All happy book publications are alike — the book finally comes out. All unhappy book publications are unhappy in their own ways — except when they involve Islam. Then the story follows a familiar plot.
The latest uproar, over the novel The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones, a journalist who lives in Spokane, Wash., erupted this summer. It's not yet an international cause célèbre, because the manuscript remains accessible only to those who got early galleys.
It was 2002 when Jones began writing her historical fiction about A'isha, betrothed to the Prophet Muhammad at age 6 or 7, who became the third of his nine wives and a major proselytizer for Islam after his death. As part of her research, Jones read scores of books on Islam and A'isha, and studied Arabic. A tentative publication date of August 12 had been set for the book, the first of a two-book contract worth a reported $100,000. Jones started prepping for an eight-city book tour.
But in May, Random House, the book's publisher through its Ballantine imprint, withdrew it. Remembering Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1988), a novel whose irreverence toward Islam led to the murder of the book's Japanese translator and the famous fatwa against Rushdie by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the publishing house said it had received "cautionary advice not only that the publication of the book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."
Random House then consulted "security experts as well as scholars of Islam," and said it decided "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. The author and Ballantine subsequently agreed to terminate the agreement."
So, just in time for the American Library Association's annual "Banned Books Week" that begins September 27, we face another brouhaha in which principles of criticism and censorship get as foggy as seventh-century history.
Former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Q. Nomani, author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam (HarperOne, 2006), provided the contretemps with its strongest push in an August 6 opinion piece in the Journal, "You Still Can't Write About Muhammad," which gave an inside blow-by-blow of what had happened thus far.
The trouble began in April, when Ballantine, in a standard procedure, sent advance copies of the novel to potential blurb writers, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. Jones cited Spellberg's book, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of A'isha bint Abi Bakr (Columbia University Press, 1994), in her bibliography.
Spellberg, who subsequently called the book a "very ugly, stupid piece of work" in an interview with Nomani, phoned Shahed Amanullah, editor of a Muslim Web site and a guest lecturer in her classes, to alert him to its existence. Amanullah told Nomani that Spellberg was "upset" and felt the book "made fun of Muslims and their history." Amanullah then e-mailed a Listserv of graduate students in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies. That provoked a wave of blogging, including descriptions of the novel as "a new attempt to slander the Prophet of Islam" and strategies to ensure that "the writer withdraws this book from the stores."
Spellberg also phoned Jane N. Garrett, an editor at Random House, where Spellberg has her own contract to publish a book provisionally titled Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an. Nomani quoted from an e-mail message Garrett sent to fellow executives about Spellberg's call: "She thinks there is a very-real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence. Denise says it is 'a declaration of war … explosive stuff … a national-security issue.' Thinks it will be far more controversial than the Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons. Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP."
After "much deliberation," according to Random House's statement, it was.
Rushdie himself criticized Random House, his publisher, saying, "This is censorship by fear, and it sets a very bad precedent indeed." Stanley Fish, on his New York Times blog, pooh-poohed the incident as not an example of censorship, a term he feels should apply only to governmental suppression, and drew more than 250 comments.
Spellberg vigorously defended and sought to clarify her actions. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Spellberg wrote, "As an expert on A'isha's life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel's fallacious representation of a very real woman's life." Playing down her role in its cancellation, she added, "I used my scholarly expertise to assess the novel. It was in that same professional capacity that I felt it my duty to warn the press of the novel's potential to provoke anger among some Muslims."
Meanwhile, Jones seems alternately puzzled and upset about what's happened. In a piece on the Web site Blic Online, she explained, "I wrote my novel, The Jewel of Medina, to honor Islam. I wrote it to honor A'isha bint Abi Bakr, the youngest and most-beloved bride in the Prophet Muhammad's harem, a remarkable woman of intelligence, wit, and strength who helped shape the destiny of one of the world's great religions. I also wanted to honor Islam's Prophet, Muhammad, by portraying him as a kind, gentle, wise, and pious leader who respected women and granted them rights they never possessed before." She conceded altering some details, but declared that the license of historical fiction.
As for the novel itself, only a few passages have made it into the discussion, cited by those with early copies. The most quoted one, about the marriage's consummation, goes: "This was the beginning of something new, something terrible. Soon I would be lying on my bed beneath him, squashed like a scarab beetle, flailing and sobbing while he slammed himself against me. He would not want to hurt me, but how could he help it? It's always painful the first time."
Not very promising as literature, but not wildly offensive either. Indeed, consistent with Jones's general respect for the prophet, it's followed by, "The pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle."
What to make of the duel over the The Jewel of Medina — between those who denounce its withdrawal as another blow against free expression in examining Islam, and others who consider that action a prudent corporate decision from which no large conclusions should be drawn?
Tip from a longtime altercation assessor: Grade it person by person. You ask who did what to whom, and form your judgments.
Jones doesn't deserve the opprobrium heaped on her by Spellberg. She writes historical fiction, not Islamic scholarship, and that genre doesn't signal perfect historical accuracy (as if the latter overflowed even in scholarship). It offers history reimagined, laced with invention, twisted to some author-ial purpose. Has Spellberg heard of E.L. Doctorow or Gore Vidal? Instead of rushing to her Arabic sourcebooks to argue that Muslims in Muhammad's time did not bow to one another, or that the historical A'isha didn't flirt (now there's an utterly verifiable fact 14 centuries later), Spellberg might have looked at Novel History (Simon & Schuster, 2001) by Mark C. Carnes, a professor of history at Barnard. In it, a group of historical novelists — among them Vidal, William Styron, and Russell Banks — and a posse of scholarly experts on the subjects those novelists wrote about — such as James McPherson and Eugene Genovese — squared off.
One thing emerged clearly. Novelists write novels, and scholars get bent out of shape by their freewheeling ways. Spellberg appears to have experienced that peculiar droit du seigneur outrage of the scholar who thinks she owns a particular subject. That may be why she lept beyond her role as prospective endorser of an advance galley, arrogating the more typical academic duty of refereeing a scholarly book.
Random House, though, wasn't asking for Spellberg's judgment on whether to publish The Jewel of Medina — it sought a blurb. Spellberg has a right to skewer the book, but she could have done that by reviewing it. She also has every right to try to suppress the book's publication. If she genuinely feared it would spur violence, her intentions were honorable. But it's disingenuous of her to act as if she had little to do with the book's cancellation. Many scholars will understand Spellberg's ire at seeing an historical figure on whom she worked for years allegedly distorted in a commercial novel whose financial return might dwarf anything Spellberg could hope to see from her labors. But campaigning for a novel's cancellation, as opposed to blowing off steam at a faculty party or writing a savage critique, is an aggressive act beyond the call of scholarly duty. Spellberg's protestation of her free-expression credentials — such as by teaching The Satanic Verses — consequently ring hollow.
Random House, by contrast, deserves to be let off the hook. No publishing house owes it to the public, the culture, or history to publish any particular book regardless of the dangers triggered, whether accurately perceived or not. Everyone knows that in English-language publishing, some other house always takes on a volatile manuscript, as the feisty British house Gibson Square has now done, promising to bring out The Jewel of Medina in October.
Finally, Stanley Fish's wish to restrict "censorship" to government action ignores the term's metaphorization over time. Rushdie is right on the main point, that fearfully withdrawing books from publication, if contagious, could result in a publishing world that resembles one under government control. And the Muslim community? So far, it's displayed the diversity with which others too seldom credit it. Some have spoken against the book's withdrawal, regardless of quality, while others have made threatening noises.
The saddest aspect of the whole affair — the familiar plot in controversies about books that supposedly offend Islam — is the counterproductive desire of some Muslims and Western scholars of Islam to insulate Muhammad from scrutiny, both historical and artistic. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch political activist, still requires protection because she argues that understanding Islam requires blunt examination of Muhammad's life, including a marriage, consummated when A'isha was 9 and Muhammad 53, that today would be considered unacceptable in all civilized societies. Similarly, the scholar Efraim Karsh has been harshly criticized for detailing, in his Islamic Imperialism (Yale University Press, 2006), the violence, murder, and brigandage in Muhammad's career. Muslim scholars possess many replies to such claims. We need to hear them, and understand the life of Muhammad better, if current tensions over Islam are ever to subside.
A couple of years ago, all the fuss about Muhammad came from depicting him in cartoons. If writing about him also gets banned, what next? Never mentioning him? That, of course, would accord well with the Muslim practice of referring to him simply as the Prophet, adding "Blessed be his name." But it's not likely to help non-Muslims understand that Muhammad, like everyone who ever lived, mixed good and bad, and was, in the words of the Koran itself, merely "mortal."
Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review and literary critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.