The cover of this week’s Charlie Hebdo leaves me speechless, in a good way. And in tears too. (And yes, it is indeed deeply Islamic in spirit.)
The cover of this week’s Charlie Hebdo leaves me speechless, in a good way. And in tears too. (And yes, it is indeed deeply Islamic in spirit.)
The talk I gave at TEDGlobal twelve days ago just went live!
Here it is — on Muhammad, the relationship between faith and doubt, and the travesty of fundamentalism:
Anything you can do to forward/repost/facebook/tweet/email/tumble/reddit/generally-spread-the-word will be wonderful. Let’s stop being the far-too-silent majority!
Shortcut url is http://on.ted.com/Hazleton
[In case you missed it, my earlier TEDx talk on reading the Quran is here.]
Newly back in Seattle after an amazing couple of weeks, I’m jet-lagged, news-lagged, and above all, TED-lagged.
Eleven days ago, I was onstage at TEDGlobal in Edinburgh. The talk — on Muhammad, doubt, and the travesty of fundamentalism — may be released on TED.com as early as this coming week, but meanwhile, in the tease category, here’s a still shot:
I hereby declare a new addition to the DSM-IV manual of psychiatric disorders: post-TED syndrome, which poses the patient with the problem of how to get her feet (let alone her head) firmly back to earth after a week of non-stop talk and ideas and excitement and superb company? (Plus some great music and dancing too).
Seven days ago, I took the back-to-earth idea literally. If you had been in possession of a pair of good binoculars, you would have found me roaming the wilds of Romney Marsh in Sussex, totally wind- and rain-blown, along with thousands of sheep and the most bullish lambs I’ve ever seen — sturdy little bruisers, each with a very distinctive vocal point to make about my presence. (On the menu that evening in nearby Rye: “Romney Marsh lamb.” My response: “Noooooo….!”)
Forward a bit, and four days ago I was doing my roaming in London, meeting my brilliant UK publishers over grappa in a club so private it has no name (British release of The First Muslim is set for November 7), doing tai-chi early mornings by the lavender field in Vauxhall Park (triple espresso at the ready), communing with the Rothkos at the Tate Modern, zipping along the Thames in water taxis, and downing elderberry lemonade and tahini-drizzled eggplant at Ottolenghi’s in Islington (his cookbook Plenty has the best recipe I’ve ever found for socca).
So today, back in my houseboat in pacific Seattle, my head is reeling from it all, and I have a new way of posing the post-TED problem: how do you get your feet back to earth when you live on a raft that floats on forty feet of water?
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.
I don’t believe in omens, though I confess I’m sometimes tempted to.
Like when I realized just three weeks ago that The First Muslim was being published on the day on which Muhammad’s birthday falls this year.* I wish I could say that this was the result of careful planning on my part, or on that of my publishers. In fact it’s either a wonderful coincidence, or…
You see what I mean about omens?
That was just about the time the first finished copy of the book arrived in the mail. Since it came straight from the printers, I didn’t recognize the return address, so wasn’t sure what was in the padded envelope until I opened it.
And went “Oh my God!”
I think I might have mentioned somewhere that the cover was elegantly understated. Perhaps even a tad overly under-stated. I do remember suggesting to the publishers that they increase the color values just a little – a slightly more saturated yellow as in the photo in the right-hand column, for instance. “We’ll see what we can do,” my editor said.
She didn’t get back to me on that, and I hadn’t expected her to. So I had no idea that the yellow had been transformed into gold! Thus the “oh my God,” repeated several more times as I traced the raised pattern of it with my fingers.
This had to be a special author’s copy, I thought. It’s been many years since publishers commemorated a book’s publication by ordering up such a one-off copy for the author (usually leather-bound, with gold leaf on the edges). It was a token of appreciation, and a lovely one, but they’d stopped doing it because of the expense. Now Penguin’s Riverhead Books imprint had clearly resuscitated the practice.
I called my editor immediately to thank her for ordering such a beautiful author’s copy, and then came the best surprise of all:
“Oh no,” she said, “this isn’t just for you. All the books are like that.”
So I’m still kind of amazed at the physical existence of my own book. Is this stunning production really the same creature as the innumerable drafts of much-scrawled-on typescript pages strewn around my study for years? It’s as though with publication it’s achieved a separate existence. Like a teenager leaving home, it will now make its way in the world on its own terms, an independent agent only tangentially related to me. All I can do is wish it well, cheer it on, defend it when it needs defense — and trust that others will agree that it lives up to the sheer elegance of its cover.
[*Re Muhammad’s birthday: the traditional Islamic date is the 12th of the month of Rabi al-Awwal, which falls this year on January 24. The Christian date changes each year since the Islamic calendar is lunar, which means that the Islamic year is eleven days shorter than the Christian one. To further complicate matters, the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal is the Sunni date; Shia celebrate the birthday, known as mawlid, five days later. And one more complication: not all Sunnis approve of the idea of celebrating the birthday. Observance of it is banned in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, for instance, whose dour Wahhabi version of Islam seems ever suspicious of joy and festivity.]
If only all books were this well read! This is author and poet Tamam Kahn‘s galley copy. (Galleys are softbound uncorrected proofs, sent out for early review before the hardcover has gone to the printers — thus the banner across the top saying it’s not for distribution.) And I love this photo because it’s such a vivid expression of the act of reading.
Yes, the act of reading: nothing passive about it, but an engaged interaction of reader, writer, and subject. (I read with a similar intensity, though I prefer a pencil to tabs, marking the margins with lines, exclamation marks, and perhaps a brief Yes! or an abrupt No!, but sometimes getting carried away with extended comments crawling up the side of the page to spread out along the top.)
Tamam posted the photo alongside her review of The First Muslim today. Here’s how it begins:
There is much that is wonderful about this book! I opened the manila envelope, slid the book out, opened it and began reading. Two hours later I was calling to my husband across the room, saying, “Listen to this…”
This is what it meant to be an orphan: the ordinary childhood freedom of being without a care would never be his… At age six, he (Muhammad) was now doubly orphaned, his sole inheritance a radical insecurity as to his place in the world.
Accurate instinct on the basics. In all the years that I studied Muhammad’s life, I never gave much thought to him as an orphan. This fact is often mentioned by historians, but none make us feel the alien landscape in which the boy finds himself in the way this telling does. A certain wariness crept into the corners of his eyes and his smile became tentative and cautious; even decades later, hailed as the hero of his people, he’d rarely be seen to laugh.
Then Lesley Hazleton takes the reader deeper. At age five, he is returned to his estranged blood mother Amina; abruptly, a child between two worlds. In that same year, after the two of them visit relatives in Medina, several days journey north, she dies on the return trip. …now doubly orphaned.
The whole review is over at Tamam’s blog, Complete Word. She ends it with this:
This humanizing of the man, Muhammad, is the thread running through the book. Often, in the media, what is written about Muhammad or the word “Muslim” is overlaid with dramatic and political innuendos to support a variety of loud viewpoints.
Here, it’s like she begins by talking to us in a quiet tone on that noisy street. Come inside where it is calm, and listen to Lesley Hazleton tell about a man who became The First Muslim. It’s a good story.
There was a terrific story to be told here: the journey from neglected orphan to acclaimed leader—from marginalized outsider to the ultimate insider—made all the more dramatic by the tension between idealism and pragmatism, faith, and politics. I wanted to be able to see Muhammad as a complex, multidimensional human being, instead of the two-dimensional figure created by reverence on the one hand and prejudice on the other. I wanted the vibrancy and vitality of a real life lived.
But of course I was also impelled by a certain dismay at how little most of us in the West know about Muhammad, especially when Islam is so often in the headlines and there are so many competing claims to “the truth about Islam.” This one man radically changed his world—indeed he’s still changing ours—so it seemed to me vitally important that we be able to get beyond stereotypes and see who he really was.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about Muhammad?
Let’s take just the two most obvious stereotypes: the lecherous polygamist, and the sword-wielding warmonger. In fact Muhammad’s first marriage, to Khadija, was a loving, monogamous relationship that lasted 24 years, until her death. The nine late-life marriages were mainly diplomatic ones—means of sealing alliances, as was standard for any leader at the time. And it’s striking that while he had five children with Khadija—four daughters and a son who died in infancy—he had none with any of the late-life wives.
As for the warmonger image, Muhammad maintained a downright Gandhian stance of passive, nonviolent resistance to both verbal and physical assaults for 12 years, until he was driven into exile from his home in Mecca. The psychology of exile thus played a large role in the armed conflict over the subsequent eight years, until Mecca finally accepted his leadership in a negotiated surrender, with strong emphasis on avoiding bloodshed.
Is there anything you had to leave out?
I know there’s a tendency to elide certain issues of Muhammad’s life, not least among them the rapid deterioration of his relations with the Jews of Medina, which was especially hard for me, as a Jew, to write about. But to evade such issues seems to me to demonstrate a certain lack of respect for your subject. A biographer’s task is surely to create as full a portrait as possible. If you truly respect your subject, you need to do him justice by according him the integrity of reality.
What alternative title would you give the book?
Perhaps “Seeing Muhammad Whole.” Or “A Man in Full.” But since Muhammad is told three times in the Qur’an to call himself the first Muslim, I knew early on that this would be the title.
Did you have a specific audience in mind?
It kind of hurts to think of intelligent, open-minded readers as a specific audience…
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
Far more than inform! The pleasure for me lies in the “aha!” of understanding, of grasping the richness of reality, with all its uncertainties and dilemmas. It’s in the practice of empathy—not sympathy, but empathy, which is the good-faith attempt to understand someone else’s experience. Those who nurture images of Muhammad as the epitome of either all evil or all good may well be disconcerted, but then that’s the point: empathy trumps stereotype any time.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
The First Muslim isn’t a “message” book. If anything, since I’m agnostic, you might call it an agnostic biography. But I think many readers may be surprised at Muhammad’s deep commitment to social justice, his radical protest against greed and corruption, and his impassioned engagement with the idea of unity, both human and divine—major factors that help explain the appeal of Islam.
How do you feel about the cover?
I loved it the minute I saw it. Riverhead brilliantly avoided all the usual obvious images—domes, minarets, crescent moons, camels, and so on—and opted instead for the understated elegance of this classic “knot” tile design.
Is there a book out there you wish you’d written?
On Muhammad? No, and that’s exactly why I wrote The First Muslim. The book I wish someone else had written didn’t exist—one that brought psychological and political context to the historical and religious record, and one I actually wanted to read instead of feeling that I should.
What’s your next book?
I’m thinking it’s time to explore exactly what I mean by being an agnostic, and how this informs my ongoing fascination with the vast and volatile arena in which religion and politics intersect.
Just released: the video of the talk I gave at TEDxRainier on November 10, 2012.
I can’t judge how effective the talk is (a few of the slides were dropped in the video-editing process, including a shot of Newsweek‘s infamous ‘Muslim Rage’ cover). But as with my previous talk on reading the Quran, I do think I’m getting at something that needs to be said in today’s politically manipulated climate of suspicion and distrust.
If you agree, it’d be great if you’d help by forwarding this to all who will be, might be, or simply should be interested. You can use the buttons below to email, tweet, or post to Facebook. Or just copy and paste this page’s url or the YouTube one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aC7bUTBKv0. Thank you!
And again, most definitely, I’d love to hear your comments, every which way they trend!
It’ll be a few weeks yet until the video of the TEDxRainier talk I gave last Saturday goes online (multiple cameras — fortunately I was unaware of them — involve post-production work). But here, by way of a teaser/preview, are three stills just sent me by the organizers. They’re in chronological sequence, and they do seem to capture the spirit of the talk:
Great pre-publication review of The First Muslim in the current issue of Publishers Weekly (alas it’s subscriber-only, so I can’t link to it):
Despite Islam’s position at the forefront of the American consciousness, the general public knows little of its founder and prophet beyond platitudes and condemnations. Hazleton (After the Prophet) attempts to rectify this imbalance with her vivid and engaging narrative of Muhammad’s life. The author portrays her subject as an unlikely and unsuspecting vehicle for the divine, “painfully aware that too many nights in solitary meditation might have driven him over the edge.” Sympathetic but not hagiographic, her work draws liberally from a long tradition of Islamic biographical literature about the prophet; the nuanced portrait that emerges is less that of an infallible saint than of a loving family man, a devoted leader of his people, an introspective and philosophical thinker who reluctantly accepted the burden of conveying the word of God, and a calculating political strategist. Hazleton writes not as a historian but as a cultural interpreter, reconstructing Muhammad’s identity and personality from the spiritual revolution that he sparked and the stories that his followers passed down. While the speculation is sometimes off-putting (as when Muhammad’s final illness is confidently diagnosed as bacterial meningitis), the result is a fluid and captivating introduction that will be invaluable for those seeking a greater understanding of Islam’s message and its messenger.
I love the idea of being less a historian than a cultural interpreter. If I don’t quite see the problem with the bacterial meningitis issue, no matter. Roll on January 24.
And how can I resist posting this elegant cover…?
My IT guru and I will be refining it over the next few months, adding more content and some cool bits and bobbles.
Meanwhile, would love your reactions/suggestions/comments.
Nouman Ali Khan of the Bayyinah Institute makes a calm, reasoned, Quran-based argument against violent protest of that noxious little anti-Islam video. It’s encouraging to see that so many people have tuned in to him:
Once again, the extremists have fed each other. Once again, with other people’s blood.
The blood is that of one of the best friends the new Libya could have had: US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, killed yesterday, the evening of 9/11, along with three of his staff as they tried to evacuate employees of the American consulate in Benghazi. The evacuation was necessary because protestors had been whipped into violence by a 14-minute farce of a video attacking the prophet Muhammad. Or, as now seems possible, the protest was used as an excuse for a planned attack, since RPGs and automatic weapons were involved.
Al-Qaeda-type extremists are apparently the ones who pulled the trigger, using the insult to Islam as an excuse. But they could not have done so without the help of their partners — their Jewish and Christian brothers-in-arms right here in the United States. That’s who provided the ammunition, in the form of a shoddily crude and absurdly amateurish “movie trailer” portraying Muhammad as a fraud and his early supporters as a bunch of goons.
I’m deliberately not linking to the video here since I refuse to link to such tripe. This isn’t an insult to Islam; it’s an insult to human intelligence. If you feel sufficiently masochistic, you can find it on YouTube by typing in the title, ‘Muslim Innocence’ (the director’s idea of irony).
You’ll see that it’s made by ignorant fanatics for ignorant fanatics. Nobody else would pay it the blindest bit of attention. In fact nobody else did (even the director, an Israeli-American who goes by the name of Sam Bacile, which may or may not be a pseudonym, admits that the whole movie has been shown only once, to a nearly empty movie theater in California). Nobody else, that is, until Florida’s tinpot Quran-burning pastor Terry Jones — the one who once hanged President Obama in effigy and will apparently do anything to get himself back in the news — decided to showcase the trailer as part of his annual 9/11 Islamophobic rant.
I’ll write more about this very soon (I’m just back from a trip, and jet-lagged). But for now, two things:
1. Rest in peace, Christopher Stevens.
2. As for Terry Jones and the man calling himself Sam Bacile: if such a thing as hell exists, may you both rot in it, alongside your blood brothers in Al Qaeda.
Back when, I wrote here that I was going into hermitry for “just a few months, probably,” in order to focus on the final draft of The First Muslim. Hubris strikes again! I now realize it’s been nearly a year.
But I’ve finished the book. All 99,901 words of it. (Actually, a few thousand more if you include the end notes, bibliography, etc, but hey, who’s counting…) And it’ll be published in January, which suddenly seems just round the corner.
“We gotta celebrate!” friends here in Seattle said after I’d pressed the Send button to my publisher. Champagne all round, heels kicked up, nights on the town — all that good stuff. But nights on the town require energy, and I had none left. I was too exhausted. The book was finished, and so, it felt, was I. Instead of celebrating, I did what I’d known I’d do come this moment: I collapsed. The sofa and I became one.
But as days passed with me cradled by that sofa – well-worn dark green leather, thoroughly scratched up by the resident feline – I realized that this wasn’t a painful exhaustion. It was a happy one, the kind you feel after an arduous hike through magnificent landscape. You’ve forded streams and clambered up mountains you never thought you could manage. By the time you get home, everything is aching. You can’t wear shoes because of the blisters. The muscles in your legs are so sore it feels like you’ll never be able to walk properly again. But who cares? You know, at a far deeper level than skin and muscles, that it was absolutely, totally worth it.
That was a few weeks ago, and now my energy’s coming back. I’m up off the sofa, ready to interact with the world again and resume this great improvisation known as life. So here’s a big thank you, fellow accidental theologists, for your understanding, patience, encouragement, and support over this past year. Now that I’m back, on with the conversation!
Okay, so I know I’d be wiser not to even go here. Discretion being the better part of valor and all that.
But when circumcision becomes a political issue, how can I resist? Not the ghastly ritual of female genital mutilation, mind you, but male circumcision – the snip done within a week of birth.
The foreskin may be California’s newest fixation. A San Francisco group has collected enough signatures to get a measure to ban circumcision within the city limits on the fall ballot. A similar measure may be on the way for Santa Monica next year. And San Diego may not be far behind. If they have their way, everyone gets to vote on the state of everyone else’s penis. (Strictly speaking, of course, make that half of everyone else’s penis.)
My first thought on finding out about this was that it’d be a great opportunity for Jews and Muslims to work together. Not because I have any affinity for the ritual of circumcision, which seems to me to be a primordial holdover with discomforting Freudian undertones — an adaptation of the ancient rite of blood sacrifice. No, the fact is that I simply appreciate the absence of a foreskin. From the point of view of an experienced user, you might say, I can testify that the prevailing medical opinion in the US is correct: a circumcised penis really is more hygienic. And far more esthetic.
The foreskin is another of those oddities of human physiology that‘s way outlasted any function it might once have had, along with the appendix, the hymen, and tonsils. I can understand how it might be a useful thing to have if you’re still swinging naked from tree to tree in the jungle – a bit of natural protection. But since it’s been a couple of million years since our ancestors last swung, as it were (with the exception of Tarzan), I fail to see why anyone should be any more attached to a foreskin than they are to an appendix. Or, come to that, to a hymen.
As it happens, circumcision rates are down in the United States. Since hospital doctors once performed the procedure automatically in the delivery room, irrespective of religious affiliation, most American men over a certain age are circumcised. Now parents are consulted, and only 30-50% say yes. Which is precisely why this anti-circumcision campaign is so weird. Since it’s already a matter of choice – albeit not the infant’s — the question becomes why the foreskinners are protesting a procedure that most directly affects believing Jews and Muslims.
Note, for instance, that they’re using the phrase “male genital mutilation,” thus trying to make male circumcision the equivalent of female genital mutilation, which is widely — and incorrectly — believed to be an Islamic tradition. (In fact it’s North African, and derided in Islam at the very beginning, when Muhammad’s uncle Hamza taunted a pagan opponent by calling him “son of a clitoris-cutter”).
It’s a nasty little tactic, this conflation of male circumcision and female genital mutilation. The former really is just a snip, and from the reaction of newborns I’ve seen undergo it, not much worse than a (pardon me) pinprick. The latter really is mutilation: a savage cutting away of the genitalia, leaving its 12-year-old victim in extraordinary pain and at risk of death from infection. Moreover, where the former tends to increase sexual pleasure, the latter aims specifically to destroy it.
So is there a hidden point here? The activist in the NYT photo below says she’s “just a mom trying to save the little babies” (I guess the big ones be damned). I find it interesting, though, that she uses the word “intact” in her “baby on board” sign — as in virgo intacta, or virgin. Is that what this is really about? The blond and surely blue-eyed mother protecting the purity of all the little American babies? The caption gives her name as Jena. Am I being a paranoid Jew, or does this sound oddly, ah, Germanic…?