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:
- Girl yearns for freedom to be an independant, free spirit who transcends the gender limitations of her era.
- Somewhere along the way she falls in love with the perfect man.
- They clash.
- They overcome the obstacle.
- They live Happily Ever After.
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.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.
The Jewel of Medina, by Sherry Jones
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."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.
The Jewel of Medina, by Sherry Jones
And for those Muslims who were so worried that us Westerners would believe such things about Muhammad? Give us a little credit, please.
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 StarsTitle: The Jewel of Medina
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.
Author: Sherry Jones
Publisher: Beaufort Books, Inc
Date: October 2008
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