Wednesday, December 17, 2008
A'isha bint Abi Bakr has known the prophet Muhammad all her life; in fact, he was present at her birth. When her father, a close ally to Muhammad, decides to cement his loyalty and friendship to the prophet by betrothing A'isha to him when she is just 6 years old, her fate as his "child-bride" begins. Though A'isha will not be married to Muhammad for three years, her betrothal to the prophet brings many unusual changes into the life of the young girl. Beginning with an unusually early purdah (forced segregation from the opposite sex), A'isha discovers that life as Muhammad's favored wife will not be an easy task. Not only must she give up her freedom and taste for adventure, she must navigate a path to her husband's heart among a plethora of other women who also call Muhammad "husband," and forsake the man who is her true heart's desire. As A'isha grows from child to woman, the new religion of Islam, under Muhammad's care, grows with her. The Jewel of Medina is the little-known story of the woman behind Allah's chosen messenger; Here are A'isha bint Bakr's desires, disappointments and dreams for all to see, woven amongst the inception of one of the worlds most formidable and misunderstood religions.
After hearing all the hype surrounding this book, I was expecting a tome filled with controversy. I wasn't sure what it would deliver. Would it be a blasphemous portrayal of the foremost man of Islam? Would it be slanderous or rife with sexual impropriety? What could possibly be so contentious about this book? So, I read it, and what I found was a bit disappointing. The book, although interesting and timely, was a bit heavy-handed and trite. It seems that the elements that were most upsetting must have been Muhammad's taking so many wives. His appetite for women and marriage seemed at times almost comic and unbelievable. If a new woman was described in the narrative, chances are that in a few pages Muhammad would take her as a wife. This portrayal made Muhammad seem like an unscrupulous and lewd old man. I believe that was one of the reasons it was so hard for me to see this character as a great leader to many people. I just couldn't believe a man who had such tremendous sexual appetites was a holy and revered man. In a way, this depiction made Muhammad look manipulative and crafty. For example, when he heard the voice of God commanding him to take more wives, he claimed his need for more women only had to do with strategic alliances for Islam. But tied up in these protestations was the story of a lusty man amassing a harem of women. Which brings me to my next point: This unabashed parade of new wives seemed to be the center of the story.
Instead of character or story development, it seemed that the story was about many women fighting over one man. The story had no other underlying plot than the jealousies and competitions of A'isha and the rest of the women. Instead of relating the story of one woman's love and relationship with a charismatic leader, what I got instead was a novel full of infighting, insecurity and envy. When I realized that this book was not going to be the serious piece of semi-history that I had hoped for, I was able to take it for what it was and begin to enjoy the ride. As far as historical romance goes, this wasn't a bad book. The problem is that with all the attention surrounding this book, readers may be expecting a more factual or enlightening interpretation of Islam and it's first lady, when in fact this is more of a book filled with unrequited romantic intrigue.
I also felt that the book contained a weak interpretation of Muhammad. As a reader, I never saw him as a forceful personal leader. In fact, he seemed a bit wishy-washy and irresolute. Without belaboring the point, the fact was that he was so busy with all of his wives that he was never seen in any other capacity. Another thing that I noticed was that the book also had almost no atmospheric touches, so it seemed that there was a scarcity of historical or cultural flavor in the narrative. The effect of this void was that it made the story more bland and forgettable than other historical novels that I have read.
Although this review paints a somewhat bleak picture, The Jewel of Medina was not a terrible book. At times it was entertaining and exciting, if only to answer the questions of the romantic quandaries in the story. The book also had a nice flow, with little to no awkwardness in the elements of the storytelling. Though I felt that the story was a little common and corny, I also thought that it was executed fairly well. While I did end up somewhat enjoying it, that was only after a huge adjustment in my expectations. The main problem was that I just couldn't lose myself in the story because it seemed farcical and unimportant. I thought the book would be inspirational and moving, but in the end it wasn't. I think that is one of the problems with books that are just so hyped: there is bound to be disappointment unless the book is absolutely brilliant. After all this, I would still recommend this book to those who like historical romance and wouldn't mind taking a chance on a first time author.