The First Muslim and the Last Orientalist

Lesley Hazleton’s biography of Muhammad, The First Muslim, was published last year; the paperback came out a few days ago.

If history is the art of telling true stories, this book is a triumph of literature alone. Hazleton writes beautifully, and the book is very well structured; but it is, simply put, a modern spin on a medieval classic: the Sīrah by Ibn Ishāq (d. 768). Hazleton follows this text almost uncritically. Occasionally she draws on the relevant part of the History by Tabarī (d. 923), which is an abridgement of the Sīrah that includes some variant traditions.

This point must be stressed: of all the hundreds of sources she might have examined, in Arabic, Syriac and Greek, she limits herself to two kindred texts. Both have been translated into English, which I’m sure made them especially tempting.[1] It wouldn’t matter if the other sources agreed with hers by and large. Unfortunately, as historians well know, the more sources we examine for Muhammad’s life, the more confused and contradictory it appears.

Hazleton doesn’t address this basic problem of source criticism. There’s no statement of methodology; no apologia for her subject. She treats Muhammad’s life as more or less unproblematic, and in so doing, she misleads her many readers. I don’t mean to impugn her motives: it’s her competence I’m questioning. Hazleton is a fine litterateur, but she’s no historian. If she doesn’t address these textual problems, maybe it’s because she doesn’t know there’s a problem.

As a result, The First Muslim is deeply conservative. Yes, it recasts a medieval story for a modern audience; but not only that. I mean that it reproduces, with cosmetic changes, the narrative of Islamic origins that dominated the Western academy from the nineteenth century until the generation just gone. Hazleton’s faith in the text, her romanticism, and her psychologism, all belong to a bygone age of Orientalist scholarship.

 

In the late nineteenth century, when Islamic Studies was a novelty, Western scholars marvelled at the traditional sources for Islamic history. As empiricists, reacting against philosophical speculation, they drew ‘knowledge’ from the primary sources, and synthesised a coherent picture of “what actually happened”. As far as they were concerned, that was exactly what the classical sources told them.

If they were going to read these, they needed to know the languages. So they specialised. They spent decades learning Arabic and Persian, and often Hebrew, Turkish and Syriac. They read and reread the vast, multi-volume chronicles from medieval Iraq. They developed close personal and professional ties with the Middle East. And in the process, they started to lose touch with the rest of the academy. That is how Orientalism became a ‘discipline’ in its own right: sternly philological and unwittingly conservative.

This was the dominant mode of historical Orientalism for over a century. Change was incremental. Meanwhile the ’60s and ’70s battered the Humanities, transforming how we think about human beings. Literary theory undermined our confidence in the written word; medievalists were confronted with anthropology and religious studies. And Orientalism barely noticed.

When the pressure came, it came suddenly and from two directions. Critical theory condemned the Orientalists for promoting an archetype of the Middle East, othered and essentialised. Simultaneously a small group of Orientalists problematised the sources, insisting on their incoherence; their literary and tendentious character. Through the 1980s, slowly and begrudgingly, Orientalism collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.[2]

Better late than never: we are all Historians now.

 

All this is what makes Lesley Hazleton’s recent work so remarkable. Having read (and cited) several great books from the revolution – Orientalism, Hagarism, Meccan Trade –, she has somehow managed to produce a biography in the grand old tradition of W.M. Watt and Nabia Abbott. They were writing nineteenth-century history in the mid-twentieth century; Hazleton is still writing it in the twenty-first.

An exercise in ignorance, presumption and O’Toolean romance, The First Muslim may be the last Orientalist biography of Muhammad ever written; and certainly the laziest.



[1] The only other medieval source that she cites is also in translation – the Book of Idols (1952) – but this is cited only once and rather peripherally.

[2] For another recent summary of this process, see C. Robinson, “Crone and the end of Orientalism”, in Ahmed et al. (eds.), Islamic Cultures, Islamic Contexts (forthcoming).

Ian D. Morris

Ian D. Morris

Historian and occasional human, powered by tea and cat videos.

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