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(cross-posted from Tangled Up in Blue Guy)

More Book Hysteria

Stephanie has an alert on a book being pulled from the presses based on a review by a scholar in Texas.  The book hasn’t even hit galleys yet, only reached advanced preview copy stage and already calls have been placed by people who haven’t read the manuscript to demand that it not be published by Random House.  Some have demanded that the book be pulled from the bookstores (?) and an apology issued to all Muslims worldwide.

Aisha and Muhammad Wedding Night

Aisha and Muhammad Wedding Night

The book is a(n) historical fiction based on the life of Muhammad’s child bride, Aisha. Aisha was nine years old when she was married off to the Prophet Who Shall Not Be Depicted.  Many of us are familiar with the edict against depictions of the prophet who started Islam.  It is considered blasphemy, which is odd because Muhammad is not considered to be the son, brother or cousin of Allah.  He was a man who claimed to have been visited by an angel and given the Koran.

The professor who put a stop to the book is Denise Spellberg, an assistant professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.  She’s not a Muslim, but the novel apparently so disturbed her that she started spreading the word to Muslims who she thought should know about this upcoming affront to Islam.  From an article in the Wall Street Journal by Asran Q. Nomani:

This time, the instigator of the trouble wasn’t a radical Muslim cleric, but an American academic. In April, looking for endorsements, Random House sent galleys to writers and scholars, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. Ms. Jones put her on the list because she read Ms. Spellberg’s book, “Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr.”

But Ms. Spellberg wasn’t a fan of Ms. Jones’s book. On April 30, Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Ms. Spellberg’s classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site, got a frantic call from her. “She was upset,” Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel “made fun of Muslims and their history,” and asked him to warn Muslims.

In an interview, Ms. Spellberg told me the novel is a “very ugly, stupid piece of work.” The novel, for example, includes a scene on the night when Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha: “the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion’s sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life.” Says Ms. Spellberg: “I walked through a metal detector to see ‘Last Temptation of Christ,'” the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. “I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”

Rather than deal too much with the subject of the story here, as Stephanie has done a great job of discussing the issue, I am going to ask you to watch with me the reaction that people have to this story.  I think that the publisher should be ashamed of pulling it.  I think that the author, Sherry Jones, should be free to shop her book to other publishers without having to return her advance money.  I think that the book should be given a chance at the bookstores.  What I want to watch in the reaction to this is to see if the same people who took affront at PZ Myers will join in on the call to publish this novel.

The issue I am concerned about is where people are willing to draw the line at respecting others’ religious beliefs.  Do you see where I am leading?  The feeling that certain people have about the sacred ban on graphic depictions of the prophet is the same one that Catholics have about the Eucharist.  It is a killing offense, a blasphemy against Allah, the Prophet and all Muslims.

Will the same people who called for PZ to be reprimanded, fired or even killed for his actions now turn around and demand that the book be published; illustrating the hypocrisy that religion engenders?  Or will they now join with the Muslims and Dr. Spellberg to call for respect of others’ beliefs and demanded that Sherry Jones apologize and humble herself before the worldwide anger of Muslims?

Spellberg defends herself in a letter published Saturday in the Wall Street Journal:

As a historian invited to “comment” on the book by its Random House editor at the author’s express request, I objected strenuously to the claim that “The Jewel of Medina” was “extensively researched,” as stated on the book jacket. As an expert on Aisha’s life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel’s fallacious representation of a very real woman’s life. The author and the press brought me into a process, and I used my scholarly expertise to assess the novel. It was in that same professional capacity that I felt it my duty to warn the press of the novel’s potential to provoke anger among some Muslims. (emphasis mine, tuibguy.)

I am not sure why she felt it was her responsibility to frantically call Sahed Amanullah and warn him that the book was coming out, and I am not sure if she knew that he would run the Twilight Bark of an Islamic listserv.  It seems so, but it isn’t fair to take his word that she was frantic.

I’ll never be in the position of judging the historical accuracy of the novel, but even though Spellberg thought it was poorly researched, I think that her judgment in telling him that it was offensive without offering to let him read it and make up his own mind was irresponsible and yes, it did lead to the book being pulled.  This happened even though she opposes censorship.  She advocated its censorship in a passive aggressive manner so that she could claim a plausible deniability.  Her hands are clean, she says.

When we recoil in fear from offending the beliefs of another group, we give religion a power it doesn’t deserve.  We let it control even those of us who don’t share the religion.  The people who bugged me the most in the crackergate fiasco were not so much the rabid catholics who wanted to see him destroyed and humiliated, the people who made me most angry were the equivocating atheists who said we should excoriate him because he wasn’t showing the proper respect to a religion he didn’t believe.

Sherry Jones is not showing disrepect, she is writing a novel based on a historical person.  It may or may not be accurate. Stephanie says it is not, in fact, pornographic.  It is a novel, and if it were to be published perhaps it would stimulate interest in Aisha and people would look to Spellberg’s work on Aisha to research further if they were drawn into the story.  She has blocked off this avenue because of her own equivocation, the warning of great danger, and she gave in to the false power of religion to declare offense.

So, let’s see if the Catholics who hate PZ respond to Random House’s decision to call of the book by demanding that they not give into terrorists and go ahead with publication.  If they do, it would be both amusing and infuriating. Muhammad should not be “hands off,” nor should Aisha, but then neither should be a wafer.

All this saddens me. Literature moves civilizations forward, and Islam is no exception. There is in fact a tradition of historical fiction in Islam, including such works as “The Adventures of Amir Hamza,” an epic on the life of Muhammad’s uncle. Last year a 948-page English translation was published, ironically, by Random House. And, for all those who believe the life of the prophet Muhammad can’t include stories of lust, anger and doubt, we need only read the Quran (18:110) where, it’s said, God instructed Muhammad to tell others: “I am only a mortal like you.”

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