BOOK REVIEW / Barefoot in the desert: 'Far from Medina' - Assia Djebar Tr. Dorothy S Blair: Quartet, 16.95 pounds

THE WORDS of the Prophet Mohammed are supremely sacred. For Muslims, they are second in importance only to the Qur'an. Every Muslim believer moulds his or her life in accordance with them.

Yet the hadith, or the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, a fundamental source of Islamic law, are only words. They have been transmitted with great care. Each hadith is preceded by a chain of narrators that goes right back to Prophet Mohammed himself: 'so-and-so reported that so-and-so reported that so-and-so reported that the Prophet said'. Only a hadith with a complete and unbroken chain of narrators is considered authentic. Yet even the most authentic hadith consists of 'plural words, dual words'; words open to interpretation.

Even in Muslim scholarship interpretation of hadith is a contentious issue. Muslim novelists have kept well away from using hadith, as well as the key characters of the formative narrative of Islam, such as the Prophet and his companions, as a source of their fiction. Assia Djebar breaks the mould. And, no doubt, Far From Medina would upset the sensibilities of some orthodox Muslims.

Still, Djebar does not have a Rushdie-like 'god-shaped hole'. Her writing echoes with an acute awareness of the presence of a God within her. Her goal, she asserts, is ijtihad. To undertake ijtihad, that is to exercise independent reasoning in legal and religious matters, one must have more than a passing acquaintance with the fundamental religious and historic texts of Islam. Djebar knows the territory only too well.

Using hadith as well as the utterances of the companions of the Prophet as its main source, Far From Medina vividly reconstructs the life of a host of women who lived during the lifetime and around the Prophet. Both in the hadith and in official histories like that of Tabari and Ibn Sa'd these women appear only occasionally and briefly, but always in unforgettable circumstances. Djebar places them at the centre of her narrative and meticulously paints the events that brought them to the attention of chroniclers who, while conscientious in recollecting facts, were 'habitually inclined to let any female presence be overshadowed'. It is only where the official records are silent that Djebar turns to fiction to fill the gaps in the collective memory of Muslim civilisation.

The narrative loosely connecting the book's collection of characters and scenes, monologues and dreams, begins with the death of the Prophet Mohammed and ends with the death of Abu Bakr, his temporal successor and the first caliph of Islam. Within this period of just over two years, Djebar's women fight wars, struggle to gain their rightful inheritance, fall in love, preserve and report the sayings of the Prophet, and wash and bury their loved ones. While many of them lived in Medina, all of them were far from the political power that Medina characterised.

The most moving passages in the book concern the immediate family of the Prophet and Abu Bakr. There is Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr and the Prophet's young wife, who is anguished by the strife she witnesses in the Muslim community after the death of the Prophet; Fatimah, daughter of the Prophet, who is denied her fair share of inheritance in the name of the literal interpretation of the words of the Prophet, and becomes a rebel against Abu Bakr; and Asma, friend of Fatimah, and wife of Abu Bakr, who has to witness the greatest regret of Abu Bakr, gentlest of all men, on his deathbed: 'how I wish I had not stripped Fatimah's household or her family bare'.

But not all of Djebar's women are from the household of the Prophet or his companions. She explores the character, motives and emotions of a number of other women who perform legendary acts of courage and endurance. The Yemenite queen Sana who hatches a plot to kill Aswad, the false prophet; Umm Hakim, who walks the desert barefoot to save the husband she loves; the poetess of the Bani Kinda tribe who stands up to the Muslim general Khalid bin Walid and suffers the consequences; Karma, the Christian nun, who rescues her tribe from the advancing Muslim armies. Stories of women warriors, travellers and poets as well as mothers, wives and daughters are woven into a bewitching tapestry.

Far From Medina is not only a work of extraordinary brilliance, it is also a significant book for Muslims. Its importance lies not so much in the creative synthesis of authentic formative history of Islam with the tools of fiction, but in demonstrating that the same words can lead two equally pious and righteous individuals to opposing actions. Assia Djebar's ijtihad, her new insight, makes the formative words of Islam breathe fresh air while turning the spotlight on hitherto secluded areas of Islamic history. I, for one, am more than happy to follow her carefully chosen and dazzling words.