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I read Robert Spencer's, Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins, few years ago and enjoyed it, but felt he maybe overstated his case, when it would have been sufficient to show how little we can know for sure about Muhammad's life and Islam's origins. Ms Hazelton's biography has somewhat the opposite problem, presenting an extremely thorough life and times, including novelistic touches like ascribing facial expressions and personal feelings to the Prophet. She draws heavily upon early, though, conspicuously not contemporary, Muslim biographies for the events she relates. And we need not disbelieve in the existence of Muhammad to be dubious about these stories. So what is presented as dispassionate fact-gathering really begins with an act of faith, no matter that the author calls herself an agnostic.

These reservations aside, she has produced a very readable official version for Western readers. And her background in psychiatry and as a reporter on the Middle East allows her to make some informed speculations about her subject. In particular, her discussion of what it might have been like for an orphaned boy to receive revelations from God and then rise to great political power is compelling, even if we can't know it to be true. This ought not be the only book you read on Muhammad and early Islam, but it does offer an interesting perspective.


Grade: (B-)


Lesley Hazelton Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Lesley Hazleton
    -BLOG: The Accidental Theologist
    -TWITTER: @accidentaltheo
    -ENTRY: Hazleton, Lesley 1945– (
    -BOOK SITE: The First Muslim
    -BOOK SITE: After the Prophet
    -EXCERPT: from Jezebel by Lesley Hazleton: Chapter One: Tyre
    -READING GROUP GUIDE: Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen by Lesley Hazleton (Reading Group Guides)
-VIDEO LECTURE: Lesley Hazleton discusses her recent publication, The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad (NYUAD Institute, April 2, 2013)
    -ARCHIVES: Lesley Hazleton: Writer, psychologist (Ted Talks)
    -ARCHIVES: Lesley Hazelton (The Stranger)
    -ESSAY: Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse: Searching for the site of James Dean's fatal car crash leads to Nowhere. (Lesley Hazelton, SEPTEMBER 25, 1998, Salon)
    -ESSAY: The chosen ones — a brief history of Islam: The discord between Sunnis and Shias dates back to the years immediately after the Prophet Muhammad’ (Lesley Hazelton, 6/23/2011, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: 7 Things That May Surprise You About Muhammad (Lesley Hazelton, 01/26/2013, Huffington Post)
    -ESSAY: Mysteries of Menopause: Let's just say it hasn't turned out the way I expected. (Lesley Hazleton, 8/14/19, The Stranger)
    -ESSAY: So You're Thinking About Choosing a Religion: Ten Questions to Ask Yourself First (Lesley HazletonSEP 17, 2014, The Stranger)
    -ESSAY: Forgotten Israelis (Lesley Hazleton, May 29, 1980, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Israel: The Sticking Point (Lesley Hazleton, June 29, 1978, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond War by David Rohde (Lesley Hazelton, America)
-REVIEW: of The Way To The Spring by Ben Ehrenreich (Lesley Hazelton, America)
    -VIDEO: On Reading the Koran (Lesley Hazelton, October 2010, TedTalks)
    -VIDEO: The Doubt Essential to Faith (Lesley Hazelton, June 2013, TedTalks)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Lesley Hazleton - Suni & Shia Understanding (Center For Faith Studies, Feb 11, 2018)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Understanding Islam with Lesley Hazleton, Author of "The First Muslim" (THE EXCHANGE, JUL 21, 2014, NHPR)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: "The First Muslim" with author Lesley Hazleton (Tapestry, CBC)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: New Book Challenges Myths Of 'The First Muslim' (WBUR, March 01, 2013)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: The First Muslim (DOUG FABRIZIO, FEB 4, 2013, RadioWest)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: The great divide: the Shia and Sunni in Iraq (Rear Vision, 27 Jul 2014, ABC)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto By Lesley Hazleton (JOE DONAHUE, APR 21, 2016, New Yorker Radio Hour)
    -INTERVIEW: The Prophet’s Path : The journalist and "accidental theologist" discusses distinguishing human from legend in her latest book on the founder of Islam. (Jamal Mahjoub, February 1, 2013, Guernica)
The modern biographies tended to be pious, devotional biographies, which are a complete turn-off for non-Muslims. Those for general audiences seemed merely dutiful, plodding through all the main events of his life without asking questions, without delving, trying to figure out who this man was. I grew frustrated; I wanted a feel for the man himself, not the two-dimensional legend. The more I learned about the three-dimensional man, the more he was weighed down by the sheer accumulation of fact and detail. Nobody had really looked and said: “What was really going on here? Let’s enter into this experience. Let’s figure out how it felt.” Not just what happened, but why. The main duty of a biography is not simply to trot dutifully through the facts of someone’s life, but to enter that life, make it come alive, make your subject real again.

    -INTERVIEW: Lesley Hazleton Is No Fence-Sitter: The Seattle author makes a spirited defense of agnosticism and orgasms. (Jessica Voelker, 3/28/2016, SeattleMet)
    -ESSAY: How an agnostic Jew taught me true Islam (KHALID SAEED | National President American Muslim Voice, October 10, 2020, Daily Democrat)
    -ARCHIVES: Lesley Hazelton (America)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVE: Lesley Hazelton (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Lesley Hazelton (Publishers Weekly)
    -VIDEO ARCHIVES: Lesley Hazelton (You Tube)
    -REVIEW: of The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad by Lesley Hazleton (Eric Ormsby, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of First Muslim (Tom Holland, Times uk)
    -REVIEW: of First Muslim (Drew Toal, NPR)
    -REVIEW: of First Muslim (Judith Reveal, NY Journal of Books)
    -REVIEW: of First Muslim (Hari Kunzru, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of First Muslim (ZIYA US SALAM, The Hindu)
    -REVIEW: of First Muslim (DAVID STOESZ, City Arts)
    -REVIEW: of First Muslim (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of First Muslim (Dr. Janas Khan, Journal of Islamic and Religious Studies)
    -REVIEW: of First Muslim (Jonathan P. Berkey, SF Gate)
    -REVIEW: of First Muslim (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of First Muslim (Stuart Schoffman, Ha'aretz)
    -REVIEW: of First Muslim (Tyrone Beason, Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: of First Muslim (Alizah Solario, Spirituality & Health Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of First Muslim (Complete Word)
    -REVIEW: of After the Prophet by Lesley Hazelton (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of After the Prophet (Eric Ormsby, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of After the Prophet (Marshall Poe, University of Iowa, New Books Network)
    -REVIEW: of After the Prophet (Drew DeSilver, Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: of Agnostic by Lesley Hazelton (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Agnostic (Megan Volpert, Pop Matters)
    -REVIEW: of Agnostic (Paul Constant, Seattle Weekly)

Book-related and General Links:

-REVIEW: of Muhammad, the World-Changer: An Intimate Portrait by Mohamad Jebara (Joseph Hammond, RNS)