The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad

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9781594632303: The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad

The extraordinary life of the man who founded Islam, and the world he inhabited—and remade.

Lesley Hazleton's new book, Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, is out now from Riverhead Books.


Muhammad’s was a life of almost unparalleled historical importance; yet for all the iconic power of his name, the intensely dramatic story of the prophet of Islam is not well known. In The First Muslim, Lesley Hazleton brings him vibrantly to life. Drawing on early eyewitness sources and on history, politics, religion, and psychology, she renders him as a man in full, in all his complexity and vitality.

Hazleton’s account follows the arc of Muhammad’s rise from powerlessness to power, from anonymity to renown, from insignificance to lasting significance. How did a child shunted to the margins end up revolutionizing his world? How did a merchant come to challenge the established order with a new vision of social justice? How did the pariah hounded out of Mecca turn exile into a new and victorious beginning? How did the outsider become the ultimate insider?

Impeccably researched and thrillingly readable, Hazleton’s narrative creates vivid insight into a man navigating between idealism and pragmatism, faith and politics, nonviolence and violence, rejection and acclaim. The First Muslim illuminates not only an immensely significant figure but his lastingly relevant legacy.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Lesley Hazleton reported on the Middle East from Jerusalem for more than a dozen years, and has written for Time, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and Harper’s, among other publications. Her last book, After the Prophet, was a finalist for the PEN-USA book Award. Hazleton lives in Seattle.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Part One

Orphan

Chapter One

If he weren’t standing lonely vigil on the mountain, you might say
that there was no sign of anything unusual about him. The earliest
sources describe him with infuriating vagueness for those of us
who need images. “He was neither tall nor short,” they say. “Neither
dark nor fair.” “Neither thin nor stout.” But here and there, specific
details slip through, and when they do, they are surprising. Surely a
man spending night after night in solitary meditation would be a
gaunt, ascetic figure, yet far from being pale and wan, 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.

On the surface, you might conclude that he was an average Meccan.
At forty years old, the son of a man he had never seen, he had
made a far better life for himself than had ever seemed possible.
The child born an outsider within his own society had finally won
acceptance, and carved out a good life despite the odds against him.
He was comfortably off, a happily married business agent with the
respect of his peers. If he was not one of the movers and shakers of his
prosperous city, that was precisely why people trusted him to represent
their interests. They saw him as a man with no axe of his own to
grind, a man who would consider an offer or a dispute on its merits
and decide accordingly. He had found a secure niche in the world, and
had earned every right, in middle age, to sit back and enjoy his rise to
respectability. So what was he doing alone up here on one of the
mountains that ringed the sleeping city below? Why would a happily
married man isolate himself this way, standing in meditation through
the night?

There was a hint, perhaps, in his clothing. By now he could certainly
have afforded the elaborate embroidered silks of the wealthy,
but his clothing was low-key. His sandals were worn, the leather
thongs sun-bleached paler than his skin. His homespun robe would
be almost threadbare if it hadn’t been so carefully patched, and it was
hardly enough to shield him against the night-time cold of the high
desert. Yet something about the way he stood on the mountainside
made the cold irrelevant. Tilted slightly forward as though leaning
into the wind, his stance seemed that of someone who existed at an
angle to the earth.

Certainly a man could see the world in a different way up here. He
could find peace in the silence, with just the soughing of the wind over
the rock for company, far from the feuds and gossip of the city with its
arguments over money and power. Here, a man was merely a speck in
the mountain landscape, his mind free to think and reflect, and then
finally to stop thinking, stop reflecting, and submit itself to the
vastness.

Look closer and you might detect the shadow of loneliness in the
corners of his eyes, something lingering there of the outsider he had
once been, as though he were haunted by the awareness that at any
moment everything he’d worked so long and hard for could be taken
away. You might see a hint of that same mix of vulnerability and resoluteness
in his mouth, the full lips slightly parted as he whispered into
the darkness. And then perhaps you’d ask why contentment was not
enough. Did the fact that it had been so hard-earned make him unable
to accept it as a given, never to be secure in his right to it? But then
what would? What was he searching for? Was it a certain peace within
himself, perhaps? Or was it something more—a glimpse, maybe just
an intimation, of something larger?

One thing is certain: by Muhammad’s own account, he was completely
unprepared for the enormity of what he would experience on
this particular night in the year 610.

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