The Jewel of Medina — Sherry Jones

For a historical novel, I found the bibliography in The Jewel of Medina sorely lacking, particularly since it includes Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, which I totally cited back in my undergrad as an example of shitty Orientalist tripe. I know I’m brilliant and all, but I feel like a professional journalist writing a historical novel shouldn’t be consulting the same crap I was blasting when I was a sophomore in college.

Anyways, this is an at-times compelling fictional account of the life of A’isha, the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest wife, and one of his love-matches. I enjoyed reading this mostly because it gave me an opportunity to have some good conversation with friends about love, marriage, and faith. At the same time, the prose itself was pretty purple, the conceit of A’isha telling her story from beyond the grave was both inconsistent and useless, and I’m not sure why a book so invested in fairly representing the historical roots of  feminist Islam didn’t include more works by feminist Muslim writers. Fatima Mernissi was cited, but I didn’t see any other feminist Muslim authors I immediately recognized. Plus, there’s a weird color fetishism going-on in text, where A’isha, who sometimes feels very Mary-Sue, is all GASP HOW CAN MEN THINK I’M A JEWEL WHEN MY HAIR IS SO FIERY AND I AM SO SO SO YOUNG????, and all the Prophet’s wives are giving the side eye to the blonde, blue eyed beauties from Egypt. Meanwhile, the darker-skinned wives are only pretty because they have poise and attitude. Meh. I liked the references to specific stories involving A’isha, like her calling out Muhammad when he has visions that indirectly benefit him, but that could have been, y’know, more interesting… just by including a brief reference to her struggles with faith after having married the head of her faith and watching him turn out to be just a man. Alternatively, highlighting her role in Islam (including the fact that she’s supposed to be one of the only people Muhammad had a direct vision about) would have made her more than just his tempestuous child-bride. I don’t ask for much — just actual female characters, instead of cardboard cut-outs.

I think this book can best be summed up in what A’isha doesn’t do. She doesn’t grow as a woman or a wife. She doesn’t ever really use the sword she whines about wanting. She doesn’t imagine a life outside of patriarchy, like her mother urged her to do. She doesn’t successfully bring Muhammad back to God when he wanders. She and her sister-wives don’t talk about anything other than the men in their lives, a glaring historical and social inaccuracy, since I’m sorry if you are the gender managing the damn house you’re ONE OF the genders talking seriously about politics and society since damn, that impacts the frickin’ house, especially when your man’s a religious leader and takes in charity cases. I’m a deacon’s daughter. I know what I’m talking about! Anyways, that was hugely disappointing.

I kinda wish I’d just re-read Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, which I did as a book-on-tape with my mom back as a teen. From what I remember, the book was both socially and historically accurate, and that moment Shabanu decides to take things in her own hands is pretty… well, rad. I mean, you knew it was coming, since it was broadcast pretty heavily, but it felt heart-wrenching, brave, and truly like a coming-of-age moment all wrapped up in the beginning of a girl, her camel, and the desert kind of story. With A’isha? Well. The climax of this story is her acquiescing to a somewhat disappointing life as a wife — and narratively that’s supposed to be a GROWING moment in a freaking coming of age/romance novel. The fuck is THAT about?

I feel like making a list of good historical fic featuring Muslim characters, because this shit is bananas (B-A-N-A-N-A-S).

Comments

  1. says

    Please do make that list! I’m a little terrified of what I’d find if I started hunting without recs. (Probably wrongly terrified. And yet. Recs always help.)

  2. Maria says

    Heh, I think the thing that irked me the most was that it was sometimes boring!! You have to pick one — being offensive or being dull. Being both is unacceptable.

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