Posted by: Lister | August 15, 2008

Hiding The Jewel of Medina

Johann Hari, at the Independent, says we need to stop being such cowards about Islam. He cites the refusal to publish The Jewel Of Medina, a book by Sherry Jones.

The Jewel of Medina was bought by Random House and primed to be a best-seller – before a University of Texas teacher saw proofs and declared it “a national security issue”. Random House had visions of a re-run of the Rushdie or the Danish cartoons affairs. Sherry Jones’s publisher has pulped the book. It’s gone.

Such censorship is awful. But I think Hari then takes it too far to suggest that somehow this stops the topic of Aisha being discussed:

Ask enough tough questions and faith is inevitably pushed farther and farther back into the misty realm of metaphor – where it is less likely to inspire people to kill and die for it. But doubtful Muslims, and the atheists who support them, are being prevented from following this path. They cannot ask: what does it reveal about Mohamed that he married a young girl, or that he massacred a village of Jews who refused to follow him?

Google for it… The topic is all over the place. Hari again:

The story of Aisha also prompts another fundamentalist-busting discussion. You cannot say that Mohamed’s decision to marry a young girl has to be judged by the standards of his time, and then demand that we follow his moral standards to the letter. Either we should follow his example literally, or we should critically evaluate it and choose for ourselves. Discussing this contradiction inevitably injects doubt – the mortal enemy of fanaticism (on The Independent’s Open House blog later today, I’ll be discussing how Aisha has become the central issue in a debate in Yemen about children and forced marriage).

See: the topic is still available for discussion. And Hari won’t be the first to have ever brought it up. Not even the first this week.



  1. The author of the book comments at the WPost:

    When I set out to write a book about A’isha bint Abi Bakr, favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad, I never doubted that it would be published. After all, I had all the elements I needed for a terrific work of historical fiction: a remarkable heroine, little known in the West; a famous hero, widely misunderstood here; a setting unfamiliar yet exotic; and an exciting tale of love, war, spiritual awakening and redemption.

    Five years and seven drafts later, I had indeed landed a publisher for “The Jewel of Medina.” Not just any publisher, either, but Random House, the biggest house in the world.

    […] Then, a university professor, asked for an endorsement, called Random House with warnings of a terrorist attack by angry Muslims if my book were published. “A national security issue,” University of Texas associate professor Denise Spellberg reportedly said. “More dangerous than the Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons.”

    […] Several weeks later, Random House associate publisher Elizabeth McGuire delivered the final blow. After consulting with other academic “experts” in Islam as well as the company’s head of security, Random House executives had decided to “indefinitely postpone” publication. Not because of terrorist threats, mind you — but because of threats of terrorist threats. Because, in other words, of fear.

    […] I’m optimistic, but not naive. I expected my book to spark controversy. “The Jewel of Medina” is a novel of women’s empowerment, never a popular theme among fundamentalists of any faith. I was also aware that some would take offense at any fictional portrayal of Muhammad, especially one by a non-Muslim American woman. Given the respect with which I treat the Muslim prophet, however, I never expected to be killed because of it. I still don’t.

    As an advocate for peace, I have high hopes for “The Jewel of Medina” and its sequel, in which A’isha and her rival, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, are dual protagonists facing off in the first Islamic civil war. Already I’ve had many requests for interviews with Muslim journalists and have been invited to participate in a 90-minute chat on, a Muslim website which boasts of 13 million hits weekly.

  2. A review at the BBC:

    Some parts of the media are suggesting that this book is at the forefront of defending free speech. The author wants it to reach out to solve our global problems of intercultural dialogue. Between them they had me rolling around on the floor laughing.

    […] Sherry Jones, the author, says she wanted her book to be “at once a love story, a history lesson and a coming-of-age tale”.

    In order to do so, she fabricates a storyline about a lover, Safwan, whom Aisha runs away with – but then decides to leave and return to Muhammad.

    But this invented plot dominates, leaving barely any room for the real history and importance of her story.

    […] Allowing the book to be remembered only for the lack of interest it generated would have been the ultimate poetic justice.

    […] As the copyright note makes clear, this is a work of fiction.

    Take, for example, the night of “Hijrah”. This was the moment when the first band of Muslims left the hostile city of Mecca to move to Medina where Islam flourished – a turning point in Islamic history. But the book changes events to place Aisha at the house of Muhammad.

    […] Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, as well as one of the great leaders of early Islam, is portrayed as conniving, hot-tempered and lascivious. The Islamic texts document him as a consistently staunch defender of truth and justice, an upstanding character.

    […] Jones admits that she has introduced concepts that were absent from the period and place to help to create her story.

    For example, Aisha is put into purdah, seclusion, as a child, but this is an Indian sub-continental idea then unknown to Arabia.

    A huge focus of Aisha’s energies is to become the hatun, the lead wife, and make all the other wives bow to her. But hatun is a Turkish concept – and bowing is contrary to all Islamic teachings.

    What we end up with is an outdated Orientalist reading of an exoticised woman.

    Her angst is the angst of 19th Century Orientalists who couldn’t understand and therefore maligned ideas they found unfamiliar, such as veiling.

    The result is an awkward unconvincing story, created to fit a pre-existing pre-determined idea of what life for Muslim women ought to be like. The cover art is The Queen of the Harem, a 19th Century Orientalist painting of a European-looking woman.

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