Lesley Hazleton, author of The First Muslim, talks about why and how she wrote about the life of Prophet Muhammad.

His father died before he was born and his mother died when he was six but Muhammad went on to become one of the most significant figures in history. Little attempt has been made to see his life, his struggles, his accomplishments against the socio-economic norms of the Arab world of his times. Indeed, even his call against female infanticide must have been revolutionary in an age when sons were said to add to a man’s stature. With The First Muslim, Lesley Hazleton has set about filling the gap between the Muhammad we know through scriptures and hagiographies and a very normal man who was shaken to his bones when first revelation came to him on Mount Hira. A Jew settled in Seattle, Hazleton has spent many years in the Arab world. Her earlier works include After the Prophet, Jezebel and Mary: A Flesh and Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother. Excerpts from an interview:

From After the Prophet to The First Muslim seems a natural progression. But was it seamless?

Well, it was a kind of backward progression, but it was seamless. After the Prophet told the epic story of the Sunni-Shia split, and began with the death of Muhammad. So the moment I finished, it seemed utterly natural — in retrospect, inevitable — that I’d go on to write his life.

Isn’t it also an account of an outsider looking in?

Of course I write as an outsider! Particularly as an agnostic Jew writing about Muhammad. And this is, I think, very valuable. At its best you come with a fresh mind and eye, without preconceptions, in the spirit of exploration. You’re continually asking questions. You write in the knowledge that while you can never know another person’s experience for sure, you can certainly make an attempt to re-create it, bringing history, psychology, and comparative religion to bear on the original sources, along with empathy and a strong sense of place.

Most accounts on Prophet Muhammad are written either from the viewpoint of believers or the West. There is very little attempt to collate the geography and history of the place…

From the start, I wanted to accord Muhammad the integrity of a full life lived. The last thing I wanted was yet another “duty read”. So I took an agnostic stance, laying aside piety and legend on the one hand, along with stereotype and judgmentalism on the other. And avoiding the deadening pall of circumspection in the middle.

As for geography, the sense of place is essential to me as a writer. I lived for 13 years in the Middle East and it’s been a privilege to have lived both here and there at the same time, waking each morning in misty 21st Century Seattle and sitting down at my desk to the seventh-century desert cities of Arabia, half the world and almost half of history away.

Faith is often about a legend or a myth. In this case, you refer to the Mount Hira episode. What was the role of Khadija when the prophet came back from the mountain?

The challenge is to distinguish between what actually happened and what would later be said to have happened. And psychology definitely helps here.

For instance, look at the first Quranic revelation on a mountain just outside Mecca, when Muhammad was 40. The account comes second hand, from others relating what Muhammad told them. They turned the metaphysical into the merely physical. But what felt humanly real to me was his reaction, which is not what you might expect from pious legend. There was no floating down the mountain radiant with insight and truth. Instead, a headlong flight in panic and fear to shelter in the arms of his wife, Khadija, to whom he was married in a loving monogamous relationship for 24 years, until her death.

If this were fable, you’d expect another revelation to come almost instantly. But no such thing happened. For two years after the first revelation, there was only silence — two years in which Muhammad went through a “dark night of the soul”, struggling to come to terms with what he had experienced and to accept it. I find this humanly real.

Biographies are often reduced to insufferable hagiographies. Yet a critical account may not meet with the approval of the faithful. How did you manage to walk the tightrope?

By not thinking of it as a tightrope! I was aware that conservative Muslims might not appreciate the way I approached the more controversial aspects. But my responsibility as a writer, as a historian, and as a psychologist was not to them, but to my subject. This is clear from the title of the book. One Islamic tradition has it that the first Muslim was Abraham (another says Adam), but since Muhammad is told to call himself the first Muslim three times in the Quran, I went with the foundational source.

How much help was provided by Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Tabari, considering most biographers have relied heavily on these accounts for any biography of the prophet?

I wish I could time travel and meet these two men, one working in eighth-century Damascus and the other in ninth-century Baghdad. Ibn-Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad and al-Tabari’s magisterial history of early Islam are the best argument I know of for going back to the original sources. Since they wrote in a style that drives most westerners mad — forget linear narrative! — part of my task was to act as a kind of interpreter, bridging the cultural gap between east and west, then and now.

As the faithful often see Islam as just a religion, do you think Islam’s socio-economic principles get ignored?

The desire for social justice seems to me the foundational impulse of all three Abrahamic religions. Go back to the sources and you find this impassioned protest against social and economic injustice: against the arrogance of kings in the Hebrew Bible, against the corruption of occupation in the Gospels, against the greed of an oligarchy in the Quran. But once the inspired founding figures die, the radical spirit of their message becomes institutionalised.

There has often been a simmering tension between Semitic faiths. How difficult/easy was it for the Jews to accept Muhammad as a prophet/political leader?

Muhammad’s social justice message was a huge threat to the powers-that-be in Mecca and led to his being exiled. He found refuge in Medina, where he formed a new community uniting the various tribal factions, among them three small Jewish tribes. The Medinan Jews had no difficulty accepting Muhammad’s political leadership; it was his religious leadership they could not accept. As far as they were concerned, prophecy ended with the Babylonian exile, a thousand years earlier. And precisely because faith and politics are so intricately intertwined in the Middle East, then as now, this was a situation that would lead to trouble.

You refer to the Banu Qurayza massacre. How difficult was it to do it as a Jew?

That section was a nightmare to write. Literally. I had horrible dreams in the weeks I struggled with it. Then came one in which I fell into a deep chasm full of sharp rocks at the bottom, yet somehow landed in soft sand, shaken but unhurt. I remember waking with a sense of amazement, and, within a few days, figured out the political dynamics of what had happened, and finished the chapter.

What does Jihad fi sabilillah stand for in Islam?

Jihad is translated as struggle. A minority reinterpretation for political reasons in the 13th Century led to the use as “holy war” but it has no such meaning in the Quran itself, where jihad is the striving to lead a good life. This is often rendered as “in the cause of God”, which implies a political cause. In fact it means “in the path of God”.

Such mistranslations and misconceptions are part of the arena in which politics and religion intersect. We tend to think of religion as a matter of belief, but it goes deep to matters of social and personal identity, which is how it can be easily manipulated by power-hungry demagogues.

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