“Despite Islam’s position at the forefront of the American consciousness, the general public knows little of its founder and prophet beyond platitudes and condemnations. Hazleton (After the Prophet) attempts to rectify this imbalance with her vivid and engaging narrative of Muhammad’s life. The author portrays her subject as an unlikely and unsuspecting vehicle for the divine, “painfully aware that too many nights in solitary meditation might have driven him over the edge.” Sympathetic but not hagiographic, her work draws liberally from a long tradition of Islamic biographical literature about the prophet; the nuanced portrait that emerges is less that of an infallible saint than of a loving family man, a devoted leader of his people, an introspective and philosophical thinker who reluctantly accepted the burden of conveying the word of God, and a calculating political strategist. Hazleton writes not as a historian but as a cultural interpreter, reconstructing Muhammad’s identity and personality from the spiritual revolution that he sparked and the stories that his followers passed down. While the speculation is sometimes off-putting (as when Muhammad’s final illness is confidently diagnosed as bacterial meningitis), the result is a fluid and captivating introduction that will be invaluable for those seeking a greater understanding of Islam’s message and its messenger.” — Publishers Weekly.
“A richly detailed and beautifully written biography. […] 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 has almost never been 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. […] She always makes room for alternative interpretation of the facts as we know them […] but 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 is sweeping on an almost cinematic scale — but that’s only because it’s an amazing tale.” — Seattle Times (click here for full review).
“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… 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… (Her] goal is not to urge readers to love, or to hate, the man, simply to understand the forces that produced him.” — San Francisco Chronicle (click here for full review).
“Muhammad shows himself to be a very modern leader, well ahead of his time — a bona fide Hegelian “world-historical man” — as savvy a politician and military leader as he was divine messenger. Hazleton’s biography covers the broad strokes of his life with fairness — she doesn’t gloss over his more fallible moments — and insight, but the book is important for trying to explain just who he really was. “Just one of you,” as the Quran says.” — NPR (click here for full review).
“A genuine attempt to try to understand the human experience Muhammad went through… Hazleton 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, an opportunity for balance to be restored and for those of us who don’t subscribe to the extremes to regain the middle ground.” — Guernica (click here for full text)
“In today’s febrile cultural and religious climate, what project could be more fraught than writing a biography of Muhammad? The worldwide protests at ‘The Innocence of Muslims,’ 14 minutes of trashy provocation posted on YouTube, are a terrible reminder to the would-be biographer that the life story of the prophet of Islam is not material about which one is free to have a ‘take.’ Lesley Hazleton’s First Muslim is a book written by a white woman of dual American and British citizenship, published in America more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks. For many believers it is already — even before it is read, if it is read at all — an object of suspicion, something to be defended against, in case it should turn out to be yet another insult, another cruel parody of a story such an author has no business telling. To others, of course, this book offers a chance to read that life story in a more familiar and accessible form than the Islamic sources, a window into the parallel world where it is worth killing and dying to preserve the Prophet’s aura of holiness. Bigots looking to confirm their prejudices will, by and large, find The First Muslim a disappointment: Hazleton approaches her subject with scrupulous respect. She blogs as ‘The Accidental Theologist,’ where she describes herself as “a psychologist by training, a Middle East reporter by experience, an agnostic fascinated by the vast and terrifying arena in which politics and religion intersect.” In 2010, she gave a TED talk debunking some of the more egregious myths about the Koran, notably the salaciously Orientalist ’72 virgins.’ This is a writer who is working to dispel contradictions, not sharpen them…” — The New York Times (click here for full review)
“The First Muslim finds the human in the sacred… Any biography of Muhammad walks a treacherous path between controversies, but any sensible reader can tell that Hazleton is operating from a place of respect… You’ll find no conclusions here about the veracity of divine inspiration; instead, Hazleton writes a few excellent paragraphs about how the definition of ‘awe’ has changed between Muhammad’s time and now, and she concludes the chapter with an appreciation of the prophet’s wife, Khadija, who doesn’t fear for her husband’s sanity when he tells her, trembling, what he believes has happened to him. Instead, she simply loves and cares for him… It’s easy to imagine zealots becoming enraged when they read about their holy prophet reduced to a shivering child in the comforting arms of his wife. But why? What better response is there, when confronted with something more powerful than oneself, than to shake and fear and weep and find consolation in the arms of the one you love? It’s what any of us would do.” — The Stranger (click here for full review).
“As a metaphor, the desert is endlessly fertile; throughout history, its radical emptiness has given sustenance to thirsty souls. In The First Muslim, Lesley Hazleton vividly paints the solitary landscape, external and internal, that allowed Muhammad — an orphan born into Meccan nobility and raised by Beduin shepherders — to make room in his heart for holiness. Like her subject, Hazleton brilliantly navigates ‘the vast and often volatile arena in which politics and religion intersect,’ revealing the deep humanity of faith.” — More Magazine
“Combines painstaking research with a compellingly readable writing style… Hazleton’s insight and research adds a powerful layer of complexity to what you think you may know about Muhammad. By combining early eyewitness accounts with historical, political, and religious sources, she paints a dynamic and multi-dimensional portrait of a prophet who is as beloved as he is misunderstood.” — Aslan Media
“Hazleton is a great storyteller… This is not an academic work. While it is thoroughly researched and can be held up as a great resource for people to learn about Muhammad, Hazleton is always explicit when the record is unclear or completely gone. She ascribes motivation to the actions of historical figures with a clear regard for the events that preceded and that follow. This is a major skill that many of her contemporaries, other modern, popular historians, should seek to emulate. Academic historians are often hesitant to utilize conjecture in their writing, sometimes leaving the prose flat and unfulfilling. This isn’t to say history writers should abandon their academic rigor when writing for a popular audience. But a little flexibility is a necessity when writing for a non-specialist audience. ” — Major History (click here for full review)
“When we read this book, we are not just reading the life of a man who lived 1443 years ago, but trying to understand that life in the context and reality of the 21st century… Nobody expects Nietzsche, Kafka, Graham Greene, St John of the Cross on the pages of a biography of Prophet Muhammad. Hazleton brings them in to create a dialogue between civilizations, times, and assumptions…” — Islam Interactive (full review here)
“‘To write well about a historical figure, you need both empathy and imagination,’ remarks Lesley Hazleton in the first chapter of her humane, audacious biography of Muhammad, citing the British philosopher R.G.Collingwood… This is not an academic study aimed at experts, it’s a work of popular history, an elegant narrative crafted for open-minded readers… [Was Muhammad] a peacemaker at heart? Hazleton’s novelistic portrait of the man does not allow for such a clear conclusion. ‘Whether in the seventh century or the twenty-first,’ she writes, ‘he would frustrate the simplistic terms of those trying to pigeonhole him as either a ‘prophet of peace’ or a ‘prophet of war.’ This was not a matter of either/or. A complex man carving a huge profile in history, his vision went beyond seemingly irreconcilable opposites.’ Thoughtful readers should have no problem empathizing with such all-too-human complexities.” — Ha’aretz (full review here)
“Understanding Islam would seem to mean understanding the life, the times, and the beliefs of its founder, but there don’t seem to be a lot of universally acknowledged biographies of Muhammad around. I’ll go out on a limb to highlight this one, because Hazleton, who reported on the Middle East for over a dozen years, wrote the well-regarded After the Prophet: the epic story of the Shia-Sunni split, a PEN-USA Book Award finalist that won praise from several quarters. Hazleton aims to examine how the man Muhammad — an orphan, a merchant, and an exile — upended the established order and became the Prophet. Keep your eyes peeled.” — Barbara Hoffert in Library Journal’s Pre-Publication Picks.
“A longtime reporter on the Middle East, Hazleton carefully delineates the great events in the life of the ‘first Muslim’… The author sifts through and synthesizes many different and conflicting sources for a gently reverential and ultimately winning study of a humble soul in search of his identity. She effectively fleshes out the iconic events of the messenger’s life… writing poignantly of the evolution of the public messenger from the private man. A levelheaded, elegant look at the life of the prophet amid the making of a legend.” — Kirkus Reviews.
Reactions of early readers:
“Hazleton sets her keen eye and her sculpted prose on one of the most fascinating and misunderstood figures in history. What she uncovers is a complex yet utterly relatable man whose personal trials and triumphs changed the course of history. This is a wonderful book.” — Reza Aslan, author of No god but God and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
“Beautifully written, The First Muslim respectfully humanizes the inimitable prophet of Islam, and sees him whole.” — Dr. Cornel West, Princeton University and Union Theological Seminary, co-author (with Tavis Smiley) of The Rich And The Rest Of Us.
“In this lucid biography, Hazleton has done the seemingly impossible: rendered into human proportions a man who is more often the subject of pious veneration or political vitriol. This is the most readable, engaging study of Muhammad I have ever come across.” — G. Willow Wilson, author of Alif the Unseen and The Butterfly Mosque
“The First Muslim tells the mostly unknown story of the prophet Muhammad in a masterful, accessible, and engaging way. Hazleton’s empathetic touch softens her rigorous scholarship and research, crucially demystifying both the man and the birth of Islam. An absolute delight (and indispensable) for believers and non-believers alike.” — Hooman Majd, author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ and The Ayatollahs’ Democracy
“Where others may draw a picture, Lesley Hazleton constructs a mosaic: carefully placing each tile of religion, psychology, and her erudite wisdom to craft a vibrant landscape. Her grasp of nuance is what envelops the reader within the Prophet’s surroundings, allowing them to witness this triumphant journey each step of the way. But the most stirring piece in this mosaic is Hazleton’s sincerity. Thorough and honest, the connections she creates between the reader and these historic figures are profoundly moving. Nothing short of a labor of love could capture this momentous point in history, and Hazleton delivers beautifully.”—Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, chairman of The Cordoba Initiative and author of Moving the Mountain.
“Lesley Hazleton has a remarkable capacity to bring religion, and especially Islam, to life. She had done that here with her fascinating biography of Islam’s prophet.” — Alan Wolfe, Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, author of The Future of Liberalism.