An Agnostic Biography of the Prophet Muhammad

What inspired you to write The First Muslim?

Basically, frustration! I’d read several biographies of Muhammad as background for my previous book, After the Prophet, but though they seemed to tell me a lot about him, they left me with little real sense of the man himself. There was a certain dutiful aspect to them, and this made them kind of… soporific. Which seemed to me a terrible thing to do to such a remarkable life.

There was a terrific story to be told here: the journey from neglected orphan to acclaimed leader—from marginalized outsider to the ultimate insider—made all the more dramatic by the tension between idealism and pragmatism, faith, and politics. I wanted to be able to see Muhammad as a complex, multidimensional human being, instead of the two-dimensional figure created by reverence on the one hand and prejudice on the other. I wanted the vibrancy and vitality of a real life lived.

But of course I was also impelled by a certain dismay at how little most of us in the West know about Muhammad, especially when Islam is so often in the headlines and there are so many competing claims to “the truth about Islam.” This one man radically changed his world—indeed he’s still changing ours—so it seemed to me vitally important that we be able to get beyond stereotypes and see who he really was.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about Muhammad?

Let’s take just the two most obvious stereotypes: the lecherous polygamist, and the sword-wielding warmonger. In fact Muhammad’s first marriage, to Khadija, was a loving, monogamous relationship that lasted 24 years, until her death. The nine late-life marriages were mainly diplomatic ones—means of sealing alliances, as was standard for any leader at the time. And it’s striking that while he had five children with Khadija—four daughters and a son who died in infancy—he had none with any of the late-life wives.

As for the warmonger image, Muhammad maintained a downright Gandhian stance of passive, nonviolent resistance to both verbal and physical assaults for 12 years, until he was driven into exile from his home in Mecca. The psychology of exile thus played a large role in the armed conflict over the subsequent eight years, until Mecca finally accepted his leadership in a negotiated surrender, with strong emphasis on avoiding bloodshed.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

I know there’s a tendency to elide certain issues of Muhammad’s life, not least among them the rapid deterioration of his relations with the Jews of Medina, which was especially hard for me, as a Jew, to write about. But to evade such issues seems to me to demonstrate a certain lack of respect for your subject. A biographer’s task is surely to create as full a portrait as possible. If you truly respect your subject, you need to do him justice by according him the integrity of reality.

What alternative title would you give the book?

Perhaps “Seeing Muhammad Whole.” Or “A Man in Full.” But since Muhammad is told three times in the Qur’an to call himself the first Muslim, I knew early on that this would be the title.

Did you have a specific audience in mind?

It kind of hurts to think of intelligent, open-minded readers as a specific audience…

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

Far more than inform! The pleasure for me lies in the “aha!” of understanding, of grasping the richness of reality, with all its uncertainties and dilemmas. It’s in the practice of empathy—not sympathy, but empathy, which is the good-faith attempt to understand someone else’s experience. Those who nurture images of Muhammad as the epitome of either all evil or all good may well be disconcerted, but then that’s the point: empathy trumps stereotype any time.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

The First Muslim isn’t a “message” book. If anything, since I’m agnostic, you might call it an agnostic biography. But I think many readers may be surprised at Muhammad’s deep commitment to social justice, his radical protest against greed and corruption, and his impassioned engagement with the idea of unity, both human and divine—major factors that help explain the appeal of Islam.

How do you feel about the cover?

I loved it the minute I saw it. Riverhead brilliantly avoided all the usual obvious images—domes, minarets, crescent moons, camels, and so on—and opted instead for the understated elegance of this classic “knot” tile design.

Is there a book out there you wish you’d written?

On Muhammad? No, and that’s exactly why I wrote The First Muslim. The book I wish someone else had written didn’t exist—one that brought psychological and political context to the historical and religious record, and one I actually wanted to read instead of feeling that I should.

What’s your next book?

I’m thinking it’s time to explore exactly what I mean by being an agnostic, and how this informs my ongoing fascination with the vast and volatile arena in which religion and politics intersect.