The First Muslim

Salman Rushdie may still be among the living, but the point has been taken: it’s a very dangerous thing to cast aspersions on the Prophet Muhammad. Some 200 people were killed in the violent episodes following the 2005 publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Even during Muhammad’s lifetime poets and satirists who made fun of him were put to death, with the Prophet’s open approval. So to write a “biography” of Muhammad is a risky undertaking that involves, for the serious scholar, walking a fine line between the search for truth and the fear of giving offense. The theologian Karen Armstrong performed this task with her customary tact in her 1991 Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet and her more recent Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time. One might wonder whether a new popular life for the general reader is really necessary. But journalist and former Middle East reporter Lesley Hazleton attempts something rather different in The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad: a more emotional, almost novelistic rendering of the Prophet’s story based on the standard scholarly sources.

Like other scholars, she has focused her research on works produced in the centuries immediately following Muhammad’s death: ibn-Ishaq’s biography, written in eighth-century Damascus, and the thirty-nine-volume history of early Islam by the ninth-century Baghdadi scholar al-Tabari. Where Hazleton differs from so many others is in her attempt to imagine her way into the Prophet’s head. This would have been a daunting task even for Muhammad’s contemporaries and followers. How, after all, can anyone truly take the intellectual and emotional measure of someone who is inspired? It is a problem even for those who attempt books about secular geniuses (Michelangelo, van Gogh, and the like); how much more difficult it is, then, when it comes to a religious genius. I can’t think of a single time when it’s been done really well. Here’s an example of Hazleton’s rather earnest efforts:

So the man who fled down Mount Hira trembled not with joy but with a stark, primordial fear. He was overwhelmed not with conviction, but by doubt. He was sure of only one thing: whatever this was, it was not meant to happen to him. Not to a middle-aged man who had hoped perhaps at most for a simple moment of grace instead of this vast blinding weight of revelation. If he no longer feared for his life, he certainly feared for his sanity, painfully aware that too many nights in solitary meditation might have driven him over the edge.

How, one might ask, does she know this?  The book is full of fuzzy projections: “he must have felt,” “he has to have felt,” “he must have experienced,” “he must have sensed.” Well, maybe; but this reader, for one, tends to doubt much of it. Muhammad was an extraordinary individual, so much so that his thought processes, at least during his early years of inspiration, are really impossible for uninspired individuals like most of us to fathom.

In her early chapters Hazleton, startlingly, relates Muhammad’s perceptions in the breathless tones of the romance novelist:

Wrapped in his threadbare robe against the gathering chill of early evening, Muhammad would watch as the monotonous glare of day gave way to a rich light that mellowed the mountains into gold. There’d be a slight tremor inside him as the sun abruptly slipped from sight, leaving the western horizon to glow with color before fading as though someone were languorously drawing a heavy veil over it. A while yet, and moon-shadows would begin to silver the landscape, or there’d be the ethereal cold light of the star-studded sky at new moon, and then the quality of time itself seemed to change, as though he could sense it stretching into infinity….

Such emotional projections can seem both presumptuous and simple-minded, but when Hazleton moves on to the Prophet’s remarkable political and military career she is on firmer ground. He was a genius in these fields just as in the spiritual realm: it was not the Quran that made Islam an irresistible force in the Arabian Peninsula, it was Muhammad’s personal power and charisma. Unlike so many historical conquerors he was not a particularly brutal man; in fact by the standards of his day he was unusually clement, eager to consolidate his gains through strategic alliances rather than plunder or rapine. When he did do something brutal, it tended to be for a clear strategic purpose. His most fearsome act, to modern readers, will be his massacre of 400 members of the Qureyz, a recalcitrant Jewish tribe, in the central market of Medina: “Beheading someone is far harder than conventional battle tales of the time might lead a reader to think,” Hazleton recounts. (Is she aware of how gruesome this sounds?) “Whole teams of believers went to work in separate morning and afternoon shifts resting from their labors in the heat of midday. It took three days until they could declare their job done and the trenches were filled in.”

Ugh! It brings us back to the central problem: the split between Muhammad the inspired prophet and Muhammad the canny, ruthless soldier. Can the two ever be satisfactorily reconciled, to a reader who is not already a believer? Hazleton does not succeed in doing so; indeed, her apparent adulation of the Prophet as religious mystic serves her badly when she gets to his later career in Realpolitik, as more and more new Quranic injunctions appear, each justifying some dubious action of the Prophet himself. “Fight in the way of God those who fight you, but do not begin hostilities, for God does not like the aggressor,” the Quran tells us — “the crux, of course,” as Hazleton writes, “being to define the aggressor.” And then there are the nine wives he took after the death of Khadija, his wife of twenty-four years, fifteen years his senior. It is true that most of these were diplomatic unions that helped bring together the growing body of the mu’uminin (believers); still, the convenient and timely Quranic verses okaying the marriages, including that with the pre-nubile Aisha, have always raised smiles from nonbelievers. Hazleton doesn’t give in to this temptation. “No matter how many more times he married,” she assures us, “he would never find that quality of love [that he had had with Khadija] again.”

It’s perfectly possible, of course, but how does she know?  Hazleton is persuasive neither when she tries to imagine Muhammad’s innermost spiritual crises nor when she puts the best possible spin on actions that indicate the opportunist rather than the visionary. The Prophet emerges from her treatment, as he always does, a fascinating, brilliant, troubling man of many masks and many talents. As Hazleton points out, the Byzantine and Persian empires had fought each other to the death; the new Arab nation and faith filled the vacuum in a satisfactory manner. Islam, much like early Christianity, stressed social justice, unity, and equality before God and enjoined its followers to be humble and charitable. Muhammad’s good qualities are reflected in all these aspects of the faith he founded. His more disturbing ones are also there. Hazleton, for all her obvious goodwill, fails to reconcile these two sides of her subject; but then, so has everyone else who has made the attempt. Perhaps in the end it cannot be done.