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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Book Review: The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones

Earlier this year, in an attempt to learn more about Islam, I spent some time trying to find a fictionalized account of Muhammad’s life. At the time, I felt this would be a starting point for learning more about the foundations of Islam. Though my search was certainly not exhaustive, it was purposeful, but in the end I didn’t find any historical fiction about early Islam. I remembered thinking this seemed odd; a completely unmet literary niche. But since I had no plans to write such a book myself, I settled instead for a couple of nonfiction books by Karen Armstrong, which were highly recommended as primers about Muhammad and Islam.

By the time Sherry Jones’ book “The Jewel of Medina” became an LT ER option, I’d forgotten about my earlier quest to find historical Islamic fiction. Consequently, I neglected to realize that “The Jewel of Medina” is actually something of an extraordinary undertaking. It wasn’t until I was well over half way through the book that I learned about its controversial publication.

“The Jewel of Medina” tells the story of A’isha, who was married to Muhammad at a very young age (nine?). Her story explores the unique perspective of not only being a child bride, but also of being one of many wives. A’isha’s life occurs during a significant historical crossroads; she was witness to the birth of one of the world’s great religions, and all the bumps that attended that birth. It is also a story about love and friendship, communication and trust. It illustrates A’isha’s journey towards finding peace with oneself and one’s lot in life. While Muhammad is certainly a central character, this is a book about women, and its plotline is driven by their actions and feelings.

From a strictly literary standpoint, the book is mediocre. It is a moderately engaging story; neither difficult book to put down or difficult to pick up. Jones spends most of her time drawing the female characters and fleshing them out (specifically from A’isha’s perspective; the book is written in the first person). There is little room given to the sights, smells, and atmosphere of being in 7th Century Middle East. Consequently, that place to which the reader longs to step into is disappointingly blank. Little of the imagery lingers; there is little sensory stimulation. This was disappointment for me, because the aspect of historical fiction I most enjoy is to be transported to another place and time.

Authors are supposed to write what they know, and though Jones is certainly a woman and writes about women’s issues, she isn’t Muslim. Jones’ characters seem to be drawn heavily from a 20th Century perspective. There is a chasm of character-intuition that is self-defeating. This is a book more about feminism, 7th Century-style, and less about Islam itself.

Furthermore, I kept encountering the fatal flaw of a lot of historical fiction: how much of the story can be trusted as factual? For me, and a lot of my reading friends, this is a significant question. When this question comes between me and my ability to absorb the story, there is a problem. Especially when the story in unfamiliar territory. Jones’ novel is relationally-driven, rather than driven by historical fact.

For a story about the origins of one of history’s most influential and significant religions, the book is notably void of spirituality. This may be part of the inherent problem with writing about another person’s faith. The lack of Muhammad’s poetic revelations is notable. Everyone in the story seems to be paying lip service to “al-Lah”, but there seems to be no real “showing it” examples of the characters being molded and shaped by God. There is no sense of any character – Muhammad included – having a genuine encounter with God.

On the plus side, what Jones does right is to make her characters fully human. Despite their historical importance, they make mistakes; they are driven by lust, greed, and selfishness. In this sense, they are real and accessible. Even if it is from a 20th Century Western feminist perspective, there were times when I had to pause reading the book and imagine myself in a similar culture and time.

Is it possible for a non-Muslim, Western woman to tell this story? This question nagged at me from the get-go. And clearly, this seems to underlay many of my comments. Certainly, it is a story that should be written, as should many other stories about Islam. And if Muslim men and women won’t do it, who then is left?

Turning the question around, could a book about Jesus Christ written by an atheist be relevant? As a Christian, my answer to that question is: yes. If only to understand how someone outside of my belief system views its foundation and founder, yes, such a book would be very valuable. (And many such books – both respectful and scathing - have been written.) It is also likely there would be parts that would seem to “misunderstand” my faith, and perhaps even be offensive. But in a pluralistic society it is a hopeful sign when people of different worldviews and cultural contexts deeply try to respectfully understand and honor each other.

This is certainly what Sherry Jones has tried to do. No, she’s didn’t get everything right, but who of us ever does? It’s a place to start. If you enjoy Philippa Gregory’s books, and if you liked Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent,” I suspect you might enjoy “The Jewel of Medina.”

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