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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Jewel of Medina

Even before its publication, The Jewel of Medina angered some people, made some very nervous, and rallied others who resent being told what they may or may not read. The book’s first publisher bailed out on it’s deal to publish the novel and its British publisher, after being firebombed, is yet to publish the book. Thankfully, the publication and marketing of this Sherry Jones debut novel in the United States has been accomplished without violence and with little, if any, real protest from those who would like to see Jones silenced.

The Jewel of Medina is not a great novel. But, of course, it is not that simple.

Any fictional account written today about the relationship between the Prophet Muhammad and his nine wives and four concubines, even as sympathetic an account as this one, will be controversial. But, more particularly, The Jewel of Medina is especially prone to controversy since it is told from the point-of-view of Muhammad’s “child bride,” A’isha bint Abi Bakr, who was betrothed to Muhammad when she was six years old and he was fifty.

A’isha, as portrayed by Jones, is an independent and willful little girl, a free spirit who sees herself as the equal of any male she encounters. She is especially close to one of the little boys, Safwan, she plays with every day and his continuing presence in her life will at times tempt her to break her marriage vows to Muhammad.

A’isha’s world changes forever on the day that her mother calls her away from her friends to tell her that she is to immediately begin purdah, confinement to her home, where she will remain until her husband comes to claim her on her wedding day. That is shock enough for a little girl like A’isha, but the even bigger shock is that the future husband to whom she was betrothed at birth, Safwan, is out of the picture. Instead, her husband-to-be is a man even older than her father, the Prohphet Muhammad.

Rebellious, though she might be, A’isha remains confined to the home of her parents for the next three years and, by the time she is nine years old and Muhammad comes for her, she is desperate for a change of scenery despite her fears about what marriage will be like. Much to her relief, the marriage between A’isha and her new husband is not actually consummated until several more years pass and she has matured into womanhood.

Ironically, as imagined by Jones, A’isha eventually becomes much more anxious to consummate the marriage than Muhammad is because of the competition she faces within Muhammad’s harem for its leadership role. She realizes that her image as “child bride” is not one to convey the status and respect required for her to assume the role of “Great Lady of the harem.” The A’isha of The Jewel of Medina, much like the historical A’isha, grows into a strong woman, very much a Joan of Arc of her times, a woman who becomes a trusted advisor to Muhammad and who leads troops into battle against the enemies of Islam. In fact, although it is not covered in the book, the historical A’isha played a key role in the initial Islamic civil war that produced the split between the Sunni and Shi’ite factions that is still causing problems for the religion today.

The Jewel of Medina is historical fiction, “fiction,” being the key word. It is not anti-Islam and, to the contrary, it reads as a very pro-Islam look at the religion and its founder, the Prophet Muhammad. It places the religion’s origins into the context of its times, a time when war among different tribes and alliances was more the norm than the exception, when leaders had to literally fight for the survival of their own, a time when polygamous marriages were often entered into as a means of building political alliances.

More importantly, it is a reminder that Muhammad was a human being, something of which he himself often took great pains to remind his followers.

I said earlier that The Jewel of Medina is not a great novel. It’s style is a little stilted, especially the dialogue, and that makes it easier to take in doses of a chapter or two at a time rather than in longer stretches. But even though it focuses largely on the relationships between, and internal struggles for dominance, among Muhammad’s wives, there is much to learn from the novel. Most readers, in fact, will come away from the book with a better understanding of, and more compassion for, the religion of Islam than with which they began the book.

I, for one, am thankful that the author and publisher had the courage to get this one into my hands. It was not a wasted effort on any of our parts.

Rated at: 3.5

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