SPOKANE — Sherry Jones knew it would be hard to get her first novel published. Getting "The Jewel of Medina" into bookstores was harder than she had anticipated.
After overcoming the formidable hurdles any new author faces, Jones was overjoyed to sell the book to Random House. Then Random House canceled its publication at the last minute for fear the historical novel about Aisha, child bride of the prophet Muhammad, would incite riots in the Muslim world.
"I had hoped to find an independent publisher with gumption and verve that would treat me as a partner in the publishing process," said Jones, a longtime newspaper reporter in Montana who moved to Spokane about a year ago.
She got the idea for the book after the terrorist acts of Sept. 11. Determined to learn more about Islam, she read books on the religion and came across the story of Aisha, who became Muhammad's third wife as well as a leading scholar and warrior in the early days of the religion.
Aisha was 9 when she became Muhammad's wife. She's often described as Muhammad's favorite wife, and it was in her company that Muhammad received the most revelations. During a period of war after Muhammad's death, Aisha raised an army which confronted her rival, Ali, outside the city of Basra. Aisha's forces were defeated, and she was captured and returned to Medina. There, she became one of the top scholars of Islam's early age, with some historians crediting her with one-quarter of Islamic religious law.
Jones, who describes herself as spiritual but not part of an organized religion, figured her book would help bridge cultures.
Random House, the nation's largest publisher, liked the idea enough to give her a $100,000 advance for "The Jewel of Medina" and a sequel, which Jones has also written.
"It was a dream come true," said the 46-year-old Jones, who spent five years and wrote seven drafts of the first book.
She was not naive. She knew an American woman writing a novel about Muhammad and Aisha would spark some controversy. But she expected her good intentions would be obvious.
"Anyone who reads the book will not be offended," Jones said. "I wrote the book with the utmost respect for Islam."
A copy of the novel was sent to Denise Spellberg, an author and Islam expert at the University of Texas, seeking a cover blurb.
Spellberg called the novel a "declaration of war" and "a national security issue" that might incite violence. She called the book "soft-core pornography," referring to a scene involving Muhammad consummating his marriage to Aisha.
Jones was shocked and angered.
"Her characterization of my book as pornography created a self-fulfilling prophecy," Jones said. "I don't know why she used the most inflammatory rhetoric to describe my book."
Worried, Random House decided in May to cancel the publication, although the news was not released to the general public until August when the publisher issued a statement saying "credible and unrelated sources" had warned that the book "could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."
That story drew a response from author Salman Rushdie, who criticized his publisher for pulling the novel. Rushdie, whose "The Satanic Verses" led to a death decree in 1989 from Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and forced the author for years to live under police protection, said Random House had allowed itself to be intimidated.
"I was impressed," Jones said of Rushie's comment.
Jones was devastated by the cancellation. She and her agent negotiated an agreement with Random House so the book could be marketed to other U.S. publishers. Beaufort Books bought it.
"Everyone at Beaufort is proud to be associated with this groundbreaking novel," said company president Eric Kampmann.