[Adapted from a longer story by Nawotka in the August 18 PW issue and from a feature in the August 13 American-Statesmen.)
Yesterday (August 12) was supposed to be the pub date of Sherry Jones's first novel, The Jewel of Medina, a work of historical fiction depicting the life of A'isha, the pre-pubescent seventh century wife of the prophet Muhammad. The book was abruptly cancelled by its publisher Ballantine this past May, an event that went relatively unnoticed until the cancellation was featured in an August 6 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, "You Still Can't Write About Muhammad," by Asra Q. Nomani. In the piece, Nomani wrote: "The series of events that torpedoed this novel are a window into how quickly fear stunts intelligent discourse about the Muslim world."
Trouble started for the book only after galleys were sent out for blurbs in April. One recipient, Denise Spellberg—a professor at the University of Texas and an expert on A'isha—read the book and strongly objected to liberties Jones took with the historical record, in particular with the portrayal of A'isha as a warrior. Spellberg, who is under contract with Knopf, to write a nonfiction book about Thomas Jefferson's personal copy of the Koran, called her editor, complaining that the book altered history, suggesting it was potentially as dangerous as Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. After consulting with experts, Random House terminated the book, citing security risks. On June 21, Jones signed a termination agreement that returned the books rights to her. Unusually, it included a gag order preventing her from discussing the terms. The original contract with Ballantine was for two books, Jewel and a sequel, and was reportedly valued at $100,000.
The brouhaha that resulted after the August 6 WSJ opinion piece has been enormous, many accusing Random house of surrendering to Muslim radicalism. Random House deputy publisher Thomas Perry said in a statement the company received "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. In this instance we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel."
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.