Pushkin Press, £10.99, 360pp £9.89 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Silence Of Mohammed, By Salim Bachi, trans. Sue Rose

It is not two years since the offices of Martin Rynja were firebombed by fanatics who objected to his firm, Gibson Square, publishing Sherry Jones's The Jewel of Medina. Although three men were convicted of the attack, the novel, about the Prophet Muhammad's wife Aisha, has still not troubled the presses of this country.

The attackers had, of course, not read the book, but then neither had most of those who burned Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. Any less than hagiographical account of Islam's Messenger, it seems, carries the risk of violence – a risk second-guessed or even encouraged by non-Muslims with an overdeveloped care for the sensitivities of the believers.

All of which may lead one to ask whether Salim Bachi was being brave, or merely foolhardy, by not only choosing the life of Muhammad as the subject of his latest novel but by making Aisha, whose marriage to the Prophet at the age of nine has provided much grist to the mill of those who wish Islam ill, one of its four narrators. Neither, is the answer. For Bachi is an Algerian writing in French, and while they may have voted to ban the burqa across the Channel, they also have the good sense to see The Silence of Mohammed for what it is, a work of literary fiction. Indeed, it was shortlisted for one of France's highest honours, the Prix Goncourt.

Would that this superb English translation be as widely read and praised here. For too often the details of the founding of Islam are reduced to a series of dates. 610: the beginning of Muhammad's revelations. 632: Muhammad dies and Abu Bakr becomes the first caliph. 656: Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, becomes the fourth caliph, soon after which Islam splits definitively between Sunni and Shia.

What Bachi does is to tell, in a simple, poetic and beguiling style, of Muhammad the man. He brings both the times and the historic records vividly to life. It may be that the marks of prophecy were observed on this poor Meccan orphan as a child, by the Christian hermit Buhayra, but the context of how he came to found one of the world's great religions is not so well-known.

The battles he had with family members who rejected this new monotheism, keen as they were to continue to profit from pilgrims come to worship the idols in the Kaaba. The love match of his first marriage to the older Khadija: "I'd brought him my wealth, and he'd given me his ardour and intelligence", she tells us as the book's first narrator, referring to him tenderly as Abu al-Qasim, father of Qasim, the first of their three sons, all of whom died young. The fact that he was 40 before he began receiving the revelations of the Qur'an; and what it must have felt like to have these illuminations. "May God forgive me, he thinks he'd mad," writes Khadija, "but I'm sure he isn't; such a man cannot be mad."

The complexities of the relationships between the Jews of Medina, the Christian Abyssinians who ruled Yemen, and the polytheistic Arabs, who alone appeared not to have been blessed with their own religion; and of the tensions already present in the Prophet's lifetime that later led the Shia't Ali – the party of Ali – to claim that he should have succeeded to the leadership of Muslims.

We read of a caring, passionate man, a pragmatist not a rigid ideologue, a wise judge, and a best friend to Abu Bakr, the book's second narrator and the father of Aisha, whose voice carries the final quarter. Far from being the victim of a predatory older man, as Islam's detractors try to make out, Aisha comes across as an attractively feisty young woman, devoted to her husband and so jealous of rivals that she is unafraid to question the verses that authorise him to take others to his bed. "From what I can see, your God loses no time in satisfying your every desire," she tells him. "He just laughed, which made me furious."

It is a profound, beautiful and magical book, and a reproach to those who would make a harsh and unforgiving faith of a humane religion. As Muhammad says in the closing pages: "One day, Islam will be as much a stranger as it once was... They will say false things about my life. They will portray another man whom they will name Mohammed and whom they will brandish when circumstances demand." This may be a work of fiction, but it contains truths that the firebombers have forgotten in their fanaticism. Perhaps the problem is that they never knew them in the first place.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?