Review of Sherry Jones, "The Jewel of Medina: A Novel" 1

A Jew­el It’s Not : Review of Sher­ry Jones, The Jew­el of Med­i­na : A Novel”

Jour­nal­ist Sher­ry Jones, the Mon­tana and Ida­ho cor­re­spon­dent for the inter­na­tion­al news agency the Bureau of Nation­al Affairs, main­tains that she envi­sioned The Jew­el of Med­i­na, her fic­tion­al­ized account of A’isha Abi Bakr, the child bride of Muham­mad, as a bridge builder.” But even before it was pub­lished, the nov­el became a casu­al­ty of the clash of civilizations. Review of Sherry Jones, "The Jewel of Medina: A Novel" 2

After Denise Spell­berg, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry and Mid­dle East­ern stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas, assessed the man­u­script as a very ugly, stu­pid, piece of work” which turned sacred his­to­ry into soft-core pornog­ra­phy and warned that pub­li­ca­tion could pro­voke vio­lence, Bal­lan­tine Books, a divi­sion of Ran­dom House, con­sult­ed with secu­ri­ty experts and then nego­ti­at­ed an agree­ment with Jones to ter­mi­nate their $100,000 two-book contract.

Amid alle­ga­tions of self-cen­sor­ship and the sup­pres­sion of free speech, two pub­lish­ing hous­es — Beau­fort Books in the US (whose list includes O.J. Simp­son’s If I Did It) and Gib­son Square in Great Britain — announced they would rush the nov­el into print. On Sep­tem­ber 27, the home of Mar­tin Ryn­ja, pub­lish­er of Gib­son Square, was fire-bombed. Nonethe­less, The Jew­el of Med­i­na has been — or will be — pub­lished in at least 15 countries.

The nov­el isn’t worth the atten­tion it’s get­ting. As reli­able, his­tor­i­cal­ly, as Dis­ney’s Aladdin and the King of Thieves, The Jew­el of Med­i­na is a chick lit” fem­i­nist tract, paint­ed in pur­ple prose. Then — and now — Jones’s A’isha claims, cen­turies after her death, girls turn away because they don’t know the truth… That none of us is ever alive until we can shape our des­tinies. Until we can choose.”

Not your typ­i­cal sev­enth-cen­tu­ry Mus­lim maid­en, A’isha begins her cru­sade against mar­i­tal rape before she’s 10. She vows nev­er to be the poor girl under­neath,” endur­ing a wom­an’s life” with down­cast eyes and nary a whim­per of com­plaint.” She’ll fight back — and if her hus­band does­n’t like it, he could divorce me and I would­n’t care. I’d rather be a lone lioness, roar­ing and free, than a caged bird with­out even a name to call my own.”

Then Jones goes phal­lic. Sum­moned to meet the prophet, A’isha hes­i­tates, clos­ing her eyes and tak­ing a deep breath : My future await­ed on the oth­er side — a fate cho­sen by oth­ers, as though I were a sheep or a goat fat­ted for this day.” Her moth­er pulls the cur­tain away : What are you wait­ing for ? Ramadan?”

No more fight­ing with sticks,” Muham­mad tells her, in a bed­room filled with wood­en sol­diers, dolls, a jump rope and a sword. I will teach you how to use the real thing.” As the prophet’s eyes changed, as if catch­ing flame,” the lit­tle girl wait­ed for the scut­tling hands, the sting­ing tail… Soon I would be lying on my bed beneath, squashed like the scarab bee­tle, flail­ing and sob­bing while he slammed him­self against me. He would not want to hurt me, but how could he help it?”

Jones believes that The Jew­el of Med­i­na por­trays Islam as, at bot­tom, an egal­i­tar­i­an reli­gion” and Muham­mad as a gen­tle, wise and com­pas­sion­ate” leader, who respect­ed women, espe­cial­ly his wives. Thanks to the prophet, A’isha sug­gests, women could inher­it prop­er­ty, tes­ti­fy in hear­ings and write pro­vi­sions for divorce into their wed­ding contracts.”

But the gen­der pol­i­tics of the nov­el is, at best, con­fused. And Jones’s Muham­mad has feet of clay. A man of phys­i­cal pas­sion, he is seduced by pow­er, mak­ing strate­gic alliances through mar­riage. Muham­mad changes Allah’s law at will and whim. Intent on mar­ry­ing the wife of his adopt­ed son, he declares that we have been in error all these years.” Since Zayd does not car­ry his blood in his veins, why should I hes­i­tate?” In anoth­er self-indul­gent about-face, he annuls the edict lim­it­ing a harem to four wives. And by order­ing females to cov­er their faces, A’isha con­cludes, the prophet trans­forms him­self from a lib­er­a­tor of women into an oppres­sor of them.”

The Jew­el of Med­i­na is a plat­form for the propo­si­tions of the polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect, cir­ca 2008. An unmar­ried woman in Med­i­na in 625 with no fam­i­ly to sup­port her and no skills,” A’isha claims, had only two prospects : beg­ging and pros­ti­tu­tion. As she walks through a tent city with the moth­er of the poor, the child-bride chides her­self for mop­ing while peo­ple strug­gled to sur­vive. She drapes her wrap­per around the shoul­ders and head of a child in tat­tered cloth­ing to pro­tect her ten­der face” from the sun. From now on,” A’isha con­cludes, when I heard oth­ers den­i­grate the tent peo­ple as I’d once done, I’d make sure to tell them of their pride and dignity.”

You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. As she con­fess­es in the after­word” — and demon­strates in the nov­el with asides about gowns that plunge down to the navel” and off-shoul­der gar­ments that burst open like spring­time” when the wear­er dis­mounts a camel — Sher­ry Jones does­n’t know what it was like to be alive and a woman in sev­enth-cen­tu­ry Ara­bia. She may have huge respect and regard for the Mus­lim faith,” but she does­n’t dis­play much knowl­edge about Islam, either. It’s an out­rage that pub­li­ca­tion of this book — or any book — was held hostage to threats of vio­lence. But as a work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion The Jew­el of Med­i­na is a non-pre­cious stone that ought to be allowed to sink with­out a trace.Endmark

The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Stud­ies at Cor­nell University.
Cite this arti­cle as : Glenn C. Altschuler, A Jew­el It’s Not : Review of Sher­ry Jones, The Jew­el of Med­i­na : A Nov­el”,” in Bis­mi­ka Allahu­ma, Novem­ber 30, 2008, last accessed May 27, 2024, https://​bis​mikaal​lahu​ma​.org/​b​o​o​k​-​r​e​v​i​e​w​s​/​j​e​w​e​l​-​o​f​-​m​e​d​i​na/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *