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An academic book about religious attitudes to women is to be published this week despite concerns it could cause a backlash among Muslims because it criticises the prophet Muhammad for taking a nine-year-old girl as his third wife.
The book, entitled Does God Hate Women?, suggests that Muhammad's marriage to a child called Aisha is "not entirely compatible with the idea that he had the best interests of women at heart".
It also says that Cherie Blair, wife of the former prime minister, was "incorrect" when she defended Islam in a lecture by claiming "it is not laid down in the Koran that women can be beaten by their husbands and their evidence should be devalued as it is in some Islamic courts".
This weekend, the publisher, Continuum, said it had received "outside opinion" on the book's cultural and religious content following suggestions that it might cause offence. "We sought some advice and paused for thought before deciding to go ahead with publication," said Oliver Gadsby, the firm's chief executive. The book will be released on Thursday.
A recent novel that also dealt with Muhammad's relationship with Aisha provoked an outcry. The Jewel of Medina caused such anger that a Muslim extremist was convicted earlier this month of trying to firebomb the office of its publisher.
Continuum's book may cause a backlash because it sets out to be a factual examination of religious attitudes to women. British writer Jeremy Stangroom and his American co-author Ophelia Benson, whose previous books on philosophy and science have received favourable reviews, cite ancient Islamic scholars to support their case. They roundly attack previous attempts to "soft-soap" the controversial episode in Muhammad's life. In the aftermath of 9/11, the authors argue, a wave of political correctness aimed at building bridges with the Muslim world has meant accusations of "Islamophobia" have been used to silence debate about the morality of social conduct, past and present.
Through a gruesome catalogue of abuses carried out against women in the name of Islam as well as other major religions, including Hinduism and Catholicism, Stangroom and Benson conclude that most of the world's great faiths are essentially misogynistic.
Among the many tragedies they cite are the deaths of 14 young girls in a fire at a school in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in March 2002. The girls died after being herded back into a blazing classroom by the country's religious police because they had neglected to don black head-to-toe robes in their rush to flee to safety.
However, the most contentious section of their book is likely to be their conclusions concerning the age at which Muhammad first slept with Aisha.
While it is widely accepted that the girl's father first offered her for betrothal to Muhammad when she was just six, many argue that Muhammad married Aisha when she was nine and the union was not consummated until she reached puberty years later.
However, Stangroom and Benson cite extracts from a highly regarded historian of early Islam, Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, who quotes Aisha as saying: "The Messenger of God consummated his marriage with me in my house when I was nine years old". The authors conclude "religious authorities and conservative clerics worship a wretchedly cruel unjust vindictive executioner of a God. . . a God who thinks little girls should be married to grown men".
Such assertions could invoke the ire of some Muslims. Anjem Choudary, a self-styled sharia judge and former leader of the banned British group Al-Muhajiroun, said: "Talk of Aisha as a child when she married is not true.
"At nine she reached her menses and in those days a girl was considered to be mature when that happened. No one will swallow talk about child brides. It would lead to a huge backlash, as we saw with The Jewel of Medina."