Why Random House cancelled publication of a novel about the child bride of Mohamed

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Random House — the world’s largest English-language book publisher — has cancelled publication of a novel about the child bride of Mohammed, apparently for fear of violence on the part of Islamic extremists.

The behavior of Islamic extremists — essentially a hate group — is well known. They go nuts over cartoons and teddy bears, while they generally keep quiet over acts of terrorism and other human rights violations commited by fellow members of their so-called ‘religion of peace.’

However, the folks at Random House were not afraid until they heard from Denise Spellberg, an Islamic history professor who doesn’t appear to understand the fictional nature of a novel.

The ‘next Satanic Verses’ shelved for fear of stirring up Islamic extremists

A novel about the child bride of the Prophet Mohamed has been withdrawn by Random House, which said it feared that publication of the book could “incite acts of violence”. Critics, however, have accused the publisher of abandoning the principle of free speech and caving into pressure from extreme Islamist elements.

The Jewel of Medina, a debut novel by the US journalist Sherry Jones, was due to have been published next Tuesday, and Random House, which had reportedly paid Jones a £50,000 advance for two books, had scheduled an eight-city publicity tour. But in May, the publisher abruptly informed her that all plans were now off.


The controversy only burst into the open this week when The Wall Street Journal published a column by the Muslim writer Asra Nomani, saying she was “saddened” by Random House’s decision, and blaming an Islamic history professor Denise Spellberg for stirring up opposition to the book on the grounds it was “soft-core pornography”.
The Jewel of Medina
Professor Spellberg, from the University of Texas in Austin, was sent an advance copy so she could provide a pre-publication blurb, but her reaction was not what the publishers were hoping for. “Denise says it is ‘a declaration of war … explosive stuff … a national security issue’,” said an email from a Random House editor quoted in The Wall Street Journal. “Think it will be far more controversial than The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons.”
[…]

The Jewel of Medina follows the life of A’isha from her engagement to Mohamed, when she was six, until the Prophet’s death. Jones said she was shocked to learn in May that publication would be postponed indefinitely. “I have deliberately and consciously written respectfully about Islam and Mohamed,” she added.

“I envisioned that my book would be a bridge-builder,” said Jones. “I wanted to honour A’isha and all the wives of Mohamed by giving voice to them, remarkable women whose crucial roles in the shaping of Islam have so often been ignored – silenced – by historians.”

The affair is the latest in a series of controversies about portrayals of Islam that sparked violence, and threats against their authors. In 1988, Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses drew violent protests across the Muslim world, and a death edict, or fatwa, from Iran’s then supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, that forced Rushdie into hiding for several years. The book’s Japanese translator was also murdered.

In 2006, riots erupted across several Muslim countries when cartoons, one showing the Prophet wearing a turban resembling a bomb, appeared in a Danish newspaper.

Jones has never visited the Middle East, but spent several years studying Arab history. The novel, she says, is a synthesis of all she had learnt. “They did have a great love story,” she said of Mohamed and A’isha. “He died with his head on her breast.”

– Source: The ‘next Satanic Verses’ shelved for fear of stirring up Islamic extremists, Rupert Cornwell, The Independent, UK, Aug. 9, 2008 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Random House’s Controversial Cancellation of book about Muhammad’s Wife

[Adapted from a longer story by Nawotka in the August 18 PW issue and from a feature in the August 13 American-Statesmen.)

Yesterday (August 12) was supposed to be the pub date of Sherry Jones’s first novel, The Jewel of Medina, a work of historical fiction depicting the life of A’isha, the pre-pubescent seventh century wife of the prophet Muhammad. The book was abruptly cancelled by its publisher Ballantine this past May, an event that went relatively unnoticed until the cancellation was featured in an August 6 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “You Still Can’t Write About Muhammad,” by Asra Q. Nomani. In the piece, Nomani wrote: “The series of events that torpedoed this novel are a window into how quickly fear stunts intelligent discourse about the Muslim world.”

Trouble started for the book only after galleys were sent out for blurbs in April. One recipient, Denise Spellberg—a professor at the University of Texas and an expert on A’isha—read the book and strongly objected to liberties Jones took with the historical record, in particular with the portrayal of A’isha as a warrior. Spellberg, who is under contract with Knopf, to write a nonfiction book about Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of the Koran, called her editor, complaining that the book altered history, suggesting it was potentially as dangerous as Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. After consulting with experts, Random House terminated the book, citing security risks. On June 21, Jones signed a termination agreement that returned the books rights to her. Unusually, it included a gag order preventing her from discussing the terms. The original contract with Ballantine was for two books, Jewel and a sequel, and was reportedly valued at $100,000.
[…]

You Still Can’t Write About Muhammad

Starting in 2002, Spokane, Wash., journalist Sherry Jones toiled weekends on a racy historical novel about Aisha, the young wife of the prophet Muhammad. Ms. Jones learned Arabic, studied scholarly works about Aisha’s life, and came to admire her protagonist as a woman of courage. When Random House bought her novel last year in a $100,000, two-book deal, she was ecstatic. This past spring, she began plans for an eight-city book tour after the Aug. 12 publication date of “The Jewel of Medina” — a tale of lust, love and intrigue in the prophet’s harem.

It’s not going to happen: In May, Random House abruptly called off publication of the book. The series of events that torpedoed this novel are a window into how quickly fear stunts intelligent discourse about the Muslim world.

Random House feared the book would become a new “Satanic Verses,” the Salman Rushdie novel of 1988 that led to death threats, riots and the murder of the book’s Japanese translator, among other horrors. In an interview about Ms. Jones’s novel, Thomas Perry, deputy publisher at Random House Publishing Group, said that it “disturbs us that we feel we cannot publish it right now.” He said that after sending out advance copies of the novel, the company received “from credible and unrelated sources, 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.”

After consulting security experts and Islam scholars, Mr. Perry said the company decided “to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel.”

This saga upsets me as a Muslim — and as a writer who believes that fiction can bring Islamic history to life in a uniquely captivating and humanizing way. “I’m devastated,” Ms. Jones told me after the book got spiked, adding, “I wanted to honor Aisha and all the wives of Muhammad by giving voice to them, remarkable women whose crucial roles in the shaping of Islam have so often been ignored — silenced — by historians.” Last month, Ms. Jones signed a termination agreement with Random House, so her literary agent could shop the book to other publishers.

This time, the instigator of the trouble wasn’t a radical Muslim cleric, but an American academic. In April, looking for endorsements, Random House sent galleys to writers and scholars, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. Ms. Jones put her on the list because she read Ms. Spellberg’s book, “Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr.”

But Ms. Spellberg wasn’t a fan of Ms. Jones’s book.
[…]

– Source: You Still Can’t Write About Muhammad, Opinion, Asra Q. Nomani, The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 6, 2008 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

In many ways Ms. Spellberg reminds us of cult apologists — academic defenders of religious cults.

She has attempted to defend her reasoning:

I Didn’t Kill ‘The Jewel of Medina’

[…] As a historian invited to “comment” on the book by its Random House editor at the author’s express request, I objected strenuously to the claim that “The Jewel of Medina” was “extensively researched,” as stated on the book jacket. As an expert on Aisha’s life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel’s fallacious representation of a very real woman’s life. The author and the press brought me into a process, and I used my scholarly expertise to assess the novel. It was in that same professional capacity that I felt it my duty to warn the press of the novel’s potential to provoke anger among some Muslims.

There is a long history of anti-Islamic polemic that uses sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith. This novel follows in that oft-trodden path, one first pioneered in medieval Christian writings. The novel provides no new reading of Aisha’s life, but actually expands upon provocative themes regarding Muhammad’s wives first found in an earlier novel by Salman Rushdie, “The Satanic Verses,” which I teach. I do not espouse censorship of any kind, but I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard for its richness or resonance in the present.
[…]

– Source: I Didn’t Kill ‘The Jewel of Medina’, Opinion, Denise A. Spellberg, Assoc. Professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin, The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 9, 2008
— Summarized by Religion News Blog

Ms. Spellberg should look up the dictionary definition of ‘novel’: “A fictional prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters.”

Sherry Jones, author of The Jewel of Medina, writes:

Censoring “The Jewel Of Medina”

When I set out to write a book about A’isha bint Abi Bakr, favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad, I never doubted that it would be published. After all, I had all the elements I needed for a terrific work of historical fiction: a remarkable heroine, little known in the West; a famous hero, widely misunderstood here; a setting unfamiliar yet exotic; and an exciting tale of love, war, spiritual awakening and redemption.

Five years and seven drafts later, I had indeed landed a publisher for “The Jewel of Medina.” Not just any publisher, either, but Random House, the biggest house in the world.

[…]Then, a university professor, asked for an endorsement, called Random House with warnings of a terrorist attack by angry Muslims if my book were published. “A national security issue,” University of Texas associate professor Denise Spellberg reportedly said. “More dangerous than the Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons.”

Now this surprised me — stunned me, in fact. The follow-up letter from her lawyer provided the second hit in Ms. Spellberg’s one-two punch, threatening to sue Random House if her name were associated with my book in any way, including, I assume, a listing in my bibliography. Her reason had me reeling: She objected, she said, to the book’s “sexual content,” of which there is almost none.

Several weeks later, Random House associate publisher Elizabeth McGuire delivered the final blow. After consulting with other academic “experts” in Islam as well as the company’s head of security, Random House executives had decided to “indefinitely postpone” publication. Not because of terrorist threats, mind you — but because of threats of terrorist threats. Because, in other words, of fear.

I was, of course, devastated by this news, coming as it did less than three months before my Aug. 12 publication date. I was also chagrined to realize the far-reaching ramifications of this historic decision to quash a work of art before it could even reach the public eye. Is Random House no longer publishing books about Islam? How does this bode for the future of publishing? What will be banned next? Art? Music? Theater? Dance?

As a journalist for the last 28 years, I hold the right to free speech especially dear. The First Amendment is, in my view, the very best thing about living in the United States. Publishing houses can, of course, do whatever they want. But university professors? Ms. Spellberg urged Random House to abstain from publishing. The reason, she is telling reporters now, is that she doesn’t like my book. Does this development mean our public universities no longer support the free exchange of ideas?

I’m optimistic, but not naive. I expected my book to spark controversy. “The Jewel of Medina” is a novel of women’s empowerment, never a popular theme among fundamentalists of any faith. I was also aware that some would take offense at any fictional portrayal of Muhammad, especially one by a non-Muslim American woman. Given the respect with which I treat the Muslim prophet, however, I never expected to be killed because of it. I still don’t.

As an advocate for peace, I have high hopes for “The Jewel of Medina” and its sequel, in which A’isha and her rival, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, are dual protagonists facing off in the first Islamic civil war. Already I’ve had many requests for interviews with Muslim journalists and have been invited to participate in a 90-minute chat on IslamOnline.org, a Muslim website which boasts of 13 million hits weekly.

This type of dialogue is long overdue.

– Source: Censoring “The Jewel Of Medina”, Opinion, Sherry Jones, PostGlobal, Washington Post/Newsweek, Aug. 12, 2008 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

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This post was last updated: May. 9, 2014