The Jewel of Medina - Would you read this book?
By Shelina Zahra Janmohamed
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.
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.
Prophet Muhammad novel scrapped
The book claims to tell the story of Aisha, the wife 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".
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.
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.
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