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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. I guess maybe someone will give them a voice next year or something. — Sherry Jones, You Still Can’t Write About Muhammad
This quote may not be entirely accurate.
Asra Q. Nomani has an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal talking about Random House’s decision not to release The Jewel of Medina, Jones’ novel about Aisha, the youngest wife of Muhammad.
[Random House deputy publisher Thomas Perry] 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.”
So that’s… interesting. Random House has taken to avoiding the publication of books because brown people—sorry, a small, radical segment of brown people—might do something dangerous if they’re provoked. And, of course, the thing that’s meant to be doing the provoking is a fictionalized (perhaps highly fictionalized) account of a woman’s life.
For some reason, I wanted to write: “I’m torn,” but actually, I’m not torn, I’m with Asra. This is stupid, and it’s sad, and it’s more-than-slightly racist. It’s stupid on multiple levels, in fact. It’s stupid that writing about the women of early Islam as if they were actual people provokes such a chillingly negative response. It’s stupid that a western publisher reacts to fear of violence from vague, scary Muslims (who assuredly are just waiting for this book to come out as an excuse to blow up, I dunno, Los Angeles). And it’s an icy blend of stupid and colonialist that the author, the professor who took issue with the book, and—I’ll hazard—everyone handling this case at Random House is white, and not Muslim.
And that last point is why I felt maybe a bit ambivalent about this particular instance of corporate insanity. Unlike Nomani, I haven’t read the book. I don’t know if it’s shite or if it’s ridiculously offensive, and in any case I’m not particularly well-positioned to determine the latter. I do absolutely believe that misogyny—some of it particular to Islam, some of it not—is driving some of the outrage against the text and the publisher’s fear of promoting it. At the same time, this is one work of historical fiction by one white author, highlighted against a background of millions of living Muslim women—artists who are alive right now and whose voices are not silent but rather conspicuously muffled. I want Jones’ work to be published, I do, but I think there’s danger in letting it define the discourse, or become the extent of the Islamic feminist canon.