By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart
October 15, 2008
“The Jewel of Medina,” a controversial work of historical fiction by American author Sherry Jones, was supposed to have gone on sale Oct. 15 in the
Some Muslims have labelled the book blasphemous and have branded the author an enemy of Islam. An associate professor of Islamic history at the
While the author and publisher have argued that the book respectfully portrays Mohammed and his relationship with Aisha — in stark contrast to the Danish cartoons that have sparked so much protest and violence — the tone of the book is not the real issue. To many Muslims, not only is it offensive to ridicule Mohammed but it is forbidden and considered a dire insult to portray the prophet in any way outside the context of Islamic writings. This insult is magnified when Mohammed is depicted having intimate relations with his wife, a revered figure in Islam who is referred to in many Islamic writings as “Um ul Mumineen” (Arabic for “Mother of the Believers”). Because of this, in all probability many Muslims — not just a few radicals — will find the book offensive.
“The Jewel of Medina” is scheduled to be released in 15 other countries in 2008, including major European markets,
The controversy surrounding “The Jewel of Medina” first reached the public eye in August, when
On Sept. 8, Beaufort Books announced that it had signed a two-book deal with Jones to publish “The Jewel of Medina” in the
Despite its delayed release in the
On Sept. 8, the day the Beaufort Books deal was announced in the
Radical Islamist leaders in the
To better gauge the scope of potential threats and incidents that could result from distribution of “The Jewel of Medina,” it is useful to examine earlier incidents where large segments of Muslim society were angered by the publication of images or other portrayals of the Prophet Mohammed — and when that outrage caused radical Muslims to respond with violence.
As mentioned above, the publication of satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed galvanized Muslims in many countries, and the cartoons sparked protests in a variety of locations. Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard drew the cartoons, and Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published them in September 2005. The cartoons’ initial release produced very little fallout. In fact, the majority of protest activity surrounding their publication did not begin until early 2006, when information about the cartoons was intentionally spread through Muslim communities worldwide by Muslim activists seeking to create an uproar over the cartoons and instigate violence. They even stacked the deck by adding some extremely inflammatory cartoons of the prophet not published in Jyllands-Posten.
In early 2006, protests began throughout the Muslim world and in areas with large Muslim populations, including
During these protests, Danish diplomatic and commercial facilities were often destroyed. Muslim leaders also called for a boycott of Danish goods, and these boycotts cost Danish companies millions of euros. The cartoon controversy came to prominence again in August 2007, when similar cartoons were republished in Swedish newspaper Nerikes Allehanda as part of an editorial regarding censorship.
In addition to the response from individuals, militant groups weighed in on the situation, threatening attacks against
In June, a suicide bomber attacked the Danish Embassy in
In July 2006, two suspects placed two timed incendiary devices aboard two separate trains in
The individuals responsible for the cartoons also received personal threats. A number of Muslim leaders issued fatwas against Westergaard. Fatwas are not legally or morally binding statements, though they often motivate Muslims to participate in certain actions to prove their faithfulness to Islam. In addition to fatwas issued against Westergaard, a Pakistani religious leader offered a reward of $1 million and a car to the person who murdered Westergaard. Law enforcement authorities in
Another recent example of Muslim wrath spurred by what many Westerners consider an exercise of free speech and artistic license was the November 2004 slaying by a militant Muslim of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Van Gogh had directed a short documentary called “Submission” that discussed the issue of violence committed against Muslim women. The movie was considered especially inflammatory because it contained depictions of Koranic verses interposed on nude female bodies.
Van Gogh received several threats following the August 2004 release of “Submission,” but he seemed to disregard them and refused to accept protection. Van Gogh was attacked while riding his bicycle to work. His assassin, Mohammed Boyeri, shot van Gogh eight times and then attempted to behead him with a knife before leaving a threatening note pinned to van Gogh’s body with a second knife.
The 1988 publication of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” also offers valuable insights about the potential reception of “The Jewel of Medina.” Many Muslims condemned Rushdie’s novel for depicting a false prophet named “Mahound” (a derogatory moniker for the Prophet Mohammed), creating characters that questioned the validity of Islam, and suggesting that Mahound might have received words in the Koran from the devil. Despite critical acclaim, the book was banned in more than 10 countries prior to publication. Another 11 countries banned the book after outbreaks of violence in the
Protests against “The Satanic Verses” erupted throughout Muslim communities in early 1989. At least 25 people died in demonstrations in
The problems surrounding “The Satanic Verses” intensified in February 1989 when Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie and the novel’s publishers, sentencing them all to death because of the “blasphemous” content of the book. Rushdie, an Indian-born citizen of the
Press reports indicate that several hundred threats to bookstores were reported to the FBI in the first four months of 1989. In March 1989, two bookstores in
Though Khomeini’s fatwa has not led to Rushdie’s death, a number of other individuals associated with the book’s publication were attacked, and some were murdered. Ettore Capriolo, who translated the book into Italian, was beaten and stabbed in July 1991. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator, was stabbed to death in an attack the same month. Turkish translator Aziz Nesin was attacked in October 1993 but survived critical injuries.
A Long-Term Problem
As seen in the examples noted above, “The Jewel of Medina” has the potential to cause problems for many years. Though this issue might fade quickly from public consciousness in the West, the subject matter of the book has the potential to inflame Muslim activists again in the future. In the case of the Prophet Mohammed cartoons, Pakistani religious leaders admitted that they intentionally stirred up emotions connected with the publication of Mohammed’s images after the initial furor died down. It is thus quite possible that “The Jewel of Medina” will be used in the same way. This time frame could span decades. In the case of “The Satanic Verses,” large-scale protests condemning the book and Rushdie occurred as recently as fall 2007, 19 years after the novel’s publication.
If “The Jewel of Medina” becomes a prominent issue in Muslim communities, it is likely that militant organizations will issue fatwas and other statements related to the book. They might even call for protests or attacks to correct the alleged damage caused by the novel. If such calls occur, demonstrators and perpetrators of violence might not necessarily belong to an organized group. Instead, it is very likely that Muslims who are unaffiliated with such groups but nevertheless feel called to make a stand in favour of Islam could choose to participate in these activities. Such actions probably will not be limited to areas that experience frequent militant activity, such as
We are not necessarily predicting an immediate open season on Sherry Jones or the publishers of the book, but precautions should obviously be taken to prevent them from becoming the next Theo van Goghs. And as the ancillary attacks in the Rushdie case (among others) have shown, other people also can become victims, and violence can be channelled in unexpected ways and appear in unexpected places. When it comes to perceptions of blasphemy and other affronts that some see as warranting death, fatwas often are carried out with extreme brutality — and those targeted have not always been directly associated with the initial offense. Considering past examples and the probable emotions “The Jewel of Medina” will raise in the Islamic world, revenge for offended religious sensibilities might be brutal, and it might be a long time coming.
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Sherry Jones's The Jewel of
The Jewel of
By Azadeh Moaveni,
Is it worth risking your life for the sake of a bodice ripper? That was the question I asked myself last spring, when I first read Sherry Jones' novel The Jewel of Medina, a treacly romance starring the Prophet Mohammed and his favourite wife, Aisha. Now, The Jewel of Medina is at the centre of an international controversy over issues from censorship and free speech to the idea of Islam versus Art.
In May, Jones' publisher, Random House, cancelled its contract with the author, citing sources who had warned that the book could incite acts of violence. Two publishers, Beaufort books in America and Gibson Square in the United Kingdom, picked up the novel; the former sped up its release this month to avoid acts of violence, while the latter, having suffered an attempted fire bombing of its offices in early October, said this week it was postponing publication indefinitely. I had been sent an early copy to blurb by Ballantine, a division of Random House, the company that is also publishing my own forthcoming memoir. When my scribbled notes in the margins went from "likely to offend?" to "certain to offend" to "fatwa!" I realized I needed to demur from offering a comment.
Since Random House dropped the novel, a heated and familiar debate (one could insert The Satanic Verses, the film Submission, or those infamous Danish cartoons for every mention of The Jewel of Medina) has erupted over whether Western civilization is once again being endangered by philistine Muslims who just don't get the concept of free speech. As word about the novel spread across the Muslim internet, Salman Rushdie and a parade of commentators condemned Random House for sacrificing free expression to security concerns. Meanwhile, the fiercest judgment against the novel came last week from a radical Islamic organization in the
Some critics, like Alvaro Varga Llosa writing in The New Republic, argue that "the book's content is irrelevant to the discussion." But others — the curious, or potential victims caught up in the threat of "deadly prospects" — will want to know what is causing such offence. Most likely to trouble Muslims is the novel's overall lustiness, in particular the erotic encounters between Mohammed and Aisha, and the historically contrived sexual attraction between a married Aisha and a young, attractive Medinan. The book's earliest critic, a professor of Islamic studies at the
The erotic trouble with the novel doesn't end with its explicitness, however. For the sake of her racy narrative, Jones effectively rewrites Aisha's biography and casts her in the role of near adulterer. Interpreted in light of the author's modern, Western sensibility, this underscores Aisha's power; her fictional Aisha has sexual urges and isn't afraid to consider acting on them. She's a woman in the Sex and the City mold. To lead her Carrie Bradshaw/Aisha to the brink of temptation, Jones subverts one of the key events in early Islam's history, the incident of al-Ifk, or "The Slander." The historical version has Aisha falsely accused of adultery, and ultimately exonerated by a surah (a revealed verse from the Koran) that also outlines the moral foundation of Muslim society. In Jones's version, Aisha actually goes to first base.
In an interview published with the novel, Jones says that her objective was to "empower women, especially Muslim women." But again, empowerment is a matter of perspective. Given that her narrative strips Aisha of the purity for which she is called the "Mother of the Believers," and given the increasingly conservative social mores that hold sway among young Muslim women across the world, many would argue that the novel fails in this regard.
Jones's treatment of Ali, the key imam of Shia Islam, the Prophet's cousin and Aisha's eventual political rival, is another flashpoint. While it would be impossible to write a novel from Aisha's perspective without channelling her resentment of Ali, the problem is not Jones's reproduction of this historically attested antagonism, but her cartoonish portrait of Ali as the Jafar villain out of Disney's Aladdin. Jones undermines herself here with an astonishing insensitivity to Muslim sensibilities (the faith considers dogs ritually impure) by resorting to verbs usually reserved for dogs to describe Ali's disagreeableness to Aisha. He points his sharp nose, sniffs for lies, barks — a virtual canine companion to the Prophet — and that's all before the first chapter even starts.
To give The Jewel of Medina the full Edward Said treatment would take pages — for starters, Jones grafts foreign concepts (such as the Turkish notion of the hatun, or head of the harem) onto 7th century Arabia and conjures an atmosphere dense with exotic clichés ("I spread a smile thick as hummus across my lips"). Her Aisha is so thoroughly Western, indeed so thoroughly American, that she might as well have asked her father, upon being betrothed to the Prophet, "What am I, like, a sheep? Mohammed is old — ick. Can't I wait for someone more fabulous?" But regardless of the novel's literary deficiencies, the threat of violence that now stalks Jones underscores that the tensions that kept Salman Rushdie in hiding for nearly a decade have not faded — for writers and publishers wary of attack, and for aggrieved Muslims who feel their faith the target of perpetual insult.
Understanding Islam: A challenge
In the coming weeks, Americans will focus on who should lead the "land of the free and home of the brave." But does the
Random House, among the top publishers in
Might? That's all it takes these days? According to whom?
Welcome to where things get interesting. Long before controversy arose, Random House sent an endorsement request to Denise Spellberg, a non-Muslim professor at the
Reportedly judging the book to be "national security threat," she depicted it as "more dangerous than theSatanic Verses." Prof. Spellberg ought to know: She teaches Salman Rushdie's notorious novel in her class. Clearly, she doesn't back censorship.
Yet her lawyer warned Random House not to use Prof. Spellberg's name in or on the novel.
Random House then consulted more "scholars of Islam." In effect, the publisher invited post-colonial theorists with narrow specializations to rip apart a mass-market story. Also pulled in was the corporation's head of security.
Meanwhile, a listserv of graduate students in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies learned of the still-unpublished novel. They heard about it through a Muslim website manager who claims to have received a "frantic" call from Prof. Spellberg. His postings got forwarded to various forums, ultimately reaching a blogger who circulated a protest strategy.
There's no evidence that anybody paid serious attention to the blogger's plan. Despite the resounding lack of threats, however, Random House announced that it would postpone publication for the sake of safety -- including that of the author, Sherry Jones.
Mind you, she's free to seek a fatwa: Random House has now terminated Jones' contract so she may sell the manuscript elsewhere. "We stand firmly by our responsibility to support our authors," its corporate statement reads. That's one way to prove it.
How to begin unraveling the absurdity of this decision? For starters, Random House is in the business of free expression. Of course, so are newspapers and most of them didn't print the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
But this novel can't be compared to those cartoons. The Jewel of Medina treats both the Prophet and his bride with deep affection. My own conversation with Jones affirms her respect for the dignity of A'isha.
"I wrote Jewel, in part, because I recognize the absence of women's voices in the way Islamic history is told," she explained by phone. "Women played a huge leadership role in the founding of the faith. Silencing my voice only achieves more silencing of theirs."
Thus another absurdity. The muzzling of Sherry Jones originated with a woman. Moreover, Denise Spellberg is non-Muslim. Why are there no cries of interference, imperialism, even racism from those who typically tell non-Muslims to stay out of Islamic issues?
Such cries are necessary because the cancellation of this book amounts to a curious form of racism. Random House New York has revealed what low expectations it has of Muslims. Self-censorship reduces all believers to the status of children, incapable of handling sensitive material with civility. As a believer, I'm offended.
All Muslims aren't infants. The man who took Prof. Spellberg's call insists he never wanted Jones gagged. Self-censorship does no favors to the Muslim community, he asserts, because "we're not going to silence our way out of problems."
In the West, publishers aren't haunted by the legacy of Milosevic. What they fear are replays of Rushdie. I experienced this first-hand when my own book, which advocates reform of Muslims, landed on the desks of British publishers. Some suggested that my name would be too exotic for multicultural
While some know the price of free expression, others know the value of it.
In the end, Random House New York may have given Sherry Jones the gift of global exposure. We shouldn't be surprised to see The Jewel of Medina distributed far and wide, as it deserves to be. I shall also be recommending her novel to my brave publisher back home. Its name: Random House Canada.
The writer is Director of the Moral Courage Project at
For other articles by Irshad Manji go to http://www.irshadmanji.com/im-category/media-coverage
Reedone (not verified) — Mon, 10/13/2008 - 10:30am
since the widely news on that taken from hadist which was researched 200 years after prophet dies that open for debate of its authenticity, different with qur'an that written when the prophet still alive and combined in one book right after his death (abu bakr) and finished in usman leadership.
here another facts of aisha age when he married her:
A great misconception prevails as to the age at which A’isha was taken in marriage by the Prophet. Ibn Sa‘d has stated in the Tabaqat that when Abu Bakr was approached on behalf of the Holy Prophet, he replied that the girl had already been betrothed to Jubair, and that he would have to settle the matter first with him. This shows that A’isha must have been approaching majority at the time. Again, the Isaba, speaking of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, says that she was born five years before the Call and was about five years older than A’isha. This shows that A’isha must have been about ten years at the time of her betrothal to the Prophet, and not six years as she is generally supposed to be. This is further borne out by the fact that A’isha herself is reported to have stated that when the chapter entitled The Moon (fifty-fourth chapter) was revealed, she was a girl playing about and remembered certain verses then revealed. Now the fifty-fourth chapter was undoubtedly revealed before the sixth year of the Call. All these considerations point to but one conclusion, viz., that A’isha could not have been less than ten years of age at the time of her nikah, which was virtually only a betrothal. And there is one report in the Tabaqat that A’isha was nine years of age at the time of nikah. Again it is a fact admitted on all hands that the nikah of A’isha took place in the tenth year of the Call in the month of Shawwal, while there is also preponderance of evidence as to the consummation of her marriage taking place in the second year of Hijra in the same month, which shows that full five years had elapsed between the nikah and the consummation. Hence there is not the least doubt that A’isha was at least nine or ten years of age at the time of betrothal, and fourteen or fifteen years at the time of marriage.
Iain Shearer (not verified) — Thu, 08/28/2008 - 2:04pm
A'isha was 6 when they married, and she was 9 when Muhammad consummated the marriage.
Please refer to Bukhari vol.7 book 62 ch.60 no.88 p.65; Sahih Muslim vol.2 book 8 no.3309,3310,3311 p.715,716
Muhammad had 23 wives... and many more concubines.
I'm not surprised Muslims want it banned. The truth hurts.