A Review of Tamam Kahn’s Untold

Although the wives of the Prophet are held up as examples for Muslim women to follow, little is told about the human beings behind the women on pedestals. We all get told the same stuff—how Khadija supported her husband, Aisha’s work as a jurist and teacher—but the discourse focuses on their actions, not their persons.

Tamam Kahn’s Untold: A History of the Wives of Prophet Muhammad, published by Monkfish Press, aims to tell the human stories of the Prophet’s wives and succeeds. In the preface of the book, Kahn touches on her intentions: upon meeting strong Muslim women in Morocco, she wanted to tell the stories of strong women, including the back story. Indeed, what makes for a strong woman isn’t just her praiseworthy behavior, but also her imperfections, her humanity.

The format of the book is not like traditional biographies; it mixes original poetry and prose interlaced with history, a style which makes for an easier read than a straight-up biographical narrative.   Unlike other works on the subject of the Prophet’s wives, the way Kahn tells the story, at the crossroads between history and fantasy, social science and fiction, Untold can appeal to more than “just Muslims.” It is a wonderfully uplifting, spiritual read.

Untold invites us to contemplate the context of the Prophet’s marriages without falling into the trap of apologist discourse.  When discussing the Prophet’s marriage to Zaynab bint Jahsh, Kahn discusses the politics surrounding her divorce from Zayd and subsequent marriage with Muhammad, outlines possible motives, and concludes that “what might have happened between Zaynab and Muhammad is forbidden love, the onset of impulsive feeling, deep connection and pain.”

Aisha, far from the platitudes of your Dar-ul-Big-Beard textbook, is described as a “both naive and wise,” and a “formidable foe” due to her “vigilance” and her “uneasiness at sharing her husband.”  Khadija’s story is also reframed: instead of “just” being the woman who dropped everything to support Muhammad, she is painted as the cornerstone of his work.  “…She is part of all that is vivid in that landscape of dusty earth…the sustaining date fruit…She is the underground river beneath desert palm trees and gardens.”

The stories of the Prophet’s wives aren’t the only ones in Untold. Sections are dedicated to the humanity and strength of his daughters, as well.

Untold’s framing of the stories of the Prophet’s wives cast them in a new light. Instead of being untouchable examples for humankind, they become women we mere Muslims can relate to and emulate in all their humanity. The place of women in Islam is often talked about, but the stories of Muslim women themselves, less so. Untold fills a void in popular culture and helps to re-frame the role of Muslim women in narratives on Muslim women.  I highly recommend it.

  • Umar

    sounds like an attempt to present the Prophet’s (s)marital life in a manner more appealing to women with a taste for trashy romance novels. Thanks but i’ll stick to “darul big-beard”‘s books.

  • Asiah

    Disappointing to learn that she took the Orientalist/Islamaphobe approach to the Prophet saw ‘s marriage to Zaynab.

  • http://www.nicolecunningham.ch Nicole

    Salams Umar,
    Given the state of muslim marriage in today’s ummah and the role brothers have in NOT following the Prophet saws example, I don’t think there is anything wrong with presenting another point of view. I don’t read trashy romance novels anyway, so I am not sure if your example fits, especially since you haven’t read the book. :)

  • http://www.nicolecunningham.ch Nicole

    Salams Asiah,
    While I understand you pointing out its similarlites to Orientalist/Islamophobe point of view, I think Ms. Kahn’s point of view is more nuanced than that. I don’t think that either side has all the answers, and let’s be fair, it is a hard story to sugarcoat from a historical criticism point of view. I personally am tired of Muslims who aren’t ready to answer the tough questions about our history. What is nice about this book, regardless of the uncomfortable viewpoints it takes, is that unlike Orientalist and Islamophobe literature, this book is quite nuanced and sympathetic to Muslim women and how it applies past experience to what we (speaking as a Muslim woman) live today. We all have cat fights and drama, and it is silly to create this Disney World Sahaba situation, which is sadly what we are taught in the masajid.

  • Umar

    What’s there to sugarcoat? “Forbidden love” is simply,way too strong of a term to describe this situation. The term is usually used to describe situations where there’s an element of lusting or yearning by one or both parties, to a point where these emotions have some sort of substantive impact in the lives of those with these feelings. However these elements are not present in the relationship between the Prophet (s) and our mother Zainab (ra)prior to their marriage. Using that term superimposes a character onto the relationship that is false and is quite frankly disrespectful.

  • http://readwithmeaning.wordpress.com Mezba

    “Disney World Sahaba situation” love that term!

    Which is why I like Reza Aslan’s “No God but God” – it gives some alternate stories (versions) other than what we were taught as kid.

  • http://shonarhorinchai.wordpress.com Saqiba

    I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but Zaynab (RA) divorced Zaid (RA) because of their class differences; it’s a very realistic thing. Neither of them were people ‘bad’ people but simply two people who could not adjust to to each other because of the way they had been raised. I believe it removed some of the stigma that surrounded divorce back in those days, and it stood for the fact that Islam is a pretty realistic religion- it’s great if you marry someone because they’re pious but it still won’t magically make either of you turn into a different person.

    Honestly, using the term ‘forbidden love’ is disrespectful.

    Also I’ve never really seen Khadija (RA) only as the woman ‘who dropped everything to support Muhammad (SM)’. She was an inspiration to every Muslim in her generation and even today so many people spend their earnings in the way of Allah, because that’s how she spent her earnings.

    I do think that if I can get my hands on this book someday, I will read it because I may not agree with what’s written in it, but hey, maybe she wrote about other well-known incidents like ‘the honey eating incident’ where some of the Prophet (SM)’s wives told him that his breath smelled bad after eating honey and if I’m right, one of the wives (RA), who was a Jewish convert, was at many times doubted by the other wives (RA) because of her heritage. These incidents (that proved that these wonderful women were very human) did happen, unlike the supposed ‘forbidden love’.

    Sorry for the long, long comment but this is my first time posting here, and I really love this place :).