A Book Too Hot Off The Presses

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Once upon a time, Sherry Jones was a Montana newspaper reporter who dreamed she could contribute to world peace with a novel about the prophet Muhammad and his feminist leanings. Then she wrote it. Today? She's the target of a Serbian mufti and a Middle Eastern studies professor with a lawyer.

Life has been a roller coaster lately for Jones, 46, who went from being a Book-of-the-Month Club pick to seeing her novel dropped by Random House, which said in a statement it had received "cautionary advice" that the fictionalized story of one of Muhammad's wives might "incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."

A Random House spokeswoman said she could not think of any other time the company had canceled a book because of such fears.

Jones and her novel, "The Jewel of Medina," are subjects of debate from Egypt to Italy to Serbia, where 1,000 Serbian-language copies were printed before the local publisher backed out, too.

Finger-pointing abounds. Feminist Muslims are blaming censorship; Jones and her agent are blaming the Middle Eastern studies professor; and Random House is saying that Jones -- who says she doesn't fear Islamic retaliation -- should honor a non-disclosure agreement and stop talking about their dispute.

Ironically, Jones began with a pro-Islamic mind-set when she began writing the novel in 2002. After the Sept. 11 attacks led her to an interest in the Taliban, she began to research the status of women under Islam. And she came to a conclusion: Muhammad supported more rights for women than do many of his modern followers.

"I wanted to tell the story of the women around Muhammad, and to honor them and him as well," Jones said yesterday from Spokane, Wash., where she lives and writes about environmental issues for the Bureau of National Affairs. "What I see as the Islam Muhammad envisioned has, in crucial ways, been changed. I wanted to show people, especially in the West, about early Islam."

She started writing a fictionalized story of Aisha, a young and much-beloved wife of Muhammad. Seven drafts later, in April 2007, Random House gave Jones a $100,000 contract for "The Jewel of Medina" and a sequel.

"Jewel" was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection for August 2008, and Random House's imprint, Ballantine Books, named it one of their featured books. Jones gave Random House a list of people who might be interested in reviewing the book or writing blurbs for it.

All was well until April 30, when one suggested reviewers hit the alarm switch. Denise Spellberg, who teaches Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas and has written about Aisha, called her own editor -- at Knopf, another Random House imprint -- to say the book was inflammatory and problematic.

According to Natasha Kern, Jones's agent, Spellberg went on to hire an attorney and threatened to sue if her name wasn't taken out of the book's bibliography. "She said it would endanger her family," said Kern, who said Spellberg then contacted several Muslim Web sites and told them to oppose the book's coming publication. Earlier this month, Spellberg wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal that the book was "provocative" and followed a tradition of anti-Islamic writings that "use sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith." She did not return a phone call or e-mail message for this story.

Jones says the book has no sex scenes, though it explores Aisha's relationship with Muhammad in the first person and includes steamy scenes like this one: "Scandal blew in on the errant wind when I rode into Medina clutching Safwan's waist. My neighbors rushed into the street. What they saw: my wrapper fallen to my shoulders, unheeded. Loose hair lashing my face. The wife of God's Prophet entwined around another man."

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