It is tricky business to write about religious figures, particularly in fiction — witness Salman Rushdie's Satantic Verses or Nikos Kazanzakis' Last Temptation of Christ. The Jewel of Medina, an as yet unpublished novel about the youngest wife of the prophet Muhammad, has put its author, Sherry Jones, in the midst of a whirlwind of debate about religion, fiction, fear, and history. Meant to publish on August twelfth, the book was pulled in May by the publisher, Random House, and Jones is now seeking a new publisher. The bare bones of the story are explained in this statement from the Ballantine division of Random House:
After sending out advance editions of the novel The Jewel of Medina, we received in response, from credible and unrelated sources, unsolicited cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.
We felt an obligation to take these concerns very seriously. We consulted with security experts as well as with scholars of Islam, whom we asked to review the book and offer their assessments of potential reactions.
We stand firmly by our responsibility to support our authors and the free discussion of ideas, even those that may be construed as offensive by some. However, a publisher must weigh that responsibility against others that it also bears, and in this instance we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, Inc., booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the book. The author and Ballantine subsequently agreed to terminate the agreement, with the understanding that the author would be free to publish elsewhere, if she so chose.
The Jewel of Medina author Sherry Jones, sent us this statement:
I'm distressed to see The Jewel Of Medina and its termination used as a tool to promote divisiveness and hatred. There's an "I-told-you-so-those-Muslims-are-evil attitude" that makes me cringe. I started writing Jewel for the pleasure of presenting A'isha to the western world; I finished it, and its sequel, with the hope that these books would become bridge-builders to another culture and increase understanding of Islam as it was originally intended. I know I can't control the discourse, but I still harbor the highest, most idealistic hopes for these books. Let's keep it civil. And let's remember: There have been no terrorist threats over The Jewel of Medina. Only warnings of possible threats.
Asra Nomani, a journalist and writer who has read the book, wrote this op-ed in response. An historian asked to comment on the book, responded in kind. Today, we'll talk to her about it, and hope that you'll weigh in. You can read excerpts from the book on the Talk of the Nation webpage. Do you think Random House did the right thing?