Hazleton: Muhammad’s is one of those Rare Lives that are More Dramatic in Reality Than Legend

Epigraph: “If we could view Muhammad as we do any other important historical figure we would surely consider him to be one of the greatest geniuses the world has known.” [Karen Armstrong in Muhammad – A Biography of the Prophet]

Cave of Hira

Cave of Hira: Where the first few verses of the Holy Quran were revealed to the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, through angel Gabriel. The Muslim Times has the best collection of articles about the prophet Muhammad

Lesley Hazleton (born 1945) is an award-winning British-American writer, whose work focuses on the intersection of politics and religion, history and current affairs.  A former psychologist, she reported on the Middle East from Jerusalem for more than a dozen years, writing forTimeThe New York TimesThe New York Review of BooksThe Nation, and Harper’s, among other publications.

Her previous book, After the Prophet: the epic story of the Shia-Sunni split, was a finalist for the PEN-USA Book Award.  Earlier books have won several awards, including the Washington Book Award for Mary: a flesh-and-blood biography.

She has written a beautiful biography about the Holy Prophet Muhammad, titled: The First Muslim, the Story of Muhammad.

Her blog The Accidental Theologist  casts “an agnostic eye on politics, religion, and existence.”

The cover jacket of her Prophet’s biography states:

Muhammad’s was a life of almost unparalleled historical importance; yet for all the iconic power of his name, the intensely dramatic story of the prophet of Islam is not well known. In The First Muslim, Lesley Hazleton brings him vibrantly to life. Drawing on early eyewitness sources and on history, politics, religion, and psychology, she renders him as a man in full, in all his complexity and vitality.

Hazleton’s account follows the arc of Muhammad’s rise from powerlessness to power, from anonymity to renown, from insignificance to lasting significance. How did a child shunted to the margins end up revolutionizing his world? How did a merchant come to challenge the established order with a new vision of social justice? How did the pariah hounded out of Mecca turn exile into a new and victorious beginning? How did the outsider become the ultimate insider?

Impeccably researched and thrillingly readable, Hazleton’s narrative creates vivid insight into a man navigating between idealism and pragmatism, faith and politics, nonviolence and violence, rejection and acclaim. The First Muslim illuminates not only an immensely significant figure but his lastingly relevant legacy.

The first chapter of her book is available online and here I want to share with you her wonderful analysis of the very first revelation of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, in the cave of Hira:

A human encounters the divine: to the rationalist, a matter not of fact but of wishful fiction. So if Muhammad had behaved the way one might expect after his first encounter on Mount Hira, it would only make sense to call the story just that: a fable concocted by piety and belief. But he did not.

He did not come floating off the mountain as though walking on air. He did not run down shouting “Hallelujah” and “Bless the Lord.” He did not radiate light and joy. There were no choirs of angels, no music of the heavens. No elation, no ecstasy, no golden aura surrounding him. No sense of his absolute, foreordained, unquestionable role as the messenger of God. Not even the whole of the Quran fully revealed, but only a few brief verses. In short, Muhammad did none of the things that might seem essential to the legend of a man who had just done the impossible and crossed the border between this world and another—none of the things that might make it easy to cry foul, to denigrate the whole story as an invention, a cover for something as mundane as delusion or personal ambition.

On the contrary: he was convinced that what he had encountered could not be real. At best it must be a hallucination: a trick of the eye or the ear, or his own mind working against him. At worst, possession, and he had been seized by an evil jinn, a spirit out to deceive him, even to crush the life out of him. In fact he was so sure that he could only be majnun, literally possessed by a jinn, that when he found himself still alive, his first instinct had been to finish the job himself, to leap off the highest cliff and escape the terror of what he had experienced by putting an end to all experience.

So the man who fled down Mount Hira trembled not with joy but with a stark, primordial fear. He was overwhelmed not with conviction, but by doubt. He was sure of only one thing: whatever this was, it was not meant to happen to him. Not to a middle-aged man who had hoped perhaps at most for a simple moment of grace instead of this vast blinding weight of revelation. If he no longer feared for his life, he certainly feared for his sanity.  By his own account, he was painfully aware that too many nights in solitary meditation might have driven him over the edge.

Whatever happened up there on Mount Hira, the sheer humanness of Muhammad’s reaction may be the strongest argument for its historical reality. Whether you think the words he heard came from inside himself or from outside, it is clear that Muhammad experienced them, and with a force that would shatter his sense of himself and his world. Terror was the sole sane response. Terror and denial. And if this reaction strikes us now as unexpected, even shockingly so, that is only reflection of how badly we have been misled by the stereotyped image of ecstatic mystical bliss.

Lay aside such preconceived notions for a moment, and you might see that Muhammad’s terror speaks of real experience. In fact it sounds fallibly human — too human for some, like conservative Muslim theologians who argue that the account of his trying to kill himself should not even be mentioned despite the fact that it’s in the earliest Islamic biographies. They insist that he never doubted for a single moment, let alone despaired. Demanding perfection, they cannot tolerate ordinary human imperfection.

Read the first chapter online.

Buy the book in Amazon.

Categories: Muhammad, The Muslim Times

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