An Arab orphan, who was always made to feel like an outsider, spends the first four decades of his life to find a respectable place in his community, only to leave it all in old age to fulfill a greater task: the transformation of the Arab society and the world beyond. His own tribesmen, who once used to swear by his truthfulness, became hungry for his blood; as he battled against his own kin and relatives to establish Islam, the most progressive religion of his time, and successfully bring the nomadic Arabia under one religion.
The life of Prophet Muhammad was a fascinating one. And it’s rather unfortunate that not much is known of his life or his struggle. The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad attempts to chronicle not just the life of the Last Prophet, but goes beyond the mysticism that surrounds the prophet’s persona by often diving deeper into the psyche of the founder of Islam. The author not only looks at the struggles that the messenger had to face outside, but also the ones that perhaps existed inside his mind.
The First Muslim tries to tell what most Muslims and non-Muslims around the world seemed to have failed to understand — apart from being a prophet — Prophet Muhammad was also an ordinary man with an extraordinary task at hand. He was not just a divine messenger, but also a military strategist, a politician, a businessman, a husband, a father, a brother, a social activist and a leader.
Lesley Hazleton, the author of The First Muslim, explores this humane facet of the Prophet. And Hazleton seems to have taken all precautions to tell the story as realistically as possible. However, it’s important to understand that writing about a religious figure nearly 1,400 years after his death while relying on information from sources, who themselves were wary of their authenticity (including al-Tabari in the history of early Islam, Tarikh al-Rasul wa’al-Muluk, and and ibn-Ishaq in his biography of Muhammad Sirat Rasul Allah that’s been quoted often in the book) could hardly reject the risk of further accentuating the hearsays and thus, elevating the margin of errors.
So, everything — favourable or unfavourable — in the book has to be taken with a pinch of salt, especially since there are portions where she seems to be certain of what would have happened, when the previous two authors don’t.
Still, Hazleton’s attempt is to not take a stand, or try to defend or agree to the allegations (with few exceptions) that are now attributed to Prophet Muhammad. Rather she leaves it to the reader as she presents different viewpoints. She also tries to understand why would Islam, once the most modernist and progressive religion of the world, resists to change, and risks being associated with backwardness.