Give Them an Inch and They'll Dictate Your Book Contract


Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Asra Q. Nomani, author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam, relates the story of novelist Sherry Jones, who "toiled weekends on a racy historical novel about Aisha, the young wife of the prophet Muhammad," a tale of "lust, love and intrigue in the prophet's harem." Last year Random House purchased the book, The Jewel of Medina, and slated it for release on August 12. That is until an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Texas, Austin, Denise Spellberg, was asked to review the manuscript and objected. She was, a friend said, "very upset," claiming that the book "made fun of Muslims and their history." She told the Journal that "You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography," citing a passage which describes Aisha's consummation of her love for Muhammad.

On April 30, Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Ms. Spellberg's classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site, got a frantic call from her. "She was upset," Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel "made fun of Muslims and their history," and asked him to warn Muslims.

In an interview, Ms. Spellberg told me the novel is a "very ugly, stupid piece of work." The novel, for example, includes a scene on the night when Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha: "the pain of consummation 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." Says Ms. Spellberg: "I walked through a metal detector to see 'Last Temptation of Christ,'" the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. "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."

Random House followed Spellberg's advice and cancelled the book, acknowledging that they suspended production because not only could The Jewel of Medina prove "offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment." It is a massive victory for people like Ali Hemani, a blogger quoted in the Journal story who "proposed a seven-point strategy to ensure 'the writer withdraws this book from the stores and apologise all the muslims (sic) across the world.'" Well Ali, I assure you that Random House deeply regrets any anguish it caused by almost publishing a novel you have never read…

It is touching that Spellberg has appointed herself arbiter of what offends American Muslims, and it's rather amusing to see the author of the essay "Writing the Unwritten Life of the Islamic Eve: Menstruation and the Demonization of Motherhood"  so desperate to protect the delicate sensibilities of religious fundamentalists. Thanks to Spellberg, the world is just a little bit safer and we shall all get on just fine with the extremist nutters. No harm, no foul.

Let us hope that The Jewel of Medina gets picked up by another publisher—one that takes seriously the threat to free speech people like Hemani and Spellberg represent.