August 12 was supposed to be the pub date for Sherry Jones's first novel, The Jewel of Medina, a work of historical fiction depicting the life of A'isha, the prepubescent seventh-century wife of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The book was abruptly canceled by its publisher, Ballantine, this past May, an event that went relatively unnoticed until the cancellation was featured in an August 6 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “You Still Can't Write About Muhammad” by Asra Q. Nomani. In the piece, Nomani wrote: “The series of events that torpedoed this novel are a window into how quickly fear stunts intelligent discourse about the Muslim world.”

Some critics of the cancellation are accusing Random House of capitulation to Islamic radicals out to subvert free intellectual discourse. Trouble started for the book only after galleys were sent out in April. One recipient, Denise Spellberg—a professor at the University of Texas and an expert on A'isha—strongly objected to liberties Jones took with the historical record. Spellberg, who is under contract with Knopf for a nonfiction book, told her editor Jones's novel was potentially as inflammatory as Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and suggested it be canceled.

The book portrays A'isha as a swordswoman, a fact that is not part of the historical record. It also depicts a number of scenes of sexual intimacy between A'isha and Muhammad as well as her near-adulterous flirtation with another man. “With our bodies, we brushed each other lightly—my breasts to his chest, his thigh to my most intimate place, my toes to his shins. An aroma like musk rose from his body,” reads the passage. “My moan of pleasure surprised me, luxuriant as the purr of a cat stretching in the sunlight.”

After consulting with experts, Random House canceled the book, citing security risks. On June 21, Jones signed a termination agreement that returned the book's rights to her. The agreement included a gag order preventing her from discussing the terms. The original contract with Ballantine was for two books, Jewel and a sequel, and was reportedly valued at $100,000.

The brouhaha that resulted after the August 6 WSJ opinion piece has been enormous, with many accusing Random house of surrendering to Muslim radicalism. Random House deputy publisher Thomas Perry said in a statement that the company received “cautionary advice” that the book “might be offensive to some in the Muslim community” and “that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.” Perry said RH decided to “postpone publication” for the safety of anyone “who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel.”

Since the WSJ article, Spellberg has been getting hate mail and been pilloried online and in the press. She told PW that she was “shocked” about the book's cancellation and sees herself as a scapegoat: “They invited me into the publishing process and didn't like what I had to say,” she said. Spokesperson Carol Schneider said: “Our decision was not based solely on the opinions of Ms. Spellberg,” declining to disclose who else was consulted.

Jones's agent, Natasha Kern, has been shopping The Jewel of Medina elsewhere. Publishers in Italy, Spain and Hungary plan to publish it, and Kern has received numerous calls from interested parties.