Saturday, December 27, 2008

Interview with Sherry Jones on Her Novel “The Jewel of Medina”, Islam and Free Speech

Interview with Sherry Jones on Her Novel “The Jewel of Medina”, Islam and Free Speech

By Tugrul Keskin

Sociology of Islam and Muslims Societies Newsletter
Fall 2008, No: 3 ISSN 1942-7948


It was a couple of weeks ago that I received an email from a colleague of mine who was telling me about a controversial novel written by Sherry Jones on the Prophet Muhammed’s (SAV) wife, Aisha. First, I thought that this was just another Islamophobic provocation. However, after conducting some more extensive research on the topic; I decided to interview Sherry Jones in order to understand what she really thinks and believes about Islam. Is she really Islamophobic? Or is she a na├»ve Westerner who is trying to promote herself by using the private life of the most sacred person in Islam? Or are there any political motivations behind this novel? I believe that we as Muslims – either by culture or religion - should understand and differentiate between the Orientalist framework which is based on the imperialistic/racist approach similar to what happened in the Danish cartoon crisis in the name of free speech; with people who may have good intentions but really do not understand cultural differences and sensitivities. I did not read her novel, I haven’t read any of her novels; however, personally I would like find out who she really is. Random House cancelled the publication of her novel, The Jewel of Medina, as a result of a possible “terrorist” reprisal attack. On the other hand, Pakistani-born Kamran Pasha’s new novel, Mother of the Believers will be released in April of 2009. As far as I know Pasha’s new novel is not different than Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina. I wonder why some people are suddenly interested in studying and writing about Prophet Muhammed’s personal life, instead of writing in the constructive framework. My intention is to understand the motives behind these writings. I have only questions, no answers, but answers will be provided by the author herself, and you, the readers will decide whether she is genuine or not.

Tugrul Keskin
August 10, 2008

Sherry Jones Bio:
A journalist for 28 years, Sherry Jones has worked as a staff reporter for newspapers in suburban Philadelphia, North Carolina, and Montana, and has published in numerous magazines including Newsweek, Southwest Art, CMJ, American Cowboy, and Rider. She is a freelance correspondent for BNA Inc., an international news agency in the Washington, D.C. area and Platt's Metals Week and Women's eNews in
New York. "The Jewel of Medina" is her debut novel.

About the Novel:
"The Jewel of Medina" by Sherry Jones is a historical novel about the life of A'isha bint Abi Bakr, the youngest, and favorite, wife of the Prophet Muhammad. Set in 7th-century Saudi Arabia, it details the founding of Islam, complete with battles and political intrigue, and examines the role of women in the early Islamic community.

Tugrul Keskin: Thank you for accepting this interview. I will be very honest and straightforward with you in this interview. This is a very sensitive issue for Muslims that you have broached, in trying to dig up and question the Prophet Muhammed's (SAV) private life; and I believe that as a Muslim, you have a right to criticize Islam and Muslims, however, there is thin line between criticism and insult/racism, like in the case of the Danish cartoon crisis. Would you please tell us about yourself and your recent novel, The Jewel of Medina?

Sherry Jones: I came across the story of A’isha for the first time shortly after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. As a woman and a feminist, I was captivated by her wit, intelligence, and strength. I began to read more about A’isha and her sister-wives, and about Muhammad and the revealing of Islam, and I was hooked. My goal was to bring these tales, already familiar to Muslims in the rest of the world, to Western audiences. I wanted to honor A’isha and the other wives by bringing them to life on the page and allowing their voices to be heard in a historical tradition that largely focuses on the men.

Tugrul Keskin: I don't think that many Westerners understand the level or context of certain sensitivities in other cultures. From my perspective, many Westerners not only criticize, but also look down on Muslims and demonize Islam in the name of free speech. This is not the way to build bridges; it is the way to destroy bridges. Are you one of these people? Basically, why did you write the novel about the private life of the most sacred person in Islam? What was or is your aim?

Sherry Jones: As I said, my aim was simply to tell A’isha’s story. I felt called to her, a spiritual calling. She embodies the woman that I would like to be: smart, strong, witty, spiritual, loving, giving, and honest with herself about her flaws. As I wrote and researched, I developed a respect and regard for the Prophet and for Islam. At the same time, I regard him as a human being, a “mortal man,” as he called himself. He must have experienced the desires, hungers, fears, and failings that we all struggle with. I believe that, by bringing those qualities to light, we honor Muhammad as a being who transcended his flawed humanity by the grace of God and so served as an example of what is possible for us all, if we seek and strive as he did.

Tugrul Keskin: Today, especially after 9/11, many people call themselves an expert on Islam and Muslim societies. We can find these people in Washington DC or universities, or at think tanks in Washington DC as just a few examples. Even in my university, people who have never been in any Muslim populated countries and don't speak any languages are called ‘Middle East experts’ or ‘experts on Muslim societies and Islam.’ Of course, many of these experts use books on Islam from a negative viewpoint to "educate" students. How much do you know about Islam and the Prophet's Muhammed's (SAV) life? Where did you learn this? What sources did you use for your book?

Sherry Jones: I am certainly no expert, only an interested Westerner who is always learning. I have not been able to afford to travel to Saudi Arabia, where “The Jewel of Medina” takes place, and where travel has been so restricted. At any rate, 14 centuries have certainly altered the culture and the landscape a great deal. I did study two years of Arabic -- all that was offered at the time -- at the University of Montana, and I took an Islamic history course taught by Mehrdad Kia from Iran.
As for my sources, I have read everything written in English that I could find. My bibliography comprises some 30 books, including a four-volume biography of the Prophet by Ibn Kathir, written in the 14th century; various collections of Hadith; “Women in Islam” by the Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi; and “Muhammad: A Biography” by the noted Western religious historian Karen Armstrong. My complete bibliography is available on my weblog, http://www.authorsherryjones.com

Tugrul Keskin: How do you define free speech according to your book? Do you have the right to talk about my private life, do you think this is free speech?

Sherry Jones: My right to free speech encompasses my right to artistic expression. In the United States, we grow up learning that the right to freedom of speech, thought, and expression are as fundamental as the right to breathe and live.

Tugrul Keskin: If this is a free speech issue, then why did the West not pay attention to Norman Finkelstein when he could not get tenure at DePauw University, or Ward Churchill who was fired from the University of Colorado as a result of the free speech argument? Do you think that free speech is used as an excuse to insult and discriminate against people and cultures who are not White/Christian/Western?

Sherry Jones: I can’t speak to these cases, because I’m not familiar with them. However, I can tell you that our First Amendment rights are always being debated and discussed in this country. Schools and libraries, publicly funded, ban books because they are deemed offensive, and people protest. Racists make statements that offend certain groups; people write books that offend others. But we tolerate these hateful forms of expression because, if we start banning one form, then where does it stop? No one wants to live in a totalitarian regime, where every word is monitored.
Exceptions would be forms of speech that endanger others, such as death threats, and forms of expression that cause actual harm to others, such as child pornography. These are considered prosecutable offenses under the law.

Tugrul Keskin: Do you think Muslims need another Rudyard Kipling's the White Man's Burden in order to reform Islam?

Sherry Jones: “Need” is not the issue here. I didn’t write my book because I thought anyone “needed” it. I wrote it because I was excited about the remarkable A’isha bint Abi Bakr and I thought others would like to read about her, too. However, I do think the world will benefit from learning about the egalitarian underpinnings of Islam and the crucial role of women in forming the Umma.

Tugrul Keskin: Today, there are three types of people who study Islam in the Western Universities and Societies. First, Orientalists who are not genuine and are the politically motivated crusaders; second, Populists who study Islam because Islam is an important subject to specialize in, in order to find a job and niche for their careers; third, people who study Islam, who genuinely want to learn about Islam and Muslim Societies; I believe this third category of people are more objective than the rest. Where do you place yourself?

Sherry Jones: I’ll bet there are more than three kinds! But I approached my research with a genuine interest in learning more. What I learned, I wanted to share with others. Of course, what I’ve written is just MY interpretation of what I’ve read. It’s not the definitive version of A’isha’s life, only my vision of what her life could have been like.

Tugrul Keskin: On September 30, 2005, Jyllands-Posten Newspaper from Denmark, published cartons of the Prophet Muhammed (SAV) and this fueled tensions between Muslims and West/Europe/US. Do you think that this was an honest mistake? Or was the publishing of these cartoons intentional with political motivations behind it? Most importantly, how do you compare your book with this incident?

Sherry Jones: The publishing of the Danish cartoons was another exercise of freedom of expression. The message was clear: Islam has become perceived, in the Western world, as a religion of violence and destruction. Those who protested with violence did nothing to change that perception.
My book is a book of women’s empowerment that also attempts to promote Western understanding of a religion that is filled with misperceptions in the States. I feel uniquely situated to write this book, and its sequel, because I held those same erroneous notions of Islam before I began my research.

Tugrul Keskin: Do you believe Islam is a peaceful religion or a religion of war as some Western conservative “crusaders” claim?

Sherry Jones: Islam in its pure form is a religion of peace, in my opinion. Muhammad admonished Believers to fight in self-defense only, and he practiced that. He forgave his enemies -- even those, such as Abu Sufyan’s wife, Hind, who didn’t ask for it. He said, “We are all created from the same soul.” You can’t get much more peaceful, and egalitarian, than that.
Unfortunately for moderate Muslims, violent extremists within the faith have created a negative portrait of Islam in the Western world. Some believe that Muslims want to conquer and rule the world under Sharia law. I hope my book will help those who read it to understand the true Islam, as Muhammad intended it.

Tugrul Keskin: Do you think that the current US foreign policy toward Islam and Muslim Societies are based on a crusader mentality similar to that of some Muslims on the other side of the spectrum?

Sherry Jones: Yes, I do. And it is a real tragedy. The United States is now perceived -- a misperception based on the actions of our government -- as a bully. Most people I know don’t agree with our foreign policy concerning the Middle East. I’ve participated in several protests and vigils for peace, and I hold great hope that a new president will bring change.
Killing only begets killing, and produces nothing but hatred and fear. I want the U.S. out of Afghanistan and Iraq. I want us to reject this culture of fear imposed upon us both by violent religious fanatics and our own government. I wish for us all courageous lives.