‘The First Muslim,’ by Lesley Hazleton
In today’s febrile cultural and religious climate, what project could be more fraught than writing a biography of Muhammad? The worldwide protests at “The Innocence of Muslims,” 14 minutes of trashy provocation posted on YouTube, are a terrible reminder to the would-be biographer that the life story of the prophet of Islam is not material about which one is free to have a “take.” Lesley Hazleton’s “First Muslim” is a book written by a white woman of dual American and British citizenship, published in America more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks. For many believers it is already — even before it is read, if it is read at all — an object of suspicion, something to be defended against, in case it should turn out to be yet another insult, another cruel parody of a story such an author has no business telling.
“The First Muslim” tells this story with a sort of jaunty immediacy. Bardic competitions are “the sixth-century equivalent of poetry slams.” The section of the Koran known as the Sura of the Morning has “an almost environmentalist approach to the natural world.” Theological ideas and literary tropes are “memes” that can go “viral.” Readers irritated by such straining for a contemporary tone will find it offset by much useful and fascinating context on everything from the economics of the Meccan caravan trade to the pre-Islamic lineage of prophets called hanifs, who promoted monotheism and rejected idolatry.
In the terms it sets itself, “The First Muslim” succeeds. It makes its subject vivid and immediate. It deserves to find readers. However, its terms are those of the popular biography, and this creates a tension the book never quite resolves. Though based on scholarship, it is not a scholarly work. Factual material from eighth- and ninth-century histories is freely mixed with speculation about Muhammad’s motives and emotions intended to allow the reader, in the quasi-therapeutic vocabulary that is the default register of so much mainstream contemporary writing, to “empathize” or better still, “identify with” him.