|Review by Jonathan P. Berkey / San Francisco Chronicle,||
17 April 2013 |
The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad
By Lesley Hazleton
(Riverhead, 2013; 320 pages)
Who was the first Christian? Many Christians would probably answer: "Jesus." But the Gospels make it clear that Jesus lived and died as a Jew. A better guess might be the Apostle Paul, whose letters reveal a community beginning to distinguish itself from its parent faith. But naming him would be just that: a guess.
If the narratives of Islamic origins are accurate, there is no doubt who was the first Muslim. Around the year 610, Muhammad began to hear a voice. In response to its revelations, Muhammad preached to his pagan Arab neighbors a message of submission to the God also worshiped by Jews and Christians. It took two decades and a long political struggle, but eventually Muhammad persuaded the Arabs to adopt his new faith.
Lesley Hazleton has drawn on those narratives, the most important of which are available in English translations, to compose a rich biography of this first Muslim. There are other excellent biographies of Muhammad, including scholarly accounts by Montgomery Watt, Maxime Rodinson and others. Hazleton's is aimed at a broader audience.
The figure of Muhammad lies behind the misunderstanding and conflict between the Muslim world and the Christian West. Christians have compared Muhammad to Christ, and found the former lacking. Hazleton's account demonstrates just how unhelpful such an approach is. For all that Muhammad apparently saw himself as a prophet in direct line of spiritual descent from Jesus, the two played radically different roles.
Above all, Muhammad was a political leader as much as a spiritual one, more Moses than Jesus, and Hazleton frames his prophetic career as a struggle to overcome his enemies and to unite the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula for the first time in a single state. For the average Westerner, this is the critical but largely unknown context without which it is impossible to understand the Muslim prophet or the doctrines he preached.
So, for example, jihad is not proof that Islam is inherently violent. Rather, it is a doctrine that evolved to address the political circumstances that Muhammad (and his successors) faced. Hazleton provides a nuanced account of those circumstances, among them a raid carried out by some of Muhammad's followers against their enemies shortly after Muhammad fled his home in Mecca and established a Muslim polity in the nearby community of Medina.
The raid was a minor affair, but, occurring as it did during a sacred month when violence was taboo, it provided the occasion for a revelation that would shape later Muslim thinking about warfare: "Say: 'Fighting in that month is a great offense, but still greater offenses in God's eyes are to bar others from God's path. ... Persecution is worse than killing.' "
Emphasizing context allows the author to explain without apologizing for those aspects of the prophet's life that are most likely to jar Western sensibilities. One of the most troubling episodes was Muhammad's execution of the male members of a Jewish tribe in Medina that had allegedly conspired with his Meccan enemies. As Hazleton notes, the episode is invoked today by some Muslims to demonstrate Jewish perfidy, and by critics of Islam to accuse it of anti-Semitism.
Both allegations miss the point. The incident was shocking enough that many of Muhammad's contemporaries, even among his supporters, were disturbed by it. But the move was calculated to demonstrate his power and bring about the more rapid submission of his other enemies, particularly those in Mecca, and in that he largely succeeded.
For many, one of the most puzzling aspects of Islam is its very heart: the Quran. The Muslim scripture is not a narrative account of Muhammad's life or, indeed, of anything else. It is, rather, an arbitrarily arranged collection of verses revealed to Muhammad over 20 years. Each verse addressed particular circumstances faced by the prophet or his followers, but those circumstances are not spelled out in the text. Unless one knows the contexts of the revelations, reading the Quran can therefore be baffling. Hazleton (right) conveniently situates its scattered verses in the circumstances to which they were addressed. As a result, her book will function for many readers as a comprehensible introduction to the Muslim scripture.
With her broad audience in mind, Hazleton wants not only to recount what happened in Muhammad's life but also how he felt about it. That's consistent with the goal of most modern biographers, who typically are interested not just in what their subjects did, but why, and what they thought and felt.
Unfortunately, the relative absence of direct evidence of people's interior lives in premodern sources - the occasional St. Augustine notwithstanding - makes that project difficult. For all the detail about Muhammad's life that the surviving Muslim narratives provide, little of it allows much direct insight into Muhammad's state of mind.
To overcome that difficulty, Hazleton allows herself a considerable, and sometimes unsettling, degree of imaginative license. But if in doing so she strays further from the sources than scholarly precision might prefer, most readers will still appreciate and benefit from the portrait of the Muslim prophet provided in this book. Its goal is not to urge its readers to love, or to hate, the man, simply to understand the forces that produced him. 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.
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