THE FIRST MUSLIM:
THE STORY OF MUHAMMAD
Author: Lesley Hazleton
Publisher: Atlantic Books, London, 2013
Price: Rs 599
Over 14 centuries since the advent of Islam, Prophet Muhammad, his life and the religion preached by him have remained controversial. The reasons have been both doctrinal and political. The prophet asserted that Islam, i.e., submission to the will of God, was a continuation of the religion revealed to mankind through Adam and all the prophets who followed him, including Abraham, Moses, Joseph and Jesus Christ. But, just as the Jews had refused to see Jesus as the promised messiah so did most of the Jews and Christians of the seventh century refuse to accept Muhammad as the "seal of the Prophets".
The success of Muslim arms across West Asia, North Africa and even Europe within a century after Muhammad's death made the enemies of Islam see Muslims as the despised "Other", with the prophet being caricatured over the centuries as a false prophet, a cruel villain and a debauch. The currents of Islamophobia in many parts of the contemporary western world, strengthened by the events of 9/11 and the extremist violence of Al Qaeda and its affiliates, have fed this culture of hate and otherness, which sees Muslims and their faith as isolated from the mainstream of human civilisation.
This, in turn, has strengthened the sense of separateness amongst several Muslims, often leading to their physical isolation in ghettoised communities, fostering in them a sense of victimhood and encouraging some of them to mindless violence in support of their faith. The clash of civilisations, however flawed its logic, history and politics, is a living reality for millions of Muslims and their detractors in large parts of the world.
In this environment, Lesley Hazleton's new biography of Islam's prophet is most welcome. While based on solid scholarship, the style is fresh, informal and chatty. The writer, a renowned journalist, in her search for Muhammad the prophet and the man, has sought "to uncover the meaning and relevance within the welter of events" in his life. She paints an intimate portrait of the man, freely speculating about his thinking, possible motivations, and even the political and emotional context within which he took certain important decisions. At the end, the prophet emerges as "a complex man carving a huge profile in history, his vision (going) beyond seemingly irreconcilable opposites."
She notes the "real bond of deep love and affection" between Muhammad and his first wife, Khadija, who was 15 years senior to him, with whom he had a monogamous marriage of 24 years. She speaks of Muhammad's "palpable feeling of terror" and "a terrible awe" after the first revelation, even a fear of madness. She paints a touching portrait of the trembling, shuddering Muhammad, seeking solace in the lap of his beloved Khadija; the first revelation was then formed in words that, over time, changed the world.
Hazelton provides thoughtful insights on certain important aspects of the prophet's life. The Satanic Verses, when the prophet announced a "revelation" that suggested that the supreme God could have lesser gods associated with Him, remain controversial to this day. The people of Makkah, who had welcomed the prophet and his message on hearing of this "association", debunked the man and his revelations when he issued a quick correction. Hazelton argues that this episode was "the means of making it clear that no matter how painful, Muhammad needed to be true to himself, to his voice and to that of God".
Hazelton does not shy away from some of the less savoury aspects of Muhammad's life. These include: the expulsion from Madina of the Jews of the Zaynuqa tribe; the apparent sanction to eliminate satirists who did not accept the divine revelations, and the condemnation of early dissidents in Madina as "hypocrites", worthy of severe chastisement. She also touches on his various marriages after the death of Khadija, which were usually meant to strengthen ties within the community of believers as also to turn enemies into political and military allies. One episode that has been frequently cited to exemplify the prophet's cruelty is the killing of the men of the Jewish Qureyz tribe, which asserted that the new faith would now have a political identity that would not tolerate any challenge or dissent.
The book is embellished with several pithy observations that impart substance and meaning to important episodes. Thus, speaking of the collection of the revelations in the Quran, Hazelton notes that the Muslims, who had earlier looked up to the People of the Book were now "a people with their own book …it was overtly political. And for those without power, empowering". The political was never far away from the spiritual. As the author notes, in Madina the Prophet moulded the contending tribes into one community, the ummah, and points out that Muhammad had "persuaded a place in search of an identity to connect with an identity in search of a place".
Every aspect of Muhammad's life and his message has been a matter of debate over the centuries, with critics pouring scorn, while the faithful see him as the perfect man, with every remark and action of his exemplary and worthy of emulation, though the prophet himself spoke of his human frailty and propensity to error. "The purity of perfection," Hazelton points out, "denies the complexity of a lived life."
This book is a balanced, scholarly yet lucid narrative of doubt, controversy, cruelty, compassion and extraordinary achievement of Muhammad, a man of his times and a prophet for all times.
The author is a former diplomat. His book, The Islamist Challenge in West Asia, releases this month