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Jewish Journal

Writing about the Prophet Muhammad still off-limits

by Brad A. Greenberg

August 11, 2008 | 5:00 pm

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Before it was junked

After the jump is the opening passage of Sherry Jones’ “The Jewel of Medina,” a fictional biography of the Prophet Muhammad’s young wife, Aisha. The racy book was set to be published tomorrow, but in May Random House halted production, afraid “Jewel” would be the re-incarnation of “The Satanic Verses” and Jones would receive a fatwa like Salman Rushdie did.

Before you read the excerpt, here’s a rundown of how Jones’ book got run out of Random House:

This time, the instigator of the trouble wasn’t a radical Muslim cleric, but an American academic. In April, looking for endorsements, Random House sent galleys to writers and scholars, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. Ms. Jones put her on the list because she read Ms. Spellberg’s book, “Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr.”

But Ms. Spellberg wasn’t a fan of Ms. Jones’s book. On April 30, Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Ms. Spellberg’s classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site, got a frantic call from her. “She was upset,” Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel “made fun of Muslims and their history,” and asked him to warn Muslims.

In an interview, Ms. Spellberg told me the novel is a “very ugly, stupid piece of work.” The novel, for example, includes a scene on the night when Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha: “the pain of consummation soon melted away. 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.” Says Ms. Spellberg: “I walked through a metal detector to see ‘Last Temptation of Christ,’” the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. “I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”

After he got the call from Ms. Spellberg, Mr. Amanullah dashed off an email to a listserv of Middle East and Islamic studies graduate students, acknowledging he didn’t “know anything about it [the book],” but telling them, “Just got a frantic call from a professor who got an advance copy of the forthcoming novel, ‘Jewel of Medina’—she said she found it incredibly offensive.” He added a write-up about the book from the Publishers Marketplace, an industry publication.

The next day, a blogger known as Shahid Pradhan posted Mr. Amanullah’s email on a Web site for Shiite Muslims—“Hussaini Youth”—under a headline, “upcoming book, ‘Jewel of Medina’: A new attempt to slander the Prophet of Islam.” Two hours and 28 minutes after that, another person by the name of Ali Hemani proposed a seven-point strategy to ensure “the writer withdraws this book from the stores and apologise all the muslims across the world.”

Meanwhile back in New York City, Jane Garrett, an editor at Random House’s Knopf imprint, dispatched an email on May 1 to Knopf executives, telling them she got a phone call the evening before from Ms. Spellberg (who happens to be under contract with Knopf to write “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.”)

“She thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence,” Ms. Garrett wrote. “Denise says it is ‘a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff . . . a national security issue.’ Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons. Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP.” (“The Jewel of Medina” was to be published by Random House’s Ballantine Books.) That day, the email spread like wildfire through Random House, which also received a letter from Ms. Spellberg and her attorney, saying she would sue the publisher if her name was associated with the novel. On May 2, a Ballantine editor told Ms. Jones’s agent the company decided to possibly postpone publication of the book.

On a May 21 conference call, Random House executive Elizabeth McGuire told the author and her agent that the publishing house had decided to indefinitely postpone publication of the novel for “fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims” and concern for “the safety and security of the Random House building and employees.”

Though Spellberg denies being the instigator, this reads uncannily like the plot for “South Park’s” two-partCartoon Wars.” Now that you’ve got that primer, click through to read some of Jones’ work:

Scandal blew in on the errant wind when I rode into Medina clutching Safwan’s waist. My neighbors rushed into the street like storm waters flooding a wadi. Children stood in clusters to point and gawk. Their mothers snatched them to their skirts and pretended to avert their eyes. Men spat in the dust and muttered, judging. My father’s mouth trembled like a tear on the brink.

What they saw: my wrapper fallen to my shoulders, unheeded. Loose hair lashing my face. The wife of God’s Prophet entwined around another man. What they couldn’t see: my girlhood dreams shattered at my feet, trampled by a truth as hard and blunt as horses’ hooves.

I let my eyelids fall shut, avoiding my reflection in the stares of my umma, my community. I licked my cracked lips, tasting salt and the tang of my wretchedness. Pain wrung my stomach like strong hands squeezing water from laundry, only I was already dry. My tongue lolled like a sun baked lizard. I rested my cheek against Safwan’s shoulder, but the horse’s trot struck bone against bone.

“Al-zaniya!” someone cried. “Adulteress!”

I made slits with my eyes. Members of our umma either pointed fingers and shouted at me or spread their arms in welcome. I saw others, Hypocrites, jeering and showing their dirty teeth. The ansari, our Helpers, stood silent and wary. Thousands lined the street, sucking in our dust with their sharp breaths. Staring as if I were a caravan glittering with treasure instead of a sunburned fourteen-year-old girl.

The horse stopped, but I continued — over its flank, headfirst and into the arms of Muhammad. Into my husband’s control once more and sighing with relief. Trying to forge my own destiny had nearly destroyed me, but his love held the power to heal. His thick beard cushioned my cheek, caressed me with sandalwood. Miswak unfurled from his breath, clean and sharp as a kiss.

“Thank al-Lah you have made it home safely, my A’isha,” he murmured.

The gathering crowd rumbled, prickling my spine. I lifted my heavy head to see. Umar, rolled in, thunder and scowl. He was Muhammad’s advisor and friend, but no friend to women.

“Where, by al-Lah, have you been? Why were you alone with a man who is not your husband?”

His accusations whipped like the wind through the crowd, fanning sparks into flames.

“Al-zaniya!” someone cried again. I ducked as if the word were a hurled stone.

“It is no wonder that A’isha rhymes with fahisha — whore!” People laughed, and soon they began to chant: “A’isha — fahisha! A’isha — fahisha!”

The entire prologue appears on the website of NPR; Arsa Nomani will be on “Talk of the Nation” tonight to talk about his op-ed last week for the Wall Street Journal, “You Still Can’t Write About Muhammad, which I quoted above.”

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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