U. Texas Professor's Warning Deters Plans To Publish Islam Book

This story was written by Mohini Madgavkar, Daily Texan


Former journalist Sherry Jones wrote "The Jewel of Medina" to try to combat stereotypes about Islam.

"What I really strove to do with this book is to get women's voices into Islamic history," Jones said.

The novel, a work of historical fiction from the point of view of one of the Prophet Muhammad's wives, would have been published today by Random House. But scholars, including University of Texas history associate professor Denise Spellberg, warned the publisher that the book might be offensive to the Muslim community.

The novel focuses on the early years of A'isha bint Abi Bakr's life and marriage to Muhammad as well as her role in the development of early Islam.

According to a Wall Street Jounal editorial by former reporter Asra Q. Nomani, Spellberg said the novel was poorly researched, "ugly" and "stupid." Some of its scenes, she claimed, were "soft-core pornography."

Spellberg, who wrote a scholarly work on A'isha's life, warned Random House that the novel might incite threats of violence. The publishing company decided in July not to publish the book and released its rights.

Jones claims she conducted extensive research during the five-year process of writing the novel, consulting one of Spellberg's own books. But she anticipated the work might be controversial.

Jones felt drawn to A'isha because of her importance in Islam, but also wanted to show her as a human being.

"I was thinking about A'isha and her strengths, I'd read about what a strong, witty, influential leader she was." Jones said.

Jones has been critical of Spellberg's role in inciting the controversy.

"She's got the world debating a book no one has even read." Jones said. "If I do have threats of violence, she's done it by alerting the Muslims, by calling it soft-core porn, by saying it made fun of Islam."

Faegheh Shirazi, an associate professor in UT's Department of Middle Eastern Studies, said she understands Random House's decision not to publish the novel.

"We understand the book is not historical documentation, but it still uses the real characters of A'isha and Muhammad." Shirazi said. "It would be very tough to convince religious people that [the novel] isn't pretending to be the correct history."

Shirazi also noted that the fiction in this novel had the potential to warp attitudes about Islam for those less-informed about Islamic history.

Spellberg expressed similar concern in a recent letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal.

"The combination of sex and violence sells novels," Spellberg said. "When combined with falsification of the Islamic past, it exploits Americans who know nothing about A'isha or her seventh-century world and counts on stirring up controversy to increase sales."

Jones said she was in talks with several publishing houses in the U.S. and abroad to print the novel - and a newly penned sequel - since Random House has released the rights.
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