Muhammad and Aisha, a Love Story
By: Robert Spencer
Middle East Quarterly | Wednesday, November 19, 2008
The Jewel of Medina
by Sherry Jones
New York: Beaufort Books, 2008.
432 pp. $25
Sherry Jones, correspondent for the Bureau of National Affairs news agency, never expected her novel about Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr, the first caliph, and favorite wife of the prophet of Islam, to become a battleground in the war over free speech between the West and the Muslim world. Rather, as she explained, "I have deliberately and consciously written respectfully about Islam and Mohammed … I envisioned that my book would be a bridge-builder."
The Jewel of Medina became a cause célèbre when Random House dropped it in August 2008 just before publication, citing fear of threats from Muslims—threats, it bears noting, that had not yet materialized. Subsequently, three Muslims were arrested in London for firebombing the offices of the book's new British publisher, Gibson Square, which also then dropped the book. It has now been published in the United States by Beaufort Books, which, in a press release, said that it "knows how to look for trouble."
But whoever reads The Jewel of Medina, after suffering through stilted Hollywood historical epic dialogue larded with Arabic tidbits for authenticity's sake, will wonder what the fuss was all about. True to her word, Jones offers a portrait of Muhammad that is so flattering as to be worthy of British religion writer Karen Armstrong, who compared Muhammad to Gandhi.
To be sure, abundant evidence in the Arabic literary sources backs up her portrayal of Muhammad. One of his companions described him as "neither rough nor harsh. He is neither noisy in the markets nor returns evil for evil, but he forgives and pardons." Another said that Muhammad was "more bashful than a maiden in her seclusion." He "was not a reviler or a curser nor obscene." One of Muhammad's servants remembered that his master never scolded or rebuked him: "So I served the Prophet at home and on journeys; by Allah, he never said to me for anything which I did: Why have you done this like this or, for anything which I did not do: Why have you not done this like this?"
In line with this, Jones's Muhammad is a rock of gentle stability. When Aisha is accused of adultery and roughly treated by the crowd, Aisha rests in the arms of Muhammad, sighs with relief and declares: "Trying to forge my own destiny had nearly destroyed me, but his love held the power to heal." Or, when Aisha lashes out jealously against his other wives, Muhammad's rebuke is mild, and he quickly tries to cheer her up. Muhammad does fight battles in the book, but they appear always to be defensive. There is little to indicate that he would ever have uttered such words as those attributed to him in a famous hadith (sayings and actions of Muhammad): "I have been ordered to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God."
Indeed, the novel contains no hint of the Muhammad who, according to another hadith, even struck Aisha herself. One night, thinking she was asleep, he went out with Aisha surreptitiously following him. When he found out what she had done, he hit her: "He struck me on the chest, which caused me pain, and then said: ‘Did you think that Allah and His Apostle would deal unjustly with you?'" The Muhammad whom Islamic tradition records as saying that "a man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife" is not in this book. Nor would we get any hint from Jones's sugary account of Muhammad's interactions with his many wives of what might have moved Aisha to say, "I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women."
In keeping with this approach, Jones paints Muhammad's enemies with lurid comic-book strokes as evil, treacherous, and repulsive. The Jews of the Qaynuqa tribe, whom Muhammad eventually exiled, lurk sinisterly in doorways and play evil pranks upon Muhammad's wives. Abu Sufyan, the Quraysh leader who fought Muhammad and the Muslims in the battles of Badr, Uhud, and the Trench, abducts and murders a friend of Aisha; Jones describes his sweat glistening "like beads of grease in every fold and crease of fat" while his accomplice's "pocked face seemed to writhe with hatred."
Jones depicts her heroine as a plucky seventh-century Nancy Drew, aching to take part in swordplay with the men and actually doing so on a few occasions. A feisty Aisha, tart of tongue and ready for a scrap, is plausible enough in light of many Islamic traditions recording her trenchant remarks. Jones faithfully records Aisha's acid comment to Muhammad after he received a divine revelation commanding him to marry his former daughter-in-law Zaynab: "I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires." Her combative spirit is plausible enough given Aisha's later role in the Battle of the Camel in 656, during which she directed the incipient Sunni forces against Ali's nascent Shi‘ites while sitting inside a howdah on a camel's back—thus giving the battle its name.
Given its hagiographical presentation of a surpassingly gentle and wise Muhammad and a combative Aisha, why should Muslims object?—because, The Jewel of Medina is, after all, a novel, and Jones's treatment of Aisha herself has the breathless romantic tone of a Harlequin romance.
Jones embroiders on Islamic tradition in ways that reflect poorly upon Aisha and might, therefore, draw the ire of Muslims who revere her under the traditional title of "Mother of the Believers." In her account, the great love of Aisha's life is not Muhammad, at least initially, but none other than Safwan ibn al-Muattal. In Islamic tradition, only those who slander Aisha's name with accusations of adultery say that she and Safwan had any romantic connection. Safwan was the Muslim warrior who happened upon Aisha in the desert by chance when a caravan had inadvertently left her behind as she searched for a lost necklace. When they caught up with the caravan, Aisha was accused of adultery for being alone with Safwan and was not exonerated until Muhammad received a divine revelation requiring four witnesses to prove such crimes: "Why did they not produce four witnesses? Since they produce not witnesses, they verily are liars in the sight of God."
In the standard Muslim account, Aisha is innocent but has no way to prove her innocence short of divine intervention; in Jones's account, Aisha is innocent—but not completely. She has loved Safwan all her life and is bitterly disappointed when she is married off to Muhammad; she even plots to lose her necklace and miss the caravan while searching for it so as to meet Safwan in the desert, and though they share a few fervent kisses, ultimately she repels his advances and remains loyal to Muhammad. Nevertheless, pious Muslims may question whether it is seemly to portray the Mother of the Believers as being even that susceptible to temptation. Does such a portrayal qualify as blasphemy and, thereby, justify violence according to the most virulent interpreters of Islamic law? That is doubtful in the extreme. But feathers will be ruffled.
It is primarily in this episode that the book most deviates from standard Muslim pieties. Otherwise Jones seems positively determined not to portray Muhammad in a negative light, no matter how well attested negative elements of his biography may be in Islamic tradition. The most notorious example of this is her placement of the consummation of Muhammad's marriage with Aisha when she is fourteen. Jones even makes the extended delay of this consummation, out of Muhammad's tender concern for the maturity of his child bride, a major element of the dramatic movement of her story.
Yet the Islamic sources are not so circumspect. According to a hadith that appears multiple times in Bukhari, the hadith collection considered most reliable by Muslims, Aisha was six when she married Muhammad and nine when the marriage was consummated. In light of Muhammad's status as an "excellent example of conduct," this has given a sanction to child marriage that has enabled the practice to be perpetuated and reform of it made difficult in certain areas of the Islamic world.
Jones, however, follows the lead of some Islamic apologists in the West who point to some traditions recorded by the Islamic historian Tabari that suggest that Aisha was older at the time of her marriage to Muhammad. Tabari's witness is inconsistent as he records at one point that Aisha was indeed nine at the time of the consummation and, elsewhere, that all of Abu Bakr's children "were born in Al-Jahiliyyah"—that is, in the pre-Islamic period of ignorance that ended in 610 with the first revelation of the Qur'an to Muhammad. That would make Aisha at least twelve at the time of her betrothal and several years older at the consummation.
Unfortunately, however, for Muslims in general, the testimonies of the compilers of the two sahih (sound) hadith collections, the imams Bukhari and Muslim, weigh far more than that of Tabari. In her delaying of Aisha's deflowering, Jones appears to have been excessively concerned not to offend her Western Muslim, as well as non-Muslim, readers.
But in that she has, in ways she surely never foresaw, singularly failed.
 Sky News (Isleworth, U.K.), Oct. 2, 2008.
 The Daily Mail (London), Oct. 2, 2008.
 Harvard University Gazette Online, Nov. 8, 2007.
 Ibn Sa‘d, Kitab at-Tabaqat al-Kabir, S. Moinul Haq and H K. Ghazanfar, trans. (New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, n.d.), vol. 1, p. 422.
 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 432.
 Ibid., vol.1, p. 433.
 Muhammed Ibn Ismaiel al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari: The Translation of the Meanings, Muhammad M. Khan, trans. (Houston: Darussalam, 1997), vol. 9, book 87, no. 6911.
 Ibid., vol. 1, book 2, no. 25, book 8, no. 392; vol. 4, book 56, no. 2946; vol. 9, book 88, no. 6924, book 96, nos. 7284-5; also in other hadith collections.
 Imam Muslim, Sahih Muslim, rev. ed., Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, trans. (New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 2000), book 4, no. 2127.
 Abu-Dawud Sulaiman bin al-Aash'ath al-Azdi as-Sijistani, Sunan abu-Dawud, Ahmad Hasan, trans. (New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 1990), book 11, no. 2142.
 Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 7, book 77, no. 5825.
 Ibid., vol. 6, book 65, no. 4788.
 Qur., 24:13.
 Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 5, book 63, nos. 3894, 3896; vol. 7, book 67, nos. 5133-4, 5158; Muslim, Sahih Muslim, book 4, no. 1623; Abu Dawud, Sunan abu-Dawud, book 5, no. 1341, book 41, no. 4915.
 Qur., 33:21.
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