Don't plan a bake-sale benefit for Sherry Jones, whose novel, "The Jewel of Medina," should be in bookstores now but isn't. No doubt she took an emotional hit by having her publisher cancel the novel at the last minute. Explaining the unusual action, Random House said that Jones' book, a fictionalized account of Aisha, the favorite wife of the prophet Mohammed, "could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."
Still, Jones has the balm of getting to keep her $100,000 advance, the publishing world's equivalent of a king's ransom for a first novel. The Associated Press reported Friday that Beaufort Books, which released O.J. Simpson's "If I Did It," would publish the book in the United States, and that the novel should come out by mid-October.
Who wouldn't want to publish a book with a million dollars worth of free publicity via the controversy stirred up by Random House's decision? Especially because the current firestorm comes on the heels of the Danish cartoons riots and evokes painful memories of the Salman Rushdie affair.
Already, Gibson Square, a London publisher noted for issuing controversial books, has announced it will bring out a British edition next month.
No doubt the forthcoming American editon of "The Jewel of Medina" will be bound with a ribbon proclaiming "The Book They Said You Couldn't Read!"
"The combination of sex and violence sells novels," noted Denise Spellberg, a University of Texas historian and the designated heavy in the affair. She was responding with a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal, which had written about the spiking of Jones' book as an example of political correctness gone crazy.
It's a good guess that Spellberg's academic career won't be harmed, though she has been receiving e-mail vilifying her as an enemy of free speech. Freedom of expression, once an unquestionable principle in the ivory tower, is now regarded as open for discussion. Some professors and universities have advocated campus speech codes protecting minorities from verbal attack—albeit courts have so far been unsympathetic.
Spellberg might even be remembered for starting a debate, perhaps accidentally, over a principle of literary criticism roughly equal to the age-old question: if it's sauce for the goose, shouldn't it be sauce for the gander? Her line of attack on Jones' novel could also be used on Spellberg's own scholarly work. Indeed many historians might find themselves vulnerable to her critical method.
The dustup over Jones' book began with the most routine of publishing practices, fishing for book jacket blurbs. Among those who got requests for pre-publication comment was Spellberg, the author of a scholarly treatment of the story of the prophet's wife, "Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: the Legacy of A'isha bint Abi Bakr" (Columbia University Press, 1994). Jones' publisher was looking for simple praise like: "A page turner" or "It tugged at my heart strings." Instead, Random House got something between a lecture and a jeremiad.
An editor at Knopf, a division of Random House, reportedly wrote an internal e-mail saying, "Denise says it is [a] 'declaration of war ... a national security issue.' " Spellberg also told a reporter for The Wall Street Journal that Jones' novel was "soft-core pornography."
Indeed, "The Jewel of Medina" is a bit of a bodice-ripper, at least to judge from an excerpt posted on the Internet by the author. In it, Aisha recounts an incident when she and a man named Safwan (who was not her husband) spent time alone, a no-no in the Islamic world, then and now. When Aisha returned home, Jones has Aisha describing the scene: "I rested my cheek against Safwan's shoulder, but the horse's trot struck bone against bone.
" 'Al-zaniya!' Someone cried. 'Adulteress!' "
Jones is not the first to heap that insult upon the prophet's wife.
In her scholarly book, Spellberg reports that in the Shiite tradition, the prophet's wife is represented as: "A'isha as al-fahisha, 'the whore' or al-zaniya, 'the adulteress.' "
Islam is divided into Shiite and Sunni communities, as Americans have learned from the Iraq war. In religion no less than in politics, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Therefore, Sunni Muslims revere Aisha.
Nor is the Random House incident the first time a book involving Aisha has been pulled from circulation. A 14th Century Muslim scholar, Mughultai ibn Qilij al-Hukri, got into academic hot water for publishing a book other scholars found irreverent in his treatment of Aisha. Spellberg reports that the Cairo book dealers took the book off their shelves.
Given her biographical data, it's not surprising that accounts of Aisha, theological as well as fictional, would be colored by sexuality and politics. Aisha herself said, not in Jones' novel but in an ancient Islamic tradition, or hadith: "I was six years old when the Prophet married me, and I was nine when he consummated the marriage."
Aisha was 18 when Mohammed died and outlived him by almost half a century. During her widowhood, she took part in the theological and military struggles that split Islam on the Shiite-Sunni fault line.
Because she supported the Sunnis, she became anathema to the Shiites, a heroine to the Sunnis. Accordingly, there has come down to us not one but several verbal portraits of Aisha, making it a tough job for modern historians to figure out just who, exactly, she was.
Spellberg notes that Islamic scholars colored their biographies of Aisha with ideology. "In their attempt to create a definitive historical record ex post facto, Muslim authors both preserved memory and created meaning," Spellberg wrote.
In plain English, they made it up. What they did was not that different from what novelists do. Filling in the blanks is common to writing history and writing historical novels.
So if Spellberg wants to fault Jones for embroidering the written record, shouldn't she also note that historians and scholars are similarly tempted? Before comparatively recent times, even the most celebrated of historical figures are rarely known to us from eye-witness accounts. "My Ten Years with Kennedy (or DeGaulle, Tony Blair, etc.)" is a very recent literary form.
With religious figures, the problem is even more complicated, since their received images are convoluted layers of faith, emotion, and scraps of historical data. For almost two centuries, theologians have been engaged in what Albert Schweitzer titled "The Quest of the Historical Jesus." The fact that a definitive answer is still being sought by scholars testifies to the Herculean nature of the task.
Spellberg's book is a long and detailed narrative of the evolution of Aisha's biography by Muslim hands. Her painstaking re-creation of portrait after portrait of the Prophet's favorite wife attests to the near impossibility for those of us who live so far from her times to view an unvarnished picture of Aisha.
Spellberg herself concedes as much in a dependent clause: "If historians of the modern period cannot definitively know A'isha. ..." She salutes "the brilliance of Muslim imagination" at work in those multiple portraits.
Why not, then, extend the privilege of imagination to Jones?
Whatever her literary skill, the author of "The Jewel of Medina" was putting her powers of imagination to work, just like every novelist, good, bad or indifferent. Spellberg notes that her scholarly work on Aisha involves "an interpretation of my own."
By Spellberg's accounting, there will always be a good part of Aisha that can never be reduced to the printed page, whether it's fiction, scholarship, or theology.
"In none of these sources does A'isha have the last word," Spellberg writes. "She speaks words as attributed to her or created for her, but she herself does not ultimately select or record them. The pen, in the creation of her legacy, is wielded by other hands."