If you’re moderately literate, you’ve probably heard of The Jewel of Medina, the scandalous book about Aisha, the child bride of Muhammad, which Random House pulled from their publication schedule to avoid the next fatwa. But the more pieces of the story that come out, the more interesting it gets.
A little background: The book had reached the stage of galleys without anyone at Random House batting an eyelash, as far as can be told. The author, Sherry Jones, a journalist, requested that Random House send a review copy to Denise Spellberg, Associate Professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies and the author of one of the biographies Jones read in preparation for writing her novel. Spellberg didn’t like it, calling it a “very ugly, stupid piece of work.”
“I walked through a metal detector to see ‘Last Temptation of Christ,’” the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. “I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”
Uh, wait. The Last Temptation of Christ is not playing with sacred history, but this book is? The film shows Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalen. According to the author, The Jewel of Medina has no sex scenes. The excerpt that seems to have the most people upset is four sentences that occur after Muhammad first has sex with his nine-year-old bride:
…the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion’s sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life.
This is pretty tame stuff. Admittedly, Aisha was nine, but that’s part of the historical record. Is the problem that she enjoyed being with him afterward? After reading the prologue to the novel, which a Guardian reporter called “luridly written,” I start to think it is.
“She has been flirting with him for years!”
I snorted, as if his words amused me instead of chilling my blood. He spoke the truth — but who else knew?
Again, yawn. Hardly the stuff of “objectif[ying] the wife of the prophet as a sex object,” as Spellberg claims. [gasp!] Aisha flirts! Wives of prophets can’t be complex beings, certainly not sexual ones! Not violent ones, either. No swords allowed for this woman who raised an army and directed a battle from her camel. Nope, that would be part of “a long history of anti-Islamic polemic that uses sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith,” according to Spellberg.
And it’s these objections that led Spellberg to make “a frantic call” to a fellow lecturer and editor of a Muslim website, warning him that Jones “made fun of Muslims and their history” and asking him to spread the word about the horrors of a book he hadn’t read. They also led to her to call Random House to say “it is ‘a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff . . . a national security issue.’ Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons.”
Really? A sword, a little off-screen married sex in keeping with the practices of the time, and The Jewel of Medina is going to get people killed where The Last Temptation of Christ didn’t? Would our esteemed Middle Eastern Studies professor care to explain why that would be? The last time I checked, Muslims were handling sacrilege much better than their Christian fellows.
I’m curious why she doesn’t think they’d continue to be just as civil over a piece of fiction.