Muhammad's Youngest Wife

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Sunday, November 23, 2008


By Sherry Jones

Beaufort. 358 pp. $24.95

It's shocking that Random House got cold feet about Muslim reaction and refused to publish Sherry Jones's The Jewel of Medina. But what's even more shocking is that they paid good money to acquire such a dreadful novel in the first place.

By now, this cliché-ridden abaya-ripper is a cause celebre, so it's hard to shut out all the noise and evaluate the book simply as a work of historical fiction. But I will try.

Great historical fiction requires a strong scaffolding of fact before the voids can be filled in by acts of imaginative empathy. And the widely accepted facts about Aisha bint Abu Bakr are rich with possibility. A child of 9 at the time of her marriage to Muhammad and a young woman of 19 when he died in her arms, Aisha was the great love of the prophet's later life. She fled with Muhammad into exile, witnessed battles at his side, became a recognized religious authority, survived charges of adultery and learned to live with the jealousies of a polygamous household as the prophet acquired many other wives.

After Muhammad's death, she led forces in a doomed attempt to wrest power from Ali, his son-in-law, thereby creating the Sunni-Shiite split that divides the Islamic world today. From the hadith, or sayings of the prophet and his followers recorded in the early days of Islam, Aisha emerges as a sharp wit and a profound thinker whose status as a beloved and important figure was widely recognized during Muhammad's lifetime. Among Muslims today, she remains a polarizing figure, revered by Sunnis and disparaged by many Shiites for her enmity toward Ali.

Yet with all this intriguing material at her disposal, Jones unaccountably fails to create a rich psychological portrait of an important and under-examined woman. Instead, she concocts a steamy Orientalist stew that must have Edward Said spinning in his grave. There are some facts in these pages, but they're drowning in ahistorical and under-researched claptrap. Jones's Aisha is portrayed as a bloodthirsty, sword-wielding brat without a profound thought in her head, a would-be warrior forced into marriage with Muhammad when her heart is already set on another, younger man.

Okay, okay . . . The Jewel of Medina is fiction. Jones is entitled to imagine whatever she wants. But if you wish to claim that your novel is "extensively researched," why lurch around in time and space, grabbing at concepts such as hatun, or leading wife, which Jones knows full well belongs to the Ottoman empire of centuries later, or purdah, which exists in Persian, Urdu and Hindi but not Arabic? Why refer to an Islamic veil by the modern Western term "wrapper"? Why have Muslims bowing to Aisha, when bowing is an alien custom to desert Arabia and to Islam's egalitarian ethos? (Disclosure: In the publicity material released by Beaufort Books, which picked up the novel after Random House's craven bow-out, Jones cites, as one of her initial inspirations, the information on the prophet's wives in my 1995 nonfiction book, Nine Parts of Desire. To which I can only say, Oy vey.)

Not everyone has responded to this book negatively. Some respected Muslim feminists such as Irshad Manji and Asra Nomani have written in support of The Jewel of Medina. So perhaps the fairest thing is to let the book speak for itself. Aisha's crush, Safwan, is described as: "Tall, handsome Safwan, with the chiseled face of a purebred steed and hair as thick and glossy as a horse's mane." There are words that strike despair into the heart of a reader. "Steed" is one of them. "Loins" another: "Desire burned like a fire in Muhammad's loins, unquenchable in one night, or two, or three." On almost every page, similes jostle each other for room: "Terror snatched at my throat like the teeth of a crazed dog and hammered the city like a hailstorm." And words strain for meaning in sentences such as this: "Outside, a vulture's cry impaled my waning hopes."

Finally, there's the matter of Aisha's vital signs. Her pulse does some very odd things: "My pulse raced like that galloping horse I'd dreamt so often of riding on with him." "My pulse reared like a spooked horse." "I ignored the whirling of my pulse." "My pulse clipping my throat. . . ." "My pulse surged." "My pulse sped." "I willed my fluttering pulse to calm down." Someone clearly needs to find that girl a cardiologist. Given the other anachronisms in this book, I wouldn't have been surprised had one turned up.

-- Geraldine Brooks, the author, most recently, of "People of the Book."

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