Author Sherry Jones: “I did all this in the service of a truth”

Author Sherry Jones: “I did all this in the service of a truth” September 4, 2008
Me and Mrs. Jones

Back in April of this year, I received a phone call from University of Texas, Austin professor Denise Spellberg, an Islamic Studies expert in whose class I have guest lectured the past two years. She brought to my attention a book she had been sent to review entitled Jewel of Medina, a book she found offensive for its portrayal of Aisha, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad. In a turn from most literary depictions of Aisha, this one was heavily fictionalized, with a dramatic story arc that, to Spellberg, represented a racy novel rather than an accurate depiction of her life. (Spellberg should know – her own scholarly work on Aisha is known as one of the most authoritative books on the subject.)

As I had not heard anything of the book, I sent an e-mail inquiry to a private listserv for graduate students in Islamic studies, describing the phone call I just received and asked if anyone could tell me more about it. After hearing no response for three weeks, I got an email out of the blue from the author of that book, Sherry Jones, who asked if we were interested in writing an advance review. What I didn’t know at the time was that someone on the Islamic studies list passed my e-mail out of the listserv, where it ended up on the website of Husaini Youths, an overseas forum catering to young Shia Muslims. There, some offended readers voiced concern at the as-yet unpublished book, suggesting a seven point plan for pressuring Random House, the book’s publisher, to cancel publication.

But they needn’t have bothered. In June, Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani told me she was writing an article on the reaction to the book, identifying me through her research on the issue and asking me to comment. It was then that I learned that Random House had indeed withdrawn the imminent publication of the book (set for August 12 of this year), despite having paid Jones a reported $100,000 advance. Cited in Random House’s cancellation was a reference to unnamed “Islamic scholars” who advised them that the book could provoke extremist Muslims. And in some corners, I was identified as the catalyst for this chain of events.

The response to the story was explosive, with people around the world decrying perceived Muslim threats to the author and publisher – except for the fact that no Muslims were involved in the actual censorship. As the story played out, it has been revealed that there had been no violence or even threat of violence in response to the book. Hopefully, this means Muslims have learned a valuable lesson from the response to The Satanic Verses (which made Salman Rushdie a celebrity) and the Danish cartoon controversy (which did untold PR damage to Muslims worldwide). Because censoring the book – even self-censoring – was something that I abhorred, I wrote a response here supporting free speech in this case, which has incidentally been republished in Lebanon, Egypt, Bangladesh, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates. Yet, the entrenched notion that Muslims are antithetical to free speech continues.

And then there’s Sherry Jones herself. Jones spoke out when asked about the issue, contesting the description given of her book as “pornography.” But as she felt that she was being used as a wedge between Muslims and those that dislike them, she began to withdraw from commenting further. While acknowledging her book would be controversial, she maintained that she wrote the book not just with respect, but with admiration for Aisha, and felt her interpretation and dramatization of her life would accentuate her known qualities, qualities which drew her to the subject matter after 9/11.

Sherry’s insistence that she intended a respectful treatment of the subject matter, in addition to her reaching out to us before the controversy grew, made us wonder – is there more to this story than some would have us believe? Below, Sherry Jones speaks to us in detail about what her book represented, how she and I have weathered the storm, and about the sequel that she’s already written.

This whole episode is the first introduction of yourself as a writer to much of the world. Tell us more about who you are and what you are bringing to the table with this book.

Sherry Jones: Well, I’ve been a journalist for 28 years. I started before I finished college. I was 18 when I started at my first newspaper in Kinston, North Carolina, which is my hometown. As a journalist, I’ve covered everything from education to government to arts and entertainment to the environment.

Right now, I’m primarily writing on environmental issues and doing some reporting on women’s issues as a freelance reporter. I got the obligatory autobiographical novel out of the way about 10 years ago, but I’ll never publish that book… (Laughs)

Well, you could rewrite the whole autobiography at this point…

That’s right! (Laughs) I started working on Jewel of Medina in the winter of 2002 as sort of my own personal response to the World Trade Center attacks and what we were hearing about Islam and women and women’s oppression under the Taliban in Afghanistan.

I started reading and researching out of a personal desire and curiosity to learn more. The first books I read were primarily by women journalists who’d been in the Middle East. There was Geraldine Brooks’ book Nine Parts of Desire and Price of Honor (by Jan Goodwin), about women in the Middle East.

Both books told the story of Aisha’s marriage to Muhammad at a young age and at least one of them had mentioned that Muhammad had 12 wives and concubines. And I was, you know, wondering why I had never heard this before and felt so intensely curious to learn about the women.

I’ve noticed in my own history classes and my own history reading that women are so often left out of the story. I had a literature professor tell our class that the history of the world is made up of wars. I always thought there was a lot more to history than that.

So as you dove into this history, what was it that captured your attention and eventually brought you to the idea of writing a book that focused on Aisha?

It was the strength of the women that I was reading about – the intelligence, the courage, the participation of women in the early life of the Islamic community. Aisha’s sense of humor drew me to her right away. One of my favorite scenes is when Muhammad, who was angsting over whether he could marry Zaynab bint Jahsh, he said to Aisha, “Allah has given me permission to marry her.” And Aisha said, “My! Allah certainly hastens to do your bidding.” What a great comeback, and what a woman of verve. She was just so quick witted.

Also, her scholarly abilities… I had read that she could recite a thousand poems, and she knew all the recitations, all the Quran. She was a political advisor, not only to Muhammad, but to some of Muhammad’s successors. Her whole involvement in the political life of her community just fascinates me.

You’ve started to tap into why a lot of Muslims are fascinated by her as well. Of course, there’s also the fact that she’s one of the larger transmitters of hadith from Muhammad. Really, it’s through her that we get his story.

One of the things that struck me from the beginning of this whole controversy is that unlike so many other times in our recent history where we are struggling against people who are really out to vilify us, I sensed from the beginning that you were doing this out of appreciation or respect. I don’t think that has gotten through to a lot of people, regardless of their opinions on the subject matter. Could you elaborate on this?

Yes, well I went into my reading with absolutely no preconceived notions except that Muslims had attacked the World Trade Center and that the Muslim regime in Afghanistan was very oppressive to its people, especially women. And so, you might say that my initial impressions of Islam were negative.

But as I read – books by Western scholars, Islamic scholars, religious clerics, ancient Arabic poetry – what I gained from my reading was an impression of Islam being a religion of, primarily, peace. I read that Muhammad admonished his followers to fight in self-defense only. That’s really what he was doing all those years too. He was constantly being persecuted, assassination attempts, etc.

You could say that the revealer of Islam, Muhammad, embodied Islam. He lived this incredibly ascetic life – totally unmaterialistic, gave everything away to the poor. He could have lived like a king but he didn’t. He was very respectful toward women and, actually, I was so impressed by how he gave women rights that we didn’t even possess in this country until the early 20th century. He was generous and kind and compassionate. He forgave people who had done him wrong if they asked him for it.

The more I read about Islam at the beginning stages, the more impressed I was. Muhammad endured so much persecution, there was never any doubt in my mind that he was sincere and that he was a visionary. He gave up everything for his belief in God and his, I believe, sincere desire to bring the truth of one God to his own people.

Having developed that respect, out of all the reading that I did – and, you know, I read some stuff by older historians who claimed that he went out and conquered in the name of Islam and forced people to convert. But the newer stuff that I read, the more recent historical writings, actually refute that. And the impression I gained of him was of an incredible man and a great, heroic leader.

The same with Aisha. The love story just drew me in. They’re a great epic couple, really.

I remember growing up, even in Muslim circles, their relationship was quite storied – how they would race together and how playful they were – and how they became a model for Muslim relationships. But I guess the obvious question that begs to be asked is whether you anticipated at all any reaction from either Muslims or people who dislike Muslims. Because I believe you’ve gotten significant amounts from both sides.

Oh, yes.

Did you prepare yourself for such a reaction?

Well, I did anticipate controversy. I consciously envisioned myself, for example, reading my book in a bookstore on a book tour and having people challenge the things I had written, or challenge my perceptions of Islam. I didn’t think much about people who didn’t like Muslims. Mostly I was aware of the sensitivities of Muslims. Because I have altered the historical record, the historical narrative.

I have done things like put a sword in Aisha’s hand. I have depicted this ancient culture, about which so little has actually been written… a lot of it was derived from my imagination. The characters themselves, many of the wives, there is so little known about them and their personalities. So I gave personalities to these women, whether they were actually like that or not. Who knows?

But I did all this in the service of what I see as a truth. My truth – this is my vision of what things would have been like based on my own experiences and my own research and my own intuition and observations of human nature. I’m very sure of the work I’ve done and the choices I’ve made. I know why I did everything I did in that book. Maybe at the time I was doing it I wasn’t always sure, but I revised this book seven times.

Since this whole thing started, I’ve been accused of Orientalism, and I’ve stopped and I’ve taken a step back to look at myself. How would we feel if a Muslim wrote a fiction book about Jesus, how would that be perceived? How would Christians feel? It’s hard for me, though I’ve tried, to imagine myself among a group of people who feel discriminated against and co-opted already. I can understand why there would be resentment and suspicion of my motives.

But I’m really aware and conscious of the choices I made. I have felt that people who didn’t like my book might challenge me and that we could discuss it. And as far as people who don’t like Muslims are concerned, ditto. Although, like I said, I didn’t really think about those people. I was quite surprised at some of the responses I’ve gotten from people who are anti-Muslim.

I was kind of surprised as well. I had thought they would take you more as an ally and use you to bash us. I saw hostility towards Muslims in general and to you for trying to cater naively to Muslims…

I’m an Islamo-panderer!

Yeah, that’s the term I heard…

It’s so funny! You know, really when I wrote this book, I was asked by various publishers, when people were considering making an offer on my book last year, “Who is your audience?” I always said my main audience is going to be Western women because I felt like Muslims already know these stories. In the West, people don’t know who Aisha is. People don’t know these stories and they’re wonderful stories. I think they’re stories from which we can all gain inspiration in terms of how to live better lives.

Would it be safe to say that whatever literary license you took – I’ll give an example, the choosing of Safwan as a suitor for Aisha – is that in the service of telling a larger or broader truth or story?

Exactly. I hate to tell people what they should think of my book. Reader response is a dialogue between the writer and reader. I write it and you read it and everyone takes something different. In a way, I hate to talk about my book with these abstract terms because it’s like I’m telling you what you should read into the text.

But since this prologue has been so controversial, because of the insinuation that Aisha was maybe tempted and because we all know that Aisha wasn’t really engaged to Safwan – as a young girl she was actually engaged to someone else – this is a good example of how I made changes to service the story.

Aisha – the story is about her empowerment as a woman. Going from being a young girl who was married off by her parents. Her father – she was his property, essentially, even though he and Aisha had a very close and loving relationship. Still, she was his property to marry off to enhance his own status as Muhammad’s chief advisor and closest companion. She transcended that cultural limitation of being considered the property of men to become this powerful, empowered woman.

And so, I wanted to have her as a young girl, because of the culture she was in, wanting to be saved, wanting to be rescued from this situation of not having the power to make her own choices and not having the power to control her destiny. So, for her and Safwan, I made them childhood playmates. He is the one she focuses on as someone who can rescue her.

Then she realizes after her short time with him in the desert that no one can do that for her, that she must do it for herself. She also realizes that her love for Muhammad really blossoms, that time she spends away from him, and also her faith in God gets stronger because she overcame the temptation.

And so, ok, we don’t really know what happened in the desert with Safwan. People had accused her of adultery. She claims she didn’t commit adultery. God revealed to Muhammad that there was no adultery. But we don’t know if she was tempted. I thought this could be a good way to demonstrate that perhaps this is one way that Aisha became a woman. This is her coming of age tale. By being tempted and resisting, we all become stronger individuals.

That’s why I did that. It wasn’t to degrade Aisha in any way. It was to show her humanity. If we never are tempted, how can we serve as an example to others? It’s the same as I’ve been criticized for making Muhammad a human being with flaws and weaknesses and self-doubt. Well, I’m sorry, but it’s the same for Jesus. We’re taught as Christians that Jesus was perfect, that he never sinned. For me, well, how am I ever going to follow that example? What hope is there for me?

Do you think Muslims are ready for historical fiction? Coming from where I sit, I think Muslims have engaged in historical fiction quite a bit, although I will say that I don’t think they have indulged in it so close to the epicenter of Muslim thought and belief. But Muslim history is full of treatments of Islamic history that have been embellished, for lack of a better word, throughout time in the service of a larger point. But this is new territory for a lot of Muslims, which is why you get the reaction that you get.

Change is something that’s always difficult for everybody. No matter how liberal and progressive we might like to think ourselves, change is just difficult. Is this the first novel ever to be written about Muhammad? I don’t think so. In fact, there is a novel listed in the University of Montana catalog about Muhammad.

Are Muslims ready for it? I trust, even if Muslims aren’t ready, that they can still absorb it. Once the shock wears off, people will just go about their business. I think part of it is that nobody’s read the book, so it’s this blank text to which people are projecting all their own anxieties, fears, and anger.

I think when Muslims read the book, I expect criticism for the changes I’ve made. Everybody has their own version of Aisha. Different people in the Muslim world have their own version, their own Aisha story. And if my story is not their story, then it’s going to be criticized and people aren’t going to like it. Or maybe they will. Maybe this book breaks new ground in that respect. But then the next writer that comes along will have an easier time. Let’s put it that way.

We kind of had a joke around here: Is the Muslim world ready for its “Jesus Christ Superstar…”

(Laughs) I’m trying to think of a catchy title!

That heads into my next question. Describe the Muslim response you’ve gotten. Reading all the articles you and I have been in over the past few weeks, one of the messages that I’m not seeing get out was that the actual responses from Muslims that you’ve gotten have not been what people would fear, given recent history.

Exactly! I mean, look at the Husaini Youth. Look at the response. That seven point plan didn’t call for violence. Write letters to the editor? Inform ourselves more about the wives of the Prophet Muhammad?

There was that one thing about pressure the author. I guess that could mean anything. But it didn’t sound to me like anything to fear. And when I went on to that site to reach out to the people on that site, the hand of peace was extended to me. I’ve been corresponding with someone who, I’m assuming he’s Muslim, who has been urging me to submit my book to an Islamic scholar or an Islamic university for vetting. He says that would avoid a lot of problems.

(Non-Muslims) who have read my book say, across the board, that they didn’t know Muhammad was such a great guy, and they didn’t know these things about Islam. And they come away with a better understanding of Islam and of Muhammed and Aisha. And they feel better. They don’t feel hostile.

Really, wouldn’t it be ironic if the Western world did come to a greater understanding and a better rapport with the Islamic world because of a book that was supposed to result in terrorist attacks. I have never worried about that. I just do not believe that my book is going to incite violence. It’s not the book’s intention, it’s not my intention.

One thing that excites me is that the book has become bigger than itself. Because it doesn’t exist for people yet. It’s a text upon which people are projecting. Issues of self-censorship, womens’ rights under Islam… those have emerged as topics of conversation around this book. And also the voice of moderate Muslims. Here’s a good opportunity for moderate Muslims to (speak out). Not necessarily to defend my book, but to defend their right, your right, to read the book if you want to.

How did you decide to handle the sensitive issue of Aisha’s age at marraige?

Historians don’t even agree about the age of Aisha. I’d even read that there’s disagreement on the meaning of the word consummate. Did it mean sexual intercourse? Or did it mean the marriage contract was simply completed?

Just to be clear, in the book, do you actually make a reference to her age?

Yes, in the book she is 14 years old. She does marry him at age 9 and then she goes back to her parents to live until she has her period, and then she moves in with Muhammad. But in my book, the marriage is not consummated until she is older. And the reason is because I’ve read some compelling arguments that she was older and would have been older. I consider them compelling arguments, but maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see.

The Muhammad that I came to know in my reading would not have forced a girl who was not ready. He would not have forced a girl. I just don’t believe that if Aisha was scared or she wasn’t ready that he would have forced it. And so I decided that I was going to make her more mature and he was going to wait until she was ready. So I do have a scene where, on her wedding night, when she moved in with him, she started her period – about 12 years old – and they go to her hut and he does approach her, but she’s very frightened. And so he says, you know, “Let’s play with your toys instead.”

And so, to me, that is the Muhammad that I discovered in my reading. And maybe I’m sugarcoating and maybe I’m fooling myself, but even Muslim scholars don’t seem to completely agree. So I felt that I gave Muhammad the benefit of the doubt, because of the Muhammad that I came to know.

He’s my Muhammad (Laughs). She’s my Aisha! And you know, it’s not that it’s an official version of anything, and I’ve never claimed that it was. This is my story, my version, and gosh, I just hope that it brings out many more Aisha stories, Aisha novels.

So, summing everything up, what happens now, both in terms of this book and where it’s heading, and in terms of future possible dabblings in Islamic history?

Well, I wanted to tell you that my second book, my sequel, is finished. It’s about Aisha and Ali and the tension between them that existed that’s written about in the first book. But in the first book, it’s all from Aisha’s point of view, because she and Ali has this rivalry between them and enmity, especially after she found that he had urged Muhammad to divorce her after the whole affair of the necklace thing happened. But Aisha, it’s from her point of view. She and Ali don’t get along, she’s not going to be having happy thoughts about him.

So then, as I was doing my research for the sequel, I read several books that were written by Western scholars that are supportive of the Shiite point of view…

So you’re stepping into Shia territory now…

Yes. And so as I read these books, my regard and respect for Ali increased. So my second book goes back and forth between the points of view between Aisha and Ali. They’re both protagonists. You get to decide. As the book goes on, the story is really one of reconciliation and it’s really a story of peace. It’s about revenge as a motive for war. It’s about understanding and empathy for your enemy and how that affects how you relate.

It makes the case that we’re all more alike than we think we are. Sunni and Shiite, you’re more alike than you think you are. Christian and Muslim, you’re more alike than you think you are. If we take the time to really talk to each other and understand each other, then we might find that we were mistaken. We might not, but at least it’s worth trying.

My second book hasn’t been talked about at all because The Jewel of Medina has got the cover and all that, but they both were delayed. I think they’re both important books. They’re very different in terms of their focus. The first book focuses on Muhammad and his domestic life, and Aisha and the wives, and the second book focuses on the Aisha – Ali dynamic, the expansion of Islam, glimpses into the different Caliphs, why they did what they did.

I’m excited. I know they will both be published in English soon.

Yeah, I don’t think you have to worry about that. It’s pretty much guaranteed now.

I really want to write about Sakina, Sakina bint al Husein. She’s the one I discovered in Fatima Mernissi’s book Women in Islam. I was doing research for my book Jewel of Medina, and so I found this other really incredible woman. I mean, I don’t know how much you know about her, but she’s incredible!

I know a little bit, but I haven’t finished reading Fatima’s book yet.

Oh, yes, well she just basically wrote a little bit about her at the very end of her book. But I actually paid a translator in Seattle $4,000 to translate a book about Sakina that I could only find in Arabic. And she’s every bit as fascinating as I’d hoped. And this guy got so excited, that he’s gone off and ordered a whole bunch of additional books in Arabic about her just so he can read about her. He’s just totally fallen in love with her.

I mean, she was an originator of the literary salon in Mecca, when Mecca was the center of the cultural universe. And she had 5 or 6 different husbands, usually because they died, but with one husband she had this OJ Simpson-style trial of the century divorce because she had a contract with him that he would not have any other women. He had some secret concubines that she found out about and she divorced him and it was a big, huge deal. Everybody came to the trial and she refused to wear the veil and she was just this amazingly strong woman and I became entranced by her too.

But who knows if I’m going to go there, because I have to decide… I’m excited to write about her, but on the other hand I have other books I could write too. I guess I’ll just wait and see. Right now I’m sort of feeling like I need to take a break and take a step back and think about where I want my career to go. I mean, do I want to be known as…

…mining Muslim history for ideas?

Exactly! I don’t want to be typecast for that and there are so many other things I want to write also, so we’ll see. Originally, I was thinking that I could even write about Muhammad and Khadijah, because her story hasn’t been told. But who knows, maybe someone else will be inspired to come forward and tell that tale.

An extended audio interview with Sherry Jones can be found on our next podcast, due out next week. Jewel of Medina has just been picked up for publication next month by publishers in the UK and US.

Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of

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