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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...
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.
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.
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."
Reviewer: Brooke Allen