Review: The Jewel of Medina

The Jewel of Medina, by Sherry Jones

The Quick Synopsis
The Jewel of Medina is a historical fiction novel about A'isha bint Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet Muhammad's numerous wives and, according to Muslim history, his favorite. The story is told in first person and covers A'isha's life from childhood to young adulthood (she was 18 years old when Muhammad died.)

The Tempest in a Teapot
Much controversy has surrounded this debut novel from Sherry Jones. It was originally picked up by Random House in a two-book, $100,000 deal in 2007. Prior to scheduled publication in August of 2008, galleys were sent out and a subsequent firestorm erupted when a University of Texas Professor by the name of Denise Spellberg decided to warn Random House that the book could incite violence from radical Muslim groups, calling the book "an ugly, stupid piece of work" and "soft-core pornography."

Random House dropped the book like a hot potato. Some people screamed "censorship!". Others screamed "heresy!". The publishing world was in an uproar. Enter British publisher Gibson Square, who picked up the rights and published the book. A short time later, Gibson Square headquarters were set on fire in an apparently related arson case.

Long story short, Beaufort Books, a small American publishing house who apparently knows a cash-cow when they see one, picked up the rights here in the U.S. and that's how it ended up in my reading pile.

Not to be confused with:

(We looooooovvvve this show. I digress.)

The Literary Criticism
While I wouldn't go so far as to call it "an ugly, stupid piece of work," as Ms. Spellberg did, it's not likely to be nominated for a Pulitzer in the near future. I found the novel to be something of a missed opportunity. Jones writes the novel from A'isha's viewpoint, but rather than exploring the thoughts and actions of a 7th-century Middle Eastern girl caught up in the birth of a major new faith that will change the course of history, she instead gives us a fluffy historical romance novel.

Now there's nothing wrong with a good romance novel, in my elevated opinion. (The Thornbirds, anyone?) Unfortunately, The Jewel of Medina doesn't even make a good romance novel. Jones tries to use the ol' tried-n-true romance formula:
  1. Girl yearns for freedom to be an independant, free spirit who transcends the gender limitations of her era.
  2. Somewhere along the way she falls in love with the perfect man.
  3. They clash.
  4. They overcome the obstacle.
  5. They live Happily Ever After.
The reason this formula works in a historical romance novel is because modern-day women identify with the protagonists goals, which are quite attainable in the 21st-century. But it is a formula and an overused one, at that.

The problem with this formula in The Jewel of Medina is that A'isha was but six years old when Muhammad asked for her hand in marriage and only nine years old when the marriage was consummated. By modern day standards this would be considered the rape of a child. Jones tries to gloss over this by delaying consummation of the marriage until A'isha is a teenager and at the same time presenting A'isha as much more mature than a child could possibly be. She is given thoughts and dialogue more consistent with a much older girl. Except she plays with toy horses. Alot. With Muhammad (which only makes him look creepier. I can see why this might offend some people.)

Jones never seems to reconcile exactly how she wants to paint the Prophet Muhammad. She seems to go out of her way to emphasize his compassion and enlightened (at least by 7th-century standards) views of women. Yet when it comes to his acquisition of wives, which was common for the time, she ends up giving us a lecherous old man. Perhaps a dichotomy was intended, but it only reads as inconsistency instead.

Similes abound and are so heavy that they sometimes illicit an unintended chuckle:
That evening I stepped into the courtyard to see the moon. It dangled like an ornament from the bejeweled sky, dipped in gold and looming so close it beckoned my fingers to reach out and pluck it.
The Jewel of Medina, by Sherry Jones
Dialogue doesn't fare much better. The act of sex is continually referred to as the "scorpion's sting." Ouch. I'll leave it at that.

It's not completely hopeless, however.The author does show moments of promise, which may mature by her next novel:
"Glory," my father scoffed. "Is that what you want? It is not difficult to obtain. Ask Abu Sufyan. Glory is as easy to grasp as a dagger. It draws attention to it's bearer like a blade flashing in the sun. Honor, on the other hand, requires discipline and compassion and self-respect. It often works silently, without recognition or the desire for it. Honor comes only after years of effort and, once grasped, is even more difficult to hold."
The Jewel of Medina, by Sherry Jones
I fully believe that Jones holds A'isha and the Prophet in the highest regard. She clearly had the best of intentions with this novel. But we all know what the road to heck is paved with, don't we? I was looking forward to a novel full of insight into the birth of Islam and the role the Prophet's wives played. I was looking for a glimpse into the mind and life of a Middle Eastern woman in 7th-century Saudi Arabia. I was looking for...something different than what I got, I suppose.

And for those Muslims who were so worried that us Westerners would believe such things about Muhammad? Give us a little credit, please.

The Recommendation
If you want to weigh in on the controversy by all means go ahead and buy the book, just don't have high expectations for an enlightening, engaging read. Better yet, go buy a copy of The Thorn Birds.

Two Stars

Caveat: Please refer to the comment section to note that The Jewel of Medina has been selected as a finalist for the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Associations' Book Awards. Clearly, I was not on the panel.

Title: The Jewel of Medina
Author: Sherry Jones
ISBN-13: 978-0825305184
432 pages
Publisher: Beaufort Books, Inc
Date: October 2008

Other Reviews in Blogland:

Egypt Today
Anonymous Arabist
Book Chase

Fyrefly's Book Blog


  1. It sounds like the only thing selling it is the controversy

  2. So *this* is the book that raised all the hackles. I think I'll pass. :-) Thanks for the review!


  3. This book probably would've fell by the wayside had it not been for the initial publisher making such a big stink. At least let it be good if it's controversial. And the sex scenes with a nine-year-old are just too disturbing, even for me.

    Very good review Michele.

  4. Just further evidence that controversy = buzz = selling books...but that recognition and big sales do not always equal quality.

    BTW--I *heart* Cash Cab also.

  5. Okay, I knew I'd find some Cash Cab lovers out there!

    I think I need controversy like Jewel for this blog. Which one of you is up for accusing me of riling up the masses?

  6. You've made want to steer clear of The Jewel of Medina, but reread The Thornbirds!

  7. Amy - quit changing your avatar. You're wigging me out. I'm a woman on the edge here.

  8. I'm with Chain Reader! I haven't read Thorn Birds in years! Hummm.

  9. I'm thinkin' we should start our own bookclub and make The Thorn Birds the first selection. Screw the arc's sitting on the shelves. ;)

  10. Actually, "The Jewel of Medina" is a finalist, chosen from among more than 100 nominations, for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Associations' Book Awards.

    And Amy, there are no sex scenes. Especially with nine-year-olds.

  11. I'll amend that portion immediately, Sherry.


  12. awesome review girl :) I love love love Thornbirds :)!!
    But if i were to want a book- it would be to know how Islam came about ... and as bermudaonion puts it - controversy is selling it :D I would never buy it :)

  13. Veens - I owe you at least two international book giveaways...don't worry - they're coming!

  14. Love cash cab. What a cutie that Ben Bailey is, he reminds me a little of Mike Rowe, another fave. Next time I'm in NYC I'm going to stand on the street looking for that minivan-cab with the $$$$ in it!

    Great review Michele. This is my November ER book, which I haven't gotten to yet. Now I'm in no hurry...

  15. Too bad this one's no good. Thanks for the great review, Michele!

    I confess I've never heard of Cash Cab!

  16. Aww, we don't have cable, but whenever I flip past Cash Cab at my parents' house, I have to stop and watch.

    Very nice review, especially in summing up the controversy. Also, if I never have to hear (or read) the phrase "scorpion's sting" again, I will be a happy girl.

  17. Fyrefly - bwahahahaha...I couldn't agree more. I am still wrapping my mind around that one.

  18. I've never read The Thornbirds. Can you believe that? I've seen it mentioned several times lately and it's calling my name though.


  19. Interesting. This book is defnitely on my TBR wish list, but I did wonder if the controversy was driving up sales more than the content. I still hope Santa brings me the book...
    Foreign Circus Library

  20. I just posted my review of this book. I really enjoyed it, yet I see what you are saying. I don't know if those things just don't bother me when I'm reading or if I'm not as discerning as others. After a certain point I couldn't put it down and it made me want to learn more about what I read. I also didn't have any expectations going in and that might have made a difference. Hmmm...

  21. I'm really glad you liked it. Everyone likes different things, right, so that's why I'm happy when all books find a market.

    I'll head on over to check out your review!


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