For Sherry Jones, an American journalist turned novelist, The Jewel of Medina – a fictional account of the life of Aisha, child bride of the Prophet Mohamed – was to be the successful product of nearly six years spent immersed in the history, culture and language of eighth-century Arabia.
When the year began, everything seemed to be going well. She had a two-book contract with Ballantine, an imprint of the New York publisher Random House, reputed to be worth £50,000. It had told that her completed novel would be published on 12 August. She was making arrangements for a promotional tour to coincide with publication.
Suddenly her book is apparently destined to join that unhappy list that includes The Satanic Verse by Salman Rushdie, Submission, a film by the murdered Dutch director Theo van Gogh, and Danish newspaper cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed – works that are famous not for their merits, but for the violent reaction they set off.
What makes The Jewel of Medina stand out from this list is that it is not the target of a fatwa by a Muslim cleric. The campaign against it was started by an American academic.
Denise Spellberg, professor of Islamic studies from the University of Texas, is one of the few people who have actually read the novel. She is the author of a book on Aisha and so as a matter of routine was sent a proof copy of the novel by Ballantine, in the hope that she would write a comment that could be included on the cover.
To say that Professor Spellberg did not like the book would be an understatement. Aisha is her specialist subject, and she regarded this fictionalised account of the girl's life as a wild distortion of the historical record and as "soft pornography".
She rang one of Random House's editors to warn them that publishing it would be "a national security issue". She urged that the book should be withdrawn. She also sent a lawyer's letter warning that she would sue if her name was linked to the book in any way.
She also rang Shahed Amanullah, editor of a popular Muslim website, who had been a guest lecturer in her classes. Amanullah has a long record of defending free speech, even including Salman Rushdie's right to publish his The Satanic Verses, which the subject of a fatwa 20 years ago.
But knowing nothing of The Jewel of Medina, he sent an email to a list of Islamic studies graduates seeking information. He told them: "Just got a frantic call from a professor who got an advance copy ... She said she found it incredibly offensive."
A blogger posted this email on a website for Shia Muslims with the headline "A new attempt to slander the Prophet of Islam", and within hours another blogger was proposing a strategy to force the writer to withdraw the book.
All this activity alarmed Random House. In May it told Sherry Jones that the publishing deal was off.
The American public first learnt about the ruckus from a carefully researched article in the Wall Street Journal, whose author, Asra Q Nomani, did not hide her disapproval of what Professor Spellberg had done. "This saga upsets me as a Muslim, and as a writer who believes that fiction can bring Islamic history to life in a uniquely captivating and humanising way," she wrote.
Three weeks ago, it appeared that the story might be moving towards a happy ending, when the book was taken over by Martin Rynja, owner of the little publishing house, Gibson Square, which has a reputation for handling highly controversial books. Mr Rynja told Jones he would publish her book on 30 October.
On the same day, Shahed Amanullah, who defends Gibson Square's right to publish – just as he defends the right of Muslims to say they find publication offensive – wrote: "There have been no actual threats of violence from Muslims to date, nor has there been any organised effort by Muslims to stop publication ... We have a unique opportunity to avoid a replay of past confrontations ... Free and open discourse is in the interests of everyone."
That hope ended at around 2.30am on Saturday morning, when it is alleged that three young men pushed a firebomb through Mr Rynja's letterbox in Islington. Luckily, undercover police were on their trail; the suspects were arrested within minutes, and the fire was put out.
Mr Rynja is now in hiding, and could not be contacted, but apparently he has not been deterred from publishing the work and is sticking with the 30 October release date.
Natasha Kern, Jones's American agent, said: "Having the public read it is the only way to counter the distortions and outright lies that the book either insults Mohamed or contains salacious or suggestive material."
Professor Spellberg could not be contacted yesterday and was facing a verbal firestorm over her part in the affair. Jones said: "If you want to incite heated emotions from any religious group you just use the word 'pornography' in the same sentence as their revered figures. She ought to take back her words because it is in no way an accurate description of my book. There are no sex scenes in it."
But the London lawyer Anjem Choudhary, warned that more violence could be on the way: "If the publication goes ahead then I think there will be more attacks like this. If this book is published, I think the repercussions will be very severe for everyone associated with it."
Gibson Square: Where other publishers fear to tread
*Seven years ago, the Dutch-born publisher Martin Rynja, now 44, left his job as commissioning editor at the publisher Duckworth's to launch his own publishing house, Gibson Square, which claimed to "specialise in books that... contribute to a current debate".
Others might say that it went out of its way to court controversy. In July 2004, the New York publisher Random House pulled out of a deal to publish House of Bush, House of Saud by Craig Ungar, which explored alleged links between the Saudi royal family and the Bush family. Random had feared being sued. As with The Jewel of the Medina Gibson Square stepped in where Random feared to tread. Gibson Square also posthumously published Blowing Up Russia by Alexander Litvinenko, which many believe cost Mr Litvinenko his life.