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The Jewel of Medina

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Martin Rynja, the publisher of Gibson Square Books, is considering whether to proceed with publication of The Jewel of Medina, the controversial historical novel by American author Sherry Jones, following the firebomb attack on the company’s premises in Islington, London last Saturday. The author’s agent, Natasha Kern, confirmed by phone that publication will proceed in America, Germany, Italy and Spain, some of the fifteen countries where book deals have been signed. It has already been published in Serbia where, after an initial withdrawal from bookshops for fear of reprisals by radicals, more than 10,000 copies have now been printed.

The book tells the story of Aisha, the child bride of the Prophet Muhammad. According to the novel’s marketing blurb 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’.

Jones’s novel had been scheduled for publication by the Random House US imprint Ballantine Books until they withdrew from the two-book agreement in August following comments made by the academic Denise Spellberg, who called it a ‘very ugly, stupid piece of work’ and ‘soft core pornography’. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, she said that ‘as an expert on Aisha’s life, I felt that it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel’s fallacious representation of a very real woman’s life… The combination of sex and violence sells novels. When combined with falsification of the Islamic past, it exploits Americans who know nothing about Aisha or her seventh-century world and counts on stirring up controversy to increase sales’.

What a lot of weight The Jewel of Medina has had to bear since. Salman Rushdie has denounced Random House for ‘censorship by fear’; Kenan Malik has cried ‘Self-censor and be damned!’; and Stanley Fish has weighed in with a piece on the semantics of censorship for the New York Times. In support of Gibson Square’s decision to publish the book at all, a view presumably redoubled now, Alvaro Vargas Llosa writes in The New Republic that ‘the fact that someone, somewhere, is willing to run the risk of not letting the threat of violence inhibit free expression is tremendously comforting’.

Speaking yesterday on Radio 4’s Today Programme, Sherry Jones called upon moderate Muslims to ‘stand up and be counted and have their voices heard, otherwise we have a small group of radicals who are controlling the agenda’. Martin Rynja, now under police protection following Saturday’s attack, regards the novel as ‘an important barometer of our time’.

We shall have to wait for publication to gauge whether the novel warrants the pressure it has been subjected to. As the author pointed out in the Washington Post, ‘So far, discussion has centered around my not-published book, which almost no one has read. Soon, I hope, we will address the text itself, in published form, and my ideas, derived from research and experience, of moderate Islam as a religion of egalitaranism and, yes, peace.’ Judging from a review published on IslamOnline.net by Marwa Elnaggar, to whom Sherry Jones sent the manuscript, the text itself ought to diffuse controversy (without thereby inviting praise). ‘I hope that readers will take it for what it is: an attempt by a Western writer with little knowledge of Arabic, Arabia, Islam, and Muslims using her own Western, 21st-century values, ideals and emotions to portray an unrecognizable version of the well-known and well-documented story of A’ishah… Yet given all its inaccuracies, its faults, and its biases, should publication of The Jewel of Medina be stopped? By all means, it should not.’

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