Sherry Jones promised a work of “extensively researched historical fiction”. Whilst capturing the “fictional” dimension perfectly, the end result wreaks of an orientalist mindset, viewing Islamic culture and values through the prism of narrow western eyes. Her treatment of the Mother of the Believers, Aisha (RadiAllahu anha) has far more in common with a Jane Austen novel than a serious historical account. The style of her novel, choice of protagonist, as well as her subsequent statements, all suffer from a mistaken belief that the ‘’real’ Aisha (RadiAllahu anha) needs to emancipated from the shackles of a male dominated recording of history.
The Muslim response has differed greatly. Some disagreed with the content of the novel but argued, in a manner Voltaire would be proud of, to allow for the freedom to offend. Others countered, freedom of expression is a ‘fanciful idea’, that it is applied selectively rather than adhered to as the ‘sacred cow’ we are often led to believe. There is confusion regarding how Muslims should respond to this insult on Rasool Allah (salAllahu alaihi wasallam), his family and companions. How do Muslims walk the middle path between the expectation that the controversy will blow over if we remain silent and the want in some quarters to respond to this provocation by violent action that will undoubtedly be used as a further example that Muslims have no response besides a violent one. Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain has provided a more than adequate response to this concern.
The choice of response I have opted for, reflects the mix of articles I have come across that have addressed the ‘substance’ of Jones’ novel as well as anecdotal evidence surrounding the wider subject amongst Muslims. There seems to be a shying away from what are perceived as sensitive and controversial areas of Islam that we Muslims may lack confidence in addressing. This is not necessarily a discussion that would or should figure in discussions with non-Muslims, but it plays an important part in maintaining confidence in Islam as it impacts upon such crucial creedal matters as nabuwwah (prophethood) and wahi (divine revelation) amongst other things.
I have therefore chosen to address the following areas:
The Ifk (slander/lie) against Aisha (radiAllahu anha). The incident which the book’s prologue introduces, albeit with a number of misrepresentations as well as clear untruths.
The marriage of Aisha (RadiAllahu anha), described in the ensuing media circus around the novel as his (salAllahu alaihiwasallam’s) ‘child bride’.
Jones through ‘The Jewel of Medina’ steers a dangerous course. On the one hand the book claims to be ‘extensively researched and elegantly crafted’[i], but on the other hand the copyright section of the book points out,
The Jewel of Medina is a work of fiction. All characters, with the exception of well-known historical figures herein, and all dialogue, are products of the author’s imagination.
Despite these claims, it is necessary to separate the fictional accounts in Jones’ novel from the first hand accounts of the key incidents which seem to act as a backdrop to the story Jones wants to tell.
The author focuses on an imagined belief that Aisha (RadiAllahu anha) was struggling for her own freedom, whilst others decided her fate, in particular marriage.
In response, Jones explains,
“there’s a certain amount of projection that goes on when you’re writing fiction.” She argues, despite this, “Given Aisha’s strength of character I think it’s conceivable that she could have felt this way.”
Justifying making things up by claiming ‘she could have felt this way’ sweeps aside the narrations of Aisha (radiAllahu anha) herself, in favour of supposition.
In the prologue to the book, Aisha (RadiAllahu anha) rides into Medina clutching Safwan al Mu’attal’s waist.[iii] The book is premised on the false claim that Aisha (RadiAllahu anha) and Safwan (RadiAllahu anhu) were childhood sweethearts, destined to marry.
Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin said about the insinuation of a relationship between Aisha (radiAllahu anha) and Safwan(RadiAllahu anhu),
Scenes throughout the book involve Safwan flirting with Aisha, hugging her, and kissing her. “The stuff of tawdry, lurid romance novels, not Islamic history,”
In the prologue, Jones, writing in the voice of Aisha (radiAllahu anha) says,
How close I’d come to betraying him with that trickster! Safwan had lured me with freedom, then tied my destiny to his desires. No different than any other man.
Jones suffers from a desire to re-write history in order to make the story more juicy. In response to the criticism of her plot claim that Aisha (RadiAllahu anha) was planning to run off with Safwan (RadiAllahu anhu), she responds,
So I used her relationship with Safwan as a metaphor. I gave her a situation where she was tempted and she overcame it. And as we all do when are able to overcome temptation, she became a wiser and more mature and more spiritually aware person.”
It would have been far better had she made up the story and not defamed individuals Muslims love more than their own parents, wives and children. But then again, that book would not have caused the controversy and the resulting book sales.
Ummul Mu’mineen, Aisha (radiAllahu anha) describes the backdrop surrounding the slanderous false accusations levelled against her by the hypocrites.
Aisha (radiAllahu anha) says,
Whenever Allah’s Messenger intended to go on a journey, he used to draw lots among his wives and would take with him the one on whom the lot had fallen. Once he drew lots when he wanted to carry out a Ghazwa (expedition), and the lot came upon me. So I proceeded with Allah’s Messenger after Allah’s order of veiling (the women) had been revealed and thus I was carried in my howdah (on a camel) and dismounted while still in it. We carried on our journey, and when Allah’s Messenger had finished his Ghazwa and returned and we approached Medina, Allah’s Apostle ordered to proceed at night. When the army was ordered to resume the homeward journey, I got up and walked on till I left the army (camp) behind. When I had answered the call of nature, I went towards my howdah, but behold ! A necklace of mine made of Jaz Azfar (a kind of black bead) was broken and I looked for it and my search for it detained me. The group of people who used to carry me, came and carried my howdah on to the back of my camel on which I was riding, considering that I was therein. At that time women were light in weight and were not fleshy for they used to eat little (food), so those people did not feel the lightness of the howdah while raising it up, and I was still a young lady. They drove away the camel and proceeded. Then I found my necklace after the army had gone. I came to their camp but found nobody therein so I went to the place where I used to stay, thinking that they would miss me and come back in my search. While I was sitting at my place, I felt sleepy and slept.
In Jones’ made up version of events, Aisha (RadiAllahu anha) used the loss of her necklace to remain behind purposefully so she could execute her plan of running away with Safwan (RadiAllahu anhu). Jones utilises this interaction to feed further plot twists into her story, by claiming Aisha (RadiAllahu anha) and Safwan (RadiAllahu anhu) grew up together and were destined to be married, she veers into a true Hollywood style tale of temptation and subsequent redemption.
Aisha (RadiAllahu anha) continues to explain what happened free of Hollywood gloss,
Safwan bin Al-Mu’attil As-Sulami Adh-Dhakw-ani was behind the army. He had started in the last part of the night and reached my stationing place in the morning and saw the figure of a sleeping person. He came to me and recognized me on seeing me for he used to see me before veiling. I got up because of his saying: “Inna Lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajiun,” which he uttered on recognizing me. I covered my face with my garment, and by Allah, he did not say to me a single word except, “Inna Lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajiun,” till he made his she-camel kneel down whereupon he trod on its forelegs and I mounted it. Then Safwan set out, leading the she-camel that was carrying me, till we met the army while they were resting during the hot midday.
In subsequent interviews, Jones is adamant Aisha (RadiAllahu anha) may have fallen prey to temptation, but that’s ok, because she fought it and it made her stronger,
And so, ok, we don’t really know what happened in the desert with Safwan. People had accused her of adultery. She claims she didn’t commit adultery. God revealed to Muhammad that there was no adultery. But we don’t know if she was tempted. I thought this could be a good way to demonstrate that perhaps this is one way that Aisha became a woman. This is her coming of age tale. By being tempted and resisting, we all become stronger individuals.
It is inconceivable that Jones believes in the minutest possibility that her version of events has a semblance of truth to it, she had a very clear objective when drafting and re-writing her book and what really happened figured low in her priorities over the story she wanted to tell.
Aisha (RadiAllahu anha) continues,
Then whoever was meant for destruction, fell in destruction, and the leader of the Ifk (forged statement) was ‘Abdullah bin Ubai bin Salul. After this we arrived at Medina and I became ill for one month while the people were spreading the forged statements of the people of the Ifk, and I was not aware of anything thereof. But what aroused my doubt while I was sick, was that I was no longer receiving from Allah’s Messenger the same kindness as I used to receive when I fell sick. Allah’s Messenger would enter upon me, say a greeting and add, “How is that (lady)?” and then depart.
That aroused my suspicion but I was not aware of the propagated evil till I recovered from my ailment. I went out with Um Mistah to answer the call of nature towards Al-Manasi, the place where we used to relieve ourselves, and used not to go out for this purpose except from night to night, and that was before we had lavatories close to our houses. And this habit of ours was similar to the habit of the old ‘Arabs (in the deserts or in the tents) concerning the evacuation of the bowels, for we considered it troublesome and harmful to take lavatories in the houses. So I went out with Um Mistah who was the daughter of Abi Ruhm bin Abd Manaf, and her mother was daughter of Sakhr bin Amir who was the aunt of Abi Bakr As-Siddiq, and her son was Mistah bin Uthatha. When we had finished our affair, Um Mistah and I came back towards my house. Um Mistah stumbled over her robe whereupon she said, “Let Mistah be ruined ! ” I said to her, “What a bad word you have said! Do you abuse a man who has taken part in the Battle of Badr?’ She said, “O you there! Didn’t you hear what he has said?” I said, “And what did he say?” She then told me the statement of the people of the Ifk (forged statement) which added to my ailment. When I returned home, Allah’s Messenger came to me, and after greeting, he said, “How is that (lady)?” I said, “Will you allow me to go to my parents?” At that time I intended to be sure of the news through them. Allah’s Messenger allowed me and I went to my parents and asked my mother, “O my mother! What are the people talking about?” My mother said, “O my daughter! Take it easy, for by Allah, there is no charming lady who is loved by her husband who has other wives as well, but that those wives would find fault with her.” I said, “Subhan Allah! Did the people really talk about that?”
The hypocrites conveyed a lie about the mother of the believers, in order to create mischief, some Muslims chose to relate the slanderous accusations as though they had a semblance of truth. Then ironically, 1400 years later, Sherry Jones insinuates to the reader, there may be some truth to the claim that Aisha (RadiAllahu anha) was tempted. And this is her treatment of someone in Islamic history she admires! She is no better than Abdullah ibn Ubay ibn Salul, the chief of the hypocrites and the originator of the slander.
Aisha (RadiAllahu anha) relates her reaction to the false claims,
That night I kept on weeping the whole night till the morning. My tears never stopped, nor did I sleep, and morning broke while I was still weeping, Allah’s Messenger called ‘Ali bin Abi Talib and Usama bin Zaid when the Divine Inspiration delayed, in order to consult them as to the idea of divorcing his wife. Usama bin Zaid told Allah’s Apostle of what he knew about the innocence of his wife and of his affection he kept for her. He said, “O Allah’s Messenger! She is your wife, and we do not know anything about her except good.” But ‘Ali bin Abi Talib said, “O Allah’s Messenger! Allah does not impose restrictions on you; and there are plenty of women other than her. If you however, ask (her) slave girl, she will tell you the truth.” ‘Aisha added: So Allah’s Apostle called for Barira and said, “O Barira! Did you ever see anything which might have aroused your suspicion? (as regards Aisha). Barira said, “By Allah Who has sent you with the truth, I have never seen anything regarding Aisha which I would blame her for except that she is a girl of immature age who sometimes sleeps and leaves the dough of her family unprotected so that the domestic goats come and eat it.” So Allah’s Messenger got up (and addressed) the people and asked for somebody who would take revenge on ‘Abdullah bin Ubai bin Salul then.
On that day I kept on weeping so much that neither did my tears stop, nor could I sleep. In the morning my parents were with me, and I had wept for two nights and a day without sleeping and with incessant tears till they thought that my liver would burst with weeping. While they were with me and I was weeping, an Ansari woman asked permission to see me. I admitted her and she sat and started weeping with me. While I was in that state, Allah’s Messenger came to us, greeted, and sat down,. He had never sat with me since the day what was said, was said. He had stayed a month without receiving any Divine Inspiration concerning my case. Allah’s Messenger recited the Tashahhud after he had sat down, and then said, “Thereafter, O ‘Aisha! I have been informed such and-such a thing about you; and if you are innocent, Allah will reveal your innocence, and if you have committed a sin, then ask for Allah’s forgiveness and repent to Him, for when a slave confesses his sin and then repents to Allah, Allah accepts his repentance.” When Allah’s Apostle had finished his speech, my tears ceased completely so that I no longer felt even a drop thereof. Then I said to my father, “Reply to Allah’s Messenger on my behalf as to what he said.” He said, “By Allah, I do not know what to say to Allah’s Messenger.” Then I said to my mother, “Reply to Allah’s Apostle.”
She said, “I do not know what to say to Allah’s Messenger.” Still a young girl as I was and though I had little knowledge of Quran, I said, “By Allah, I know that you heard this story (of the Ifk) so much so that it has been planted in your minds and you have believed it. So now, if I tell you that I am innocent, and Allah knows that I am innocent, you will not believe me; and if I confess something, and Allah knows that I am innocent of it, you will believe me. By Allah, I cannot find of you an example except that of Joseph’s father:
“So (for me) patience is most fitting against that which you assert and it is Allah (Alone) Whose help can be sought”.
Then I turned away and lay on my bed, and at that time I knew that I was innocent and that Allah would reveal my innocence. But by Allah, I never thought that Allah would sent down about my affair, Divine Inspiration that would be recited (forever), as I considered myself too unworthy to be talked of by Allah with something that was to be recited: but I hoped that Allah’s Messenger might have a vision in which Allah would prove my innocence.
By Allah, Allah’s Messenger had not left his seat and nobody had left the house when the Divine Inspiration came to Allah’s Messenger. So there overtook him the same hard condition, which used to overtake him (when he was Divinely Inspired) so that the drops of his sweat were running down, like pearls, though it was a (cold) winter day, and that was because of the heaviness of the statement which was revealed to him. When that state of Allah’s Messenger was over, and he was smiling when he was relieved, the first word he said was, “Aisha, Allah has declared your innocence.” My mother said to me, “Get up and go to him.” I said, “By Allah, I will not go to him and I will not thank anybody but Allah.” So Allah revealed:
“Verily! They who spread the Slander are a gang among you.” (24.11-20).
When Allah revealed this to confirm my innocence, Abu Bakr As-Siddiq who used to provide for Mistah bin Uthatha because of the latter’s kinship to him and his poverty, said, “By Allah, I will never provide for Mistah anything after what he has said about Aisha”. So Allah revealed:
“Let not those among you who are good and are wealthy swear not to give (help) to their kinsmen, those in need, and those who have left their homes for Allah’s Cause. Let them Pardon and forgive (i.e. do not punish them). Do you not love that should forgive you? Verily Allah is Oft-forgiving. Most Merciful.” (24.22)
Abu Bakr said, “Yes, by Allah, I wish that Allah should forgive me.” So he resumed giving Mistah the aid he used to give him before and said, “By Allah, I will never withold it from him at all.”
And Allah subhanahu wa ta’aala posed a question to the believers in relation to the response of the hypocrites,
And why did ye not, when ye heard it, say? - “It is not right of us to speak of this: Glory to Allah! this is a most serious slander!” [Surah an-Nur: 16)
Surely this should be our response to Jones’ attack, which is wrapped in the garbs of establishing a bridge of understanding between people. Her work is a most serious slander.
In this day and age where gossip is more exciting than news, where reality television is preferred over reality, where newspapers infer guilt or innocence, tales of sexual misdemeanour and indiscretions, Sherry Jones enters the fray and slanders and defames the mother of the believers in a manner that trivialises who she was and how dear she is to the Muslims. For Muslims, Allah has freed Aisha (RadiAllahu anha) of the inferences of both the leaders and conveyors of the Ifk and the present day purveyors of defamatory lies.
Part two will bi iznillah respond to the false claims regarding the marriage of Aisha RadiAllahu anha and the slanderous accusations regarding the Messenger’s marriages