What’s Wrong With a Novel About Muhammad’s Wife?

By Neal Comment

This time last week, Denise Spellberg was as unknown to most Americans as, well, any other Islamic studies professor. That all changed Wednesday, when a Wall Street Journal editorial cast her as the woman whose “frantic” warnings convinced Random House to pull the plug on a novel about Muhammad’s wife. Suddenly finding herself the most reviled woman on the blogosphere, Spellberg hustled into self-defensive spin mode; in a letter to the WSJ editors published over the weekend, she asserts that “Random House made its final decision based on the advice of other scholars, conveniently not named in the article, and based ultimately on its determination of corporate interests.” (Spellberg doesn’t name any of those scholars, either, in case you were wondering, nor does she explain why she felt it necessary to “warn Muslims” about the novel as well as responding to the publisher’s request for professional consultation.)

Spellberg also repeats her assertion that The Jewel of Medina isn’t a very good book, although this time she kicks the rhetoric up a notch, accusing Sherry Jones of being the latest champion of “a long history of anti-Islamic polemic that uses sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith… first pioneered in medieval Christian writings.” At that point, this becomes much more than a literary critique. Imagine, if you will, a Jewish studies professor accusing a Christian novelist of perpetuating the blood libel: that is the magnitude of Spellberg’s attack on Jones.

sherry-jones-medina.jpgThe next question is obvious: Does The Jewel of Medina merit such a vehement condemnation? Jones insisted repeatedly in interviews, including one with GalleyCat, that she has nothing but respect for Islam and for A’isha, the child bride of Muhammad who serves as the protagonist and first-person narrator. And so far, the general public only has access to the novel’s 12-page prologue, not the entire manuscript read by Spellberg, so any judgment is by necessity incomplete—and, of course, non-Muslim readers aren’t in the best position to notice what might be “off” in Jones’ version of events.

That said, after reading the opening scene over the weekend, my personal literary sense is that the novel is likely to be of a type with the modern feminist re-imaginings of Old Testament women from authors like Eva Etzioni-Halevy and Anita Diamant—and while the scene may be sensational (big surprise in a work of commercial fiction), it didn’t exactly strike me as requiring any more drastic a response than that of, say, Catholics to Dan Brown‘s take on Jesus. Actually, all this hoopla over whether A’isha really did this or that obscures the really interesting conversation the novel seems to want to instigate: In a Wonder Years-like reflection on the events she’s just described, an adult A’isha asserts that “Muhammad wanted to give [women] freedom, but… the other men took it away,” using this interpretation to explain what she (and, ultimately, Jones) identifies as a pervasive strain of gender inequality within contemporary Islamic practice at odds with the Prophet’s intentions and, by extension, Allah’s will.

The debate over that interpretation of Islamic theology, and its implications for modern society, could have been taking place in America’s book review pages this month, as it has been and will continue to be discussed in other venues, had Random House gone ahead with its plans to publish The Jewel of Medina instead of acquiescing to the specter of violence over whether or not we’re allowed to write about religious figures unless we take them at the face value of doctrine. When all this first became public, I noted with no small degree of sarcasm that, as far as Random is concerned, “Anne Rice can write about Jesus, but Sherry Jones can’t write about Muhammad… or his wife.” An even greater irony was revealed to me over the weekend, when I took a look at my to-read stack: The same company that decided it wasn’t ready to publish a novel about Muhammad’s wife this month had no problems releasing David Ebershoff‘s The 19th Wife, a novel narrated in part by the real-life ex-wife of Brigham Young, who was excommunicated from the Mormon church and became a vocal critic of its polygamous practices. (Full disclosure: I’ve actually known about Ebershoff’s novel for some time now, and though I had been distracted by dozens of subsequent galleys, as a fan I’m genuinely looking forward to reading it.)