The prophet Muhammad's love life is a sensitive subject. But was the book Random House decided not to publish worth all the fuss?by Shereen El Feki / January 17, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Jewel of Medina
by Sherry Jones (Beaufort Books, $24.95)
“Three things were made beloved to me in this world of yours: women, perfume and—the delight of my eye—prayer,” the prophet Muhammad is said to have once remarked. Reports of his sayings and actions, called hadith in Arabic, are one of the main sources of Islamic law, and they include guidance on how to lead a satisfying sex life. This full-blooded approach incensed medieval Christians, who used the prophet’s sensuality as a key indictment against Islam as a whole. Lately, many Muslims too have become uncomfortable with discussion of the prophet’s sexual relations. At the start of 2008, Love and Sex in the Life of the Prophet, a non-fiction book in Arabic which examined some of the lore surrounding the prophet’s sexuality, landed its Egyptian author and publisher in hot water with religious conservatives.
So it is little surprise that a novel about the prophet and his women, written by a non-Muslim (and an American to boot), should raise some hackles. By now, the saga surrounding The Jewel of Medina is better known than the story itself. The book, originally to be published by Random House in August 2008, was dropped on advice that its “soft-core pornography” might incite violence against the company and anyone associated with it. The house of the British publisher who then picked it up, Gibson Square, was, coincidentally enough, firebombed, putting the British print run on hold. But a second American firm, Beaufort Books, decided to push ahead. This is just as well, as it allows readers to judge the book on its own merits, rather than others’ violent reactions to it.
The author, Sherry Jones, has focussed on the early life of Aisha Bint Abu Bakr, the prophet’s youngest and favourite wife. Aisha lived in tumultuous times, as the fledgling Muslim faith struggled to survive and then expand against hostile opposition in what are today two of it holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. She was 18 when Muhammad died in her arms and, for almost half a century until her death in 678, was a force to be reckoned with in Islam, becoming one of the main sources of the all-important hadith. From the many accounts of her life, Aisha comes across as a strong, intelligent and impassioned woman.