August 11, 2008

Muslim Scholar Says Muslims Can't Handle Fiction

If you're moderately literate, you've probably heard of The Jewel of Medina, the scandalous book about Aisha, the child bride of Muhammad, which Random House pulled from their publication schedule to avoid the next fatwa. But the more pieces of the story that come out, the more interesting it gets.

A little background: The book had reached the stage of galleys without anyone at Random House batting an eyelash, as far as can be told. The author, Sherry Jones, a journalist, requested that Random House send a review copy to Denise Spellberg, Associate Professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies and the author of one of the biographies Jones read in preparation for writing her novel. Spellberg didn't like it, calling it a "very ugly, stupid piece of work."

"I walked through a metal detector to see 'Last Temptation of Christ,'" the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. "I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography."


Uh, wait. The Last Temptation of Christ is not playing with sacred history, but this book is? The film shows Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalen. According to the author, The Jewel of Medina has no sex scenes. The excerpt that seems to have the most people upset is four sentences that occur after Muhammad first has sex with his nine-year-old bride:

...the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion's sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life.


This is pretty tame stuff. Admittedly, Aisha was nine, but that's part of the historical record. Is the problem that she enjoyed being with him afterward? After reading the prologue to the novel, which a Guardian reporter called "luridly written," I start to think it is.

"She has been flirting with him for years!"

I snorted, as if his words amused me instead of chilling my blood. He spoke the truth — but who else knew?


Again, yawn. Hardly the stuff of "objectif[ying] the wife of the prophet as a sex object," as Spellberg claims. [gasp!] Aisha flirts! Wives of prophets can't be complex beings, certainly not sexual ones! Not violent ones, either. No swords allowed for this woman who raised an army and directed a battle from her camel. Nope, that would be part of "a long history of anti-Islamic polemic that uses sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith," according to Spellberg.

And it's these objections that led Spellberg to make "a frantic call" to a fellow lecturer and editor of a Muslim website, warning him that Jones "made fun of Muslims and their history" and asking him to spread the word about the horrors of a book he hadn't read. They also led to her to call Random House to say "it is 'a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff . . . a national security issue.' Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons."

Really? A sword, a little off-screen married sex in keeping with the practices of the time, and The Jewel of Medina is going to get people killed where The Last Temptation of Christ didn't? Would our esteemed Middle Eastern Studies professor care to explain why that would be? The last time I checked, Muslims were handling sacrilege much better than their Christian fellows.

I'm curious why she doesn't think they'd continue to be just as civil over a piece of fiction.

Updates:

The author has her say, provoking a seriously screwed up comment thread. Also, Shahed Amanullah, who spread the news of the novel at Spellberg's request, speaks out for free and vigorous speech.

31 comments:

Greg Laden said...

I've heard taht there really were some threats, but there are always threats, and stories of threats are usually exaggerated (and the threats are usually irrelevant).

Bunch of wimps.

Stephanie Zvan said...

And in this case, the threats are based entirely on Spellberg's assertion that the book makes fun of Muslims. It would hardly be the first time that threats preceded publication of something that turned out to be terribly ho hum.

Definitely wimps. I mean, the author's fourteen-year-old daughter is lobbying to see the thing published. If she's not scared....

mythusmage said...

The sticking point is, Aisha was nine. Nine year old girls aren't supposed to know about sex, much less be eager to experience it. The very idea that a child would have sex with anybody of his own free will is anathema and not to be countenanced. So you get people laying claims of rape or molestation when such accusations have no basis in fact.

Our myths regarding childhood sexuality are strong and troublesome.

Blake Stacey said...

Denise Spellman said, "I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history."

The funny thing here is that there ain't a historical record of Jesus, just a heap of inconsistent fables and a couple offhand mentions in the works of non-Christian authors — the manuscripts of which, incidentally, date to the Middle Ages (plenty of time for extra bits to get written in here and there). As far as the historical record is concerned, works like Jesus Christ Superstar and The Last Temptation are not fictions spun out of fact, but rather fictions woven out of older fictional threads.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Mythusmage, it's interesting that no one is really talking about the nine year old having sex. They're talking about how inappropriate it is to have a romance written about the wife of the prophet. And they're talking like there's much more sex than there actually is. It's kind of like the reactions to this post on Pharyngula on Sunday--get to close to sexuality that squicks you out and all you can see is sex, even if it isn't there.

Blake, Spellman has said a lot of different things about what's bothering her. None of them hold up under scrutiny from what I've seen. Personally, I think it's the sex but she doesn't want to admit it, so she keeps throwing proxies out there. One of the ways I can tell when I'm not being honest with myself is when I'm talking too much about something that should be simple.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Oh, and thanks for the links, Blake. Interesting stuff.

Betül said...

Aisha was 9 when she was married, technically she didn't know how to have sex. Yet she was privileged to be a prophet's wife (at least one, out of four).

Religion is dogmatic, right but frankly, Islam is something else. It is not about the fanaticism inside the religion itself (USA is a Christian country but you can criticize the religion; see: free speech)

The problem we have here, is the mentality of Islamic countries. The people are extremely ignorant, religion is the only thing they have. Mohammed doesn't even have a picture available. Remember what happened after that primarily infamous Danish newspaper draw Mohammed's cartoons. And now writing about a fictional sexual life including the prophet; you kidding me, of course there will be some threats! No threat is relevant, of course these are not either. I am not looking for any sense,Islamic worlds need their reforms like Christianity did centuries ago asap.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Betül, I won't disagree about the need for some reforms, but if the Christian world is supposed to set the standard, let's hope Muslims are looking to a country other than the U.S. Our record hasn't been great lately. And funny, it's been happening as the income and education gaps grow.

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

betul, I would say that Chrisitianity still needs reform.

Betül said...

The right to say that there is not enough freedom, is still a sign of freedom.

Yet just like nature, religions should find their own way to evolve. Any religion that lacks adaptation should expire. This is "my" last thread, or soon I will declare my own religion.

Greg Laden the former alter boy said...

The way I learned it, religion is not supposed to change. All change is bad, even sinful.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Greg, if you learned it right, shouldn't it have stuck?

Not to mock you (more), but "alter" boy is the funniest misspelling ever. I laugh every time.

Betül said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Betül said...

The religion does not change, the solution to that is to bring with another religion that states something slightly different than the earlier.

Therefore in fact, there is an evolutionary pattern for religions too

Betül said...

== excuse my misspellings too stephanie, even though they are not as cool as greg's ;)

Stephanie Zvan said...

Oh, please don't apologize for misspellings. Really, I pretend they're not there most of the time. It's just that every once in a while, someone comes out with one that changes the meaning in a really fun way.

Besides, you can spell in at least one more language than I can. :)

mythusmage said...

Stephanie: Still the matter of Aisha's relations with Mohammed plays a role in how some people view the work in question, thus it has relevance.

Betul: This report says differently. The act is, after all, a simple matter of putting one object inside another. It is the need to engage in negotiations that complicates matters. And for the most part negotiation involves getting the other party to trust you enough to let you put your object in hers, or getting him to put his object in yours.

Safiyyah said...

your post poses some very valid points! see my blog on the same subject...
http://safiyyahsblog.blogspot.com/2008/08/jewel-of-medina-literary-treasure.html

Stephanie Zvan said...

Mythusmage, I agree that it's relevant. In fact, I'd be a bit disturbed if people weren't disturbed by it in this day and age. I'm just suggesting that their discomfort has more to do with the historical fact than the book. I also don't think there's anything wrong with disturbing people.

Safiyyah, thanks for the link and the post. One of the things that bothers me the most about accusations of sacrilege is how little trust the accusers show in their fellow humans. You address that very nicely.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Hmm. That wasn't worded strongly enough. A good book should disturb the reader on some level, even if just temporarily.

Betül said...

yeah, now that we know a 9 year old can have sex, the problem is solved.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Betul (sorry, I hate that I'm locked into a browser without "special" characters here), I don't think anyone's promoting sex between prepubescents and adults. The thing is, in this case, it was documented to have happened and is a very important part of the story.

There are four ways I can think of for Jones to have handled it. She could have done what she did, which was make it a moment of intimacy but little sexuality. She could have included much more sexuality on Aisha's part, which I don't care to think too much more about. She could have made it explicitly rape, which would have raised the storm Spellberg predicted and, while conceivable, is much more complicated given the historical record. Or she could have skipped it with just a mention that it happened offstage, leaving a huge gaping hole in a biographical novel.

That she made the choice she did tells me heaps about why her novel sold in the first place.

Betül said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Betül said...

Blogger Betül said...

To me, the justification of a child's suitability to have sex is the least relevant thing here. I just wanted to point that out. Interesting link though, mythusmage.

Though I agree with you, she could've handled the situation much better than this way. Right now all I know is that, the actual publication of the book is canceled (or postponed). I guess the threads reached to its target, successfully. (and publishers are afraid to have a 2nd salman rushdie case) Too bad.

Greg Laden said...

I would think publishers would drool over getting a second "Satanic Verse" on their list. I'm very surprised by the reaction and frankly, now that I think about it, I'm not sure things are as simple as they seem. We'll see if someone else picks this up.

I was never a very good alter boy.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Well, there was actually a death involved in publishing The Satanic Verses. If they trusted the person who told them this could be worse, it probably wouldn't be worth the extra sales.

Not a good alter/altar boy? I can't imagine.

Betül said...

Here, this could be why:
http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=MGI4MGU4NjUxZDRmZWQwOGEyMTA1NWM0NDcxYTcwYTQ=

Lou FCD said...

Just for spite, I'm going to write a novel about how zombie Jesus came down from the sky and had sex with Aisha months before Muhammad got to her.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Ooh, skip right over the soft-core, huh? I like that. But if you really want to offend the maximum number of people, zombie Jesus should claw his way up from the earth and drip bits as he walks, thus allowing you to go all Osiris for the consummation.

Lou FCD said...

I was thinking I might go with Aisha as a leather femme Dom who knows her way around a prosthetic-on-a-harness.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Well, that was the Osiris reference, only with the strap on the other body. Your way works too. Or heck, use both.