The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones
A’isha is a 6 year old girl who, after her parents betrothed her to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was required to remain in her family home until she had her first menstrual period. For an adventurous girl such as herself, she is tortured by the limitations placed on her simply because she was betrothed. She dreamed of escaping to freedom with the Bedouins with Safwan, her childhood friend during the entire length of her purdah. When she witnesses a woman from her clan dragged away by a man who would disgrace her as well, A’isha can barely contain herself from taking up a sword and defending her neighbor herself. She may have been young and she may have been a girl, but she had the heart of a warrior. It was this spirit which caught the eye of Muhammad and changed her destiny.
I first heard about this novel in August when it was reported that Random House was pulling its publication for fear of angering Muslims and perhaps inciting violence. This reminded me of the events surrounding Salmon Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. I found the decision disappointing. Self-censorship out of fear of what might happen is in some ways worse than forcible censorship because it isn’t always as visible. How many other books have never been published out of fear? Thankfully, it was finally published by Beaufort Books in the United States. When I snagged a copy of this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, I was very curious to see just what it was that caused such a large publisher to back down. This is a novelization of a portion of Muhammad’s life through the eyes of his most notorious wife. Still, he was portrayed with warmth and empathy. His charisma and love of Allah are obvious, but so is his humanity. While I suppose any fictionalization of Muhammad may anger some Muslims, no offense was intended. Canceling this publication was much ado about nothing.
As most established religions have struggled against the treatment of women and their roles in society, A’isha’s character is especially interesting as (to Western eyes) Muslim women seemed to be the most imprisoned by their faith, family, and spouse. The only issue I had with this novel was the story line surrounding the way in which the rules surrounding facial covering became part of Muslim life. Making a vision seem convenient to Muhammad felt like an “easy out” that was not at all in line with his character. I do not know exactly how this came to be part of the Islam faith, but it seems to have sprang more from the existing culture than from Allah.
The Jewel of Medina is a fast paced and engrossing look at the beginnings of Islam through the eyes of a young girl who eventually becomes the third wife of the Prophet Muhammad. At the beginning I was reminded of The 19th Wife because of the common themes of plural marriage and being married to a prophet. The 19th Wife and The Jewel of Medina are both ambitious novels attempting to provide insight on the origins of world religions through the stories of the women involved. Interesting that both novels would be published this year. For me, Jones’ novel worked where Ebershoff’s did not. From the moment that A’isha is married to the much older Muhammad, I could not put the book down. This novel’s insights into living among sister-wives were more compelling and, as there is only one voice telling the story, the reader is always fully aware of the opinions coloring the story. While we can’t truly understand today without knowledge of the past, by leaving the modern out of The Jewel of Medina Sherry Jones brought early Arabic culture and the roots of Islam to life without much of the cynicism of today.
I cannot recommend this novel enough. It is a wonderful way to learn about the origins of Islam through the eyes of a complex and strong young girl and then woman. A’isha does not conform to my ideas of a typical Muslim woman anymore than she did during her day and age. She had to fight for her place in Muhammad’s harim and for the place of women in her society. Being so much younger than her husband, A’isha’s story does not end upon Muhammad’s death and I am eagerly waiting for the sequel. The Jewel of Medina, like all of the historical fiction I’ve enjoyed, has peaked my interest in Islam, Muhammad and his wives. I absolutely enjoyed the adventure and I’m sure you will, too.
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