Elevate Difference

The Jewel of Medina

There was a lot of manufactured controversy over The Jewel of Medina. As a practicing Muslim, I fully expected to hate it based on the very idea that it is a fictionalized account of a revered woman: A’isha, wife of our Beloved Prophet. The media made a bit of noise about how it took a particular event in A’isha’s life and twisted it into a “sexier” story. Like most Muslims, I expected it to offend me. I admit I went into reading this novel with a bias. As it turns out, the book was not what I expected.

It was much, much worse.

For just a moment, let’s ignore the controversy surrounding the book. Allow me to be the “average” reader, a non-Muslim perhaps. The writing is of poor quality. Cliché runs rampant throughout the book. Characters are one-dimensional—simplistic, in fact. Although Jones claims to be inspired by A’isha and wanting to bring her story to the world, she does not succeed in making A’isha a likeable character. Nor does she manage to create even one other character that a reader can relate to or be similarly “inspired” by.

Something that may not be noticed by the average reader—but is problematic—is the claim that the book was researched extensively when, in fact, it is full of errors and historical inaccuracies. For example, Jones makes reference to henna designs that are common in India and Pakistan, but they are not designs used in Arabia in the past or present. She also speaks extensively of purdah as a normal cultural phenomenon, but it was not a concept that was normal to Arabia, nor to early Islam. (Purdah refers to complete seclusion of girls and women within the home, and as described in the book can mean being literally locked into one room. Purdah should not be confused with the concept of hijab, which refers to the dress of Muslim women and general segregation of unrelated men and women in public and private gatherings.) She intersperses non-English language, but misuses words, and even mixes in words from other languages that would not have been in usage in Arabia at that time.

With such shoddy research of the story of the birth of Islam, one of the most documented stories ever, why should the reader accept the remainder of the story? This of course brings up the question that many have wrestled with regarding revered figures of many religions: is it acceptable to turn the life of a sacred historical figure into soft-core porn for the enjoyment of the masses? 

The Jewel of Medina has hyper-sexualized A’isha’s story, and while there may be concerns about other historical and revered figures being misrepresented, there is a significant difference in Jones’ portrayal of A’isha. Arguments claiming that Jesus may have married, for example, do not denigrate his character, but instead pose questions where historical data has left gaps that people have a desire to fill in understanding his life. Jones, however, did not need to fill in any gaps in A’isha’s life. Instead, she seems to be using the idea of fiction as an excuse to write something completely fabricated and ridiculous that seeks to deny the very virtues for which A’isha is revered. Ultimately, it is the tasteless, explicit sexual discussion in the book that further differentiates it from the way other spiritual figures have been written about.

Written by: Aaminah Hernández, March 7th 2009

Sonia, The issue isn't a monopoly per say, but it IS about controlling images and accurate historical knowledge--and western media is the greatest contributor to inaccuracies. People can scream til they are blue in the face that this is fiction, but the reality is that once knowledge/information/entertainment is consumed most folks do not retain clear distinctions between fact and fiction. This is why Muslims and other people who are concerned about accuracy are very concerned about the implications of "historical fiction." Unfortunately, people are less interested in reading "truth" than they are sensationalized fiction and this continues a cycle of misrepresentation and misunderstandings. Also, your comparison to the Quran is asinine.

Well its fair enough to have an opinion on the book and its fair enough for the author to respond. Historical inaccuracies - yes - it is a piece of fiction after all.

And what I find interesting is the reaction of people to the 'hypersexualisation' of Aisha's life - really interesting that people think this about a woman, but about a man- no that's perfectly alright. There is much about the Prophet's sexuality in our tradition after all. And again, this is a piece of fiction - why We Muslims think we have a monopoly on historical subjects - I do not know - again - it is one thing if one is seeking to represent history, it is quite another to write fiction. Perhaps Christians should complain about how Muslims deny Jesus' divinity in the Quran!

I'll say it again: I never cease to be amazed that book authors and musicians come to the FR comments, freak out when we don't uncritically praise their work, and usually slam the reviewer in the process of dismantling their own anger in public. If someone didn't like your work before, imagine how we'll all see you know. Try this: stunningly unprofessional.

Ack! Thanks for the correction, Yusuf!

Mandy's link is wrong: the post is here. You need to include the "http://" at the beginning, otherwise the browser will assume that the whole thing is on your own site.

Here's something that is relevant to this conversation, also written by Aaminah: The Top Five Ways That White Feminists Continue to Discredit Women of ColorLeave your comments to that post on Problem Chylde please.

Ouch! Peace and love to you, Aaminah.Sherry

Sherry,I believe Brooke was very tongue in cheek, because you stripped me of my feminist status in your first comment. You did not offend me so much as amuse me with your unprofessional manner and complete lack of quality writing. Your initial response was a personal attack upon me, when no where did I attack you in this review. There are so many outright lies in your lengthy statement above, that I am not even going to waste time refuting them. I read the book, remember? You say "But she is also shown to be an intelligent, courageous, generous, compassionate, witty young woman." but that is NOT the character you portrayed in your book at all. You also did not, as you claim, write the history in keeping with the known accounts. There were almost NO accuracies of any kind in your book, quite frankly. Even if there were, mixing a wee bit of fact in with a lot of lies does not mitigate the lies.If anyone is having a hard time putting a human face on Islam and Muslims, I don't see how this book could help them. It is not hard to find real breathing Muslims to get that "human face" from if they sincerely cared to do so. Your book might put a human face on people, but it is, unfortunately, a very ugly human face that has not one shred of likeability or reality to it. I don't have any need to engage with you further. I wanted to give the book some benefit of the doubt but discovered it has no redeeming qualities at all. It's a shame that anyone would publish a sequel just make money off of controversy. Further, I believe you have built a name off the controversy and that has allowed you to ignore charges that the writing itself is of very low quality. Shame on your publisher for allowing you to think you can write.

Dear Aaminah,I didn't mean to insult you with my post; please forgive me if I did. I do thank you for reading and reviewing "The Jewel of Medina," even if I don't agree with your focus.You stand by what you have written; I do the same. I conducted extensive research for this book, and the accuracies far outweigh any errors I might have made. In the pages of my book, readers will find -- many for the first time -- accounts of the great battles of Islam, the persecution Muhammad and his followers suffered (and thereby an explanation for what Christians criticize as Islam's violent roots), and the crucial role women played in the early umma. Readers see Muhammad consulting women for political advice; they see women fighting alongside men in battles; they see women and men praying together in the mosque. They also learn the pragmatic origins of veiling, and how it was meant to apply only to Muhammad's wives.I encountered many surprises in my research. This was not the Islam that non-Muslims were talking about in the U.S. after Sept. 11, 2001. Yet I knew there were plenty of non-fiction and academic books out there, and few people were reading them. I decided to write fiction in hopes of reaching a wider audience with a human portrayal of Islam's prophet and early founders, with hopes with I could help dispel racism against Muslims by enhancing Western readers' understanding of the origins of the religion.Judging from the responses I am getting, my novel seems to be doing just that for many. "You have painted a human face on the Muslim faith," one fan wrote. My book shows, for instance, that Muhammad was not anti-Semitic. His response to persecution from two Jewish tribes was to exile them; then, after a third tribe participated in a genocidal attempt to wipe out all Muslims, he ordered that tribe killed. It was a tribal warfare society, as my book shows.For this effort I have endured a great deal of abuse from racist Islamophobes, who love to call Muhammad a "pedophile" for marrying A'isha at such a young age. But my extensive research shows that her age is disputed among scholars, including Islamic scholars, and that custom in Arabic culture has long dictated that sexual consummation would not occur until a bride began her menses. So I took a middle path, which has caused much frothing at the mouth among racists.I can see from the comments here that some are outraged that I, a non-Muslim Western woman, would dare to portray a heroine so beloved by Muslims. You said I don't portray the virtues for which she is revered. Yes, in "The Jewel of Medina," she is a young woman struggling with the difficulties of harem life (she was very jealous, as we know) and she makes mistakes. But she is also shown to be an intelligent, courageous, generous, compassionate, witty young woman. In the sequel, coming out this fall, she emerges in full flower as a political leader, religious scholar, poet (she could recite more than 1,000 poems) and empowered military leader.I wrote this book about Aisha, based on research and the hadiths, in order to introduce her to the Western world. I have accomplished this goal. I do hope that your next project will be to write a book about A'isha, too. I respect and honor your version of A'isha, and would love to learn more about why you love her.I do have a place on my website where people can post their A'isha stories, for all to see. The address is www.authorsherryjones.com. If you want to correspond with me further, you can reach me at sherry(at)authorsherryjones.com. Because of the negative energy I am finding here (Brooke has now robbed me of my feminist status!) I won't be checking back in. But I do hope you will find time to write and tell me about A'isha as you know her.This is my second attempt at posting a response; if it is the second one that appears, please forgive me for being redundant.Yours truly,Sherry

I really doubt that many non-Muslims would be interested in learning the nuances of any of the sahabas' lives. Usually someone would delve that deeply into a history either to embrace it or discredit it. Now, a wonderfully illuminating book about sexuality and Islam may have piqued some limited interest and there are volumes of authenticated text to work from, but salaciousness has proven to be a far more profitable route. If enlightenment where the real goal here, wouldn't this seem an oddly chosen route? Attacking the Prophet (sallallaahu 'alayhe wa sallam) as a means to attack the religion has really played itself out--though it does continue. But as the west's quasi-interest in Islam continues, new material is marketable and the sahaba have barely been touched outside of academic circles, so here we go...And Sherry-I disrobe you of your feminist title based solely on my own personal opinion of what a feminist is and is not. You don't meet the criteria.~Brooke

Brooke said: "If she was really so eager to bring Aisha’s story to the west (as she says over and over) then why do so in a fictional format?"Good point. I wonder how many non-Muslims realize that there are volumes of authenticated reports about Aisha's life, many of which are her own accounts. She lived many years after the Prophet (pbuh) died, and during those years she passed on what she learned from him, as well as information about herself. She is a much-loved, respected woman, and the factual accounts available are more than adequate to show her intelligence and feistiness (is that a word?)... and to show why she was so beloved to her husband.Even sex is discussed in these narrations; in Islam, it is not hidden away, but it is considered in the context of marriage. Thanks in part to Aishah, we have all of the information we need about the marital relations among the Prophet (pbuh) and his wives. We also have her own narrations - in her own words - of her feelings, including jealousy. And we have accounts of the scandal that she was falsely accused of. There's absolutely no need for a poorly-researched historical novel like this, and whether or not the author meant it this way, it is an insult to the dignity of Aishah.(I'd also be curious to see Jones' bibliography.)Umm Abdullah

I would also like to clarify that the women most certainly did have a huge role in the beginnings of Islam. A'isha is a revered figure by Sunni Muslims, and Fatima (daughter of the Prophet) is revered by both Sunni and Shi'a Muslim. Numerous other early Muslim women are also central to the story of Islam. The problem is that this particular book does not shine any light on the role of these women in Islam, but instead depicts women in their worst stereotypes and outside of the context of their culture. In introducing non-Arabic cultural practices (such as purdah), and imposing Western sensibilities that the only liberated woman is one who has the freedom to have sex with whoever, the author has failed to showcase the true role of women in early Islam. Despite her claims to be showing strong women and that the Prophet granted women more rights, the novel shows nothing of the sort. Personally, I think this is par for the course when a non-Muslim sets herself up to tell the story of women she knows nothing about. Heaven forbid that we should be allowed to tell our own stories. The true story of A'isha is that of a powerful, independent, educated and valued woman within our traditions. That A'isha is not who comes thru in this falsified version.

Anonymous, I wonder if you understand what a book review is and the word limit to writing a review? I would love to discuss the role of women in the context of Islam, but that wouldn't really be reviewing the book, now would it? Nor is it the sort of conversation that can even begin to happen in 700 words. There are plenty of sources to go to for such discussion, but this particular novel just isn't one of them.

I agree with Sherry to some extent. I would have liked the review to discuss the role of women in its historical context.

The word "purdah" is not even Arabic; it's Persian (the letter P doesn't exist in Arabic). The term entered English probably from India, particularly from the Persian-influenced north-western areas (now mostly Pakistan) and is known of among Hindus there as well. The term would probably not have been known to the early Muslims.

What concerns me (as a non-religious person who nonetheless respects religion) about the book is that its written for a Western audience who, generally speaking, tend to have little knowledge about Muslims and Islam. For myself, I go into reading a book like this skeptical of its accuracy. But I'm not sure most Western readers would read it with that degree of skepticism, despite it being fiction. And if the author claims the book is accurate and it isn't, and if it influences people to think more negatively of Islam or Muhammad or Aisha, then I think that's a huge problem, particularly in the anti-Muslim climate of the West. Books like this can have the effect of exacerbating the difficulty for Muslims who live in that kind of environment. Hopefully this review will influence people who do choose to read The Jewel of Medina to do so with a heavily critical lens.What concerns me about the author's response is that she is relying on an ad hominem argument, attacking the reviewer, instead of addressing the criticism that Aaminah has stated in the review. I'm not sure Aaminah's issue is with the book's deviance from male-appropriation, as Jones' states. (Though I do not mean to speak for Aaminah, so if I am wrong please correct me.) To me, it seems that she is questioning the (mis)use of a revered spiritual figure, Aisha, for the purposes of selling controversy. And that certainly fits into my definition of feminism.

Aaminah, Thank you for clearly admitting your absolute bias in reading this text. The western-brand of academia is firmly rooted in denial about bias. A person who identifies themselves by their religion first and academic standing second, is always viewed with suspicion about their “agenda” or outright dismissed for having an agenda even though they have clearly/honestly stated their agenda by identify their religious affiliation. Conversely, someone who is an “authority” on such and such but does not identify their religious, political, whatever affiliation is less “suspect.” I often have to dredge through material to learn what is an author’s religious, political, whatever affiliation and actually in western academia this would be viewed as some bias on my part—but never on the part of the author. Isn’t that absurd? As you said, “the book was researched extensively when, in fact, it is full of errors and historical inaccuracies.” I absolutely believe that Jones could have done her research for this book with a baleen comb, and she would have been able to find all these inaccuracies plus more “citable” absurdities. But whose methodology is she using? As you and I both know there is a limit to how much Islamic, academically accepted, historical material is available. Of course western academics reject that there is a framework established for the science of hadiths—unless those hadiths have been studied and interpreted by western/Orientalist academics. Why is it okay for western academics to site material about Islam that Islamic academics reject as unauthentic? Again absurd! Out of sheer ridiculous curiosity, I would love to see the bibliography for this text; I really doubt I would be surprised by her “sources.” I also find it interesting, in a disgusting way, that Jones would choose to exploit Aisha’s (radhiallahu anha) sexuality. Aisha’s sexuality is a frequent target of anti-Islamic sentiment and unfortunately Jones’ work, which she thinks is so original, seems to fit perfectly within the Orientalist tropes already employed by a few centuries’ worth of white/European feminists before her. It isn’t even innovative that she has chosen to use real names for her fictionalized characters. If she was really so eager to bring Aisha’s story to the west (as she says over and over) then why do so in a fictional format? This is not Aisha’s story, it is Jones’. Love and Peace,~Brooke

Thank you Sherry for taking the time to come here and take note of my review. Not surprisingly, you are defensive, but I stand by my words. I am neither young nor naive. Nor am I unknowledgeable of the subject matter. I am a practicing, devout Muslim. I converted to Islam by my own choice, after much study, eleven years ago. It is amazing that you would make such personal assumptions about me without knowing me from anyone and based merely on this review. You have a very specific goal with your book that you have articulated repeatedly, and that is to discredit Islam. Your book is disrespectful to the character of our Prophet and to the first generation of Muslims. My issue with your word choices etc. are germaine to the proof that your entire research is questionnable (at best). The book does not in any way live up to your ideal of talking about "the crucial role women played in the early Islamic community", but instead makes A'isha and her contemporaries look stupid at best. I am not denying that women around the world are denied many rights, but you are mistaken to claim that is done more in the name of Islam than it is done in the name of any other religion or culture. My job in this review is not to give an overview of women's role in Islam, but to review, in a succint fashion, your book. That is what I did - I reviewed your book.

Your reviewer has made the very errors of which she accuses me, namely, writing with authority about ancient Arabic history when she obviously has no knowledge of the subject matter. As a feminist I am astonished that she would take issue with my book's deviance from the male-appropriated "sacred" figure in order to portray a flesh-and-blood woman with sexual desires. This review was not written from a feminist perspective but rather from the point of view of a naïve young woman who has mistaken mythology for reality, and who would rather quibble over word choices than talk about the crucial role women played in the early Islamic community, and why so many are deprived, in the name of Islam, of the many rights Muhammad gave to women - as "The Jewel of Medina" makes clear.