/ 9 August 2008

Novel on prophet’s wife pulled for fear of backlash

A romantic novel about Aisha, the child bride of the Prophet Muhammad, has been withdrawn because its publisher feared possible terrorist acts by Muslim extremists.

The Jewel of the Medina, a first book by Sherry Jones (46) was to have been released on August 12 by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House. But the publishers apparently panicked after Islamic scholars objected to the work.

One of them, Denise Spellberg, who teaches Islamic history at the University of Texas at Austin, describes the novel as ”soft-core pornography”.

Jones told the Guardian: ”It’s ridiculous. I must be a heck of a writer to produce a pornographic book without sex scenes. My book is as realistic a portrayal as I could muster of the Prophet Muhammad’s harem and his domestic life. Of course it has sexuality, but there is no sex.”

The withdrawal of the novel, reported this week by the Wall Street Journal, triggered intense debate on the web among feminists, young Muslims and academics.

Many of the bloggers recalled the death threats and uproar 20 years ago following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and the worldwide protests that followed the publication in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of cartoons deemed offensive to Islam, in which more than 100 people died. Spellberg told the Guardian on Friday that she had been receiving hate mail accusing her of acting as a censor for Muslim jihadis after the piece in the WSJ, which cast her as the sole academic critic of the novel.

The saga of the Jewel of the Medina began unspooling last April when the publishers sent out proofs for recommendations. Until then, they had raised no concerns about the novel, Jones said.

She claims to have spent two years researching the novel, and she suggested Spellberg for an endorsement because she had read Spellberg’s book on Aisha.

”It was my hope that my book would develop empathy for this other culture,” she said. ”It has always rankled me the way history focuses on men and wars and men’s politics and leaves women out. I wanted to honour the women in Muhammad’s life by giving them a voice.”

Spellberg, however, was horrified by the end product. ”It is not just that there were issues with historical accuracy. This was quite deliberately provocative. She objectified the wife of the prophet as a sex object and made her violent as well,” she told the Guardian.

The book’s marketing blurb and the prologue, both online, suggest Spellberg had cause for her fears.

The novel is a luridly written amalgam of bodice-ripper and historical fiction centred on Aisha, the favourite wife of the Prophet Muhammad. ”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,” the summary reads.

At one point the novel imagines the consummation of the marriage between Muhammad and Aisha: ”The pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion’s sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life.”

Spellberg called a colleague and the editor of a Muslim website to share her misgivings. The guest lecturer, Shahed Amanullah, told the WSJ that Spellberg had asked him to warn other Muslims about the novel. ”She was very upset,” he said.

The novel became a topic of discussion on a number of Muslim websites.

Spellberg also aired her concerns with Random House. ”Denise says it is ‘a declaration of war … a national security issue’,” said an email from Jane Garrett, an editor at another Random House imprint that was quoted in the journal. ”Think it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses [sic] and the Danish cartoons.”

Random House would not comment on how the email came to be leaked.

On May 2, the publishers told Jones’s agent they were considering postponing publication. Three weeks later, Jones was told that publication was indefinitely postponed.

Random House said on Friday that it had been advised by a number of Islamic scholars and security experts that the novel was offensive to Muslims and that ”it could incide acts of violence by a small radical segment”.

Jones was released from her contract to try to sell the book elsewhere. – guardian.co.uk