Join me in a harsh, exotic world of saffron and sword fights, of desert nomads living in camel's-hair tents, of caravans laden with Persian carpets and frankincense, of flowing colorful robes and kohl-darkened eyes and perfumed arms filigreed with henna."
Thus Sherry Jones begins her novel The Jewel of Medina about the life of Lady Aisha bint Abi Bakr, beloved wife of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), and mother of the believers. Bil as "extensively researched historical fiction," the book sparked controversy before it ever hit the press, with publishing giant Random House, acting on the advice of Middle East history scholars, backing off the project.
In her ‘day job,' 46-year-old Jones is a correspondent for the Washington DC-based Bureau of National Affairs, an international news agency, and Women's eNews in New York, with 28 years in journalism. Speaking with Egypt Today by phone, she says she became interested in Islam after observing how Americans perceived Muslims as a monolithic entity after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
Jones says she wrote the book to provide her Western readers with "a greater understanding of Islam [so] that we can start to build bridges with Middle Eastern and Islamic cultures [which] we've demonized."
If that is the case, then her bridges are built on sand. English books and Arabic books translated by Western authors made up the bulk of her research. Jones admits that since her Arabic skills are minimal, she couldn't access Arabic sources directly, and limited finances prevented her from actually traveling to the Middle East. Beyond the lack of primary scholarship, Jones has taken great literary license in depicting history in a manner that fits best with how she wanted her novel to develop.
Jones' first novel, The Jewel of Medina was five years and seven drafts in the making. In 2007, Random House, the biggest publisher in the United States, bought the publication rights to the novel in a reported $100,000 (LE 550,000) two-book contract. Foreign-rights sales followed, and an eight-city US tour was planned.
The publisher sent a copy of the novel to Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin. While not a Muslim, Spellberg is an expert on Aisha, having published an academic book about her life titled Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A'isha Bint Abi Bakr, and Random House had hoped the professor would write an endorsement of the book.
Instead, Spellberg advised them not to publish the book, and was quoted in international press calling it a "very ugly, stupid piece of work," "soft core pornography," "a national security threat," and "more dangerous than [Salman Rushdie's] Satanic Verses."
After this advice, consultation with other Islamic scholars and their own head of security, Random House decided to shelve the book in May 2008 on the grounds that it might incite a violent uproar. A Wall Street Journal op-ed, written by Muslim reporter and author Asra Nomani, criticized Random House's act of self-censorship.
In September 2008, Beaufort Books, an independent US publishing house, and UK publisher Gibson Square, bought the rights to The Jewel of Medina, and the novel was slated to be published by the end of October 2008. Foreign rights have been sold to 10 countries, but at press time, Serbia was the only country to have actually published the book. After protests from local Islamic leaders, the Serbian publisher BeoBook withdrew the novel from bookstores, only to return them after realizing pirated copies were making the rounds. In September, BeoBook reported that over 4,000 copies had been sold.
Facts versus Fiction
In response to the pre-publication accusations that she was making up the past, Jones says, "non fiction dwells in the realm of fact, fiction dwells in the realm of truth — and truth is subjective."
It's true that there are many accounts of the same events in history, but accuracy and respect for Islamic history was not an impossible task. The Jewel of Medina is not meant to be an exact replica of historical events, but rather a novel that fictionalizes history. Jones openly admits that she has taken full advantage of artistic license.
"[In] my first draft  I was completely true to history as I could be," she says. "[I changed] things after because in working with an editor I came to find that  I had a series of interesting events but there was no novel. A novel has a protagonist,  a narrative, thriving action, tension, climax, [and] resolution, and so I didn't find that the lives of the characters conformed to that structure. So I had to introduce elements and make some changes for the sake of putting together a novel."
Spellberg disagrees with that approach, noting in an email interview that "even historical fiction should take some responsibility for the past."
Consider the story of Aisha and Safwan Al-Mu'attal, which features prominently in the novel.
According to historic account, Aisha accidentally leaves her necklace behind as the Prophet's caravan gets ready to move. She goes back to fetch it, returning only to find that the caravan had left without her, not realizing she wasn't in her litter because she was so light. Safwan ibn Al-Mu'attal, a man she had hardly ever spoken to, found her and took her home. Aisha was accused of adultery, and was eventually vindicated by God by means of a series of Qur'anic verses revealed to the Prophet (PBUH).
In The Jewel of Medina, Jones spins this into a tale of star-crossed lovers: Aisha had been engaged to Al-Mu'attal as a child and was deeply in love with him. She made up the story about forgetting her necklace, because she had conspired with Al-Mu'attal to remain behind and run away with him. She eventually realizes how wrong she was and returned to Medina "clutching Safwan's waist," "loose hair lashing [her] face," and "resting [her] cheek against [his] shoulder."
Scenes throughout the book involve Safwan flirting with Aisha, hugging her, and kissing her. "The stuff of tawdry, lurid romance novels, not Islamic history," says Spellberg.
Jones defends her fictionalized account: "I wanted to show how Aisha might have grown from a woman controlled by men and longing for men to give her certain things to her maturation into a woman in control of her own destiny. So I used her relationship with Safwan as a metaphor. I gave her a situation where she was tempted and she overcame it. And as we all do when are able to overcome temptation, she became a wiser and more mature and more spiritually aware person."
Spellberg sees only sensationalism, not a moral lesson. "The author  made selective use of the past then twisted it for provocative effect to market to an American public vastly ignorant of Islamic history, and the role of women in it," the scholar argues.
The author departs from historic accounts in the details as well. For instance, Jones arms her Aisha with a sword, even though Islamic history never portrays her with a sword. The author says the sword is "a metaphor for [Aisha's] growing power."
Jones also imported non-Arab concepts into her Arabian desert setting, specifically the hatun (great lady of the house). The hatun is a Turkish tradition that has no basis in Islam and involves sister-wives competing for the number-one spot; the winner gets to order the rest of the harem around. In the novel, Aisha is obsessed with becoming the hatun; when she finally wins the position, all the prophet's wives and the prophet bow low to her — even though bowing to others is not part of Islamic culture.
When questioned about the hatun, Jones replied "it was a device I used as a writer of fiction, [imported] from Turkey to illustrate the rivalry within the harem."
While the book is rife with historical inaccuracies, it is not 100 percent fiction. Jones stays true to many real events, and depicts some historic personas in a good light. For instance, the Prophet Muhammad is portrayed as Jones say she intended: "a wise and gentle leader, compassionate and egalitarian, and also non violent."
Aisha of the 21st Century
The Jewel of Medina is told through Aisha's eyes, which Spellberg says "allows the author to make Aisha complicit in telling a false tale of her own life."
The novel goes beyond merely telling a ‘false tale." It essentially converts Aisha of the seventh century into Aisha of the twenty-first century Western world.
In The Jewel of Medina, Aisha's dreams center on her freedom, desire for power and control of her own destiny. She views her arranged marriage as "a fate chosen by others, as though I were a sheep or a goat fatted for this day," and hates the "ridiculous inventions such as purdah [seclusion, a sub-continental custom that did not apply to the Islamic age] and hatun and durra [second wife] and their traditions of male superiority that made chattel of women."
Jones admits that "there's a certain amount of projection that goes on when you're writing fiction." Nevertheless, the author insists, "Given Aisha's strength of character I think it's conceivable that she could have felt this way."
When Aisha hears the verse about hijab, or veiling, "words I could have lived the rest of my life without hearing," she says the Prophet might as well have "buried [us] alive" or "put blinders on us."
Jones has stressed in numerous articles that she wanted to write a story about Aisha as a role model for women, a story that inspires people and shows them that "women were more empowered in early Islam that the Western perception of women in Islam is today."
For someone who professes she wants to "build bridges with Middle Eastern and Islamic cultures [which] we've demonized," Jones has written a novel that is more likely to cause tension.
The hijab is also used to imply that verses of the Qur'an were made up to satisfy the Prophet's wants. In the novel, Umar Al-Khattab suggests to the Prophet that his women be secluded. Soon after that the verse commonly regarded as referring to the veil (Sura Ahzab [Chapter of the Clans] 33:53) is revealed; immediately Umar's daughter tells Aisha, "my father must have convinced Muhammad [PBUH], after all." When Aisha sees Umar later, she thinks: "Here was the man who'd robbed me of my freedom by convincing Muhammad to make me cover my face."
The novel also repeatedly refers to Aisha as a ‘child bride.' The original blurb of the book read: "Married at nine to the much-older Muhammad, Aisha uses her wits, her courage, and her sword to defend her first-wife status even as Muhammad marries again and again, taking 12 wives and concubines in all."
Spellberg notes, "the issue of Aisha's age is already the stuff of some Western, now American neo-conservative and right-wing evangelical Christian charges that the Prophet was a "pedophile." The author implicitly exploited these assumptions."
Islamic history accounts generally agree that Aisha was nine years old when she married the Prophet. In seventh-century Arabia, however, all women after reaching puberty are capable of raising a family and were thus considered biologically and psychosocially eligible for marriage.
To Err is Human
Many Muslims and non-Muslims portray the Prophetic era as a utopian period, glossing over not only the political and military machinations of the era, but also the fact that all the characters in Islamic history were human, with flaws and weaknesses. Jones' novel, on the other hand, accentuates the human flaws.
For example, Caliph Umar ibn al-Kattib, known in history as being strict with women, is depicted as a woman hater. Caliph Ali ibn Abi-Talib (the Prophet's cousin and son in law), noted in history for his role in the first Islamic civil war, is portrayed as a conniving and power-hungry Judas.
Readers of the novel might find themselves thinking that the Prophet's numerous marriages were arranged solely to satisfy his lust. Orientalist undertones also come into play: every single woman the Prophet marries is portrayed as a beauty, plucked from a different corner of the world (the exotic Egyptians, the red-haired green eyed Aisha, the dusky-haired Yemeni beauty etc).
"If that is the impression readers get from the book, then it is only because the novel is written from "Aisha's point of view," Jones says, "and of course in her eyes a gaze between Mohammad and his new wife is going to make her burn with jealousy and [assume the worst]."
The readers might get a more accurate impression had the author acknowledged that most of the Prophet's wives were old, widows or divorcees with children. Nor did she mention that he lived his youth (25-early 50s) in a monogamous, loving marriage with a woman 25 years his senior.
While there is plenty of sexuality, there are no sex scenes, which Jones says she opted not to include out of respect.
Jones' Aisha may be the heroine, but she is no angel. Aisha's jealousy, an accepted historical fact, becomes her defining characteristic, and she is portrayed as an impulsive, egocentric, vindictive liar who breaks her promises and only wants the glory of the battlefield. In this, the novel deviates from historic accounts in which Aisha was revered as al-siddiqa (the truthful). The Prophet himself said "take half your religion from this ruddy little one," when speaking of Aisha, because of her extraordinary memory. Scholars and legal authorities later incorporated her accounts into their works and some historians credit her with one-quarter of Islamic religious law.
"That is the saddest part of all" says Spellberg. "Aisha's true life and voice have been eradicated in this controversy. Instead Americans sadly ignorant of Islamic religion and history will be introduced to a sexualized cartoon of a woman, depicted as wielding a sword, another false and violent image."
Containing the Controversy
The Jewel of Medina is yet another battlefield with the same sides facing off: A number of Western media figures are decrying Random House and Spellberg as censors and cowards. On the other hand, many Muslims are once again offended by the West's depiction of Islam's sacred figures. Other Muslim figures, including writer and poet Marwa El-Naggar of IslamOnline.net, have said the novel — regardless of its inaccuracies — should not be banned.
To the end, Jones asserts, "I always had the intention of honoring Islam with my work and I intend to do so in my public speaking."
Rather than alienating her, Muslims should aim to win her over as an ally and use her novel to teach non-Muslims about the true history of Islam.