A romance novel about the child bride of the prophet Mohammed has been withdrawn because its publisher feared possible terrorist acts by Muslim extremists.
The Jewel of the Medina was to have been released on August 12 by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, with an eight-city tour for first-time novelist Sherry Jones, 46.
But the publishers apparently panicked after a professor in Texas who had been approached for a pre-publication blurb, strenuously objected to the work.
Denise Spellberg, who teaches Islamic history at the University of Texas at Austin, later described the novel as "soft core pornography".
Jones rejects the charge. "It's ridiculous," she told the Guardian today.
"I must be one heck of a writer to have produced a pornographic book without any sex scenes. My book is as realistic a portrayal as I could muster of the prophet Mohammed's harem and his domestic life. Of course it has sexuality, but there is no sex in my book."
The withdrawal of the novel, first reported this week by the Wall Street Journal, set off an intense debate on the web among feminists, young Muslims, and academics.
Many of the bloggers recalled the death threats and uproar 20 years ago following the publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.
There were also references to the global upheavals that followed the publication of cartoons in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, deemed offensive to Islam. More than 100 people died in the ensuing protests.
The saga of the Jewel of the Medina began unspoolling last April when the publishers sent out galleys to scholars and writers for recommendations. Until then, the publishers had raised no concerns about the novel, Jones said.
She said she became interested in the topic after 9/11 and spent two years researching the novel, posting a 29-book bibliography on her blog. Jones suggested Spellberg for an endorsement because she had drawn from her work.
"It was my hope that my book would be a bridge builder, develop empathy for this other culture that we know so little about in this country," she said. "It has always rankled me the way history focuses on men and wars and men's politics and leaves women out. I wanted to honour the women in Mohammed's life by giving them a voice."
Spellberg, however, seems to have been horrified by the end product. The book's marketing blurb and the prologue, both available online, give some indication of her fears.
The novel is an amalgam of bodice ripper and historical fiction centred around Aisha, the favourite wife of the prophet Mohammed.
The marketing blurb compared the work to Memoirs of a Geisha.
"Married at nine to the much-older Muhammad, A'isha uses her wits, her courage, and her sword to defend her first-wife status even as Muhammad marries again and again, taking twelve wives and concubines in all," the plot summary reads.
The book's prologue opens with an account of a story that will be familiar to Muslims of an episode when Aisha was accused of adultery after she became separated from Mohammed and his entourage in the desert.
In Jones's account, Aisha, now aged 14, is not entirely satisfied with her marriage, and is making her scandalous return to Medina in the company of another man.
The novel also imagines the consummation of the marriage between Mohammed and Aisha, who was nine years old at the time. "I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography," Spellberg told the Journal.
She immediately called a colleague and editor of a Muslim website to share her misgivings. The guest lecturer, Shahed Amanullah, told the Wall Street Journal that Spellberg asked him to warn other Muslims about the novel. "She was very upset."
The novel became a topic of discussion on a number of Muslim websites, with one blogger putting forward an action strategy to email blast the publisher.
Spellberg also raised her concerns with Random House. "Denise says it is 'a declaration of war ... explosive stuff ... a national security issue'," said an email from Jane Garrett, an editor at another Random House imprint that was quoted in the Journal.
"Think it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons."
The email from Garrett went on: "thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP".
Jones said today the publishers were not aware of the discussion taking place on Muslim websites when they told her agent on May 2 they were considering postponing publication. Three weeks later, Jones was told that publication was indefinitely postponed.
Random House said today that it had been advised by security experts and Islamic scholars that the novel was offensive to Muslims and that "it could incite acts of violence by a small radical segment".
The statement added: "We felt an obligation to take these concerns very seriously."
Jones, who had a two-book deal with Random House, was released from her contract to try to sell the book elsewhere. She said today she was confident of finding a new publisher.
She was also adamant that the book poses no danger. "There have been no Muslim threats," she said. "I haven't received any and Random House hasn't received any. They received a prediction of terrorist attacks from Spellberg."