An Aisha for All Seasons

Why a controversial novel about the Prophet Mohammed’s wife is nothing new.

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.

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 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.