The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad

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Overview

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 ...

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The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad

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Overview

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

From the Publisher
"A rich biography… Those who read it will come away well prepared to understand the prophet whose message, 14 centuries later, is the creed of more than a billion and a half people.” –The San Francisco Chronicle

"This book offers a welcome chance to read [Muhammed's] life story in a more familiar and accessible form than the Islamic sources… The First Muslim succeeds. It makes its subject vivid and immediate." –Hari Kunzru, The New York Times Book Review

"Richly detailed and beautifully written... [Hazleton] is able to do with words what is almost never attempted in pictures... indispensable." –The Seattle Times

"Like her subject, Hazleton brilliantly navigates 'the vast and often terrifying arena in which politics and religion intersect,' revealing the deep humanity of faith." –More Magazine

"The book's focus is an effort to portray the prophet's unique circumstances and recognizable humanity… Hazleton's biography covers the broad strokes of his life with fairness—she doesn't gloss over his more fallible moments—and insight." –NPR

"Hazleton is both a good storyteller and writer. Here she has brought to life a man about whom much has been written and whom millions revere, yet about whose actual life very little is known… A very readable book." –The American Spectator

"This story is deep with details not only of Muhammad's life journey, but with historic information about the culture of the times in Arabia... filled with rich color of the locations, culture, and people; it is a book plentiful with tales of Muhammad's life that follow logically from orphan to religious leader, but more than that, it enriches us with the detail of a time and place in history." –The New York Journal of Books

“[A] humane, audacious biography… An elegant narrative crafted for open-minded readers… a vivid canvas of Arabian life in the early seventh century.” –Ha’aretz

"A genuine attempt to try to understand the human experience Muhammad went through…  Hazleton queries and questions in a way that will resonate with a non-academic audience trying to come to grips with the fastest growing religion on the planet. It is a welcome antidote to the barrage of hatred and distortion to which Islam has been subjected since the early Bush years, an opportunity for balance to be restored and for those of us who don’t subscribe to the extremes to regain the middle ground.” –Guernica

"Hazleton... is in the revelation business: She's out to consider Muhammad as a mortal human, a man who lived and died and was vulnerable... A world-class history teacher who contextualizes the realities of [his] far-off times... [she] can effortlessly distill years of research into a few conversational sentences." –The Stranger

"A strikingly nuanced portrait of how Muhammad the man—fallible and complex—became Muhammad the prophet… With the insight of a psychologist and the details of a historian, Hazleton portrays a Muhammad both divinely inspired and deeply human." –Spirituality and Health

"Among the spate of recent biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, this one stands out. Hazleton, a former Jerusalem-based journalist and a psychologist, brings both of her professional skills to bear in this perceptive work, examining Muhammad’s life within its historical context and offering insights into the struggles of the early Muslim community. Indeed, 'The First Muslim' might be considered a prequel to her celebrated 'After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split'. Hazleton’s mining of the earliest biographies of Muhammad has yielded anecdotes that even scholarly Muslims may not know (although the absence of discussion of Muhammad’s last sermon may be missed by some). 'The First Muslim' is a beautifully written and dynamic work that Muslims, those wanting to learn more about Islam, and lovers of the English language will enjoy." — Asma Hasan, Saudi Aramco World

"Vivid and engaging... a fluid and captivating introduction that will be invaluable for those seeking a greater understanding of Islam's message and its messenger." –Publishers Weekly

"Winning... a level-headed, elegant look at the life of the prophet amid the making of a legend." –Kirkus

“Beautifully written, The First Muslim respectfully humanizes the inimitable prophet of Islam and sees him whole." –Cornel West, Professor, Union Theological Seminary, and Professor Emeritus, Princeton University

“Hazleton sets her keen eye and her sculpted prose on one of the most fascinating and misunderstood figures in history. What she uncovers is a complex yet utterly relatable man whose personal trials and triumphs changed the course of history. This is a wonderful book.” –Reza Aslan, author of No God but God and How to Win a Cosmic War

"Hazleton has done the seemingly impossible: rendered into human proportions a man who is more often the subject of pious veneration or political vitriol. This is the most readable, engaging study of Muhammad I have ever come across." –G. Willow Wilson, author of Alif the Unseen and The Butterfly Mosque

"The First Muslim tells the mostly unknown story of the prophet Muhammad in a masterful, accessible, and engaging way.  Hazleton's empathetic touch softens her rigorous scholarship and research as she crucially demystifies both the man himself and the birth of Islam. An absolute delight (and indispensable) for believers and non-believers alike." –Hooman Majd, author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ and The Ayatollahs' Democracy

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.)
Library Journal
05/01/2014
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)
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: 9781594632303
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/4/2014
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 205,325
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

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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Read an Excerpt

Part One

Orphan

Chapter One

If he weren’t standing lonely vigil on the mountain, you might say that there was no sign of anything unusual about him. The earliest sources describe him with infuriating vagueness for those of us who need images. “He was neither tall nor short,” they say. “Neither dark nor fair.” “Neither thin nor stout.” But here and there, specific details slip through, and when they do, they are surprising. Surely a man spending night after night in solitary meditation would be a gaunt, ascetic figure, yet far from being pale and wan, he had round,
rosy cheeks and a ruddy complexion. He was stockily built, almost barrel-chested, which may partly account for his distinctive gait, always
“leaning forward slightly as though he were hurrying toward something.”
And he must have had a stiff neck, because people would remember that when he turned to look at you, he turned his whole body instead of just his head. The only sense in which he was conventionally handsome was his profile: the swooping hawk nose long considered a sign of nobility in the Middle East.

On the surface, you might conclude that he was an average Meccan.
At forty years old, the son of a man he had never seen, he had made a far better life for himself than had ever seemed possible.
The child born an outsider within his own society had finally won acceptance, and carved out a good life despite the odds against him.
He was comfortably off, a happily married business agent with the respect of his peers. If he was not one of the movers and shakers of his prosperous city, that was precisely why people trusted him to represent their interests. They saw him as a man with no axe of his own to grind, a man who would consider an offer or a dispute on its merits and decide accordingly. He had found a secure niche in the world, and had earned every right, in middle age, to sit back and enjoy his rise to respectability. So what was he doing alone up here on one of the mountains that ringed the sleeping city below? Why would a happily married man isolate himself this way, standing in meditation through the night?

There was a hint, perhaps, in his clothing. By now he could certainly have afforded the elaborate embroidered silks of the wealthy,
but his clothing was low-key. His sandals were worn, the leather thongs sun-bleached paler than his skin. His homespun robe would be almost threadbare if it hadn’t been so carefully patched, and it was hardly enough to shield him against the night-time cold of the high desert. Yet something about the way he stood on the mountainside made the cold irrelevant. Tilted slightly forward as though leaning into the wind, his stance seemed that of someone who existed at an angle to the earth.

Certainly a man could see the world in a different way up here. He could find peace in the silence, with just the soughing of the wind over the rock for company, far from the feuds and gossip of the city with its arguments over money and power. Here, a man was merely a speck in the mountain landscape, his mind free to think and reflect, and then finally to stop thinking, stop reflecting, and submit itself to the vastness.

Look closer and you might detect the shadow of loneliness in the corners of his eyes, something lingering there of the outsider he had once been, as though he were haunted by the awareness that at any moment everything he’d worked so long and hard for could be taken away. You might see a hint of that same mix of vulnerability and resoluteness in his mouth, the full lips slightly parted as he whispered into the darkness. And then perhaps you’d ask why contentment was not enough. Did the fact that it had been so hard-earned make him unable to accept it as a given, never to be secure in his right to it? But then what would? What was he searching for? Was it a certain peace within himself, perhaps? Or was it something more—a glimpse, maybe just an intimation, of something larger?

One thing is certain: by Muhammad’s own account, he was completely unprepared for the enormity of what he would experience on this particular night in the year 610.

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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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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2014

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  • Posted September 22, 2013

    Recommended

    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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