The life of Muhammad

Print edition : June 13, 2014

Muslims performing the early morning Id prayer at the grand mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. A file picture. Photo: AFP

A lucid narrative with remarkable psychological insights that enhance the understanding of the Prophet Muhammad and early Islam.

THE West (if we can still use such a generic term for the occidental world) has always been fascinated by the life of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. The initial interest in his life stemmed from an urge to understand the rapidly expanding realm of Islam during the Middle Ages, and this prejudiced exercise, which was informed by the Crusades and an insecure Christianity, often cast him as a pagan God.

For example, Dante Alighieri, the Italian litterateur, places Muhammad in the Eighth Circle of Hell in his magisterial poem The Divine Comedy, which he wrote in the early 14th century. Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel The Satanic Verses has only been a modern-day legatee of this tradition. It is also relevant here to bring in the work of Edward Said, who used the term “Orientalism” to describe the historical trend of constructing the Muslim as the perpetual “other” ( Orientalism, 1978). The construction of the image of the Prophet as the antithesis of the Christian prophetic tradition was also part of this depiction of the Orient as the “other”.

Less hostile biographies of the Prophet and more empathetic discussions of Islam began to appear only in the 18th century in Europe along with early attempts at translating the Quran. These efforts were still clouded by a lack of objectivity. Commenting about the Western efforts to understand Islam and Muhammad, Karen Armstrong, in her biography of Muhammad ( Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, 1991), writes: “Part of the Western problem is that for centuries Muhammad has been seen as the antithesis of the religious spirit and as the enemy of the decent civilisation. Instead, perhaps, we should try to see him as a man of the spirit, who managed to bring peace and civilisation to his people.”

There have been other Western scholars such as Montgomery Watt ( Muhammad at Mecca, 1953, and Muhammad at Medina, 1956) and Annemarie Schimmel ( And Muhammad is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety, 1985) who are well-respected for their understanding of Muhammad and the early history of Islam.

Rise of Islam

Western scholars such as Maxime Rodinson ( Mohammed, 1961), who was influenced by Marxist ideas, located the rise of Islam in the changes in the forces of production in Arabia in the sixth and seventh centuries and also recognised that an incipient Arab identity propelled the growth of the new religion. Marshall G. Hodgson, another well-known historian of Islam, locates the rise of Islam in the linkages established by the market economy in the known world at the time and the centrality of Mecca to this ( The Venture of Islam, 1974).

Scholars such as Patricia Crone disagree with the focus on trade and attribute the emergence of Muhammad as the Prophet to his political role ( Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, 1987), whereas F.E. Peters and other scholars demonstrate the availability of extensive primary material on the life of Muhammad when compared with those on the life of Jesus ( Muhammad and the Origins of Islam, 1994).

Jonathan P. Berkey, whose book was well received, locates Islam and the Prophet as part of a larger monotheistic trend in the lands of the Near East ( The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 2003). On the other hand, the Islamic world has been producing hagiographies over the centuries, which have predictably dehumanised Muhammad. These works have placed him on a pedestal that precludes any deep understanding of the man behind the blinding aura of prophethood. Lacking the skills of social scientists, these writers, while well-versed in Islamic history, present a single-dimensional image of the Prophet. While works by Muhammad ibn Ishaq (died circa A.D. 761) and Muhammad ibn Jarir al Tabari (died A.D. 923) comprise the primary source for almost all material on the life of the Prophet, modern Islamic scholars have failed to contextualise these works while drawing information from them. The modern scholars are clearly guided by a religious motive, and Muhammad becomes more of a symbol than a human being in their works.

This extensive introduction was necessary before discussing the book under review. Lesley Hazleton’s biography of the Prophet follows this long tradition of scholarly works that have attempted to chronicle the life of Muhammad. With Islam having more than 1.5 billion adherents across the world, it would be a considerable understatement to say that Muhammad has had a deep impact on world history.

A psychologist by training and a professional journalist reporting from Jerusalem for publications such as Time and The New York Times, Lesley Hazleton has written several books on the early history of the Semitic religions. The First Muslim is, in a way, a prequel to her previous book After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split. So The First Muslim ends at the point where her previous book on the Shia-Sunni split begins. The author has been careful to constantly refer to the primary sources in The First Muslim as it deals with the life of Muhammad, while in her book on the Shia-Sunni split she has only provided the references as endnotes.

Lesley Hazleton is a good writer and has a felicity with words. Being a journalist works to her advantage as she is not burdened by the constant requirement of being academically sound and rigorous. She brings an easy flow to the narrative. She also uses her training as a psychologist when she analyses the emotional reasons behind many of her characters’ actions.

She blogs at The Accidental Theologist and describes herself as an agnostic who is “fascinated by the vast and often terrifying arena in which politics and religion intersect”. In one of her talks, Lesley Hazleton said she was struck by something: “The night the Prophet received the revelation of the Quran, according to early accounts, his first reaction was doubt, awe, even fear. And yet this experience became the bedrock of his belief.” Citing this instance, she calls for a new appreciation of doubt and questioning as the foundation of faith—and an end to fundamentalism of all kinds. In writing the biography, Lesley Hazleton is motivated by the great British philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood, who had maintained in The Idea of History: “…that to write well about a historical figure, you need both empathy and imagination”. Lesley Hazleton interprets this pithy statement thus:

“By this he did not mean spinning tales out of thin air, but taking what is known and examining it in the full context of time and place, following the strands of the story until they begin to intertwine and establish a thick braid of reality. If we want to understand the dynamics of what can only be described, with considerable understatement, as a remarkable life—one that would radically change the world, and is still shaping ours—we must allow Muhammad the integrity of reality, and see him whole.”

Sympathetic account

This is the scholarly and empathetic spirit that guides Lesley Hazleton in the writing of the biography. She is keen to explore the context of Muhammad’s life and his interactions with society as a whole. Her account is mostly sympathetic, and she tries to understand Muhammad’s life for what it was. She tries to understand why Muhammad was chosen as the Prophet and provides a psychological impetus to many of her interpretations. She takes a few liberties in this process as she tries to rationalise certain miraculous events but does not malign the Prophet. She is simply interested in understanding the person of Muhammad and his emergence as the Prophet and the founder of Islam in the context of sixth and seventh century Arabia.

Lesley Hazleton divides her biography into three parts: Orphan, Exile and Leader. This division is emblematic of the three important stages that Muhammad’s life went through.

According to her, the orphanhood of Muhammad bears the psychological weight that often determines history. It was his status as an orphan and his being part of the Quraysh tribe that defined his character for the rest of his life.

Muhammad was a close observer of the problems in his society, including inequality. He started accompanying trade caravans and he learnt about tribal politics and also met Christians and Jews.

His meeting with Khadija, a wealthy widow who was aged 40 while he was only 25, and his marriage to her, brought stability to his life and gave him his four daughters. He spent a lot of time meditating during this period and also began to be recognised as a fair man.

Lesley Hazleton tries to understand the process of revelation with the help of neuropsychiatry and examining the idea of “altered states of consciousness”.

Migration to Medina

As more verses were “revealed” to Muhammad, the new religion began to find a few adherents as it envisaged a radical re-envisioning of society. His message spread all over Arabia even though it angered many of the Meccans. Muhammad and his small group of followers faced a lot of harassment for their faith. During this tumultuous phase, Khadija died, and thus Muhammad lost his strongest supporter. A miraculous event took place when Muhammad made a night journey to Jerusalem to meet Abraham.

Lesley Hazleton tries to rationalise this journey in the context of “dream incubation”. Some time after this experience, he migrated to Medina in A.D. 622 and his followers joined him eventually.

While Mecca was the birthplace of Islam, Medina would be its cradle. It is here that Muhammad polished his skills of leadership and negotiation. It was here also that he realised that there were certain conditions under which fighting was allowed as per the revelations of the Quran. It was around this time that the Battle of Badr was fought against the Meccans, and this was the first great victory for Islam. Muhammad’s status as a religious and political leader was getting strengthened during this period.

He also married nine other women (all of them, except Aisha, were either widows or divorcees) over the course of the next few years, cementing his ties with the other clans. Eventually, Muhammad conquered the Meccans and made a triumphant return to the city.

Lesley Hazleton compares Muhammad’s tired state at this point to that of Vaclav Havel when he became the president of Czechoslovakia after the collapse of the Communist regime. Muhammad had become extremely powerful and could have become the King of Hejaz if he had wanted to but he was also getting old. Muhammad died at the age of 63 without anointing a successor, which eventually led to the Shia-Sunni split.

Lesley Hazleton’s narrative incorporates the well-known facts about Muhammad’s life. But her work is remarkable because the psychological insights she offers the reader enrich the understanding of the Prophet and early Islam.

Written in clear and simple prose, the book will appeal to anyone who is interested in understanding the life of Muhammad.