In today's febrile cultural and religious climate, what project could be more fraught than writing a biography of Muhammad? The worldwide protests at "The Innocence of Muslims," 14 minutes of trashy provocation posted on YouTube, are a terrible reminder to the would-be biographer that the life story of the prophet of Islam is not material about which one is free to have a "take." Lesley Hazleton's "First Muslim" is a book written by a white woman of dual American and British citizenship, published in America more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks. For many believers it is already — even before it is read, if it is read at all — an object of suspicion, something to be defended against, in case it should turn out to be yet another insult, another cruel parody of a story such an author has no business telling.
To others, of course, this book offers a welcome chance to read that life story in a more familiar and accessible form than the Islamic sources, a window into the parallel world where it is worth killing and dying to preserve the Prophet's aura of holiness. Bigots 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.