Would you read this book? (Picture posed by model)
A romantic telling of the life of one of the wives of Islam's prophet has caused controversy among some Muslims - and its publication has been indefinitely postponed in the UK amid fears of a violent reaction. But is The Jewel of Medina actually any good? Blogger Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is one of the few people in Britain to have read it.
The Jewel of Medina is a chest-heaving, brassiere-busting book of outrageously tacky historical romantic fiction.
Some parts of the media are suggesting that this book is at the forefront of defending free speech. The author wants it to reach out to solve our global problems of intercultural dialogue. Between them they had me rolling around on the floor laughing.
Even if you feel that it is your duty to read it in the defence of freedom of speech, don't do it, I beg you - go out and enjoy the last sunny days of autumn, play with your children, watch paint dry - you'll thank me for it.
The book claims to tell the story of Aisha, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, through her own eyes, from the age of six, through adolescence and into adulthood. But although she lives through one of the most dramatic periods of history, the narrative conveys little of the enormity of the changes of the era, and of which Aisha was a huge part.
Sherry Jones, the author, says she wanted her book to be "at once a love story, a history lesson and a coming-of-age tale".
In order to do so, she fabricates a storyline about a lover, Safwan, whom Aisha runs away with - but then decides to leave and return to Muhammad.
But this invented plot dominates, leaving barely any room for the real history and importance of her story.
Whether you believe her to be fact, fiction or fantasy, and Muslims believe her to be very real, Aisha is of great significance in global history. The one fifth of the world population who are Muslim regards her as the wife of the Prophet Muhammad and a "mother of the believers".
WHO WAS AISHA?
Second wife of the prophet
Betrothed as a child
Arrangement described as a typical political union of the times
Aisha recorded his life and teachings
Regarded as a scholar
Dubbed 'Mother of the Believers'
Accused of role in splits after prophet's death
Buried alongside prophet's companions
She is said to have been a leading scholar and teacher and recounted many of the traditions about the personality of Muhammad.
Muslims hold Muhammad, Aisha and other religious figures very close to their hearts, dearer to them than their own parents, and just as much to be respected, protected and defended.
Muslims believe they went through enormous hardship in order to keep the spiritual message of faith intact, and in return wish to honour their contribution.
This is to be carried out in a measured and peaceful manner, in keeping with the spirit of Islam that advises returning harsh words with good ones, and malice with mercy.
With this in mind, I would have ignored this book and let it fade into obscurity. Allowing the book to be remembered only for the lack of interest it generated would have been the ultimate poetic justice.
The original publisher pulled out - and those parts of the media who wanted to stir things up said Muslims wanted it banned.
So, in order to find out what the (manufactured) fuss was about, I found myself spending 12 dreary hours reading this cringe-worthy melodramatic prose.
Even if you feel that it is your duty to read it in the defence of freedom of speech, don't do it, I beg you. Go out and enjoy the last sunny days of autumn, play with your children, watch paint dry. You'll thank me for it.
So let's deal with its literary merits. If you're a man, you'll probably hate this bodice-ripper. If you like well-written prose, then you should steer clear too.
What it does have going for it is pace and saucy pre-TV-watershed romance.
Open it randomly and you read churning phrases such as: "His eyes like honey flowed sweet glances over my face and body," or "Is your young bride ripe at last?" Grab a crumbling Flake and a pot of ice-cream.
The author claims she wants to humanise Aisha, to reach out to the Muslim world and to create debate.
I found the opposite of this spirit in the book. Muslims will not recognise the characters and stories here because they vary so wildly with recorded history. As the copyright note makes clear, this is a work of fiction.
Take, for example, the night of "Hijrah". This was the moment when the first band of Muslims left the hostile city of Mecca to move to Medina where Islam flourished - a turning point in Islamic history. But the book changes events to place Aisha at the house of Muhammad.
Jones changes the very essence of these individuals, so their characters are at odds with historical traditions.
Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, as well as one of the great leaders of early Islam, is portrayed as conniving, hot-tempered and lascivious. The Islamic texts document him as a consistently staunch defender of truth and justice, an upstanding character.
So, if you drive a wedge between Muslims and others by fictionalising core characters, how can the book be a platform for debate?
Jones admits that she has introduced concepts that were absent from the period and place to help to create her story.
For example, Aisha is put into purdah, seclusion, as a child, but this is an Indian sub-continental idea then unknown to Arabia.
On sale in Serbia, last month, after the book had been withdrawn in August
A huge focus of Aisha's energies is to become the hatun, the lead wife, and make all the other wives bow to her. But hatun is a Turkish concept - and bowing is contrary to all Islamic teachings.
What we end up with is an outdated Orientalist reading of an exoticised woman.
Aisha's angst is the angst of 19th Century western writers who couldn't understand the culture they were observing. And when they couldn't understand, they maligned the ideas they found unfamiliar, such as veiling of women like Aisha.
The result is an awkward unconvincing story, created to fit a pre-existing pre-determined idea of what life for Muslim women ought to be like. The cover art is The Queen of the Harem, a 19th Century Orientalist painting of a European-looking woman.
Sex, sex and more sex
The most irritating thing is its constant obsession with sex. The author sees it everywhere and in everything, and makes Aisha do the same. Her life is reduced to a parody of a smutty Bridget Jones diary.
I lost count of the references to "child bride". Even till relatively modern times, marriage for women in their early teens was completely natural and common in parts of the world, including Europe.
Many Muslims will indeed be offended by this book, and they should make clear why they feel hurt. If our society upholds the right to offend, then the right to be offended goes with it. But it is respect and empathy for their feelings that Muslims want, not fear.
What we need for debate and discussion are accessible histories of all the key figures in Islamic history. As Muslims, instead of honouring these individuals blindly, we will accord them much more respect by opening our eyes to their achievements through critical re-examination of their lives. This cannot be done in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.
Some Muslims oppose a style of writing and analysis that offers insights into the very human lives these individuals led.
I believe this opposition is misplaced, because that is what we already do with the words and deeds of the Prophet, known as the hadith: we read, empathise and re-apply the essence of those day-to-day experiences.
The crucial issue in creating positive understanding and dialogue through such writings is that they must be historically sound, and see the world through the experiences, morality and realities of the protagonists themselves.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed's is the author of the Spirit 21 blog. Her book, Love in a Headscarf, will be published in February 2009. Jewel of Medina, by Sherry Jones, is available from international book-sellers - but not currently on sale in the UK.
Some of your comments:
Thank you for such an insightful and intelligent review of this book. It sounds like a huge missed opportunity!
Tina Place, Barnstaple
I'm sick of religious people claiming that they are "personally offended" when their ideas are criticised. If you don't like it then don't buy it, but please stop whining on like a spoilt child about your "right to be offended".
Franchesca Mullin, Belfast, Northern Ireland
For this book not to be published due to the possibility of a violent backlash is shocking and represents another blow against our civil freedom.
How can this be freedom of speech, when you slander someone's beloved? What happens if someone writes such filth about Jesus (May God have mercy on him) or any loved person for that matter! What is wrong with the world!
Khalid Abdul, Warsaw, Poland
I am a Muslim and the only thing I want to say is "Who cares!". The book is very much a sleazy quasi-erotic novel for middle-aged women and, might I add, a bad one at that. This is the age of tabloids, we will always have people insulting our loved ones. We just have to "grow up". If we want to encourage understanding on the teachings and culture of Islam, we should do it by promoting intellectually stimulating literature and making it accessible to ordinary public not by casting a spotlight on a second-rate novel.
Mohammad, Sunderland, UK
I would like to see more REAL information and history on Islam. I remember religious education in school, one lesson each on Islam, Judaism and Hinduism and the rest was Christian theology. This needs to change
As a Christian, I was not offended by The Da Vinci Code as I read it as the enjoyable fiction it was. I only hope Muslims can view this book in a similar fashion.
TS, Bromley, England
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is right that where we have free speech, we must also have the freedom to be offended. However, too often freedom of speech is oppressed by the freedom of the offended (often using their right to free speech to attempt to suppress others' free speech). If someone wishes to say something religiously offensive, that is between them and God.
CS, Manchester, England
Why do people have to take this sort of trashy romantic fiction seriously? This seems like a case of silly people taking a silly book seriously, and serious people totally ignoring it.
Anne Boyce, Halifax, England
Let's be clear here. The author of this work has not driven "a wedge between Muslims and others by fictionalising core characters". The wedge between Islam and the free world is caused by the threat of violence by the radical minority!
Dino, Cape Town
I thought religion WAS fiction (romantic or not)!
Bryn Roberts, Richmond, Yorkshire, UK
Isn't it about time that ALL religionists (sorry, best word I can come up with) should stop taking it so seriously? Lighten up.
Tony P, Darlington
I think it is time that we stop playing with the faith of others because. Creating civil unrest is unreasonable.
Sostenes Mtenga, Tanzania
As an RE teacher, I can see that there is nothing historical about this book. It is pure fiction from the imagination of the author. I do not think Muslims would see it as honouring their Prophet, but a direct insult if anything. Freedom of speech is one thing, but delusional thinking that it is honouring the Prophet is clear proof of the author's orientalist mindset.
James, London, UK
I agree with you. Great article.
Billy, New York
I agree wholeheartedly with Shelina's article, which is well-balanced. I cannot fathom the purpose of using 'Aisha' as the foundation for a 'fictional' story. It is no different to fabricating truth about Mary.
Irfan Waraich, Leicester, UK
It sounds like Jewel of Medina is a definite miss from both a literary and historical perspective - but Aisha's life sounds utterly fascinating. Is there any chance of a serious biography?
Isobel, Salisbury, UK
Christianity has already been subjected to this treatment, after a fashion, with Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ. Why not?
Tony, Ajax, Ontario
The author claims she wanted to write the book to make Aisha appear human. I, as a Muslim man, have always seen Aisha, the Prophet and others as human.
Ubaid-ul Rehman, London
I think Muslims have ever right to be offended. I think if this book is going to be historically inaccurate, then there is no point to it. If the author thinks she can just make up a love story that is not between Aisha and her husband Muhammad(Peace be upon him) than this is morally degrading to humanity in general and adding to the idea that adultery is acceptable.
Stephanie, Grantham, PA USA
I understand the anger of Muslims. I grew up in a family of fundamentalist dental hygienists, and I know how angry I would be if someone wrote such blasphemous lies about the tooth fairy. Mark, London