Defending Aisha

The latest controversy over the book, The Jewel of Medina has caused a storm among intellectual circles worldwide. It is a novel by Sherry Jones, scheduled for publication by Random House in August 2008. The project was canceled, and moved to the U.K., because it tells a fictitious tale about Aisha Bint Abu Bakr, the daughter of Islam’s first Caliph and second wife of the Prophet Mohammad.

According to Denise Spellberg, a professor of history and Middle East studies who read parts of the book, the work makes “fun of Muslims and their history” and is a “very ugly, stupid piece of work.” Spellberg went on:

“I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history…The combination of sex and violence sells novels. When combined with falsification of the Islamic past, it exploits Americans who know nothing about Aisha or her seventh-century world and counts on stirring up controversy to increase sales.”

Among the many who spoke out on the matter was British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie, who aroused similar controversy in the 1980s with his work The Satanic Verses, saying, “This is censorship by fear and it sets a very bad precedent indeed.” Andrew Franklin, who worked for Penguin Books when they published The Satanic Verses, described the decision as “absolutely shocking” and called the Random House editors “such cowards.” The book has so far appeared in Serbia, with a provoking illustration of Aisha on the cover (in Islam it is forbidden to portray the wives of the Prophet, known as the “Mothers of Believers”). After protests from Serbian Muslims, this edition was also pulled from bookstore shelves.

The entire story brings back memories of similar cases: Rushdie, the Danish cartoons, and the Pope’s remarks on the Prophet Mohammad, which also sent shockwaves throughout the Muslim world. The pope infuriated the Muslim world by quoting the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II telling a Persian intellectual in 1391: “Show me just what Mohammed [the Prophet of Islam] brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he has preached.” The pope did not say that he agreed with these words. Nevertheless the damage was done and, regardless of intentions, violence and anti-Christian feeling immediately soared throughout the Muslim world. One phrase from Benedict’s lecture that was completely ignored by the mass media was: “The emperor must have known that Sura 2:256 [of the Koran] reads: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.'” True, that is what Muslims believe, and Benedict XVI did not fail to point to it.

But regardless of intentions and in light of his belated apology, let us stop for a moment to think objectively of all that is happening and being said in the Muslim and Christian worlds. The pope was quoting a Byzantine emperor speaking to an unnamed Persian intellectual, taken from an obscure document, 617 years ago, in 1391. It is unbelievable that we still have the energy to dig up these ancient arguments, use them to arouse emotions, riot like madmen, and foster hatred in both communities. It is equally repugnant that the pope would make such a miscalculated remark, knowing perfectly well how much disgust it would cause in Muslim communities around the world. It is equally startling how people like Sherry Jones would wish to add insult to injury, and bad feelings, with her book on Aisha.

Equally guilty, however, are the Muslim leaders who responded to the Pope’s remarks with church attacks and violent rallies around the world. God created the human mind to debate, study, analyze and explain. Isn’t it the duty of Muslims, after all, to educate non-Muslims on the true nature of the religion of Mohammed? If the pope or Mrs Jones were misinformed, then Muslims are responsible for not explaining the true nature of their faith to the world, or marketing its true values. They are to blame for letting terrorists like Osama bin Laden hijack Islam and ruin its name.

This same pope, struggling to fit into the oversized shoes of his predecessor John Paul II, had condemned the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed earlier in the year, and also called on Christians “to open their arms and hearts” to Muslim immigrants and to dialogue on religious issues. He added that the Church’s “inter-religious dialogue is a part of its commitment to the service of humanity in the modern world”. He described this dialogue as “important and delicate”. The pope has called for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and on July 14, 2006 the Vatican condemned Israel’s attack on Lebanon.

For all of the reasons mentioned above, I would like to believe that the pope’s insult was an unintentional mistake that will not be repeated. I would also like to believe that Jones was equally misinformed about Aisha. When terrorists using the name of Islam strike the heart of New York, or detonate bombs in the London Underground, this makes it more difficult to defend Muslims against people like Jones, since she attributes these acts to all Muslims, and not the few who are fanatics. All her remarks, which have resurfaced in the past week on websites and editorials, show a grand misunderstanding of Muslims.

I cite the example of David Irving, the famous British historian who went to jail for his views on the Holocaust. His 1977 book Hitler’s War was the first of his two-part biography of Adolf Hitler. In it he described World War II from Hitler’s point of view – a taboo throughout most of the Western world. Irving showed that Hitler was a rational, intelligent leader and human being whose main motivation was to increase the prosperity of Germany. It was British prime minister Winston Churchill who escalated the war after coming to power, stated Irving, not Hitler. Irving did not deny the Holocaust but said Hitler did not order it or know of it, enraging the Jewish community around the world. Irving attributed the Holocaust to Hitler’s right-hand man Heinrich Himmler.

Irving controversially remarked: “There were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. It makes no sense to transport people from Amsterdam, Vienna, and Brussels 500 kilometers to Auschwitz simply to liquidate them [when] it can be done 8 kilometers from the city where they live.” The historian challenged any person to come up with an authentic written order by Hitler for the Holocaust. Irving then wrote The War Path in 1978, with similar views on World War II. In 1987 he wrote a very ugly biography of Churchill, showing him as an alcoholic who sold out the British Empire and blamed him for “turning Britain against its natural ally, Germany”.

By the 1980s, Irving was banned from entering Austria. In the 1990s he was banned from entering Germany as well. The same applied to South Africa, Australia, and Canada in 1992. In September 2004, New Zealand declared that he would not be allowed to enter the country to give lectures at the National Press Club. He defied the ban and tried to go but was arrested in Austria. In court he tried to change discourse, but Austrian authorities did not believe him and at the time of writing he still languishes in jail. He had tried to revoke ideas he had promoted for years by saying: “The Nazis did murder millions of Jews. I made a mistake by saying there were no gas chambers, I am absolutely without doubt that the Holocaust took place. I apologize for those few I might have offended.”

Learning from Syrian history

It is a funny world with funny double standards indeed. To make things easier for everybody – especially the oversensitive millions in all faiths – it is safe to say that critical issues such as the Holocaust and Islam become red lines that should not be crossed. In saying that, we can assume that Jones, Benedict and Irving all committed mistakes.

Offending others for the sake of free speech should not be tolerated. Yes, the Holocaust did happen, and it would be a crime to say that it did not. But my own word of advice to the Muslim community is to think big and avoid the trappings of critical articles, novels like that of Jones, comments here and there, or cartoons. Islam is much greater than these small, really small, issues.

Seventy years ago, in April 1928, a 20-year-old girl named Nazira Zayn al-Din wrote a book called Unveiling and Veiling, saying she had read, understood and interpreted the Holy Koran. Therefore, she said, she had the authority and analytical skills to challenge the teachings of Islam’s clerics, men who were far older and wiser than she. Her interpretation of Islam, she boldly said, was that the veil was un-Islamic. If a woman was forced to wear the veil by her father, husband or brother, Zayn al-Din argued, then she should take him to court. Other ideas presented by her were that men and woman should mix socially because this develops moral progress, and that both sexes should be educated in the same classrooms. Men and women, she said, should equally be able to hold public office and vote in government elections.

They must be free to study the Koran themselves, and it should not be dictated on them by an oppressive older generation of clerics, she said. Finally, Zayn al-Din compared the “veiled” Muslim world to the “unveiled” one, saying the unveiled one was better because reason reigned, rather than religion.

Her book caused a thunderstorm in Syria and Lebanon. It was the most outrageous assault on traditional Islam, coming from Zayn al-Din, who was a Druze. The book went into a second edition within two months, and was translated into several languages. Great men from Islam, including the muftis of Beirut and Damascus, wrote against her, arguing that she did not have the authority to speak on Islam and dismiss the veil as un-Islamic. Nobody, however, accused her of treason or blasphemy. They accused her of bad vision resulting from bad Islamic education.

Some clerics banned her book. Some, however, such as the Syrian scholar Mohammad Kurd Ali, actually embraced it, buying 20 copies for the Arab Language Assembly and writing a favorable review.

But despite the uproar, which lasted for two years, the Syrians and the Muslim establishments did not let the issue get out of hand. They did not lead street demonstrations for weeks, as if the Muslim world had no other concern than Nazira Zayn al-Din. Zayn al-Din was still free to roam the streets of Syria and Lebanon, without being harassed or killed by those who hated her views. The leaders of Islam in 1927-30 were by far too busy to occupy themselves, and the Muslim community at large, with the ideas of a 20-year-old girl. They had to attend to their mosques, run their charity organizations, answer theological questions, cater to Muslim education, lead political issues, and fight the French.

Why, then, have the leaders of today’s world abandoned every problem in the Muslim world to concentrate on the silly cartoons published in a Danish newspaper? Or to inject life into the statements of Manuel II, or the book, “Jewel of Medina”? Yes, the cartoons were very wrong and very insulting. So is a distorted picture of Aisha. And yes, the pope committed a grand error by repeating what the Byzantine emperor had said. But as well, Muslims should have shown solidarity on other more important issues, such as Israel’s digging beneath the al-Aqsa Mosque, invading Beirut in 1982, bombing Ramallah, massacring innocents in Jenin and Rafah, and building the Separation Barrier. More recently they should have united on the destruction of Lebanon in 2006.

The death of Palestinians is certainly more important to Muslims (or should be) than what an obscure Danish newspaper publishes, or the views of an until-now-unknown script by a forgotten Byzantine emperor, or Mrs Jones. I am not saying that one should ignore the cartoons, novel, and the pope, but rather that one should only give them the attention they deserve, with no exaggerations, and concentrate on more concrete issues relating to the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The Prophet is one of the greatest names in history. He is too great to be affected by these ugly cartoons or the remarks of the pope. To quote Lawrence of Arabia, it is time for us to stop acting like a small people, a silly people, and start living up to our duties before history and mankind. After all, we in the Muslim world have not contributed anything to human progress in the past 500 years. We should write and promote our history, then concentrate on science, arts, literature, and freedom of the mind. We should learn to talk to, rather than demonstrate against, those who think and act differently, and those who wrong us.

Washington Post, 6 October 2008