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
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.
In the The Jewel of Medina, Aisha grows from feisty tomboy to sensual woman. Anyone who has read the books of Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery will instantly recognise Jones’s young Aisha: a mischievous little redhead who defies male domination to assert her equality and defend herself and her family. This is Anne of Green Gables goes to Arabia, ready with a sword to take on all comers.
Jones makes use of the known material about Aisha, including her famous jealousy of the prophet’s many other wives and concubines. She also takes considerable liberties with the story, filling in the gaps (a novelist’s prerogative) with mixed results. Two examples are worth mentioning. First, according to most accounts, Aisha was married to the prophet when she was around nine years old and he was in his early fifties. Jones has them consummating their relationship five years later, but according to traditional sources, this was done right after the wedding. Some Muslims find this age difference disquieting, and there are scholars who now argue that Aisha was actually a late teenager at the time of her marriage. (This is not some academic question: in recent months, several such marriages have been contested in Saudi Arabia, with ageing husbands arguing the example of the prophet and Aisha in their defence.) Jones’s Aisha goes into this marriage kicking and screaming, and so the prophet continues to treat her as a child, to Aisha’s growing frustration. This is the author’s imagination at work: a modern American child might react this way, but would a girl raised at that time really have resisted in this fashion?
Then there is the story of Aisha’s disappearance during a military expedition (on which the prophet usually took one of his wives), and her return with another man, called Safwan Ibn Al-Mu’attal. Historically this incident created an almighty scandal in the Muslim community, and many accused Aisha of adultery. In her defence, Aisha said she had been left behind by the caravan and rescued by Safwan. The prophet was deeply troubled, but welcomed his wife back when a revelation from God exonerated her. Jones describes this episode, and Aisha’s turmoil, in vivid detail.
The historical record gives no indication that anything happened between Aisha and Safwan, but in The Jewel of Medina, Safwan is Aisha’s childhood sweetheart, and the candle she holds for him grows brighter as she feels the prophet’s love slipping away to other wives. Eventually she agrees to run away with him, and they almost consummate their relationship. It is here the book takes one of several turns into Mills & Boon territory, describing their encounter with the breathless ardour of a desert romance: “An aroma like musk rose from his body. My moan of pleasure surprised me, luxuriant as the purr of a cat stretching in the sunlight”—and so on. These florid lapses are a pity, because Jones does have a certain way with words and some of her descriptions of desert life are almost lyrical. Any such literary merit is, however, unlikely to appease those Muslims who will be outraged at any suggestion—even in fiction—that the prophet’s wife was up for it with another man.
Jones did some research, and provides a bibliography to prove it. But she should have done more. There are an astonishing number of errors in the book. She says, for example, that in the anxious times after the Muslims moved to Medina, Muhammad’s “worry showed in the constant click of his prayer beads through his fingers.” Such beads weren’t widely used until later in Islam—the prophet is said to have used only his fingers to count out the names of God. Muhammad is also described as having coffee with his friend (Aisha’s father) Abu Bakr—an unlikely event, since Arabs did not start drinking the stuff until the 15th century.
More substantially, Jones suggests that Aisha consolidated her position with Muhammad by emerging as one of his key advisors, suggesting, for example, an innovative defence which saved the Muslims from massacre at the so-called Battle of the Trench. Aisha was indeed a clever woman, but reliable accounts of the prophet’s life attribute this masterstroke to one of Islam’s Persian converts, Salman Al-Farisi. And then there is Jones’s disturbing description of the Koran as “al-Lah’s poetry,” which may sound innocuous to non-Muslims, but is tantamount to heresy since the Koran has several verses which specifically state it is not “poetry,” meaning some man-made creation.
The book is sprinkled with liberal doses of Arabic to lend it authenticity. But much of it is inappropriate. The author often puts Egyptian colloquial Arabic into the mouths of her characters, but this is very different to the Arabic of the Koran at the time of the prophet. “Ya habibati” or “my love,” the prophet often says to Aisha in the book—endearing, yes, accurate no: this is language straight off the streets of modern Cairo, not 7th-century Medina. Some of the author’s Arabic is just completely wrong, too: the word for “victorious” is not fazia, as Jones has it, but faiza. She also rather bizarrely conflates two Arabic words—one for parrot and the other for a rival wife—into a single term, durra. Jones may not have realised that Arabic has two letters which roughly correspond to an English “d”; in Arabic, these two words are spelled differently and sound different to one another, because they start with a different “d” each. Finally, some of it is not Arabic at all. Jones talks about Aisha’s family hiding her away to protect her honour until she moved in as Muhammad’s wife, a state which she calls purdah. Not only did the early Muslims not have this practice, they certainly didn’t call it purdah, which is a Persian word, in part because Arabic has no letter “p.”
Overall, The Jewel of Medina is a sympathetic, if flawed, portrait of the trials and tribulations of early Islam. The strangest thing about it is how it projects 20th-century feminism onto a 7th-century woman. Jones’s stated intention, to “empower women, especially Muslim women, by showing that Islam is, at its source, an egalitarian religion” is a laudable one. Her book is a lively read, but it is also a piece of politically-correct Orientalism. The sequel, already in the works, would do well to keep the first and ditch the rest.