December 10, 2018

An accidental theologist tackles Muhammad bio

In 2010, Lesley Hazleton was asked to give a brief talk about the Quran. 

“As far as I was concerned, I was talking to those several hundred people in the hall,” Hazleton said in a recent phone interview. “I certainly had no idea that a nine-minute video about reading the Quran would go viral. … I mean, I’m in my 60s, so the words ‘Lesley’ and ‘viral’ don’t even belong in the same sentence.”

Hazleton said that if you total up all the places where her lecture about the Quran subsequently appeared — TED, YouTube, etc. — it’s gotten about a million hits.

The main reason for the wide dissemination of Hazleton’s lively and informative lecture is that it raised alarm bells: She mentioned that her delving deeply into the Quran was prep work for a book she was working on: a biography of Muhammad. 

That’s right: the prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam. 

A decade earlier, Hazleton had written a historical exploration of Mary, mother of Jesus, based on what life would have been like for a Jewish peasant woman in the Galilee 2,000 years ago, so she’s used to writing about a revered figure who — like Muhammad — has a billion people deeply concerned about the portrayal. 

But nothing prepared her for the barrage of messages she received after it became known that an agnostic Jewish woman was now writing about Muhammad.

“Suddenly, it’s as if there were a million Muslims looking over my shoulder wanting to make sure I got it right,” Hazleton said. 

“Every morning I’d get messages — through e-mail, Facebook, on my blog — and I’d answer back: ‘Thank you for your concern. It will probably not be the biography you want — it will be a historical one, not a devotional one, so all I can do is ask you to trust me to find my own way.’ ”

Writing an accurate, credible biography of Muhammad is a tricky challenge for anyone, but the difficulties are compounded if you’re a woman, Jewish, and have lived in Israel for many years. 

Hazleton is used to taking on tough challenges and facing them with a quick wit and self-deprecating humor: she named her blog — which deals with the interface of religion, society and politics — “The Accidental Theologist.”

In her early 20s, she left her native England and moved to Jerusalem, where she lived for 13 years, studying psychology and later becoming a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine. While living there, she wrote books about Israeli women, about the Negev and the Sinai, and about Jerusalem.  

From 1979 to 1992, she lived in New York and wrote on a variety of subjects, including cars and race-driving, which led to a book with the captivating title “Confessions of a Fast Woman.” Then she moved to Seattle, got her pilot’s license — her “hardest-earned possession” — and has remained there, living on a houseboat.

Psychologist by training, journalist by experience, for more than a decade Hazleton has been writing about figures and events important to the world’s monotheisms.

After her biography of Mary, Hazleton wrote a book about the biblical character Jezebel, digging into the struggle between the “harlot queen” and the prophet Elijah. After that, she delved into the origins of the Shi’a-Sunni split in early Islam.

“The First Muslim” is full of great, accessible stories. And it introduces non-Muslims to an extraordinary life with which they’re probably unfamiliar.

“Here’s a man [Muhammad] who carved a huge profile in history,” Hazleton said, “a man who radically changed his world and, in a sense, is still changing ours — and the question to me was: Who was this person, really? This is what drives me, this intense curiosity, the need to know who was really there.”

Hazleton writes about how, at 40, Muhammad had a revelation on Mount Hira near Mecca. Based on what was revealed to him, he preached monotheism as well as a radical program of social and economic justice.

“It was correctly seen by the powers-that-be in Mecca as a challenge to them,” Hazleton said, “as radical and subversive.” As a result, Muhammad was forced to flee Mecca. 

“But it was with that exile,” Hazleton said, “when he was thrown out of Mecca and took refuge 200 miles to the north in Medina and set up this extraordinary idealistic community which included Jewish tribes, that he realizes he’s become a political leader, not just a spiritual leader, not just a preacher. 

“And along with that comes what’s expected of a political governing authority of the time: How do you establish your power? Do we fight? What happens when we fight?”

In her book, Hazleton describes how, in Muhammad’s struggle to gain both political and religious power while in Medina, some Jewish tribes paid the price.

“Muhammad’s relationship with the Jews was extremely fraught,” Hazleton said. “Medina, where Mohammed sought refuge, had been, until a few generations before, largely controlled by Jewish tribes. By the year 600, however, Jewish tribes were the minority and therefore vulnerable. …

“[Muhammad] confronted three Jewish tribes, all relatively powerless. One tribe was exiled from Medina, then a second one [was exiled], and the third was massacred.”

Hazleton said that the massacre was a “ruthless” decision, but — given the time and place in which Muhammad lived and the obstacles he faced — a “pragmatic” and “effective” one. 

“I think it was a way for Muhammad to establish his political authority. I don’t really think it had to do with anti-Jewish animus. … It had to do with the dynamics of power, and it’s the only time something like that happened.”

Hazleton pointed out that two of Muhammad’s wives were Jewish and added that “Muhammad clearly saw himself as part of the Jewish tradition. … Islam was a radical call back to the basic values of the Torah and even talmudic stories. Many people are amazed when they actually do read the Quran that one-third is devoted to reprising biblical stories, that so many prophets of Islam are Hebrew prophets.”

“The First Muslim” is Hazleton’s seventh book about the Middle East, a place she left 34 years ago. Or did she?

“In some ways, I’ve never actually left [the Middle East]. It never lets go of you, not if you’ve spent any time there. By writing about it, I lead a double life: On the one hand, I’m here in 21st century Seattle; on the other, I spend my days in the ancient Middle East.

“This sense of place for me, the Middle East, is very vivid. You’re talking with someone who has an olive tree in her floating garden here in Seattle. The olive tree is my little piece of the Middle East in this misty outpost in the Northwest.”