A University of Texas professor alerted Ballantine Books this spring that a novel it planned to publish about a wife of the Prophet Muhammad contained historical inaccuracies, and she said the book might spark violent protests.
Weeks later, Ballantine decided to cancel the book, which was scheduled to be published this week. Now the professor, Denise Spellberg, is at the center of a publishing controversy that has brought her a flood of hate mail.
In April, Spellberg, an associate professor in the Department of History and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, was asked by Ballantine, a division of Random House, to write a promotional blurb for a forthcoming historical novel, "The Jewel of Medina," by Sherry Jones. The book is based on the life of Muhammad's young wife Aisha.
Spellberg is an expert on Aisha; her 1994 scholarly work, "Politics, Gender, & the Islamic Past: The Legacy of A'isha bint Abi Bakr," was cited as a source by Jones on her Web site.
But Spellberg was appalled by Jones' book. "The characterization of Aisha as a sexualized being, swinging a sword around and who taught others to use a weapon, was an egregious abuse of her life," she told the American-Statesman. (Spellberg allowed a Statesman editor to sit in her office and skim the manuscript.)
Spellberg, coincidentally, has a contract with Random House to write a nonfiction book titled "Thomas Jefferson's Quran." On April 30, she called her editor and recommended that "The Jewel of Medina" not be published.
"Not just because of its potential to provoke violence," said Spellberg, who worried that a small minority of Muslims might respond violently to the book. "But also because, as a historian, I objected to the fact that it was a deliberately distorted view of an important female religious figure."
Spellberg also had her lawyer send a letter to Random House saying that she would sue the company if her name was used to promote the book.
"My fear was that the author would invoke my name or scholarly work as her explanation for the historical sources she claimed underpinned her novel," Spellberg said. "I wanted to protect my professional reputation — and my safety."
Jones, a journalist in Spokane, Wash., said that before Random House bought the novel and a sequel in 2007 for $100,000, it asked if there was "anything controversial" about the book. Jones recalled saying yes but said that "there wasn't anything in there that couldn't be found in one of the 29 nonfiction books I used for research."
On May 2, Jones learned that Random House was concerned that the book might offend Muslims. "I was told they wanted to delay publication until they checked with other scholars and some security people," she said.
By that point, the controversy had grown. The same day that Spellberg called Random House, she also phoned Shahed Amanullah, the Austin-based editor of altmuslim.com who has been a guest lecturer in her class.
"He edits a Web site dedicated to reasonable discourse about controversial topics in the American Muslim community, and I wanted to bring this book to his attention because it was likely to become a topic of conversation," Spellberg said. She denied, as has been reported elsewhere, that she called to "warn" him about the book. "Warning is not what I was trying to do."
Amanullah perceived the call otherwise, later describing her tone as "frantic." Spellberg admitted to being upset but said she was "breathless" because she was rushing to get to class at the time.
Amanullah,who does not support the cancellation of the book, subsequently sent out an e-mail about the conversation that was posted on at least one Web site for Muslims.
On May 21, Jones learned that Random House was canceling the book.
"I wanted to fight it, but Random House said they talked with three academics and had reviewed the security situation," Jones said. "They didn't give me specifics, other than to say their head of security said they shouldn't take the risk."
In a prepared statement, Random House said: "After sending out advance editions of the novel 'Jewel of Medina,' we received in response, from credible and unrelated sources, unsolicited cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.
"We felt an obligation to take these concerns very seriously. We consulted with security experts as well as with scholars of Islam, whom we asked to review the book and offer their assessments of potential reactions. We stand firmly by our responsibility to support our authors and the free discussion of ideas, even those that may be construed as offensive by some."
The news passed unnoticed by most until Aug. 6, when The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece, "You Still Can't Write About Muhammad," criticizing the book's cancellation. "The series of events that torpedoed this novel are a window into how quickly fear stunts intelligent discourse about the Muslim world," wrote Asra Q. Nomani, an author who was also asked to write a blurb for "Jewel of Medina" and has since become a friend of Jones'.
Jones said she empathizes with Random House but said: "I do believe they would have published the book without (Spellberg's) phone call and a letter from her lawyer."
Spellberg sees her role differently. "Random House invited me into the publishing process," she said. "They are a big corporation, and they made the decision to cancel the book, not me."
Since The Wall Street Journal article appeared, Spellberg said, she has received hate mail and been pilloried online. "They are calling me an opponent of free speech, saying I am a supporter of Muslim extremists," she said.
Spellberg noted that she teaches Salman Rushdie's controversial novel "The Satanic Verses" — which in 1988 led the leader of Iran to issue a fatwa death order against Rushdie and sent him into hiding for several years — because it offers a sophisticated lesson to her students.
"While Rushdie covers much the same ground about Aisha as Jones does — suggesting even that she had a dalliance in the desert — the greater issue is that Rushdie questioned whether God spoke directly to the Prophet Muhammad," she said. "Rushdie can claim he was raising an existential, theological query, however impertinent. Jones' book is a mere burlesque."
Jones is now shopping "The Jewel of Medina" elsewhere. Publishers in Italy, Spain and Hungary have purchased rights, and she said her agent has received calls from interested parties.
As to the accusation that she has altered history to suit her fictional ends, Jones doesn't deny it. Her portrayal of Aisha as a sword fighter, for instance, has no basis in historical record. The same goes for her portrayal of Aisha's flirtation with another man: "With our bodies, we brushed each other lightly — my breasts to his chest. ... An aroma like musk rose from his body. My moan of pleasure surprised me, luxuriant as the purr of a cat stretching in the sunlight."
Jones said her bending of historical accounts is "minor" and is the province of a novelist.
"The sword Aisha wields is a metaphor for her strength," she said. "Aisha was a warrior in her own way, and just because the Hadith (the body of Islamic oral tradition) doesn't say she had a sword doesn't mean she couldn't have a sword. Is that a reason to kill the book because I put a sword in her hands? That's the fiction part."
"The question here really is about historical fiction — is it so expansive that anything goes, even if it isnot true?" Spellberg asked. "If a book discusses Judeo-Christian history, people know the difference. In this case, Jones' book only works by taking advantage of people's ignorance."
Spellberg cited the book's last page, in which Aisha is narrating: "My sword will serve you well in the jihad to come. Now I knew what Muhammad meant by 'an inner struggle.' On the very day of his death, jihad had already begun."
"It's incredibly inflammatory," Spellberg said. "At a time when many accept the stereotype that Muslims are violent because of their faith, the image of Aisha wielding a sword she never held in history would seem to promote that. If it's supposed to be a work of historical fiction, then shouldn't there be some history in it?"
Additional material from Statesman book editor Jeff Salamon.