“The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad”
Riverhead Books, 320 pp., $27.95
Despite Islam’s status as the world’s fastest-growing religion and more than a decade of intense military engagement in predominantly Islamic Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans know little about Muhammad, the prophet whose revelations form the backbone of this fascinatingly complex faith. We know even less about him as a man.
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Seattle-based journalist, author and Middle East expert Lesley Hazleton attempts to set things right on both counts with her richly detailed and beautifully written biography, “The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad.”
Hazleton’s portrait of Muhammad in prose is refreshing, considering his physical depiction is forbidden according to Islamic teaching and grounds for protest in the Islamic world.
She is able to do with words what is almost never attempted in pictures. She renders Muhammad as a person, someone we can easily imagine walking the hot, narrow streets and sunbaked mountains of what is now Saudi Arabia in the early seventh century.
The social, economic and political context Hazleton lays out is also indispensable for learning how a belief system with a few adherents came to dominate the civilized world for centuries.
Sectarian strife, class and power politics shaped pre-Islamic society in the Middle East, much as it does today. Muhammad wasn’t just pushing his society toward a new faith but a new, more egalitarian way of ordering the world.
We read again and again of Muhammad’s own humble background as an orphan. Even as a prophet, he thinks of himself as “just a messenger,” a common man, in keeping with what the Angel Gabriel is said to have told him during a series of divine revelations spelled out in the Islamic holy book, the Quran. Humility features prominently in Islam still.
He and his wife, Khadija, live simply in Mecca, giving away most of their income and wearing homespun linen instead of silk.
In the tradition of the “hanifs” — the ascetic, independent thinkers of the time — he is a man apart, Hazleton writes.
“He saw his society too clearly for comfort: the contradictions, the hypocrisies and denials, the seemingly ever-widening gap between what people professed to honor and what they actually did.”
But perhaps this detachment was necessary to achieve a purer life and establish the religion, one that now has over a billion and a half followers worldwide.
Hazleton finds irony at every turn, though.
Take, for instance, the veil that traditional Islamic women don for modesty. As Hazleton notes, covering up was once a practice more commonly favored by aristocratic women to display their high status.
Muhammad was a man of peace and tolerance, yet Hazleton’s descriptions of his conquest of Mecca in 630 and of Islam’s stunningly swift rise across much of Southern Europe, North Africa and Central Asia suggest that the religion could not have achieved such dominance without at least the threat of force.
Islam was certainly born out of adversity and a deep sense of grievance, Hazleton reminds us. The elites of pre-Islamic Mecca ridiculed and persecuted Muhammad for his teachings. Who was he but yet another preacher claiming to know the word of God? But “the stronger the opposition, the more he took it as a confirmation of the validity of his message,” Hazleton writes.
Hazleton always makes room for alternate interpretations of the facts as we know them, however. Writing about the experiences and intentions of revered historical figures — especially those who claim to have received messages from God — is delicate work, after all. You’re bound to offend somebody.
But she never uses objectivity to water down thorny issues and inconsistencies. The story is told with robust authority and an entertaining sense of intrigue.
Her version of Muhammad’s life story is sweeping on an almost cinematic scale — but that’s only because it’s a truly amazing tale.
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.