Review- The First Muslim, by Lesley Hazleton

firstmuslimhazleton

After I ran across Lesley Hazleton’s fascinating TEDx talk, “Seeing Muhammad – and Each Other – Whole”, I knew I needed to read her book, The First Muslim, a biography of Muhammad.  Hazleton, an agnostic Jew, writes from an agnostic yet thoroughly respectful and open-minded point of view.  From this unique perspective, she allows readers to experience Muhammad’s life story without assuming whether or not they are believers.  As she tells of miracles, visions, revelations, tough decisions, and tragedies, she explains both conservative Muslim points of view, as well as alternate interpretations.  She is committed to not passing judgement, and she always allows her readers to come to their own conclusions.

As a religious questioner, I felt I would benefit from learning about the history of another faith, and it was refreshing to dive into such a fascinating story without the pressure of having to determine its veracity.  Having never studied the life of Muhammad, I had no idea how exciting and dramatic his story would be!  Twice orphaned and raised by Bedouins in the desert, he rises from extreme disadvantage to a position of respect, normalcy, and material success.  But a normal life is not in Muhammad’s destiny.  Hazleton paints a picture of a man with whose life is completely and unexpectedly altered by the “blinding weight of of revelation”, and who then proceeds to change all of history.

Hazelton’s writing is engaging, accessible, and highly enjoyable to read.  She gives us a vibrant sense of the time and place that Muhammad inhabited, and she renders the prophet and his contemporaries as real human beings whom we can visualize and sympathize with.  I was filled with a sense of awe at the sacrifices and successes of believers, as well as compassion and empathy for the outsiders in the story.

What I did not expect was the number of striking parallels between Muhammad’s life and the history of my own religious heritage.  Many of the themes and events in early Muslim history resembled themes in early Mormon history.  I was impressed that early Muslims shared many sincere desires, questions, and motivations with early Latter-Day Saints.  Surprisingly, I felt I could relate somewhat to both groups.  As Hazleton sets the stage for the beginning of Muhammad’s prophetic mission, those with a Mormon background will recognize familiar themes of apostasy and restoration.

The time before Muhammad’s revelations are referred to as jahiliyya, or the time of pre-Islamic ignorance.  In those days, according to Islam, men had turned from the truths God had previously revealed through Abraham, Moses, and other prophets.  They had begun to practice all forms of hypocrisy, idolatry, and false religion.  In the holy city, Mecca, those in power used their religious positions to gain wealth and influence.  Their worship had become false, and they had begun to follow the “traditions of the fathers”, an idea that is repeated throughout the book (Hazleton, p. 109, 120, 125, 128, 145).  Even the holiest place, the Kaaba, God’s home on earth, had been defiled with idolatry.  Similarly, Mormonism claims that after the death of Christ, a general apostasy from truth occurred.  In both faiths, the truth could only be restored by direct revelation from God.

Muhammad’s first revelation comes to him as he meditates quietly in the desert. At a time of such hypocrisy and confusion, perhaps he intended his meditation to bring him closer to God.  But, what he got was entirely unexpected.  No quiet voice speaks to his soul- instead, in what must have been a terrifying blaze of glory, the angel Gabriel appears to him “with feet astride the horizon” to inform him that he, Muhammad, is the messenger of God.  The vision is so overwhelming that for a short time he doubts his own sanity.

To me, this first vision is remarkably similar to Joseph Smith’s first vision, with some notable differences.  Both men experienced an incredible vision with a similar purpose.  Hazleton makes a convincing argument that, similar to Smith, Muhammad truly believed that his revelation was real, and that it was from God.  She shows that, regardless of whether the angel Gabriel actually appeared to him, Muhammad sincerely believed it to be true.  His actions throughout his life demonstrate this.

Muhammad eventually learns that he has been called by God to restore his people to true worship and righteousness, but the importance of his first vision does not become clear immediately.  Although he discusses his revelation with family and loved ones, he does not publicly teach until the revelations begin to come again three years later.  Joseph Smith’s experience was similar.  After his first vision, years passed before he assumed his role as prophet.

When Muhammad finally begins to preach his revelations to the people of Mecca, he is not well received.  He denies many of their cherished religious tenets, and many Meccans take deep offense to this. They call Muhammad a madman, a deceiver, a demagogue, and worse.  At one point, a disbeliever pelts him with bloody sheep offal. Numerous attempts are made on his life, though he is spared each time through divine intervention.

Muhammad’s message does, however, resonate deeply with some Meccans.  The small group of believers sacrifices greatly for their faith and they face terrible persecution.  All of Mecca joins in a boycott of the believers, bringing them hunger and poverty.  Eventually, physical violence ensues between believers and unbelievers.

This, too is a familiar theme.  Both Muhammad and Smith faced persecution for claiming to have had a vision.  And, just like early members of the Mormon faith, the new religious converts are misunderstood and even hated.  The believers are finally driven from Mecca, their home, and out into the wilderness.  Against all odds, they join with the people of the small desert community of Medina.  There, they eventually form a prosperous society that grows in power and influence despite the most fierce opposition.  Persecution and exile increased the believers’ sense of identity, unity, and belief in their cause.  I am reminded of Smith’s early persecution experiences, and of the early Mormon pioneers striking out into the wilderness to form Zion in the American west.  A history of persecution and exile also forms a strong part of Mormon identity.

In style and substance, Muhammad’s revelations remind me of Smith’s revelatory experiences.  Many times, Muhammad or his followers had a dilemma, and after prayer and meditation, revelation would come to him in the form of the “Quranic voice”, as Hazleton puts it.  The revelations gave instruction, rebuke, forgiveness, and comfort.  They dispelled doubts and promised justice.  They also taught doctrine and administrative procedures.

For example, at a time in which Muhammad feared that God had stopped speaking to him, the Quranic voice breaks the silence with the “Sura of the Morning”:

“In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
By the day, full of light,
and the night when it falls peacefully,
your Lord has not forsaken you (O Prophet), nor is He displeased.
And surely the later period is better for you than the earlier period,
and soon your Lord shall give you so much that you shall be well pleased.
Did He not find you an orphan and then he sheltered you?
And He found you unaware of the Way, then He guided you,
and He found you poor, then He enriched you.
Therefore, do not be harsh to the orphan,
and do not scold the beggar,
and do proclaim the bounty of your lord.”
-Sura 93

I can almost imagine this Sura being part of the Mormon Doctrine and Covenants.  God’s revelation speaks directly to Muhammad, comforts him, declares his pleasure with his faithfulness, encourages him not to complain or fear for his present circumstances, makes promises of a better future, and reminds him to remain righteous.  This instantly reminded me of numerous LDS scriptures, such as D&C 121:7-11.   It seems that in times of trial, both Smith and Muhammad needed revelations of encouragement.

Hazelton describes the revelation process as exhausting and overwhelming (p. 88, 102).  When Sidney Rigdon experienced a revelation similar to Joseph Smith’s, he ended up “limp and pale, apparently as limber as a rag”.  Smith tells his believers that “Sidney is not as used to it as I am” (see lds.org for source).  Perhaps Muhammad’s experience was similar.

Many other major similarities fill both histories.  Muhammad’s mission to restore previous truths also featured the cleansing and restoration of the Kaaba, a strong desire to convert the Jews, and a commission from God to “arise and warn” (p. 111).  Muhammad revealed rules about polygamy and marriage, with special exceptions for himself (p. 251-256).  The early Muslim histories include miraculous conversions, escapes, and victories in battle, cautionary tales against disobedience, and fulfilled prophesy.  The Quran, to Muslims, completes and corrects the Bible, which has been corrupted (p. 59-60), and the revelations are given “in a clear Arabic tongue” (p. 114), to address God’s people in their own language.  Each of these points has a direct parallel in Mormonism.

Of course, there are as many points of divergence as there are parallels.  While Smith witnessed God in person during his first vision, Muhammad never saw God himself.  In Islam, Muhammad was the sole receiver of revelation, while in Mormonism, revelation is widespread and continuous.  Islam and Mormonism (and all of Christianity, for that matter) have enormous theological differences.  Still, to me, the parallels are quite notable.

What can we make of all of these parallels?  There are numerous possibilities for interpretation.  It may be that similar conditions led both men and both groups of believers to have similar experiences.  Perhaps one prophet is true and the other is false.  Or, perhaps God spoke to both Smith and Muhammad, but we simply don’t understand the nature of revelation as well as we think we do.  Could it be that revelation is imperfectly communicated through human minds?  Maybe both men communicated some truth, mixed with their own interpretations.  Maybe these parallels aren’t actually significant, and in listing them, I have succumbed to my own biases.  There are limitless ways to view this information.  I leave that judgement to you, the reader.

I do have a few issues with Hazleton’s otherwise excellent volume.  She does not provide any footnotes in the text, and this sometimes made it very difficult to tell what her sources were.  Being unfamiliar with Muslim history, and because she uses direct quotes from primary sources only sparingly, I occasionally found myself wondering if some of what I read was speculative.  This is especially noticeable in the first two chapters, when she explains certain characters’ feelings, mental states, or clothing.  Only when I finished the book did I find the brief “Notes” section, hidden away in the back.  The format she uses made it difficult to refer to the notes as I read.

While Hazleton’s agnostic point of view is useful and accessible, it would also be very interesting to read a conservative Muslim biography of the prophet.  Such a work would surely argue forcefully for the veracity of Muhammad’s divine mission.  What miraculous stories did Hazleton leave out?  Because of her mild skepticism, she surely omitted some stories that believers consider to be strong evidence of the truth.  It also seems likely that some of her interpretations of events would rankle conservative believers, but I can’t always be sure which events are considered controversial.  Reading a conservative, believing biography as well would give a fuller understanding of how Muslims today view their prophet and their history.  However, such a biography may leave out difficult or challenging information, so it’s wise to read both.

Also, I can’t fail to mention Muhammad’s treatment of the Jews in Medina.  I had never previously learned of these events, and I was shocked and appalled.  Although Muhammad is consistently portrayed sympathetically, Hazleton does not pull punches when describing what took place there.  She explains historical information as well as apologetic explanations, and true to form, lets readers pass their own judgement.

I came away from reading The First Muslim feeling that Muhammad, while flawed, was a largely sincere man, and in most cases must have truly believed he was doing God’s will.  He accomplished incredible feats, and his life story was amazing.  I feel that learning some history of another faith through an agnostic lens has greatly broadened my understanding, increased my empathy for those of any religion, and given me a new perspective on my own religious heritage.  Overall, The First Muslim was a pleasure to read, and I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs.

As a parting thought, I have to ask myself- how many times has this happened?  How many times has a human being seen what appears to be hypocrisy and corruption in their world, and through visionary experiences, transformed that world?  Certainly, it has happened more than once.  The message that Muhammad shared, like the message Smith shared, resonates with millions, and it is worth our time to try to understand it.

More Information

Hazleton’s TedX Talk
Seeing Muhammad – And Each Other – Whole: Lesley Hazleton at TEDxRainier

Muhammad’s First Revelation
Wikipedia- Muhammad’s First Revelation
IslamReligion.com- The First Revelations

Joseph Smith’s First Vision
Lds.org- The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith
Lds.org- The First Vision: A Narrative from Joseph Smith’s Accounts

Commentary on the Sura of the Morning
Wikipedia- Ad-Dhuha
Al-Islam.org- Surah Duha, Chapter 93

Jahiliyya
Wikipedia- Jahiliyyah
IslamQA.info- Use of the Word “Jahiliyyah” (Period of Ignorance)

Apostasy and Restoration
Lds.org- The Apostasy and the Restoration of the Gospel
Lds.org- Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration”

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