Last summer Sherry Jones, a former columnist for the Missoulian, got in trouble for writing about Muhammad—and we’re all still talking about it.
The Jewel of Medina, Jones’ first novel, is told from the point of view of A’isha, the third and perhaps favorite wife of the prophet Muhammad. By many accounts, A’isha was betrothed to Muhammad at the age of six, married to him at nine (though she remained with her parents until after puberty), and was 19 when Muhammad died. Jones’ novel takes A’isha’s story from her engagement up to Muhammad’s death at 62.
The controversy—and the criticism—surrounding Jones’ novel has focused primarily on whether or not, or how, one should depict sacred figures of Islam. On the advice of Denise Spellberg, the foremost Western scholar on A’isha, Jones’ original publisher, Random House, “indefinitely postponed” the novel, claiming the book might offend some in the Muslim community and could incite violence by radicals. Jones split with Random House, and Beaufort Books, best known for publishing O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It, stepped in to release The Jewel of Medina late last year—to even more criticism.
In regards to the criticism, Jones told the Indy last October that “Even the BBC and Time magazine, instead of looking at my book on its literary merits, chose to send my book to conservative Muslim women as though it were non-fiction. These reviewers don’t like my version of A’isha and I understand that—they grew up with their own versions…[But] I found some other stories and I embellished in places for the sake of a compelling narrative, which certainly…is allowed in the constraints of historical fiction.”
Jones is correct. Historical fiction is not history. And, written histories do not necessarily explore the human condition the way literature can. When done well, historical fiction can often shade in the existential situations of certain people (famous and not famous) so that we might better envision how events were tied to the people that helped create them. War and Peace was written some 50 years after the Napoleonic Wars, yet it’s considered crucial to modern historians who want to understand how people were affected by the events of that time.
In her novel, Jones takes on one of the most important periods in the history of Islam from the viewpoint of one of the most important figures in Islam. Whether her audacity is courageous or ill-conceived is for scholars and historians to decide. However, where Jones certainly fails, at almost every turn, is in her artistic depiction of this imagined world.
In the author’s note that precedes the narrative, Jones writes: “Join me on a journey to another time and place, to a harsh, exotic world of saffron and sword fights, of desert nomads living in camel’s-hair tents, of caravans laden with Persian carpets and frankincense, of flowing colorful robes and kohl-darkened eyes and perfumed arms filigreed with henna.”
At its best the passage indicates a failure of imagination. Every cliché, every Middle Eastern stereotype (more notably employed in Disney’s Aladdin) is used to convey an overly romanticized and simplified world in a novel presumably written for adults. Rather than depicting events that might, as she expressed in the novel’s afterward, “contribute to an ongoing, worldwide discussion about Islam,” Jones has crafted a novel that has the writing style and complexity of a children’s story. A’isha wields a sword and longs to fight alongside her husband. She fights with Muhammad’s other wives as though they were the evil stepsisters. Jones’ rhythm for language is even simplistic. When she employs the Arabic use of the word “yaa,” which is not so much a word as it is an emphasis, as in “Yaa, Allah” or “Yaa, Muhammad,” she does so correctly, yet she often does so several times within a single scene. Rather than giving her dialogue an authentic feel (most certainly the point), her overuse of “yaa” emphasizes her inexperience with the language and material, giving one the impression that if Jones had written a novel about rap stars every character would be saluting each other with “yo” in every line.
The depiction of Muhammad himself constantly flips back and forth. At points he’s a man who respects women and encourages their equality to men. In others, he’s a man unwilling and incapable of reigning in his sexual appetite, who uses his religious revelations to excuse himself. Certainly, part of being a writer is exploring the contradictions of your main characters. However, in Jones’ hands, the depiction of Muhammad is not that of a complex, deeply religious person who struggles with his own weaknesses—it just seems like Jones forgot who she created, leaving the reader bewildered as to why her Muhammad acts one way in this chapter and another way in that one.
Much of the talk around The Jewel of Medina has been on whether or not sacred figures should be fictionalized. However, it seems the more appropriate discussion is how one unimaginative author tried to cash in on the current interest in the Middle East with a novel that both cheapens and sentimentalizes one of the most complex stories of the ancient world.