The First Muslim

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For a good chunk of humanity, it’s the greatest story ever told. The Prophet Mohammed, and the rise of Islam.

And like every great story in history, at the root is a man. The man is not divine. He is not miraculous. He is a human being who shook history.

It’s the man that Lesley Hazleton goes looking for in “The First Muslim.” She herself is an agnostic Jew, but her intense respect for Islam and the Prophet are clear from page one. For any historian, the book includes enough discussion of sources, their bias, and historiography to be comfortable. For general readers, the book is a great story of one of history’s greatest men.

Hazleton is not a believer. But it is only those who are outsiders who can see clearly. It is only those who doubt who can understand the awe and amazement of conversion. A believer in Islam could not have written a book quite like this one. That’s not to say that a Muslim couldn’t write about the Prophet: only to say that it would be something very different, at least in today’s world.

Mohammed was not the son of God. He was a prophet, and a man with a past, a genealogy, a career, and a family. Hazleton writes about this person, about his life and his loves, with compassion and understanding.

The book is not that of a believer, and there is nowhere a claim that Mohammed was the Prophet, that he was “right.” Indeed, in her accounts of miracles associated with Mohammed, Hazleton recounts the skepticism of early Muslim scholars trained in logic and Socratic methods.

Hazleton is not a skeptic. She is a historian. She recognizes that what “actually happened” when Mohammed was alone, when he was transported in his sleep to Jerusalem or when he received the revelation of God on a mountain, when the Prophet had his mystical experiences, doesn’t really matter. And it’s a good thing too, because there’s no actual way to find out what exactly happened. Doubt is necessary.

Bare facts mean little on their own. What matters is who believed what, and when. What matters isn’t whether something is true, but whether it is true to someone. What matters is not that a person walked around and talked, but what he did, and what his beliefs and experiences created.

It’s one of the great stories of history. The rise of the Prophet Mohammed.

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