Sherry Jones Never Expected a Fatwa

By Neal Comment

sherry-jones-headshot.jpgWhen Sherry Jones told her publishers at Ballantine that they should send a copy of her novel about the life of one of Muhammad’s wives, The Jewel of Medina, to Islamic studies scholar Denise Spellberg, she never anticipated that Random House, Ballantine’s corporate parent, would decide they were afraid to publish the novel after all. Instead of giving Ballantine a nice blurb, Spellberg called her own editor at Knopf and told her putting the book out was tantamount to “a declaration of war” against Islam and would probably lead to terrorist attacks on Broadway—and that was enough to put Random off the idea altogether.

“Ballantine was hoping to show reviewers that the novel wasn’t just fluffy historical romance,” Jones said during a phone interview yesterday afternoon; an endorsement from Spellberg, the author of Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr, would have stood out on the tear sheet as an imprimatur of intellectual credibility. “Spellberg’s book was one of the first I read when I wanted to learn more about A’isha,” Jones recalled, and she was stunned when she found out about Spellberg’s hostile reaction. At first, although confused, Jones tried to be understanding of Spellberg’s inner motives, whatever they might be, “but now that’s she calling it ‘soft core pornography,'” she said with a slight laugh, “I really don’t feel that nice anymore.”

What’s the book really like? You can read the prologue for yourself, since Jones provided Smart Bitches, Trashy Books with a copy. “I haven’t been thumbing my nose at Islam,” Jones stressed to me. “There’s nothing in my book that doesn’t exist in nonfiction, except for a few instances of literary license which are of no great significance.”

Jones also clarified to me that while Spellberg told Shahed Amanullah she wanted to “warn Muslims” about the book, Jones was the person who told Random House about the online discussion that resulted when an email from Amanullah was posted on a Shiite community website—because she thought it was an indication of how unlikely it was that her novel would incite violence. “I was impressed by the discussion there,” she said. “Nobody was saying it was time for a fatwa… It didn’t feel violent to me; it felt like the response I might have expected.” Still, she insisted, “I was never angry about their decision. I can imagine how easy it is to push that fear button in New York… [and] they’re a private corporation; they can do whatever they want.”

(Amanullah, meanwhile, posted an article on his website yesterday arguing that actions like Random House’s are a symptom of “the stagnation and increased misunderstanding that comes from a stifled discourse.”)

So where do things go from here? Now that the rights to The Jewel of Medina and its sequel have reverted back to Jones, she and her agent, Natasha Kern, are planning to resubmit them to other publishers. Given that there was at least one serious offer on the table when Ballantine made its original pre-empt bid, and Jones says Kern was prepared to take the novels to auction, it’s entirely possible she’ll find another publisher—except that now she’s lost the eight-month headstart she had on Kamran Pasha‘s Mother of the Believers, another novel about A’isha which Atria Books confirmed is still on its schedule for an April 2009 release: “We have no intention to change our publishing plans,” runs an official statement received yesterday afternoon, “and we think readers will find Kamran Pasha’s book to be a compelling work of historical fiction that with great respect and sensitivity portrays an empowered Muslim woman who helped usher Islam into the world.”

Which is exactly how Jones feels about the situation. “I’m just so passionate about her and about telling her tale,” she said (and isn’t worried about Pasha’s novel: “the more A’ishas, the better”). “She’s one of the most influential women in history, and so little is known about her in the Western world. I really believe she represents the potential in all women.” She has even, she said, drawn inspiration from A’isha’s courage during these past months. Now, she added, she’s hopeful that this controversy means “a better chance that the book will be read by more people.”