How does a non-believer write about the holiest figure in someone else’s religion?
Some would say they can’t and shouldn’t. Some would say (like me) that only an outsider has the clarity to see without bias.
But the religious have legitimate grounds to protest a non-believer, a skeptic, analyzing and criticizing their holiest stories. For example, anyone who writes that Jesus didn’t literally perform miracles is going to be crucified by fundamentalist Christians. And anyone who satirizes Islam the world over is boycotted and protested by not-unjustifiably sensitive Muslims.
So how does an agnostic Jew like Lesley Hazleton go about writing a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, the holiest figure in Islam next to God? She holds her skepticism in check and analyzes with the eye of a historian.
There’s no way to know what exactly happened during the miracles of Muhammad’s youth, or what happened during his interactions with the voice of revelation. But what actually happened doesn’t matter as much as what people, including Muhammad, believed happened.
The early biographers Hazleton claims as her primary sources were themselves even more skeptical than she was. Both rationalist Muslims themselves, they very doubtfully recount the miracles associated with Muhammad, and place a keen focus on the multiplicity of conflicting accounts about the life of the Prophet.
Hazleton has no belief to spur her towards saying “this happened rather than this.” She has only her rational and sensible mind, and her biographer’s understanding of the Prophet’s character. This gives her voice tremendous weight, when she for instance suggests that Muhammad’s wishful desire for peace and compromise led to the Satanic Verses. And when she says that Muhammad’s doubt, on his initial reception of the Quran, and Muhammad’s error in the Satanic Verses, make it clear that this is not only a man (flawed as anyone), but a man with a rational mind and honest character, it would seem strange not to believe her.
Skepticism is a term applied to faith, but where there is no faith there can be no skepticism. There is instead in “The First Muslim” the application of critical thinking and a great deal of admiration for one of history’s pivotal figures and most interesting–and indelibly human–men.