”

His fingers tightened around mine and I could feel the calluses on his hand from the many months of manual labor that had been required to build walls and strengthen Medina’s defenses. Muhammad could have absented himself from bricklaying as the chieftain of the oasis, but my husband understood the power of a leader who joined his men in doing the most mundane tasks. It created a bond of trust and loyalty whose true value could be proven only on a day like this.

I heard the steady crunch of rocks as heavy boots struck on the mountainside. I glanced over to see Umar, his massive body covered in rings of armor, race up toward our position. His face was contorted in rage.

“We have been betrayed! Ibn Ubayy has taken his men and turned back!”

My husband nodded grimly. Perhaps he had expected this possibility. Ibn Ubayy had thought the idea of confronting the Meccan force to be suicide and had argued that we should hide in our homes. Medina, with its winding streets layered with palm trees, would not be easily taken unless the Meccans wished to fight alley by alley, house by house.

But the Messenger had decided that allowing Mecca to cross the borders of the city, where they could wreak long-term havoc by burning our crops and poisoning our wells, was too dangerous. The Muslims had to cut the Meccan advance here. Apparently Ibn Ubayy did not agree and had chosen to abandon us even as the wolf pounced on our doorstep.

“Allah will protect us as long as we remain united,” he said calmly, but I could hear the edge in his voice. Even if angels came to help us as they had done at Badr, seven hundred versus three thousand presented unfavorable odds. If we were to hold back the Meccan line, there was no room for the slightest deviation in our strategy.

The sudden thunder of hooves echoed from the valley below, and I saw Khalid lead his horsemen toward a tiny pass at the base of the mountain. The Prophet raised his right fist and Talha grabbed a black flag and twirled it. The sign was seen by a group of archers hidden in a ridge to the east of our position and a volley of arrows suddenly rained down on the Meccan cavalry. The horses reared in surprise and Khalid pulled his men back, his eyes scanning the mountain until he located the source of the projectiles. The cavalry did not retreat to the Meccan camp but held position just outside the range of our arrows.

The Messenger rose and shouted across the hill, his voice echoing to the archers.

“Hold your positions,” he cried. “You are the vanguard of the Muslims. Do not lower your bows until I command you!”

The archers nodded and I felt a stirring of hope. As long as they remained in place, Khalid would be unable to ride through the pass and attack our forces from the rear. The Muslims held the benefit of high ground, which somewhat mitigated the Meccan advantage in numbers.

The rumble of drums caused my eyes to flash back to the Meccan camp. As one figure moved forward and I recognized the scarlet-and-gold turban.

“O men of Aws and Khazraj!” Abu Sufyan called out. “Quit the field now and leave my cousin to me. Once we have killed this troublemaker, Mecca will leave your lands. We have no fight with you!”

Perhaps his offer would have carried weight three years before, when the people of Medina had still seen one another as members of one tribe or the other. But since we had arrived, I heard less and less the mention of these ancient clans as the citizens began to think of themselves first and foremost as Muslims. As if reading my thoughts, the leaders of the Aws and Khazraj responded to Abu Sufyan’s challenge with a unified thunder of war drums.

“So be it.” Abu Sufyan nodded, as if he had expected this response. As the leader of Mecca turned back to his people, I heard the rattle of timbrels and a familiar sensual voice rose up from the camp, sending shivers down my spine.

It was Hind, leading a group of women in a dance around the soldiers. They were dressed in tight-fitting tunics and skirts cut high to reveal flashes of their thighs as they whirled and chanted, arousing the lust of their men, a fire that would soon be stoked to white-hot rage.

“Advance and we embrace you, and soft carpets spread,” they sang in throaty voices, like lovers crying out at the height of passion. “But turn your backs and we leave you. Leave you and never love you.”

It was an ancient verse, sung by women of every generation to goad their men to battle. And I could see its power. The Meccan soldiers clashed their swords to shields and bared their teeth like wolves as Hind ignited their loins and their hearts to a frenzy.

Watching Hind, I was both fascinated and repelled by her power. There was something both beautifully feminine and ruthlessly feral about her. I wanted to run from Hind, and at the same time I wanted to learn from her all the terrible secrets she held, the secrets of women’s power over men.

As Hind crouched and spun to the thrumming beat of the women’s timbrels, I saw Hamza step forward, watching her. And then Hind saw him, recognized the ostrich feather he always proudly wore on his helmet, and bared her teeth in what could have been a smile or a snarl. Or both at once, if that were possible.

“That woman is the devil,” Hamza said, his eyes focused on her sensuous, swaying form. Bilal stood beside him, his eyes poring over the front lines of the enemy forces.

“They have even brought their slaves today,” he said with clear regret. “I see Wahsi, my friend.”

Hamza placed a comforting hand on the shorter man’s shoulder.

“There are no friends on the battlefield, Bilal,” he said without hesitation, but I could hear the compassion in his voice. “If you face him in the heat of war, do what you must.”

Bilal nodded sadly. And then the thunder of drums stopped. The women fled from the front lines and disappeared into the Meccan camp as the true dance of death began. As at Badr, the Meccans sent forth a champion, a young man I did not recognize but who strode onto the field proudly, jeering confidently at his opponents. He swung his mighty sword and twirled it like the African fire-eaters I had seen perform when a caravan from Abyssinia stopped at Mecca years before. It was a powerful show, meant to mock and terrify the Muslims at the same time.

The Prophet dispatched Ali, who strode out onto the battlefield, his dual-bladed sword, Dhul Fiqar, glowing in the sunlight. And then, without any words or performance, Ali struck out and in one blow tore through the Meccan champion’s breastplate. The man fell over dead, the mocking smile still frozen on his lips. I heard a horrified cry, and another man, who distinctly resembled the thin-faced champion, rushed out onto the battlefield. This second warrior, almost definitely the brother of the first, ran after Ali, who was facing away from the attacker. And then Hamza charged out onto the plain and hacked the brother to death with his terrifying broadsword before he could stab Ali in the back.

Silence fell over the battlefield as both sides stared in shock at this duel that had lasted no more than a half a minute. It was such a similar moment to what I’d seen at Badr that I had that strange feeling that sometimes comes when the veil of time is tangled and past and present become one. The Meccans must have felt the same, because the sight of their most feared champions struck down again like unarmed children sent a wave of rage and fear through the enemy camp.

And then, without further ceremony, the warriors of Mecca charged.

This time no cloud of dust arose to block my view of the battle, nor did I witness any ghostly riders come to our aid. What I saw beneath me was raw and brutal and would forever haunt my memory.

The Meccans flew at our men with unbridled savagery. Their swords flashed red as the sun reflected off the volcanic rock and soon the ancient stones were splattered with a darker shade of crimson. The clash of blades against shields was deafening, as if a thousand bolts of lightning had struck at the base of Uhud, the thunder reverberating with such painful force that I covered my ears with tightly clenched fists.

Wave upon wave, they came upon us like an ocean of metal racing to flood the valley with death. And yet the Muslims held their ground. We had the protection of the mountain, and even as our front lines held up their shields to the unrelenting onslaught, those behind them rained spears and arrows upon the attackers.

I heard screams everywhere-the cries of pain and triumph, as well as the whimpers of the dying. To my surprise, many of the mortally wounded who had only moments before fought with such animal ferocity now became like little children, crying out for their mothers as the horror of death came upon them. It was that desperate weeping that shocked me more than anything else I witnessed that day, and suddenly the curtain of glory was stripped away and war was presented in it naked ugliness. As the smell of gore and entrails wafted up to me, I looked away, trying to hide the tears that were welling in my eyes. Tears for an enemy that would have no qualm slicing my body to shreds should any escape death and penetrate our defenses. It made no sense and I felt shame and disgust and horror all at once.

Despite my best efforts to hide my conflicted feelings, the Messenger saw the grief on my face and nodded. He understood.

I forced myself to look, to watch this deadly massacre that was unfolding only fifty feet away from me. I saw Hamza tear through the front lines, his ostrich feather splattered with grime and human remains as he cut down men with the ease of a farmer using a sickle on shafts of grain.

And then suddenly the Muslim defense became an offense. With Hamza in the lead, our warriors began to push through, forcing the Meccans to give ground and tumble back toward their camp in disarray. The reversal of momentum only increased the courage of our forces and the confusion of the enemy, and suddenly the Muslims were streaming across the battlefield and the Meccans desperately seeking to stave off our advance. I heard cries of joy as the stalemate broke and the advantage went to the followers of Muhammad. Despite my own complicated feelings at the sight of the dreadful slaughter, I called out to the warriors, even as Hind had encouraged her own men to fight.

“Victory is within your grasp, my sons!” I cried out, unsure and uncaring whether they could hear me over the din of battle. As a twelve-year-old girl, I always felt awkward referring to grown men as my children. But it somehow felt right at this moment. I saw Talha look down at me and wink, and I flashed him a smile that made color rise to his cheeks.

And then I felt the Messenger stiffen. I thought perhaps I had done wrong by calling out to the troops as Hind had done, but when I looked at my husband, I saw that he was paying no attention to me. His eyes were on the battlefield as the Muslims advanced near the Meccan camp at the other end of the valley.

I strained my eyes to see the source of his consternation. As the armies battled like raging ants below, I saw one figure who stood out distinctly in the chaos. Tall, black, and unarmored, he moved like a bird, flitting through the madness without engaging in combat. It was the slave Wahsi, whom Bilal had sorrowed over, and I saw that he was unarmed except for a long javelin that he held like a third arm.

Down on the battlefield, Hamza was striking down his opponents like a living tornado. He struck off the head of one unlucky warrior and then spun and sliced off the arm of a second, who had tried to stab him from behind. Wherever Hamza went, howls of pain erupted and were quickly silenced.

And then the Prophet’s uncle stopped in the middle of a swing of his blade, his head raised as if he had heard something distinct in the midst of that horrible cacophony. He suddenly turned to his left and the jumble of warriors all around him parted for an instant, like the waters under the staff of Moses. And across that gap, less than thirty feet away, stood Wahsi.

And then Wahsi threw his javelin, which flew across the plain faster than my eye could see. In one instant, it was in the black slave’s powerful grasp. And then a moment later, I saw it tear through Hamza’s abdomen and explode out through the small of his back.

I heard the Messenger sob next to me, but I could not look at him. I was transfixed at the sight of this mighty warrior, standing with absolute dignity as a river of blood poured out of his wound. And then this mountain of a man fell, and my heart crumpled with him.

A shocked silence seemed to descend over the battlefield as soldiers on both sides stared at Hamza’s corpse. And then I heard something that made my blood chill. It was the terrifying laughter of Hind and it seemed to echo from every stone in the valley.

But it was laughter that was cut short. For the sight of their commander dead on the field only filled the Muslims with fury. And then, as if Hamza in death had given a share of his lion’s heart to each man present, the Muslims charged with renewed passion. There was a frenzy in them that was terrifying. The Meccan forces were unable to defend against this rage and I saw the front lines of our advance break through until the Muslims were swarming the heart of the Meccan camp, dealing out death like children swatting flies.

“Retreat!” Abu Sufyan’s despairing and humiliated cry rang out through the valley even as Hind’s bloodlust had echoed only minutes before. I saw the Meccan shields shatter and the mighty warriors flee for the security of a mountain pass that would facilitate their escape.

I looked at the Messenger, whose cheeks were stained with tears. Hamza had been his uncle, but they were of similar age and their bond had always been more like that of brothers. Hamza had helped fill the heart of a boy whose mother and father had left him an orphan without any other siblings. I took my husband’s hand and squeezed it, and he nodded gratefully.

The Muslims had won the Battle of Uhud even as they had won Badr. But each time there was a terrible price for Muhammad personally, the price of blood that God exacted on him and his family. First Ruqayya and now Hamza. For a man who hated fighting, whose message had always been one of peace, it was as if the cosmos were seeking to ensure that his heart would never become hard to the horror of warfare. Many kings thought of their soldiers as expendable, their deaths on the battlefield no more meaningful than a hill of ants crushed by a passing chariot wheel. But for the Messenger of God, war would always be personal, and the cost would have to be borne by those he loved the most.

Still, the victory was a remarkable one, which made Badr look like a small skirmish. Now the legend of the Muslims would spread throughout the desert and more tribes would join us in alliance. A victory of this magnitude would change the history of Arabia forever. And perhaps it would not be long before the Muslims would lay siege to Mecca and liberate the Sanctuary. And then the war would end and all Arabia would become Muslim.

I tried to think like a man, forcing my reason to subdue my raging grief. I told myself that it was a victory that was worth the terrible cost. But that same day I learned that victory should not be counted until the last man has fled the battlefield.

20

The archers positioned at the eastern ridge of Uhud watched with delight as the Muslims ravaged the Meccan camp, tearing its haughty pavilions to shreds and grabbing weapons and gold dropped by the fleeing pagans. The men cheered as the battle thundered toward its conclusion.

A young archer named Madani threw down his bow and began to climb down the hillside, gesturing excitedly to his colleagues.

“Let’s go, or we’ll lose our share of the booty!”

Their hearts wild with joy, the archers began to climb after the youth. But their commander, a short Aws tribesman named Safi who could shoot a rabbit a hundred feet away, signaled to his men to halt.

“Hold your positions! The Messenger has not relieved us!”

“No need! The battle’s over!” Madani’s voice was followed by a loud cheer from his friends as they tore down the mountainside and broke into a run toward the besieged Meccan camp.

Safi stared after them, despairing. He turned to look at the Prophet’s base camp across the hillside and saw that Messenger was standing, his face filled with alarm.

“No! Turn back!” The Prophet’s voice thundered across the ridge. And then the horsemen under Khalid’s command emerged from the shadows at the base of the mountain and rode like lightning toward the tiny pass that would allow them to attack the Muslims from the rear.

Safi fell to his knees in horror, shame and guilt tearing through him at his failure to enforce discipline. Khalid rode up right behind the poor Madani, whose youthful laughter was cut short by one blow from the mighty warrior’s blade. The other archers who had broken ranks were either slain or fled in terror at the sight of the Meccan cavalry that their shortsightedness had now unleashed on the Muslim army.

I COVERED MY MOUTH in horror as I witnessed Khalid’s horsemen ride up in a cloud of red dust to strike at our men from behind. There were shouts of confusion that quickly turned to screams of agony as Khalid expertly cut down the surprised Muslims. And then I felt the ground around me shake as the men who surrounded the Messenger raced down the face of Uhud to help their fallen comrades. But they were now trapped between the Meccan army to the south and the cavalry that rode down to them from the north, like mollusks caught between the crushing pincers of a giant crab.

In a matter of seconds everything had changed. A clear victory was beginning to look like a horrific defeat.

And then I saw a cloud of dust heading in our direction and I realized that some of the cavalry had broken off their rearguard assault when they realized that the Prophet’s base camp was relatively undefended. My heart flew into my throat as I saw a group of warriors racing toward us, spears drawn.

The few Muslims who remained at the camp included women who had accompanied their husbands to the battlefield and were now in danger of being swept into the heart of battle. Talha leaped to his feet to protect us, as did my elderly father. They were only half a dozen men, but they quickly formed a circle around the Messenger. And then I saw the women grab discarded bows and fire upon the onrushing cavalry. The unexpected rain of arrows from these courageous ladies surprised the horsemen and slowed their advance.

But slowing the cavalry was like trying to dam a raging river. One of the horsemen bravely rode through the wave of oncoming missiles and approached the edge of our camp. His sword was raised in challenge, and the sun illuminated his familiar face. And my heart forgot to beat.

It was my brother Abdal Kaaba, my father’s eldest son, who had rejected Islam and his family. And now he was bearing down upon us with deadly hate in his eyes.

“Who has the courage to face me?” he bellowed. The sun was in his eyes and I was unsure whether he recognized the people he threatened, his own flesh and blood. And then I saw my father move faster than I could have imagined possible for a man of his age. Abu Bakr’s sword was drawn and he moved to face his son in a deadly duel. I wanted to scream for this nightmare to end, for me to wake up in my small apartment and realize that none of theses horrors existed outside my fevered imagination.

As my father moved forward, I saw Abdal Kaaba look down at him and recognition dawn. A flash of shock lit his features, so similar to Abu Bakr’s that it was as if a spirit from inside a mirror had emerged to engage in battle. But then a shadow fell over my brother’s face and his shock was replaced by a mask of steel. If father and son were meant to fight to the death in this bitter contest, then so be it.

And then my husband rose and put a restraining arm on Abu Bakr.

“Sheathe your sword,” he said gently. “Go back to your place and give us the good of your company.”

The Messenger’s words penetrated to my father’s heart. He dropped his weapon and fell to his knees as if the tendons in his legs had suddenly been cut. I saw tears flowing down his face and I stared across the rocky hillside at my brother, wondering whether he would ride forward and kill us.

Abdal Kaaba looked at my weeping father, and then at me. And then he cursed loudly and turned back, riding away from this madness as if pursued by flying djinn. But even as he retreated, others rode forward and the small company of defenders prepared to engage them. As I looked at the stony faces in our tiny circle, I said a silent prayer to God, telling Him that if I died today, I would be thankful that death came while I had these remarkable people at my side.

Along with the ever-loyal Talha, my sister’s newly wed husband, Zubayr, stood at the edge of the circle with a sword in each hand. He was the only man I knew who could use each hand equally well and he had mastered the rare ability to wield two blades at once. As a second horseman galloped up the rocks toward our camp, Zubayr began to spin as if he were a dust devil. And then, with a dancer’s grace, he swung with his right hand and struck the approaching stallion in the breast. The mighty beast threw its rider as it flailed in agony, and as the stunned horseman fell, Zubayr continued his spin, his left hand traveling in a smooth arc through the air and slicing the man across the neck. Blood spurted from his severed jugular, and the Meccan warrior was soon lying dead next to his horse.

And then Ali was beside Zubayr, Dhul Fiqar glowing with that inexplicable light, and the two fought side by side, cutting down any Meccan foolish enough to ride up that hill of death. They were a wondrous pair, cousins who moved and acted like twin brothers who could read each other’s thoughts. There was a symmetry in the way Ali and Zubayr’s bodies moved, as if they were two wings of a giant butterfly, flapping with terrifying beauty. I had never seen two men act in such perfect unison and I admired the bond of love and kinship that forged their hearts together.

I regret many things in my life, dear Abdallah, and none more than the dagger I wedged between their hearts in the years to come. Your father was one of Ali’s few friends, and the poison that I sowed in that pure field of love would reap a better fruit for our nation. Perhaps God will forgive me. But I do not know how I can ever forgive myself.

That day, trust was not a matter of faith, friendship, or blood. It was a matter of life and death. My heart, which soared to see Zubayr and Ali protect our northern flank from attack, suddenly plunged as I saw a group of men abandon their horses and clamber up the southern rock face to attack us from behind.

I screamed and pointed to the incoming wave of Meccan soldiers, their swords held in their teeth as they spidered up the boulders. Talha was instantly at my side, and when he saw the new threat, he threw himself at the warriors.

I watched in horror as three pagans set upon my beloved cousin, who was now the only shield protecting the Messenger from certain death. Talha fought with madness in his eyes, a ferocity unlike anything I have ever seen. He struck blow after blow, even as enemies’ blades tore through his mail, leaving deep red gashes.

And yet Talha remained standing. He spun and lashed out, slicing off the arm of one assailant and then plunging his sword into the chest of a second. Talha’s sword caught inside the dying man’s rib cage and he could not remove it in time to deflect a blow from the last survivor, which cut cross his back with sickening eruption of gore. I watched in horror as Talha swayed and appeared ready to collapse. And then he somehow found the strength to raise his leg and kick his attacker in the abdomen. The man screamed as he went over the rocks and fell fifty feet, landing with a sickening crunch.

Talha staggered back to the Messenger, who was looking at him in wonder. I have no idea how he managed to walk. His armor was shredded and blood was pouring from a dozen wounds. He smiled down at the Messenger, and then his eyes fell on me. Somehow, Talha managed to wink. And then he collapsed.

“Tend to your cousin!” the Prophet cried, and I was immediately at his side. I checked his neck and felt the vein pulsing weakly with life. My father leaned over Talha, opened a water flask made from camel hide, and sprinkled the contents over his wounds. I tore strips of cloth from my cotton robe and began to bandage his numerous injuries.

Talha had protected our rear flank, but Khalid’s men were now charging en masse up the hill from the north. There were too many even for Ali and Zubayr to hold back and several of the riders broke through the pass and thundered toward us. And then I saw two women, Nusayba and Umm Sulaym, who had been firing arrows at the attackers, drop their bows and grab swords. These plump housewives with no training in the art of warfare rushed at the horsemen, swinging their blades with terrifying screams of rage. The Meccans stopped in midcharge, startled to be facing these crazed women. Their hesitation proved fatal, as Nusayba plunged her sword into the neck of one stallion, which threw his rider over the edge of a cliff, while Umm Sulaym lopped off the leg of another. When the horseman fell to the ground in shock, Nusayba cut off his head.

But even these fervent defenders could not hold everyone back. I saw a warrior whose name I later learned was Ibn Qamia ride past Ali and Zubayr, who were occupied with fighting two horsemen each, and thunder past the women, who were forced to jump aside as his warhorse nearly trampled them to death.

And then Ibn Qamia saw the Messenger seated on the rocky ground, and he gave a bloodcurdling cry. My eyes went wide as I realized there was no one to defend us from this onrushing wave of death.

I saw my elderly father reach for his sword and race toward the enraged stallion. But Ibn Qamia swatted out with one hand, striking Abu Bakr on the face with the flat of his sword and knocking him to the ground. I screamed for my father, tears blurring my sight. Ibn Qamia was nearly upon us and I saw the Messenger rise, facing death with a courage that would escape lesser men. I watched Ibn Qamia’s sword flash in the angry sunlight as he swung out in a wide arc, aimed perfectly to cut Muhammad’s head from his shoulders.

“No!” I screamed so loudly that I am sure my voice rattled the gates of Hell itself.

And then I felt movement beside me, and before I could understand what was happening, Talha’s eyes flew open and he jumped to his feet, his left hand rising to block the razor sharp blade.

I watched in disbelief as the sword cut through Talha’s palm, shattering the fingers of his hand as if they were made from dried mud. As the warrior tore Talha’s hand in half, Ibn Qamia’s flawless motion was disrupted and the arc of the sword was deflected higher. Instead of striking the Messenger in the throat, the blade slashed up and smashed into the steel of his helmet.

Blood erupted from my husband’s cheek and he fell like a doll thrown to the earth by a temperamental child. The Messenger of God lay unmoving at my feet, his handsome face marred by torn flesh and metal.

Ibn Qamia looked down, stunned at his accomplishment. He had done what the greatest warriors of Quraysh had failed to do over the past fifteen years. His eyes wide with the promise of glory, he raised his sword and called out from the mountainside, his voice carrying across the valley like a trumpet blast.

“Muhammad is dead! Muhammad is dead!”

21

I could hear the cries of joy from the Meccans and the terrible weeping of despair from our people as the chant of “Muhammad is dead” spread through the valley. As Ibn Qamia rode away in triumph, I stared down at the Messenger, unable to move. If he truly was gone, I wanted to climb to the top of Uhud and throw myself into the darkest gorge below.

And then I saw the impossible. His eyes flickered and opened and he looked up at me in confusion.

“Humayra…”

I was suddenly flying, my heart breaking through the boundaries of time and space even as Muhammad had on the sacred Night Journey. My vision blinded by tears, I stood up and cupped my hands around my mouth as I cried out to the valley below.

“Muhammad lives!”

At first my words echoed and were lost in the din of madness below. And then I heard it. The steady thrum of a cry that resounded all around Uhud.

“Muhammad lives! Muhammad lives!”

The earth below began to shimmer with the glint of armor as our surviving warriors, energized by new hope, defiantly fought off the Meccans and climbed back up the side of the mountain.

As the Muslim soldiers returned to the safety of the high ground, I knelt down beside the Messenger and saw that his shattered helmet had absorbed most of the blow. My husband had lost two teeth and a good deal of blood, but he would survive with little more than a scar on his cheek that would be easily concealed under the rich black curls of his beard.

And then I heard the whinny of horses and realized that the danger was not yet over. Khalid’s men were regrouping and would launch another raid up the mountainside unless we could get the Prophet to safety.

Ali and Zubayr had returned to his side, and they helped the Messenger to his feet. Working together, we helped my husband climb to higher ground. Zubayr saw the crevice of a cave above us that would provide shelter and hide the Messenger from potential assassins until our army had retaken control of Uhud. Ali climbed up first and held his hand out to the Messenger. But the Prophet was disoriented from the pain and could not navigate the steep rock face to reach the ledge. I saw him desperately search for a handhold as he began to swoon.

And then, despite everything he had already done and sacrificed, poor broken Talha somehow managed to hoist the Messenger on his back and climbed the sheer rock wall until he had cleared the ledge. I cannot imagine the pain that must have racked his shattered hand as he pulled them both up and I felt a deep welling of love for Talha, a bond that would make him closer than a brother in my heart.

With the Messenger safe, I could turn my attention to the world below. The battle was over. The Muslim victory had been reversed and both sides had been left bloodied and exhausted. The last of our survivors clambered up the hill and the Meccans pulled back, realizing that it was futile to pursue the fight further.

I felt my heart pounding in my chest and I had to force myself to calm my breath before I lost consciousness. I had seen too much horror that day and I could not imagine that there was any more evil that could poison my eyes.

But Hind would soon show me that the pit of darkness had no bottom.

22

The battlefield smelled like a corpse that had been rotting for a week. The black volcanic ash mixed with the odor of disemboweled intestines, punctured hearts, and the rubbery gray slime of brain matter. It was a smell that would stay in my nostrils for weeks. It would penetrate my nightmares and cause me to wake up in the middle of the night and vomit.

As I looked down with grief at the many young and old who had suffered gruesome deaths on the field below, the sky darkened. The sun was blotted out by a vast flock of vultures, and the sound of their wings flapping impatiently above the valley made my skin crawl.

And then, as I peered through the battlefield for signs of any victims I knew by name, I saw a flash of color as Hind led her party of brightly clad dancers out among the corpses.

I watched in dread fascination as Hind moved among the fallen, gazing dispassionately at the muck and grime and exposed rib cages, until she found what she was looking for.

Hamza. The man who had killed her father still lay on his side, the javelin embedded deep inside his stomach. She knelt down as if to check to see if he were indeed dead, which was, of course, laughable, as he had lain there, skewered, for hours. And then Hind spoke, in a cold voice that sounded as dead as the men whose remains littered the ground beneath her dainty golden slippers.

“So here is the great Hamza,” she hissed like a cobra, her voice echoing through the valley. “They said you had the heart of an eagle and the liver of a lion. Let’s see if that is true.”

Hind grabbed a bloody knife from among the many weapons that had been dropped in the heat of battle. And to my horror, she cut deep into Hamza’s side and tore open his flesh. With her bare hands, she dug into the dead man’s flesh like a butcher ripping off fat from a shank of lamb. And then she tore out Hamza’s liver.

My stomach quivered violently in disgust as I watched Hind hold up Hamza’s liver high for the men of both camps to see. And then she put it in her mouth and ate it, the blood of Muhammad’s beloved uncle dripping down the sides of her mouth. She chewed it and swallowed, and then retched violently. Hind doubled over, vomiting back a portion of the human flesh she had consumed before all.

And then her gagging cough turned into a maniacal laugh and she grabbed the knife and proceeded to cut off Hamza’s nose and ears.

I heard moans and cries of horror from both camps. The pagan Arabs had strict taboos against disfiguring the dead of their enemies, and what Hind was doing was beyond even the meager moral restraints that their primitive religion imposed on their souls. But Hind seemed utterly oblivious to the disgust of her own people, and she began to sway like a kite in the wind.

And then, human blood still dripping from her plump lips, Hind began to dance and sing around the mutilated body of her enemy. She tore open her robes and smeared the blood of Hamza across her breasts. I could see the curve of her ample bosom as she stripped off her gold necklaces.

“O beauties of Mecca, thro