The First Muslim, the Story of Muhammad by Lesley Hazleton <>Review by Tamam Kahn
There is much that is wonderful about this book! I opened the manila envelope, slid the book out, opened it and began reading. Two hours later I was calling to my husband across the room, saying, “Listen to this…”
This is what it meant to be an orphan: the ordinary childhood freedom of being with out a care would never be his… At age six, he (Muhammad) was now doubly orphaned, his sole inheritance a radical insecurity as to his place in the world.
Accurate instinct on the basics. In all the years that I studied Muhammad’s life, I never gave much thought to Muhammad as an orphan. This fact is often mentioned by historians, but none make us feel the alien landscape in which the boy finds himself in the way this telling does. A certain wariness crept into the corners of his eyes and his smile became tentative and cautious; even decades later, hailed as the hero of his people, he’s rarely be seen to laugh.
Then Lesley Hazleton takes the reader deeper. At age five, he is returned to his estranged blood mother Amina; abruptly, a child between two worlds. In that same year, after the two of them visit relatives in Medina, several days journey North, she dies on the return trip. …now doubly orphaned.
The author describes life with the Beduin, something she herself knows, having lived in the Middle East ––including the desert there, for several years. This part is earlier in the book –– Hazleton brings us into the early years with a Beduin wet-nurse, living over the mountains from Mecca, with a life that was calculated for survival and building strength and endurance in a child.
His Beduin childhood would play a major role in making him who he was… Once weaned, he’d eat the regular Beduin fare of camel milk along with grains and pulses grown in winter pastures –– a sparse diet for a sparse way of life… there were no luxuries, not even the sweetness of honey and dates… The high desert steppe was an early education in the power of nature and the art of living with it: how to gauge the right time to move… how to find water where there seemed to be none...
We join Muhammad on his first job. He helps his uncle with a long caravan trip to Damascus, just a child, really, but with the wisdom of one comfortable with the desert and the animals. …the young Muhammad walked alongside, and once they’d unloaded the camels, fed them, and hobbled them… collected the oblong pellets of camel feces, so dry and densely fibrous that they gave off no odor… and coax(ed) them into a slow burn for cooking fires, or… watch(ed) through the night against predators like wolves, hyenas, and mountain lions. He learned everything about the journey, then later the business of trade, and soon was taking the caravans himself.
Chapter seven finds Muhammad, married man, father, and respected citizen of Mecca at the pivotal point in his life. He is on a solitary retreat on Mount Hira when Angel Gabriel squeezes him and commands him to recite: Imagine being breathed into – inspired – with such force that your body can hardly bear it. No gentle breath from heaven here, but air being impelled into your lungs with immense force, as though a giant were giving you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
That encounter changes everything, especially politics, long-time alliances of protection, and the respect of the City Fathers of Mecca – the tide turns against him. Throughout Mecca, group loyalty was already being stretched to the breaking point as dissent over Muhammad’s message began to split families apart. And this: Muhammad was no longer merely mad or possessed, his opponents argued. He was far more dangerous than that. By trying to turn Mecca away from “the ways of the fathers” he was trying to undermine and overthrow the whole society.
Hazleton manages to give logical steps of the complex picture, so that we the reader, understands society in the 7th century in a fresh contemporary way. This paves the way for Part 2: EXILE.
The author is at her best when exploring a challenge like “the Night Journey.” It was controversial. Historian, Ibn-Ishaq, would “… omit the episode in his multi-volume history.” One of his followers “…begged him to keep quiet about it.” What about this mystical experience? Hazelton tells us:
…here is where it can be said that Muhammad fully assumes what the Hebrew Bible calls, “the mantle of prophecy…. This is where Muhammad first understands himself not merely as a messenger but as a leader.
I appreciated how careful Hazleton is about choosing respected source material, yet I found myself disappointed that the strict referencing did not include the wife, Umm Salama’s, contribution to the victory at Hudaibiya, something I took from historian Martin Lings, who is reliable, but was not specific enough about sources for me to cite his primary reference to that event. I missed hearing her tell of the moment when Muhammad asks his wife what to do after his men won’t listen to him!
The author takes us into the exhaustion of the final year. Words like: The public demands on Muhammad increased by the day… give us the warning of the difficult time when he must hold up under immense pressure, this man in his sixties – old for that time and place. We are told earlier the physical toll from bringing in Revelation. The pain was an essential part of it, part of the birthing process, for this is what he was doing: verse by verse he was giving birth to the Qur’an.
Now he gets very ill. Here is a logical diagnosis. 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.
We are ready to see this man finally put to rest, buried in the dead of night. Buried where he had died, in the room belonging to his wife Aisha. As he entered his grave, he was simply a man again, free of the intense public scrutiny that had hemmed him in.
This humanizing of the man, Muhammad, is the thread running through the book. Often, in the media, what is written about Muhammad or the word “Muslim” is overlaid with dramatic and political innuendos to support a variety of loud viewpoints.
Here, it’s like she begins by talking to us in a quiet tone on that noisy street. Come inside where it is calm, and listen to Lesley Hazleton tell about a man who became The First Muslim. It’s a good story.