The Jewel of Medina
Cover for the planned Ballantine release of The Jewel of Medina
Gibson Square (UK)
Beaufort Books (USA)
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
The Jewel of Medina is a historical novel by Sherry Jones. It was scheduled for publication by Random House in 2008, but subsequently cancelled; it was subsequently announced that it would be published by Beaufort Books in the United States and by Gibson Square in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Eventually it was published in the U.S. by Beaufort Books. The novel tells a fictionalized version of the life of Aisha, one of the wives of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and the person who reportedly accompanied him as he received most of his revelations. The novel tells Aisha's story from the age of six, when she was betrothed to Muhammad, to his death.
In 2007, Random House bought the publication rights to The Jewel of Medina in a $100,000, two-book contract. The novel was scheduled to be published on August 12, 2008. The Book of the Month Club had agreed to feature the novel in its August 2008 issue, and Quality Paperback Book Club was due to follow suit in January 2009. The novel's original marketing blurb read, "Married at six to the much-older Muhammad, Aisha uses her wits, her courage, and her sword to defend her first-wife status even as Muhammad marries again and again, taking 12 wives and concubines in all."
According to an opinion article by Asra Nomani in The Wall Street Journal, the original publication plans began to unravel when Random House received an email from University of Texas Professor of history and Middle Eastern Studies Denise Spellberg, which was critical of the book and suggested its publication may inspire violent reactions from some Muslims. Random House's publicity department had sent Spellberg galleys of the novel, hoping for publishable comments from her. Instead, she found the book a "very ugly, stupid piece of work", and suggested that it may elicit violence akin to past controversies over The Satanic Verses and the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. Similarly, Jane Garrett, an editor at Random House's Knopf imprint, said in an email that Spellberg had told her by phone that she thought the novel should be withdrawn due to "a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence." Garrett also claimed Spellberg described the book as "a declaration of war...explosive stuff...a national security issue." Shortly thereafter, Random House cancelled publication.
Nomani also wrote that Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Spellberg's classes and the editor of altmuslim.com, a popular Muslim Web site, sent emails to a listserv of Middle East and Islamic studies graduate students about the book. Amanullah later stated he had received a "frantic call" from Spellberg who "was upset", telling him that the novel "made fun of Muslims and their history," and asked him to "warn Muslims" about the book since "she found it incredibly offensive".
In the wake of Nomani's article, The Washington Post published an editorial criticizing Random House's decision to "dump" the book "[w]ithout waiting for an actual uproar in the Muslim world"; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Las Vegas Review-Journal were also critical of Random House's decision to cancel the book's publication. Irshad Manji wrote in The Globe and Mail that pre-emptive censorship was offensive to Muslims, while poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch criticized Spellberg and Random House for depriving the Muslim reading public of the freedom to reimagine their religious tradition through the eyes of a novelist. University of Pennsylvania adjunct lecturer Carlin Romano, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, criticized Spellberg for her "aggressive act" in working to cancel publication, for effectually advocating censorship, and what she claimed were Spellberg's "disingenuous" attempts to deny that she had played an instrumental role in the Random House decision.
Spellberg subsequently wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal contesting Nomani's characterization of her as the "instigator" of the book's cancellation. Spellberg stated that "I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel's fallacious representation of a very real woman's life." However, she insisted that "I do not espouse censorship of any kind, but I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard for its richness or resonance in the present." She also stated that "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." Regarding her "frantic" phone call to Shahed Amanullah, Spellberg said she had only intended to call the book to his attention, and that he had apparently misunderstood her intentions. Spellberg also stated that since the story broke she has received hate mail and been roundly pilloried online, stating that "they are calling me an opponent of free speech, saying I am a supporter of Muslim extremists".
Public statement from Random House
Random House released a public statement about the decision not to publish the book:
After sending out advance editions of the novel The Jewel of Medina, we received in response, from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.
We felt an obligation to take these concerns very seriously. We consulted with security experts as well as with scholars of Islam, whom we asked to review the book and offer their assessments of potential reactions.
We stand firmly by our responsibility to support our authors and the free discussion of ideas, even those that may be construed as offensive by some. However, a publisher must weigh that responsibility against others that it also bears, and in this instance we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel. The author and Ballantine subsequently agreed to terminate the agreement, with the understanding that the author would be free to publish elsewhere, if she so chose.
Jones told Reuters: "I have deliberately and consciously written respectfully about Islam and Mohammed… I envisioned that my book would be a bridge-builder." She wrote in a blog for The Washington Post that she was "chagrined to realize the far-reaching ramifications of this historic decision to quash a work of art before it could even reach the public eye."
Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, criticized Random House for the decision, saying, "This is censorship by fear and it sets a very bad precedent indeed." Andrew Franklin, who worked for Penguin Books when they published The Satanic Verses and is now the publisher of Profile Books, described the decision as "absolutely shocking" and called the Random House editors "such cowards". Geoffrey Robertson, who received terrorist threats for representing Rushdie, said that Random House should pay Jones "substantial compensation" and recommended that the book be placed on a website "so everyone can read it".
Writing in his blog for The New York Times, Stanley Fish disagreed with the characterization of the controversy as "censorship", arguing that "Random House is free to publish or decline to publish whatever it likes, and its decision to do either has nothing whatsoever to do with the Western tradition of free speech or any other high-sounding abstraction. …[The cancellation] doesn't rise to the level of constitutional or philosophical concern. And it is certainly not an episode in some 'showdown between Islam and the Western tradition of free speech.' Formulations like that at once inflate a minor business decision and trivialize something too important and complex to be reduced to a high-school civics lesson about the glories of the First Amendment." Fish argued that the term "censorship" should be restricted to cases in which a governmental body interferes with the expression of ideas. However, linguist Bill Poser, writing on the Language Log blog, disagreed with Fish's interpretation, arguing that "[t]he Enlightenment value of freedom of expression does not lead only to restrictions on the powers of government: it requires that all of us tolerate expression that we may find offensive. A free society cannot permit anyone, government, corporation, church, or individual, to decide what may and what may not be published. That a publisher should cancel publication of a novel out of fear of violence by religious fanatics has everything to do with the Western tradition of free speech. It is a disturbing reminder that this tradition is not universal and that it is at present subject to very real threats."
Subsequent planned publication
On September 4, 2008, it was announced that British publisher Gibson Square would publish The Jewel of Medina in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Gibson Square publisher Martin Rynja called for "open access to literary works, regardless of fear" and said, "If a novel of quality and skill that casts light on a beautiful subject we know too little of in the West, but have a genuine interest in, cannot be published here, it would truly mean that the clock has been turned back to the dark ages." In a press release, Rynja added, "I was bowled over by the novel and the moving love story and interesting but unknown history it portrays. I was struck by the research of Sherry Jones, who is a journalist with almost 30 years of experience, her literary imagination and passion for the novel's characters." Commenting on the decision by Gibson Square, Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a Latin American author, wrote in a widely published article for The New Republic: "The book's content — which has been described, promisingly, as being full of sex and violence — is irrelevant to the discussion. It may well be, as one scholar who read it contends, that The Jewel of Medina is pure trash." He closes his essay with: "I am not interested in the reasons why Gibson Square has decided to publish the book — whether opportunism, greed, love of scandal, a dislike of the prophet, or a belief in the merits of the novel. But the fact that someone, somewhere, is willing to run the risk of not letting the threat of violence inhibit free expression is tremendously comforting."
On September 27, 2008, Martin Rynja's house in London was firebombed, apparently by individuals opposed to the publication. Three men were arrested on suspicion of commissioning, preparing or instigating acts of terrorism; radical Islamic clerics such as Anjem Choudhary warned of further attacks. The three men were caught because officers had been watching them in an intelligence-led surveillance operation; they were later found guilty of conspiracy to recklessly damage property and endanger life.
After the arson attempt, the publisher issued a statement saying that Jones had decided to indefinitely postpone publication of the book. Jones denies doing so, and says that the decision was entirely the publisher's.
On September 5, 2008, it was announced that American publisher Beaufort Books (previously best known as the publishers of If I Did It by O. J. Simpson) would publish The Jewel of Medina in America. According to Jones' agent, Natasha Kern, "about a dozen" other publishers had expressed interest in the novel, but some had backed off due to "possible threats". Kern said that Beaufort was giving Jones a smaller advance than Random House had, but a higher rate of royalties. Beaufort's president, Eric Kampmann, said in a press release, "We are building a great team to bring The Jewel of Medina to the audience it deserves to have. Everyone at Beaufort is proud to be associated with this ground breaking novel."
The book was first officially published in Serbia, in August 2008. After strong reactions from the Serbian Muslim community, Serbian publisher Beobook withdrew it from stores, but after a few weeks, the publisher decided to return it to the stores, because of a large number of pirate copies of the book. In Serbia, the book was the number-one bestseller for at least two months.
As of December 2008, the book had been published in five countries—the US, Germany, Denmark, Serbia, and Italy—with no repercussions. It will debut in Spain February 4. Plans for publication are underway in other countries, including India, Hungary, Brazil, Russia, Republic of Macedonia, Finland, and Poland; there have also been negotiations with publishers in Sweden and The Netherlands.
Reviews and critical responses
Jones provided the manuscript of The Jewel of Medina to Islamic website IslamOnline.net, where the novel was reviewed on August 18, 2008, by writer and poet Marwa Elnaggar. Elnaggar criticizes the book for its inaccurate portrayal of pre-Islamic Arab culture (including non-Arabic customs such as bowing and purdah), and suggests that Jones was influenced by "the idea of the exotic and mystical Orient." Elnaggar describes The Jewel of Medina as "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 unrecognizable version of the well-known and well-documented story of `A'ishah." However, Elnaggar argues that despite the novel's "inaccuracies, its faults, and its biases", its publication should not be stopped. On September 2, 2008, Elnaggar published Jones' response to her review to "present as many sides of an issue as possible" and "for the sake of objectivity" approached the writer and invited her to an interview where she can express her own point of view and clarify many questions that were raised. Unfortunately, Jones said that her publishers have asked her not to speak before the book is published. Instead, Jones sent Elnaggar a column where she speaks about The Jewel of Medina and the motives behind writing it. However, Jones has promised Elnaggar an interview after the novel is published. On October 11, 2008, Elnagger wrote "A Second Look at Jewel of Medina".
Indian Muslim writer Farzana Versey criticized Jones' prose and perspective, based on the published excerpts: "It would be unfair to tar the whole book based on the Prologue, but it gives a credible peek into the language and lack of nuance the author employs. ... Apparently, Ms. Jones for all her two years of research has managed a version of chick lit, where Aisha gets in confessional mode and in a Mills and Boon fashion 'leans on her husband', 'falls into his arms', and in a rather treacly account relates that 'the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion's sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life.' At age nine or eleven, the 'all my life' seems rather a stretch." Versey also criticizes Asra Nomani's perspective that fictional accounts can "humanize" Islamic history: "If people do believe in a certain faith, then let them decide on how to define their belief. That too constitutes freedom of speech. Fictional accounts of this nature only serve as trashy one-upmanship. They do not humanize or, alas, even demonize religion."
Egyptian writer Ethar El-Katatney reviewed the novel on October 6, 2008, in an article for Egypt Today entitled "Flawed Jewel" and interviewed both Sherry Jones and Denise Spellberg. She critiqued the book and offered both Jones and Spellberg the opportunity to answer her critiques.". El-Katatney also made a telephone interview with Jones publicly accessible. The transcript of the interview is available online. On October 7, 2008, El-Katatney wrote an op-ed entitled 'The "Flawed" Jewel of Medina' to which Jones responded to directly.
On October 6, 2008, a Muslim organisation run by British Islamist Anjem Choudary and Omar Bakri Muhammad wrote an article on the novel, referring to it as a "blasphemous book" and to Jones as "an enemy of Islam and author of this heinous book" and her "illicit portrayal of the marriage" of Muhammad and 'Aisha. The organisation states that "The Jewel of Medina is a book that accurately reflects the current temperament of the disbelievers" and that it "is yet another chapter in the continuing war against Islam and Muslims that reveals the burning hatred harboured in the hearts of the disbelievers." Jones responded to this article directly, stating that, "I extend the hand of peace with a book that is respectful. Please do not judge my book by the slander being spread about it! I urge you to read The Jewel of Medina and see for yourselves that I am respectful toward Islam and your Prophet. Just as I have publicly refused to judge all Muslims by the actions of a violent few, I ask you to judge me and my book by the actual contents of The Jewel of Medina. Already I have been criticized by non-Muslims as "pandering" to Muslims with my book because it portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a gentle, compassionate, wise leader and man respectful toward women and his wives. Several reviews have been posted already, including a review in Egypt Today, in which the author, a Muslim, says that I have written very favorably about the Prophet. You may not like my book or agree with it, but it does not insult Islam or Muhammad!"
The New York Times Book Review gave the novel a rather scathing review. They lean more towards the novel being historical fiction. Reviewer Lorraine Adams notes that "an inexperienced, untalented author has naively stepped into an intense and deeply sensitive intellectual argument" and that "Jones' prose is lamentable".
According to the author, several sequels to the book are in the works. A German publisher will publish a sequel to the novel entitled A'isha: The Legacy of the Prophet and Beaufort Books published the U.S. sequel, titled The Sword of Medina October 15, 2009.
- Pre-Islamic Arabia, the historical context of the novel
- The Cartoons that Shook the World, a similar case of pre-publication censorship
- Religious censorship
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