Books Reviews

Lesley Hazleton’s The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad

By: Mohammad Jashim Uddin

Most Westerners judge the Prophet Muhammad through the prism of Islamic extremism. After all, someone who inspires such rabid fundamentalism must have himself been a wild-eyed zealot. But the truth is, at least as told by Lesley Hazleton in her book The First Muslim, that Muhammad’s story is that of a most reasonable, marginalized man beset by extraordinary circumstances. This humble young merchant picked himself up by his bootstraps and changed the course of human history. Considered alongside America’s war against unionized labor (e.g., carpenters) and Jesus’ calm submission to Roman governmental authority, Muhammad’s story should — on its surface merits, anyway — appeal at least as much as Christianity to a U.S. culture that values small, independent businessmen, and fighting tooth and nail against government oppression. That third pillar of monotheism will soon be the Earth’s largest faith? Muhammad built that.

Even for practicing Muslims, separating the man from the myth can be difficult. As Hazleton (somewhat ponderously) states early on in her biography, “The purity of perfection denies the complexity of a lived life. For Muslims worldwide, Muhammad is the ideal man, the prophet, the messenger of Allah, and though he is told again and again in the Quran to say ‘I am just one of you’ — just a man — reverence and love cannot resist the desire to clothe him, as it were, in gold and silver.”

Hazleton’s account follows the arc of Muhammad’s rise from powerlessness to power, from anonymity to renown, from insignificance to lasting significance. She produces some questions in developing her findings in focusing Muhammad’s ideologies for the salvation of human being. Such questions are: 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?

In The First Muslim, her latest foray into early Islamic history for a popular readership, journalist Lesley Hazleton accepts the traditional Muslim account of Muhammad’s life and mission pretty much as it stands in the sources. She relies heavily, indeed almost exclusively, on the standard English translation of the classical biography by the ninth-century Egyptian author Ibn Hisham (whose sira incorporates and completes an earlier eighth-century account), as well as on the monumental work of the great tenth-century historian and the Quran commentator al-Tabari. Critics note these dates not out of pedantry but to indicate a glaring problem with these sources: the earliest was composed a century after the Prophet’s death in 632 and the latest almost three hundred years after that (al-Tabari died in 923). Even allowing for the fabled tenacity of memory in traditional Muslim culture, not to mention the exemplary critical rigour of both Ibn Hisham and al-Tabari, it seems improbable that either of these narratives could be considered factually accurate in all or even most of their details. Occasionally Hazleton acknowledges this, as when she notes of one episode that ‘all of this is on the side of too good to be true’, but in general she is content to reproduce the traditional and well-hallowed sequence of events.

Though she expresses the wish early on to avoid what she aptly terms the ‘deadening pall of circumspection’, she is nothing if not circumspect from start to finish. Circumspection is warranted, of course. This is a volatile topic. For however sceptically scholars – and especially Western scholars such as the great Hungarian Orientalist Ignác Goldziher, who over a century ago cast serious doubt on the historical authenticity of virtually all the hadith literature – may regard the traditional sources, they are sacrosanct to most Muslims. They form the basis of prescribed comportment in all areas of life; they are the foundation of the sunna, the model behaviour enjoined on believers in imitation of the Prophet, seen as the uswa, the ultimate exemplar. Whatever is ‘not sunna’ is reprehensible, if not proscribed. But occasionally, and to her credit, even Hazleton’s circumspection gets ruffled. On the ghastly massacre of the last Jewish tribe of Medina, when Muhammad ordered the beheading of hundreds of men in front of a purpose-dug ditch and the enslavement of their wives and children, all on trumped-up charges, Hazleton is justifiably appalled, as have been other commentators, Muslim as well as non-Muslim. In such episodes, the tender, cat-loving Muhammad is not much in evidence. But when Hazleton struggles to analyse this shameful atrocity, she meanders into well-meaning piffle, seeing the event, bizarrely enough, as the original source of both ‘Muslim anti-Semitism and Jewish Islamophobia’, as though the two were equally well-founded.

For all her waffling, here and elsewhere, Hazleton does provide a good account of Muhammad’s life as it is given in standard Muslim sources; anyone who wants to know how Muslims regard their Prophet will find it both useful and entertaining. Her narrative moves at a pleasing clip. Unfortunately, however, she indulges in two highly irritating quirks. The first is what might be termed intrusive anachronism. She seems to have a compulsion to interject contemporary references into her account. Thus, when Abd al-Muttalib, the Prophet’s grandfather, finds himself obliged by an ill-considered vow to sacrifice his favourite son, only to be spared the ordeal by a cunning soothsayer, Hazleton remarks, ‘He had no need of a Freud to remind him of the deep connection between Eros and Thanatos, the life force and the death force, and moved instantly to mark his favourite son’s new lease on life by ensuring that it be passed on (in other words, he had him married).

There seem to be two authorial voices at work in this unexpectedly diverting book. One voice is wary, careful to recapitulate the classical narrative without giving offence, a paragon of circumspection; the other is a bit madcap, perhaps chafing under the yoke of caution, prone to fanciful extrapolations and generous lashings of schmaltz. If I call Lesley Hazleton’s book diverting, that’s only because I’ve never before had the pleasure of chuckling my way through a biography of the Prophet, or indeed of any prophet. Sometimes circumspection comes at too high a price. 

One of Hazleton’s more revelatory passages attempts to get at the heart of what many in the West see as Islam’s extreme overreaction to perceived slights and harmless satire. The Quraysh, who ruled Mecca in Muhammad’s time, belittled and exiled Muhammad for his dangerous teachings. The Quran urges patience, but it left a lasting mark. “Yet by its sheer insistence on ignoring mockery, the Quran would ensure that the sting of it lasted long into the future. Here, in the foundation text of Islam, is the source of the modern Muslim sensitivity to insult that has taken so many by surprise,” writes Hazleton. Despite the Quranic admonitions to ignore insults, the memory of Meccan rejection is still felt today, as Hazleton says, “one of the many indelible ironies of history and faith.”

Muhammad shows himself to be a very modern leader, well ahead of his time — a bona fide Hegelian “world-historical man” — as savvy a politician and military leader as he was a divine messenger. Hazleton’s biography covers the broad strokes of his life with fairness — she doesn’t gloss over his more fallible moments — and insight, but the book is important for trying to explain just who he really was. “Just one of you,” as the Quran says.

The book has three main chapters (“Orphan”, “Exile”, and “Leader”) excluding “Acknowledgement”, “Notes”, “Bibliography”, and “Index”. In the very first chapter, she focuses on the early life and interactions of Muhammad when he was not a Prophet, but he was so popular and acceptable for his personality and trustworthy activities. The second chapter is very important as he nominated the last Prophet by Lord and then he started preaching to people to be enlightened with the truth. He then faced unbearable pain and the attack of the natives and relatives. So, he left his motherland to save himself. Finally, from his exile, he started motivating the people of Madina and spread his leadership in establishing the truth for the salvation of human beings from the oppressors.  Here is the triumphant history of Prophet Muhammad Sm portrayed.

Finally, it can be said that 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.

[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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The reviewer is an assistant professor of English at Northern University Bangladesh.

Categories: Books Reviews, Essay

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