You Still Can't Write About Muhammad


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August 6, 2008; Page A15

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. On April 30, Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Ms. Spellberg's classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site, got a frantic call from her. "She was upset," Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel "made fun of Muslims and their history," and asked him to warn Muslims.

In an interview, Ms. Spellberg told me the novel is a "very ugly, stupid piece of work." The novel, for example, includes a scene on the night when Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha: "the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion's sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life." Says Ms. Spellberg: "I walked through a metal detector to see 'Last Temptation of Christ,'" the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. "I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography."

After he got the call from Ms. Spellberg, Mr. Amanullah dashed off an email to a listserv of Middle East and Islamic studies graduate students, acknowledging he didn't "know anything about it [the book]," but telling them, "Just got a frantic call from a professor who got an advance copy of the forthcoming novel, 'Jewel of Medina' -- she said she found it incredibly offensive." He added a write-up about the book from the Publishers Marketplace, an industry publication.

The next day, a blogger known as Shahid Pradhan posted Mr. Amanullah's email on a Web site for Shiite Muslims -- "Hussaini Youth" -- under a headline, "upcoming book, 'Jewel of Medina': A new attempt to slander the Prophet of Islam." Two hours and 28 minutes after that, another person by the name of Ali Hemani proposed a seven-point strategy to ensure "the writer withdraws this book from the stores and apologise all the muslims across the world."

Meanwhile back in New York City, Jane Garrett, an editor at Random House's Knopf imprint, dispatched an email on May 1 to Knopf executives, telling them she got a phone call the evening before from Ms. Spellberg (who happens to be under contract with Knopf to write "Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an.")

"She thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence," Ms. Garrett wrote. "Denise says it is 'a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff . . . a national security issue.' Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons. Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP." ("The Jewel of Medina" was to be published by Random House's Ballantine Books.) That day, the email spread like wildfire through Random House, which also received a letter from Ms. Spellberg and her attorney, saying she would sue the publisher if her name was associated with the novel. On May 2, a Ballantine editor told Ms. Jones's agent the company decided to possibly postpone publication of the book.

On a May 21 conference call, Random House executive Elizabeth McGuire told the author and her agent that the publishing house had decided to indefinitely postpone publication of the novel for "fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims" and concern for "the safety and security of the Random House building and employees."

All this saddens me. Literature moves civilizations forward, and Islam is no exception. There is in fact a tradition of historical fiction in Islam, including such works as "The Adventures of Amir Hamza," an epic on the life of Muhammad's uncle. Last year a 948-page English translation was published, ironically, by Random House. And, for all those who believe the life of the prophet Muhammad can't include stories of lust, anger and doubt, we need only read the Quran (18:110) where, it's said, God instructed Muhammad to tell others: "I am only a mortal like you."

Ms. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam" (HarperOne, 2006).

You Still Can't Write About Muhammad -

I'd like to nominate Denise Spellberg as douchebag of the month. Way to crap on intellectual discourse.


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Originally Posted by purrtykitty
I wonder how much of it was motivated by her own agenda in publishing another book (Spellburg).

That seems to be one of the prevalent ideas making the rounds in the few 'net places that I'm discussing this.


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Yeah, her response seems "off". Not very professional to go around bashing someone's work like that, especially from an academic.


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Why would you make a fictional story on such a subject in the first place? Some people are still offended by the Da Vinci Code. Stick to fact or don't pick up a pen on such a sensitive subject.

Sorry if I seem harsh, but I despise discrimination, defamation, vilification or the spread of more stereotypes or unfair generalizations in any form. Feel free to disagree.


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Originally Posted by babiid0llox
Why would you make a fictional story on such a subject in the first place? Some people are still offended by the Da Vinci Code. Stick to fact or don't pick up a pen on such a sensitive subject.

Sorry if I seem harsh, but I despise discrimination, defamation, vilification or the spread of more stereotypes or unfair generalizations in any form. Feel free to disagree.

i definitely disagree on the above.

some of the best books i have read are historical fiction - fictional stories about historical people. it's a valid genre and it's not a stereotype, vilification or generalisation.

While many of the aspects of the book are not true (it is fiction), a lot can still be learnt about the period and the people of that time by reading these books. if properly researched and well written they can open up a historical period to someone who would otherwise have never read a single thing on the subject.

The Da Vinci code offended people because it raised issues and themes that people didn't want to think about because they are, quite honestly, discomforting. i don't think that's wrong, nor do i think it's reason to censor the book. if someone starts reading it and gets offended, they have the option of putting it down and not touching it. i also find it ironic that the da vinci code was the book that received all the publicity when one of dan brown's other works - angels and demons - is written along the similar lines.

i don't believe in censoring film, art and literature so that no-one ever sees something that might challenge their ideas about the world... because if that happened then i fear there'd be stagnation in thought.

on the topic of this manuscript: i would like to hope that this could be published with no incident. sadly it's been demonstrated time and again that the world we live in sometimes doesn't take well to being challenged. works that have religion in the mix always seem to stir up a controversy.


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Originally Posted by redambition
The Da Vinci code offended people because it raised issues and themes that people didn't want to think about because they are, quite honestly, discomforting.

*smirk* Yeah and it offended me because it was such a poorly written, piece of crap book.


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I was very dismayed by Random House's decision not to publish that book. Not only does it fail to give credit to moderate Muslims who WON'T necessarily react by violence, but this form of self-censorship also shuts the door on discussion and dialog. Sorry, but why are we treating Muhammad better than Jesus Christ? Why can books about the possibility that Jesus Christ may not be divine be published, become best sellers even, but a book about Muhammad and his 9 year old wife can't be? Is it because we're less threatened by how the Catholic Church will react than how Muslims will react?

No one is above criticism, curiosity or reproach. This includes Muhammad, Islam, Christianity, the Pope, President Bush, or anyone/anything else. Suppression of questions isn't the answer, not here in the free world. If, however, an Islamic Republic chooses to ban this book that is entirely their business.

Here's a link to Irshad Manji's reaction to this decision by Random House... Irshad Manji blog and official website » home

As an outspoken Muslim in Canada who happens to be a lesbian, she's faced many death threats for daring to suggest that Islam should be reformed from within. That returning to a forgotten tradition of questioning and independent thinking, they've put a cork in the progress within their own world. Voices like hers should not be silenced. This story shouldn't be either, because then it exalts one religious figure over another by treating one religion with kid gloves and others with brass knuckles.

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