The controversy surrounding Sherry Jones's The Jewel of Medina, a novel in which the youngest wife of the Muslim prophet Muhammad tells the story of their marriage from her perspective, intensified last week, after an attempt to firebomb the book's British publisher created momentary uncertainty about whether that edition would go forward (it will) and raised security concerns at the offices of Beaufort Books, the novel's American publisher. Ultimately, Beaufort—which picked up the book after Random House, citing its own security concerns, dropped it—decided to move the publication date up so that it would be available in bookstores starting today. "There's a lot of talk about what is and isn't in the book by people who haven't read it," Jones explained as we chatted in a café near Beaufort's Manhattan offices Friday afternoon. "Until people read it, the dialogue can't move on. The discussion cannot progress."
When American forces invaded Afghanistan seven years ago, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, as supporters declared that the intervention would end the repression of women under the Taliban's interpretations of Islamic doctrine, Jones wanted to learn more. She read the first two books she could find on women and Islam—Geraldine Brooks's Nine Parts of Desire and Jan Goodwin's Price of Honor—both of which mentioned the story of A'isha. "I was just fascinated by her tale," Jones recalled. "I was drawn to her immediately; I felt empathy and compassion for her." She began writing the novel that became The Jewel of Medina in an effort to better understand A'isha: "I asked myself, how does a young girl whose life is completely controlled by men transform into the leader and warrior and scholar that she became? So I gave her obstacles and temptations in the course of imagining how she would grow."
The problem (as we see it) stems from the flagrant mischaracterization of the novel by Islamic studies professor Denise Spellberg, whom Ballantine Books had approached hoping for a blurb, as "soft core pornography" and anti-Muslim propaganda; Spellberg's zealous efforts to alert Muslims to the book's impending publication were particularly effective in giving the public a distorted impression of its contents. And we do mean distorted: Now that we've read the novel for ourselves, and seen precisely two paragraphs that might be construed as sexually explicit (and that's being extremely generous to one of them), Jones deserves a public apology from Spellberg for her public misrepresentations. (Jones has asked Spellberg to recant; she told us Friday that repeated efforts to contact her detractor have met with silence.)
That's not to say that there aren't elements of the novel that fervent Muslims could potentially find distasteful: Jones's storyline does, after all, bring A'isha to the absolute brink of adultery, and though she does not succumb, it's possibly akin to what Jesus's flirtation with escaping crucifixion in The Last Temptation of Christ would be for Christians. Furthermore, her youthful impetuosity often causes her to behave disrespectfully towards others, including Muhammad; there are times when she doubts his revelations and questions his motives. The rightness of this characterization can be debated on its literary or historical merits, but in a world where people can, without fear of reprisal, publish novels suggesting Jesus was conceived through the rape of the Virgin Mary by a Roman soldier, Jones's fictional version of events should not be considered controversial.
Jones was well aware, while writing, that the material could be considered provocative; she knew, for example, about the strain of anti-Muslim bigotry accusing Muhammad of pedophilia for marrying A'isha when she was just nine years old. In the novel, A'isha continues to live with her family in purdah (a form of gender segregation) for three years before moving in with Muhammad, and their marriage remains unconsummated for another two years, with the Prophet going so far as to reject her awkward advances (made out of emotional desperation and jealousy of his other wives, not sexual attraction). "Muhammad made his own rules for himself—or God gave him privileges, some might argue," Jones explained. "If he was a pedophile, he could have stacked his harem with young girls. He didn't... The Muhammad I came to know would not have had sex with a 9-year-old. The Muhammad I know would have waited until she was ready."
The "adultery" scene is handled with similar circumspection; though A'isha is at one point forcibly disrobed by her would-be lover, she immediately covers herself up and is able to rebuff his remaining overtures—hardly, as we've said, approaching the level of "soft-core pornography." Jones is confident that, once people have a chance to read her story rather than Spellberg's twisted version of it, all the controversy will evaporate. She points to the experience of her Serbian publisher: Although there had been some initial outcry over the book's publication, leading to its temporary removal from bookstores, it's now a #1 seller in that country, ahead of Khaled Hosseini even...