A novel about the child bride of the Prophet Mohamed has been withdrawn by Random House, which said it feared that publication of the book could "incite acts of violence". Critics, however, have accused the publisher of abandoning the principle of free speech and caving into pressure from extreme Islamist elements.
The Jewel of Medina, a debut novel by the US journalist Sherry Jones, was due to have been published next Tuesday, and Random House, which had reportedly paid Jones a £50,000 advance for two books, had scheduled an eight-city publicity tour. But in May, the publisher abruptly informed her that all plans were now off.
The controversy only burst into the open this week when The Wall Street Journal published a column by the Muslim writer Asra Nomani, saying she was "saddened" by Random House's decision, and blaming an Islamic history professor Denise Spellberg for stirring up opposition to the book on the grounds it was "soft-core pornography".
Professor Spellberg, from the University of Texas in Austin, was sent an advance copy so she could provide a pre-publication blurb, but her reaction was not what the publishers were hoping for. "Denise says it is 'a declaration of war ... explosive stuff ... a national security issue'," said an email from a Random House editor quoted in The Wall Street Journal. "Think it will be far more controversial than The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons."
Thomas Perry, the deputy publisher of Random House, said the company had received "cautionary advice" that the book's appearance "might be offensive to some in the Muslim community", and that it could "incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment". Random House had therefore decided to "postpone" publication, he said, "for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel".
The Jewel of Medina follows the life of A'isha from her engagement to Mohamed, when she was six, until the Prophet's death. Jones said she was shocked to learn in May that publication would be postponed indefinitely. "I have deliberately and consciously written respectfully about Islam and Mohamed," she added.
"I envisioned that my book would be a bridge-builder," said Jones. "I wanted to honour A'isha and all the wives of Mohamed by giving voice to them, remarkable women whose crucial roles in the shaping of Islam have so often been ignored – silenced – by historians."
The affair is the latest in a series of controversies about portrayals of Islam that sparked violence, and threats against their authors. In 1988, Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses drew violent protests across the Muslim world, and a death edict, or fatwa, from Iran's then supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, that forced Rushdie into hiding for several years. The book's Japanese translator was also murdered.
In 2006, riots erupted across several Muslim countries when cartoons, one showing the Prophet wearing a turban resembling a bomb, appeared in a Danish newspaper.
Jones has never visited the Middle East, but spent several years studying Arab history. The novel, she says, is a synthesis of all she had learnt. "They did have a great love story," she said of Mohamed and A'isha. "He died with his head on her breast."
Jones has now signed a termination agreement with Random House, and her agent is free to seek other publishers.