But, Of Course, We Haven't Read It
Early this month, Gibson Square publishers here announced that it would publish “The Jewel of Medina,” a novel about the early life of A’isha, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad. It was a bold decision: the book’s United States publisher, Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, had canceled its publication in August amid fears that it would offend and inflame [is this pun intentional? ed.] Muslim extremists. (It has since been bought by another American publisher, Beaufort Books.)The book was written by Sherry Jones. The writer has taken down her blog. More about her here in the Dallas Morning News and this excerpt from the book:
For his part, Martin Rynja, Gibson Square’s publisher, said that it was “imperative” that the book be published [I say that about my work, too. ed] “In an open society there has to be open access to literary works, regardless of fear,” he said. “As an independent publishing company, we feel strongly that we should not be afraid of the consequences of debate.”
Early Saturday morning, Mr. Rynja’s house in North London, which doubles as Gibson Square’s headquarters, was set on fire. Three men were arrested on suspicion “of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism,” the police said.
Ms. Jones says the book has no sex scenes, though it explores Aisha's relationship with Muhammad in the first person and includes steamy scenes such as this one: "Scandal blew in on the errant wind when I rode into Medina clutching Safwan's waist. My neighbors rushed into the street. What they saw: my wrapper fallen to my shoulders, unheeded. Loose hair lashing my face. The wife of God's Prophet entwined around another man."Oy.
So what's the rest of it like? I haven't read it, but I can imagine. I don't know whether I care to read it. Nobody's claiming that it's a great literary novel, at least not yet. Given the brief excerpt that claim is hihgly unlikely.
The book tells the story of the relationship between the Prophet Muhammad and A’isha, who married him as a child and is often described as his favorite wife. Ballantine Books bought the rights to it in a two-book deal for a reported $100,000, Ballantine had planned to publish it in mid-August.Spellberg's remarks about the book are important:
But it scrapped those plans after being warned that the book “could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment,” Thomas Perry, deputy publisher of Random House Publishing Group, was quoted as saying by The Wall Street Journal.
The most alarming warnings apparently emanated from Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. Sent the book in advance, she determined that it was “an ugly, stupid piece of work” and “soft-core pornography,” she told The Journal.
She passed on her judgment to a colleague who edits a Muslim Web site, and word began to spread on the Internet.
But in the interview, Ms. Jones, 46, disputed Ms. Spellberg’s characterization, saying the book was “an epic love story and a story about women’s empowerment” and was neither overtly sexual nor offensive. The book, she said, “has been inappropriately and inaccurately characterized as a soft-porn book, which is the most inflammatory rhetoric anyone can use when talking about the subject matter, given the sensitivity of any religious group toward their sacred figures. [She didn't claim that the book was neither "ugly" nor "stupid". ed]"
According to an opinion article by Asra Nomani in The Wall Street Journal, the original publication plans began to unravel when University of Texas Professor Denise Spellberg saw a copy of the galleys and decided to "warn Muslims" of the pending publication of a novel that, in Spellberg's opinion, "made fun of Muslims and their history." ...snip Spellberg also called the novel a "very ugly, stupid piece of work" and added that "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." Spellberg later stated that the book "only works by taking advantage of people's ignorance" and and amounts to "a mere burlesque."I absolutely defend the free speech rights of everyone. Like almost everyone else I haven't read the book. But there's something about this that has the smell of exploitation for profit. Of course, I might be wrong. The book might actually be a towering work of great literary value. But I doubt it.
According to Nomani, Spellberg informed Random House that ...snip Muslims would react with the kind of violence seen in past controversies over the The Satanic Verses and the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. ...snip
Spellberg asserted that "As an expert on Aisha's life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel's fallacious representation of a very real woman's life. The author and the press brought me into a process, and I used my scholarly expertise to assess the novel. It was in that same professional capacity that I felt it my duty to warn the press of the novel's potential to provoke anger among some Muslims." She also stated that "The combination of sex and violence sells novels. When combined with falsification of the Islamic past, it exploits Americans who know nothing about Aisha or her seventh-century world and counts on stirring up controversy to increase sales."