Book Review, Lesley Hazleton. After the Prophet: The Story of Muhammad (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013)
After reading Lesley Hazleton’s book, After the Prophet, I knew I needed to read her biography of Muhammad. Hazleton has lived in the Middle East for years and has experience with the culture and stories of the prophet. She uses her journalistic skills and knowledge to try to tell the story of Muhammad in a different way, a way I found engaging and informative. In many ways she writes this biography as a novel, meaning at times interjects personal feelings of her characters that she could not know. If you read this for what it is it works. Reading like a novel, Muhammad becomes the hero of the story, yet like so many heroes in literature, he must experience a fall. Hazleton follows the classic tragic hero narrative as she brings to life the story of Muhammad.
The story begins the way all good hero stories do. Muhammad is orphaned young and must struggle his entire childhood to fit in and be accepted. Yet through perseverance, hard work, and a bit of smarts, he excels in what he does as a trader. Even though respected for his work, however, he is still not fully accepted. He finally gets a break when he marries a wealthy and connected women and now can take over her trading business.
Once with his wife Khadija, he begins to go to the mountains to pray and meditate on the wrongs in his society. It is while there that the angel Gabriel visits him, and Muhammad begins to receive the revelations that will become the Koran. With his new calling from God, Muhammad gives up the little peace and security he has as the people of Mecca turn on him once more, as people tend to do towards prophets. Out of fear for his life, Muhammad and his followers will flee to Mecca to the nearby town of Medina, where they have accepted him as their political leader.
It will not take long for Muhammad to become the political, as well as, religious leader of Medina and it is here where Hazleton seems to show a change. As Muhammad goes from a simple messenger of God to the prophet, he loses some of the qualities that made him the protagonist in the story. Things really change when he banishes two Jewish tribes for not accepting Islam and then slaughters a third. Other scholars have written that the slaughter after the Battle of the Trench was more for treason, but Hazleton explains that it is because they would not submit to him.
It was during this time that anyone who questioned him became a false believer and was labeled a hypocrite. It quickly became treason, not against Medina as it once was, but against the Prophet himself.
The poor orphan boy who criticized the leaders of Mecca in some ways became like them. Eventually he would use his intellect to retake Mecca and eventually all of Arabia. His teaching would come to dominate the Middle East and beyond. Muslims today would disagree with Hazleton’s idea of a Tragic Hero as Millions see him as the Prophet of God and the Koran the final revelations from God.
Hazleton tries to show both sides of the story. She does not write as a believer or a skeptic. She does question some of the accepted stories of Muhammad as many scholars do, but understands their importance to Muslims. In the end she gave an interesting telling of the life of one of the most important religious figures in the history of the world.