Today, a book is published that has caused great consternation in the Muslim world and beyond. Originally to be published by Random House, The Jewel of Medina, a novel by Sherry Jones, soon ran into trouble with Muslims because it dared discuss the marriage of the prophet Mohammed to his child bride Aisha.
Ms. Jones was all set for an eight-city tour of America and a $100,000 publicity campaign when the book was originally scheduled for release at the beginning of August. Then the protests and threats began and Random, anxious not to become the target of violence, cancelled publication. Had they declined to publish the book because it is poor literature, they would have had a good point and no one would have ever have doubted their motives.
To his great credit, a British publisher, Gibson Square, picked up the novel and has decided to allow readers to decide for themselves. For his pains his offices in London were firebombed; three young British Muslims were arrested and have been charged.
I know something about being hounded and threatened by bullies hiding behind the name of Mohammed. It soon became clear that my life, too, was in dire danger.
I know something about being hounded and threatened by bullies hiding behind the name of Mohammed. As a campaigner for the rights of Muslim women, I made a film with the Dutch documentary director Theo van Gogh, Submission, which raised issues that also caused a violent reaction. Theo was a dear colleague of mine. While cycling to work one morning, he was shot repeatedly by a fanatic who claimed he had defamed Mohammed. What happened next is beyond belief. Theo's assailant drew out a knife and slit his throat.
It soon became clear that my life, too, was in dire danger. I was put up by the Dutch state in a safe house in Holland, but the neighbors discovered that I was living among them and feared that they, too, may become victims of mindless savage violence. They took the matter to a judge who agreed that my presence was putting their lives in danger. So, unable to find a safe house in Holland that was really safe, I was smuggled out of the country in a military plane and have sought refuge in America.
It is clear that Muslims in general do not take kindly to any criticism of Islam. Many become offended beyond reason if the criticism relates to Muhammad, the founder of their faith, or even a perceived 'mishandling' of the Koran, their holy book. For a significant minority, the mere appearance of images that represent their prophet is an invitation to outright violence. It is that intolerance to any depiction of the prophet that led to the threat against a Danish cartoonist who dared draw Mohammed.
The most notable case of Muslim rage at the depiction of the prophet, of course, is the violent threats against Salman Rushdie, whose Satanic Verses in 1989 inspired the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, no less, to put a bounty on the beheading of the novelist. Since then the violent street protests, assassination plots, bombings and threats of individuals over perceived insults against the prophet have become commonplace around the world.
Mohammed, the Koran and Allah can only be praised in the mind of the Muslim. For most Muslims, an insult toward Islam is considered to be any form of commentary or imagery that passes moral judgment on any part of that religion. As this issue is clear to my heart, and has caused the death of one of my dearest friends, I spent a day and a half trying to get to the end of Sherry Jones's The Jewel of Medina in search of content that might be considered offensive to Muslims. And I barely found a trace.
Ms Jones says in an afterword to the book that she is eager to bring her books into the world while they are still relevant. It seems to me she is less motivated by a desire to tell a good story and more by an urge in writing her novel and its sequel to help empower Muslim women. She wants to do this by providing them with a heroine from the early days of Islam.
In the eyes of Ms Jones, Aisha is a legendary woman from Islamic tradition, whom Muslim women can relate to because she led a life beset with challenges similar to their own, albeit in the even harsher reality of seventh century Islam. Aisha, a bright and defiant woman, endured the experience of being a child bride in a forced marriage to a polygamous husband in a household with little space for any form of individual self-expression. None of this story is new to anyone who grew up with Islamic teachings; nor is it contradictory to the most common Sunni sources of the faith.
Ms Jones does not question the morality of the prophet. She does not judge him in a negative way. There is no hidden meaning between-the-lines that will inspire young Muslim female readers to question their faith or the inconveniences of marrying against one's will, nor of sharing your husband with a dozen other women, nor even why it is wrong to be married off as a child to a man four times your age. In fact, Ms Jones makes the same lame excuses that Muslims make to condone the prophet's behavior.
From a moral perspective, I can find nothing in this poorly written book that deviates from the standard Islamic teachings. The only character in Ms Jones book that is close to an antagonist is Umar ibn Khattab, a warrior Khalif and a hero in the Sunni version of Islam, mainly because of his dramatic conversion to Islam and his conquests for the Khalifate. However, beyond his hot temper and his determination to put women in their place — in the Arab-Islamic mind both traits are admirable — the author does not succeed in making him into a bad character.
Ms Jones does not condemn Mohammed for having sex with Aisha at the age of nine. The sex scene is not described graphically and its conclusion for Aisha is described by Ms Jones as something Aisha always wanted. All the behavior considered immoral and misogynistic in the modern day Western attitudes that offends Muslims are repeated in the novel and affirmed. Rather than being a challenge to Islam, The Jewel of Medina is a pro-Islamic, Pro-Mohammed novel and could easily serve as propaganda material for any Muslim organization promoting the idea that Muslim women must not only accept the position that Islam ascribes to them but should also view that inferior position as a gift from God.
From my perspective, Ms Jones's novel does not come close toward helping Muslim women imagine that there is a reality beyond subjugation. The main lesson for a Muslim woman to take from the Aisha the heroine of The Jewel is that it is best to aspire to becoming the head of the concubines, or the hatun, and in that dubious position to remind herself that her job is to support Muhammad's decisions, not to doubt them. Obedience as a lesson is not something Muslim girls need to read about in novels; it is a concept they have to live with every day.
Where Ms. Jones succeeds, however — and, it seems, unwittingly — is to show the problem Islam perpetually has with fiction. It is not enough to be positive about the prophet Muhammad, (peace be upon him), i.e. to stick to the Islamic account of events surrounding the prophet's life. It is not enough to express oneself in the same tone of deference that Muslims do when talking or writing about their religion.
What it confirms is that Muslims believe that Muslims and infidels both must place Islam's main characters out of bounds for fiction, for literature in general, and for cinema, except as a means of dawa or to spread the faith. Even in existing propaganda films financed with Saudi money and the official blessing of the Wahabi clerics, no image of the prophet is presented.
The leaders of Islam thus freeze the Muslim imagination and deprive the Muslim mind from evolving through story-telling in novels, movies and any other art form. There is a great deal of fiction and poetry in the Arab-Islamic past as well as attempts at fiction today, but Mohammed figures in very few stories as a character, say, in the way Jesus or Moses figure in Judeo-Christian literature and cinema.
The fuss over The Jewel of Medina is merely the latest episode that draws attention to the clash between Islam and freedom of expression in the West, the same issues raised by The Satanic Verses and my and Theo van Gogh's film Submission. It again raises profound questions about how Western story-telling institutions can best take on fiction inspired by Mohammed, his household and the Koran, the book he said was revealed to him — a book that has a tight hold on the imagination of over a billion people in the world today, some of whom use it to justify the most atrocious activities since the Middle Ages.
With the presence of over 20 million Muslims in the West and with Islam now the fastest growing religion in the world, there is an even greater responsibility for all press, publishing houses and film-makers to encourage both non-fiction and fiction works about Mohammed and his colorful life. So to the British publisher of The Jewel of Medina, Bravo!