Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The First Muslim - by Lesley Hazleton


Lesley Hazleton is one of those fascinating oddities (for lack of a better word) that I would just love to sit down with to share a drawn-out dinner and a good bottle of wine. British and Jewish by birth, American and agnostic by choice, Ms. Hazleton is an author who writes fervently about religion.

But she is so much more than an author. Ms. Hazleton is a journalist who reported for many years from the Middle East, a trained psychologist who applies her professional insight to all her work, a blogger who writes as The Accidental Theologist, a passionate political junkie, an educator, lecturer, and artist, a car enthusiast, and an airplane pilot – who lives on a houseboat in Seattle. That houseboat sometimes, she asserts, noticeably sinks deeper into the cold waters of Lake Union from the heaviness of all her research books when she is in the throes of her latest research.


She is not easy to describe in simple terms. The author has described herself in her own introduction of her biographical book about Mary as “a Jew who once seriously considered becoming a rabbi, a former convent schoolgirl who daydreamed about being a nun, an agnostic with a deep sense of religious mystery though no affinity for organized religion.”

In 2011 Ms. Hazleton was asked to speak at a meeting of the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.  The subject of her discourse was “What’s a nice Jewish girl doing writing so much about Islam?” In her talk she said, “Islam did not attack the US on 9/11; eighteen people with a particularly twisted and distorted idea of Islam did. The Jews do not shoot Palestinian farmers in the West Bank; Bible-spouting settlers with a particularly twisted and distorted idea of Judaism do.”

Her thirsty quest for answers has led her on an incredible journey exploring religions, politics, cultures, and history. She has read and studied the Quran, the Bible, and the Torah and has researched and written books about Muslims, Christians and Jews. “Her characters are figures who have been trapped, untouchable, in amber for decades by organized religion,”says writer Paul Constant of The Stranger, in his September 2011 Stranger Genius in Literature article about Ms. Hazleton for Seattle’s news, arts and entertainment newspaper.

Lesley Hazleton wearing an abaya in Abu Dhabi in 2012

One of Hazleton’s previous books about Islam, After the Prophet, explores the continuous epic conflict and bitter split between the Shia and Sunni. Another of her books, Mary: A Flesh and Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother, exemplifies Hazleton’s ability to vividly bring her subjects to life in a way that history books never could. In Hazleton’s book Jezebel: The Untold Story of Israel’s Harlot Queen, she manages to dispel the questionable accusations that gave this misunderstood historical figure, whose name is synonymous with evil, such a bad rap.

Says Hazleton, “The fact that few people do actually read the Quran is precisely why it’s so easy to quote, that is, to misquote phrases and snippets taken out of context in what I call the ‘highlighter version,’ which is the one favored by both Muslim fundamentalists and anti-Muslim Islamophobes.”

“Unfortunately many Muslim believers do not bother to think by themselves but leave it to others. Especially those young people who are brain washed and made to act as human bombs. Nothing could be more un-Islamic, starting with the fact that suicide is strongly forbidden in Islam,” she stresses.

Her latest book is called The First Muslim and is due out on store shelves on January 24th.  It is a biography about the life of the prophet Muhammad.

When asked what she found most surprising in her research for this book, she answered, "What struck me most was how much more remarkable Muhammad's life was in reality than in legend.  I can't claim that this was a surprise, however, because legend tends to flatten someone out into two dimensions.  Yes, even Muhammad.  I felt that if I accorded him the integrity of lived reality, with all its very human trials and dilemmas, then I could really appreciate not only what he achieved, but how." 

Regarding the common belief in the Muslim faith that Muhammad was illiterate, Ms. Hazleton says, "I don't know for sure if he was illiterate.  The Quran was transmitted orally, and I don't see what literacy or lack of literacy has to do with it.   As a well-traveled traders' representative, it seems reasonable to think that he may have had some basic literacy skills, if only to keep records.  But the main point is that illiteracy -- or rather, to use a less judgmental phrase, lack of literacy -- was no barrier to knowledge in an oral culture.  In an oral culture such as that of seventh-century Arabia, words lived on the tongue and in the heart, not on the page.  The spoken word thus had more power than it generally does today." 

In an interview in Religion Dispatches Magazine for her new book,  Ms. Hazleton talked about her inspiration in writing the book:  "There was a terrific story to be told here: the journey from neglected orphan to acclaimed leader—from marginalized outsider to the ultimate insider—made all the more dramatic by the tension between idealism and pragmatism, faith, and politics."

The First Muslim is an offering from Riverhead Books. Click here to read an excerpt of the book (the opening chapter). 

Lesley Hazleton is scheduled to speak at Town Hall Seattle on January 24, 2013.   Future appearances include March 9 at Seattle University at the Search for Meaning book festival and on March 23 at Rutgers University at the Muslims for Peace conference.

To read additional articles about The First Muslim:

A book review by Tamam Kahn, herself an author on a book about Muhammad and his wives called Untold.

An interview in Religion Dispatches Magazine.

The video below is when Lesley Hazleton spoke in October 2010 about her experience of reading the entire Quran - filmed at TEDxRanier.  It's less than 10 minutes long - and well worth your time.


26 comments:

  1. Salam Susie,

    may I share that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was illiterate. From the Holy Quran: "And you did not recite before it any scripture, nor did you inscribe one with your right hand. Otherwise the falsifiers would have had [cause for] doubt." [Q29:48].

    People can still memorize by heart, maybe like how people memorize many songs. I myself can sing in foreign languages by heart even when I don't speak it. Anyway, have a nice day.

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  2. What a wonderful speech that was I enjoyed it so much thanks for sharing!

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    1. You are most welcome, Layla - I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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  3. She sounds absolutely fascinating!

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    1. Hi LadyFi - I totally agree. I'm hoping to meet her in person next time I'm in the Seattle area.

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  4. Great post, Susie! And I agree with ladyfi...the author sounds fascinating. Definitely picking up this book when I'm in the states this summer!

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    1. Hi UnderTheAbaya - Thanks so much! I am looking forward to reading her new book, and her previous ones too! Be sure to take a look at the excerpt (link is above).

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  5. Wow, Susie -- you get me amazingly well, and in such a wonderfully personal way. I can't tell you how often I read about myself and say, basically, "Huh? Who is that person?" But reading you, I could see and hear myself, and felt honored to be able to do so.
    Thank you so much!
    That good bottle of wine awaits you here in Seattle -- Lesley

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    1. Hi Lesley - It was such a pleasure for me to "get to know you" through writing this blog post. I am so excited to get to meet you when I come to Seattle - maybe this summer!

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  6. “Islam did not attack the US on 9/11; eighteen people with a particularly twisted and distorted idea of Islam did. The Jews do not shoot Palestinian farmers in the West Bank; Bible-spouting settlers with a particularly twisted and distorted idea of Judaism do.”

    I think this statement is simplistic and wrong. Does anyone really think the Arab hijackers on 9/11/2001 didn't know Islam well? Of course they did. It is clear that many Muslims think attacking non-Muslim civilians is just fine. It has been happening in Israel for decades without anyone in the Muslim world pointing out the innocents are being killed. Just look at what is happening in Mali. Muslim inspired rebels are inflicting standard Islamic approved punishments and destroying what they think are idols.

    The threat of violence from Muslims has caused US news outlets to self censor reports on cartoons about Muhammed. In short Islam seems to instill in its devotees a penchant for easy violence.

    As far as "Jews" in the above statement, if the women had used Israelis it would have been a bit more accurate (a foolish error for a woman born Jewish). Israelis may not approve of what settlers do but in 40 years they haven't done much to stop it.

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    1. Hi Jerry - I think her point is that there are many Muslims who don't agree with the actions of those few on 9/11, and the same thinking applies to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. My estimation is that there are more peaceful people of these religions than not. Unfortunately the ones who get the attention are those doing nasty things in the name of religion.

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    2. Using the link from the post, I have visited her blog. I certainly agree with much of what she says there (in particular her post on gun violence in the US).

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  7. Fantastic interview Susie! I first knew of Lesely Hazelton through the Ted talk, and now I can't wait to read her books. I was so inspired when I saw her on TED. I thought of her as a sort of Comparative Religion "Johnathan Livingston Seagull", who soars above the mundane, into the sacred and brings back knowledge and a new perspective for those who haven't learned yet to fly.
    I so would love to be at that houseboat with you Susie, what an honor and privilege!

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    1. Hi Kristine - I love your description of how you think of Lesley - I'm sure she will love it too. Thanks so much for your comment.

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  8. What an absolutely fascinating woman! I think you should contact her the next time you're in Seattle and ask her to dinner. Wouldn't it be amazing to probe her mind??

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    1. Hi Anonymous - I'm so glad to share the excitement I feel since I first learned about Lesley and am even happier to find that others also feel that same affinity for her as I. I think I should start working on a list of topics to discuss with her!

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  9. I was most amazed myself when I did not find the 72 virgins in the Qur'an.

    I started reading it after "The Revelation of Arès" where God calls Muhammad His messenger. I read a page or two each day and start back at the beginning when I get to the end, this since 2003. I guess I have read it about 10 times. I agree with Lesley Hazleton that it is not a book to read as any other book. I read it as if drinking it.

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    1. Hi djd-fr - Wow, you've read the Qur'an about 10 times? Quite an achievement. I know it takes a lot of time to digest and understand the contents. I love your description about reading it "as if drinking it." Thanks for your comment.

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  10. Interesting that she apparently knows more about those three religions than many of the followers of those religions...but does not follow any of them herself. None of them were convincing enough for her? This tells me much more about her than your entire description of her. Thank you for introducing this lovely lady to us. (for those of us unfamiliar with her)

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    1. Hi CoolRed - I'm not surprised that you are impressed with Lesley. Me too! So good to hear from you.

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  11. Hi Susie,
    This is Wendy from Canada. Your new sign in is making it hard for me as I don't fit with your comment profiles so I'll sign in as Anon.

    I've read several of Lesley's books and have watched her on 'Ted'. She has been interviewed on CBC in Canada if I'm not mistaken. Such and intelligent and interesting woman! Nice interview, Susie.

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  12. I visited Lesley's website and ended up buying one of the books she recommended from a different author, but I think I'll now check out one of the books noted above.

    Regarding question of Muhammad's (PBUH) literacy or lack of (and, thank you for making the distinction between illiteracy and lack of), it remains unclear from the Qu'ran verse cited by LM. The fact that he did not write something down does not mean he was not capable of doing so. Further, someone with, shall we say "limited" literary skills might choose to convey the recitation orally rather than take a chance -- as is implied in the quoted text -- on not getting it exactly right.

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    1. & that is how I write in hebrew, sanskrit, chinese, japanese, korean etc.

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    2. Sometimes I wish I'm a blonde jewish woman if that gives more credibility. Ha ha. Maybe Lesley can explain it in the best, better than me who have read the Quran & learn arabic. Honestly, I don't know what part of it is unclear. Maybe if somehow I have jewish blood, then maybe... I'll be able to think as good some day.

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  13. "the spoken word has more power than it does today."
    It seems like fundamentalism of any type seems to rear its head any time cultures experience some type of shift.It makes me think of the Luddites during the Industrial Revolution or the 100 years war in Europe......

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