Thanks to a very kind person dove into her bookstore’s ARC stash, I had a few days to read The Jewel of Medina. I needed more than a few days, though, because it was hard to get into, and harder to get through, despite my being a rather fast and furious reader. In a nutshell: I was underwhelmed.
First, a note: when I discuss ‘Aisha’ or ‘Mohammed’ in the context of this review, I am fully aware that to those readers who are Muslim, these are real and revered people who ought not ever be fictionalized. Please understand: I am attempting to discuss the characterization in the context of this novel, so if I say “Aisha acted like a complete hosebeast,” I mean the character, not the prophet’s wife. I realize that for anyone who is Muslim, the separation is next to impossible. I humbly ask that you keep in mind that for me, a person who is not Muslim and who knows diddly-poo about Aisha from the get-go, the religious figure and the fictional character as portrayed in his book are two very separate concepts.
I mentioned while I was reading the book earlier this month that Mohammed ruled and Aisha was a bit of an idiot. That opinion did not hold: Aisha remained an idiot, but Mohammed’s character became less heroic as the book continued.
Aisha in this novel is very young, starting from about age 6. For that reason, Aisha has a lot of growing up to do, which was completely understandable, but there were plenty of times I wanted to march into the desert and beat her with the wooden spoon of GetaClue because MY HOLY FREAKING COW could she act like a complete freaking idiot. She makes the same mistakes over and over and over again. Speaking without thought, putting herself first over everyone else, jumping to conclusions: name an immature behavior and it’ll be in there somewhere. I couldn’t figure out if I was holding her to a much higher standard given the life expectancy and relative age of maturity at the time, but she remained stubbornly doltish long after I’d expected her to at least wise up a bit.
The narrative begins with Aisha as a young child playing with friends, including the object of her youthful crush, Safwan, who even then was a completely selfish tool. She finds herself in purdah from age 6 as the intended wife of Mohammed, and is shut in her home from that day until her marriage. Then the story shifts after her marriage to her life as the second wife of Mohammed, as she grows up in his household, living in a very uncertain time as Mohammed’s teachings began to spread, and as his fame and prominence brought more wives to his household. Throughout the first two-thirds of the book, Aisha holds onto a fantasy of personal liberty, riding, fighting, and living the life a man would – without any explanation as to why she felt it could possibly be an option for her.
Aisha also spends much of the novel desperate to catch Mohammed’s attention. Despite a revelation from Allah that he only have four wives, he keeps marrying and demonstrating a marked tendency to let lust cloud his clear judgment, if the narration of Aisha and the comments of his other wives are to be believed. If Aisha’s status as a virgin is revealed within the household, she would lose her status as head wife and would suffer for it, to say nothing of the undermining of Mohammed’s alliance with her family. She loves him but is frustrated that he seems to see her only as a child. She is increasingly resistant to the requirements of Mohammed’s wives, which she views as increasing imprisonment, and thus she fantasizes about running away with Safwan. They’ll run to the Bedouin tribes, and she’ll be free – at least, she will in her imagination. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why she expected this raging freedom, when certainly as a runaway wife of a religious prophet with a slowly growing collection of followers, she’d be immensely vulnerable to any number of factions. Aisha, in short, spends a great deal of the story acting like a complete freaking bonehead, and her lack of ability to learn from her bad decisions made it increasingly difficult to root for her.
One part I missed and wished had been more thoroughly explicated, as it would have supported the integrity of Mohammed’s character, was the section wherein Mohammed teaches Aisha, starting nearly from the date of their wedding, how to defend herself with a sword. While later in the novel she and the other wives are ordered to be veiled in public and are required to be models of decorum and modesty, the idea of Mohammed teaching Aisha to be a master swordswoman is fascinating, and I wish it hadn’t been skipped in the narrative, particularly as it would have allowed a glimpse into Mohammed’s interaction with Aisha while she was married to him but still a child.
Mohammed’s nobility and honor suffer a good bit in this novel, and in my uneducated opinion, that element might be one point Muslim readers find most offensive. While Mohammed had several revelations from Allah in the course of his life, The Jewel of Medina only shows those which pertained to decisions that affected Aisha and the other wives, such as the requirement that they be veiled, or the establishment of Aisha’s innocence after returning to the caravan with Safwan. His revelations appear at very convenient times, allowing Mohammed to roll on the floor incoherent, then stand up and absolve himself of any responsibility, claiming that his next edict was the will of Allah. The use of revelations to limit the freedom of his wives underscored the degree to which women were subject to men at that time, and made Mohammed seem more of a shyster than a prophet. While in the beginning, his patient love for Aisha was rather wonderful to read about, Mohammed’s behavior reveals a character who could be interpreted as flawed, weak, potentially manipulative, and one whose honor may be suspect—not exactly what one wants in a religious leader. Using Allah’s revelations and his own reputation of faith to justify or strategically avoid consequences for poor choices does not a hero make. And the manner in which Mohammed’s revelations come about leaves a lot of room for doubt and misinterpretation.
The book disappointed me as a reader because it lacked the depth and nuance I expect from historical fiction, particularly historical fiction based on women in religion. The Red Tent is in my opinion a more sophisticated book that parallels current attitudes toward sex and autonomy, even though I know many readers who thought Diamant’s portrayal of Dinah was overwrought and utterly fluffy. The Jewel of Medina reads flatly and suffered from its lack of complexity, particularly as a vehicle for introducing readers to the foundation of Islam. Aisha doesn’t come across as a matriarch or a figure of female leadership – her leadership is barely exhibited. Instead, it’s a tale of a boneheaded girl who selfishly covets an iconoclastic fantasy life, and who wises up at the brink of “almost too late.”
Aisha realizes that by deliberately staying behind the caravan to run off with Safwan, she is setting up her family for ruin, and her husband for failure as a spiritual leader among very devoted followers. Her rashness, which she realizes literally inches from disaster, would cause her entire family to be in disgrace for the rest of their lives, and would mean her parents would have to pretend as if she were dead. Ultimately, it’s the realization that, if she did run away with Safwan and disgrace Muhammad, no one would revere the name “Aisha” after her death. Yet again, Aisha’s ego trumps her reason, even if this time her reasoning is finally, finally, omg FINALLY in the right direction.
The honorable aspects of Aisha’s history as discussed elsewhere in accounts of the founding of Islam reveal her skills as a leader in war, her role as a matriarch and as the most beloved of Mohammad’s wives. (I hesitate to use the word “harem” though the book does so, because I don’t believe it’s entirely correct in this context.) Those moments of leadership are not in this book, save for a very few, and when the narrative ends with Mohammed’s death, Aisha’s story ends as well. From what I’ve learned since the controversy of the book first appeared, Aisha’s status as one of the revered women of Islam is based on her life following the death of the prophet. The limited scope of the novel is therefore a disappointment because the depth of Aisha’s accomplishments are not realized in her role as Mohammed’s wife, but in what she does after Mohammed’s death. The book doesn’t mention any of her scholarship or her collection of the hadith’s of Mohammed, and the story itself lends little to the reader’s understanding of why Aisha is referred to as “the one who affirms the Truth.”
Ultimately, this is a story of a young woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances who gets in her own way as she struggles to grow the hell up already, and that story ends before the reader can truly ascertain that Aisha has indeed grown up. To answer Spellberg’s accusations that this was “soft-core pornography” and “deliberate misinterpretation of history,” I still think she ought to put a sock in it and send herself to the naughty and silent corner. It’s not porny, not by a long shot. It does, however, contain narrative flaws and a lack of depth and development of the characters that would have created a very satisfying read. I kept reading to learn more about the setting, the time period, and the foundation of Islam, but not because the couple who featured so prominently in the narrative held my attention. Curiosity, not compulsion, drove me to finish the book. If the controversy didn’t surround this novel, it would have come and gone like Hoobastank: quiet and forgettable.