Though the fastest growing religion in the world, Islam is deeply misunderstood by many—including some of its most ardent believers. In her new biography of Muhammad, The First Muslim, award-winning author and former foreign correspondent Lesley Hazleton portrays Islam’s founder as a rebel, a defender of women’s equality, and, above all, a human being. In this Zola Q&A, Hazleton discusses how Muhammad’s world forged his identity and what he might think of the Middle East today.
What inspired you to take on Muhammad as a subject? There’s been so much written about him. Did you think there was still something missing?
Yes: Muhammad himself! You’re right, there’ve been millions of words written about him, but the more of them I plowed through (I read several biographies as background research for my previous book, After the Prophet), the less I had any real sense of the actual man. It was like looking through a telescope the wrong way round: he seemed to be reduced to a two-dimensional cipher by this mass of verbiage. Much of it was devotional, the rest of it kind of cautiously dutiful, and even soporific. How could anyone do that to such a remarkable life? I wanted the vitality of a real life lived. I wanted to see him whole—not as a symbol, but as a multi-dimensional human being.
The book looks closely at the physical world he occupied – the nights on Mount Hira, watering goats in the desert, his feelings of confinement in Mecca as a boy. Did you visit all these places?
I would have, but non-Muslims aren’t allowed in either Mecca or Medina. And besides, there’s hardly anything left of what these cities once were; nearly everything’s been built up and covered over. But I had the advantage of a strong feel for the landscape and culture of the Middle East. I was based in Jerusalem for thirteen years, spent a year with Beduin in the Sinai desert, and have roamed freely around both Egypt and Jordan. And yes, I’ve spent nights alone on top of another sacred mountain not that far from Mecca: Mount Sinai.
You take odds with the conservative Islamic view that Muhammad was destined to be the messenger of God. Do you have any concerns as to how conservative Muslims will react to this book?
True, I don’t see his life as a matter of foreordained destiny, but as an extraordinary human struggle for dignity and social justice. I think it’s clear from the tone of the book that it’s written with respect for its subject. I mean, isn’t that the point of good biography? Respect for the integrity of a full life lived? For the integrity of reality? Of course the way I see things conflicts in places with the conservative Muslim view, which is sometimes more devotional than historical. But I think we’ve agreed to respectfully disagree.
What do you think are the most common misunderstandings about Muhammad that we have in the West?
There’s a ton of them, most of them politically manipulated, but let’s take just two. First, there’s the image of the lecherous polygamist. In fact his marriage to his first wife, Khadija, was a loving monogamous relationship that lasted twenty-four years until her death. Even after he later married nine other women—nearly all of them diplomatic alliances such as any leader made at the time—he openly mourned Khadija until his own death. And it’s striking that while he had four daughters with her, he had no children with any of the late-life wives.
Second, there’s the image of the militant sword-wielding warrior. In fact, Muhammad only took up arms after years of downright Gandhian passive resistance to increasing verbal and physical assault, culminating in a concerted attempt to assassinate him. And when he finally did so, under political pressure, he made it clear that as the Quran says, “forgiveness and mercy are more pleasing in the eyes of God.” Combat was permitted, that is, but to be avoided if at all possible.
The book points out that Muhammad might never have gone on to found Islam if not for the support and understanding of his wife Khadija, and Muhammad himself rejected the tradition that daughters were less valuable than sons. Yet women are often treated as far less than second-class citizens in many Islamic cultures. Why do these attitudes persist?
What happened to Islam after Muhammad’s death is what happened also with early Judaism and early Christianity. All three began as protest movements for social justice, but then fell prey to the seemingly endless human ability to mess things up. That is, they became institutionalized. Their radical roots were covered over with conservative dogma, and an all-male hierarchy imposed their version of “the Truth” (always with a capital T), forcing their cultural prejudices on everyone else. This is now changing rapidly in both Judaism and Christianity, popes and chief rabbis notwithstanding, and I think it is beginning to change in Islam too, ayatollahs and grand muftis notwithstanding.
What do you think Muhammad would make of the Middle East today?
Great question! Let’s start with Mecca itself: I don’t see how he’d be anything but totally dismayed. He’d be the first to point out that the Saudi regime is the modern equivalent of the wealthy elite who ran the city in his own time, profiting off piety and persecuting him for his message. If Muhammad were alive today, he’d probably be the Saudi kingdom’s worst nightmare, much as the real Jesus would be the Vatican’s worst nightmare.
But the Sauds don’t have the monopoly on the repressive use of conservative piety. Islamist fundamentalists claiming to speak in Muhammad’s name are currently fighting for political control in much of the Middle East. If he could speak for himself, then, here’s what I think he’d say:
He’d condemn sectarianism. He’d condemn extremism. He’d condemn suicide bombing and terrorism, and call them obscene. He’d say what the Quran says: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” And he’d commit himself fully to the hard and thorny process of making peace.