Eleven years ago, a little-known writer named Anita Diamant published her first novel, "The Red Tent." For inspiration, she turned to one of the most disturbing episodes in the Bible: the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, which is recounted in chapter 34 of Genesis. According to the Bible, Dinah was attacked by Shechem, a Canaanite prince, who "saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her." Afterward, Shechem fell in love with Dinah and wanted to marry her. But Jacob's sons were determined to avenge their sister's honor, and they came up with a devious plan. They demanded that Shechem and all the men of his city be circumcised according to Jewish law before the marriage could take place. When the foreigners agreed, the sons of Jacob waited until "the third day, when they were sore"; then "Simeon and Levi, Dinah's brethren, took each man his sword, and came upon the city boldly, and slew all the males."
Today, it is hard to see this episode as anything but horrible — a tale of violence and vengeance, of male appetite and cruelty triumphing over female weakness. But Ms. Diamant managed to rewrite it as a feminist parable. In her account, Dinah was no longer the victim of the story but its heroine. Far from being raped, she was in love with her seducer, and her brothers' revenge appalled her, causing her to leave the tribe of Israel forever.
In retelling the Scriptural story, Ms. Diamant took many liberties, and it is easy to see how an Orthodox believer would be offended by "The Red Tent." But it is impossible to read Ms. Diamant's novel without recognizing that it is, on its own terms, a pious text, eager to reconnect modern readers with Jewish tradition. "I carried my mothers' tales into the next generation," says Dinah in the novel; Ms. Diamant was doing the same. And the response to her creative reinvention of tradition was overwhelming: "The Red Tent" was a huge bestseller and a favorite of book clubs across the country.
Now, fast-forward to 2008. Over the last few weeks, publishing circles have been buzzing about a new novel by a little-known writer, Sherry Jones. Like Ms. Diamant, Ms. Jones was inspired by an ancient Scriptural heroine, whose story involves troubling elements of sexuality and patriarchy. Ms. Jones, too, wanted to recast her heroine from a passive young girl to the active protagonist of her own life. Her goal, as she told the Wall Street Journal's Asra Nomani recently, was to "honor" her subject and all the "remarkable women whose crucial roles in the shaping of [religion] have so often been ignored — silenced — by historians."
If her book had been called "The Jewel of Jerusalem," and its heroine had been a figure from Jewish or Christian Scripture, it is very possible that Ms. Jones would have had a "Red Tent"-style bestseller on her hands. Surely that is what Random House thought when it bought her book and planned to publish it this month. But Ms. Jones's novel was actually called "The Jewel of Medina," and its heroine was Aisha, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad. And that, as the poet said, has made all the difference.
Aisha's story is perfect for a "Red Tent"-style reconstruction, precisely because, like Dinah's, it jars on 21st century Western sensibilities. Aisha was just a child when she was betrothed to Muhammad. The match, like that between Shechem and Dinah, was in part a political one, designed to cement ties between Muhammad and Aisha's father, Abu Bakr, who succeeded the Prophet as the first Caliph. One of the best-known stories in the Koran involves Muhammad suspecting Aisha of adultery, only to receive a divine revelation of her innocence. Yet this young girl grew into a politically powerful figure, who played a major role in passing on the teachings of the Prophet to future generations.
It's all rich material for a novelist. But the world will not find out what Ms. Jones made of it, because this spring Random House canceled publication of "The Jewel of Medina." The reason was simple: naked fear. When the publisher sent the manuscript for a blurb to a professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas, Denise Spellberg, she responded by raising the specter of violent reprisals against Ms. Jones and Random House by angry Muslims. No actual threat by any Muslim group had been made; but Random House remembered Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" and the Danish cartoons, and it flinched.
The decision has attracted widespread condemnation from writers, and others concerned with free speech. As Mr. Rushdie, who is now published by Random House himself, declared, "This is censorship by fear and it sets a very bad precedent indeed." But more than free speech is in jeopardy in the "Jewel of Medina" affair. While Ms. Jones's book has been stigmatized in advance as some kind of insult to religion, in fact, anyone who cares about the vitality of religion ought to be equally concerned about her case.
For as "The Red Tent" shows, one of the ways in which religion lives and renews itself is by reinterpreting its own scriptures. In a theocracy, this kind of interpretation can only be done by authorized clergy, according to strict rules; anyone else who attempts it is a heretic and risks death. But in a free society, religion is open to the imagination of everyone — clergy, laypeople, even nonbelievers. Ms. Jones, a non-Muslim using a secular form like the novel, is essentially writing out of respect and reverence for Islam as she understands it.
What radical Islamists, and those who rush to anticipate their grievances, do not understand is that this freedom has been democracy's great gift to religion. The world often wonders why America, an advanced secular democracy, is at the same time such a religious country. The reason is that, ever since Roger Williams, Americans have allowed one another to find the truths of religion freely, each in his or her own way. Religion is something we discover and invent, not something we submit to out of fear.
Millions of readers of "The Red Tent" had a vital encounter with Judaism, though not an orthodox one. In struggling to reconcile the Bible with their own ethical beliefs — about women, violence, and authority — Ms. Diamant and her readers took the Bible seriously. The readers of "The Jewel of Medina" might have had a similarly vital encounter with the Koran. Now they will never get the chance.