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“The First Muslim”: A book review

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The book titled “The First Muslim; the story of Muhammad”, written by Lesley Hazleton, was first published in 2013 in both the USA and Great Britain. The book is a biography of prophet Muhammad that talks about the major incidents of the prophet’s life from birth to death. The author, Lesley Hazleton, comes from a Jewish family but calls herself a confirmed agnostic.

The book is based on an unstated assumption that the Standard Islamic Narrative (SIN) is true. The SIN actually came into being in the form of Sirat Rasul Allah, Sahih Hadith, and Al Tabari’s Early Islamic History etc. 200 to 300 years after Muhammad’s death. The author does not enter into the issue of authenticity of SIN and proceeds to tell us about the life of Muhammad.

There is contradictory information as to who was the first Muslim? A large section of Islamists today claims that Islam is the oldest religion and Adam was the first Muslim. Lesley Hazleton, however, puts an end to that propaganda by referring to the Quran, where it says multiple times that Muhammad was the first Muslim.

Author’s respect for Muhammad is palpable in the book, though she tries to proceed in a dispassionate manner. The respect could be due to commercial consideration. She builds up the narrative of her book by quoting from Ibn Ishaq, Quran and Al Tabari. Her lack of concern about the historicity of these sources makes the reading free-flowing like a fairy tale.

The book is divided into three chapters, namely (1) Orphan, (2) Exile and (3) Leader. As the names denote, the first chapter deals with Muhammad’s birth and upbringing as an orphan child to the elevation of an honest business agent to his marriage with Khadija and receiving of revelations from Allah, as well as, early and benign preaching of his new monotheism for twelve years in Mecca against all odds from his own people.

Besides receiving the first revelation from Allah in the hill-cave of Hira in the outskirt of Mecca, the nocturnal journey (Miraj) of Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem on a winged horse-like creature and from there to an audience with Allah by climbing a gold-made ladder was the most important incident of Muhammad’s Meccan life. The author calls Miraj a miracle story.

Second chapter is the largest one. It deals with Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina with a few dozens of Meccan followers and his gradual transformation to a violent and intolerant leader with a very shrewd political cunningness. His major raids and battles get large space in the chapter. The story of persecution of Jewish tribe Banu Qurayza of Medina serves as an example to explain the viciousness in Muhammad. All males, about 750 in number, of the tribe who reached puberty were beheaded, their properties were confiscated and all children and females were taken as slaves by Muhammad and his Muslim soldiers.

The author virtually accepts that all the violence, intolerance and aggression of Muhammad of Medina are outbursts of his response to the humiliation, obscurity and neglect he received in his childhood, youth and adult life in Mecca. The suppressed volcano of his hatred towards Meccans and their lifestyle allowed an outlet of molten lava in the form of his forceful imposition of new monotheism upon Meccans, Jews, Christians and Bedouin of Arabia. From time-to-time Allah kept on sending Quranic revelations in support of Muhammad.

The author unnecessarily brings in Mahatma Gandhi to refer to the non-violence practiced by Muhammad in his early prophethood in Mecca. She almost justifies Muhammad’s violent transformation in Medina for not achieving any good result by non-violent approach in Mecca. While Muhammad’s non-violence was situational, Gandhi’s was not. The author fails to understand this basic difference. The chapter ends with the negotiated surrender of Mecca before Muhammad.

The third chapter deals with the last two years of Muhammad’s life that includes his last Hajj to Mecca also. After consolidating a large part of Arabia under his control Muhammad, in this chapter, is almost a confused person. He is a tired, exhausted and sick man. The increasingly demanding nature of public life and responsibility of temporal leader and a prophet were too much for him to bear. He did not announce his successor. Muhammad’s identity in this chapter dominates as a socio-political reformer and not as any holy spiritual man.

Muhammad had nine wives in Medina, but no living male heir. The infight between co-wives was increasing. After ten days of severe illness, Muhammad died at the age of 62 years as an unhappy man. According to the SIN, Muhammad died as a result of consuming poisoned lamb-meat given to him by a Jewish woman in Khaybar three years back.

However, in the book the author deviates from SIN and postulates that Meningitis was the cause of death of the prophet of Islam. Muhammad was buried after about 40 hours of his death, almost unceremoniously, because his closest associates and followers were busy in deciding his successor. The end was sad and lonely for the prophet of Islam.

The whole book in general, and the second chapter in particular, is devoid of any worthy spiritual content. The second chapter projects Muhammad as an obsessed tribal leader, who was keen on expanding his area of control only. Allah came as an afterthought to catalyze and sanctify Muhammad’s leadership or prophethood as he claimed. Muhammad transformed Arab tribal society to supra-tribalism. And this is the life story of The First Muslim.

About the book, a Pakistan-origin friend from the USA has succinctly observed, “I do not think her (Lesley Hazleton’s) book has any additional value as research or as critique. It may, however, add a little more to our narcissistic pride. And such books are written exactly because our people eagerly buy them”.

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