Sherry Jones’ The Sword of Medina is the sequel to The Jewel of Medina, which deals with Islamic history through the eyes of Muhammad’s youngest wife, A’isha.
The Jewel of Medina shows the importance of A’isha not only for Islamic history but also history in general. The daughter of Muhammad’s best friend and the inheritor of the khalifa, Abu Bakr, A’isha became the most influential woman in her time. She was the youngest of Muhammad’s wives, a spiritual leader after his death, as well as a warrior and commander of an army. For some she is an inspiration, for others she is a curse because she caused the split between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. In her novels, Jones offers her interpretation of A’isha’s childhood, her secret love, her marriage, and her conflict with Muhammad’s nephew Ali. Above all, Jones narrates Islamic history as a love story. She makes it a story of choices, struggle and reform, rather than subjugation and mindless obedience.
The Sword of Medina takes place after Muhammad’s death, the time when different political factions fought for the position of Caliph. A’isha stands for her principles as well as her feelings against the agendas of many powerful men. As the Mother of the Believers she has much influence over her community. A’isha is more mature now. While her feelings of love and hate do push her in certain directions, she is much more oriented to reflection and understanding of those with whom she fiercely disagrees, such as Ali. Jones switches between A’isha and Ali’s perspectives to show how they change with respect to each other, and above all, how differently they interpret Islam and their socio-political climate. The double perspective shows us the significance of interpretation in decision-making. A’isha and Ali are both right and wrong, but above all, they are human, limited, and the more their power increases, the greater the mistakes they make.
Jones’ decision to focus on the political struggles after Muhammad’s death has strong resonance today, especially as we in the West question Islam in terms of governance and religion, particularly the separation of the two. Looking back and making genuine attempts to imagine and understand what might have caused Islam to develop as it has, seems a most important act to undertake for anyone who is concerned with this religion (whether or not they are a practitioner). Very little is known about Islam and so much is read into its history. Jones’ books are important because they highlight the act of imagination in the understanding of history, showing how one of the major pitfalls with so-called fundamentalists is their inability to understand how personal bias colors interpretation of the faith, that they are susceptible to re-imagining historical figures and events they claim to care for in order to advance their own political agendas, just as some of those first Muslim did after Muhammad’s death. History repeats itself, but Jones’ A’isha learns her lessons and changes the course of her life despite strong forces that pull her apart. Is there a moral to her story? Readers will have to decide for themselves.
This review and the interview below were originally published on Roses&Thorns Blog.
Interview with Sherry Jones
AM: Thank you for conversing with me about your two novels, The Jewel of Medina, and The Sword of Medina, which deal with some of the most interesting parts of Islamic history through the eyes of Muhammad’s youngest wife, A’isha.
SJ: I agree; this is very interesting history and worthwhile for all, Muslim and non-Muslim, to know. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about it with you and your readers. For more information on me and my books, go to my website.
AM: I want to begin by saying a few words about the importance of A’isha and your interpretation of her history. First of all, tackling any historical personality, let alone a controversial figure from the inception of a world religion, is a daunting task. I read your work both critically and with admiration. A’isha is prominent for so many different reasons: the youngest wife of a major prophet, an outspoken and feisty girl married to a man frequently accused of subjugating women through his religion, a female warrior who has lead an army of Muslims against other Muslims, a spiritual and religious guide (the Mother of the Believers). Tell us how you approached A’isha, why her, and did you have any doubts about writing her history the way you did? Did you ever think of giving up?
SJ: I first came to this project with the idea that I would honor all the women in the Prophet Muhammad’s harim by bringing them to life through fiction. I wanted to tell his story through their eyes, and explore the relationship of Muslim women to their religion by exploring Muhammad’s relationship to his wives and concubines. A’isha emerged as the heroine by virtue of her personality – I love her sense of humor – and her inspiring story. Her courage and strength inspired me, and continue to do so.
The biggest challenge for me in writing her tale was finding information not only about Muhammad’s wives but also about Arabic life in general in 600 A.D. What did they wear? What did they eat? What did their houses look like? What were the customs of the time? Finding the answers to these questions was very difficult. I tried diligently to be accurate to the time and place. I worked very hard not to exoticize the living conditions, but to portray the harsh realities of heat, dust, tribal warfare, and privation.
I worked on The Jewel of Medina for five years, researching, writing, and revising while a single parent of a young child, a part-time newspaper journalist, and a part-time college student. I revised it seven times before it was published. But no, I never felt like giving up. A’isha’s story called to me; she called to me, urging me to tell her story. As I wrote, I was imbued with a sense of discovery and also with excitement at being able to bring this remarkable woman to life for audiences who had never heard of her before as well as to those who know her well. No matter how well-versed you might be in the Islamic ahadith, or stories about Muhammad, reading fiction about A’isha is bound to bring her to life in a new way for you. Fiction, by taking the reader into the hearts and minds of its characters, has the power to create empathy in the reader, which is a powerful force for human understanding and peace.
AM: Your first novel about A’isha dealt with her childhood, her secret love, her marriage, and in fact her conflict with Muhammad’s nephew Ali. Ali famously told Muhammad to divorce her because she was too unwieldy. In a sense, in the eyes of some more patriarchal men, he was too soft. You show how much she loved Muhammad and he loved her. I quite appreciate your decision to narrate such a history as a love story, especially since Muhammad’s marriages have been considered political acts. He went from a monogamous relationship with an older woman, to a polygamous marriage obviously constructed to create bonds with powerful tribes.
SJ: The story of Muhammad and A’isha is one of the greatest love stories in the history of humanity. Yes, his marriage to her was political, but he obviously fell in love with her during their ten years together. I love their interplay, the romance between them, the conflicts and the making up, how they grow stronger and their love increases over time. I love how she called Muhammad on things, too. Like when he had a revelation from God telling him to marry his adopted son’s wife, Zaynab. “My, how Allah hastens to do your bidding!” A’isha said. I can just see the smirk on her lips, the hand on her hip.
My favorite scene in The Jewel of Medina comes when A’isha climbs the tree next to the attic room where Muhammad has sequestered himself for a month. She pours her heart out to him there, singing, she says, like a nightingale, opening herself to him. How he responds later is so moving. And then, as he lay dying, he called for A’isha – and all his other wives gave up their allotted nights with him so that he could be with her until the end. He died with his head on her breast, and was buried under her bed. What a great romance! What a great, great love!
Muhammad loved women. Was he too soft on women? I know some of his male Companions – Umar, for instance – thought so. But if, as the Qur’an says, we are all created from the same soul, then why would women not be the same as men in God’s eyes? Muhammad saw beyond the patriarchal desire for control over women that was so prevalent in his culture. He saw with the eyes of the Divine, which considers all – men, women, children, poor, rich, black, white, brown – to be equal. Therefore, he gave women rights they had never had before. Women were empowered in the early Islamic umma; they prayed alongside men in mosques, fought alongside men in wars, and were among the Prophet’s chief Companions. Muslim women during Muhammad’s time were the envy of their neighbors not only in Arabia but also in Persia and the Byzantine Empire.
When the men of the umma began to balk at all these rights being given to women, Muhammad must have known that he was at risk of losing his male followers. Or, if you believe the Qur’an is the word of God, then God must have known this. So he made compromises – making the testimony of two women equal to that of one man, for example. Because to lose his male followers in a tribal warfare society would have meant the death of Islam. So I think there was a bit of a sacrifice in order to serve the greater good. Muhammad would have done more for women if he could have, but he was ahead of his time.
AM: For anyone to write about A’isha, it seems unavoidable to tackle the issue of her age. Different sources relate her age at marriage from nine to fifteen. You decide to make A’isha a nine-year-old. Why?
SJ: Any writer of history, fiction or non-fiction, has to make choices. I have read opinions placing her age at marriage as high as nineteen. There is no way we can know what really happened; her history was transmitted orally for 140 years after she died, which allows for easy manipulation of the facts to serve one political agenda or another. I took the middle path.
Marrying a nine-year-old girl was virtually unheard-of – the custom was to wait until a girl began her menstrual cycle – but Muhammad’s situation was unique. I show how her father, Abu Bakr, pushed for an early marriage so as to cement his position as Muhammad’s chief Companion. But even if he did marry her when she was still a child, I am certain that he did not have sex with her until she had her menarche. Muhammad was not a pedophile – A’isha was his only child bride – and he was not a rapist. So I delayed the consummation until she was older. This served the narrative nicely, and it also gave A’isha room to grow in a way that would have produced the smart, sharp, strong woman she became.
AM: Two things struck me as both bold and brilliant in your interpretation of A’isha’s alleged adultery and her childlessness. First, A’isha was accused of having a relationship with her childhood love. The community put enormous pressure on Muhammad to do something about it, because she shamed him out. He refused, but at the same time he kept away from her. In the end, the divine message stated that A’isha was innocent, and the event was used in the Qur’an to condemn all form of gossip. You narrate this event in a fantastic, daring way. You have A’isha elope with her young love (though not lover). She returns to her much older husband, not because she must, but because she realizes she truly loves him. You make it all about her choice. You emphasize her agency in that she chose Muhammad despite all troubles and life in poverty. Please, tell us about your decision to do so, and the implication you thought it would have.
SJ: I wanted to honor A’isha by portraying her as a real, well-rounded human being. I wanted to explore how a girl raised in such a patriarchal environment as Mecca could grow up to be the empowered leader that she became. Obviously, she had internal weaknesses and external obstacles to overcome. My task was to try to discern what some of those might have been.
She was accused of adultery, for instance. I thought, what really happened out there in the desert? Is her tale of losing her necklace in the sand – and losing an entire caravan while she searched for it – really plausible? What if she really did stay behind on purpose to meet with Safwan? But then, she had this great love with Muhammad, so she must have made the choice to stay with him. Real love doesn’t happen when we “fall,” but when we consciously choose our partner, when we know his or her faults and accept them as part of the whole, lovable package.
I knew that some readers wouldn’t appreciate my giving A’isha flaws, weaknesses, and obstacles. I knew some would dislike my giving Muhammad flaws and weaknesses, too. But I don’t know how else we grow except by struggle, how we learn except from our mistakes. And I find little inspiration in a person who is “perfect.”
AM: The second thing was A’isha’s childlessness. Your explanation is that Muhammad did not have sex with A’isha for many years. A’isha is a nine-year-old child, but later also a girl in puberty, who desires her husband, but he refuses to see her as a woman. He avoids intercourse because she is too young. This platonic relationship explains the fact she did not get pregnant. Could you share your thoughts behind this call?
SJ: Only one of Muhammad’s twelve wives and concubines became pregnant, and he had only one daughter by his first wife, Khadija. Of course, she was forty when he married her, but he was, apparently, not hugely fertile. My Arabic professor said Sunni Muslims believe God didn’t want him to leave a male heir – but then, his daughter Fatima had two sons. At any rate, the Muhammad I came to know in my research would not have raped a nine-year-old girl. So I delayed his and A’isha’s conjugal relations. Such a delay made sense to me on a narrative level, certainly, because of the tension that it creates, and also on a practical level, since Muhammad was almost continually taking new women into his household. The marriages were politically arranged, but there was also competition in the harim for his time and attention, which tells me that he was having sexual relations with them.
An interesting thing happened as I was writing The Jewel of Medina. A’isha’s being young and presumably fertile during her marriage, I decided to have her become pregnant but then to miscarry the fetus. Later, as I researched something in my four-volume biography of Muhammad written in the tenth century, I found a footnote stating that A’isha had become pregnant but had miscarried! That’s a very impressive coincidence.
AM: I didn’t know that. Amazing coincidence. Writer’s intuition, maybe? In The Jewel of Medina, we can see how much A’isha hates Ali, Muhammad’s nephew. She cannot understand why he treats her like a child, why he wants to separate her from her husband, etc. In The Sword of Medina, where A’isha leads an army against Ali and his followers, which caused the famous Sunni-Shia split, you have a slightly different perspective. I can tell you that after reviewing Kamran Pasha’s novel about A’isha on my blog, I was reproached by a Bosnian Shia-Muslim (a rare thing), whose own poetry I had reviewed earlier. She found my interest in A’isha insulting. I wonder how did you approach the political struggles after Muhammad’s death? I can see you had no particular bias, which makes it all the more interesting.
SJ: Yes, whenever people ask what right I, a non-Muslim, have to write about these people and this history, I point out that my lack of an “agenda” perhaps makes my story more credible. I approached A’isha’s story with an open mind, having little prior knowledge of her life or of Islam. So I was completely objective, not trying to convert anyone to my form of spirituality. However, since I believe all religions are invented by humans in effort to impose a narrative structure on spiritual experience, then my portrayal of the struggles over Islam that happened after Muhammad’s death does reflect that belief. Whenever the spiritual visionary who inspires a new religion dies, ordinary humans always muck things up with their own greed and lust for power.
In The Jewel of Medina, A’isha tells her own tale. She does not like Ali, and so says very little about him that is positive. He gets a bad rap. He comes off as a big jerk, because that is how A’isha would have seen him.
Because The Sword of Medina culminates in the battle between A’isha and Ali that began the Sunni-Shia split, the whole book involves a buildup of tension between them. To enhance that effect, I tell the tale from alternating points of view: First A’isha’s, then Ali’s. This gives the reader a more well-rounded picture of Ali. He is redeemed. Also, we see his perspective regarding A’isha, which gives her an added dimension, too.
AM: Since the two Sunni and Shia both use Muhammad’s well-known love for Abu-Bakr (A’isha’s father) and Ali to justify their preferences, the love theme cannot be taken out of the historical equation. I find this emphasis most important. Tell us more about love and history.
SJ: “History is composed of wars,” a professor told a class of mine a few years ago. As you might imagine, my hand shot up in protest. War is not the only component of history; it’s just the part that men tend to focus on, probably because it involves men almost exclusively. But I think love is humanity’s driving force, and it has always been so. Love for country, for god, for our children, for our parents – most of us spend our entire lives trying to gain the love of our parents, even after they are dead – shape our decisions both conscious and unconscious, both trivial and momentous. Love is the engine driving everything: religion, work, commerce, art, and yes, war. However, if we focused more on giving love and less on getting it, this would be a much different world. Love is a verb.
AM: I agree, absolutely. This is indeed the reason I love fiction. When Tony Morrison received Nobel Prize the justification was that she gave back the blacks their history. To me, the history is not just that of slavery and overcoming of it, but the history of love.
I like how you switch between A’isha and Ali, and how they change with respect to each other more than they do in any of their other relationships. At times there is tenderness and even love behind their hate for one another.
SJ: Yes, they are both very complex and, as is so often the case with enemies, much more alike than they realize. They both loved Muhammad very much, and wanted to protect Islam from the changes being made in it after Muhammad’s death.
A’isha and Ali come to recognize their similarities during the course of the book and also to respect their differences. Because A’isha is the symbolic leader of the Sunnis and Ali, of the Shi’a, the same might be true of these two factions of Islam. They are much more alike than they realize. As a non-Muslim, I see their differences as being very minor. And the same is true of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. All worship the same God, so what are we fighting about?
AM: So very true. The rule of caliphs ranged over two decades. How did you select events to include? Were there any events you wanted to include but decided not to, and for what reasons?
SJ: One of the most difficult aspects of historical fiction is deciding what to leave out. In revising The Jewel of Medina, I had to cut several chapters from the first draft because, although they told interesting tales, they weren’t crucial to the main themes of the book. In The Sword of Medina, I did leave out quite a bit of history. The conquest of the Persian Empire, for instance, gets very little mention. But I was much more interested in exploring the personalities of the caliphs, and how they changed Islam to suit their own political and personal agendas. The Qur’an, although revered as the exact word of God, was hotly debated at the time, with some claiming that men had made changes to benefit themselves or their own points of view, for instance – and women’s power, so enhanced during Muhammad’s time, was decimated in subsequent years. I wanted to look at what happens to a religion when the visionary founder dies and ordinary humans – and their ordinary motives of greed, lust, and power, take hold.
I also chose not to spend so much time in the harim in The Sword of Medina as I did in Jewel. I loved the sister-wives in Jewel, and I would have loved to explore more fully how they dealt with being denied male companionship after Muhammad died. None of them was allowed to remarry. How did they compensate? Surely some of them, at least, continued to have a sexual life, although secretly. Did they have lovers? Did they turn to one another for pleasure and love? But to speculate about this would have seemed sensationalistic and would have detracted from the themes that I was most interested in exploring.
AM: The collection of the Qur’an fragments into one book was a major endeavor that several of the caliphs worked on. I wonder why this is not a part of the narrative? Would it draw attention from the other more profane struggles? There is a certain separation of religion and governance in the novel, or at least spiritual faith and worldly matters.
SJ: Well, I did touch on this matter a couple of times, but it just didn’t seem to relate to the A’isha-Ali struggle that is at the heart of The Sword of Medina. I did include a scene where an elder who is a reciter of the Qur’an informs the caliph Uthman that his scribes are making changes in the language, that they are deviating from the exact words of the Prophet. And I believe religion and religious faith had less to do with governance than Muslims might like to believe. So many of the decisions that were made seemed to focus on expansion of empire, on attainment of power and wealth.
AM: The reason I asked the previous question is partly due to the fact that A’isha has been the one who has transmitted a great deal of the Islamic history and Muhammad’s sayings about different aspects of everyday life and spirituality. You do mention this, but it becomes important for A’isha only after her battle against Ali.
SJ: Yes, she had twenty years or more to transmit ahadith after she exited public life. Of course, many of her sayings were thrown out later as coming from “unreliable” sources, and those she disputed at the time – especially those of Abu Hurayra, which were particularly misogynistic – were allowed to remain. This shows us how politics infuse every aspect of the story. We don’t know what’s true about A’isha or anything else of that time. Little was written, so we can only speculate.
At the end of the day, however, we do know at least one thing about A’isha: She was a kick-ass woman, strong and confident, courageous and intelligent, outspoken and funny and fierce, the most famous and influential woman in Islam and an example for us all. She rocks!
AM: Thank you very much for talking with me about your work.
SJ: I am so honored to have the opportunity. Thanks for reading my books and for taking the time to formulate these terrific, and challenging, questions.