Lesley Hazleton again. This is the author’s second book which I have read. Some of my friends have already recommended to me this book. But I had the chance only now.
This is one of the innumerable biographies of Prophet Muhammad. But interpretative and critical. It is entitled The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad. She gives a quote in the beginning, a Saying of the Prophet, with reference to three verses from the holy Quran in support, as end notes. (6:14, 163, 39:12).
For the first verse the commentators have given the meaning as, ‘I am the first of those who worship and obey the commands of Allah’. The second verse also repeats it. The words, ‘ana awwalum muslimeen’ (I am the first of Muslims) have been used in the original Arabic verse. And the third Chapter Surah Zumar also says the same thing in similar words.
Lesley says that those verses affirm that the Prophet was the first Muslim in the world. And by implication it means that those Prophets who came before him were not Muslims!
But famous interpreters of the Quran have given foot note to these verses. For example, Allamah Yusuf Ali says in his commentary to that verse says that “the first need not necessarily be chronological”.
Well, let us come to these interpretations later. First, is it correct to say that Prophet Muhammad was the first Muslim?
There are two answers to this question. One is yes and the other in no ! One may wonder how could such a contradiction be possible. It is not possible but also true.
If we look Islam as starting from the time of the first revelation in Hira, then it is correct to say that Prophet Muhammad was the first Muslim.
But if we look at from the history of mankind, then the first man Adam was the first Muslim. But this idea could be acceptable to only Muslims and Christians.
The problem occurs only when we look at Islam as a religion. In fact, Islam is not the name of a religion. It is the name or word for a state of fact which is applicable to all beings in the Universe. Islam means peace and surrender to the will of God. Anything that surrenders to the will of God is in Islam. In other words, all that obeys God is a Muslim.
That means, the sun, the sun shine, the moon, the moon light, the flowers blooming, the rain falling and the seas not coming into the cities, though they surround the earth – all these phenomena are in Islam. And that means the whole Universe is in Islam. This is not a far-fetched interpretation but a sensible understanding in tune with the meaning of the word islam.
Allah is the one and only God and Muhammad is His Last Messenger – if one adds these ideas also to one’s being a Muslim by nature, then one becomes a Mu’min or a Believer. It means, all Mu’mins are Muslims but all Muslims may not be Mu’mins.
Osho said once beautifully: ‘Christ was not a Christian and Buddha was not a Buddhist’. Why? Because Christ did not establish a new religion and he did not found Christianity. It was created after him. Such is the case with Buddhism also. The holy Bible also confirms this in Christ’s own words:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. (Matthew 5:17)
And it means that Jesus says that he came to convey God’s message as a Prophet in continuation of what the former Prophets have said.
We can become more enlightened if we remember here the famous Tradition of Prophet Muhammad who said, ‘I am the Last Brick of the Mansion called Islam’.
This is the right way of understanding the truth according to which Adam was the first Muslim in the world. And that is the historical and chronological fact too.
But if we accept what Lesley says, then we accept the implication that all the former Prophets of God like Adam, Eve, Moses, Jesus and Abraham were either Jews or Christians. And that could be very veiled reason behind Lesley giving such a title to her book.
She also quotes historian Ibn Khaldun who says that the inner meaning of history… involves speculation and an attempt to get to the truth…deep knowledge of how and why of events.
Mahatma Gandhi and says: “I do not accept the claim of saintliness…I am prone to as many weaknesses as you are…”. If we imagine it to be a saying of the Prophet, then we can understand the skylarking of Lesley with words here.
Lesley is trying to blind our own eyes with our own fingers. And she does it very well. We not only have to learn a lot but also chop off a lot from her.
Appearance of Prophet Muhammad
She describes the appearance of Prophet Muhammad in the first chapter. Only those who have studied his biographies and Traditions deeply could give such descriptions. This is something we have to learn from the author.
But at the same time, we have to be on guard all the time lest we may miss the point where she deliberately twists history or interprets it according to her whims and fancies.
It is a well-known fact that whenever Prophet Muhammad wanted to give attention to someone, he would turn his whole body towards him or her and not just his head. This is one of the ways in which he respected human beings and a quality which we have to learn from him.
But Lesley give her a different reason for such a noble behavior. She says that “he must have had a stiff neck” so that he turned his whole body and not just his head (page 10). This ‘must have’ surmise is deliberate and unwarranted. She tries to debase his noble character deliberately.
Meditations on God
Lesley asks an important question about the Prophet visiting the cave of Hira often: “Why would a happy married man isolate himself this way, standing in meditation throughout the night?” (page 11). It is natural that a man thinks of God when he is in distress and difficulties. But many do not think of God when they are happy.
But our Prophet Muhammad, who grew up as an orphan, acted as agent to the business of Khadija and later married his own mistress and lived happily, did to go the cave of Hira often to meditate upon God.
And in it is the message for us. Not only in distress and agony, but also at times of happiness and success we must think about God and thank Him for it.
The Hira experience did not make him happy but rather he trembled with fear, says Lesley. And that was sufficient to prove that the experience was real, says she (page 12). But she also adds that “he feared for his sanity” which is nothing but her own Jewish-prone imagination.
All the reverential legends about our Prophet “obscure more than they reveal”, says Lesley (page 13). This is true in a way. If the abbreviation of the reverential epithet Sallallahu Alaihi wasallam is not used, it is looked upon as though a murder has been committed. But people forget the fact that he was sent not only for Muslims but for the whole of mankind, and for all the worlds as Mercy. And such critical biographies like that of Lesley points to our oblivion of it often.
The Politics behind ‘The First Muslim’
Lesley says that we have not understood Prophet Muhammad properly, though he has been called the ‘first Muslim’ in the Quran thrice. And there is politics behind repeatedly calling him ‘the first Muslim’. If someone says that he is the first Muslim, is it not the same as saying that there was no Muslim before him?! But Prophet Muhammad was not called the first Muslim in the Quran in that sense. Only if we take into account his life alone, from the point of the first Revelation, we can say that he was the first Muslim.
When the idea that Prophet Muhammad is the first Muslim is established, it would be convenient to maintain that Prophets from Adam to Abraham were either Jews or Christians, Wouldn’t it? This is the reason why she repeatedly says that Prophet Muhammad as the first Muslim! Got it?!
Why Wet Nurses?
Lesley gives a reason for Arabian custom of having wet nurses which seems logical and acceptable:
The prime role of an aristocratic wife was to produce male heirs, but with infant mortality so high that barely half of all infants born alive survived into adulthood, this was not easy. Obviously, the chances were improved the more often a wife became pregnant, so it was important that she be fertile again as quickly as possible after giving birth. Since nursing inhibits ovulation, the best way to ensure this was for someone else to breast-feed her infant. (The obverse was that the peasant and nomad women who served as wet nurses had far fewer pregnancies. The ugly upper-class stereotype of the lower class “breeding like rabbits” was in fact quite the reverse: the upper class were the breeders, and the lower class the feeders.) (24)
It throws light on the Arabian habit of sending babies to wet nurses. But the explanation is not suitable to Prophet’s Mother Amina because she did not marry again after her husband’s death.
Incidents regarding the blaze of light that shone on Abdullah’s forehead and the glow from Amina’s pregnant belly with which she could see the forts of Syria and the sudden abundance of Halima’s breast milk – all these wonders are “stories”, says Lesley (33) and she could say only like that.
When Halima delivered the boy back to Amina in Mecca, he was not a chubby boy but the “desert was written in his hands”, says Lesley. Perhaps she referred to the dryness of his hands due to herding the sheep and camels.
When the Prophet was with Halima, he knew the “solitude of the desert”, but when he came back to his mother, he felt a “sense of isolation”, says Lesley (34). He felt himself a stranger among his own tribe, she says. And that was a beautiful difference she could make about solitude and isolation.
Many historians have said that there were 360 idols inside the Ka’ba. But Lesley says that so many idols could not have been accommodated inside the small space. Ten or twelve at the maximum was possible, she says (40). And it sounds logical and reasonable. Perhaps the other idols were placed outside the Ka’ba and around it.
Many historians have stated that in the days of ignorance, the Meccans used to circumambulate the Ka’ba naked. But Lesley says that they did not do like that but would take off their usual dress and wear ihram instead and it was not nakedness (44).
Though the idea seems to give some dignity to the custom of Meccans, it was wrong. When the Ka’ba was being renovated once, the Prophet’s uncle Abbas asked the young Muhammad to take off his waist cloth called izar and the Prophet did accordingly. But as he was about to become completely naked, the very thought of becoming naked he could not brook and he at once became unconscious. This incident has been recorded in the authentic Hadith Collections.
So the Arabs when circumambulating the Ka’ba or whenever they had carry some weight, used to remove their upper and lower garments and do things naked. It is also said that women too circumambulated the Ka’ba naked at night. Hence, it is true that the Arabs used to circumambulate the Ka’ba but not in the way Lesley described.
Piety and Profit
According to Lesley, the Quraish were very shrewd people and they always combined piety and profit. “It was a canny combination of commerce with pilgrimage”, says Lesley (44). To visit the Ka’ba and pray there, the pilgrims must ask permission from the Quraish and also pay the fees for it! Their business was faith and their faith was in business, says Lesley (45).
This was true to some extent. When the Prophet said that Allah alone is the God, it was not news to them. They knew it already and they had kept Allah as the chief God. Perhaps because of this the Prophet’s father was named Abdullah, the slave of Allah.
About Abu Talib
Abu Talib passed away two years after Amina’s death. And it is said that took special care of the Prophet. But Lesley says that he was “put to work as a lowly camel boy” (47). She gives a wrong picture of Abu Talib from this which is far from being true.
Tending the camels was in their blood and veins. It was not considered a lowly work at all. Even if he had not lost his father and mother, he would have learnt it for sure, for it was part and parcel of Arabian culture. And the Prophet was an expert in maintaining camels.
He had a way with camels, among the most ornery of animals unless one knows how to cajole them: the particular clicks of the tongue, the exact tug on the lead rope, the hand on the flank with just the right amount of pressure to make them stand or kneel. Those who were bad with camels yelled at them and jerked the ropes, making the animals all the more stubborn and hard to control. Dealing with them was a skill, and the best handler was one whom nobody noticed because he never had to stamp and prod, and never yelled. The sounds he made to urge the camels on were so soft and sibilant, they were more like breath than noise (47).
The caravan served as the school for the Prophet, according to Lesley. They became his “professional education, as well as his cultural and religious one” (55).
Lesley says that the Prophet asked for the hand of Fakhitah, a daughter of Abu Talib, but Abu Talib refused as he thought that that would not be an advantageous marriage and he did not want to give his daughter to an orphan without means and the denial became a turning point in Muhammad’s life (57). But authoritative biographies of the Prophet do not speak of any such event.
Marriage with Khadija
If all the historians of the world agree in one thing, that is about the noble character of Khadija. But Lesley says something which is far-fetched and clearly ill-intentioned. He says that as Khadija wanted to marry the Prophet, she called her father, gave him wine, and while he was drunk, anointed him with perfume, clothed him in a striped robe and slaughtered a cow in order to get his permission to marry Muhammad when he was on the binge (61).
This is clearly against authentic and authoritative history. It is much against the nature and character of the noble lady Khadija. It has been written with malicious intent. It is clearly a Jewish plot against the noble character of Khadija because many of the authoritative biographies tell us that Abu Talib and Hamza went to speak with Amr ibn Asad, Khadija’s uncle and ask the hand of lady Khadija for Muhammad because her father was dead. Some historians say that they spoke with Khadija’s father Khuwaylid himself.
Though the Quran says that the Prophet was a man like us, he was not like us, ordinary. And the experience of Mi’raj bears witness to it.
“Just one of you” does not fly hundreds of miles through the night to consult with angels and prophets and ascend into the divine presence. Muhammad is no longer the passive recipient of revelation but an active participant: he flies, ascends, prays with the angels, and speaks with the prophets”, says Lesley mockingly (121).
Indirect Support for Jews
When the Prophet entered Medina for the first time, only a Jew saw him. And he said loudly, “Aws and Khazraj, your good fortune has arrived” but adds that they were words that “he might soon come to regret” (136). Ans she further says that the Prophet showed “ruthlessness” to the Jews (154) and prepares herself to declare later that “the exiles had now in turn exiled others”, that is the Jews (161). The ‘exiles’ refers to the ‘Muhajirun’ Muslims from Mecca.
As soon as the Prophet came to Medina, his camel sat down in the date-drying yard that belonged to two young orphans from the Khazraj tribe to which the Prophet’s great-grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, belonged. Hashim’s wife and great-grandmother of the Prophet belonged to that tribe. So, says Lesley, that the camel sat there was not accidental but divinely arranged (137).
Islam and Muslim
Lesley says that words such as Islam and Muslim came to be used only after the Prophet. The Muslims of the Prophet’s period called themselves ‘Mu’min’ only (138).
When the Quranic voice had formerly been insistent on eschewing violence, it now at least conditionally endorsed it, says Lesley (147), interpreting the Quranic verses according to her whims and fancies.
Any leader can use victory to his advantage, but one who can turn defeat to his advantage is much rarer (170) and that was our Prophet, she says about the near defeat in Uhud.
Ali Aisha Matter
When mother Aisha was wrongly accused, Lesley says that Ali suggested to the Prophet that he divorce her (181). This is far from the truth. Aisha did not hear directly what Ali said regarding her, when the issue was burning. But it is true that she developed a dislike for him throughout her life on account of what he said regarding her.
Even in the Battle of the Camel, which happened between Ali and Aisha, though she lost, he sent her off in her camel howdah, with due honor and respect. He himself went along with her camel for long to send her off respectfully. But there is no authentic record to show that Ali told the Prophet to divorce her.
Mother Aisha is said to have related many years later that the Companion Safwan who took pity on her on that day and took her home on his camel safely and honorably was impotent (182). And this also is not to be found in authentic history. It is tantamount to saying that she came back intact and chaste just because the man who saved her was impotent. When God Himself has declared her innocence, there is no need for any one to speak in such terms.
Jewish Vilification regarding Zainab
Lesley says that the Prophet saw Zainab, his relative and wife of Zaid, in “disarray” and came out. It means that she was almost naked, perhaps expecting her husband Zaid. Lesley puts the blame on Ibn Ishaq the biographer! And when verses were revealed regarding adopted sons, Aisha said to the Prophet, says Lesley, “God makes haste to do your bidding” (181).
Different incidents have been cleverly woven together here, for Lesley’s convenience. When Zaid came to know of the incident, he took it as “a sign of Muhammad’s desire” for Zainab and divorced her so that the Prophet could marry her (184). This is also a clear twist of history to her convenience and an example of vilification.
Zainab was the daughter of Umaymah, a sister of the Prophet’s father Abdullah. The Prophet first married Zaid, his adopted son and freed slave, to Zainab, daughter of Umaymah. Despite the Prophet’s advices to Zaid and Zainab, their married life was very unhappy. Zainab was one the most beautiful women of Arabia and of the most honorable clan but Zaid was looked down upon as a slave and unworthy of her by his wife. The problem was one of status in essence. How can the master become the slave of a slave?!
In spite of the Prophet’s advices to Zaid and Zainab, the marriage relationship broke at last. In a fit of rage, Zain divorced his wife. Then verses were revealed (33:37) regarding permission to marry the wives of adopted sons and it was only then that the Prophet married Zainab.
The incident of his entering the house of Zainab and seeing her in “disarray” did not happen as the Quran has clearly stated:
O you who have believed, do not enter houses other than your own houses until you ascertain welcome and greet their inhabitants. That is best for you; perhaps you will be reminded (24:27)
As Zainab was his cousin and as he knew her very well even in the days before purdah was ordained, he must have been fully aware of her charms. And nothing could have prevented him from marrying her when she was a virgin. There was no necessity for him to see her in “disarray” and then have a liking for her. Far-fetched!
Zainab was a great woman of noble character and known for her charity. She was the “long-handed” one who joined the Prophet soon after his demise. She was the first woman to defend Aisha and refute the false charge against Aisha.
Against such a woman Lesley lets loose her vilifications. But Jewish twists will not work with a conscious and intelligent Muslim.
The Issue of Rayhana
According to Lesley, the Prophet married a Jewish woman called Rayhana who was widowed as her husband was one of those Jews who were killed after a siege. And she further calls the Prophet ‘ruthless’ who, Lesley says, was responsible for the ‘massacre’ of the Banu Quraizah Jews (191). And further she says that these things have been recorded by historians like Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa’d and Ibn Kathir.
But according to authentic and authoritative biographies of the Prophet, there is no mention of the name of Rayhana among the listed names of the twelve wives of the Prophet.
According to Ibn Ishaq, the Prophet gave asylum to a Jewess called Rayhana in one of his relative’s house, and she wanted to remain a Jewess and he left her at that. But after some time, she embraced Islam and the a man called Thalaba came to inform the Prophet of it. On hearing his footsteps, the Prophet said that he was coming to inform us of the conversion of Rayhana to Islam. And Rayhana remained with the Prophet until her death.
With regard to other wives, Ibn Ishaq clearly says that the Prophet “married” them. But he has not said in any place the he “married Rayhana”. And there was no need for a historian to leave it for us to guess.
In the book by Sheik Hasan Gharibullah, The Millennium Biography of Muhammad the Prophet of Allah gives a detailed account of the Battle of Trench, the Jews of Bani Quraizah, their double dealing, dishonesty and deceit and how they plotted against the Muslims along with Meccans under the leadership of Abu Sufyan.
In the book it is said that Rayhana was made to stay in the house of one of Prophet’s aunts and he released her from slavery after she embraced Islam (page 273).
But Lesley says that the Prophet accepted her as his seventh wife and there was no proof that the Jews of Quraizah plotted against the Muslims (194).
About the Jews
In all the biographical works, including the ones referred to by Lesley herself like that of Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa’d and Ibn Kathir, a detailed account of the unfaithful and treacherous acts of Jews have been explained in detail.
The Prophet did not decide on the punishment regarding the Jews of Quraizah. After the 25 day besieging was over, the Jews themselves agreed to abide by the decision taken by Sa’d Ibn Muad, the Chief of Aws, who were their allies for long, even before the advent of the Prophet to Medina. And accordingly, it was Sa’d Ibn Muad who gave the verdict against them.
‘All men should be killed, and women and children to be taken captives and their properties are to be divided’.
Sa’d himself was dying of an arrow wound in his arm in the battle of Trench. He prayed to God to keep him alive if there was any more battle against the unbelievers and if not, requested God to take his life. It was then that his wound got burst and began to bleed. And he died after a few days after he pronounced the judgment of the Jews.
He was a saintly person whose prayer was accepted. But Lesley says that the decision was taken by him was only “technically correct” which means that if he has not passed that judgement, the Prophet himself would have ordered all the Jews to be killed. And she quotes a verse of the Quran (2:193) out of context and explains it in her own way! And she further says that the Prophet would reveal his ruthlessness as and when necessary (213).
About Hudaibiya pact she says: “Neither Gandhi nor Machiavelli could have done better. Muhammad had reversed the terms of engagement, turning apparent weakness into strength…Whether in the seventh century or the twenty-first, he would frustrate the simplistic terms of those trying to pigeonhole him as either a “prophet of peace” or a “prophet of war.” (202).
Machiavelli was a leader who justified violence in war and politics. And Mahatma was for non-violence at all times. Lesley compares the Prophet with both!
Lesley says that there is no proof for the statement that after the victory of Mecca, the Prophet entered the Ka’ba and smashed all the idols there. He was there inside it in solitude as he was in Hira but for the last time, she says (212).
Regarding the last wife of the Prophet, Marya of Egypt, Lesley says many things. At first, she calls Marya a concubine and not a wife! And she further says that the Prophet’s other wives did not like his staying with Marya for a long time and expressed their dislike and opposition to it. To have fathered a son to a concubine would indeed make their places lower in rank, she says. “A son’s existence would place the wives’ own standing in jeopardy, forcing them to play secondary roles to a mere concubine” and further says that such a son was not born in fact but only in the “fond imagination of the male-centered culture (224).
Nothing could be farther from historical truth. The very fact of denying the birth of a son is nothing but the expression of unhistorical Jewish jealousy.
And further she makes fun of the Prophet’s wives in this way: “The Mothers of the Faithful. Given that none of them had mothered a child by him, this was an extraordinary formulation” (226).
And when the Prophet came to the masjid for the last time, a light shone from his face. But to Lesley it seems to have been not the radiance of faith but “a flush of fever and impending death” (238).
A biography can be written with a critical bent of mind. There is nothing wrong in it. One need not keep on praising the Prophet. But one should not write imaginary and unhistorical facts as though they have historical authenticity. It is a kind of devilry.
Just because a biography has been written in good and sometimes beautiful English, it may not attain the status of rightness. It is a different matter to approach an issue with an open mind. One sees talent and mastery of language in Lesley. But veracity and credibility are lacking. And in important moment, it takes on a different color too.
Lesley has already described herself as a Jew and wanted to become a rabbi too at one time. And this biography of Prophet Muhammad seems to be a convenient vent to her Jewish odium against Islam and Prophet Muhammad.
- The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad. Lesley Hazleton. Riverhead Books, New York, 2013
- The Life of Muhammad. Ibn Ishaq. Tr. A. Guillaume. OUP, 2001
- The Life of the Prophet Muhammad. Ibn Kathir. Tr. Prof Trevor Le Gassick. Vols 1 & 2. Garnet Publishing, UK, 2006
- The Battles of the Prophet. Ibn Kathir. Tr. Egypt. 2001
- Hayatul Qulub. A Detailed Biography of Prophet Muhammad. Allamah Baqir Muhammad Majlisi.
- Seeratun Nabawiyya. Ibn Hisham. Tr.
- The Millennium Biography of Muhammad the Prophet of Allah. Prof Hasan Gharibullah e al.
- Kitab al Tabakat al Kabir. Ibn Sa’ad. Vol 1. Tr.
- The Mothers of the Believers. Halime Demiresik. Tr.
- Women Around the Messenger. Muhammad Ali Qutb. Tr. Abdur Rafi. International Islamic Publishing House.
- The Sealed Nectar. Safiur Rahman Mubarakpuri. Darussalam, Riyadh, 2002.
- Muhammad the Prophet. M.R.M. Abdur Rahim. Universal Publishers, Chennai, 2017
- Muhammd: His Life Based on Earliest Sources. Martin Lings. Saeed International, New Delhi.
- Wives of the Holy Prophet. Fida Husain Malik. Adam Publishers, New Delhi, 2007.