After the Prophet by Lesley Hazleton

So much to learn…

I have not stopped raving about this book since I finished reading it and keep pushing it as a must-read recommendation to anyone I speak to. (It makes a change from boring everyone with my American holiday). It was recommended by Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of Acumen, who suggested a list of ten books to understand the world better, and ranked this one first. Oh boy, how

right she was.

After the Prophet is not a novel, it is “narrative history”, that is, the story of things that happened and of things that people say happened, told in a highly compelling way. The tag line (or sub-title, is there a difference?) is “The epic story of the Shia-Sunni split”. And indeed the book starts with an epic, with a Hollywood-like story set in the Middle Eastern desert in the seventh century, packed with momentous events – a new religion has just unified a whole region and its leader lies dying – and plenty of human interest, including a headstrong, opinionated, active and vocal woman and a meek, patient, saintly one (I think that I will now always think of Aisha and Fatima as being a bit like Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes in Gone With The Wind). So we follow people clustered around a deathbed, their efforts to relieve Muhammad in his agony, their speculation about what the future holds, we witness Aisha’s late arrival in Medina after she accidentally let the caravan leave without her and what happens as a result, we hear all about the struggles that led to the first four “rightfully” chosen successors to the Prophet. And then, it all starts to go badly wrong, with the first drop of Muslim blood spilt by a Muslim hand.

At this point, Lesley Hazleton starts referring far more frequently to events that have occurred over the past 1400 years. Depending on their age, readers will remember more of what happened in Iran in 1979 or Iraq in 1991 or the US in 2001, (or more precisely, for many, the coverage they saw of it). We still have one foot in 630-something though, and such is Lesley Hazleton’s skill that I got two thirds of the way into the book before starting to get confused about who belonged to which camp, both during the early caliphates, and today. Maybe the author suffered trying to work out who was who in a Russian novel she read once – whatever the reason, one of the great strengths of the book is the clarity with which it tells this most complex and important of stories.
The fact that Lesley Hazleton is outside the Islamic faith (her blog The Accidental Theologist carries the tag “an agnostic eye on religion, politics and existence”) and that she dares attempt the kind of work this book represents will be a problem for some. As will the fact that her main authority is the highly respected and erudite ninth century historian Al-Tabari, a Sunni.
What staggered me most about reading After the Prophet was the sheer amount of things I didn’t know. I knew I didn’t know much about Islam, but I didn’t quite realise the extent of my ignorance. For instance, I knew that Quranic texts have always been hotly debated, but I didn’t realise that the Arabic language was so subtle that a “translation” of the Quran is not deemed to be really achievable and that instead it is better to speak of an “interpretation”. I knew that Islam, Judaism and Christianity were intertwined, but not to the point of having Jesus and Hussein accompany the twelfth Imam back to Karbala, in a Shia tradition. I didn’t have a clue of the various ways across the centuries in which theology and politics were completely welded together or separated in countries where Islam was the main faith.
And I now have a question that isn’t covered very much by the author here: what came before Islam in the region that saw the birth of it? Some early converts to Islam were Jewish or Christian but surely not the majority? A book included in the bibliography provided by Lesley Hazleton happens to sit on our bookshelves at home, so I will turn to A History of Arab Peoples and see if I can find any answers in that.

Rarely has a non-fictional book so filled my head.

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