Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Meet the characters - Muhammad V

At the same time as the Meet My Main Character theme had become popular on the blogs of other writers of historical fiction, I had planned to introduce the others in my cast of characters from Sultana: The Bride Price. Here's the hero of the novel, Sultan Muhammad V.

Rudolf Swoboda's "Portrait of Abdul Karim: The Mushni" (1888)
reminds me of Muhammad V. Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Readers of Sultana: Two Sisters while remember Muhammad as the only son of Sultan Yusuf and his former Christian slave, Butayna. At the abrupt end of his father's life, Muhammad came to the throne. The novel opens with him at fourteen months into his reign, where he is contemplating more than just the marriage offer made to his cousin Jazirah, which I talked about in a previous post. I imagine Muhammad's physical appearance as similar to this painting; he's dark-haired, a bit burly, always well-dressed, but saddled with a brooding personality.

As the eldest of the three sons of Yusuf, Muhammad faces turmoil within his harem. He's plagued by worry that his stepmother Maryam, the villainess of Two Sisters, is plotting against him along with the governors of his province. Since Yusuf did not officially name an heir before his death, leaving it to high ranking ministers to select Muhammad, his position is a little precarious. The continued rivalry between his mother Butayna and Maryam becomes dangerous, as each women develops factions for support within and outside the palace. Muhammad's been burdened by duty for so long that he can't even contemplate marriage to the woman he truly loves, a Berber concubine named Haziyya al-Riyad. Even more perplexing, Haziyya nor any other concubine in his harem has managed to conceive a son for him in years. Coupled with the fact that his future bride's father numbers among malcontents who wonder whether Muhammad's ministers made the right choice of an heir, he doesn't start off the novel in a very happy place.    

Muhammad is, as with most of my characters, based on the historical figure of Sultan Abu Abdallah Muhammad V of the Nasrid Dynasty, based within Granada's Alhambra. Born January 4, 1338, he ascended the throne when he was sixteen immediately after his father's death. In writing about him, I didn't have to dig too deep to imagine what life would have been like for a teenager to lose a parent - my father died when I was the same age. Luckily, I didn't have even one quarter of the responsibilities Muhammad would have faced at the time. As the new ruler of a kingdom slowly shrinking while the Castilians and Aragonese nibbled away at Granadine territory in the north and the Muslims of Morocco tried to influence Granada's politics and future, Muhammad needed counselors at his side. He relied upon two men from his father's reign in particular, each of whom play strong secondary characters, the ministers Ridwan and Ibn al-Khatib. But there comes a time in every young person's life when you want to step out from the shadows cast by the adults in your life, and Muhammad's experience wasn't any different.

He was one of the most enlightened rulers of Moorish Spain. He is largely responsible for the beauty within Alhambra that we are fortunate to see today. He ordered the construction of one of the best hospitals in fourteenth century Spain, the Maristan. When the Castilians under Enrique II began a relentless persecution of Jews, Muhammad welcomed them into Granada. He met or knew many of the famed scholars of the time, including Ibn Battuta who visited during Yusuf's reign and Ibn Khaldun, who would later serve as an ambassador to Castile on Muhammad's behalf. He regained much of the territory lost by his ancestors to other rulers, including a major victory at the port city of Algeciras in 1369. During his reign, he sired at least four sons and one daughter, leaving his kingdom and his heir poised to continue with great achievements.

How does my portrayal square with the real Muhammad V? The factual accounts of his life certainly influenced the events I've written about in The Bride Price, but historical fiction isn't just names, dates and places. It's about people. In the novel, Muhammad is shrewd beyond his years, but also a very suspicious young man who sees traitors hiding in every darkened corner. The sudden loss of his father shapes his perspective, as does his relationship with his mother, who as a Christian and a former slave, is viewed with some merited suspicion by others in the kingdom. When she exhibits very secretive behavior while insisting on her son's marriage to a traitor's daughter, Muhammad can't help but wonder whether his mother has his best interests at heart. I don't doubt the real ruler must have faced similar quandaries, not knowing whom to trust. Find out how the fictionalized Muhammad resolves his difficulties in Sultana: The Bride Price.                   

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