Novel about the prophet’s wife cancelled amid fears of extremist backlash

A romantic novel about Aisha, wife of the prophet Muhammad, has been withdrawn because its publisher fears a violent reaction from Islamic extremists.

The Jewel of the Medina, the first novel by Sherry Jones, 46, was due to be released on August 12 by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House. But the publishers apparently panicked after Islamic scholars objected to the work.  One scholar, Denise Spellburg, who teaches Islamic History at the University of Texas, described the novel as “soft-core pornography”.

Sherry Jones thinks that Spellburg’s comments are ridiculous.  She said: “I must be a heck of a writer to produce a pornographic book without sex scenes. My book is as realistic a portrayal as I could muster of the prophet Muhammad’s harem and his domestic life. Of course it has sexuality, but there is no sex.”

Sherry wrote The Jewel of the Medina hoping it might develop empathy for the female culture in Islam.  She has always been dissatisfied with the way history always focuses on men, and she hoped her novel would honour the women in Muhammad’s life.

She suggested getting an endorsement for the novel from Spellburg – and that’s when things started to unravel.

Spellberg was horrified by the book.  She said: “It is not just that there were issues with historical accuracy. This was quite deliberately provocative. She objectified the wife of the prophet as a sex object and made her violent as well.”

Spellburg shared her misgivings with a colleague and the editor of a Muslim website.  The novel became the topic of heated discussion on the internet.

Ballantine Books saw the uproar caused by the novel, and the publishers could envisage a re-run of the Satanic Verses affair, when author Salman Rushdie was sentenced to death by Iranian Ayatollah Khomenai and had to spend years in hiding.  It was decided that the novel wasn’t worth the danger.

Many people will dismiss the affair because the novel is a luridly written amalgam of bodice-ripper and historical fiction rather than a “serious” work of literature. But I think that’s a condescending, snobbish attitude.  This is a case of religious censorship.  Self-imposed, but censorship nonetheless.  And we should fight the censor wherever it may appear.

Jones has been released from her contract so she can try to resell the novel elsewhere.  And I hope she succeeds in placing it.  Not because I’m a fan of romantic historical novels – I’m not at all – but because censorship is evil.

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