There’s something not quite right about seeing a citation for One Thousand and One Nights in a bibliography for a novel about the Lady Aishah, Prophet Muhammad’s famous wife.
What it says about an author who would, in writing about the early Muslim community, use the collection of stories that has given us Aladdin, Ali Baba (he of the forty thieves), Sinbad the sailor, and the wife-killing yet story-loving king, Shahrayar, is a lot that makes any discerning reader uncomfortable.
This anomaly in the bibliography is certainly much more indicative as a factor that “stunts intelligent discourse about the Muslim world” than “fear”, as Asra Nomani put it in a Wall Street Journal article about Random House’s last-minute decision to not publish the book.
But the citation does, however, fit in with the idea of the exotic and mystical Orient, an idea that is fed word after word, and page after page of the much-debated novel about the Prophet’s wife, which hits bookstores in the US and UK this week.
I started reading the unpublished manuscript of the novel, The Jewel of Medina provided so generously to me by author Sherry Jones, fully prepared to enjoy myself.
By the time I reached the end of the book, I didn’t know what to make of it. How could anyone claiming to write about the relationship between Lady Aishah and Prophet Muhammad fail to mention some of the most famous incidents in the story so well known to Muslims?
Jones’s portrayal of Aishah’s jealousy was so heavy-handed that she seems to have forgotten about the incident where Lady Aishah, in her jealousy, threw a plate carrying food that another wife had prepared for the Prophet, breaking it.
Prophet Muhammad, who in Jones’s novel always frowns at Aishah’s jealousy, is reported to have reacted by smiling and explaining Aishah’s behavior to his friends who were present, saying, “Your mother was jealous…”, reminding them that Aishah, despite her human and natural faults, was after all, a mother of the believers, thereby deserving the respect of all.
But perhaps this portrayal of an indulgent and patient Prophet didn’t fit in with Jones’s own portrayal of a condescending and perpetually disapproving Prophet.
Take a Bow?
In the novel, respect is portrayed in a manner that belies the Western cultural framework the writer imposes on the story.
We find two men greeting the Prophet as he walks home with Aishah, “Both of them bowed to Muhammad…” Elsewhere, “A man with a black face as shiny as his bald head bowed before us: Bilal.” And when he walks in on his wife Sawdah preparing the food, “Muhammad greeted her with a deep bow.” Aishah gives the Prophet “a respectful bow.”
In cringe-producing, true to Hollywood-style drama, towards the end of the book, Muhammad and his wives acknowledge Aishah as the leader of the “harem”:
Zaynab stepped forward, her plump arms outstretched, her gold eyes flashing. “We have heard how you pled for us to our husband,” she said. “Now—” a sob caught in her throat, snagging her words, “—we have come to thank you,to make you our hatun.” I opened my mouth, but, in my astonishment, no words would come. Then, in one motion, my sister wives joined Zaynab in stretching out their arms to me, then folding themselves in a deep bow. Muhammad stood in their center, his wild hair flying, his smile leaping like light from his face before he whisked off his turban and bowed nearly all the way to the ground. (341)
Never mind that the word hatun is not Arabic, and would never have been used by the Arabs at that time. Never mind that the idea of the Prophet’s wives competing for the position of the most important wife in the “harem” is a dubious one that has never been documented.
Anyone who knows anything about Islam knows that Muslims do not bow to each other to show respect. Bowing may have been a pre-Islamic custom in Arabia, and was certainly a Western custom, but Islam, with its egalitarian message, forbade anyone to bow to any human. Muslims are supposed to bow only to God, and therefore, Muslim ritual prayers include bowing.
Respect was much more nuanced, displayed in the way people talked and listened, the expression in their eyes and on their faces, and the position of their bodies. For example, it is known that Prophet Muhammad showed respect to whomever he was listening to by being attentive and by turning his whole body to face that person.
Cross-Cultural Confusion: On purdah & Hijab
Although historical fiction obviously differs from history texts in its very nature of being fiction, to be of any merit, it should remain true to its subject in terms of social conditions, manners, and culture.
The portrayal of the sub-continental custom of purdah (again, not an Arabic word) within the context of early Islamic society is definitely one leap too far, even if we take artistic license into consideration.
Even in pre-Islamic Arabia, when women were much less respected, the idea of locking girls up in their houses until marriage was unknown. In fact, Aishah’s older sister, Asma’ was a shepherdess, an occupation that could hardly have been possible if Jones’s purdah had been the custom.
The depiction of Aishah’s reaction to the Quranic commandment that the Prophet’s wives cover their faces also betrays the writer’s Western background. For any Western woman writing in a post-feminist 21st century, the only possible reaction of a woman who is supposed to be described as a brave heroine with a fiery spirit to this commandment is obviously to see it as “oppressive”.
To suggest otherwise, it seems, would mean being disloyal to Western culture and ideals.
Casting History Aside
Perhaps one of the most striking liberties that Jones took in the writing of The Jewel of Medina concerns what is referred to in Muslim history and in the Qur’an as “the incident of false accusation”, or, “hadithatul ifk”.
Sherry Jones claims that she has approached her subject matter “respectfully”, and I would never doubt her intentions. However, I do have a problem reconciling this with the fact that in one of the most important and telling incidents in the life of Aishah, Jones chooses to ignore Aishah’s own well-documented narration of the incident. Instead, Jones misuses her artistic license to make up a completely unrecognizable, yet juicier, alternative story.
The problem with Jones’s version of the story starts at the very beginning of Aishah’s story, when Jones has the young Aishah engaged to Safwan ibn Al-Mu’attal. All sources indicate that Aishah, before her engagement and marriage to Prophet Muhammad, had been engaged to marry Jubayr ibn Mut’im, and not Safwan.
Yet Aishah’s supposed engagement to Safwan serves Jones an excellent purpose. It provides a complexity of plot that was probably too juicy to pass up, even for the sake of accuracy and historical honesty.
In Jones’s version, Aishah harbors a love for Safwan since childhood. Even after her marriage to the Prophet, she continues to yearn for Safwan, and he continues to flirt with her, urging her to run away with him to join a Bedouin tribe, as they had planned to do since childhood.
Part of Aishah’s problem with Prophet Muhammad, according to Jones’s story, is this love that she has for Safwan, and it is only after the incident of the false scandal, that she realizes that Safwan would never provide her with the freedom she longs for.
There are many other striking contradictions between the story told by the historical Aishah and that narrated by Jones’s fictional character. While the historical Aishah points out that Safwan only recognized her because he had seen her in the days before the Prophet’s wives were told to cover their faces, Jones has Aishah plotting with Safwan, after a heavy session of flirting, to run away.
While the historical Aishah says that she returned to Madinah riding Safwan’s camel while Safwan led the camel, and in some versions, walked behind the camel, Jones has Aishah riding into Madinah on a horse with her arms around Safwan’s waist, and her cheek resting against his shoulder.
While the historical Aishah said that she was not aware of any scandal or talk against her in the beginning, Jones whips up a deliciously dramatic scene in which Aishah rides into Madinah to hear the people shouting “Adulteress!” at her.
Yes, the idea of having a young girl in love with her fiancée since childhood, and harboring that love throughout her tumultuous marriage to another, older man, does have the makings of a good story. But unfortunately for Jones, this is not the story of Lady Aishah.
Can’t We Write About Muhammad?
I would have loved to ask the exasperated Asra Nomani why she thinks that “you still can’t write about Muhammad”, which was the title of her Wall Street Journal article.
There is a lot of literature that has been written about Prophet Muhammad in the Muslim world. Muhammad’s life, as well as the lives of his Companions and wives, including the Lady Aishah, has been the subject of novels, plays, and even movies and TV series. Jones has done nothing new, except that she has taken much greater liberties with history and fact than others have.
Pointing out all the mistakes in the novel not just in portraying the Lady Aishah, but in portraying almost all the characters, including the Prophet, would take much more than this article.
Yet given all its inaccuracies, its faults, and its biases, should publication of The Jewel of Medina be stopped? By all means, it should not. The hullabaloo that was created by Random House’s decision will also guarantee that the novel’s publishers have their marketing work cut out for them.
I just hope that it is not marketed as an “extensively researched” historical novel about the Lady Aishah, because whatever research Jones did, she certainly does not appear to have used it or benefitted from it. The Jewel of Medina is fiction in the purest sense of the term, with little or nothing of history in it.
I also hope that readers will take it for what it is: an attempt by a Western writer with little knowledge of Arabic, Arabia, Islam, and Muslims using her own Western, 21st century values, ideals and emotions to portray an unrecognizable version of the well-known and well-documented story of Aishah.
If Jones had set out to tell the “untold” or an “alternative” story of the heroism and courage of Aishah, she could have saved herself the trouble. The Lady Aishah has already been seen as a heroine and revered as a role model by Muslim women since the beginning of Muslim history.
Marwa Elnaggar is a writer, a poet, and a consultant to Reading Islam. She has traveled extensively throughout Asia, Europe, and the US. She holds an MA in English and Comparative Literature from the American University in Cairo. She has been studying Islam in Cairo, Egypt for the past eight years and currently teaches Qur’an on a volunteer basis. She can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org. This review was originally published in IslamOnline, with an update published yesterday.