Publisher pulls novel about Muhammad's child bride over fears of Muslim violence

by Erik Lacitis

The Seattle Times (MCT)

21 August 2008


She’s a Spokane journalist who spent five years and seven drafts perfecting her novel—an “exciting tale of love, war, spiritual awakening and redemption”—that got picked up by the biggest English-language publisher in the world.

It was a dream fulfilled for Sherry Jones, 46, and Random House was set last week to release “The Jewel of Medina,” about Aisha, child bride of the Prophet Muhammad, in 7th century Arabia.

The publisher liked the book enough to give Jones a $100,000 contract for not just that book, but also a sequel.

“The Jewel of Medina” also was destined to be a Book of the Month selection, followed by the Quality Paperback Book Club. Foreign rights sales in Europe were coming in.

But the book was shelved in May by Random House for fear of violent reaction from Muslims, even though there had been no threats.

Random House says in a recent statement it first decided to postpone publication, and then reached a termination agreement with Jones, because of ” ... 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.” The book details Aisha’s life in Muhammad’s harem, the custom in those ancient times.

“She’s a remarkable figure in the history of the world, not just the Middle East,” Jones says. “She was instrumental in the formation of Islam as an early religion. She was an adviser to Muhammad at a young age. She was a political adviser to the successors of Muhammad, and led troops in the first Islamic civil war.”

Ironically, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin—cited by Jones in her list of reference materials—has been called the instigator for the publisher’s decision.

Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies, also under contract with Random House’s Knopf, was sent a galley of the book. Random House was looking for a positive blurb.

Instead, Spellberg went ballistic.

“Denise says it is ‘declaration of war ... explosive stuff ... a national security issue.’ She thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the buildings and staff and widespread violence. Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons ... thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP,” an editor at Knopf wrote in an e-mail that made the rounds at Random House.

Spellberg told Asra Q. Nomani, who wrote a piece about the book for The Wall Street Journal (and was a former reporter there) that the book was “soft-core pornography,” apparently based on such passages as that describing the night Muhammad consummated his marriage to Aisha: “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.”

The professor went further.

She contacted Shahed Amanullah, 40, an engineer and real-estate developer in Austin who runs the Web site altmuslim.com.

Having never heard of the book, Amanullah says, he sent e-mails to about 200 graduate students in Islamic studies, telling them of Spellberg’s “frantic” call and asking if they had heard about the novel.

“What I got back was a collective shrug of the shoulders,” Amanullah says.

“The thing that is surreal for me is that here you had a non-Muslim write a book, and you had a non-Muslim complain about it, and a non-Muslim publisher pull the book.”

Spellberg did not return an e-mail or a message left with her office requesting comment.

This week, Salman Rushdie, author of the controversial “The Satanic Verses,” came to Jones’ defense.

His book caused an uproar among Muslims around the world, who contended the novel insulted Islam. It led to a death decree in 1989 from Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and forced the author for years to live under police protection.

In an e-mail to The Associated Press, Rushdie said, “I am very disappointed to hear that my publishers, Random House, have canceled another author’s novel, apparently because of their concerns about possible Islamic reprisals. This is censorship by fear, and it sets a very bad precedent indeed.”

Meanwhile, Jones frets that now she has to defend her book from accusations by Spellberg that it is “sacred history” turned into “soft-core pornography.”

“My book doesn’t have sex scenes. I deliberately wrote the book very sensitively. But now I get hate mail, and it’s all because of her word, ‘pornography.’ “

On her Web site, Jones posts the e-mails she’s gotten. One e-mailer tells her that Random House’s decision is “shameful.” Another anonymously says, “Sometimes censorship is needed to protect lives.”

Jones says some of the e-mail is vitriolic, but she has received no threats.

And she frets that a professor with a Ph.D. from Columbia University is attacking her book as not particularly well-researched.

Jones returned to college in recent years, and has a 2006 bachelor’s in English and creative writing from the University of Montana. By then, she had worked a decade at The Missoulian in Montana.

She had begun reading about women in the Middle East, while at the same time pondering her college honor’s thesis.

Jones decided that Aisha’s story would make a good book.

Jones, who’s never been to the Middle East, ended up taking two years of Arabic language classes. She gathered every book she could find to make her novel historically accurate about 7th century Arabia. She lists more than two dozen books in the bibliography.

Authors get emotional about a book on which they have labored for hundreds of hours.

Jones dreamed of going to Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane, a favorite of hers, and seeing “The Jewel of Medina” listed in the store’s books newsletter.

“My book is not there. I’d get tears in my eyes,” she says. “For me, this book felt almost like giving birth and losing the baby.”

Still, the newspaperwoman’s dream will likely be fulfilled.

Jones gets to keep her $100,000 from Random House, and, says her agent, Natasha Kern, about a dozen literary houses, including major ones, have expressed interest in “The Jewel of Medina.”

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