Story and Photo By Taylor Nichols
“When I see a magnificent story, I want to do justice to it and this is what I tried to do here. I wanted to know who Muhammad was,” said Seattle author Lesley Hazleton during a discussion about her most recent book “The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad” at Whatcom Community College on May 17. “His life is far more remarkable than any of the legends.”
“The Story of Muhammad” is a biography of the prophet of Islam. Hazleton said that while she wrote it based on academic research, the book is not written in an academic style, and was once called “an act of cultural translation.”
Hazelton told the small audience in Heiner Theater that the inspiration for this book came from the suggestion of a friend in 2004, when she had recently finished writing “Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen.” This book is about Queen Jezebel, a queen from biblical times that is often associated with false prophets and promiscuity, among other things.
“The writer between books is sort of like an actor between plays–what do I do with myself?’” Hazleton asked and laughed along with her audience. While the topic of her discussion was serious, her personable delivery elicited frequent laughter.
She said she read several biographies of Muhammad after it was suggested to her that she write one herself, and recalled thinking that his story was one of a man who had radically changed the world and continues to do so, and “the available books about him… are boring. How could this possibly be?”
Hazleton said that she wanted to write a biography about the Islamic prophet in part because, while there are many existing biographies written by “academically brilliant people,” not many of them have spent much time in the Middle East, which she saw as a major disadvantage.
Hazleton worked as a journalist in Jerusalem for 12 years reporting on the Middle East for publications such as The New York Times and Time magazine, among others.“I had the privilege of having a strong sense of place; having a strong sense of Middle Eastern culture,” Hazleton said.
“Even as Islam is rapidly closing on Christianity as the world’s largest religion, we thus have little real sense of the man told three times in the Quran to call himself ‘the first Muslim,’” Hazleton read from her book, which was another reason for writing this biography.
Hazleton did extensive research on Muhammad’s life for both this book and her book “After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split.” In writing “The First Muslim,” Hazleton said that she turned to the earliest biographies of Muhammad’s life, written in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries.
“There I found everything that was missing in the modern biographies,” Hazleton said. “I found the juice; I found the stuff of what was really going on in wonderful detail.”
Hazleton said that these early accounts of his life were compiled by transcribing oral histories, which made for a “Byzantine” structure.
Essentially these biographies were written from oral tradition, jumping from story to story, a style which Hazleton said she believes drives most people crazy but that she adores. “If you can imagine ‘Pulp Fiction’ to the nth degree,” she said, you can imagine what reading these biographies was like.
Hazleton said she utilized the Middle Eastern collection in one of the research libraries at the University of Washington, “which sometimes I think I’m the only one who uses,” she said.
Hazleton lives on a houseboat in Seattle, which is where she did much of the research and writing for this book. “Books are heavy, [and] you can usually tell how deep I am into research by how low I am in the water,” she said with a laugh.
Hazleton said she chose the controversial title “The First Muslim” because in the Quran Muhammad is told to say “I am the first Muslim.” On the book’s website, Hazleton says, “while I acknowledge the Islamic tradition in which Abraham is considered the first Muslim, the Quran nonetheless refers to him as ‘the first hanif,’ or monotheist. I went with the source.”
During her talk, Hazleton said that she chose the title “knowing there would be some conservative Muslim opposition to it,” but that this title should act as “fair warning” that they may disagree with other things in the book.
The common portrayal of Muhammad in the Muslim world is purely devotional, Hazleton said, and this is clearly not a book written for devotional purposes.
“For many more traditional Muslims, this is a very very different portrayal [of Muhammad],” Hazleton said.
Hazleton said that she has been well-received at prior talks and events, especially by students. On prior visits to mosques, she said she had met those who “respectfully disagreed” with her and that this had sparked many enjoyable and interesting discussions.
In the biography are a number of controversial details. Hazleton gives a physical description of Muhammad, and reveals the fact that after his divine revelation, he contemplated suicide. These and other components of the book are somewhat taboo in traditional biographies and stories in Islam.
While her book is a biography, Hazleton said that some of it is purely speculative, such as her description of Muhammad’s experience on the mountaintop when he receives a message from the angel, Gabriel.
Hazleton said she tried to attach a human reaction and actualize Muhammad’s experiences in this way, and in her book wrote that “while the attempt to reconstruct mystical experience may well be absurd, one can at least be a fool for trying rather than a different kind of fool for not trying.”
Hazleton said that she would have loved to retrace Muhammad’s flee from Mecca to Medina by camel, but “the Saudis wouldn’t let me in because I haven’t said very nice things about them, in public or in print…. They’re one of those regimes that doesn’t take kindly to criticism.”
Hazleton blogs as “The Accidental Theologist,” in which she “casts an agnostic eye on religion politics, and existence, which I think is a pretty good reflection of me,” she said.
In her blog she discusses issues such as gun control, unmanned drone strikes in the Middle East, and prior experiences with Homeland Security, along with lighter topics like the flowers growing on the porch of her houseboat.
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