Internet Doubt is essential to faith, says writer Lesley Hazleton in this talk. SUDHAMAHI REGUNATHAN

We have always been told that faith in God has to be implicit, without the shadow of doubt. Lesley Hazleton, a British-American writer who writes of the intersecting spaces of interaction between history, politics and religion, and who has written the Prophet’s biography, says doubt is integral to faith.

She begins with élan, saying, “Writing a biography is a strange thing to do. It is a journey into the foreign territory of somebody else’s life, a journey, an exploration that can take you places you have never dreamed of going and still cannot believe you’ve been…”

Her moment came when, “Five years ago, I found myself waking each morning in misty Seattle to an impossible question: What actually happened one desert night, half the world and almost half of history away? What happened on the night in the year 610 when Muhammad received the first revelation of the Quran on a mountain just outside Mecca?” Hazleton develops on that question and answer to find some very significant truths.

“This is the core mystical moment of Islam, and as such it defies empirical analysis. Yet the question would not let go of me…” says Hazleton. “So a human encountering a divine, as Muslims believe Muhammad did, to the rationalist, this is a matter not of fact but of wishful fiction…which might be why when I looked at the earliest accounts we have of that night, what struck me even more than what happened was what did not happen. Muhammad did not come floating off the mountain as though walking on air. He did not radiate light and joy. There were no choirs of angels, no music of the spheres, no elation, no golden aura surrounding him, no sense of the absolute, fore-ordained role as the messenger of God. That is, he did none of the things that may have made it easier to cry foul.”

Hazleton describes his reaction as being typical to the normal average human being: he was convinced what had happened was not real, he trembled not with joy but with stark primordial fear. He was overwhelmed with doubt, not fear. “At best he thought it to have been a hallucination…that he had been seized by a spirit out to deceive him, even to crush his life. In fact he was so sure that when he found himself alive, his first impulse was to finish the job himself, to leap off the highest cliff and escape the terror of what he had experienced…whether you think the words Muhammad heard that night came from inside himself or from outside, what’s clear is that he did experience them, and he did so with a force that would shatter his sense of himself and his world and transform this otherwise modest man into a radical advocate for social and economic justice,” she argues.

Hazleton adds that some Muslim theologians are not willing to accept that Muhammad did want to kill himself at that moment, even though it is mentioned in the ancient biographies. “They insist he never doubted even for a single moment, let alone despaired… I realised it was precisely Muhammad’s doubt that brought him alive for me, that allowed me to begin to see him in full, to accord him the integrity of reality. And the more I thought about it, the more it made sense that he doubted, because doubt is essential to faith.

Hazleton quotes Graham Greene as saying faith without doubt is just heartless conviction, and she leads on to say that is what makes dogmatists fundamentalists and therefore terrorists. She goes to on to rue the silence of the vast majority who have, “…ceded the public arena to this extremist minority…who are all a cult of their own, blood brothers steep in other people’s blood…This isn’t faith. Real faith is difficult and stubborn, it involves continuous ongoing struggle, a continual questioning of what we think we know, a wrestling with issues and ideas…and sometimes a conscious defiance of it….”

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