Lesley Hazelton Wrote The First Muslim as a Biography of the Prophet Muhammad
Lesley Hazelton's "The First Muslim" - An Exploration of the Prophet Muhammad's Humanity, by an Agnostic Jew
I am just beginning my fifteenth year as a muslim, having taken my Shahada in March 1999, during a tumultuous period, having been diagnosed with breast cancer only several weeks before.
My journey to Islam began in childhood, when my interest in this strange religion was piqued, surprisingly, by a junior high textbook on world religions. It was a tiny book, more a booklet that was bound in hardcover.
I never forgot the image that was chosen for the introductory page on what was incorrectly termed Mohammadanism by what was clearly not a muslim writer.
A simple silhouette of a robe bedecked man wearing a turban, riding a camel - as if camels were somehow requisite to believers in this exotic faith - was printed above the opening paragraphs on the small page.
Similar chapters covered Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, as I recall. This was in the 1950s and it made me think that only Christians and Jews lived in the United States, where I attended school.
I will share some first reactions to the book that were expressed to me, and some of my thoughts, beginning with mine.
photo credit: from Amazon, see below
Lesley Hazelton Gives a TED Talk About Her Biography of Mohammad
Brief Description of the Man Who Was Prophet
The book opens with a vague and modest description of common portrayals of the man who would lead the new adherents to this religion from Allah.
1 medium build with barrel chest
2 likely had some problems with turning his neck
3 his profile exhibited a curving nose, a mark of distinction in the locality and times
4 married contentedly to a woman a generation older than himself
5 successful and well liked and respected in his area of commerce
Above all, he was a searcher, standing long nights in the cool desert air, on a local mountainside, in willing meditation.
God Spoke Through The Angel Gabriel
In the year 610 after Christ's birth, an astounding event changed his life and that of the billions of muslims to be born into the religion of Islam or to adopt it as their own by making the declaration of faith, called the Shahada.
Mohammad was visited by the Angel of God, Gabriel (Jabril in Arabic), a sight and sound that overcame him with awe of the highest accord! He didn't merely swoon and melt to the ground, but he seems to have felt this mighty presence in every aspect of his body and consciousness.
Because Lesley Hazelton describes his physical characteristics, and his character traits, the history of his birth, and local cultural attitudes, it opened my heart and my vision to the idea of what the man who became the institution of, as we muslims call it - the perfection of the religion, was like as a human being.
Read The Book Yourself - It's Worth It
Lesley Hazelton's book is an investigation into the time period surrounding the Prophet's pbuh life, and explores what it may have been like for him to hear the angel of God, and to follow God's directions.
How the Angel's Visit Was Received
This occurrence seemed preposterous to him, at the time. He had been born fatherless in an era when one's security and kinship was defined by the strength and lineage of his father.
Additionally, as custom dictated for babes of the city, he was delivered to a bedoin country nursemaid for breastfeeding and for the first five years of his life, to live outside the polluted and dangerous city.
Soon he was reunited with his mother, but only for a short while, as his grandfather then claimed him. In this way Mohammad experienced one sort of abandonment after another, even as he gained the skills to survive and thrive in new circumstances, yet, the author supposes, he maintained a wariness, a failure to assume an automatic fit with his environment.
So this humble but successful man found himself ill prepared, to his mine, for the overwhelming event of the visitation, to hear Allah's instruction, to recite the verses Gabriel pronounced over him.
Author Bases Her Ideas on Early Writers
Hazelton recalls the stories from early Islamic documentarians of Muhammad's fear and subsequent idea to take his own life, so consumed by terror he felt.
Being only too human myself I could conceive of the immensity of such a happening, with a tendency to want to flee from the stark strangeness of it all.
Perhaps that is what brought me such a feeling of relief, as I began to read this book - a notion that because I am no more prepared, surely greatly less so, to receive a Holy visitor, I can enter into the idea of what it was like for the man.
Neither am I ready to hear the spoken words of the Creator directed at me, but in contemplating Hazelton's ideas, I was able to enter into the conditional acceptance of our Prophet, peace be upon him (pbuh), having feelings and thoughts akin to those I might have held in similar circumstances.
My Reading of The Book
I do not claim to be anything of the caliber of Muhammad; I do not stand in meditation throughout nights, have never spent my times alone on a mountain (and I have had them) in contemplation of the Almighty as I searched for my direction in life;
I was not a semi-orphaned child and was never retrieved by a parent figure who sought to impart to me the wisdom and craft of my culture, and my tribe's traditions. I am merely a human who seeks humility and truth and wisdom, and to learn something of my purpose on earth.
When I attended a book discussion group, intent on talking about this book, I was surprised by many comments made by people of my religion, and not so much by attendees who were not muslim and truly appreciated learning about the Prophet.
As I read the first part of The First Muslim I checked the first citations that told us who that person was: Qur'an 6:14, and found it did indeed made that claim, so I checked 6:163, and 39:12, with similar findings. Throughout the book I appreciated the author's citations and scholarly research that stood behind her presentation.
Some readers protest, saying that Adam was indeed the first muslim, and that all the prophets prior to Mohammad were also in submission to God (the meaning of muslim.
But reading those three verses, in an English translation of course, relieved me of any concerns that the title was a misnomer. (Islam teaches that all Prophets delivered the true religion, so in that sense they were all muslim. I accepted the Qur'an when I took my Shahada.
The Qur'an does say: Say "Should I take as my protector, anyone other than Allah, who is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Who feeds all, and is fed by none?" Say "nay, I am commanded to be the first of those who submit to Allah in Islam and not of those who commit shirk."
Writer's Portrait of the Prophet Muhammad
When the author says that we might look to neuropsychiatry, and the idea of "altered states of consciousness. for explanations of what happened on Mt. Hira (when the angel spoke to Muhammad), it surprises many readers.
I have a basic grasp of the fact that hugely traumatic events can alter our consciousness, and to me it is not too far flung to imagine that the Prophet pbuh was in such a state, during and following the encounter. It is the author's opinion and suggestion, however, and she is not stating her opinion as fact.
That allows me to conceive of the depth of psychic involvement in such a happening, therefore imagining the fright that might instill great and fearful thoughts into the human mind, when trying to reconcile the actual happenstance with all that he had previously experienced.
I find the concept of self-examination, as desirable, to be a prerequisite for accomplishing a valuable reading of this book, as opposed to a rigidity of mind, which may predispose a reader to finding fault with every turn of the page.
To me, Hazelton presents a neutral portrait of the figure of the humanity of the Prophet Muhammad pbuh, neither promoting him as the actual infallible standard bearer of Islam, nor firmly overturning conservatively held beliefs about the man, but conferring upon him the greatest respect.
I encourage my readers to read this book with a sense of the possibility, with a desire to come to an even greater understanding of the remarkable character and integrity of the Prophet of Islam bpuh.
Lesley Hazelton is The Accidental Theologist
- Author's Website
Find more information about the author, who is a self-proclaimed agnostic.