Middle East studies in the News
Exclusive: The Devil in Miss Jones – ‘The Jewel of Medina' Exposed [incl. Denise Spellberg]
by Adrian Morgan
Over this weekend, the London home of a publisher was subjected to a gasoline attack. Dutch-born Martin Rynja owns publishing company Gibson Square Books which prints "books that are able to contribute to a current debate." Rynja had announced on September 3rd this year that in October he would be publishing a controversial novel, called The Jewel of Medina.
The author of the book is American journalist Sherry Jones. In 2007, Random House had purchased the rights to publish this book and its sequel for $100,000. The book would have been published as an imprint of Random's Ballantine Books. The Jewel of Medina is Jones' first published novel. In May, Random House decided to pull out of the contract.
Sample copies had been sent out for review and the feedback was negative. It was felt that the book would cause a reaction from Islamic fundamentalists. Thomas Perry of Random House acknowledged that it "could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment", and withdrew the publication offer on the grounds of safety. An official statement claimed: "We consulted with security experts as well as with scholars of Islam, whom we asked to review the book and offer their assessments of potential reactions..... and in this instance we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel."
The Jewel of Medina was published in Serbia by Beobook on August 1st. However, on Sunday August 17th, five days after Random House's had earlier intended to release it, the Serbian copies were withdrawn. The reasons for the novel's termination in Serbia stemmed from the threats made by a group calling itself "The Islamic Community." The group had threatened protests.
The "mufti" of the group is Muamer Zukorlic who claimed that the book insulted Muslims. The traditional leader of Serbian Muslims is Adem Ziklic of the "Islamic Community of Serbia." Ziklic said: "This way Zukorlic has imposed himself as the only protector of Islam and causing this much stir over the book will only result in a bigger demand for the novel. I doubt that the mufti has read the book and it seems he is acquainted only with the parts which directly refer to scenes from the Koran."
Ms. Jones claimed to be mystified at Zukorlic's response, stating: "...I was confused. Did these Muslims, after reading my book, really think I had "degraded" Muhammad and Aisha? I'd thought I was doing the opposite. My intentions were to celebrate these great historical figures while dispelling misunderstandings about Islam."
The Islamic world, it seems, should have been grateful to Sherry Jones for dispelling misunderstandings. There is something quite quaint about Jones' shock at negative reactions to her book. Her novel is a "historical fiction" which purports to describe the life of Aisha, the last wife of Mohammed.
Jones stated that she thought that Beobook was "more courageous, it seemed, than Random House," when it decided to publish her book. Around the same time that Gibson Square announced it would publish the book, news came that a German publisher would release the book in an English-language version. The identity of the publishing house was kept secret, for fear of violence. Jones then responded: "To claim that Muslims will answer my book with violence is pure nonsense. Anyone who reads the book will see that it honors the prophet and his favorite wife." Since that naive statement was uttered, extremists certainly have tried to not only commit violence, but murder, on account of her book.
It is possible that a Danish publisher called Trykkefrihedsselskabets Library may also print the book.
In the early hours of Saturday, a firebomb attack was made upon the north London home of publisher Martin Rynja. Police apparently had prior knowledge of the plot to firebomb the address in Lonsdale Square, Islington. Earlier on Friday evening, 44-year-old Rynja had been warned to leave the house, which he also uses as his office. If police had not been aware of the plot, the consequences could have been disastrous.
Three people were subsequently arrested and held under the terms of the Terrorism Act following the incident. These were males, aged 22, 30 and 40. Two were apprehended in the immediate vicinity, and the third was arrested at nearby Angel tube station. Four properties were searched, and a woman was additionally arrested for obstructing police.
Rynja was unharmed. Jones denies that the firebombing has anything to do with her novel. She said: "The planting of that bomb was not about my book. It's not about the content of my book. It's not about the ideas in my book. It must be about the rumours and innuendos... [This is] obviously a response to the misinformation."
Jones is bitter about the way that her novel was "misrepresented" by others. In particular, she is angry at the actions of the academic Denise Spellberg, associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Spellberg is a self-professed "expert" on the life of Aisha. Spellburg appears to have been instrumental in whipping up hostility against the book from Muslims. She was one of the recipients of a pre-publication copy of The Jewel of Medina, sent out by Random House.
According to the Guardian newspaper: "In April, Shahed Amanullah, an editor of a popular Muslim website, claimed Spellberg had told him the book 'made fun of Muslims and their history'." Amanullah then forwarded Spellberg's concerns via email to students of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies. Amanullah himself appears as a guest speaker on Spellberg's courses.
If Amanullah's account is true, he and Spellberg have acted little differently from Danish fundamentalist Ahmed Abdel Rahman Abu Laban and Ahmed Akkari, who sent copies of the infamous Danish cartoons of Mohammed to leading Muslim representatives in the Middle East. The cartoons had originally been published in Jyllands-Posten newspaper on September 30, 2005, with little fuss. Following the interventions of the late Abu Laban, the Danish cartoon protests began in earnest in February 2006 and led to 50 deaths around the globe.
If Amanullah is correct when he claims that Spellberg stated Jones had "made fun" of Muslims, then the academic has been dishonest. Sherry Jones certainly appears not to have intended to cause offense to Muslims.
In the online edition of the Wall Street Journal, Asra Q. Nomani discussed the details that offended Spellberg. The academic was offended by the description of Mohammed consummating his marriage with Aisha, where "the pain...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." Spellberg described the book as a "very ugly, stupid piece of work" and stated: "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."
The Child Bride
There is a fundamental problem with Sherry Jones' approach to history. I would not object to "bodice-ripper" novels set in any time and involving any historical figure, as long as their claims to be "historical" novels are based mostly upon history. Ms. Jones has never visited the Middle East, it appears. That is excusable, as no living author or historian has visited the seventh century. But Jones makes one mistake that I find inexcusable. She claims that Mohammed consummated his marriage to Aisha when she was 14 years old. Most modern parents would object if a man in his fifties wanted to bed their 14-year-old daughter, even if he claimed to be a prophet of God. Back in the seventh century, Aisha's father (Abu Bakr) was unwilling to have his "brother" Mohammed marrying his daughter.
There is NO reliable source that maintains that Aisha was 14 at the time of her consummation of marriage with Mohammed, and here Jones is either grossly dishonest or being so cavalier with her sources that her book is entirely worthless on moral and historical terms.
Denise Spellberg claims the story of Aisha and Mohammed is "a sacred history." I wonder if Spellberg would describe the deflowering of a child in today's world as "sacred"?
The most reliable source of Hadiths (documents on the life of Mohammed gained from oral transmission) is Bukhari. Often called "sahih" (authentic), Bukhari lived in the 9th century AD, and collected 300,000 Hadith over a period of 16 years. He deemed only 2,062 of these to be genuine.
Bukhari wrote in Volume 7, Book 62 (Number 64) of his collection: "Narrated 'Aisha: that the Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, and then she remained with him for nine years (i.e., till his death)." The same account also appears as Number 65 in Bukhari's compendium. Again in Volume 7, Book 62, Number 88, Bukhari relates that: "Narrated 'Ursa: The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with 'Aisha while she was six years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years old and she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death)."
Tabari (d. 923) was called the "Livy of the Arabians" by the historian Gibbon and his Hadiths are extensive. Tabari wrote (IX:131) that Aisha narrated: "My mother came to me while I was being swung on a swing between two branches and got me down. My nurse wiped my face with some water and started leading me. When I was at the door she stopped so I could catch my breath. I was then brought in while the Messenger was sitting on a bed in our house. My mother made me sit on his lap. Then the men and women got up and left. The Prophet consummated his marriage with me in my house when I was nine years old".
This echoes a Hadith from Bukhari (Vol 5, Bk 58, Number 234) in which AIsha had related: "Then she entrusted me to them and they prepared me (for the marriage). Unexpectedly Allah's Apostle came to me in the forenoon and my mother handed me over to him, and at that time I was a girl of nine years of age."
I have encountered on the internet numerous lies and justifications to avoid the unpleasant truth expressed in these Hadiths. Some Muslims have claimed that "in hot climates, girls mature faster," implying that Aisha was not physically a "real child." Children who suffer from precocious puberty are still emotionally children. There is NO evidence from any sources that Aisha was a physically menstruating nine-year-old with pubic hair. Even if there was such evidence, she was still a child, who played with dolls.
I have even heard the excuse that - in the way that haggling takes place in Arab bazaars and figures are inflated - the given age of nine years old really meant "nineteen." One scholar (Muhammad Husein Haykal) wrote that Aisha was eleven when her marriage was consummated, conveniently failing to provide documentary evidence.
Sherry Jones - so eager to "honor" Mohammed and Aisha - has committed the same error. She has avoided an unpalatable fact and replaced it with what can only be described as a lie. She claims to have studied extensively in her research - but unless she can provide a valid Hadith that states that Aisha was 14, I can only condemn her. Such actions fly in the face of truth. Jones knows that no decent Westerner would want to accept that a child of nine would accept her physical violation by an older man as "the bliss I had longed for all my life." A 14-year-old who expressed such opinions would (rightly) be grounded, but it would be inconceivable to think of a nine-year-old believing such vile nonsense.
And here, Jones proves that either her research was flawed, or she has set out to deceive her readers and the world at large, all for the sake of selling a book. By doing so, she betrays girl children across the Muslim world.
An Awful Truth
According to Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Right of the Child, marriage of anyone under the age of 18 is classed as "child marriage." Most Western countries place their ages of consent at 16, though some nations like France allow sex between minors at the age of 14.
At the time that Aisha was alive, the Metonic lunar calendar was used. Nine years meant nine "lunar years" - or eight (solar) years and nine months. The example of Mohammed, as recorded by Sahih Bukhari and by Tabari, has led to widespread abuse of the rights of young girls. Concepts of Sharia (Islamic jurisprudence) have accepted that Aisha's marriage to Mohammed must have been legal. To state differently would cast doubt upon the whole validity of Islam's messenger. I know of no schools of Islam that contradict the testimony of Bukhari's Hadiths.
In Iran - the situation is made worse by the Penal Code, which was ratified in November 1991. According to Article 49 of the Iranian Islamic Penal Code, a child is not criminally responsible. However, the definition of adulthood differs drastically from the UN definition, and shows disparity between the sexes. For a male, adulthood comes at 15 years, and for a girl, at nine lunar years. Adulthood gives the legal sanction to judicial hangings and to marriage, although some visible evidence of "physical maturity" must be shown by the "adult" nine-year-old girl.
The British charity Karma Nirvana exists to assist young children from Indian/Bangladeshi/Pakistani backgrounds who are forced into marriage. This often means they are taken out of Britain to be married, away from the prying eyes of the authorities. Official data from the UK government's Forced Marriage Unit reveal that since 2004, 60 children under the age of sixteen are known to have been subjected to such forced unions. The true figure is higher.
This weekend, Karma Nirvana revealed that one nine-year-old girl from the East Midlands had been taken to Pakistan to be married. For many children of Pakistani families, they are forced into marriage contracts when they are far too young to understand the ramifications. Such "Nikah namah" contracts, made beneath the legal age of consent, are considered legally binding by families, because Mohammed ensnared Aisha in such a contract when she was only six. Forcing someone to abide by a contract made when a young child is an abuse of basic rights.
I always stress that the majority of Muslims are decent and law-abiding. But though Islamic scripture is interpreted by some to mean a message of "peace" and "tolerance," for others it is a message of violence and intolerance.
The issue of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses created an ugly precedent. Fanatical Muslims in Britain and India felt able to openly call for the death of an author, merely because Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a death fatwa on February 14, 1988. Such fanatics were never punished, even though calling for murder is illegal in Britain and India. Hitoshi Igarashi, Rushdie's Japanese translator, was stabbed to death in July 1991, and in the same month Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was stabbed, but survived.
Daniel Pipes has stated that in 2002, when Jerry Falwell called Mohammed a "terrorist," churches were burned, and at least 10 people were killed in India. In 2005, when a baseless report claimed that a Koran was flushed down a Guantanamo toilet, 15 people died.
The cartoon protests led to the death of dozens of people in 2006. After September 12, 2006, when Pope Benedict XVI made a speech in Regensburg, violence again ensued. Benedict had quoted Byzantine emperor Manuel Paleologos. The quote that aroused anger was this: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached. God.. "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably ... is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death..."
The full speech led to the murder of Chaldean Christians in Iraq, and the shooting of an Italian nun in Somalia. On November 2, 2004, Dutch documentary maker Theo van Gogh was stabbed and shot to death in an Amsterdam street for "offending" Islam. Van Gogh was "punished" for condemning the cruel treatment of women under Islam. His killer, Mohamed Bouyeri, showed no remorse for what he had done.
It only takes a few murders, or threats of murders, for widespread self-censorship to take place. Muslim fanatics know this. They were able to promote death in 1988 with impunity and since then the fanatic's intolerance has worsened. As Islamic intolerance has become more vicious, the West has become more supine and spineless. Britain has a thriving population of artists who like to "shock," but as artist Grayson Perry opined: "I've censored myself. The reason I haven't gone all out attacking Islamism in my art is because I feel real fear that someone will slit my throat."
Merely for criticizing Islamists and their supporters, I have received two death threats. The price of free speech today is reaching inflationary proportions, and in Europe in particular, many of our Western politicians are too cheap to foot the bill for defending our freedom of expression.
After the firebombing at the home of Martin Rynja this weekend, a statement was made by Anjem Choudary, former co-ordinator of pro-terrorist group Al-Muhajiroun. He said the book was an insult to the prophet Mohammed's honor, and said that such an action should invoke a "death penalty."
Many former members of the now-disbanded Al-Muhajiroun group are now in jail, but Choudary - a former lawyer - manages to remain free, despite inciting murder. After the Pope's Regensburg address, Choudary said that: "The Muslims take their religion very seriously and non-Muslims must appreciate that and that must also understand that there may be serious consequences if you insult Islam and the prophet. Whoever insults the message of Mohammed is going to be subject to capital punishment. I am here to have a peaceful demonstration. But there may be people in Italy or other parts of the world who would carry that out. I think that warning needs to be understood by all people who want to insult Islam and want to insult the prophet of Islam."
It was Choudary who organized the notorious demonstration in London on February 3, 2006, when Muslims protested against the Danish cartoons. They carried placards which read: "Behead those who insult Islam," "Europe. Take some lessons from 9/11," "Europe you will pay. Demolition is on its way," "Europe you will pay. Your extermination is on its way," "Slay those who insult Islam," "Butcher those who insult Islam."
Choudary was a leading figure in the group called Al Ghurabaa, which authored an article entitled "Kill Those Who Insult the Prophet Muhammad (Saw)." This describes how Mohammed supported the killing of those who offended him, and suggests that deadly violence is a logical response to verbal insult.
Sherry Jones has launched herself onto the world stage with a debut novel that so far has come close to having one publisher killed. Yet she seems oblivious to the climate that exists in the modern world. She appears to believe that by saying she is "honoring" Mohammed the Muslim world will honor her in return. Jones is in severe need of a reality check - regarding the age of Aisha at consummation, that is one reality that Jones has deliberately left at the door.
The prologue to the Jewel of Medina can be found here. The style of writing, from the extracts I have seen, is not to my taste. Jones' "Aisha" claims that before she experienced the bliss she had "longed for all my life", she felt that "This was the beginning of something new, something terrible. Soon I would be lying on my bed beneath him, squashed like a scarab beetle, flailing and sobbing while he slammed himself against me. He would not want to hurt me, but how could he help it? It's always painful the first time."
The WSJ Forum printed some responses to the article by Asra Q. Nomani. One of the commenters was Dr. Anver M. Emon who specializes in Islamic law at the University of Toronto. He condemned the manner in which Jones has "completely butchered history."
My comments there mention Aisha's age, and also discuss the horrible facts set out by Bukhari in Volume 1, Book 4, Numbers 229 to 233 of his collection. These refer to the semen stains that were left on Mohammed's clothes: "Narrated 'Aisha: I used to wash the traces of Janaba (semen) from the clothes of the Prophet and he used to go for prayers while traces of water were still on it (water spots were still visible)."
I wondered whether, in the interests of history, Jones would deal with this aspect of Aisha's life, but assumed: "Maybe if Sherry Jones has written a novel based on the known facts of Mohammed's later life, it is understandable that many fanatical Islamists would not want these - quite frankly revolting - details to be made widely known."
Those who threaten death should be punished to a degree that would deter others, and I would staunchly defend Jones' absolute right to write sensationalistic rubbish, including erotic rubbish. I can understand how upset she must have felt when her debut novel was pulled. However, her comments that Random House were not "courageous" smack of hypocrisy. If she had more personal courage, she would have told the truth about Aisha's age at consummation.
As a working journalist she must have known that her novel would attract negative publicity. Her claims that she intended to honor Mohammed and Aisha will not alter the fact that a minority of Muslims believe that any discussion of their sacred prophet is "haram" - particularly if done by a kaffir. Ultimately for author Jones, "all publicity is good publicity". Rushdie's turgid work The Satanic Verses (in which he compared all Mohammed's wives to prostitutes) benefited from massive sales after threats of death were issued. If Jones really wanted to "honor Mohammed and Aisha", then perhaps she should convert to Islam. There is a maxim that all novelists are told - "write about what you know". From the fragments that I have seen of this book, I am still wondering where Jones' special area of expertise lies...
I sincerely hope that no one gets killed, and I hope that Jones herself remains safe. But I cannot excuse her for making a book which claims to present a historical picture of Aisha yet deliberately distorts known history. For that, Jones should be ashamed of herself.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Adrian Morgan is a British based writer and artist who has written for Western Resistance since its inception. He also writes for Spero News. He has previously contributed to various publications, including the Guardian and New Scientist and is a former Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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