The Messenger and the Message

From The New York Times:

FirstBigots looking to confirm their prejudices will, by and large, find “The First Muslim” a disappointment: Hazleton approaches her subject with scrupulous respect. She blogs as “the Accidental Theologist,” where she describes herself as “a psychologist by training, a Middle East reporter by experience, an agnostic fascinated by the vast and often terrifying arena in which politics and religion intersect.” In 2010, she gave a TED talk debunking some of the more egregious myths about the Koran, notably the salaciously Orientalist “72 virgins.” This is a writer who is working to dispel contradictions, not sharpen them.The story of Muhammad is undoubtedly extraordinary.

…Orphaned in childhood in Mecca, an Arabian trading hub, he rose to be the trusted business agent and later husband of Khadija, a wealthy merchant woman. This respectable citizen took to climbing into the mountains overlooking the town, where he would spend nights in solitary meditation. Eventually he received a revelation, in the form of the voice of the angel Gabriel, who began to dictate the verses of the Koran. As the messenger of this radical new form of monotheism, he disrupted the power structure and eventually led his followers out of Mecca to nearby Medina, where he took full political control and began military operations against the rulers of his birthplace. By the time of his death, Islam had been embraced throughout the Arabian Peninsula and was spreading farther afield. “The First Muslim” tells this story with a sort of jaunty immediacy. Bardic competitions are “the sixth-century equivalent of poetry slams.” The section of the Koran known as the Sura of the Morning has “an almost environmentalist approach to the natural world.” Theological ideas and literary tropes are “memes” that can go “viral.” Readers irritated by such straining for a contemporary tone will find it offset by much useful and fascinating context on everything from the economics of the Meccan caravan trade to the pre-Islamic lineage of prophets called hanifs, who promoted monotheism and rejected idolatry.

More here.