As certain Danish cartoonists can attest, drawings or other visual representations of Muhammad are considered to be an offense punishable by death among the more violent fringe strains of Islam. Why isn't writing about Muhammad likewise considered to be offensive? Writing began as illustration, after all, and as Lesley Hazleton proves on the first page of The First Muslim (Riverhead Books, $27.95), the right author can make a written description just as evocative as an editorial cartoon:
He had round, rosy cheeks and a ruddy complexion. He was stockily built, almost barrel-chested, which may partly account for his distinctive gait, always "leaning forward slightly as though he were hurrying toward something." And he must have had a stiff neck, because people would remember that when he turned to look at you, he turned his whole body instead of just his head. The only sense in which he was conventionally handsome was his profile: the swooping hawk nose long considered a sign of nobility in the Middle East.
Unless you're terrible at reading, you've now got a pretty clear image of Muhammad in your head—probably a much more detailed image than those cartoons published by the Jyllands-Posten. Even more interesting, you have, maybe for the first time, visualized Muhammad as a human being, with flaws and strengths and his own individual quirks. Soon after, Hazleton complains about the "often magnificent" legends about Muhammad that "obscure more than they reveal" about the man.
Hazleton, winner of a Stranger Genius Award in literature, is in the revelation business: She's out to consider Muhammad as a mortal human, a man who lived and died and was vulnerable. The First Muslim begins with Muhammad at his most vulnerable, as an orphaned infant who might have died, were it not for a woman who happened to take pity on him. He was raised in the desert, which, Hazleton says, is "a lesson in humility." The important thing about the desert is that if you were raised there, "nobody needed to preach [to you] that there was a higher power than the human." It was a deadly, barren place that made Muhammad stronger and taught him to find abundance in realms other than the physical, which is to say that it prepared him for his future as one of the world's most important spiritual figures.
If you've read Hazleton's other religious biographies about Mary (mother of Jesus) and Jezebel (princess of Phoenicia), you have some idea of what to expect with The First Muslim: Hazleton is a world-class history teacher who contextualizes the realities of these far-off times—even in the seventh century, she explains, the wealthy city-dwellers were condescending to the country folk—and can effortlessly distill years of research into a few conversational sentences.
The difference in The First Muslim, though, is that Muhammad is a much-better-documented figure who lived "just" 1,500 years ago—half the temporal distance between Jezebel and us. Less speculation and more raw journalism is required, and Hazleton has spent the last few years digging her way out of secondary sources filtered through to her from the University of Washington's Suzzallo Library. As a result, Hazleton is a different sort of storyteller here. She interjects herself less obviously into the story. (One of the high points of Jezebel is Hazleton's description of when, in the course of research, she encountered ravenous wild dogs at the birthplace of the prophet Elijah, although she has publicly regretted leaving the anecdote in the book because it feels almost unreal.) Though it's easy to miss Hazleton's physical presence, The First Muslim feels more novelistic without her.
Any biography of Muhammad walks a treacherous path between controversies. Conservative American talk-show hosts are ready with accusations that you're humanizing the monsters who took down the World Trade Center. Conservative Muslims are prepared to label you a heretic. It's impossible to predict how religious zealots of both Christian and Islamic persuasions will stamp this book, but any sensible reader can tell that Hazleton is operating from a place of respect.
Hazleton is a vocal agnostic—she has long promised that her next book after The First Muslim will be a full-throated defense of agnosticism—and she threads a delicate needle when Muhammad reaches the point in his life when his followers believe he is first approached by the angel Gabriel to speak the word of Allah. You'll find no conclusions here about the veracity of divine inspiration; instead, Hazleton writes a few excellent paragraphs about how the definition of "awe" has changed between Muhammad's time and now, and she concludes the chapter with an appreciation of the prophet's wife, Khadija. She doesn't fear for her husband's sanity when he tells her, trembling, what he believes has happened to him. Instead, she simply loves and cares for him:
She held him until sunrise, feeling his muscles relax as the shuddering fear subsided. His head became heavy in her lap and he slipped at last into the deep sleep of exhaustion. When she was sure he would not wake soon, she eased him onto the bedding, wrapped herself close in her shawl, and went out into the early morning.
It's easy to imagine zealots becoming enraged when they read about their holy prophet reduced to a shivering child in the comforting arms of his wife. But why? What better response is there, when confronted with something more powerful than oneself, than to shake and fear and weep and find consolation in the arms of the one you love? It's what any of us would do.