Excerpts from Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina do not make it sound like fiction worthy of the novel’s latest defender, Salman Rushdie. Denise Spellberg, an Islamic historian who reviewed the manuscript, called it “soft-core pornography,” and “ugly” porn at that. Consider a first-person passage from Aisha, who, according to some traditions, married Muhammad at age 6 and had sex with him at 9:
This was the beginning of something new, something terrible. Soon I would be lying on my bed beneath him, squashed like a scarab beetle, flailing and sobbing while he slammed himself against me. He would not want to hurt me, but how could he help it? It’s always painful the first time.
Yeesh. But do these sentences sound grotesque because of the author’s prose, or because of her subject?
In the interest of not igniting a flame crusade in the comments section, I will not venture an opinion on the age of Bibi Aisha on the night of her supposed squashing. The accusations and counteraccusations abounding on the Internet are fascinating, though, and reveal an intriguing debate both within Islam and outside it. Under a plain reading, it does sound as if many of the traditions of Muhammad’s life agree that Aisha was very young. Abu Hisham, Waqidi, and Abu Dawud all narrate chronologies that suggest as much, and add details such as Aisha’s playing with dolls during the early years of her marriage. The rebuttals score points too, although if I were rebutting pedophilia charges, I probably wouldn’t choose the “everybody’s doing it” defense.
Rushdie has wisely chosen to enter the debate more on grounds of free speech than of blasphemy, which isn’t to say the two are unrelated. (I haven’t seen evidence that he read The Jewel of Medina or liked the excerpts.) If, however, he were to try to challenge the novel’s detractors on their own turf, I wonder how the argument would proceed. The charge of heresy against his own The Satanic Verses stemmed from a panoply of perceived slights, including several that involved Aisha. The most prominent, of course, was the title, which echoes the famous gharaniq controversy. According to some intriguing traditions, Satan tricked the Prophet into including a line in the Koran that suggested that listeners hedge their bets, theologically, and consider worshiping three pre-Islamic deities in addition to the one true god. After the Angel Gabriel scolded him, Muhammad retracted these “Satanic verses” and put unambiguously monotheistic ones in their place.
The responses to the gharaniq tradition range from weak (they argue circularly — that later parts of the Koran confirm the integrity of the earlier parts) to plausible. Muslims point out, for example, that the Satanic verses aren’t well attested; Waqidi and Tabari, the principal sources, can’t be trusted in this case, and the redoubtable Ibn Hisham and Abu Dawud are both silent on the matter, even though the whispers of Satan would seem to be worth mentioning, if they happened.
The science of authenticating hadith is tricky, and not one I know well enough to pronounce on. There is, however, a conflict visible even to the layman: Ibn Hisham and Abu Dawud, both invoked as strong (non)reporters of tradition in the Rushdie case of the Satanic verses, suddenly become dubious when they report the tender age of Aisha at consummation. And Tabari, so confidently invoked when he says Aisha was born before the revelation of the Koran (and was therefore well past her alleged jailbait phase when she married the Prophet), is eagerly disregarded when he relays the tale of Satanic interference in the recitation of the Koran.
Of course, these events happened centuries ago, and all history — even (or especially) religious history — is tangled with contradiction. I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to untangle it.
Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com