The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad
By Lesley Hazleton
(Riverhead Books, 320 pages, $27.95)
Egypt’s violence should be seen as the latest chapter in a titanic struggle between Muslims who want to live in the 21st century and a much smaller group who want to return to what they believe was the ideal world of the 7th Century, the world of the Prophet Muhammad.
That world, they think, was a perfect one in which all lived according to the Koran and the hadith, the writings and sayings attributed to Muhammad. If you have not yet explored the beginnings of Islam and its founder a good book to begin (but not end) with is Lesley Hazleton’s The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad. A British historian, Ms. Hazleton is both a good storyteller and writer. Here she has brought to life a man about whom much has been written and whom millions revere, yet about whose actual life very little is known.
Relying heavily on the first biography of Muhammad, by Ibn Ishaq in 787 — 154 years after Muhammad’s death, Ms. Hazleton gives us a man with real feelings and life, based upon the accepted information about him that was passed down by oral tradition.
He was born c. 570 and died c. 632. His father died before his birth; his mother about five year later. In the interim, he was cared for by his Bedouin wet nurse and her family. Called back from the desert to Mecca by his mother, he went under the protection of his uncle Abu Talib after his mother’s death. As a young man, he became a caravan organizer and was good at it. He married Khadija, a wealthy widow older than he and thereby gained social stature. He was a member of a tribe of Mecca’s ruling clan, the Qurayshi, but many in it considered him to be of lower status.
Muhammad took to going up Mount Hira, outside the city, for night time contemplation. One night, when he was about 40, he was visited by the angel Gabriel who announced that Muhammad had been chosen to receive and spread the true word of God. At the time, Meccans worshipped pagan idols, all represented by statues around the Kaaba, then — as now — the center of life in Mecca.
According to Ms. Hazleton, it took time for Muhammad to absorb the profundity of the revelation. It emphasized, above all, the importance of worshipping the one, true god.
He began to preach to small groups in Mecca, mostly young people. He emphasized that “God is One” and that the individual must surrender to him. Some elders were alarmed by this and even instituted a boycott against Muhammad’s tribe. It didn’t last for long, but ultimately he felt sufficiently unwelcome in Mecca that he led his followers to Medina in 622. Once there, he spread the word further until he had united the nearby tribes. They fought intermittently with the Meccans, finally winning and taking control of the city in 630. He destroyed the pagan idols there and his followers did the same throughout Arabia.
By the time he died, c. 632, most of the Arabian Peninsula had converted to Muhammad’s new religion, Islam, and for the first time was united.
The revelations received by Muhammad over several years were remembered by his followers. repeated many times and later copied down by them to became the Quran, the basic document of Islam.
As the author points out, with Muhammad the Arabs finally had their own prophet. The Christians had Jesus, the far off Indians their various gods, and the Buddhists, Buddha. With their new-found unity, the Arabian Muslims who followed Muhammad formed armies to go forward to conquer the lands along the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and, later, most of the Iberian Peninsula. Islam was thus, not only a “religion of peace,” but when it was desirable, also a religion of conquest.
Ms. Hazleton has given us a very readable book, although the feelings and personal responses she attributes to Muhammad are conjectural. What cannot be denied is that his persistence led to the formation of a huge worldwide religion which today is undergoing great stresses between those who want peace and to be left alone and those who want violent struggle in order to remake the world back into a replica of what they believe were the perfect days of Muhammad. The struggle for the soul of Islam is the main event; the jihad against the West in general and the United States in particular is because we stand in the way.