“The First Muslim” by Leslie Hazleton
Riverhead Books (2013)
Almost from the start, there was no question he was going to turn out to be someone special.
As an 8 year old camel-minder on a caravan that carried dried fruits and goods from Mecca to Damascus, he was first recognized for who he really was by a reclusive Christian monk named Bahira who lived in an abandoned fortress somewhere on the route. Bahira had never before paid any attention to passing camel trains but when Mohammad’s caravan passed by, something made him invite the travelers in to rest and refresh themselves.
Being just a lowly camel-minder, the boy was left with the caravan to look after the camels and see that they were fed. The moment his guests entered, Bahira noticed that someone important was missing. He questioned the merchant, Abu-Talib, (who also happened to be the boy’s uncle) and Abu-Talib replied that, yes, there was that camel boy outside.
Bahira insisted that the boy be brought in and had him stand still while the Christian sage examined his torso. He was searching for some evidence of what had been foretold in a tome he had read earlier – a third nipple, a birthmark, of which there were varying accounts by historians of those times.
Whatever it was, the old sage found it. He turned to the boy’s uncle and said to him,” A great future lies before this nephew of yours.”
It would be three decades since that R&R stop that the boy – now a grown man – would find himself at the entrance of a cave named Hira on the side of a 1800ft tall mountain west of Mecca. It was a place that he visited often and had come to see as a refuge where he could find solitude and have the time for quiet introspection.
It would be on that mountainside that on a chilly spring night in 610AD he would first come face to face with the Archangel Gabriel, who would reveal to him the beginnings of what would come to be known as the Holy Quran.
The movement this man – whom we know as Hazrat Muhammad – founded would gradually over time be misrepresented, misinterpreted, fought over, splintered and twisted beyond recognition. In its name, one of it’s many bastard children would exhort it’s men one September morning in 2001, to lay waste to an iconic landmark in the world’s richest and most modern city.
What was the man who began all this really like? How did he spend his childhood? How did he relate to others in the Qurayshi clan that dominated Meccan society of which his great grandfather, Qusay, was the founder and his grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, the head when he was born? His love life – did he marry for love or for other societal reasons that governed life in 7th century Mecca? Who were his uncles, aunts and cousins and what did they believe in? Did he have a sense of humor, play pranks, laugh as a child or was growing up for him a grim battle for survival?
You’ll find the answers in The First Muslim, by British-American author, Leslie Hazleton.
When Lesley Hazleton was writing The First Muslim, she says she was struck by the irony that the night he received the first of many revelations from Archangel Gabriel, Mohammad was overcome by doubt, awe, fear. And yet that doubt became the bedrock of his faith. Today’s Islam treats doubt very harshly – by cutting off limbs, flagellation and beheading.
Any account of a man who has been always made to look like a superman by his followers, can turn out to appear negative when studied dispassionately. So does this one, though it seems an unbiased study. The author does make Mohammad appear as if he is like a field office manager, with the Angel Gabriel as the marketing chief and God – the CEO. The CEO communicates to the field through the marketing chief.
The arrangement seems tenuous and if I’m guaranteed security against a fatwa, I would venture to add that a simple process of communication appears to have been made complicated beyond weird. Why did God have to communicate with Mohammad through an intermediary when he had the power to transmit direct? Was it for plausible deniability? After all, he did exhort Mohammad to kill, not once but multiple times. Here’s an excerpt of such an exhortation in the Quran……
“Therefore, when ye meet the unbelievers in the battlefield, strike off their heads. Then when you have made wide slaughter among them, carefully tie up the remaining captives and render either generosity or demand ransom, until the war lays down its burdens” – The Quran, Book of Muhammad, verse 4 (47:4)
Of course, violence is mandated by other religions as well, especially the with-us-or-against-us Abrahamic faiths.
Take Christianity, for example. In the following excerpt from the Bible, God commands King Saul to slay the Amelekites –
“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them. Put to death their men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys….” – The Old Testament, Book of Samuel 15:3.
I don’t know exactly what the Amelekites did to piss God off so bad. Children and infants? Camels and donkeys? God sounds like an out-of-control Grand Knight of the KKK (or maybe Dick Cheney). Maybe the Amelekites attacked the Israelites in the wilderness where they had followed Moses and Moses, like all Prophets before and after, was simply TLWIP (The Lord’s Work In Progress).
Getting back to The First Muslim, that complex communication process between Mohammad and God appeared to have it’s upsides though. In the book, one instance stands out……
When he was sent into exile for committing the unpardonable sin of suggesting that there was only one God, Mohammad and his rag-tag band of followers were given refuge in a town about 500kms to the west of Mecca, called Medina. However, Mohammad and his desperadoes began to wear out their welcome real quick. He and his ‘merry men’ had taken to raiding caravans of Meccan merchants in the desert, his instructions being that his men should only harass and confiscate, not kill. But one raid killed some innocent travelers and that pissed his Medinian hosts off. Mecca was the Medinians’ main customer base, for their milk and dates and they didn’t want to start a war with their biggest customer.
Here’s where the twisting of a belief to suit it’s ends occurred – Mohammad contacted the marketing chief (Gabriel) who in turn escalated it with the CEO (God) and voila, the killing of those innocents was hastily deemed okay, because they happened to be Meccans who had refused to accept God’s primacy and sent Mohammad and his men into exile. So it was deemed okay to kill them even though they had had absolutely nothing personally to do with Mohammad being exiled and probably hadn’t even heard of anyone called Mohammad.
Likewise, when the last remaining Jewish tribe in Medina refused to give up their faith and accede to Mohammad’s demand that they switch to Islam (which by then he was demanding by force all over the region), Mohammad ordered all their date palm orchards burned down.
In 7th century Arabia, a date orchard was the life of a community, providing far more than just dates. Before he began his orchard burning spree, Mohammad did give the boss (Archangel Gabriel) a heads up and soon the same ‘Quranic voice’ beamed down to him, stating quite conveniently that, hey, it was okay to burn down the date orchards of non-believers. So what if innocents were left destitute in the process. ‘You’re doing great’ the ubiquitous ‘Quranic voice’ must have exhorted, ‘the CEO is mighty glad’.
As I continued to read the book, it became easier and easier to understand why there is so much violence within Islam. The First Muslim is meant for people who abhor the trappings of organized religion. It is a biography of a man, plain and simple. You get to have a glimpse of the life and times of Mohammad as a man and not as a prophet.
Mohammad and Jesus Christ had many parallels. Both had to be living among a ready pool of oppressed folks in order to stay relevant. Both stood up for the oppressed and wanted to buck the system that they perceived had strayed from the basic tenets of true spirituality.
That is interesting – this oppressed chaser thing. Surely there must have been at least a few persecuted farmhands in Han Dynasty China during that period. Why didn’t they merit a messiah, huh? Likewise I am positive that the rest of the world was teeming with the oppressed in those days and not just within a thousand square mile patch in the Golden Crescent. Didn’t it ever occur to God to dispatch a few messiahs to other destinations as well?
Is it any wonder that I have turned agnostic?
Jesus’s story as ‘just a man’ has been equally fascinating. An Iranian-American named Reza Aslan attempted to put a face and a life on the man that was Jesus Christ in his book, Zealot – The life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. I found Aslan’s biography interesting indeed.
Isn’t it just amazing? A Christian monk discovers Islam’s prophet and a British-American woman reveals the man within the prophet, while an Iranian introduces us to the man, Jesus Christ, stripped of hyperbole. We all know that Islam, Christianity and Judaism are connected and they share prophets. If there is a Stephen Hawking of spirituality somewhere, perhaps he will find the thread that connects all religions into a unified one and then maybe all conflict shall cease once and for all (Northrop Grumman and General Atomics won’t like that of course).
While it is essentially meant for people who don’t take organized religion too seriously, this book would be an interesting read for a practicing Muslim, probably even an eye-opener. But if I were you, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for any practicing Muslim to read it and have his eyes opened.