New Book Challenges Myths Of 'The First Muslim'

The Prophet Muhammad is the central figure in Islam, and thousands of stories have been told about him. Writer Lesley Hazleton decided to dig deeper and get a sense of who he was as a real person. She speaks with host Michel Martin about her biography 'The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. It's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality.

And today, we want to take a look at the life of a seminal figure, the Prophet Muhammad. He is the central figure in what has become one of the most influential and fastest growing religions in the world, Islam. The Quran, the Muslim holy book, describes him as the first Muslim, a messenger, and notably a real person. Beyond that, there are thousands of stories, observations and accounts written about him.

But for writer Lesley Hazleton, she felt that no matter what she read, she couldn't get a sense of the real man. So she decided to take on that task herself. And as a measure of the interest in this project, her TED talk on the topic has already attracted more than half-a-million views.

Now, Lesley Hazleton has finished her book, and she joins us now to talk about it. It's called "The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad." Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

LESLEY HAZLETON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I think that many people will want to know right at the outset: Are you a Muslim? No, you are not. Are you a believer? You describe yourself as an agnostic Jew. So why were you...

HAZLETON: Firmly agnostic.

MARTIN: Firmly agnostic. So why were you attracted to this project?

HAZLETON: Essentially, it grew out of my previous book, which is "After the Prophet," which was about the epic story of the Shia-Sunni split, which began, essentially, at the moment of Muhammad's death. And I'd read several biographies of him as background research for that, and ended up in this state that you described of kind of frustration. Like, the more I read and the more I seemed to know about him, the less I seemed to have any real grasp of the man himself. He became kind of two-dimensional, and I really wanted all the dimensions. And I wasn't getting this from the existing biographies.

MARTIN: You focus on his childhood in and outside of Mecca - which is, of course, in modern day Saudi Arabia. You know, you write about the atmosphere there at the time, and you say that, you know, a lot of people think of pre-Islamic, sixth-century Mecca as kind of a backwards place. But you say it was actually a thriving center. Could you talk a little bit about that?

HAZLETON: Mm-hmm. Mecca had two sources of income. One was - from faith, because Mecca, even before Muhammad, was a pilgrimage center. But it was also a center on the trade route between Yemen and Damascus and the rest of the Byzantine Empire. And it had become a kind of sixth century Arabian equivalent of a Wall Street bull market, with all the greed and all the corruption we now know goes with that.

And Muhammad was particularly alive to this, because he was born, in a sense, a kind of outsider within his own tribe. He was born an orphan - that is, his father died before he was born. In fact, his father died without even knowing that he'd sired a son, and Muhammad was farmed out to Bedouin foster parents for the first five years of his life. So he comes back from the desert, from living with the Bedouin where, basically, the tribe is only as strong as the weakest of its members. There was no private property, and so on.

And he comes back to this Wall Street atmosphere in Mecca, and he's looking at it with these outside eyes. And these outside eyes were always very, very interesting. When you're inside, you take the status quo for granted. This is the way things are and, of course, you benefit from them. When you're outside, you see them clearly - sometimes too clearly. And this is what Muhammad saw. He could see these were supposed to be his own people, and yet he was totally marginalized within them. And I think that was the beginning of his ability to see what was happening socially, culturally, economically and in matters of faith in a way that prepared him for his future role as Prophet.

MARTIN: It's a very dramatic and poignant story when you talk about - how did he eventually make his mark, having been born into such inauspicious circumstances? How did he later make his mark?

HAZLETON: I think probably the hugest difference was made when he married Khadija, his first wife. And this - I know this will come as a surprise to many people who think of Muhammad as this lecherous polygamist and so on, you know, one of the many stereotypes about him. This was a loving, monogamous relationship that lasted 24 years, until her death. And it was she who was the first to hear the words of the Quran from his mouth. It was she who reassured him that he was indeed to be the Prophet of his people. And without her, I'm not sure he would have survived the impact, the terror and the awe of that first revelation up on the mountain outside Mecca.

MARTIN: Well, while you're on the topic, are there some other what you see as misconceptions about the Prophet Muhammad that you would like to dispel?

HAZLETON: Well, the other obvious one is the sword-wielding, militant fighter and so on. In fact, for the first 12 years of his prophet-hood, as it were, Muhammad displayed a downright Gandhi-ian stance of nonviolent resistance. What he was preaching, the message that he brought from the Quran was subversive, in fact, radical. He was speaking for the 99 percent, and it was a radical and outraged protest against social injustice, against the arrogance of wealth, against the preference for sons over daughters and the marginalization of women. And it was an impassioned engagement with the idea of unity, both human and divine.

And this was very, very threatening to the powers that be, so much so that they made the classic mistake of all powers that be. They openly harassed him, openly tried to shut him up, basically, which culminated in a concerted attempt on his life. And the more they opposed him, the more word of his message spread and the more people wanted to hear him, because they realized that he was speaking up for them against the wealthy, against the oligarchy, against the 1 percent. So, in a way, if he hadn't been opposed so vehemently and, in fact, violently, his message might not even have been heard at all.

And then he was basically exiled from Mecca. It's called, in Arabic, the Hegira, the emigration, but, in fact, it was exile. He was forced out of Mecca to Medina, which is about 200 miles north of Mecca. There, he founded this extraordinarily idealistic new community along communal lines, communitarian lines, which was downright inspiring. But also, as the leader of a new community, he was now not only a spiritual leader, but also a political leader.

Then there were demands that he sign defense pacts and so on, and thus the demand to take up arms, which was clearly very, very ambivalent for him, this kind of dialectic between non-violence and violence, and you can see him struggling with it. You can see the Quran struggling with it, too. For instance, when his followers come to him and ask him, OK. When we go into Mecca, when we take Mecca - which was a kind of negotiated surrender - if they fight against us, what do we do? I mean, this is a holy city. We're not meant to fight on holy ground.

So it was permission to fight, but only if - and then it's surrounded by conditional clauses - only if they attacked you first, and only if they try to stop you getting to the shrine of the Kaaba, and so on. And, after all those, always, every time comes, but God is merciful. Forgiveness is sublime. Therefore, essentially, better if you don't. And this, of course, is what we don't know, because both the Islamaphobes and the militant Islamists basically use the same version of the Quran. It's what I call the highlighter version. They go over it with their yellow highlighter pens, and they take phrases totally out of context, and therefore, you get all this sword-wielding imagery and so on, without all the clauses that say, but only if - and, in fact, don't.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Lesley Hazleton. She's the author of the new book, "The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad." What was his defining idea, would you say?

HAZLETON: It's true that there were many, many preachers. It's the Middle East. There's always preachers in the Middle East preaching that they're the ones who've heard the word of God. What defined Muhammad and what stood him apart was - it was an extraordinary combination of the man, the time and the place. Mecca, being what it was at the time, being enthralled to this ideology of profit and greed and the arrogance that comes with that and the corruption that comes with that - his radical protest against that.

Many of his early followers were very similar to the early followers of Jesus, by the way. They were women. They were freed slaves. They were second and third and fourth sons and so on who had no chance of inheritance. They were the people who were sort of cut out of the mainstream of the elite by virtue of birth, and these were his earliest followers.

And, you know, the elite, at first, tried to put him down as - you know, just look at the people who are following him, a bunch of nobodies. You know, and you can hear the snobbishness there. But, in fact, this bunch of nobodies together - and this was, of course, the basic idea. It was unity, both human and divine.

MARTIN: What do you think contributed to Muhammad's becoming the leader, in essence, or the central figure in one of the most significant worldwide religions of today? How do you think that happened? I know, obviously, it's a very long story, which is why there have been, you know, many, many sort of books and stuff written about it. But with your understanding of him as a person, why do you think that happened? Why him?

HAZLETON: Well, first of all, I think this extraordinary ability of his to see clearly what was happening in his own society, his sensitivity - because of those first years with the Bedouin - to injustice - to social injustice. But, also, he had the most extraordinary ability to turn disadvantage into advantage. You would have thought - I mean, just first of all, the disadvantage of his birth and so on and that very, very difficult childhood, the disadvantage, clearly, of being exiled from Mecca and how he turned that around by building a whole new community in Medina.

It was an amazing ability to rebound and also I think he earned such a lot of respect by that stance for so long of passive resistance, of non-violent resistance to violence against him. He gained immense moral stature, but even more than all those, I think, was his initial response to the first revelation of the Quran, which was not - you know, he didn't come running down and shouting, hallelujah, bless the Lord, I've seen the light and so on. He ran down trembling with fear, just overwhelmed with the idea that this couldn't have been real. This couldn't have happened to him. He was just an ordinary man. How could he suddenly be the prophet of his people, and so on?

And this humility, this doubt, this fear, this hesitation, to me, is so human and so real and something he had to struggle with all his life and I think that gave what he was preaching even more force, that it was so unusual coming from a man like this who was known to be terse, who was known to be modest, who was known not to put himself forward.

MARTIN: You know, there are many ironies attached to many of the world's great religions. I mean, the fact that Jesus was a fundamentally modest figure of humble beginnings, according to our understanding of him and yet he is associated with some of the most kind of powerful, rich, luxurious institutions and that is a continuing sort of struggle within that religion.

But, returning to the subject of violence, I mean, you recount in great detail in the book how much Muhammad loathed violence, how much he loved justice, how much he cared for the most vulnerable, how much he understood what it was to be vulnerable.

How is it, then, that this religion has become - at least, in the minds of so many - so associated with violence?

HAZLETON: Well, first, I think the majority of the community of believers do not think of it at all in that way. They think of it very much as a religion of peace, but the violence, of course, is what gains the attention. It's what makes the headlines. As always, flames lead. Right?

And what we have here, I think, is the seemingly enduring human ability to mess things up. After the founder dies or after the seminal figures dies, then you start to get institutionalization. Then it becomes a religion, rather than a movement, and while Muhammad was alive, Islam was not a religion as we now think of religion. It was very much a movement and it was Islam with a lower case I, not an upper case I. That only happened later.

But, once it gets institutionalized, then it becomes a matter of power and power politics and, of course, money gets involved and so on. And then you get people laying down dogma and the moment that, you know, people say, it was absolutely this way and not this way. And this, in fact, is why I've written the book the way I have. I'm continually questioning. I'm not claiming here to be an absolute authority. Far too many people have done that already and keep on doing that.

What I'm asking people to do is think. You know, was this what was going on? Was this what he was thinking? Was this what impelled him? Let's explore Muhammad's life. Let's explore, basically, the mind of Muhammad and see if we can get closer to a true empathy, to understanding the way he thought, understanding what he was trying to do.

Muhammad is one of the most influential figures who ever lived. He carved this huge profile in history. He radically changed his own world and he's still changing ours and we really need to understand who he really was, not who we would like him to be or not who we fear him to be, but the man himself in full.

MARTIN: Lesley Hazleton is the author of the new book, "The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad." She was kind enough to join us from member station KUOW in Seattle, Washington.

Lesley Hazleton, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HAZLETON: Thank you, Michel.

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