Death Threats, Fatwas, and Feminism: Looking Back at “The Jewel of Medina”


So, religion. Is it about God or is it about women’s rights?

Islam, women's rights, Mohammad

source: Sherry Jones

Egypt’s Moslem Brotherhood recently spoke out against a UN declaration on women’s rights, saying it could “destroy society” by allowing a woman to travel, work and use contraception without her husband’s approval.

They want their country to reject and condemn the declaration.

Egypt has joined Iran, Russia and the Vatican (!!) in what some diplomats have dubbed ‘an unholy alliance.’ (And for all the euphoria about the new Pope, who seems like a nice bloke, remember – he is a staunch conservative on women’s issues.)

Is this religion?

Islam, women's rights, MohammadIn fact, has it anything to do with spirituality at all? Or is this male power play masquerading as religion?

That’s my question. I’ll leave the answer to you.

But we come to it because of a previous post here that attracted a lot of interest.

It was about Sherry’s Jones’ book, The Jewel of the Medina.

I asked her more about it.

Q: Sherry, what started you on the book – your interest in Muhammad, or your interest in Aisha, his favorite wife?

muhammad, islam, mecca, medina, MuslimsSHERRY: I was finishing my college degree and casting about for ideas for a novel for my Honors project. I began to read about women in Islam, and discovered that Muhammad had a bevy of wives.

A religious prophet who was also sexual?

It intrigued me, coming from a Christian tradition whose prophet, Jesus, is so de-sexualized. Why haven’t I heard more about these women?

I suspected that they had influences on Muhammad, and on Islam, that we in the West, at least, don’t know about.

Q: Did writing and researching the book change any of your personal views on Islam?

muhammad, islam, mecca, medina, MuslimsSHERRY: I approached my research with a completely open mind, knowing almost nothing about Islam.

I was most surprised to find that Muhammad was a feminist who gave women in his culture rights they had never possessed before: the right to inherit property, to consent to marriage, to testify in court.

He listened to his wives’ opinions, and allowed them to sit in on his important political and military strategy meetings, to the chagrin of the more traditional men in the community.

A’isha was one of his top advisors, and continued her role as advisor — as well as warrior and spiritual leader — after his death.

Q: Did you anticipate the furore that your book caused?

SHERRY: I certainly anticipated controversy, yes. After all. “The Jewel of Medina” is about A’isha, the nine-year-old bride of the Prophet Muhammad. But death threats, from people who hadn’t even read the book? I suppose I should have seen it coming.

Q: Did you ever think your publisher might back out?

SHERRY: They backed out two months before the pub date – because an academic warned them they might be threatened. Never in the history of publishing has this happened before. When word got out about it, it made news around the world.

Q: Did these threat materialize?

Islam, women's rights, Mohammad

source: Sherry Jones

SHERRY: My UK publisher, Martin Rynja at Gibson Square Books, was targeted.

Three men, one of whom had played a major role in the “Danish cartoon” riots, slipped a Molotov cocktail into the letter slot of his London home-office in the middle of the night — several weeks before “The Jewel of Medina” was scheduled for publication there.

Scotland Yard was already following the arsonists, and arrested them on the spot. They’d already warned Mr. Rynja to spend the night elsewhere, so no one was hurt. But he withdrew from publishing the book, and we’ve never found another UK publisher.

My US publisher, Beaufort Books, couldn’t even find anyone who would distribute the US version to bookstores in the UK.

Q: Were you personally threatened after the book was published?

muhammad, islam, mecca, medina, MuslimsSHERRY: The threats came before the book was published, Colin! Someone threatened me online, saying they would find me and either behead me or stone me.

I called the FBI: “We’re scared for you,” the agent said. “We see things online, in Arabic, that you don’t see.”

A comment on a YouTube video denouncing my (not-yet-published) book said, “Kill the bitch! Let’s do to her what we did to Theo Van Gogh.”

Reuters ran photos from a riot in Bangladesh, and someone issued a manifesto online — afatwa — calling for my murder. Yep, those were frightening times.

Q: Your Serbian publisher was threatened also.

Islam, women's rights, MohammadSHERRY: A Muslim mufti demanded all copies of “The Jewel of Medina” be pulled from bookstore shelves and turned over to him for burning.

He said it contained “brutal scenes of pornography.”

The book sold out instantly, and the media covered the story very aggressively. Blic, a Belgrade newspaper, printed all the scenes from the book that were even mildly racy.

An editor told me it took up about eight column inches.

Q: How did all this affect you?

Islam, women's rights, Mohammad

source: Sherry Jones

SHERRY: I was a wreck. I ran away to a Montana town where I have lots of friends, and stayed with one of them in her mountaintop home. I was there when I learned what was going on in Serbia. Packing my bags to go home, my hands were trembling. I wept.

I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide until it all blew over, but I couldn’t. Others, including my amazing agent, Natasha Kern, were counting on me.

It was then, when I hit bottom, that I imagined what A’isha would do. She embodied strength, and courage, and peace, and love. She helped me to find those qualities within myself, and I was never afraid again.

I decided that, instead of worrying about how and when I would die, I’d rather focus on how I want to live. 

Q: You’ve been accused of blasphemy. What do you think of that?

Islam, women's rights, Mohammad

photograph: David Shankbone

Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses”, who hid for 10 years under a fatwa from the Ayatollah Khomenei – and who came out in support of “The Jewel of Medina” – said thatwithout the freedom to offend, there is no freedom of speech.

I’ll take that concept a step farther: Being offended can be good for us, especially if it makes a person think. 

You can read more about Sherry Jones and the Jewel of the Medina here.