“Apparently, Ms. Jones for all her two years of research has managed a version of chick lit.”
“Married at nine to the much-older Muhammad, Aisha uses her wits, her courage, and her sword to defend her first-wife status even as Muhammad marries again and again, taking 12 wives and concubines in all,” the summary reads.
It is not an issue of freedom of speech or of literature. Sherry Jones’ book The Jewel of Medina is not a lot of things it is made out to be.
Random House decided against publishing it because it feared an Islamic backlash. The source at the publishing house said that it had information “from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.”
The problem is with Islam, they say. There is no tolerance. The point here is not about tolerance, but about perspective. It is the unnecessary needling of a community by starting with the premise of a terror attack. This is based merely on what some blogger has posted and an email asking for the publishing house to apologize to all Muslims.
With the agility of an intellectual acrobat, Asra Nomani came to the rescue of the writer without for a moment taking into account that the book was accepted, advance copies sent out. Surely, Ms. Jones did not convey the impression that she was writing one of those cute coffee table books on the gemstones of Medina?
Nomani starts her Op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal  with the wrong thesis and headline ‘You Still Can’t Write about Muhammad’; it is a catchier title than putting his wife, the protagonist, up in the blinking neon lights of pulp liberalism and neophyte history. Curiously enough, she describes the book as a “tale of lust, love and intrigue in the prophet’s harem” and then goes on to say, “This saga upsets me as a Muslim – and as a writer who believes that fiction can bring Islamic history to life in a uniquely captivating and humanizing way.”
Let us get one thing straight: We are not talking history here. Religion cannot be history if it is still practised with the ease, and the siege, of the devil. We believe, or do not believe, as per the dictates of a god-ungod situation. Of course, the writer will be martyred at the altar of the mullahs. They will say those blokes have not even read the book. Neither have many others who are supporting its publication.
This business about humanizing Islam is getting to be a bit tiresome. Nomani ends her piece with a rather pious offering. “Literature moves civilizations forward, and Islam is no exception…And, for all those who believe the life of the prophet Muhammad can’t include stories of lust, anger and doubt, we need only read the Quran (18:110) where, it’s said, God instructed Muhammad to tell others: ‘I am only a mortal like you’.”
Mortality is different from being human. It perhaps only meant that he too would die, or that as a prophet he ought to be a lesson in humility. Even if it were to imply what may be called human foibles and desires, these are not the fulcrum from which arise the connotations of piety. No one deifies the prophet because of those qualities but despite them. The idea of belief is to not question. The moment you question you are a doubter, not a devotee.
Even the so-called liberal cult of Sufism rests on sublimation of oneself into a superior being. Therefore, to expect monotheistic belief systems to accept flaws is unrealistic. Islam, in fact, is rather open about sexuality and its believers for the most part practise it. Over a period of time, interpreters completely destroyed the element of joy and chose to mimic the Victorian model and corseted women behind veils and darkness. Yet, on paper a woman does have many rights, including the right to divorce should she be unsatisfied with the level of conjugal bliss she desires.
It suited patriarchal culture to paint a dour picture of the religion. Now, the mullah interpreters are being replaced by the liberal interpreters who try to save Islam from the clutches of ignorance. They use contemporary and often westernised standards to judge. If Muhammad was to be “mortal” like us, then the idea of god’s messenger would fall flat on its face.
Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas, who has written Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr, said about Jones’ book, “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.”
Jones defended herself in the Guardian: “It’s ridiculous. I must be a heck of a writer to produce a pornographic book without sex scenes. My book is as realistic a portrayal as I could muster of the Prophet Muhammad’s harem and his domestic life. Of course it has sexuality, but there is no sex.”
Just a little definition of pornography might help Ms. Jones brush up with more than Arabic. It also conveys titillation, an effort to sexually stimulate. If this is a work of fiction, then the writer ought not to bring in references to realistic portrayal. Therefore, I completely differ with critics who have said that Sherry might be another Salman. Rushdie, for all his hallucinations, stuck to fabulist theories. He did not set out to promote a feministic or even humanistic ideal. Sherry Jones has said, “I wanted to honor Aisha and all the wives of Muhammad by giving voice to them, remarkable women whose crucial roles in the shaping of Islam have so often been ignored – silenced – by historians.”
One supposes her research did not throw up the small detail that before uttering the name of any of the prophet’s wives Muslims are expected to prefix with the words, “Umm-al-Momineen” (Mother of the Believers) as a mark of respect.
The feministic utopia in Jones’ imagination starts with an account of Aisha’s suspected adultery. It would have been a rather contemporary move, but the Prologue is so full of extensive metaphors that one wonders what the crux is. “I let my eyelids fall shut, avoiding my reflection in the stares of my umma, my community. I licked my cracked lips, tasting salt and the tang of my wretchedness. Pain wrung my stomach like strong hands squeezing water from laundry, only I was already dry. My tongue lolled like a sun baked lizard. I rested my cheek against Safwan’s shoulder, but the horse’s trot struck bone against bone. ‘Al-zaniya!’ someone cried. ‘Adulteress!’”
It would be unfair to tar the whole book based on the Prologue, but it gives a credible peek into the language and lack of nuance the author employs. After being harangued for spending the night with Safwan, Aisha recounts that she finally fell, “Into my husband’s control once more and sighing with relief. Trying to forge my own destiny had nearly destroyed me, but his love held the power to heal.”
Apparently, Ms. Jones for all her two years of research has managed a version of chick lit, where Aisha gets in confessional mode and in a Mills and Boon fashion “leans on her husband”, “falls into his arms”, and in a rather treacly account relates that “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.”
At age nine or eleven, the “all my life” seems rather a stretch. If Jones wanted to portray a Lolita, then the purpose has been served. The West and critics of Islam seem rather obsessed with the sexual element. They perhaps are the inheritors of a construct where chastity belts were common. Rarely will you see enlightened Muslims or even rabble-rousers discuss these issues.
What the prophet did or did not do does not constitute Islam. If his personal life is to be an example, then Muslims should be living on dates. Besides, why is there rarely any mention of the fact that he married a woman much older than him and that too a widow?
I have heard comments that he did it for money. So, would it be apt to say that Khadijah broke through the glass ceiling long before our power-dressing women got there?
This does not have dramatic potential. A pre-pubescent discovering her sexuality is enticing.
It would be educative to look at other faiths to get a better perspective. Instances of young women with older men abound and child marriage is fairly common in the subcontinent even today. Are those kids ready for sexual intimacy? And girls are sold to the highest bidder. Virginity is a prized commodity, which is what happens in Devadasi temples in South India. Young girls are sacrificed to the Goddess Yellama. Do you imagine they spend the rest of their lives as celibates? No. The priests decide who gets the girl first. Sometimes she is offered to a rich bloke from the village.
In 2004, Madame Tussaud’s got into trouble for its portrayal of the Nativity scene, the tableau was destroyed and the Church leaders got very upset because the wax works of David Beckham and Posh Spice delineated the roles of Joseph and Mary and Kylie Minogue fluttered around as the angel. If the people featured in the tableau are suspect because of what they stand for, then is there a way to vouch for the integrity of the ordinary people who enact the Crucifixion during Easter in many parts of the world?
The Church has often raised its voice against such depictions. I find this strange. Films and theatrical productions have been staged with famous people portraying religious characters; Italian masters gained a great deal of celebrity for artistically interpreting Christian iconography.
Here I might add that I would use the same rules for Islam. The Muslim world had objected to the model Claudia Schiffer walking down the ramp with some calligraphy embroidered on her blouse. Most Muslim households have some Quranic verses scrawled somewhere. Are the people in those homes living up to whatever it is that it written there? Are they near-perfect individuals?
In Jones’ book Ali appears as an almost Judas-like character who, by denigrating Aisha, is in fact trying to show the prophet’s feet of clay. The possessiveness is possibly because, like Judas, Ali too looked on the prophet as a friend and hero. Yet, his self-esteem wanted him to rebel.
I wonder if Jones has touched upon these psychological dimensions. Would a human ‘divinity’ by its very accessibility cease to rise above our pettiness? There is a huge problem in dealing with the human and the fallible. The human in religion is not fallible.
If people do believe in a certain faith, then let them decide on how to define their belief. That too constitutes freedom of speech. Fictional accounts of this nature only serve as trashy one-upmanship. They do not humanize or, alas, even demonize religion.
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based columnist and author of A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/