Dubbed the ‘Halal Game of Thrones’, the epic fantasy novel Last of the Tasburai is an action packed page-turner that will prove popular with Muslim readers, young and old. SeekersHub interviews the author, Rehan Khan.
Why did you get into fiction writing?
REHAN: Fiction, particularly fantasy and sci-fi creates a safe place to explore controversial issues the author observes in society. So in the Last of the Tasburai, there is a struggle going on between the forces of extremism and those who seek the middle way. Great works of fiction, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which the animals overthrow the farmer, are wonderful stories but also powerful metaphors – in the case of Animal Farm, Orwell was making a comment about the brutalities of Stalin’s rule in the former Soviet Union. Last of the Tasburai contains subtle references to historical events, characters, and places. For me understanding history helps make sense of where we are today and provides some idea of where we’re going – history does repeat itself, because human nature remains the same – generosity and greed, love and hate, courage and cowardice.
What are the key themes in the book?
REHAN: The Greek Philosopher, Aristotle referred to the four virtues a person should strive four – wisdom, courage, temperance (moderation) and justice. I wanted to write a story in which courage was placed at the center. So for Aristotle when courage was in the golden mean it came across as valour, steadfastness and being able to control one’s anger. When courage was unbalanced in a person on the side of excess, it became recklessness and arrogance. When on the side of deficit, it led to cowardice and meanness. So it got me thinking what would happen if the very best people in society developed a misplaced notion of courage. Rather than being steadfast they became reckless and arrogant. What would be the implications for society? From this the idea for the Tasburai warrior emerged. In my mind the Tasburai were the best of the people – an elite selfless warrior class who held deeply mystical beliefs. I like to describe the Tasburai as a cross between Japanese Samurai, with their bushido (the way of the warrior) and Sufi mystics, with their ideas on tasawwuf (spiritual development and cleansing the heart). So the deeper meaning behind the story is the journey human beings take to return to the golden mean, because when we are in the mean, though we’re all different we can connect with other human beings. Whereas when individuals go to the extreme, it polarizes and splits society. The notion of the middle way is reflected in all great traditions. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ reminds the believers to strive for moderation in all actions. Likewise in Confucianism, we have the doctrine of the mean and in Buddhism we have the middle way.
What do your own kids think of it?
REHAN: That’s a difficult one, but I did notice that when my son was reading the novel, he was sitting on the edge of his seat, so perhaps that’s the answer to your question.
Does the book pay particular attention to male, Muslim masculinity?
REHAN: Not directly, but in a circuitous manner there is a comment. Three of the main protagonists in the novel are women and two are men, which is unusual in the fantasy genre. I’ve always found that women tend to be better at reflecting, whereas men want to do stuff. In their haste and hubris men are often drawn to extremist ideas, which promise immediate results. In the novel there is an extremist group called the Hawarij, which I’ve loosely based on the Khawarij who in the history of the Muslim world were notorious for assuming they were holier than others and as a result everyone but themselves were apostates. Today, groups like Daesh are their inheritors, they’ve always appealed primarily to young men, looking for adventure, or wanting to do something with their life. During the time of Saladin they appear as the Assassins. Saladin was known as magnanimous and generous, even the Crusaders regarded him with reverence, a Knight no less. He negotiated with every group except for the Assassins, who attempted to kill him on at least two occasions. We shouldn’t forget they were called the Assassins or the Hashishins because everyone thought they were taking Hashish – a historical fact to reflect on.
Who was your muse?
REHAN: I suppose it kicked off in 2009 when my daughter, who was six years old at the time, asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Clearly she didn’t appreciate that going to an office every day was work! I wrote a column in The National on 9th November 2009 entitled “What I want to be when I grow up.”
It was around this time that I started planning in earnest for the Last of the Tasburai. I attended the Oxford University Summer School for Adults in 2010 and remember sitting under the shadow of Oxford’s medieval castle, scribbling notes about a story centered on courage and valour. It was the genesis of the Tasburai trilogy.
What is your advice to aspiring Muslim writers and what kind of reality check would you offer them?
REHAN: As a writer you must choose to include a selection of elements in your story to arouse a certain emotional response in the reader. These elements relate to: the setting, the characters and the plot. And each of these elements must be infused with conflict. This makes for an interesting read. In order to achieve this, for a first novel you need to spend about 50 per cent of your effort on designing the novel, so designing the setting (location, time period, world/s), the characters (what they look like, who they really are inside) and plot (what is the causation in the story). Last of the Tasburai, took me four years to design and write, end to end. The key is to persevere and keep on practicing. Often the first draft of whatever you write will be poor – I know it happens to me all the time – but keep on uplifting the language, polishing it and it will improve. The horror novelist, Stephen King says that if you want to call yourself a writer, you need to be producing 1000 words per day. That’s advice I’ve always followed.
Last of the Tasburai is available on Amazon and iTunes.