The main theme of Brooks’s novel is religious tolerance and intolerance. In Sarajevo, people of different religions lived next door to one another. Their churches, mosques, and temples were built closely together as well. However, wars and invasions have changed the cultural climate, both physically and spiritually.
One of the symbols of this former tolerant attitude is the Sarajevo Haggadah, a lavishly illustrated Jewish text. Historically, the Jewish religion has not favored illustrations. Depictions of religious figures were more often used in Christian texts. The inclusion of the illustrations, therefore, is a melding of the two religions. Another form tolerance is the fate of the Haggadah. The sacred text is threatened several times, and it is not just Jewish people who save it. Muslims become involved, too. This makes the Sarajevo Haggadah assume the symbol of tolerance as well as survival—a symbol of Sarajevo itself.
In the flashback section of the novel, the persecution of Jews is paramount, from the fifteenth century up until the twenty-first. Jews are forced to leave Spain. They are prohibited from living in any part of Venice other than the Ghetto. During World War II, the Nazis annihilate thousands of Jews. Even in the twenty-first century, tension between Jews and Arabs is present. By the end of the novel, however, there is a hint of a return to religious tolerance in Sarajevo, at least between Muslims and Jews.
The theme of love is also apparent. First there is Hanna’s love for Ozren. Love underlies Hanna’s interest in being in and returning to Sarajevo. It is hinted that Ozren loves Hanna, but Ozren is so consumed and scarred by the loss of his wife and child that his emotions are not fully developed.
Hanna’s love for her father is also explored. This, again, is not a fully developed love, as Hanna never knew her father. It is a love she wishes she had experienced, rather than one she enjoys.
In the flashback stories to earlier times, Lola has a very compassionate nature. She loves her little sister and wants to take her to the mountains to save her life. While living in the mountains, Lola expresses her love for the other members of the resistance group by washing their clothes to rid them of lice and taking care of them when they are ill. Lola also experiences maternal love for the infant in her care while hiding in the Muslim home.
Maternal love is also something the character Riti experiences. She helps deliver her sister-in-law’s baby. She keeps decides to keep the baby boy as her own, rather than drowning the child as the mother wished.
When Isabella is sent to live with Nura, the emir’s wife, the two form a loving bond. Both Isabella and Nura are being held against their will. Their love for one another helps the women fight for their mutual survival.