“The Jewel of Medina”: Censorship, Islam, and the Historical Fiction Way


Here’s a question for you: what kind of books should we burn?

Mein Kampf? The Satanic Verses? Harry Potter? (Yes, it’s happened.)

muhammad, islam, mecca, medina, MuslimsI have just finished reading The Jewel of Medina,  Sherry Jones’ best-selling novel about the Prophet Muhammad’s child bride Aisha.

I thought Sherry courageous to take on the subject. Writing about the founder of a major world religion takes guts.

But her methodology is sound; she tries to humanize historical people, as every historical novelist tries to do.

I thought she did an excellent job of portraying Aisha, a fiery girl who can’t keep her mouth muhammad, islam, mecca, medina, Muslimsshut.

She is torn by fervor and jealousy, married to a man destined to become one of the great religious leaders of history.

Muhammad himself seems at times self serving and lecherous. Which perhaps he was. He is also drawn as compassionate and human.

I didn’t see his charisma portrayed – I would like to have seen that. But he’s not an unsympathetic figure in the book and there’s nothing malicious or defamatory in the way he’s been drawn. After I finished the book I wanted to learn much more about him.

But just before publication her New York publisher cancelled the book, fearing that itmight incite reprisals from Islamic fundamentalists.

In effect, they burned their own book.

After it was finally published elsewhere, Ms Jones was called the ‘world’s most dangerous author.’ Really? It’s a book, it’s an idea. Ideas are allowed.

Or are they?

muhammad, islam, mecca, medina, MuslimsVoltaire once famously said (actually he was just famously paraphrased) ‘I do not agree with a single word you have said, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.’ This is what free speech means; it’s not about the right to say what we believe, but letting someone else say what we don’t believe.

For example, want to read Hitler’s world view?

Want to read the communist manifesto? 

This is why, for all its faults, the west is called the free world and Iran and North Korea aren’t.

Burn a book, build a prison.

The Jewel of Medina is not a book about Mohammed. It’s Aisha’s story. As Sherry says onmuhammad, islam, mecca, medina, Muslimsher web page: “My goal was to tell about the women behind the man — his domestic life — and to portray the difficulties of life in the harem.”

Some called it soft core pornography. I hate to refute this and damage Sherry’s book sales, but this is not Fifty Shades of Islam. How can you write honestly about a marriage and not write about sex? If anyone really thinks the book pornographic, they should get out more.

She was also criticized for how she interpreted the real life characters in her novel.

muhammad, islam, mecca, medina, MuslimsThis one is getting a bit old; the way people are viewed is entirely subjective. How Michelle Obama sees her husband and his motives is quite different from how Donald Trump views him. And Obama’s a famous person who’s stillalive.

There are people who hate me and love me, and who have very conflicting views of my own history. So do you. To say that any history can be precise is a nonsense. No one knows the true story of Mohammed and his wives. Not even them.

That’s why history is intriguing. The historical novel is not about getting close to the truth; it’s about seeing the past through endless prisms.

No one owns history, no one owns the truth.

Even though people would like to. As any dictator will tell you, whoever owns the pastmuhammad, islam, mecca, medina, Muslimscontrols the present. It’s why fundamentalists want to seal it off.

Do you have to be a Muslim to write about Muslims? Do you have to come from the seventh century to write about it?

No, you just have to do your research. Sherry Jones clearly has. While some have said the novel is too contrived, others say she relied too heavily on historic Islamic sources. Too much license, not enough; sigh. As an historical novelist, you really can’t please all the people all the time.

But the most unfortunate criticism came from Denise Spellberg.

She”s an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. It was on her advice that the book was pulled. She said: ‘You can’t play with sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”

Is history sacred? Or is someone’s interpretation of it sacred?

muhammad, islam, mecca, medina, MuslimsHenry VIII did not have three wives or seven. He did not have a wooden leg. This is ‘sacred’ history in that it is factual. But interpreting past events – this is what novelists do. That’s why it’s called fiction.

As James Joyce pointed out in ‘Ulysses’, making history ‘sacred’ – religious or secular – is what is truly dangerous. The Da Vinci Code was a bad book because of the writing, not the ideas.

I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Jewel of Medina.’ It made me curious about history, which I think any good historical novel should do. I gained a different perspective on the world, and on Islamic women in particular.

Who would not want to publish a book like that?

We need to examine our history in as many ways as we can, even if it challenges our opinions about the world. Especially when it does that.muhammad, islam, mecca, medina, Muslims

So when would you put a fetwa on Salman Rushdie?

When would you set off with a lynching party and go looking for Sherry Jones?

Where is the line in the sand for you?


Historical Fiction, Colin Falconer, Harem