The Jewel Of Medina By Sherry Jones. 358 pages. Beaufort Books, $24.95.
For some devout Muslims, perhaps the most objectionable chapter in Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" concerned a brothel where prostitutes used the names of Muhammad's 11 wives. For certain pious Christians, the most offensive aspect of Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ" was the dream sequence of Christ's marrying Mary Magdalene and then becoming involved with two other women. Both 1988 works ignited violence. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued the fatwa that forced Rushdie into hiding and led to deadly riots, bombings of British bookstores and the fatal stabbing of the book's Japanese translator. The most dramatic incident associated with Scorsese's film occurred when a Paris theater where it was playing was gutted, apparently by an arson attack, sending 13 people to the hospital.
Now, 20 years later, Sherry Jones, a Montana and Idaho correspondent for the Bureau of National Affairs, a specialty news service covering legislative and regulatory issues, has written a novel from the point of view of Muhammad's third and youngest wife, A'isha. Most accounts agree that she was 6 at their engagement, 9 at their wedding and 14 when publicly accused of adultery. The novel's story line coincides with a pivotal time in Islamic history - the 10 years beginning with Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina in A.D. 622 and ending with his death at age 62. His actions during that period have also been seized upon by Western commentators and poets as proof of Muhammad's unmanageable sexual appetite and self-serving declaration of divine revelation. Among the most contested criticisms of Muhammad are his taking of many more than the four wives he decreed as the limit for other men and his edict, supposedly inspired by Allah, requiring his wives to be placed behind a curtain, the basis for the veiling of Muslim women. Both matters are fictionalized in Jones's novel, which was scheduled to be published by the Random House imprint Ballantine until controversy intervened.
The most authoritative contemporary English-language account of A'isha - "Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of A'isha Bint Abi Bakr" ' is not listed as one of Jones's sources. But its author, Denise Spellberg, played a role in Random House's decision to abandon the book. According to a Wall Street Journal op-ed essay last August, "You Still Can't Write About Muhammad," Spellberg received an advance copy, usually sent to solicit a blurb, and responded instead with a warning that Jones's novel could incite violence from Muslim extremists. An associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas, Austin, Spellberg also emphasized that she supported freedom of expression. "I walked through a metal detector to see 'Last Temptation of Christ,' " she told the essay's author, Asra Q. Nomani. "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."
Rushdie defended Jones's novel (although it's not clear he read it), declaring "this is censorship by fear and it sets a very bad precedent indeed." The following month, the small New York press Beaufort Books (which also published O. J. Simpson's "If I Did It" after another publisher scotched the project) bought the novel. A few weeks later, somebody pushed a firebomb through the mail slot at the home office of Jones's London publisher.
In a Q. and A. included in "The Jewel of Medina," Jones explains that she first became interested in A'isha in 2002 after the American invasion of Afghanistan. "I discovered that the Prophet Muhammad had multiple wives and concubines. Being unable to find very much information about any of them made me want to tell their stories to the world." Most Muslims would be surprised to hear that these women's stories were little known - they've been an object of scholarly debate and political maneuvering since the seventh century. They're also firmly entrenched in contemporary Muslim popular culture.
A'isha in particular is, as Spellberg has pointed out, at the center of key disagreements between the Shia and Sunni sects. Her father, Abu Bakr, was the first caliph. Shiites consider him a usurper and place Ali - whom A'isha led armed forces against in the first Muslim civil war - as the true heir of Muhammad. For Sunnis, A'isha is an exemplary woman, in part because of a Koranic revelation exonerating her from the charge of adultery.
One of Rushdie's characters in "Satanic Verses" makes much of her, suggesting that Muhammad's forgiveness of A'isha arose from personal preference, not divine inspiration. Jones doesn't go that far: regarding A'isha's exoneration, she follows Sunni tradition. Yet, like Rushdie, Jones looks through A'isha's eyes to question Muhammad's revelation concerning the curtain and his motives for his many marriages. Jones's novel stops short of the blasphemy "The Satanic Verses" was accused of: her A'isha accepts the curtain revelation as divine even though she passionately dislikes it. And she jealously believes that Muhammad's multiple marriages are motivated at least partly by desire ' not, as he tells her, to make strategic alliances.
Jones's novel accurately conveys A'isha's overall jealousy and her outspokenness, Muhammad's exasperated monthlong retreat from his squabbling harem, his marked preference for A'isha and his death in her arms. Jones alters early Islamic versions of A'isha's life - the first of which was written 150 years after Muhammad's death - in relatively few aspects. She transforms A'isha into a sword fighter. She makes her a precocious military strategist. She depicts her kissing a man she was briefly engaged to prior to Muhammad, her accused partner in the adultery episode. The record doesn't mention kissing, and the man was not engaged to A'isha. Jones also inserts a Turkish custom ' the choosing of a harem's premier wife, or hatun' unknown in seventh-century Arabia.
Spellberg's characterization of "The Jewel of Medina" as soft porn doesn't hold up, since the language describing A'isha and Muhammad's conjugal relations is always euphemistic and most often juvenile. The novel is, in fact, an example of that subspecies of genre fiction, "historical romance." Yet even judged by that standard, Jones's prose is lamentable. Here's A'isha as a girl, peeping at a couple in the throes of passion: "I stared at his behind, as big as my goat's-bladder ball and covered with hair." The Prophet isn't spared either: "Desire? Muhammad was having so many of them at that moment, they clashed like lightning bolts on his face."
An inexperienced, untalented author has naïvely stepped into an intense and deeply sensitive intellectual argument. She has conducted enough research to reimagine the accepted versions of Muhammad's marriage to A'isha, thus offending the religious audience, but not nearly enough to enlighten the ordinary Western reader. Should free-speech advocates champion "The Jewel of Medina"? In the American context, the answer is unclear. The Constitution protects pornography and neo-Nazi T-shirts, but great writers don't generally applaud them. If Jones's work doesn't reach those repugnant extremes, neither does it qualify as art. It is telling that PEN, the international association of writers that works to advance literature and defend free expression, has remained silent on the subject of this novel. Their stance seems just about right.