Citing fear for the safety of its author and its employees, Random House has canceled publication of Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel about Aisha, a young wife of the prophet Muhammad. A glance at this news undoubtedly causes many of us to ask: have the terrorists won? But this is a more nuanced story than it first appears to be. Perhaps most interestingly, the “possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims” that led to the book’s cancellation got its start from an unlikely source: Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin who was originally asked to blurb the book.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece (“You Still Can’t Write about Muhammad“), Asra Q. Nomani (Standing Alone in Mecca, 2005) reports the chain of events and laments “how quickly fear stunts intelligent discourse about the Muslim world.”
All this saddens me. Literature moves civilizations forward, and Islam is no exception. There is in fact a tradition of historical fiction in Islam, including such works as “The Adventures of Amir Hamza,” an epic on the life of Muhammad’s uncle. Last year a 948-page English translation was published, ironically, by Random House. And, for all those who believe the life of the prophet Muhammad can’t include stories of lust, anger and doubt, we need only read the Quran (18:110) where, it’s said, God instructed Muhammad to tell others: “I am only a mortal like you.”
And, as usual, there’s a good recap and a useful take at Galleycat.
There’s another, less significant lesson to be drawn from this episode: Be careful who you ask to blurb your novel. This whole mess started when Islamic studies professor Denise Spellberg (who has a book deal at another division of Random) was sent an advance copy of The Jewel of Medina, and apparently hated it so much that, rather than just email back a simple “no comment,” she made a “frantic” phone call to a colleague asking him to “warn Muslims” about the book’s publication. And here’s the best part: She then threatened to sue her own publisher “if her name was associated with the novel.” What, did she think Ballantine was going to use “[a] very ugly, stupid piece of work” as a pullquote?
And, in an update, the “terrorist threat” may not have been so threatening.
If you were just sorta reading along in a hurry, it was easy to conflate the publisher’s expressed fear of a terrorist attack and that brief mention of an action plan against the novel and convince yourself some sort of threat was actually expressed. But when you look at the actual online complaint, a much different story emerges; that “seven-point strategy” turns out to be little more than organizing a blast email campaign, getting an advance copy of the novel to pick out the offensive bits, prepping fact sheets about the Prophet’s wives, keeping an eye out for any media coverage of the book so they can complain about that, too, and telling people how terrible it is “this book has been written with some exotic scenes in it.” (He means “erotic,” by the way.)
It’s entirely understandable that Random House would want to be careful with this book, but a threat of spam hardly seems equal to a fatwa. Perhaps they should have consulted with Sir Salman “Scruffy” Rushdie before making a rash decision.