Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Romantic Novel on Muhammad's Young Bride Provokes Rage, Blather

By Edward Nawotka

Written by American novelist Sherry Jones, the book imagines Muhammad's young bride as a sword-wielding, sexy zealot. It is unlikely the three Muslim firebombers have read a word of this controversial novel, since it goes on sale today in the U.S. and around the world later this month.

That's not to say the book's content hasn't been widely disseminated, thanks to the hardworking Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin. In phone calls to the book's publisher and a Muslim Web site, she said it was offensive and incendiary.

``I sincerely believe that if Professor Spellberg hadn't described my book as pornography we wouldn't have had this problem,'' Jones said when reached by phone, referring to the attack on her publisher's house.

Spellberg, who was happy to discuss her opinion of ``Jewel of Medina'' before the firebombing, did not answer phone calls and e-mails this week.

Her 1994 scholarly work, ``Politics, Gender and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of A'isha bint Abi Bakr,'' was a source for Jones's novel. She got involved in the book's publication when Random House, Jones's original publisher, asked her to write a promotional blurb. What she read struck her as ``turgid,'' Spellberg said in August from her office at the University of Texas.

Virginity Lost

In the book, Aisha bares her breasts to Muhammad and recalls the ``scorpion's sting'' of losing her virginity to him. Later she has a near-adulterous dalliance with another man:

``With our bodies, we brushed each other lightly -- my breasts to his chest, his thigh to my most intimate place, my toes to his shins. 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.''

``Out of 424 pages there are maybe 12 lines like that,'' Jones said. ``Sure it's steamy, but it's not pornographic.''

Spellberg found the book an ``egregious abuse of Aisha's life,'' citing among other things her use of a sword and call to jihad.

Jones ``distorted, invented, overwrote, and abused the past. As a scholar I see it as problematic,'' Spellberg said. ``At a time when many accept the stereotype that Muslims are violent because of their faith, the image of Aisha wielding a sword she never held in history would seem to promote that.''

Inner Jihad

Jones defended the fictional sword swinging as a ``metaphor for her strength'' and said the meaning of jihad is established in the context of the book as ``an inner struggle'' and not a holy war as it is generally defined today.

Nevertheless, Spellberg decided to sound an alarm, telling Random House that the book could be trouble. The publisher, which had already sent out advance galleys and set up an author tour, canceled the book in May.

A statement from Thomas Perry, deputy publisher at the Random House Publishing Group, cited ``credible and unrelated sources'' who said ``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.''

Spellberg also alerted Shahed Amanullah, the editor of the website, about ``Jewel of Medina.'' Amunullah thinks Random House, not Spellberg, should bear the responsibility for canceling the book.

Freaking Out

``It was really the publisher who freaked out,'' he said in a telephone interview. ``They should have been able to take legitimate criticism and derision. They should have also taken what she said as a suggestion and not a clarion call.''

``Professor Spellberg may know the historical context, but she is not in a position to know what the Muslim man on the street is thinking or how they will react,'' Amanullah said.

Spellberg's academic colleagues are conflicted by her actions.

``It puts us all in a tough position,'' Peter Awn, a professor of Islamic religion at Columbia University, said when reached by telephone. Awn sat on Spellberg's dissertation review committee when she was awarded her Ph.D. from Columbia in 1989. ``You may say it's a stupid thing to publish this, but I would still defend the right to publish it. When we get to the point that we're threatened by ideas and words, we're in trouble.''

After Random House's cancellation, interest in the book boomed. By September, Jones's agent had sold rights to 10 foreign publishers. Beaufort Books got the U.S. rights for free in exchange for a profit-sharing arrangement with Jones. Gibson Square Books, whose publisher's house was firebombed, bought the British rights.

O.J.'s Publisher

``If it weren't for the controversy, it's not likely I or many others would have even heard of the book,'' Eric Kampmann, president of Beaufort Books, said in an interview.

Kampmann gained a reputation for courting controversy when he published O.J. Simpson's pseudo-confession, ``If I Did It,'' in 2007, following that book's cancellation by HarperCollins. He says his interest in publishing ``The Jewel of Medina'' is strictly business.

``This is not a free-speech issue; it's a free-market issue,'' Kampmann said. ``Most first novels don't sell that many copies. I'm investing real money in the book and I'm expecting a nice level of sales.''

Kampmann isn't worried about publishing ``Jewel.''

``We have received absolutely zero threats,'' he said. ``I don't expect a problem to happen here. There are proportionally far more Muslims in the U.K. than in the U.S. -- and the ones who are here are most likely citizens who respect our laws governing freedom of speech.''

Jones, too, maintains that Muslims won't take offense.

``If they read the novel they will see I am very respectful of Aisha and Islam,'' she said. ``I just think people should read the book before they judge it.''