Book Review

The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones

D+

Title: The Jewel of Medina
Author: Sherry Jones
Publication Info: Beaufort Books, Inc. October 15, 2008
ISBN: 0825305187
Genre: Historical: Other

Book CoverThanks 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.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    Well, that is unfortunate.  I was this close to dropping a big wad of cash on an ARC of “Jewel” on Ebay, too.  I’ve read too many simplified, anachronistic historical fantasies about important religious figures, and although I had hopes that “Jewel” would be fun and educational, it seems that it is not.  I have limited patience with costume dramas featuring TSTL heroines wanting to gad about waving swords, so I don’t think I really dig this.  Thanks for the great review, Sarah!

    I guess I’ll just reread my copy of “Introducing Muhammad” by Ziauddin Sardar.  It’s got lots of good info, and is nicely illustrated as well.

  2. 2
    Kathy says:

    Thanks for the heads up.  Your interpretation of a book is usually pretty close to my opinions, so I know I won’t want to read this one!!

  3. 3
    Danielle says:

    That’s quite sad, because I was listening to a radio program about Aisha and other famous Muslim women and they were pretty awesome. It could have been great!

  4. 4
    Mel-O-Drama says:

    Sarah, as usual your review was well thought out and detailed.

    With all the controversy surrounding the book that ended with Random House pulling the contract just weeks before its release date, I have to say I’m surprised it wasn’t more historically rich. They paid big bucks for it originally.

    Of course, I’m also still amazed they yanked the contract based on rumors. I know plenty of Catholics who were mad as hell and vocal about DaVinci Code and Golden Compass (books and movies). That just increased its sales. I guess the perceived difference to Random House is that Muslim = Terrorist. Sigh How sad they didn’t let the world decide about this book for themselves.

  5. 5
    anonymous says:

    I think the apology to Muslims was unnecessary. There have been plenty of fictional works (books and film) about Christ’s life, and I don’t remember reviewers profusely apologizing to the readership about their opinion of a work of fiction.

    You didn’t write the book. No apology necessary.

    The majority of people get that it’s a work of fiction. An author’s opinion or made up story.

    Would you have done the same for ‘The Red Tent’? Probably not.

  6. 6
    SB Sarah says:

    Hi anonymous. I wasn’t apologizing. I was asking for understanding of my position because I wanted to discuss the characters honestly by name, and didn’t want anyone to misinterpret any statements I made about Aisha or Mohammed, especially since I was so disappointed with the portrayal of their characters in this narrative. Since the initial kerfuffle surrounding the book’s cancellation, I’ve come to understand the depths of insult and affront some Muslims find any fictionalization or humanization of Mohammed and his wives, so I wanted to make it clear that when I discussed the characters, I was discussing the individuals in this book.

  7. 7
    Barb Ferrer says:

    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.

    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.

    Huh.  Sounds as if some modern Western sensibilities and social mores crept into this.  If there was context or explanation (at least one that made sense) that would be one thing, but to allow it to be such a large part of the story framework given the subject matter seems a fatal flaw in establishing the setting in a way that would really allow the reader to feel the tension and high stakes of the story.

  8. 8
    Kathsan says:

    This is actually quite interesting to me.  I studied Islam a bit, and it was my understanding that the edict that women be veiled is actually more of a cultural thing rather than a religious thing.  I believe that even Christianity has the same sort of rules; St. Paul wrote that women must have their hair covered while praying or making prophecies.  I was under the impression that the “women must be veiled” thing came about from similar cultures living in the same place in the same period of history.  I could be completely wrong—I am not Muslim and I can’t claim to have much of a real understanding of the religion.  But it does make me wonder whether the book is very historically accurate.

    I agree with Mel-O-Drama that “Muslim = Terrorist” seems to be the order of the day.  Ever since 9/11 that’s been the case.  It’s like people believe all Muslims to be like the hijackers.  I guess if I thought all Christians were like Timothy McVeigh, a self-proclaimed Christian, I’d be pretty damn scared too.

  9. 9
    Cat Marsters says:

    Possibly Random House was thinking of incidences such as the Danish cartoon portraying Mohammed a few years ago, which prompted death threats and could have led to war.

    Or maybe they just decided the book was a D- too.

  10. 10

    Once again, a thoughtful and insightful review.  Thanks for sharing with us.

  11. 11
    Lizzie (greeneyed fem) says:

    Kathsan, I’ve only studied a little about Islam, too, but as I understand it, Muhammad did receive revelation/give an edict about his wives being removed from men’s eyes, although it had more to do with them staying behind some kind of room divider rather than wearing a veil.

    There’s more information here about the religious/cultural/historical traditions of veiling: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hijab Inter.esting stuff.

  12. 12
    Anon76 says:

    And now to the part that always baffles me:

    Why do places such as Random House fork over stunning advances for shoddily written books?

    I mean, I can understand the insider books by celebrities and what not, those have a following already built in. But for this type of piece?

    Hmmm, methinks I know the reason. This book, like others, are sought after for their “shock” value. They know the content will cause an uproar, in fact, they are banking on it. Whether the writing or characterizations are worth the moola dished out makes little matter.

    Then, in this instance, Random House chickened out on the deal. Boo to them for not being able to back up their “alligator mouths with their hummingbird asses.”

  13. 13
    Victoria Dahl says:

    Thanks for the review.

  14. 14
    Kathsan says:

    Lizzie (greeneyedfem), thanks for the information!  I’ll check that out.

  15. 15
    Jessa Slade says:

    Why do places such as Random House fork over stunning advances for shoddily written books?

    Anon76, if you ever find the answer, let me know.

  16. 16
    tracykitn says:

    It’s a shame Random House had to whine about “ooh, ooh, potential threat, we might get HURT!” when they could have just said, “Sorry, it turns out the book sucks, and she can’t write.  We made a mistake, and we’re just going to suck it up.”  I could have respected that.

  17. 17
    Anon76 says:

    Yeah,  tracykitn, that would have been just fine.

    Pubs use that clause all the time. I call it their “oops” clause. Dang, we purchased this but it’s not what it was supposed to be when all was said and done.

    But, I still can’t forgive that historian asked for a quote for stirring the pot a bit. She pushed the “egads, this will cause a Jihad” button, also.

    She could have just said, “In my opinion, this book is poorly researched and the writing is atrocious. Please do not include me as an endorser.”

  18. 18
    Suze says:

    I believe that even Christianity has the same sort of rules; St. Paul wrote that women must have their hair covered while praying or making prophecies.

    I just read last night that the veiling of women at Christian church came about in an effort to appease the pagan Romans, who kept their wimmin hidden from the lustful eyes of other men, lest their property value be damaged.

    The newly-Christian Roman women would be veiled everywhere outside their husbands’ houses, then go to church and unveil, and shock and offend the Roman men.

    Thus, women had to be veiled in church.

    Things that make you go, huh.

  19. 19
    Jessica says:

    All that drama for a “D” book?

    toruble43 is right!

  20. 20
    Liviania says:

    @Kathsan:  Modern scholars are also unsure about when hijab entered the hadith.  The oldest manuscripts don’t mention it.

  21. 21

    This books seems to be lovely. Historical books which let us get a glimpse of the lives of the women from the East, are great and usually sad.

  22. 22

    * book seems to be – sorry!

  23. 23
    mkw says:

    After reading the introductory chapter that was posted on this site, my first thought was the real issue with this book was that such a poorly characterized novel came really close to being published.  I am glad that your review backs up my snap judgement :-)

  24. 24
    MC Halliday says:

    It troubles my sensibilities that Random House would pay a huge amount for a D+ manuscript. Did they think they were getting something similar to Rushdie’s Satanic Verses?

  25. 25
    AgTigress says:

    As others have noted, many cultures, both European and Middle Eastern, have required respectable adult women to cover their heads in public.  This is not peculiar to any religion;  the custom has existed in paganism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam (at least).  Hairstyles and headdresses have traditionally been one of the aspects of costume used to differentiate between the young girl and the woman. 

    Even as recently as the 1940s, people of both sexes (in Europe) normally donned a head-covering of some kind before leaving the house:  in the case of women, look at any wartime photograph of patient British housewives queuing for their tiny portions of rationed meat or other foods, and you will see that they all wear hats or headscarves.  Traces of this custom still survive even today in UK society, where the very formal day-wear considered appropriate for rituals such as weddings, or occasions when Royalty is present (e.g. Royal garden-parties or investitures), still require hats to be worn.  And there are still those who wear hats (and gloves) to attend church services – that was universal in the 1950s, but has not totally died out yet.

    This is not like the extremes of concealment practised in some Moslem groups today, of course, where the whole face is concealed, with only a slit permitted for the wearer to squint out, but it is a mistake to think of the headscarf concept, in its many varieties, as specific to Islam.

  26. 26
    joykenn says:

    Anon76 and rest—it constantly amazes me the inner workings of the book industry.How DO they decide that writer A is going to be a bestseller versus writer B and then proceeds to pour money into Advanced Reading Copies, author tours, ads in PW or LJ or other reviewing media.  Libraries know to buy multiple copies of even bad books with a huge print run and a major advertising budget.  Meanwhile excellent books make their way on their own.  Too bad that the judgement of publishers has been so bad lately—with all the revelations about author trickery.  I say stick with a well written and well plotted novel and forget the hype.  I hope with blogs like this one that quality books will find appreciative readers.  Maybe I’m being naive but hopeful.

  27. 27
    Anon76 says:

    Off topic just a hair.

    I say the reason men of all cultures have wanted their women to cover their hair is because…men go bald.

    Now, some women have hair problems as they age, but not in proportion to the number of guys that go cue-ball-ish.  IMHO, men covet long, thick tresses.

    Most guys I know who shave their heads have the receding thing going on, or else have the huge empty patch on the top. The few I know with full heads of hair who shave it down to nothing are just lazy SOBs who don’t want to take care of the stuff.

  28. 28
    Anon76 says:

    Joykenn,

    I listened to a big time agent at a conference a couple of years ago, and he said flat out that a House could buy and push a book into the stratosphere, whether worthy or not.

    A pet project can get the author tons of initial publicity, huge advance, and placement in the primo spots in bookstores. Not including the fallout media hype from all of the above.

    Think “The Davinci Code”.

  29. 29

    It troubles my sensibilities that Random House would pay a huge amount for a D+ manuscript. Did they think they were getting something similar to Rushdie’s Satanic Verses?

    I think stumbling on the next ‘great writer’, the one that wows and awes is a bit of a gambling thing, like spinning a wheel.  The editor can see the promise of a win, but it’s not guaranteed until the wheel actually stops.

    Maybe the more they spin, the better a chance they’ve got of finding that next big one.

  30. 30
    DS says:

    Those who are interested in veiling should check out the Tuareg People of the Sahara.  The women don’t veil although they wear head covering. The man dons a veil at age 25 which covers everything but his eyes and is not removed even in family situations—or at least this is the tradition.  As a result the eyes assume great importance.  I remember a film I saw in 1974 about this people showing male dancers who was quite sexy because of the emphasis on the eyes.  I tried to find something on Youtube but the videos I saw there were all shot with hand-helds by amateurs and not very good.

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