When news spread that Random House had nixed publication of a new novel, "The Jewel of Medina," about the life of Aisha, the youngest wife of the prophet Muhammad, a congratulatory message went out to "all members of Husaini Youths (HY)."
"Walking on the footsteps shown by Imam Khomeini..." it said, referring to Iran's revolutionary leader, "Active members of HY foiled the conspiracy of Western Media to humiliate our beloved Holy Prophet Mohammad.... The writer Ms. Spillberg from Huston, US wrote this book without any base naming it as a historical fiction on the personality of Holy Prophet." Quite colloquially, it ended: "But after watching the posts by our active members, they have withdrawn the plans of printing it. Hats off for these brothers and all the members of HY. May Allah bless us all."
No big deal that the message got the author wrong: the novel was written by Portland journalist Sherry Jones. But, indeed, the HY group had been in the mix this past spring as Random House executives pondered a warning that the book would be a "declaration of war" on the Muslim world. In April, without reading the book, a 28-year-old HY member from Hyderabad, India, Ali Hemani, a young professional, had posted a seven-point plan to convince Random House to shelve the book this past spring.
This past weekend, Husaini Youth got a new member: Sherry Jones who joined the online group to start a conversation with her critics. She got an unexpected response from the man who had posted the seven-point plan: "I extend my hand for peace with you from all the Members of Husaini Youth." Sure, Jones has received the kind of ugly responses from Muslims that captures so much of what the West fears when it comes to Muslims. But the dialogue generated by the controversy surrounding her unpublished book shows that something valuable and much deeper has been set off in the Muslim world: a lively--and, yes, civilized--debate.
Sparking this debate was Random House's decision to cancel publication of the novel because of fears of a backlash from "a small, radical segment" of the Muslim community. I wrote an opinion piece last week, stating that the decision saddened me as Muslim and a writer because I have come to appreciate fiction as a powerful tool for understanding history.
What I didn't mention was this: I also believe the Muslim community can only move forward intellectually, spiritually and politically if we can engage as intellectual warriors in a civil, peaceful conversation about even that which may offend us. Even the Qur'an (31:19) enjoins us to decorous debate: "Lo! The harshest of all the voices is the voice of the ass."
That sort of decorous debate is happening. On blogs like http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/ and http://www.mikeghouse.net/, Muslims are wrestling with prickly questions about the prophet Muhammad's "jailbait bride," as one blogger put it, and the place of sex in the prophet's biography. On his blog, Mike Ghouse wrote, "...the onus is on the Muslims, as the Prophet asks them to walk the middle path and not extremes....I urge Muslims to gear themselves to think and not react. If you cannot listen to the prophet, then don't read the book....The Majority of Muslims always choose the right path and they need to speak when the few extremists roar."
To me, debate is a good thing--and it's the kind of honest conversation I believe we can endure, just as the Jewish and Christian faiths have endured creative license with the maternal and paternal figures in their histories.
In the case of "The Jewel of Medina," most Muslims actually responded to the novel with restraint. Shahed Amanullah, the Austin, Tex.-based editor of a mainstream Muslim website, altmuslim.com, was among the first Muslims to hear about the book. He said he got a phone call from University of Texas of Austin associate professor Denise Spellberg. "Denise called me and said, 'I want to be able to address this book before it comes out. Can you help me find other Muslims who will want to help me with it?'" he recalled. "She felt it exoticized the history. She thought it was another imposition of Western ideas on Muslim society."
Not long after getting off the phone, Amanullah shot a now infamous email to a listserv of graduate students in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, telling them he had received a "frantic" call from Spellberg. The email landed that day on a forum board at HusainiYouth.com, where a blogger posted the seven-point plan to protest the book.
In the wake of the controversy, some bloggers have pilloried Amanullah, American Muslims and Muslims in general. But Amanullah says he never wanted the book pulled. "I'm upset the book wasn't published," he said, "not because I agree or disagree with the book." For him, "I don't want to be in the position where we are stifling speech. Preemptive censorship is not in our interest. That's worse than even censorship. We're not going to silence our way out of problems."
Amanullah said he sent his email about the book to encourage "transparency." To him, it's better not to "blindsided." "That way we are calm and rational about our response," he said. "If somebody is going to be playing in my sandbox I should know what they are doing there."
The debate over whether historical fiction works with Islamic history is "part of a dialogue that has to happen in the public square," said Amanullah. "Muslims don't do nuance. Fiction is about all the grays," he said. "People are really sensitive about their history. Everybody wants to define history as they see it. It gets sensitive because there are social and political ramifications to the telling of history. But historical fiction is a great way to kind of explore possibilities. I'm not sure Muslims are quite ready for that in terms of our history."
In an effort to save her book, Jones sent a review copy to the American Society for Muslim Advancement, a New York-based Muslim American organization, where Sabeeha Rehman, director of interfaith program, read the book. In a letter to Jones, Rehman said the book was "very engaging, lush in its detail and imagery," chronicling impressive "general knowledge about the historical setting and events" and a "convincing" portrait of Aisha as "a courageous woman."
Yet, Rehman wrote, the novel would offend "Muslim readers," arguing that "certain aspects of the book and its approach will not be accepted by Muslim readers, can cause a firestorm, and seriously question the validity of the characters and the accounts." She noted she was "deeply offended by the liberal description of the Prophet's interaction with women." "Muslims also hold the Caliphs in very high esteem," she wrote, arguing the characters of Omar, the second caliph after the prophet Muhammad died, and Ali, the fourth caliph, is "disparaging," such as when the novel has them "barking." She wrote that "for Muslims" the belief is that "a dog is considered an unclean animal."
The book, she concluded, "was reviewed far three target audiences: (1) Muslim women; (2) Interfaith groups; and (2) World Muslim community," and the book doesn't "serve any purpose for any of these three groups."
To me it's always dangerous to refer to any group in the monolith, as Rehman did referring to "Muslim readers." As a Muslim, I rejected the traditional interpretation that dogs are dirty, as does UCLA Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl. But she was pointedly not alarmist in her argument, rather, just urging "caution."
For his part, the Husaini Youth member, Hemani, said in an interview that he had joined the group to "serve the purpose of my life, by gaining closeness to Allah," saddened by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the situation of Palestinians in Israel. In a decision that Muslims around the globe can use as a guidepost for public debate, he said he had only one choice when it came to welcoming Jones because Allah "says one who rushes towards good deeds is the one I hold close in my view."
Asra Q. Nomani, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, is the author of "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam." She is a professor of journalism at Georgetown University.