ON THE COVER
The extraordinary life of the man who founded Islam, and the world he inhabited – and remade.
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. Here, 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.
Hazleton follows the arc of Muhammad’s rise from powerlessness to power, from anonymity to renown, from insignificance to lasting significance. 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?
Impeccably researched and compellingly readable, The First Muslim creates vivid insight into a man navigating between idealism and pragmatism, faith and politics, nonviolence and violence, rejection and acclaim. In the process, it illuminates not only an immensely significant figure but his lastingly relevant legacy.
Q and A with ‘RELIGION DISPATCHES’
What inspired you to write The First Muslim?
Basically, frustration! I’d read several biographies of Muhammad as background for my previous book, After the Prophet, but though they seemed to tell me a lot about him, they left me with little real sense of the man himself. There was a certain dutiful aspect to them, and this made them kind of… soporific. Which seemed to me a terrible thing to do to such a remarkable life.
There was a terrific story to be told here: the journey from neglected orphan to acclaimed leader—from marginalized outsider to the ultimate insider—made all the more dramatic by the tension between idealism and pragmatism, faith, and politics. I wanted to be able to see Muhammad as a complex, multidimensional human being, instead of the two-dimensional figure created by reverence on the one hand and prejudice on the other. I wanted the vibrancy and vitality of a real life lived.
But of course I was also impelled by a certain dismay at how little most of us in the West know about Muhammad, especially when Islam is so often in the headlines and there are so many competing claims to “the truth about Islam.” This one man radically changed his world—indeed he’s still changing ours—so it seemed to me vitally important that we be able to get beyond stereotypes and see who he really was.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about Muhammad?
Let’s take just the two most obvious stereotypes: the lecherous polygamist, and the sword-wielding warmonger. In fact Muhammad’s first marriage, to Khadija, was a loving, monogamous relationship that lasted 24 years, until her death. The nine late-life marriages were mainly diplomatic ones—means of sealing alliances, as was standard for any leader at the time. And it’s striking that while he had five children with Khadija—four daughters and a son who died in infancy—he had none with any of the late-life wives.
As for the warmonger image, Muhammad maintained a downright Gandhian stance of passive, nonviolent resistance to both verbal and physical assaults for 12 years, until he was driven into exile from his home in Mecca. The psychology of exile thus played a large role in the armed conflict over the subsequent eight years, until Mecca finally accepted his leadership in a negotiated surrender, with strong emphasis on avoiding bloodshed.
Is there anything you had to leave out?
I know there’s a tendency to elide certain issues of Muhammad’s life, not least among them the rapid deterioration of his relations with the Jews of Medina, which was especially hard for me, as a Jew, to write about. But to evade such issues seems to me to demonstrate a certain lack of respect for your subject. A biographer’s task is surely to create as full a portrait as possible. If you truly respect your subject, you need to do him justice by according him the integrity of reality.
What alternative title would you give the book?
Perhaps “Seeing Muhammad Whole.” Or “A Man in Full.” But since Muhammad is told three times in the Qur’an to call himself the first Muslim, I knew early on that this would be the title.
Did you have a specific audience in mind?
It kind of hurts to think of intelligent, open-minded readers as a specific audience…
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
Far more than inform! The pleasure for me lies in the “aha!” of understanding, of grasping the richness of reality, with all its uncertainties and dilemmas. It’s in the practice of empathy—not sympathy, but empathy, which is the good-faith attempt to understand someone else’s experience. Those who nurture images of Muhammad as the epitome of either all evil or all good may well be disconcerted, but then that’s the point: empathy trumps stereotype any time.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
The First Muslim isn’t a “message” book. If anything, since I’m agnostic, you might call it an agnostic biography. But I think many readers may be surprised at Muhammad’s deep commitment to social justice, his radical protest against greed and corruption, and his impassioned engagement with the idea of unity, both human and divine—major factors that help explain the appeal of Islam.
How do you feel about the cover?
I loved it the minute I saw it. Riverhead brilliantly avoided all the usual obvious images—domes, minarets, crescent moons, camels, and so on—and opted instead for the understated elegance of this classic “knot” tile design.
Is there a book out there you wish you’d written?
On Muhammad? No, and that’s exactly why I wrote The First Muslim. The book I wish someone else had written didn’t exist—one that brought psychological and political context to the historical and religious record, and one I actually wanted to read instead of feeling that I should.
What’s your next book?
I’m thinking it’s time to explore exactly what I mean by being an agnostic, and how this informs my ongoing fascination with the vast and volatile arena in which religion and politics intersect.
Lesley Hazleton on SEEING MUHAMMAD WHOLE
The questions came in during a radio interview I was doing for my previous book, After the Prophet. They’d been asked many times before, but rarely with such deceptive simplicity: “Who was Muhammad? Where did he come from?”
There was a note of exasperation in the caller’s voice, and I could understand why. While much has been written “about” Muhammad, most of it feels oddly two-dimensional, lacking the vitality and depth of a real life lived. Accounts would mention, for instance, that his father died before he was born, but then move on as though being an orphan was just a minor detail that had no effect on the man he would become. And they failed to call his move from Mecca to Medina what it was – not emigration, but forced exile – and then to consider the impact of this experience.
Essentially, I wanted to know what it was like to be Muhammad — to see him from the inside, in the full context of his time and place. I wanted to explore not just what he did but why – a “why” that would far enlarge the “what.” I wanted a real feel for the man himself.
This was not a matter of faith. If anything I am resolutely secular: an agnostic Jew fascinated by the interplay of religion and politics. In fact you might say that I set out to write an agnostic biography, driven not by belief but by the spirit of inquiry. The more I delved, the more exciting my work became, calling on both in-depth research and my own experience living in and reporting from the Middle East. But what impelled me above all was a sense of urgency.
The mass of assumptions, misperceptions, and prejudices that have accumulated around Muhammad makes it clear that if he was controversial in the seventh century, he is in many ways even more so today. Beyond his extraordinary personal journey lies an even greater one: the birth not only of the faith he founded, but of the political world created by that faith. So I came to see that my project went beyond history. Muhammad’s story continues to have such an impact that it must also be considered a matter of current events. This one man radically changed his world, and is still changing ours. To see him whole is of vital importance not only for Muslims worldwide, but for us all.
SEVEN THINGS THAT MAY SURPRISE YOU ABOUT MUHAMMAD
by Lesley Hazleton
Everyone knows his name. He was, and still is, one of the most influential figures of all time, yet most of us have little real sense of the man himself. A favorite question of those asking about my new book The First Muslim is thus what surprised me most in my research. Or rather, what might surprise them. Here’s a shortlist:
1. He was born an orphan.
His father died without knowing he had a son, and Muhammad was farmed out to Beduin foster parents for the first five years of his life, returning to his mother in Mecca for only a year until she also died. The six-year-old was left on the margins – an outsider within his own society. He was put to work as a camel boy on the trade caravans to Damascus, and though he eventually made his way up to become a business agent, could never take his place in the world for granted.
2. He married up – and for love.
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 thirteen years later.
His nine late-life marriageswere 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 (four daughters, and a son who died in infancy), he’d have none with any of the later wives.
3. His first reaction to becoming a prophet? Doubt and despair.
He was terrified by the first Quranic revelation, which happened on a mountain just outside Mecca in the year 610, when he was forty. In his own reported words, the pain was so intense that he thought he was dying. Convinced that he was either delusional or possessed, since it seemed impossible that someone like him could be a prophet, his first impulse when he found himself still alive was to try to finish the job himself and leap off the mountain to his death.
4. He led an early form of ‘Occupy Wall Street.’.
His message constituted a radical protest against the corruption and arrogance of the Meccan elite. As both a pilgrimage and trading hub, the city had combined piety and profit to become a kind of seventh-century bull market. Muhammad’s ongoing revelations demanded social and economic justice, and this provoked intense opposition from the city’s rulers (as did his outrage at the preference for sons over daughters and the ensuing practice of female infanticide). The intent was reform, but those in power saw it as a subversive call for revolution.
5. He was a pacifist – at first.
For twelve years, he took a proto-Gandhian stance of passive resistance to organized harassment of him and his small group of followers in Mecca – “these nobodies” as his opponents called them. The Quranic revelations constantly urged him to “reply to foolish mockery with words of peace,” to “pay no attention,” and to “turn your face away” – words one sometimes wishes more of his followers heeded today. When the assaults became physical as well as verbal, he refused to fight back or to allow his followers to do so. In the year 622, the attacks culminated in a concerted attempt on his life, forcing him into exile in Medina, 200 miles to the north.
His eventual decision to take up arms in exile was highly ambivalent– the result of political pressure as he assumed political as well as spiritual leadership. In fact the first of the three battles he’d lead against Mecca began as much by miscalculation as by intent. Yet even after his home city accepted his leadership in a negotiated surrender and welcomed him back – the outsider transformed within eight years into the ultimate insider – he’d never return to live there, but would stay in Medina.
6. He knew how to say he was wrong.
He acknowledged his own fallibility, most notably in the now infamous case of “the Satanic verses,” when he tried to mend the rift between himself and his opponents by acknowledging their totem gods as intercessors with the one supreme god. When he realized that he’d been tempted into betraying his principles and that there could be “no partners with God,” he had the courage and integrity to publicly declare his mistake.
7. His tragic failure came at the end.
He died without designating a successor. In the absence of a son, many thought it crucial that he make his wishes unequivocally clear, but though his final illness lasted ten days (the duration and symptoms seem to indicate bacterial meningitis), he never did so. Ironically, the prophet of unity – one god, one people – thus paved the way for the divisiveness between Sunni and Shia that persists today.
Lesley Hazleton on THE TITLE:
The title comes from the Quran, which tells Muhammad three times (6:14, 6:163, and 39:12) “Say, I am the first Muslim.” While I acknowledge the Islamic tradition in which Abraham is considered the first Muslim, the Quran nonetheless refers to him as “the first hanif,” or monotheist. I went with the source.
Q and A with GUERNICA
The Prophet’s Path
February 1, 2013
Lesley Hazleton’s latest book is a spirited account of the early beginnings of Islam, specifically the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Vultures wheel, hyenas scuffle and scavenge. At times, The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad reads like an adventure novel. While there are already numerous contemporary accounts of the life of the Muslim prophet, many of them draw on the same eighth through tenth-century Arab sources. Hazleton, on the other hand, views the facts through the prism of modern existence as she attempts to bring the story to life. An agnostic Jew born and brought up in Britain, she draws parallels, for example, between the infant Muhammad’s adoption by a rural woman and the Christian nativity story; instead of guiding stars and wise kings we have miraculously filled udders and priestesses going into trances. Meccans, we are told, saw the Bedouin as the human bedrock of Arabia, much in the way that twentieth-century America idealized the strength and flinty honor of John Wayne. When Muhammad is taken from his foster family in the desert, it is divine intervention that appears to ring the changes. Was it angels or epilepsy that caused the fit? In either case, a young Muhammad returns home to the city with the desert “written on his hands,” his eyes “narrowed against sun and blowing sand.”
A psychologist by training, Hazleton spent thirteen years in the Middle East as a Jerusalem-based foreign correspondent, reporting for the New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, The Nation, and other publications. Over the last ten years, she has published numerous books examining various aspects of the region’s religious history. These include Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother; Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen, and After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam, which was prompted by her reading of the Quran. In a TED talk she gave in October 2010, Hazleton describes what she discovered by going back to the actual source material. The video quickly went viral, suggesting that audiences responded positively to her candid approach. In that talk, and in the recent biography of the Prophet Muhammad discussed here, Hazleton address the misinformation that has been fed to the West for well over a decade. As she says in another TED talk, “We need to know each other.”
At the heart of this book lies a genuine attempt to try to understand the human experience Muhammad went through: from the revelations which sent him fleeing down Mount Hira to seek solace in the arms of his first wife Khadija, to exile, the founding of the Muslim community in Medina, his triumphant return to Mecca, and, finally, to death. Throughout all of this, Hazelton queries and questions in a way that will resonate with a non-academic audience trying to come to grips with the fastest growing religion on the planet. It is a welcome antidote to the barrage of hatred and distortion to which Islam has been subjected since the early Bush years. In this sense, The First Muslim offers the opportunity for balance to be restored and for those of us who don’t subscribe to the extremes to regain the middle ground.
Lesley Hazleton spoke with me over the phone from a windy, rainy day in Seattle, where she lives in and works from a houseboat on a lake in the city.
Guernica: The Accidental Theologist, a blog which you describe as “an agnostic eye on religion, politics, and existence,” seems to mark the beginning of your interest in Islam. You wrote about the Sunni-Shia split and have now produced a biography of the Prophet Muhammad. This project keeps growing.
Lesley Hazleton: The new book seemed a natural progression from After the Prophet. I had read several biographies in preparation for that book and in the earliest ones—Ibn Ishaq from Baghdad in the eighth century and al-Tabari from Baghdad in the ninth —I was struck by the traditional Middle Eastern way of telling stories. They don’t have that straight, linear narrative a Western audience expects.
Many modern biographies tended to be pious, devotional biographies, which are a complete turn-off for non-Muslims. Those for general audiences seemed merely dutiful, plodding through all the main events of his life without asking questions, without delving, trying to figure out who this man was. I grew frustrated; I wanted a feel for the man himself, not the two-dimensional legend. The more I learned about the three-dimensional man, the more he was weighed down by the sheer accumulation of fact and detail. Nobody had really looked and said: “What was really going on here? Let’s enter into this experience. Let’s figure out how it felt.” Not just what happened, but why. The main duty of a biographer is not simply to trot dutifully through the facts of someone’s life, but to enter that life, make it come alive, make your subject real again.
Guernica: That comes across strongly, particularly in the early part of the book where you take us inside what it would be like to experience the revelations as Muhammad did. There is a good degree of creative imagination invested in this book. You convey the terror and bewilderment, bringing us to a very human portrait of the man.
In this sense, you are entering the tricky territory of belief versus non-belief. How is the non-believer to understand these events? You mention Freud and the importance of dreams to the ancient Greeks, giving the references that might arise for the modern reader while reading the descriptions of Muhammad’s revelations. Did you feel you were entering a gray area writing this?
Lesley Hazleton: I guess you could call it a kind of high-wire act, which is why the book is written from an agnostic stance. There is a degree of imagination, but it’s based on deep research, from my experience of living and working with the Bedouin, for instance. I had to find out what it was like to be an orphan at that time. So many aspects of his life were elided, skipped over. For instance, the Hegira is usually translated as “migration,” but it was exile. Muhammad was exiled from Mecca, and what did that mean in a time when you were defined by where you were from? It was like being exiled from your identity.
How deep an impact did this have when it comes to the Night Journey and what happened on Mount Hira? Nobody can know. We’re talking about mystical experience. My intention was not to say, “this is what happened and why it happened,” like some omniscient narrator. It was to explore, and my language makes that clear. I am asking questions and seeing where those questions lead me. I am doing it openly, rather than trying to appear the expert, the all-knowing biographer, the law.
Guernica: There is a school of thought among historians taking the view that to approach the story of Muhammad purely from the perspective of recorded facts leaves little to go on. The accepted histories, by Ibn Ishaq and al-Tabari, were written 125 years after Muhammad’s death, using the tradition of isnad, or chains of informants passing down over the years. They are also written from within the faith, as believers.
After the Hegira, Muhammad moved to Medina and became a leader, not just a prophet and messenger, but a political leader. Here is where you get this dilemma of religion and politics, of faith and pragmatism, coming from the demands of the time and his own followers.
Lesley Hazleton: All history is written from sources put together in more or less the same way. Herodotus, the “Father of History”? Give me a break! He wrote about places he’d never been as if he had been there. Contemporary journalism is the first draft of history. If it appears on the front page of a newspaper, it’s still written from a point of view. Looking at original sources requires taking into account who wrote them and where, and the culture in which they were written. What dismays me about much of what has been written about Muhammad by Westerners is how few of them know the Middle East. Few of them have spent time in the region. They may be good with Arabic texts, but they have no feel for Middle Eastern culture, for the place itself. It’s as though they are writing in a vacuum.
I lived in the Middle East for thirteen years and reported from there. To me, this feels like a Middle Eastern book. It’s wonderful to sit here in misty, rainy Seattle and enter each day for the past several years into a desert environment, leaping over fourteen centuries. I’ve had a dual existence. This is my way of still being in the Middle East, of living there and not living there.
Guernica: As you say, we have seen a great deal of misinformation on the subject over the last decade. Some with bad intentions, some due simply to ignorance. Your book seeks to go beyond the stereotypes to give your reader insight into the complexities of the birth of Islam. One aspect of that is the role of the Jews—Muhammad saw himself as coming from the same tradition as Judaism and Christianity. Can you talk about the crucial influence the Jews had upon the direction of Islam?
Lesley Hazleton: It was a dilemma it’s clear he was struggling with through the last years of his life. After the Hegira, Muhammad moved to Medina and became a leader, not just a prophet and messenger, but a political leader. Here is where you get this dilemma of religion and politics, of faith and pragmatism, coming from the demands of the time and his own followers. All these other issues coming in, too, like the psychology of exile; repairing this internal identity; the pain of fighting, hand to hand, against family, friends.
This was not remote-control drone warfare. It was intensely personal and painful. What happened with the Jews is fascinating because of the sense of betrayal when Muhammad was sure they were going to support him because their prophets were his prophets. He gradually realized that the age of prophecy had ended centuries before for the Jews, and they were not going to accept a new prophet, definitely one who wasn’t Jewish. He’d gone through that sense of betrayal, looking back to where he thought his support was and finding himself attacked, criticized from behind. The Jews agreed to accept him as a political leader, but not as a religious or inspirational leader.
[Islam] was a movement, an approach to the divine, a certain relationship to the divine. It was very strong on social and economic principles, which is something that has been overlooked. It was about social justice.
The reaction to this is very human and understandable. It doesn’t mean I sympathize with it. There is a huge difference between sympathy and empathy and for me, as a Jew, it was very hard to write about the massacre of the Banu Qurayza tribe. As I write in the book, I don’t see it as an act against Jews per se. Driven by Machiavellian forces, not Machiavelli as the epitome of evil as he is known by people who haven’t read him, but as an act of ruthless political pragmatism. This is what Muhammad had to do to establish that he would no longer put up with criticism. It was intended, and from the historical record it did turn out to be, a one-time event. I’ve had arguments with pious Muslims who get upset about me having mentioned it. And it’s true I could have elided or skipped over it, but how much respect for my subject is involved in doing that?
Guernica: It was also a central moment in the development of Islam in that it was at that point that Muhammad decreed that Muslims should face towards Mecca to pray, rather than Jerusalem, as they had before. One of the key moments in the development of Islam’s sense of its own identity comes from being rejected. You write that it was the beginning of Islam’s self-identification with difference.
Lesley Hazleton: This is why when I talk about Islam with a capital “I” as a religion, it is not what Muhammad formed. What he formed was a movement, an approach to the divine, a certain relationship to the divine. It was very strong on social and economic principles, which is something that has been overlooked. It was about social justice.
If you go back to the roots of Judaism and Christianity, to Elijah’s protest against kings, to Jesus’s protest against the Romans and the collaboration of priests in the temple, the same issues are involved: unequal distribution of power. Unequal distribution of wealth. In Muhammad’s case, the protest was also against gender inequality: sons being valued more than daughters, and female infanticide. They began from the bottom, the Occupy movements of the time. They began with the recognition of and growing realization that we can act against corruption, against the arrogance of power and greed and wealth.
Guernica: Muhammad began from the position of an exile. Because he had spoken freely of his beliefs, he was made an outcast, an outsider. This feeling remains with him almost to the end of his life, when he returns triumphant to Mecca. Islam has always had a strong appeal to the outsider, to the sense of being excluded.
Lesley Hazleton: Something happens once a religion becomes institutionalized, once it becomes a “Religion,” which is connected with political and economic power. Principles tend to get lost. In the same way that early Islam was a political movement, so too was early Christianity, and early Judaism. They were idealistic movements, strengthened by this idea that social justice and economic justice were part of divine rule, which gives it enormous moral authority.
The early followers of Muhammad, like the early followers of Jesus, were the disenfranchised. They were the second and third and fourth sons, they were slaves, freed slaves, and women. They were a bunch of “nobodies,” which is what struck me about the new community that he founded in Medina. What an act of amazing idealism.
The term “fundamentalism” is so misleading because it implies that fundamental principles are involved.
Guernica: You are positive about your subject. Even when it comes to the low point of the massacre of the Banu Qurayza, you express your understanding of the act of beheading an entire tribe as necessary at that moment, either that or Muhammad losing his power.
Lesley Hazleton: There is a horrible truth in that.
Guernica: This book comes at a time when all across the Middle East there is a struggle going on to decide the role Islam will play in the new governments being forged. There seems a kind of irony in that.
Lesley Hazleton: I think all religions develop. Often they stray a very long way from where they began. What fascinates me is that those who are known in the West as Muslim fundamentalists, or Islamists, are not going back to the fundamentals of Islam, but to a much later concept of Islam, a more aggressive interpretation of Islam.
There is a wonderful book on the development of Sharia law: Sadakat Kadri’s Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World. He traces the way in which the conservative version of Sharia is a recent development of the last fifty years. The term “fundamentalism” is so misleading because it implies that fundamental principles are involved.
Islamist fundamentalists use the same highlighter version of Islam that Islamophobes use. Taking quotations completely out of context is easy when you really have no idea of the history involved. Quoting part of a verse, but not the rest of it. Taking “We” as meaning “we the Muslims,” and not as God. “We will punish them in the next life,” for example—it’s not Muslims who will punish, but God. Or even, “We will punish them,” leaving out the next life. As with any sacred text there are so many ways that you can misquote.
…[T]here is a very deep interest in connecting with the basic principles of Islam that have been misrepresented, overshadowed, edged out of consciousness by the joint work of both Muslim fundamentalists and anti-Muslim fundamentalists, all of whom are doing these ghastly, literary readings out of context.
I realize more and more that so many of the English translations were done in the last century, so you get misleading translations of phrases like “Jihad fi sabilillah.” Jihad did not mean fighting. It did not mean holy war until much later, long after Muhammad’s time. Sabilillah is usually translated as “in the cause of God.” It doesn’t actually imply a political cause, it means “in the way” or “path” of God, which is very different. These translations were done before the development of radical, extremist Islam, and can be very misleading.
Guernica: You’re saying that we’re out of touch with what Islam really signifies, that we don’t have the tools to understand. This is partly because nobody took much interest in the subject, which is why the translations are centuries out of date, and partly out of intent. What has changed in recent decades is that Islam is no longer something taking place far away. It’s intricately and intimately part of the West.
Lesley Hazleton: As a rough calculation, 50 percent of American Muslims rarely go anywhere near a mosque. They are not part of the devotional community. Since 9/11, this group has become more aware of its Muslim identity. It’s much like being a Jew when there is anti-Semitism around. Whether you want to be or not, you are a Jew. Therefore, there is an interest in finding out what this identity means among Muslim Americans or American Muslims, engaging with it in a deeper way, not necessarily in a devotional or pious way….
We talk about the Arab awakening. There is an intellectual awakening going on among Muslims all over, definitely among the younger generation.
I don’t feel comfortable talking about this coming from the outside. Talking about “what’s happening with Islam” makes me feel like one of those pundits I can’t stand. But I think there is a very deep interest in connecting with the basic principles of Islam that have been misrepresented, overshadowed, edged out of consciousness by the joint work of both Muslim fundamentalists and anti-Muslim fundamentalists, all of whom are doing these ghastly, literary readings out of context. I call it the highlighter version of the Quran.
They don’t seem to have read the Bible; if they had, they would find ten times as many such passages. I feel uncomfortable talking about Islam as a whole because we are talking about more than 1.6 billion people all over the world and there is no monolith called “Islam.” This point I have to keep making, especially with non-Muslims, because it’s as though all Muslims believe the same thing and behave in the same way. There are so many different strands, different ways of thinking within Islam. I wish someone would write about the enormous pluralism within what outsiders think of as this monolith of Islam.
Guernica: We are seeing Muslims today, in the West and in the Middle East, asking what it means to be Muslim. To what degree are Muslim and Western values compatible? In the old West-versus-East opposition, it’s becoming clear that the West does not have all the answers. The Muslim world has to work out its own future, and at the center of this is the role of Islam.
Lesley Hazleton: We talk about the Arab awakening. There is an intellectual awakening going on among Muslims all over, definitely among the younger generation. This sense of engagement with and interrogation of Islam is fascinating and very much to be continued. But things don’t change that quickly, and our problem in the West is that we don’t have a very long timeline. What’s been happening in the Middle East quickly got dubbed the Arab Spring, as if when you’re meant to have a revolution, you’ve got three months. It’s madness. It’s like this journalistic shorthand that has taken over our thinking. We’re talking about very deep matters here—I see religion as less a matter of faith and belief than as a matter of identity, especially in a world where identity is increasingly fractured, with so much migration. Religion provides a sense of extended family, because right there in the foundation of Islam is the idea of the Umma, the Muslim community.
None of this has anything to do with why I wrote the book, however. It was really for me. I wanted to know. I’m a writer and writers write out of a sense of exploration, of wanting to go as far as they can in order to find out what happened, make a way through the legend and find out what was real. I think being a psychologist helped me here. And my experience in the Middle East, because I can tell when something sounds real, not re-written. Every story is deeply rooted, but it’s been embroidered.
Guernica: Did this affect the form this book took? It leans more towards a dramatic narration of the events rather than a fact-and-figures historical account.
Lesley Hazleton: I suppose it is a dramatization, though that’s not the word I’d use. I’m trying to understand it from the inside, even as I realize how outside I am. Obviously you can never fully understand someone else’s experience, let alone a prophet’s. But especially in Muhammad’s reaction to the first Quranic revelation and even more toward the end of his life, I do see the sheer weight of responsibility–the burden of a man placed in this situation, given this kind of mission. Let’s have empathy for the man himself. Sympathy means identification, but empathy is a good faith attempt to understand someone else’s experience. My understanding will be different from that of others, but perhaps my understanding will shed some light. My aim is to make people think, rather than to tell them what to think.
In a way you don’t need the legends, because Muhammad’s actual life is so much more remarkable. There’s the continual dialectic between faith and politics, between idealism and pragmatism, all the way through. Then there is the polarity between outsider and insider — born the insider and becoming the ultimate outsider, then coming back as the ultimate insider. The ups and downs of this journey are of course dramatic, and he does not come out as perfect. To pious Muslims he is the perfect man, but to me, perfection is inhuman.
Guernica: Which marks the difference between the view of the believer and the non-believer?
Lesley Hazleton: Or between minds that believe that there is such a thing as ultimate Truth and those who think there are many truths. Or no truths. One can explore. One can try to come as close as possible to what to the best of our knowledge probably happened. But to say, “This is absolutely how it was” seems to be the ultimate act of chutzpah.