Back in September 2005, the now infamous Danish cartoon of the prophet Muhammad became a worldwide controversy. It was reprinted in newspapers in several countries and led to widespread Muslim protests and violence.
Now the book, The Jewel of Medina, a semi-fictional novel written by American journalist Sherry Jones about the youngest wife of Muhammad, has also led to a firestorm of controversy for its portrayal of the prophet. Many say it could incite similar acts of violence from radical Muslims.
The initial response to the advance edition of Jones' book was explosive. It was dropped by her publisher Random House because of the anticipated backlash from the Muslim community even though it had paid her a US$100,000 advance. It was also pulled from bookshops in Serbia last August after pressure from Islamic groups.
The book, as described by Islamic Studies expert Professor Denise Spellberg from the University of Texas-Austin, is a "very ugly, stupid piece of work." She says, "I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography."
But on October 15th, publishers Beaufort Books in New York and Gibson Square in the UK are set to publish the book in several countries with a planned printing of 50,000 copies. (Beaufort published O.J. Simpson's controversial book, If I Did It, about the murder of his ex-wife, while Gibson Square has also published similarly provocative works.) As a potential omen of what may come, on September 28th the home of Gibson Square publisher Martin Fynja was firebombed. UK authorities were aware of the plan and advised him to be away from his house. Four suspects were apprehended and arrested.
For Jones, who is still in the midst of a controversy that involves religion, fear and history, all she wanted was for the book to become a "bridge-builder between the West and Islam" by increasing the understanding of Islam.
"It felt injurious to my soul to receive comments about my book," Jones told me last month during the World Conference of Investigative Journalists in Norway. "But I welcome all points of view and opinions, and I'm happy to discuss my choices with anyone. In other words, I do expect controversy, which I think is very healthy. Debate and discussion are what free speech is all about," Jones adds.
Jones maintains that she wrote the book with respect for Islam. The book, she says, is a "feminist historical novel" that illustrates the early days of Islam through the eyes of A'isha and the prophet Muhammad. It is a tale about the equal role of women in Islam, a story of a wise and gentle leader in Muhammad who respected women and gave them rights they had never had before.
Former journalist and Journalism Professor at Georgetown University, Asra Nomani, first highlighted the controversial book in the Wall Street Journal. For her, the issue is not just about censoring the book, but on how "we are going to handle Muslim discourse."
"[Critics of the book] argue that Islamic history is a sacred history and so to them, it is offensive. They call the book stupid, less intelligent discourse, satanic," explains Nomani. "Novels have to capture your imagination and I don't see what's wrong about the book. The best thing to do is to recognize it."
Nomani attended the panel discussion in Norway and is also known as an activist in the Muslim reform and Islamic feminist movements. She admits that she held her breath reading through the scenes of Jones' book.
"[Right away] I knew this will become controversial. Most Muslims wonder about A'isha's life. But the book is fine," Nomani says, adding that she was disappointed in Random House's decision to drop the book.
An ordinary woman
Jones describes herself as a feminist who believes every woman ought to have the opportunity to reach her fullest potential. A pacifist and a journalist since the age of 18, she was raised in a fairly poor military family in the southeastern United States but made the Northwest her home in 1986.
Since the second grade, all Jones wanted was to be a writer; she was always a voracious reader. A self-proclaimed "ordinary woman" and a mother to a teenager, she loves to cook, laugh, play classical piano, and read fiction books. Jones is also an environmentalist and believes strongly in animal welfare. A spiritual person, she embraces all religions as leading to the same God.
"What really matters is the way A'isha, Muhammad, and other figures from Islamic history spring to life in the pages of my book, enabling readers to feel true empathy for them and to better understand the egalitarian and peaceful underpinnings of Islam," Jones says.
Her inspiration to write The Jewel of Medina came from the 9/11 attacks when there was a lot of talk about Islam and about women's repression under the religion in the US. She began to read books on women's situations in the Middle East and historical books about Islam.
"The most remarkable woman of all was A'isha, prophet Muhammad's child bride at the age of 14. I was captivated by her story and felt great [admiration for] her leadership, independence and courage," Jones says. "I wanted to share that tale not only to tell the world what I learned about Islam, but hopefully to inspire women with a story of one woman's courage." Jones says that in trying to get the scenes right, she also never mentioned any graphic details of A'isha's sexual relationship with Muhammad.
Back on the shelves
The Jewel of Medina will finally be published this month in New York and the UK and is already being published again in Serbia. It is also scheduled for publication in thirteen other countries including Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Hungary and Poland.
"I carefully and thoroughly researched both The Jewel of Medina and its sequel, and I feel very comfortable and confident about the choices I made while writing them. I expect that others with different perceptions of A'isha will disagree with my interpretation of her," Jones says of her book.
But is she prepared for what may happen after its publication?
"My hope is that there is not going to be violence," she says. For Jones, all she hopes for is that once people read the novel in its entirety, they will engage in a "healthy discussion" about its content. "I have always been willing to listen to people about my work. I don't know what's going to happen until I see. What I have to do is to rely on God to give me strength and courage to face whatever happens."
About the Author
Imelda Visaya-Abaño, began her journalism career in 1998 as a reporter at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the leading daily newspaper in the Philippines. Her areas of interest are women and children's issues, science, environment, health, agriculture and education.
In 2002, Ms. Abaño was honored as the Asian Winner of the Global REUTERS-IUCN Media Awards on Environmental Reporting.
Ms. Abaño vows to continue serving her community through balanced news and fearless views. She believes in better journalism for better communities.