The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad [NOOK Book]


The extraordinary life of the man who founded Islam, and the world he inhabited—and remade.

Muhammad’s was a life of almost unparalleled historical importance; yet for all the iconic power of his name, the intensely dramatic story of ...
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The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad

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The extraordinary life of the man who founded Islam, and the world he inhabited—and remade.

Muhammad’s was a life of almost unparalleled historical importance; yet for all the iconic power of his name, the intensely dramatic story of the prophet of Islam is not well known. In The First Muslim, Lesley Hazleton brings him vibrantly to life. Drawing on early eyewitness sources and on history, politics, religion, and psychology, she renders him as a man in full, in all his complexity and vitality.

Hazleton’s account follows the arc of Muhammad’s rise from powerlessness to power, from anonymity to renown, from insignificance to lasting significance. How did a child shunted to the margins end up revolutionizing his world? How did a merchant come to challenge the established order with a new vision of social justice? How did the pariah hounded out of Mecca turn exile into a new and victorious beginning? How did the outsider become the ultimate insider?

Impeccably researched and thrillingly readable, Hazleton’s narrative creates vivid insight into a man navigating between idealism and pragmatism, faith and politics, nonviolence and violence, rejection and acclaim. The First Muslim illuminates not only an immensely significant figure but his lastingly relevant legacy.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Weaving psychological interpretation with history, this readable biography of Muhammad offers a balanced portrait of a complex man and his journey to becoming a religious figure. (LJ 5/15/13)
The New York Times Book Review - Hari Kunzru
…Hazleton approaches her subject with scrupulous respect…This is a writer who is working to dispel contradictions, not sharpen them…In the terms it sets itself, The First Muslim succeeds. It makes its subject vivid and immediate. It deserves to find readers.
Publishers Weekly
Despite Islam’s position at the forefront of the American consciousness, the general public knows little of its founder and prophet beyond platitudes and condemnations. Hazleton (After the Prophet) attempts to rectify this imbalance with her vivid and engaging narrative of Muhammad’s life. The author portrays her subject as an unlikely and unsuspecting vehicle for the divine, “painfully aware that too many nights in solitary meditation might have driven him over the edge.” Sympathetic but not hagiographic, her work draws liberally from a long tradition of Islamic biographical literature about the prophet; the nuanced portrait that emerges is less that of an infallible saint than of a loving family man, a devoted leader of his people, an introspective and philosophical thinker who reluctantly accepted the burden of conveying the word of God, and a calculating political strategist. Hazleton writes not as a historian but as a cultural interpreter, reconstructing Muhammad’s identity and personality from the spiritual revolution that he sparked and the stories that his followers passed down. While the speculation is sometimes off-putting (as when Muhammad’s final illness is confidently diagnosed as bacterial meningitis), the result is a fluid and captivating introduction that will be invaluable for those seeking a greater understanding of Islam’s message and its messenger. Agent: Gloria Loomis, Watkins/Loomis Agency. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
A longtime reporter on the Middle East, Hazleton (After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam, 2009, etc.) carefully delineates the great events in the life of the "first Muslim," who, like the Christian prophet Jesus, was chosen as the "translator" of God's message to mankind. The author sifts through and synthesizes many differing and conflicting sources for a gently reverential and ultimately winning study of a humble soul in search of his identity. Hazleton effectively fleshes out the iconic events of the messenger's life. Left fatherless as a baby, shunted to a wet nurse who cared for him and brought him up in the Bedouin ways, Muhammad grew into a capable, hardworking caravan agent for his uncle in Mecca before making an advantageous match with a wealthy widow 16 years his elder, Khadija, who would prove a steady companion and his first convert. Muhammad first made a name for himself as the arbitrator in the collective repair of the damaged sacred sanctuary of Kaaba; his altered state atop Mount Hira at age 40 was an experience of "poetic faith," Hazleton explains, resulting in beautiful verses flowing from his lips. He spoke urgently of social justice and reform, and he spoke in Arabic. Exiled from Mecca by the ruling elite, he again proved a natural, masterly negotiator among tribes in Medina, appealing to a higher authority to solve their disputes and drawing up a binding contract of monotheism. Hazleton explains that he resorted to violence only after a passive resistance got him nowhere--the troublesome precedent of jihad. The author writes poignantly of the evolution of the public messenger from the private man. A levelheaded, elegant look at the life of the prophet amid the making of a legend.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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.

Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Brooke Allen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101602003
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 1/24/2013
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 155,951
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Lesley Hazleton reported on the Middle East from Jerusalem for more than a dozen years, and has written for Time, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and Harper’s, among other publications. Her last book, After the Prophet, was a finalist for the PEN-USA book Award. Hazleton lives in Seattle.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 28, 2013

    Truly, this is a remarkable narrative, which is told with authen

    Truly, this is a remarkable narrative, which is told with authenticity and compassion. Lesley does justice to this biography with facts and masterful story telling, which takes one through the life of Prophet Muhammad as though you were there with him during that time. I read book with riveted attention and could hardly put it down! Truly a marvelous piece of writing as the author creates the awareness of his humanity and his message to mankind.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 22, 2013


    I'll try to avoid hyperbole. It's a simple fact that mainstream Americans are frequently exposed to news and information, streaming forth from the internet, radio and TV dealing with Islam. Much of it is poorly reported due to what appears to be a general lack of real understanding about Islam's history. In a self effort to correct my understanding that stems from this misinformation I chose to read this book. The writing is excellent. The topic is treated with a clear understanding of the culture that surrounded Muhammad in his time. It describes the development of his life and religious experience in a way that is solidly factual. Most importantly it goes a long way in clearing up much of the misunderstanding that seems to be present in the American mainstream. I'm a sucker for well constructed biographies and this is one of them. Definitely worth a read for independent minded souls who don't want their only source of information to be from what passes for journalism these days.

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    Posted September 12, 2013

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    Posted June 3, 2013

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