The First Muslim

tsi_02march2014_43When Lesley Hazleton, an agnostic Jewish female and a journalist, decided to write down the biography of Prophet Muhammad, it did raise certain eyebrows among conservative clergies. Take a good look at the profile again and you would know why. It ticked all the boxes, namely agnostic, Jew and woman, which were considered sort of anathema. The only problem for the mullah was, Hazleton was not taking no for an answer.

For non-Muslims, understanding the Prophet has not been easy. And part of it can be blamed on Muslim scholars and writers. Most biographies on the Prophet have come through devout Muslims who cannot help but see him only through the religious prism. For non-Muslims, however, brilliant, such scholarships have remained a no-go area. Not because they challenge the religious aspect of it or are repelled by it. It is just that so much religious allegories and motifs advertently or inadvertently turn the book into a religious text and that sounds intimidating to many.

This was true in the case of many non-Muslim scholars too. Karen Armstrong, a Christian by faith, has produced some of the most brilliant and lucid scholarships on the prophet and Islam, but she has also been trained as a nun or at least a scholar of Semitic religions and that religious prism comes naturally.

Lesley Hazleton’s The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad has no such hang-ups. And thankfully so. As she herself mentions in the book, the Prophet has been given a short shift by such scholarships by not treating his failures and triumphs in the light of a human struggle. So many miracles have been heaped on him that we don’t actually get to see the person behind the Prophet. And trust me, that’s quite frustrating.

Hazleton, by virtue of being an agnostic, takes the rational route and comes out sparkling. Although she too bases her biography on two of the earliest and most quoted biographies of the Prophet, namely Sirat Rasul Allah by Muḥammad ibn Ishaq and Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk by Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, she explores them from a different perspective than many others have done.

While she laments Muslim scholars’ over embellishments and hyperbole, something that Ibn Ishaq was very careful in avoiding or at least balancing, she also comes down heavily on Orientalists for sticking to their prism in interpreting the actions of the Prophet. Take for example her take on the Prophet’s marriage to Khadija.

“The widowed Khadija was 40, he was 25, and since she was his employer, it was she who proposed to him. Some scholars have assumed that the ‘wealthy widow’ syndrome was at work here, but early accounts indicate a marriage of mutual love and respect – a monogamous one that lasted 24 years until her death. He’d mourn her until his own death 13 years later. His nine late-life marriages were mainly means of diplomatic alliance and of securing his base, as was customary for any leader of the time. It’s striking that though he’d had five children with Khadija, he’d have none with any of the later wives.”

She also deals with his nemesis in a way that they are not merely reduced to cardboard characters. I am not sure that any Islamic history book in English with the similar scope would have given such space to characters like Abu Sufiyan, Abu Lahab, Ibn Mutalib or even Hind. Hazleton takes a peep inside their minds and tries to understand why they did what they did.

Hazleton is also visibly much more rational in dealing with the pre-Islamic Hejaz in general and Mecca in particular. Her criticisms are  based on the breaking down of the moral fabric and rise of materialism in Hejaz and how the Prophet’s refreshing message started to find traction, rather than depending on the over embellished image of “Jahiliyyah” that traditional scholars have stuck to.

It is also evident that as a scholar, Hazleton is not afraid of treading paths that have remained hitherto no-go areas. And that brings out the brilliance. As she sheaves through Ibn Ishaq and al-Tabari, she carefully constructs a human image of the Prophet devoid of embellishments and in the process gives him his due. Her tackling of controversial subjects like the incident of Satanic Verses and massacre of one of the Jewish tribes of Medina is, in one word, brilliant.

Like any other scholarship, The First Muslim is not the final seal. The book does have its shortcomings. For example, it can be argued that she overuses the rational prism, just like those she has criticized for overusing religious prism. Also, those picking it for a pleasurable read must understand that all this rationality has affected the lucidity of the book.

But overall, Lesley Hazleton’s scholarship is sparkling and it is bound to remain such for many years to come.

Author: Lesley Hazleton
Publisher: Atlantic
Edition: Paperback
ISBN:  978-1-7823-92309
Pages: 336
Price: Rs 599