I, like many others, followed the tale of The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones on Smart Bitches, which culminated in a review of the prologue. (They promptly posted a review of the entire novel before this pondering was posted.)
For those who didn’t follow the story, Jones’s novel follows Muhammad‘s wife A’isha from their engagement to his death. A’isha was known as his favorite wife, and she was a very important scholar. She told over 2,000 hadith, many of which were recorded in reputable collections. She’s an important figure to the whole of the faith, but especially Islamic feminists.
Random House decided not to publish the novel shortly before the street date, causing a bit of an uproar. Jones believed her novel would encourage people to learn more about A’isha and Islam. While Jones’s intentions don’t seem malicious, her book guts the power of an anecdote important to Islamic feminist argument.
Why is it a big deal that Jones reinterprets sacred history? (No, it’s not because Real Person Fic is a step too far even for most fanficcers.) In general, it’s because of the importance of stories in Islam. What people say gets written down and evaluated. The hadith are a body of sacred texts that flesh out the Koran, based on personal tales of the prophet and his revelations.
In addition, it’s important because it’s an English language novel marketed as a bridge between Western and English culture. The Red Tent and The Da Vinci Code were marketed to an audience raised in a largely Christian culture. Believe me, even non-Christians in the West know some of the basics. Even those who knew nothing could easily ask someone what was based on scripture and what was make believe. (I hear it is going to be published in Spain, which is a slightly different story. The Spanish have intimate history with Muslims.) The majority of people in the US, at least, are utterly ignorant of Islam. Most exposure to Islam comes through the media, which tends to misrepresent the religion. The Jewel of Medina is being marketed to people with no idea where fiction blurs with the sacred. It’s not spreading awareness but ignorance.
On a smaller scale, it’s because Jones completely undermines the power of A’isha’s story, missing the moral points it makes completely. The prologue, linked to above, draws upon the anecdote of A’isha’s necklace. It changes up chronology and such for maximum drama, but I’ll let that slide. Here’s some quotes that I won’t (and yes, I will explain why after you read them):
The love in my husband’s gaze made me blush. How close I’d come to betraying him with that trickster! Safwan had lured me with freedom, then tied my destiny to his desires.
. . .
I felt Muhammad’s eyes watching me. Heat spread like flame under my skin. Had he heard the lie beneath my laughter?
. . .
Did he truly know the reason I had lost the caravan? Maybe it would be better for me to tell the truth — but a glance at my husband’s concerned face changed my mind. Even Muhammad, who knew me as if our souls were one, wouldn’t understand why I’d risked so much for so little — and he might not believe me when I told him I was still pure.
For those not familiar with A’isha’s necklace, this biography contains a decent rendition, starting in the nineteenth paragraph. In this version, Allah proclaims A’isha’s innocence through a revelation to Muhammad, and “…[the] fact that A’isha’s honor and reputation had been protected by a revelation from Allah could not be ignored by anyone.” Compare to Jones’s rendering of the tale, which portrays A’isha as secretly guilty. No, she did not sleep with Safwan, but she had adulterous intentions. No, no, and no. A’isha was innocent, which includes not entertaining adulterous thoughts in her heart.
The story has two morals. The most important to Muslim feminists is, “A woman’s word is as good as a man’s.” The term ‘A’isha’s necklace’ is recognized by many men and women in the Middle East. If men rape a woman and say, “Oh, she really wanted it – she was asking for it,” she can use A’isha’s necklace in her defense.
I think encouraging others to be more interested in her story is a wonderful idea. On the other hand, I do not believe imposing a Western idea of feminism on her life is the best way to do it, especially since it could weaken Eastern feminist argument.
There may not be lurid details in the story of A’isha’s necklace, but that’s what makes it powerful. She was innocent, she told the truth (no lie beneath her laughter), and Allah confirmed it in a revelation to Muhammad. There’s tons of drama to be drawn from the tale without making A’isha unfaithful in her heart. There’s even more drama to be drawn from the rest of their life together, since A’isha was known to be a jealous woman. She particularly harbored jealousy against his chronologically first wife, Khadijah. Drama comes from imperfection, and Muhammad and A’isha were human and imperfect. But let that imperfection remain where it belongs.
Don’t forget, I said there were two morals. The second is don’t slander. A’isha’s necklace tells us Allah himself protected her reputation. I believe Sherry Jones’s prologue was incredibly disrespectful and understand why various scholars were upset.