Distortions in Fantasy-reflections on After the Prophet by Lesley Hazelton
By M Akmal
My problem with Lesley Hazelton’s After the Prophet starts rather early, actually from the very first paragraph. From the very outset, I am struck by a series of errors in her narrative. She is creating dramatic fantasy scenarios even when historical record is available. She is fantasizing about events that are widely known to Shia and Sunni Muslims. I cannot understand why she is doing it.
It is appropriate that [unintentional] Errors and historical omissions that she makes about the life of the Prophet need to be clearly stated, even if to inform Ms Hazelton. At times Ms Hazelton lunges blindly into rich fantasy. She appears to impose her personal interpretations to her own fantasy scenarios that she herself has imagined. This reads like a circular fantasy-history making: imagining a story; telling the story; opining on it as fact, and judging it as history. Is this a new genre in literature?
There is refusal to correct fantasy despite available historical fact. With this intellectual abandon, her work as history is not easy to read. But, a good fairytale she tells!
In the last sentence of the first paragraph of the first chapter, she states, ‘… as though nobody had considered the possibility that he might die, not even Muhammad himself…’. This must cause exasperation amongst Muslims with any knowledge of history. It did have that exact effect on me sure enough. Maybe that was what she intended.
Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon in 623 AD. It was at the end of the last Hajj he performed, accompanied by about one hundred thousand Muslims. He started by saying that this was probably his last hajj and that he would not be amongst Muslims for the coming Hajj, in the coming year. This historical sermon by Prophet Muhammad, declaring his belief that he would not be alive for much longer, rubbishes Hazelton’s notion that the he had not considered the possibility of his own death. I feel that her assertion, at the very start of her book, is so astonishingly erroneous. It does not show even basic knowledge of events in the last year of Prophet’s life. Or is it a symptom of lack of understanding? Or is it intentional? Does that apparent lack of understanding create lack of coherence? Is she not able to construct a narrative with conflicting facts especially when those facts test her fantasy scenarios? Does she have to create a fantasy to tell her story? Is that her agenda, to tell a different story? Or to create a different story?
In the second paragraph of the same first chapter she writes, ‘Did he know he was dying. He surely must have?’ She asks the question and before the reader can even think, gives the answer. No, she says, he did not. She creates doubt when there is no historical doubt. Her fantasy scenario seems to drift like this: Did Muhammad know his time had come. He must have but possibly he did not understand what was happening to him. If he knew did he deliberately hide it from others? And on it goes, uninterrupted.
There is nothing wrong with these questions except that the answers are there in recorded history. Those answers do not support Ms Hazelton’s fantasy scenarios so she creates fantasy situations.
There appears inaccurate description of Prophet’s life and Muslim history. Only a day before his death, Prophet came out of his home. He asked people if he had intentionally or unintentionally wronged someone. He wanted to seek their forgiveness before his imminent death. He states that that he knew that he would be dead soon. A Bedouin says that he, Muhammad had hit him inadvertently with his stick. And he wanted to hit him back. People were outraged. But Muhammad calmed them down. He said that the Bedouin could hit him with his stick. The Bedouin was not satisfied. He said that when Muhammad hit him, he was not wearing his shirt. Despite surging anger in the crowd who was ready to tear that Bedouin to pieces, Muhammad, in high fever, took off his shirt. He agreed to be hit bare skinned. At that moment the Bedouin rushed forward and gave Prophet a big hug. He confessed that he wanted to embrace the Prophet and made up that tale. So, when she asks the first question, the answer is, yes, Prophet knew that he was dying. He told everyone that he was dying.
On page 8, in the last paragraph, while imagining the scene of Prophet’s death, she writes ‘…Muhammad must have struggled for each breath.’ I found that gratuitous. He may or may not have? He may be going into semi-consciousness and his breaths would be slow? What was the intent in writing this, I ask? To show that he was in pain? That he was suffering? Whatever the real intent but I found it in bad taste? Rather disrespectful too, taking disrespectful liberties with artistic license. This is purported to be historical narrative. It is not.
Page 9 is given to further conjecture and erroneous impressions of modern day Middle East, as compared with the Middle East of 1500 years ago. At that time, when Muhammad spoke, he spoke in soft tones, and he never raised his voice. He asked people to pray softly and slowly. He admonished those who spoke loudly especially in his presence. He was not one who liked loud noise and his devoted followers respected that wish. The idea that his followers were creating unbearable cacophony around him, while he lay on his deathbed, is another leap into fantastic artistic [off] license. It probably is outright distortion, in narrating a major historical event. Prophet’s death was the Muslim parallel to the death of Jesus.
The last paragraph of that same page starts with the preamble of a major ‘insult’ on Muhammad by Lesley Hazelton. This insult is grievous. It is that point where I was motivated to write this critique of her so called ‘respectful’ work. What was the mindset in which she wrote this condemnation of Muhammad? Was insulting Muhammad her real motive? One may countenance fantasy narratives of his death, and imaginary characterization she offers, but what I could not countenance was what I read in her ‘history’. This is heinous, in my view, what Hazelton goes onto write on page 10. After giving us a lesson on what Arab traditions were about male heirs (as if this was totally alien to what was going on in the rest of the world), she calls Muhammad ‘Abtar’. This is an insult, a curse, God inflicted on one of Muhammad ‘s arch opponents. This man was one of his uncles, Abu Lahab, who despised Islam and became Muhammad’s arch foe. He died without having any children and was described in the Quran as ‘Abtar’. Abtar is someone who has no offsprings, no one to continue his name. She takes the atrocious liberty of calling Muhammad, Abtar.
After reading that, for me, the purpose of this book and the mind of the author become transparent. As if reality was revealed. Without going into the mind of the author, her statement is factually, spiritually, historically and genetically false. Hazelton deliberately tries to inflict this heinous injury on the name and life of Muhammad. It is something no one can say as ‘respectful characterization’. Whatever she said is not true. She uncloaks her disrespect. She puts some effort into explaining this curse she puts on Muhammad. That shows this as a deliberate insult, but an erroneous one. It is culturally ignorant characterization of the Prophet. It is also false description of history. And the reasons why Ms Hazelton is wrong are here in history, past, present and future.
Muhammad had sons, daughters and grandchildren, many grandchildren: grandsons and granddaughters. He lived with them and loved them. And they loved him back. He doted on them and they doted on him. He played with them carrying them on his shoulders at every opportunity. He would eat with them; take them to prayers and religious gatherings, carrying them on his shoulders, even while leading prayers. He would take them for fun rides and games. He would nurture them and care for them. He would become upset if any of his grandchildren was crying. He would rush to see them. He would ask his daughter, Fatima, why his grandson or granddaughter was crying. He would worry about their health. And his children looked after him. His daughter, Fatima, would wash his head with tears rolling down her cheeks, when his enemies would throw dirt on his head, or when his face would be bloodied by blows from the enemies of his message. So much for being abtar! Then, even at that time, he had millions who called themselves his ‘Abd’, bound in his spiritual servitude, his devotees, his sons and daughters in faith. That was when he was still alive. And, the same Abtar has, throughout history, spiritual sons and daughters, reciting his name, in billions, trillions of times daily, throughout the last 1500 years. To call Muhammad ‘Abtar’ is a shameless swipe. It is an underhand strike at his name, and his legacy. Here stands Muhammad, the greatest of mankind for all Muslims; billions ready to lay down their lives for him, through the last 1500 years, and she calls him ‘Abtar’. If one thing that he was not, he was not ‘abtar’. Ms Hazelton would not be making a few dollars from writing about him, if he were a real ‘abtar’.
The following paragraph indulges in another speculative dive: if only he had a son? Hazelton laments on his behalf that only if he had a son all would be well! But is that what he wanted or was that ordained by God or was this his intention? To create a male monarchy? When his opponents offer that they would make him king of the city if only he stopped teaching Islam, what does he say? He says to them ‘ if you put the Sun on my right hand and the Moon on my left, and give me wealth of the whole world, I shall not give up my duty to God…’. For Hazelton to say that he wanted a male heir to take power after him suggests something really lacking in her discourse: complete lack of understanding of Islam, Muhammad and Quran. It shows not even superficial understanding of Muhammad, the Prophet.
It suggests that what she understands Islam is from Muslims monarchies in the Middle East and post colonial, traumatized, confused, peoples and despotic dictatorships of that area. She has not understood the participative democratic nature of Muhammad’s Islam, the real Quranic, Muhammadan Islam.
All her lamentation about the Prophet not having a male heir presupposes that he had a grand plan to keep power of governance focused in his family. If that were the case what stopped him from declaring this at the time of his last Hajj sermon? He knew that he was not going to be alive in the coming year, something Hazelton does not know as historical fact, from not having read his last Hajj sermon. When he knew that only his female heirs lived, he could have declared that his daughter would be the new spiritual and hereditary ruler of all Muslims. He could have declared that Ali, his most beloved male relative, whom he brought up as a son, who was also his cousin, and son in law, would be his heir. Ali he had raised as his own son, in his own household, with his first wife Khadija. Ali was the first male Muslim, and his confidante. Ali was also his son in law, of his most beloved first-born daughter Fatima. Fatima he called ‘a piece of my heart’. If he had wanted power vested in his family he could have done it a million times. Or even once, because he did not need to say it a second time in regards his wish about his heir. To suggest that, as Hazelton does, in the very start of her book, is so facetious, uninformed and insightless that it beggars belief!
Her apparent lamentation projected onto Muhammad is that he wanted to vest power into his male genetic line and that he did not have a male heir thus he could not have his desired succession. After all Muhammad knew that there were female Queens before in history, in nearby Egypt, the homeland of his last wife. He knew that his word was the final word for all Muslims. He knew that his word on succession would be the binding decree for all followers to obey even if he whispered it, once.
To counter this fantasy trip of Ms Hazelton who takes us deep into the valleys of her imagination, one historical example of participative democracy Muhammad practiced and preached should be enough. And that is inherent to all principles Islamic, then and now. This is the event that happened at the time of the battle of the Ditch. Meccan enemies as a large army of many tribes were marching towards Madina, Muhammad’s adoptive city, to which he had migrated. It was a massive army. Madina Muslims and his followers were badly outnumbered. It seemed dire. After much confusion amongst citizens of Madina, Muhammad went into his house and came out wearing his armor, with his sword in his hand. A follower asked him if he was acting on a revelation from God? Was he acting as a Prophet or acting as a man? Muhammad replied that he was acting as a man and not as Prophet. At that he was asked to seek expert opinion rather than just jump into the fray against a large army. He acquiesced and sought expert opinion from whomsoever knew something about warfare. Suleman the Persian came forward and suggested digging a defensive ditch, something like a moat, to defend the city from a huge army. This was unanimously approved and Muhammad started digging that ditch like all other citizens. On occasions people complained that they hadn’t eaten and Muhammad would also say that he also hadn’t eaten, so all knew that he was just as much a man as them, an equal, but a Prophet.
To suggest that Muhammad’s last lament was that he did not have a male heir is only a Hazelton fantasy.
On pages 10 and 11, Hazelton once again goes on the fantasy trip on an Arabian flying carpet. She attacks Muhammad’s fertility. He had six children and the last son, born, Ibrahim, when Muhammad was almost 60; Hazelton tries to rub Ibrahim off from history. That is a crusader strike. There are authentic historical accounts that establish Ibrahim’s birth, from Prophet’s last wife, Maria the Copt, mother of all Muslims, who was a noble lady from Egypt. There is a most touching and heart wrenching description when Muhammad appears inconsolable by the intensifying illness of young Ibrahim, an infant, and lifts him towards heavens, and prays to God for his health, with tears flowing down his cheeks. When asked if Ibrahim would survive because he was Prophet’s son and Muhammad’s prayers would be answered? His reply was that he was after all only a man and God did not relent in matters of life and death. It was only and only God’s will that decided who lived and who died and that he, even though a Prophet, was helpless. All the fantasizing and deliberate conjecturing is Hazelton’s own attempts to rub off Ibrahim from history. It may emanate most probably from her personal beliefs. This has nothing to do with Islamic history.
She declares that Maria the Copt was a slave. Even that is not true. She was a wife of Muhammad, a daughter of a noble courtier of the ruler of Cairo, given as a wife to Muhammad, to strengthen bonds friendship and creating bonds of kinship.
These two pages expose the intentions of Hazelton, where she questions the issue of Muhammad’s virility and fertility by suggesting if it were’…a legendary assurance of prophets’ honour’. To this reader, her analyses, her sentences suggest that she wanted to systematically shatter that ‘assurance of Prophet’s honour’. She does try hard to achieve this.
In the following paragraphs, she talks of impotence and sterility. That is interesting as she, unconsciously or deliberately sequestering the existence of Ibrahim, his son at the age 60, sows those seeds of the typical, ethnocentric, xenophobic, orientalist “know it all” mindset. Even if all this deliberate doubt is emanating from her own mind, unrelated to Muhammad’s life and his teachings, why is she suggesting it as history? Why is someone not able to conceive? She should ask a gynecologist and obstetrician of today who may know why? Or why not? And why is it that fully functional normal couples cannot conceive? She shows her hand rather crudely here.
On page 12, fourth paragraph, Hazelton starts with ‘Muhammad was the man who imposed his will-the will of God’. How to analyze it except what it screams out at you! She is suggesting, nay, she is stating that Muhammad imposed his will and called it the will of God.
After all these trampoline-jumps on her fantasy ride, diving onto flying carpets, I lost all appetite to read any further. Grimm’s fairytales is far better at that. For me, it was a rather crude and gratuitous read, without finesse and devoid of fact. That was how I experienced her book, least as long as I was able to read it.