Lesley Hazleton to SHAFAQNA: The Accidental Theologist

SHAFAQNA- A former psychologist, Lesley Hazleton reported on the Middle East from Jerusalem for over 12 years. Her writings have appeared among others in the Time, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, and Harper. Hazleton’s work has focused on the intersection of politics and religion, history and current affairs, making her writing stand out for the crowd.

Her last two books, The First Muslim and After the Prophet: the epic story of the Shia-Sunni split where acclaimed by critics and public alike.

A keen writer and a challenger of ideas and pre-conceived concepts, Hazleton lives by her motto –  “Everything is paradox. The danger is one-dimensional thinking.”

A psychologist by training and a writer by profession, can you please explain how you came about focusing your work on religion and its relation to politics?

“I never meant for this to happen. I’m 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.  And as a result, an accidental theologist.

Perhaps the thirteen years I lived and worked in Jerusalem have a lot to do with it—a city where politics and religion are at their most incendiary.  Or my childhood as the only Jew in a Catholic convent school, which somehow left me with a deep sense of mystery but no affinity for organized religion.  Or the fact that I’ve spent the past fifteen years writing on the roots of conflict in the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

What this means is that my life, like my head, is full of anomalies, a fact that both bemuses and intrigues me.  It makes things interesting.  Whether as agnostic, as psychologist, or as writer, I’m always asking questions—not to find “answers,” but to see where the questions lead.  Dead ends sometimes?  That’s fine. New directions? Interesting. Great insights? Over-ambitious. A glimpse here and there? Perfect.

So you’ll find none of the comfort of received opinion here. No claim to truth, let alone Truth (that capital T always makes me nervous). None of that astounding confidence (aka hubris) that cloaks ignorance and prejudice. The aim is to question, to explore, to keep my mind—and yours—open.”

In your blog the Accidental Theologist you write a lot of about Islam and the issues which sadly have plagued the Islamic world – radicalism, sectarianism and so on … your interest in Islam has considerably grew over the years.

Now in your book The First Muslim you retrace the life of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) from a very historic and I would say humanist standpoint, whereby you looked at the man beyond the religious veil. What has been this pull for you toward Islam? And why the book?

It seemed a natural progression from my book, “After the Prophet.” I read several biographies in preparation for that book and in the earliest ones—Ibn Ishaq from Baghdad in the eighth century and al-Tabari from Baghdad in the ninth and tenth centuries—I was struck by the traditional Middle Eastern way of telling stories. It doesn’t have that straight, linear narrative a Western audience expects.

The modern biographies tended to be pious, devotional biographies, which are a complete turn-off for non-Muslims. Those for general audiences seemed merely dutiful, plodding through all the main events of his life without asking questions, without delving, trying to figure out who this man was. I grew frustrated; I wanted a feel for the man himself, not the two-dimensional legend.

The more I learned about the three-dimensional man, the more he was weighed down by the sheer accumulation of fact and detail. Nobody had really looked and said: “What was really going on here? Let’s enter into this experience. Let’s figure out how it felt.” Not just what happened, but why. The main duty of a biography is not simply to trot dutifully through the facts of someone’s life, but to enter that life, make it come alive, make your subject real again.

But what about the historical and religious license you exercised while writing the book? There is a great degree of fiction in your work. Historians have argued that little is known of the Prophet’s personal per se, only his prophethood were ever put into focus.

“I guess you could call it a kind of high-wire act, which is why the book is written from an agnostic stance. There is a degree of imagination, but it’s based on deep research, from my experience of living and working with the Bedouin, for instance. I had to find out what it was like to be an orphan at that time. So many aspects of his life were elided, skipped over. The Hegira is usually translated as “migration,” but it was exile. Muhammad was exiled from Mecca, and what did that mean in a time when you were defined by where you were from? It was like being exiled from your identity.

How deep an impact did this have when it comes to the Night Journey and what happened on Mount Hira? Nobody can know. We’re talking about mystical experience. My intention was not to say, “This is what happened and why it happened,” like some omniscient narrator. It was to explore—my language makes that clear. I am asking questions and seeing where those questions lead me. I am doing it openly, rather than trying to appear the expert, the all-knowing biographer, the law.

All history is written from sources put together in more or less the same way. Herodotus, the “Father of History.” Give me a break! Writing about places he’d never been as if he had been there. Contemporary journalism is the first draft of history. If it appears on the front page of a newspaper, it’s still written from a point of view. Looking at original sources requires taking into account who wrote them and where, and the culture in which they were written. What dismays me about much of what has been written about Muhammad by Westerners is how few of them know the Middle East. Few of them have spent time in the region. They may be good with Arabic texts, but they have no feel for Middle Eastern culture, for the place itself. It’s as though they are writing in a vacuum.

I lived in the Middle East for thirteen years and reported from there. To me, this feels like a Middle Eastern book. It’s wonderful to sit here in misty, rainy Seattle and enter each day for the past several years into a desert environment, leaping over fourteen centuries. I’ve had a dual existence. This is my way of still being in the Middle East, of living there and not living there.”

Islamophobia has been rife over the past years due to the rise of radical Islam. Many experts and scholars have spoken of a widening disconnect in between Muslims and the spirit of Islam, what Islam inherently stands for ideologically and spiritually. What do you make of this?

“As a rough calculation, 50 percent of American Muslims rarely go anywhere near a mosque. They are not part of the devotional community. Since 9/11, this group has become more aware of its Muslim identity. It’s much like being a Jew when there is anti-Semitism around. Whether you want to be or not, you are a Jew. Therefore, there is an interest in finding out what this identity means among Muslim Americans or American Muslims, engaging with it in a deeper way, not necessarily in a devotional or pious way….

I don’t feel comfortable talking about this coming from the outside. Talking about “what’s happening with Islam” makes me feel like one of those pundits I can’t stand. But I think there is a very deep interest in connecting with the basic principles of Islam that have been misrepresented, overshadowed, edged out of consciousness by the joint work of both Muslim fundamentalists and anti-Muslim fundamentalists, all of whom are doing these ghastly, literary readings out of context. I call it the highlighter version of the Koran.

They don’t seem to have read the Bible; if they had, they would find ten times as many such passages. I feel uncomfortable talking about Islam as a whole because we are talking about more than 1.6 billion people all over the world and there is no monolith called “Islam.” This point I have to keep making, especially with non-Muslims, because it’s as though all Muslims believe the same thing and behave in the same way. There are so many different strands, different ways of thinking within Islam. I wish someone would write about the enormous pluralism within what outsiders think of as this monolith of Islam.

We talk about the Arab awakening. There is an intellectual awakening going on among Muslims all over, definitely among the younger generation. This sense of engagement with and interrogation of Islam is fascinating and very much to be continued. Things don’t change quickly, and our problem in the West is that we don’t have a very long timeline. What’s been happening in the Middle East quickly got dubbed the Arab Spring, as if when you’re meant to have a revolution, you’ve got three months. It’s madness. It’s like this journalistic shorthand that has taken over our thinking. We’re talking about very deep matters here—I see religion as less a matter of faith and belief than as a matter of identity. Especially in a world where the matter of identity is increasingly fractured, with so much migration. Religion provides a sense of extended family, because right there in the foundation of Islam is the idea of the Umma [Muslim community].”



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