Rushdie affair haunts novel about Prophet’s wife

A romance novel about the child bride of the prophet Mohammed has been withdrawn because its publisher feared possible terrorist acts by Muslim extremists.

The Jewel of the Medina was to have been released in August by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, for first-time novelist Sherry Jones, 46. But the publishers apparently panicked after a professor in Texas who had been approached for a pre-publication blurb, strenuously objected to the work.

Denise Spellberg, who teaches Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin, later described the novel as “soft core pornography”. Jones rejects the charge. “It’s ridiculous,” she told this reporter.

“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 Mohammed’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, set off an 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 Satanic Verses. There were also references to the global upheavals that followed the publication of cartoons in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, deemed offensive to Islam. More than 100 people died in the ensuing protests.

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

She said she became interested in the topic after 9/11 and spent two years researching the novel. Jones suggested Spellberg for an endorsement because she had drawn from her work. “It was my hope that my book would develop empathy for this other culture that we know so little about in this country,” 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 Mohammed’s life by giving them a voice.”

Spellberg, however, seems to have been horrified by the end product. The book’s marketing blurb and the prologue, both online, indicate her fears.

The novel is an amalgam of bodice ripper and historical fiction centred on Aisha, the favourite wife of the prophet Mohammed. “Married at nine to the much-older Mohammed, Aisha uses her wits, her courage, and her sword to defend her first-wife status even as Mohammed marries again and again, taking 12 wives and concubines in all,” the summary reads.

The book’s prologue opens with an account of an episode when Aisha was accused of adultery after she became separated from Mohammed and entourage. In Jones’s account, Aisha, now aged 14, and not entirely satisfied with her marriage, is making her scandalous return to Medina in the company of another man.

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

Jones said the publishers were not aware of the discussion taking place on Muslim websites when they told her agent on May 2 they were considering postponing publication. Three weeks later, Jones was told that publication was indefinitely postponed.

Random House said that it had been advised the novel was offensive to Muslims and that “it could incite acts of violence by a small radical segment”.

Jones was released from her contract to try to sell the book elsewhere. —

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