[26 October 2008]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones’ hot-potato novel about the Prophet Muhammad and his child-bride Aisha, comes not from a field of spuds, but a Mideast quarry some consider bedrock-hard in its historical clarity, others soft and uncertain. Dropped by other publishers because of fear of violence, The Jewel of Medina now arrives—nervily—from Beaufort. As that house demonstrated with an earlier tome—If I Did It by O.J. Simpson—it knows how to look for trouble.
No part of the life of Muhammad (A.D. c. 570-632) makes Muslims more uncomfortable than the romantic and sexual appetites of their Prophet—according to tradition, he logged nine wives and four concubines— and above all, his betrothal at 50 to six-year-old Aisha. Christians aren’t used to the founder of a major religion displaying such prodigious human inclinations. While books crop up about Jesus’ possible entanglements with Mary Magdalene or others, they remain fringe items, largely ignored.
By contrast, Muhammad, much of whose later life is well documented, left us many details, thanks in part to Aisha and others. The core facts are largely undisputed. Muhammad and Aisha married when he was 53 and she was nine, making her the third of his eight wives after a 25-year monogamous marriage to his first wife, Khadija, who was 15 years older than him. Most scholars believe his marriage to Aisha was not consummated until she reached puberty.
By all accounts, Aisha became Muhammad’s favorite wife, and the two loved and supported each other with great devotion. According to Sunni tradition, Muhammad died in her arms. Aisha, widely recognized for her wit, outspokenness and loyalty to Muhammad, lived to age 65, and became the source of some 2,000 sayings of the Prophet.
The scholarly assessment of Muhammad’s romantic life and roughly nine -year marriage to Aisha, like the size-up of Islam itself, swings between two extremes. In the pro-Muhammad column fall scholars such as Karen Armstrong, who has championed his life as “a tireless campaign against greed, injustice, and arrogance.”
Armstrong observes in Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time (Atlas Books), that “Muhammad’s harem has excited a good deal of prurient and ill-natured speculation in the West, but in Arabia, where polygamy was more common ... it would have been commonplace.”
She continues: “There was no impropriety in Muhammad’s betrothal to Aisha. Marriages conducted in absentia to seal an alliance were often contracted at this time between adults and minors who were even younger than Aisha. This practice continued in Europe well into the early modern period.”
Other scholars disagree with Armstrong, and criticize Muhammad, not just for marrying Aisha, but also for his announcement of special rules for himself (e.g., having more than the allowed limit of four wives), and his marriage to Zaynab, beautiful wife of his adopted son Zaid, whom Zaid divorced after Muhammad glimpsed her “lightly clad” (in one translation) and expressed interest.
Ibn Warraq in Why I Am Not a Muslim (Prometheus), asserts apropos of Muhammad’s practices, “What is clear is that women are seen as objects.” Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha, he writes, “encourages Muslim society to continue with this iniquitous custom.” After examining Muhammad’s actions, Ibn Warraq reports, “the conclusion forces itself upon us that in later life, he consciously fabricated ‘revelations,’ often for his own convenience, to sort out his domestic problems.”
Where does The Jewel of Medina fall on this spectrum? Its cancellation by Random House came after a scholar of Aisha, Denise Spellberg, denounced the novel as a “very ugly, stupid piece of work,” and expressed concern it would trigger violence. That reaction now looks overwrought and tone-deaf.
The Jewel of Medina, granted, isn’t Proust. No sooner do we encounter, on page three, “Pain wrung my stomach like strong hands squeezing water from laundry, only I was already dry,” than we understand Jones is not Aristotle’s sought-after “master of metaphor”. When Muhammad replies to his cousin Ali, “Divorce my Aisha? I would rather cut out my own heart,” we miss the poetry of the sutras.
But neither is The Jewel of Medina tripe. Jones claims she read scores of books on Islam and Aisha. It shows. “Jewel faithfully tracks the known story, dramatizing celebrated moments.
Its departures from solid historical facts—one of Spellberg’s chief complaints—lie within the normal ambit of historical fiction. Its sympathies tilt completely toward Muhammad and Aisha. Controversial aspects—Aisha’s possible flirtatiousness and fibbing, her jealousy, her sharp tongue (she once implied that Muhammad made up a Koranic sura only to justify marrying Zaynab)—all stem from Islamic history itself.
Only a Muslim who rejected Muhammad’s lifelong insistence that he was a man like other men could find The Jewel of Medina objectionable or anti-Islam. They, and perhaps a scholar like Spellberg, author of Politics, Gender and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of Aisha bint Abi Bakr (Columbia), who didn’t like a mere journalist muscling in on her territory.
What’s precious about The Jewel of Medina is its unapologetic reimagining of a marriage that may outrage some, but inspired millions more. The Wall Street Journal article that stoked the brouhaha over The Jewel of Medina screamed, “You Still Can’t Write About Muhammad.”
That’s the headline that matters. Because, as even Armstrong acknowledges in regard to Muhammad’s life, “The “sunnah (customary practice) taught Muslims to imitate the way Muhammad spoke, ate, loved, washed, and worshipped, so that in the smallest details of their daily existence, they reproduced his life on earth. ... “
The Jewel of Medina rightfully reopens the “loved” part. Betrothal of female children to decades-older men continues in Yemen and elsewhere, as do other practices opposed by Westerners. In the West, we arrest middle-aged men for desires Muhammad shared. At the same time, Armstrong correctly argues that in the context of his time, Muhammad (as opposed to some later Muslim leaders) sought “the emancipation of women.”
Is Western culture’s current opposition to men taking multiple wives, or middle-aged men desiring young girls, a modern taboo that Islam exposes as rooted in debatable psychological theory rather than custom? (Recall that Eleanor of Aquitaine, that mate of “The Lion in Winter”, was married at 15.) Or does Islam perpetuate a backward vision of male-female relations in which men simply rule over women?
If newspapers now publish as much about the “content” of Sherry Jones’ brave novel as they did about the easier issue of free expression, The Jewel of Medina will truly prove an ornament to our supposedly freethinking culture.