Denise Spellberg: She denies her critical comments put the kabash on a novel about Islam

Historians in the News

To the Editor:

Asra Q. Nomani's "You Still Can't Write About Muhammad" (op-ed, Aug. 6) falsely asserts that I am the "instigator" of the Random House Press decision not to publish a novel about the Prophet's wife titled, "The Jewel of Medina." I never had this power, nor did I single-handedly stop the book's publication. Random House made its final decision based on the advice of other scholars, conveniently not named in the article, and based ultimately on its determination of corporate interests.

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.

There is a long history of anti-Islamic polemic that uses sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith. This novel follows in that oft-trodden path, one first pioneered in medieval Christian writings. The novel provides no new reading of Aisha's life, but actually expands upon provocative themes regarding Muhammad's wives first found in an earlier novel by Salman Rushdie, "The Satanic Verses," which I teach. I do not espouse censorship of any kind, but I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard for its richness or resonance in the present.

The combination of sex and violence sells novels. When combined with falsification of the Islamic past, it exploits Americans who know nothing about Aisha or her seventh-century world and counts on stirring up controversy to increase sales. If Ms. Nomani and readers of the Journal wish to allow literature to "move civilization forward," then they should read a novel that gets history right.

Denise A. Spellberg
Assoc. Professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies
University of Texas at Austin

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Tim R. Furnish - 8/29/2008

Ms. Paul,
Are you constitutionally incapable of making a point without resorting to attempts at personal insult--"Timmy"--or are you a jackass by training?
The difference between the example you cite and and that of Muhammad is this: neither King John nor any Catholic ruler of medieval Europe WAS A PART OF THE FOUNDING OF HIS RELIGION! That may be beyond your close-minded intellectual capacities, but it's true. And I find it fascinating that you somehow feel compelled to defend vile practices in Islam? Why is that?

Lorraine Paul - 8/28/2008

Gives you a little frisson to think about that does it, Timmy?

King John of Magna Carta fame is also believed to have consummated his marriage to Isabella of Angouleme when she was just 13. Well below our modern-day age of consent. They went on to have five children.

Are you going to condemn the Catholic Church (which performed the marriage ceremony) and its successor, the Church of England for that fact?

Tim R. Furnish - 8/25/2008

Is it not true that according to biographies of the Muslim prophet he consummated his "marriage" to Aisha at age 9? Or is that somehow "anti-Islamic polemic" cleverly disguised as Muslim hagiography?