Aisha bint Abu Bakr, the favorite and youngest wife of the Prophet Mohammed, has long been a jewel of many facets. To medieval Sunni scholars, she was an ideal of submissive womanhood. To non-Muslims, a child bride. To Shiites, a betrayer of the prophet's legacy. To feminist Muslims, a scholar and political leader.
To this long list, novelist Sherry Jones, author of the controversial The Jewel of Medina, has added her own modern, Oprah-style twist: Aisha as a young woman on a journey of love, empowerment, and self-realization. Although Random House canceled the publication of Jones' book this summer for fear of violence, sparking a new round of debate about free speech and Muslim sensibilities, the book will be released, perhaps as early as October, by a small American publishing house, Beaufort Books, in addition to several overseas publishers.
Beaufort President Eric Kampmann told NPR he did not think the book would lead to violence, saying, "There are lots of worldviews in this country. If this should be published, it should be published in America." Whether the book will in fact lead to Cartoon Debacle II remains to be seen; a book by a non-Muslim woman that describes the prophet and his wife having sex certainly seems more inflammatory than, say, a teddy bear named Mohammed. But Muslims shouldn't stand in Jones' way. She is merely doing what they have been doing for centuries: interpreting Aisha in her own way.
The first to sound the alarm about the book's possible consequences was Denise Spellberg, a scholar of Islamic history at the University of Texas-Austin and the author of Politics, Gender and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of A'isha Bint Abi Bakr. Spellberg objected to Jones' historical license and to her depiction of Aisha making love to her husband, telling journalist Asra Nomani, "You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography." Ironically, however, it is Spellberg's own book that details how Aisha's story has been refashioned in so many ways over the ages.
So who was Aisha? Defining the life of anyone who lived 14 centuries ago is challenging, if not impossible. More than 150 years passed after Aisha's death before her first biographer penned the story of her life, so many "facts" about that life are simply educated guesses. She was married at 9 (some dispute this, saying she was actually younger or older) to the Prophet Mohammed and became his favorite wife. At 14, she was accused of adultery but was later exonerated by a divine revelation. She became a widow at 18 when the prophet died and was later a leader in a conflict that rent the Muslim world into Sunni and Shiite camps. After years of sharing the teachings of her husband, she died in her mid-60s.
For me, as both a questioning and an observant Muslim, Aisha is an exciting and yet disturbing figure, embodying many of my ambivalent emotions about Muslim history. I am both drawn to her spirited intelligence and upset by the contours of a life that involved early marriage, enforced reclusiveness while married to the prophet, and a sworn widowhood following his death. I'm hardly the only one conflicted about Aisha and what she represents about women and Islam. Spellberg points out that two 20th-century Egyptian writers, feminist Nawal El Sadaawi and author Sa'id al-Afghani, see Aisha in drastically different ways. El Sadaawi portrayed her as part of a tradition of bold women who stand up for their rights, while al-Afghani called her "the perfect Islamic example for the exclusion of all Muslim women from any public role." For instance, during a battle for Muslim leadership in 656, known as "the Battle of the Camel," Aisha and her allies faced off with supporters of Ali, the fourth caliph, or successor to Mohammed, in a conflict that heralded centuries of Sunni-Shiite division. Some Muslims point to the fact that Aisha was on the battlefield, directing troops, to argue that women have a clear role in public affairs, including combat. Others counter that Aisha was on the battlefield in her howdah, or curtained palanquin, and was advised by her brothers—therefore, women are not fit for political or military command.