An Aisha for All Seasons
Why a controversial novel about the Prophet Mohammed's wife is nothing new.
Aisha herself reported feeling jealous of the prophet's other wives, and when a Quranic verse was revealed that allowed Mohammed to choose which wife he would spend the night with, rather than following a schedule that gave equal time to all, she reportedly said (and I imagine her delivering the line dryly): "It seems to me that your Lord hastens to satisfy your desire." In this breathtakingly assertive way, she questioned the very validity of the prophet's revelation, suggesting that he was conveniently granted tailor-made exemptions that allowed him to do as he pleased.
That spirit of defiant inquiry inspires me. I have never sat easily with the idea of Mohammed having 12 simultaneous wives or concubines while others were restricted to four (to say nothing of how I feel about the allowance for four wives). Many of my fellow Muslims, however, argue that the prophet's unions brought heavy responsibilities and that Mohammed often married otherwise undesirable women who were older or widowed, or that he contracted these marriages for strategic political reasons. The fact remains that Mohammed was allowed more wives than anyone else. Leadership has its privileges, I guess.
Like other Muslims, I cherish the stories about how the Prophet Mohammed was patient and kind with Aisha: allowing her to play with her friends and her dolls even after she was married, running a foot race with her, watching a dancing exhibition with her even when he didn't like it himself. But all these small permissions happened in the context of a grown man granting favors to a preteen he took in marriage. Their union happened at a different time, when early marriage was, perhaps, acceptable, but it is nonetheless unsettling today. Scholar Leila Ahmed, in her now-classic 1992 book Women and Gender in Islam, argues that Mohammad's marriage with the young Aisha when his prophet-hood was well-established—in contrast to his first marriage to an older businesswoman before he became a prophet—"prefigures the limitations that would thenceforth hem in Muslim women's lives" and lead to a decline in public authority for women, though Ahmed largely blames Muslim followers, rather than the prophet himself, for this turn of events.
In relation to the prophet's other widows, however, Aisha lived an exceptionally active life after his death, and it is her vitality that seems to attract Jones, who told Altmuslim.com that she sees Aisha as part of an "epic couple." Her novel—from what I can tell from its prologue and a review made possible when Jones offered a copy of the unpublished book to a Muslim media outlet—takes one of the central stories about Aisha and turns it into a coming-of-age story in which a young girl trapped by circumstance finds both love and empowerment in embracing her fate.
Muslim historical sources say that Aisha broke off an engagement to marry the prophet. One of the central narratives of The Jewel of Medina is that Aisha secretly loved this ex-fiance and dreamed of escaping with him from her imposed marriage. According to tradition, Aisha was accidentally left behind in the desert while traveling one day; when she was rescued by a man, some accused her of adultery until a divine revelation said it was not so. Jones reinterprets this story to suggest that Aisha planned to meet with her lover in the desert, only to turn away from the temptation, embrace the love of the prophet, and realize that she alone can save herself. "The story is about her empowerment as a woman," says Jones.
The Jewel of Medina is more likely to be known as a bodice-ripper than to become a classic in the way that Anita Diamant's historical-fiction interpretation of Genesis, The Red Tent, did in spite of its religious detractors. But Jones may succeed, simply because of the high profile that comes with controversy, in bringing the story of Aisha to those who have never known her—and who may find their own reflection in her.
Andrea Useem is a freelance religion writer and editor. Her Web site is www.ReligionWriter.com.