All that glitters is not literary gold

 

A novel about Muhammad's youngest wife has led to controversy on both sides of the Atlantic, writes Mary FitzgeraldForeign Affairs Correspondent

ANYONE PICKING up a copy of the novel that has sparked controversy on both sides of the Atlantic for its depiction of the life of Muhammad's youngest wife, Aisha bint Abi Bakr, could be forgiven for dismissing it as a piece of Oriental-tinged fluff. And that's before you look beyond the cover of the US edition of The Jewel of Medina. It features a detail from The Queen of the Harem, a painting by 19th-century German artist Ferdinand Max Bredt that, with its bejewelled subject coyly holding a gauzy veil just below her face, is typical of the Orientalist style of the time.

A glance inside confirms that the late Edward Said would have had much to say about US journalist Sherry Jones's rather breathless treatment of seventh-century Arabia. Jones invites her readers to join her in a "harsh, exotic world of saffron and sword fights, of desert nomads living in camels-hair tents, of caravans laden with Persian carpets and frankincense, of flowing colourful robes and kohl-darkened eyes and perfumed arms filigreed with henna".

What can you expect, some critics have shrugged, from a work that includes a citation for One Thousand and One Nightsin its bibliography? The novel's flowery prose and outdated Orientalist tone would probably have caused it to sink without trace were it not for its subject matter. A first-person narrative of the life of Aisha - from her betrothal to Muhammad at the age of six until his death when she was 18 - the novel makes full use of artistic licence to flesh out the story of a woman often described as Muhammad's favourite wife.

Several years and drafts in the making, Jones's novel was originally snapped up by Random House, which bought the rights for a reported $100,000 (€73,300) and planned the launch for August this year.

Jones says she became interested in Islam after observing how her fellow Americans tended to view the Islamic world as a monolithic entity after the September 11th attacks. She wrote the book to provide her Western readers with "a greater understanding of Islam [so] that we can start to build bridges with Middle Eastern and Islamic cultures [that] we've demonized".

Jones, who admits she has never visited the Middle East but spent several years researching Islamic history and Arab culture, has argued that her intention was to present Aisha as a role model. She wanted to show how "women were more empowered in early Islam than the Western perception of women in Islam is today".

She was doubtless aware that a fictional rendering of Aisha's story could be considered provocative, not least because one particular strain of anti-Muslim sentiment accuses Muhammad of paedophilia because he married Aisha at such a young age.

The controversy unfolded earlier this year when Random House, casting around for cover blurbs, sent a copy to Denise Spellberg, a professor at the University of Texas whose academic study of Aisha is considered to be one of the most authoritative. Spellberg was appalled by what she described as a "very ugly, stupid piece of work" and advised Random House not to publish the book, warning that it could provoke violent protests. The novel, Spellberg said, was an attempt to turn "sacred history . . . into soft-core pornography", an accusation most reviewers say is wide of the mark. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Spellberg said she felt it was her professional responsibility to counter the novel's "fallacious representation of a very real woman's life. It . . . counts on stirring up controversy to increase sales."

Random House decided to drop the title but it was later picked up by Beaufort Books, the same company that last year published OJ Simpson's hypothetical confession If I Did It. Salman Rushdie also waded into the controversy, accusing Random House, which published a number of his books, such as Fury and Shalimar the Clown but not The Satanic Verses, of caving in to intimidation.

"This is censorship by fear and it sets a very bad precedent indeed," Rushdie said, a view shared by Muslim activist and writer Asra Q Nomani in an op-ed piece she penned for the Wall Street Journal.

Foreign rights have been sold to 10 countries, but up until it appeared in US bookshops this week, Serbia was the only country to have published the novel. Its British launch remains uncertain following a firebomb attack on the offices of its London publisher last month. Three men have been charged in connection with the incident. The US publication date was subsequently brought forward nine days ahead of schedule in a bid to defuse tensions.

"We felt that, given what was happening, it was better for everybody . . . to let the conversation switch from a conversation about terrorists and fearful publishers, to a conversation about the merits of the book itself," said Beaufort Books president Eric Kampmann.

So what is the novel like? I was sent a copy of the prologue and, apart from baulking at its overwrought romance-novel style, I was struck by how much artistic licence Jones had taken in her treatment of one of the most significant events in the life of Aisha as recounted in Islam's holy texts - the episode known as "The Affair of the Necklace". According to the traditional telling of the story, Aisha accidentally leaves her necklace behind as Muhammad's caravan prepares to move on. She goes to retrieve it, returning to find that Muhammad and his companions have unknowingly departed without her. She is found by a handsome young man named Safwan ibn Al-Muattal, who returns her to the caravan. Aisha is initially accused of committing adultery with Safwan but is ultimately vindicated by means of a series of Koranic verses revealed to Muhammad. In The Jewel of Medina, Jones reworks this tale by transforming Aisha and Safwan into star-crossed lovers who conspire to run away together. Aisha, however, realises her mistake and returns to Muhammad, making up the story of the missing necklace to explain her disappearance.

This and other elements of the novel - including a section where Aisha reacts to the verses considered to relate to the hijab, saying Muhammad might as well have "buried [us] alive" or "put blinders on us" - have been criticised by a number of Muslim commentators.

Several have expressed disappointment with what they consider to be Jones' awkward attempt to filter Aisha's experiences through the prism of 21st-century sensibilities. Writing in Egypt Today, Ethar El-Katatney notes that the novel "essentially converts Aisha of the seventh century into Aisha of the 21st-century Western world . . . Aisha's dreams centre on her freedom, desire for power and control of her own destiny."

But what is most interesting about the controversy surrounding The Jewel of Medinais how few Muslim voices - so far - have called for it to be banned. Twenty years after the death threats, book burnings and riots that marked the publication of The Satanic Verses, many Muslims argue that people have moved on - despite the violence sparked by the publication of Danish cartoons lampooning Muhammad in 2006.

Writing on IslamOnline, one of the most popular Muslim websites, writer and poet Marwa Elnaggar says that while she is dismayed by the novel's "inaccuracies, faults and biases" it should not be withdrawn from bookshelves. "I hope that readers will take it for what it is: an attempt by a Western writer with little knowledge of Arabic, Arabia, Islam, and Muslims using her own Western, 21st-century values, ideals and emotions to portray an unrecognisable version of the well-known and well-documented story of Aisha," she writes.

Shahed Amanullah, editor of online magazine altmuslim.com, believes that Muslims have nothing to fear from the book. "The author herself - unlike others who have sought to intentionally provoke - has insisted that her book was written with a profound respect and admiration for the central characters," he says. "There is no way to prevent the publication of any book, especially in the age of the internet. Muslims around the world, no matter how upset they may be at various commentaries on Islam, are beginning to realise this."

Noting the muted response to Fitna, a provocative film on Islam broadcast earlier this year by far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, when compared to the reaction to the Danish cartoons two years ago, Amanullah suggests Muslims might be developing a thicker skin. They might also be seeking more constructive ways to respond, he adds. "Free and open discourse is in the interests of everyone, including and especially Muslims, who find their views misrepresented or suppressed so often."

The Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh, Dublin, which houses Ireland's largest Sunni mosque, declined to comment on the novel or the controversy that has accompanied its publication. "This book is not worthy of comment," a spokesman said.

But there are other Muslims who praise the novel for breathing new life into one of the most enduring female characters in Islamic history. "Sherry Jones does an extraordinary service to Islam in popularising and humanising a Muslim heroine. It's the kind of history I never learned in my mosque or madrassa," says Irshad Manji, a gay Canadian writer and activist who has written extensively on the need for reform in Islam, in a jacket blurb for the US edition. Manji adds: "As a faithful, feminist Muslim I say 'mashallah' [an Arabic expression that can be translated as 'what God has willed'] for this riveting novel."