Plumbing the Mystery of Muhammad

Jewish writer Lesley Hazleton combs a library of Muslim sources and applies a psychologist's insights in her biography of the man Muslims believe to be the messenger of God.

The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad, by Lesley Hazleton, Riverhead, 320 pages, $27.95

“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. Hazleton, a secular British Jew educated in a convent school, is a psychologist turned journalist and author who lived in Israel from 1966 to 1979 and now lives on a houseboat in Seattle. She also invoked Collingwood’s dictum at the opening of her “Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother,” published in 2005. Both books take on a daunting challenge: turning a legend into a real person.

It’s not hard to muster empathy for Mary, the beneficent Madonna of Michelangelo’s pieta. “Maryam gave birth, and even the strongest atheist cannot conceive of time without acknowledging her,” wrote Hazleton, referring to our calendar, where time begins with Jesus. The name Muhammad, on the other hand, often conjures images of fatwa and fanaticism, of Salman Rushdie hounded into hiding and riots triggered by Danish cartoons, of the dead and maimed at the Boston Marathon. Writing a life of the historical Mary, about whom virtually nothing is written in ancient sources, requires great imagination; far more is known about Muhammad, who lived six centuries later. But sculpting his life story to turn the fearsome godfather of jihad, as he is stereotyped by many Westerners, into a fellow you can warm up to is a feat no less imaginative.

Hazleton grounds her narrative in the works of two classical Muslim historians, Muhammad ibn-Ishaq of Damascus (ca. 704-767) and Abu-Jafar al-Tabari of Baghdad (838-923), whose works provide extensive accounts of the prophet’s life. She has combed through them in their English translations, which in the case of al-Tabari amounts to eight (of the 39) volumes of his “History of the Prophets and Kings.” She has also relied, as she explains in the bibliography, on five English translations of the Koran, “cross-referencing them with the original Arabic.” She could be faulted, if one were so inclined, for presuming to write with authority on so important (and fraught) a subject without a full command of Arabic. But such criticism misses the point. This is not an academic study aimed at experts, it’s a work of popular history, an elegant narrative crafted for open-minded readers.

Not all Muslims would cheer the arrival of this book. “Conservative Muslim tradition,” Hazleton writes, “maintains that Muhammad was destined from the start to be the messenger of God. But if that is so, then there is no story of his life. That is, it becomes a matter of the inevitable unfolding of divine will, and thus devoid of all conflict or tension.” To see Muhammad as a “man in full,” she continues, “means taking what might be called an agnostic stance, laying aside piety and reverence on the one hand along with stereotype and judgmentalism on the other, let alone the deadening pall of circumspection in the middle.”

It also means mining a range of secondary sources to assemble a vivid canvas of Arabian life in the early seventh century: tribalism and warfare, pagan faith and folklore, urban versus rural society, the caravan trade that extended into an area larger than Europe. Hazleton, who in 1980 published a book about the Negev and Sinai deserts, works hard to convey the physical atmosphere of Muhammad’s milieu. Listen to her prelude to an account of the destruction by flood of the Kaaba, the Meccan sanctuary that was a sacred site of pilgrimage even before Islam, and was rebuilt in the year 605:

“In the harsh Hijaz landscape of rock and dust, there is no such thing as a gentle rain. It comes instead in rare spasms, violent downpours as capable of wreaking havoc as the most malevolent of jinns. With a kind of warped vengeance, water turns from blessing into curse, and the stuff of life becomes the agent of death . . . . It might be the merest trickle at first, as though someone had emptied a pail on the ground, but then the trickle builds, tugging gently at your ankles as a faint rumble echoes through the mountains. Before you quite know what is happening, you find you are stumbling in a current that seems to have come from nowhere . . . . Branches of broom and acacia and saltbush and then whole bushes come hurtling at you, and there’s the flailing bulk of a drowning animal, legs akimbo, and you can’t hear your own voice crying for help as you fall again and again, caught up in the chaotic momentum of water and debris.”

The book exhibits a clear feminist stance, paying detailed attention to the roles and status of women – pagan and Jewish as well as followers of Muhammad. (Two of his nine wives were Jews who embraced Islam.) Hazleton even dares to employ female imagery in describing the process by which the Koran was revealed to Muhammad: “The revelations left him equal parts humbled and determined, exhausted and energized . . .. The pain was an essential part of it, part of the birthing process, for this is what he was doing; verse by verse, he was giving birth to the Quran.“ Muhammad’s manliness is a cornerstone of his traditional persona; Hazleton softens him, highlights his ambivalences, his fears and doubts. “As Graham Greene indicated in his novels of those struggling with faith,” she writes, “doubt is the heart of the matter; it is what keeps religion human.”

’Aisha used to say…’

The author plainly identifies with her hero and his early chroniclers too. Consider the case of Buraq, the winged white horse on which Muhammad flew from Mecca to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The one koranic verse about the famous Night Journey says nothing about a flying horse and refers to “the far house,” not Jerusalem by name. It was ibn-Ishaq who spun out the tale wherein Muhammad, led by the angel Gabriel, ascends a ladder through seven circles of heaven, with Abraham stationed at the top. Ibn-Ishaq, Hazleton notes, “is unsure as to how reliable” his pieced-together account is. “And to indicate that the story may be more of a matter of faith than of fact, he makes ample use of such phrases as . . . ‘One of abu-Bakr’s family told me that Aisha used to say ... ’”

Ibn Ishaq’s method, in Hazleton’s approving words, amounts to “abstention from certainty. Whether the Night Journey was a dream, a vision or lived experience, ibn-Ishaq’s view is that what matters is not how it happened, but its significance.” Curiously, the author omits to mention a significant Muslim claim that complicates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that the so-called Western Wall has nothing to do with any alleged Jewish Temple but is actually the al-Buraq Wall, where Muhammad hitched his miraculous steed. Or perhaps not so curious, for the omission serves the author’s overarching agenda of compromise, coexistence and commonality.

Hazleton is well-read in comparative religion, citing similarities between Islam and other faiths, Judaism not least. She goes so far as to liken the followers from prosperous Mecca who built Muhammad’s mud-brick compound in Medina to the young Jewish halutzim in Palestine a century ago: “However ironic it may seem in the context of modern politics, the closest parallel to these city people flexing muscles never used before is possibly the experience of the early Zionist pioneers in Palestine, who were also largely urban emigrants, in their case from Europe.” Moreover, she enthuses: “Imbued with a vision of man and God in unison, these early Muslims threw themselves into what Kabbalists would later call tikkun olam, repairing the world.”

Less of a stretch is her contention that all the Abrahamic religions are grounded in social justice. “The three great monotheisms,” she argues, began “as popular movements in protest against the privilege and arrogance of power, whether that of kings in the Hebrew bible, or the Roman Empire as in the Gospels, or a tribal elite as in the Quran.” However far “they may have strayed from their origins as they became institutionalized over time,” she adds, all three at the outset were “driven by ideals of justice and egalitarianism.”

Muhammad, she emphasizes, was an orphan, an outsider, which helps explain his empathy with the weak and defiance of wealthy movers and shakers. Yet he was also capable of great cruelty, such as the massacre (on orders of the angel Gabriel) of hundreds of men from the Jewish Qureyz tribe of Medina, who had considered collaborating with Muhammad’s Meccan enemies: “It was crystal clear to all that there would be no further tolerance of any form of dissent.” All Qureyz property was distributed among believers, and the women and children were enslaved. But one Qureyz woman, Rayhana, was taken by Muhammad as a wife: “Once ruthlessness had been displayed, it was time to rebuild.”

Hazleton deplores Muhammad’s action, of course, while gingerly rationalizing it by quoting Machiavelli: “By making an example or two, the ruler will prove more compassionate than those who, being too compassionate, allow disorders which lead to murder and rapine.” The Queryz, she writes, “were, in a sense, collateral damage,” a pointed choice of words.

Muhammad died in 632 at age 62 or so, of an illness whose symptoms and duration “are classic for bacterial meningitis,” writes Hazleton. As she describes the scene, his acolytes gathered at his deathbed, hoping he would designate a successor, but he did not. Voices rose, “so that every angry note and high-pitched syllable seemed to pierce the sick man’s ears until he could take it no more. ‘Leave me be,’ he said finally. ‘Let there be no quarreling in my presence.’”

Does this tell us that Muhammad was 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.

Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and screenwriter, is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. His latest translation from Hebrew is the novel “The Retrospective” by A.B. Yehoshua.

AP