by Lesley Hazleton

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Review

An intriguing TED talk by the author, Lesley Hazleton, led me to The First Muslim. Hazleton talked about how strange people found it that she, an agnostic Jew, was writing a biography of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. Her doubt about the existence of G-d, however, helped her identify with Muhammad’s initial doubt that the revelations he received were from G-d, she said. His doubt made her trust him in some way. It made her want to learn more about his life and experiences, she said, and it helped her keep an open mind that the messages he received might be from G-d.

That context for this book helped me identify and appreciate the uniqueness of her writing style for  his biography. Hazleton relies primarily on the earliest written accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s life, which she believes to be most reliable, but these are often not definitive about what was and wasn’t true in his life. So, much of this book is informed conjecture. Normally this would be problematic for me, because I wouldn’t know what to trust about the writer’s theories. Instead, it worked for me overall. Hazleton is clear on what’s conjecture in her narrative and why she thinks what she does.

In some cases, she gives us several possible ways events could have played out, or the possible reasoning behind people’s decisions. This honest uncertainty gave the book a kind of transparency that allowed me to trust her, for the most part. There are a few awful events towards the end of the book that made me as a Muslim uncomfortable, when her take on events differed significantly from what I had previously learned about them. In these cases, I really wish she had cited her sources more thoroughly so I could evaluate them myself. Other readers might prefer that throughout the book as well.

An added bonus of Hazleton’s background is that her knowledge and understandings as a Jew enabled her to make interesting, informed connections between earlier Middle Eastern Jewish history and culture and the Meccan and Bedouin Arabian religious, social, and geographic contexts in which Prophet Muhammad lived.

Overall, I highly recommend the book. It’s an interesting biography of an important and highly contested figure that seeks to understand him in his own context. She also balances well understanding the spiritual aspects of his experiences with explaining and evaluating the political and social realities that Prophet Muhammad faced and eventually challenged.

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