Free Speech for Clunky Writers!


Sherry Jones's historical novel The Jewel of Medina, whose main character is Mohammad's (PBUH) nine-year-old bride A'isha—discussed on Hit and Run here, here, and here—was withdrawn by Random House earlier this year after a University of Texas academic raised concerns that its depiction of the girl was "pornographic" and might offend Muslims. Well, it has now been published in the United States by Beaufort Books, a small, New York-based publishing house, and the author has received nothing but a bad review from the New York Times. Here is Lorraine Adams, quibbling with an interview Jones gave about her interest in Mohammad's wives:

In a Q. and A. included in "The Jewel of Medina," Jones explains that she first became interested in A'isha in 2002 after the American invasion of Afghanistan. "I discovered that the Prophet Muhammad had multiple wives and concubines. Being unable to find very much information about any of them made me want to tell their stories to the world." Most Muslims would be surprised to hear that these women's stories were little known—they've been an object of scholarly debate and political maneuvering since the seventh century. They're also firmly entrenched in contemporary Muslim popular culture.

It seems clear that Jones is explaining that this information was not well-known in the West, and I suspect she would acknowledge that many, if not most, in the Muslim world are familiar with the story. But this doesn't satisfy Adams, who seems unaware that The Jewel of Medina is a novelization of A'isha's story. Thus, the review focuses on the book's "inaccuracies":

Jones alters early Islamic versions of A'isha's life—the first of which was written 150 years after Muhammad's death—in relatively few aspects. She transforms A'isha into a sword fighter. She makes her a precocious military strategist. She depicts her kissing a man she was briefly engaged to prior to Muhammad, her accused partner in the adultery episode. The record doesn't mention kissing, and the man was not engaged to A'isha. Jones also inserts a Turkish custom—the choosing of a harem's premier wife, or hatun—unknown in seventh­-century Arabia. 

To Adams, Jones's book is pulp fiction—she cites two clunky sentences to bolster her case—and is, therefore, unworthy of our attention. Fine. But she then takes this argument further, arguing that because she considers it a bad book, one that moderately transforms the Islamic version of A'isha's life for the purposes of a novel, one that doesn't "enlighten the Western reader," it should also be ignored by "free-speech advocates." Seriously:

An inexperienced, untalented author has naïvely stepped into an intense and deeply sensitive intellectual argument. She has conducted enough research to reimagine the accepted versions of Muhammad's marriage to A'isha, thus offending the religious audience, but not nearly enough to enlighten the ordinary Western reader. Should free-speech advocates champion "The Jewel of Medina"? In the American context, the answer is unclear. The Constitution protects pornography and neo-Nazi T-shirts, but great writers don't generally applaud them. If Jones's work doesn't reach those repugnant extremes, neither does it qualify as art. It is telling that PEN, the international association of writers that works to advance literature and defend free expression, has remained silent on the subject of this ­novel. Their stance seems just about right.