A couple of months ago, I came across a TED talk by the author Lesley Hazleton, in which she mentioned that she had spent five years researching the life of the Prophet Muhammad for her new biography. Hazleton describes herself as a secular Jew and I looked forward to reading her take on the Prophet of Islam.
Over the years I have devoured many biographies of the Prophet Muhammad – and amongst my treasured possessions are signed copies of the late Professor W. Montgomery Watt’s Muhammad in Makkah and Muhammad in Madina. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Watt at his home in Edinburgh in 1997 when I was the editor of the Muslim youth magazine Trends and used the opportunity to get my books signed.
So, this month of Ramadan was a welcome opportunity to read the new biography of a man and prophet whose astonishing life and achievements continue to be such a colossal inspiration for hundreds of millions of people across the world.
Right from the outset Hazleton rightly dismisses the many miracle stories about Muhammad as later spurious additions and notes that:
“Muhammad’s is one of those rare lives that is more dramatic in reality than in legend. In fact the less one invokes the miraculous, the more extraordinary his life becomes.” (p10)
One of the most valuable insights I gained from Hazleton’s book was her observation on the Muslim prostration during the ritual salah (daily prayers):
“…the posture of prayer – forehead on the ground, arms outstretched, rump high in the air – was the classic one of captive before conqueror, still visible today on ancient Assyrian victory steles, where prisoners do precisely this at the feet of the victorious king. It was the posture of utter surrender to the mercy and grace of a far greater power, and thus a clear statement, felt in muscle and bone, of the literal meaning of islam.” (p99)
Subsequent to reading this passage I went online and found the following image on a stele depicting the 842 B.C. defeat of Jehu of Israel who can be seen prostrating before King Shalmaneser III in a pose that will be very familiar to all Muslims :
Each time I now make sujud I can’t help but think of myself as surrendering to the most mighty of Kings – the only One worthy of such prostration. It is a wonderful feeling.
One of the most insidious campaigns of recent years has been to try and persuade Muslims that Islam is purely a spiritual discipline and that it is the dreaded ‘Islamists’ who are mischievously trying to politicise the message of Islam. Hazleton recognises that this is nonsense and that the message of Islam was political right from the beginning:
“No matter how far they might have strayed from their origins as they became institutionalised over time, the historical record clearly indicates that what we now call the drive for social justice was the idealistic underpinning of monotheistic faith…Muhammad’s message was far more than a personal awakening; it was an Arabian one. It called on the values and ethics that had once been the pride of Arabia, celebrating the past even as it looked to the future. It was a call to action – a spiritual call to address the social and economic problems of the time. In short, it was overtly political. And for those without power, empowering.” (p102-3)
The Prophet Muhammad is frequently criticised by Christian detractors for taking up the sword against his enemies. Yet his entire career in Makka where he was ordered by the Qur’an to be patient in the face of opposition persecution debunks such a simplistic judgement. And in addition, Hazleton points to the Treaty of Hudaybiyah in 628 C.E. where the Prophet signed a peace agreement with the Makkans in the face of almost open rebellion from his own camp.
“Neither Gandhi nor Machiavelli could have done better. Muhammad had reversed the terms of engagement, turning apparent weakness into strength. He had proved himself as effective unarmed as armed, and used the language of peace as forcefully as that of war. In fact it was precisely this dual aspect of him that would so confound his critics and his followers alike.” (p245)
Lesley Hazleton’s account of the Prophet Muhammad’s final ten days on this Earth is amongst the most clear-headed that I have read. In particular, she speculates quite plausibly on the cause of his death:
“This was no mere headache but a fatal disease, and indeed the symptoms and the duration of Muhammad’s final illness – ten days – are classic for bacterial meningitis.” (p286)
The First Muslim – The Story of Muhammad is a generally well-informed and certainly very readable addition to the biography literature. I did not find many major errors in it – at one point she says that the Satanic Verses story is mentioned in the earliest biography – that of Ibn Ishaq – but I don’t recall reading it in Ibn Ishaq’s book and was under the impression that it was later Muslim historians who mentioned that story.
Nevertheless, Hazleton’s biography is a very worthwhile read and can be recommended.