I… sometimes I just need closure. That must be why I picked up The Sword of Medina. The sequel to The Jewel of Medina (reviewed here) manages to outdo its predecessor in every way. It’s more boring, more historically inaccurate, more internally inconsistent, and more alienating than Jones’ first book. Basically, it covers the years the years after the Prophet’s death and the internal struggles for power Islam faced. It pays particular attention to A’isha’s attempts to mold Islam’s future, and her continuing battle against Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law. Basically, A’isha still holds a grudge against Ali for him suggesting Muhammad divorce her when she attempted to leave him but then decided to come home. A’isha getting the fuck over herself and giving Ali the support he so clearly deserved from the start is the main climax.
Meanwhile, Ali had already magnaminously forgiven her for her resentment of her, and had started to want to bang her, but only because he respected her as a person. HER RED HAIR AND FRAGILITY INSPIRED HIM TO VIEW HER AS A VULNERABLE HUMAN BEING, Y’ALL. The twist is that they’re alike (both stubborn, fiery, etc) and both want the same things in Islam (like respect for women and care for the poor). GASP THEY KNEW EACH OTHER TOO WELL TOO LATE. All wrapped up in this false history of the Sunni/Shia divide is some dumb ruminations about feminism in Islam that totally reduces complicated issues of faith, gender, and structural oppression into signifiers of particular men’s overall assholery. Because it’s only the insecure jackasses who beat their wives who are against women’s rights. Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.
Honestly? This was a bad book. This was seriously not good. Jones structures the novel around A’isha and Ali’s alternating viewpoints. One of the points both characters agree on is that they don’t like each other, but that A’isha’s one smart cookie. Sooooo why isn’t A’isha ever smart? She’s tricked by Talha, her cousin who says he’ll let her rule through him if she supports his claim to the caliphate, marking the third time A’isha’s let a cute guy trick her into scandal and manipulate her for political power. Look, I don’t find that believable. If she’s as smart and as socially astute as everyone says she is, she’d figure that out. Plus, since she was groomed to be the Prophet’s wife since she was six, I sincerely doubt no one ever mentioned to her that someone might want to trick her in such a fashion. Having her be unknowingly manipulated by men for YEARS totally reduces any in-story narratives regarding A’isha’s supposed political agency. Also, wtf is up with presenting each chapter as an episodic summary, instead of as a coherent, tied-together narrative? The jumping through time meant that important character shifts — like A’isha growing to pity Ali and Ali growing to respect A’isha — felt really abrupt. I felt like I was reading a summary pretty constantly, to the point that the main characters felt like caricatures of themselves. Plus, stuff like A’isha’s work with the poor disappears narratively. She mentions she’s the best loved of Muhammad’s wives because she takes care of the needy, but all that happens off screen… which is a SHAME since her care for Islam’s needy DEFINES her character.
The things I read to be popular on the internet.
From what I’ve heard Kamran Pasha’s Mother of the Believers: A Novel of the Birth of Islam is supposed to be a better treatment of A’isha’s life. I’m a little skeptical because it sounds like it’s focused on A’isha’s life after she marries Muhammad, which suggests that she’s only an interesting historical figure because of her role as wife/rememberer. Anyways, he has a post up on veiling here.