Sherry Jones emailed me the prologue of her book The Jewel of Medina to share with you all. I’ve read it, and I sent it to shewhohashope to gain her perspective, as she and I are of different faiths and cultures, and have differing views of the prologue and the book that it introduces. Obviously, sweeping judgments based on the prologue are as frail as sweeping judgments based on not having read the book at all, but hey, what is our site without some randomly sweeping judgments, right?
If you’d like to download the prologue and read it for yourself, a PDF is available here (please right click and download, thanks). All contents of the prologue are copyright Sherry Jones.
My reactions are from the perspective of a reader, and someone who is, due to this controversy, very curious about Islam, Aisha, Mohammed, and this book itself. Shewhohashope, a 22 year-old student of Anthropology living in London, England, is a Sunni Muslim and rabid Heyer fan.
My reaction: would this prologue make me continue reading? Yup. It’s half dishy and half history (which therein lies a problem, yo) and almost reads as a hybrid of YA, historical fiction, and historical romance. Aisha, in the prologue, is 14, and is returning to her caravan after they traveled without her. She arrives in camp with a man named Safwan ibn Al-Muattal, and upon her return is accused of adultery with Safwan. Muhammad later receives a vision or revelation that Aisha was not unfaithful to him, and her accusers were punished.
My initial impressions were that the tone was melodramatic, and that the heroine seemed very, very young, more like a modern 14 year old than what I would presume at 14 year old would be like at that time. Nowadays, a 14 year old is in middle school, and, if it’s a 14 year old girl, likely given to impulsive behavior and, in some instances, a hormonal overdrive that causes them to act like pubescent minions of evil. 14 year old girls can be MEAN like DAMN.
The biggest contention from those who would read this and be upset would be the depiction of Aisha as possibly having been tempted, and certainly having taken deliberate steps to sneak behind Mohammed’s back. Aisha is very, very human and young-acting, since she’s 14 and driven by some impulse in the prologue. A 14 year old then might have more presence of mind to resist impulse than a 14 year old today. I would figure a 14 year old at that time, who was married to a leader, who genuinely cared for him, who had been married for awhile, and who had, in context, a much shorter lifespan than we have now, would be in some ways more mature and less impulsive. But then, this is a supposition that could easily be flawed on my part, or addressed by the rest of the narrative.
However, the prologue sets up the narrative tension very quickly: what is Aisha feeling guilty about? She mentions that she and Safwan crafted a story on the ride to the caravan so that their stories would match, but she also mentions that she remained faithful to Mohammed. She has something about which she is ashamed, and there is a deliberate reason she allowed the caravan to leave her behind, but that tension and guilt betray her to those who accuse her of much, much worse, so she’s defending herself while she feels guilty and ashamed.
As I wrote to shewhohashope, the conflict about this book is as much about faith as it is understanding what someone of another culture and another faith holds sacred and what is, frankly, a “big deal.” It is, I’ve learned, a big deal to humanize and portray as tempted and flawed one of the four matriarchs within Islam. It’s a very big deal to hint at adultery for Aisha. And it’s a huge honking big hopping deal to portray as human the prophet Mohammed.
So that’s why it’s offensive to the part of alarming and upsetting people. I completely understand that. I still want to read the rest of the book.
However, in my mind that does not give any one person the right to make such a big stink that a publisher decides for the rest of us that reading the book is too dangerous for all involved. I’m disappointed that I won’t get the opportunity to read the entire book and decide for myself, and I’m disappointed that more people won’t have the opportunity to read something that’s become salacious and notorious, because if other readers are like me, they’d be curious about Mohammed, his wives, and their role in shaping the future of Islam and do more research (like I did – hello, internet! mwah!) to learn more.
When I asked shewhohashope if she’d be willing to read the prologue and share her reaction, she agreed. She writes:
Just from the prologue, the part I could see becoming contentious is that Jones’ Aisha ran away with another man with the intent to commit adultery, when this is specifically denied in the Qur’an. And the depiction of several of the sahaba in their treatment of Aisha, although that has basis within Islamic historical records (and within the Qur’an).
I don’t know. Considering that this is a fictionalised account of the Prophet’s (saws) [wife’s] life, offence-wise anything else is icing on the cake, so it’s not as important.
But I wouldn’t want to give the impression that there aren’t differences of opinion between Muslims as well, there is definitely a difference between how Aisha is perceived within the Muslim community. She is revered by Sunni Muslims and following the political incidents that caused the split between Sunni and Shia, Aisha is regarded as a much less reliable source within the Shiah tradition of Islamic scholarship.
I am no Islamic scholar (please add this disclaimer to everything I’ve said) but I assume that they would be better than the average woman (say me) and I can’t quite countenance the thought of committing adultery.
It’s mentioned in the Quran right after ‘don’t kill your children’, and right before ‘life is sacred’.
Kill not your children for fear of want: We shall provide sustenance for them as well as for you. Verily the killing of them is a great sin.
Nor come nigh to adultery: for it is a shameful (deed) and an evil, opening the road (to other evils)
Nor take life – which Allah has made sacred – except for just cause. And if anyone is slain wrongfully, we have given his heir authority (to demand qisas or to forgive): but let him not exceed bounds in the matter of taking life; for he is helped (by the Law).
It’s not so much the humanising of the Prophet either. There are plenty of biographies and hadith about the Prophet’s (saws) daily life. It’s the fictionalisation aspect that is worrying, not so much because of this particular book, this is something that has built up from when the hadith themselves were an oral tradition. Consider the danger of having historical fiction someone wrote about Mohamed (saws) floating about when our main sources for what the Prophet’s (saws) life was like are based on what people said about him. And for Sunni’s at least this makes up the second highest religious authority we have.
I’d have to read more to be able to anything substantial about it as a literary work, but it’s more controversial than I though it’d be already. [Aisha] seems younger than I think she’d be for her age, but that’s not an important issue within context. And it’s not even how she was tempted towards adultery as much as it’s that fact that that goes directly against something that is in the Qu’ran. Not to mention that Aisha in Islamic tradition (or sunni tradition) is one of the four perfect women who are held up as what all Muslim women should aim to be as wel as one of the Mothers of the Faith (along with Khadijah, Mary, and Asiya (ra)). Plus, it strikes me personally as a misrepresentation of who she was. Adultery in general is just a huge deal (even more so then, and even more so for a public figure, and even more so for her) it doesn’t strike me as plausible that she’d have a moment of weakness in this manner unless she was having a crisis of faith as well as whatever personal issues she’s supposed to be dealing with, because it is such a huge, huge thing to slip up on.
There are a slew of ways to evaluate the prologue: does it tease you to read more? Does the writing style please your readerly brain? Do the contents shock you? Does the characterization offend you deeply? Does the fiction make the idea of Mohammed and his life more or less accessible to you as a reader? Did you like it? And what about Brett Farve going to the Jets? No, sorry, that’s a different discussion.
I’m curious what you think of the prologue, so please share your thoughts. Thank you to Sherry Jones for sharing her work, and to shewhohashope for sharing her opinion and her time.