Each time I dip into the Qur’an I am surprised by some new insight and I can’t help wondering why I don’t sip more frequently from this deep well’s thirst-quenching wisdom. Over the years, I have tried to keep up my study of Islam which I first began during my years as an undergraduate in Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia. Back then I believed that anyone who intended to seek a career in the church had better understand the religions of the world. Fortunately my naiveté was matched by my enthusiasm and I quickly learned that, despite my good intentions, there was no way to simply learn about the religions of the world. One doesn’t just apply one’s self to the study of a religion and learn what one needs to know and then move on. Islam like any religion that has survived and evolved over centuries, is a multifaceted and multilayered way of living. While I can from time to time open myself to the riches that Islam has to offer, I can only ever hope to be someone who peers in from the outside.
Like many outsiders I find reading from the Qur’an challenging to the point of being daunting. I require a reading partner to guide me along the way.Recently, I discovered the work of Lesley Hazelton, a self-described agnostic Jew whose unique view of Islam is both enlightening and engaging. Hazleton’s work on Islam includes the 2010 publication “After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Sia-Sunni Split in Islam”. But I came to know about her via her engaging TED Talk which you can view below. I have just pre-ordered her forth-coming book “The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad”.
Some have dubbed Hazleton as Karen Armstrong’s successor. While the comparison is apt, Hazelton’s style is very different from her illustrious counterpart. Hazelton is a psychologist/journalist/historian whose colourful approach, pithy language and diligent research earned her this description by Paul Constant writing for Amazon:
Over the last decade, Hazleton has produced a trilogy of books—Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother, Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen, and After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam—that are difficult to categorize. The books land at the intersection of history, religion, and literary criticism; they are informed by hundreds of texts and intensive traveling to the Middle East (Hazleton spent the 1970s living in Jerusalem); and they sing in the voice of a writer who has finally figured out exactly what she wants to say. Her characters are figures who have been trapped, untouchable, in amber for decades by organized religion.
Any given chapter of these books may include a fictionalized narrative of life in biblical times, a puckish interpretation of three wildly differing accounts of an event that occurred over 2,000 years ago, and a personal account of Hazleton’s own travels. In Jezebel, Hazleton undertakes an ambitious rehabilitation of the queen of Israel whose name has become synonymous with whorish behavior. In a fraught passage, Hazleton visits the birthplace of Elijah, the prophet who destroyed Jezebel’s reputation and demanded that she be torn to pieces by dogs in what is the most brutal, explicit murder to take place in the Bible. Of course, Hazleton is beset by ravenous wild dogs: “The car shuddered under the assault. In front of me, open jaws spattered drool on the windshield. To one side, fangs loomed inches from my eyes.”
When I compliment Hazleton for including that passage—you risk breaking the spell for readers when you pepper a historical narrative with personal anecdotes, but the dog attack is perfectly placed to make Jezebel’s story more compelling for the reader—she beams with pride, recalling that as she raced away from Elijah’s birthplace, she thought, “Oh, fuck. No one’s going to believe that happened. It was just too fucking perfect!”
Although only recently acquainted with her work, I am finding Hazleton to be a charmingly rigorous companion as I dip into the oasis of Islam. Her company is giving me the courage to drink more deeply than I have previously dared for fear of drowning in unfamiliar pools.
Enjoy her brief TED Talk which I am sure will wet your appetite for the full lecture given to the Young Muslim Association at the Islamic Centre of America that you will find below.