Friday, July 22, 2016

Death and Dying

I write this post, sitting in a muddle of thoughts. There are times when one isn't sure what one wants to write about. Life is happening, suddenly the Earth rotates too fast for sanity.

A festival, a funeral, too many people. Good people, dressed in good clothes move about. A music plays. The tempo rises, and rises until it reaches a crescendo. Palms to the ears, a military band, the sound crushes the soul, and all that was soft, hopeful and fantastical lie about the life, dies. All that remains is the cynical, uncaring truth. 

And suddenly, it comes to a halt. From behind the silken curtains, a face lurks- Death looks at life. Cruel and smiling, a spine-shuddering cruel smile plays on his lips. The music now is sad, and a smell of death floats in the air. A friend looks at me, his face ashen, his smile broken. Till yesterday, his soul was younger than me, suddenly, in him, I find, sages from the past centuries. A moment is all it takes from a young soul to turn old, and then ancient; for a man, overflowing with life to turn into a dead lake with the cracks of a thirsty Lands, on its dry surface. 

We do not know when our moment will come, and our lakes will dry up. But it will happen suddenly, whether it happens today, or it happens many years hence. That is how death happens. It strives on suddenness. Life is sublime. It happens, we seldom notice it. It slowly arrives, months of wait, and it slowly flows. It flows so slow, we start believing it to be permanent, like a huge ocean with no ends in sight. As if no ends to it exists. When death arrives, with its coquettish arrogance, to flirt with our souls, it pierces through our senses. We sit back and take note, and cry and tighten our lips to bear it. Our palms cuddle into a fist, until it opens again, in a surrender of the spirits. It lingers and lurks from behind the curtains and awaits its moment. We are dying every minute while we are living. 

Death is not just, like any other forces of nature. It has no mind of its own. It is as arbitrary as life is. As Ghalib, aghast at friends dying, leaving him, one after another, wrote, 

रौ में है रख्श-ए-उम्र, देखिये कहाँ थमे 

ना हाथ बाग पर है, ना पा है रकाब में। 
(रौ- Flow, Movement; रख्श-ए-उम्र- The Horse of Life)

(the Horse of my Life gallops in its flow, Let's see, where it halts; Neither is my hand on the reins, nor have I my feet in the stirrup)

Ghalib says so misleading is our appearance that we are in control of our lives. While we sit on the saddle, we have no control over it. It moves with its own wishes and it halts, where it wants to. A friend is dying. In the death of every friend, I die a bit, until there is nothing left to die. 

"Die at the right time." Says Nietzsche's Zarathustra. And he laments, "Many die too late, and some die too early.

He is dying too early. What are we to say, who hears us, we -the mere mortals. Death defines us, it calls us, Mortals, dismissively, deriding. We search meaning in what we leave behind as we walk into the oblivion, into nothingness. A thin smoke rises from the charred soul, heavenwards and loses itself in the air. Then, there is nothingness. We don't know about afterlife. We don't know if it was only to fool ourselve. Our sense of self-importance cannot accept, our eventual end into a nothingness. As if we never existed. We build our after-life during our lives. As Nietzsche would say- A goal and an heir. I would add, in love and memories. But the end and the nothingness, is inescapable. The silence, a fleeting silence, not even a speck on the continuum of millenniums stitched onto one another; and the music rises again, again to a crescendo. It repeats itself in cycles. We sit down in memories, memories fade. We prepare for our deaths, old, middle-aged men, slowly floating through our solemn silences, memories of lost friends surrounding us, appearing and disappearing like faces painted in smoke.

Markus Zusak writes in The Book Thief, "Even Death has a heart." And when Death take, Rudy Steiner, the boy with Orange hairs away, even he is heart-broken and says, "He does something to me, every time. It's his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry."  I am sure, if Death had a heart, and he could cry, He would cry today for my friend as well, who soul is no less pure and loving than that of Rudy Steiner. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

Love and Time (The Passing away of) - Ghalib

दाइम पड़ा हुआ तेरे दर पर नहीं हूँ मैं
ख़ाक ऐसी ज़िन्दगी पे कि पत्थर नहीं हूँ मैं।

Daayim padaa hua tere dar par nahin hoon main
khaak aisi Zindagi pe, ke pathar nahin hoon main

(दाइम- Stationary)

क्यूँ गर्दिश- ए -मुदाम से घबरा ना जाए दिल
इंसान हूँ, पियाला-ओ-साग़र नहीं हूँ मैं।

Kyon gardish-e-mudaam se ghabraa naa jaaye dil
Insaan hoon, Piyaala-o-saagar nahin hoon main
(गर्दिश- ए -मुदाम: Constant movement, पियाला-ओ-साग़र: Glass of Wine)

यारब ज़माना मुझको मिटाता है किस लिए
लौह-ए-जहाँ पे हर्फ़- ए -मुकर्रर नहीं हूँ मैं।

Yaa rab, zamaana mujhko mitaata hai kis liye
loh-e-zahaan pe harf-e-mukarrar nahin hoon main

(लौह-ए-जहाँ: Page of the World, हर्फ़- Alphabet मुकर्रर- To repeat)

हद चाहिए सज़ा में उकूबत के वास्ते
आखिर गुनहगार हूँ काफिर नहीं  हूँ मैं।

Had chahiye sazaa mein ukoobat ke vaaste
aakhir gunahgaar hoon, kaafir nahin hoon main

(उकूबत- Tortures , काफिर: Non-Believer)

ग़ालिब वज़ीफ़ा-ख़्वार हो दो शाह को दुआ
वो दिन गए कि  कहते थे नौकर  नहीं हूँ मैं।

'Ghalib' vazeefakhvar ho, do shah ko duaa
voh din gaye ki kahte the naukar nahin hoon main.

(वज़ीफ़ा: Salary or Stipend)

Translations and Interpretations:
Couplet #1

English Translation:
I might not be able to wait at your doorstep forever,
Pity, am not a stationary stone, waiting for your favor.

Time is passing. I am waiting for your love, patiently at your doorstep. I wait for your attention, as long as I can. But do not take me for granted. Unfortunately, pitiable as it might be, my existence is not of a dead stone. Spurned by you, I might move on, and you will be left without my love. I wish I could stay at your doorstep forever, like a dead stone, withstanding your neglect forever, but it is not possible. For the forces of life will eventually carry me away. I do love you, but, life happens, so waste not this moment of love.

Couplet #2

English Translation:
Why wouldn't I be troubled
 by constant turmoils of my life?
After all, I am not a glass of wine, 
holding little whirlpools, without a spil,
To calmly, contain my strife.

Ghalib always advocated letting go of the emotions, to give to life as you get it from it. (Royenge hum hazaar baar, koi hamein rulaaye kyun- Trans. I will weep a thousand times, why would someone hurt me so). His was not the temperament to hide and pretend the real emotions. Here is says, Why should I pretend my life to be calm and composed, when it truly is in constant turmoil? Why would I not be troubled by it and be distressed about it?

Couplet #3

English Translation:
Why do these people come together to erase me altogether?
I am not a frivolous word written on the sacred page of life. 

Ghalib was very aware of his place in the world, in his own world and the world which was to folllow him. He however, did not find much favor in the Emperor's courts for most of his life. Delhi, then as it is today, was a lobbyists world and networking, not sheer talent decided your place in it. Aghast at the attempts to pull him down in spite of being a brilliant poet, Ghalib penned several couplets expressing his amusement, and despair on schemes of people and courtiers to bring him down. He is sure of his own station in life, in the universe. It can be spiritually extended to include all of us. We all have our own role to play in the world, our own story to be written, our own mark to be created and left for posterity. It matters not that our contemporary world doesn't recognizes us, pulls us down. We are not an alphabet of frivolity, a mistake of the creator and no one should be allowed to erase us. Our existence is our cause and purpose. We only need to find it, and believe in it. 

Couplet #4

English Translation:
There are no limits of cruelty, my dear, which to me, you heartlessly deliver
I am only a sinner, an errant; still for the almighty God, I am a believer.

Ghalib was much ahead of his time, an iconoclast, a moderate Muslim. In one of the couplets, he calls himself a bird of the garden which has yet not come into existence. He is known to be a master of very sublime satire, which oft comes into play in his poetry. Here he admonishes his beloved for the pain that she subjects him to. And he complains, that she acts as if he were a non-believer of the God who deserved no mercy. He was not religious person, not an orthodox Muslim. He maintained that he believed in a God who was not vengeful, who did not punish and who did not desire completely slavish surrender of his subject. His wife was very orthodox and religious lady and their life-long banter and interactions make a pleasant reading. Probably this deviation from the orthodoxy and fanaticism, is what Ghalib refers to when he agrees that he is a sinner, and an errant, but only that, nothing more. He maintains that he still remains a believer, a religious person, in spite of his liberal outlook.

Couplet #5

English Translation: 

Ghalib should thank the emperor, as he offered his soul for a stipend
The days of independent mind and pen, have, alas, thus come to an end.

Ghalib was fiercely independent mind for his time and I would think even for our times. He got the social and royal recognition much later in his life. He lived his life in penury and his fame and respect among the masses notwithstanding, he could not make to the royal courts till old age, as the Ustaad (Literary master) to the last Mughal emperor. Once he did, he realized the limits being a court poet imposed on him. This couplet refers to the perils of position, as valid today, at it was then. Commercial interests always stifled creativity. So it was then, so it is now. Every artist, every writer feels it. This surrender is often inescapable and that makes if sad. The inevitability of it makes every artist seem so vulnerable. Ghalib merely smiles at it, makes fun at himself. One can almost see him smirk through his dense white beards in these lines. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Disjointed Thoughts On Writing- Blog Post on Writing

Writing in itself is a difficult task. No one wants anyone to write. Still people write. Some write expertly and leave their work for the posterity, some write shoddily, struggling like yours truly, and await readers. I try to write, as routinely as possible, if nothing else. I have been struggling with getting the manuscript of my collection of stories readied for publishing. 

Writing is easy. Being a writer is not. I have been struggling to edit the stories. There is a wonderful book- The Writer's Journal -by Virginia Woolf, which I keep going back to, now and then. No one impresses the difference between knowing how to write and writing better than Ms. Woolf. "..I think writing must be formal. The art must be respected." writes Ms. Woolf. 

I have come to realize how hard it is as I am editing my stories and trying to reach what could be a perfect name for the collection. However, the entire travel for a week could not find me finishing the task at hand. Writing is a task of huge discipline, more so if it is not your primary vocation (earns daily bread for you). She advocates diary writing if nothing else works. She says, "the diary writing has greatly helped my style; loosened the ligaments." Who am I to argue with her. So I blog. Travelling through the week in rainy mountains of Uttrakhand, I wrote a blog post in Ranikhet.

It was written on Tuesday. By then three days of vacation were already done and used up. While Corbett halt was much more beautiful than the Ranikhet, the weather was hot and humid. Sitting in the cottage was not possible as family would want to explore the magnificent mangroves, so writing was out of question. Ranikhet hotel was little bland so this could get written. My stories were to be edited, six stories, edit itself was turning out to be a task as onerous as writing them. Naming them also could not happen. I was toying between multiple names, and settled down on "The Pilgrim Soul". A quick internet search had shown that it was already taken. So out it goes, with due apologies to Yeats. 

Naming of stories is a very complex task. It is not like a novel. Novel is easier to name. You pick a theme and name it around the central theme of the novel. A story may also be similarly named. It is particularly difficult to name a collection of story. They are totally unconnected and disjointed- Written at different points of time, with different emotions acting as a lever to drive the writer. They are not like a structured apartment, which may be named around some unifying idea around which it is built, irrespective of number of homes it may grow to hold within. These stories are like little cottages of various shapes, sizes and colors mushrooming in the hill-side. Eclectic- Yes, that is the word. 

Only thing which would link one story to another, only connecting thread is the author, his soul and his sensitivity which stands common. Unless you are a Joseph Conrad or Scott Fitzgerald whose stories masses would love to read even with a bland and unimaginative name  like "Stories by .xxxx " lesser writers like me need to have a name which will still tell people about the stories, with the title of anthology and get them interested enough to read them. 
Anyways, the writing remains unfinished amid disruptions. Ranikhet is not very cold. The valley rolls about in front of the balcony of large and poorly maintained hotel. The lines are drawn on the Earth as if nature has opened its palms exposing the lines of fate, green and orderly, patterned in a design in front of me. 

Silences spread, serene, with few birds chirping as the sunbeams take a slant. Birds are chirping as excitedly as they did at the dawn. A tiny, bird with black on the back and white beneath seems singularly happy in a bored, lazy day. It flies in jerks, like a writer's pen. Nonu reads her "Bedtime Stories". She reads loudly. It interrupts my writing. But her voice is so sweet, I do not have the heart to interrupt her. 

Wednesday arrives and we drive to Binsar. Writing waits. It torments me. Not writing torments me. It torments me further for I know my not writing, my not running is my own responsibility. You can call failed resolution and decadent lifestyle anything, you can't avoid that lack of discipline is slowly creating a tomb, not only for the soul, but for the body. I read Virginia Woolf. I open it suddenly, as if it were a book of fortune and opened fate will tell my fortune. I read. "The feeling of depression is on me, as if we were old and at the end of all things."  She writes. She is forty at the time of writing this. I will be forty-five this August. The sense of time passing by haunts me. As if I am getting crushed under the unfeeling wheels of an unforgiving juggernaut. The Sun slowly goes down the old pines, standing like old knights, living in a century to which they do not belong. Asynchronous to the times. I pant, I sigh, and close my diary. I die with every word I fail to write. 

Post-Script- I am back in sweaty hell of the capital and the demands on the soul descends from the skies. My spine cracks. Edit of the stories is done, I send it for content verification. I get a revert on copyright of lines of poetry I had added to start of poetry. I check each poem for expiry of copyright on the web. Those are poems from couple of centuries back, one even from BC, (Horace). I respond to the agency and await there revert. The name of poems, yet undecided. I am toying between few. Still.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Book Review: The First Muslim - By Lesley Hazleton

The First Muslim - By Lesley Hazleton
"The fibers of  our secular hearts are bent and bowed beneath unaccustomed tempest."- Virginia Woolf- English Prose.

Ms. Woolf wrote the above sentence in some other context. I find it truer today than any day earlier. The fanatic fundamentalism is on rise, not in India, rather world-wide. Last week, we saw shooting in Orlando, which killed fifty people. The shooter, claimed allegiance to ISIS and asserted that he committed the act of terror as his service to Islam. In today's time, it is very difficult to be objective and to even mention the word without being ready to face a barrage of Bigot!, Islamophobe! and such, if you are lucky. If you are unlucky, you can, well, look forward to a bunch of gun-yielding crazy guys breaking into your place, hacking you to death. 

It is extremely courageous for Lesley Hazleton to chose to write about Muhammad, his life and his journey to the launch of the largest religion on the planet, in such times. The subject is intimidating, and Ms. Hazleton adroitly walks through the landscape full of landmines. She looks at the prophet with an objective lens, without ever being insulting or dishonestly respectful to the Muhammad. She analyzes his subject with the honesty of a psychologist. 

I am a secular with rightist bend of mind. I know it is an odd statement to make, but then, we find Liberals with leftist bend crowding the public discourse. I trust, this classification is as real. We have leftists, who are self-proclaimed atheists (like the JNU vice-president) sending notes on the feminism of Muhammad, then it would be absurd to negate my own Hindu leanings. It doesn't affect my objectivity or my secular sensitivity, so I would believe. In this regard, I can claim to be slightly better, more liberal than many of my Muslim friends who go silent on hacking of Hindu kids in Kerala or elsewhere and who would believe it is the question of human freedom to eat animals, contrary to religious faith of their neighbors, while writing eloquent essays on merits of vegetarianism on World Earth Day. They are the intellectuals and they guide and mold the thoughts of the world. The lesser mortals set their moral compass based on their words and when they say it is perfectly alright to sacrifice a goat and enjoy the beef as it is a sign of religious and intellectual freedom even if your next door neighbor is offended, the world believes them. They would suddenly go silent when Hari Kanzru was asked to be debarred from speaking at Jaipur Literature Fest for reviewing the book and Salman Rushdie banned from Jaipur and Hari and his writer friends be asked to leave Jaipur for reading the excerpts of The Satanic Verses.

They would often link world events of terror to the demolition of an outdated mosque in India, people believe them. They create outrage and then legitimize the violence arising out of it, while practicing Yoga to calm their nerves. They will tell us that Islam doesn't subscribe to violence and quote some of Muhammad's revelations from Quran. But then, the terrorists would also quote from the same holy book. A non-Muslim would stand confounded. That the history of Islam, the key articles of faith like Ka`aba are wrapped in mystery, does not help. 

This book unwraps those mysteries, untangles the web, with sincerity, respect and honesty. The First Muslim begins with the revelations  to middle-aged Muhammad on Mount Hira. There is a poetic expression to the principles of unity, equality and most significantly monotheism which comes about with the first revelation. The book delves into the ancestry, understanding the political and religious surroundings in which the founder of the newest religion tool shape. Muhammad belongs to the tribe of Quraysh, one out of the four families of Quaraysh, the Hashims, which controlled the polity and economy of Mecca. His grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, discovered  Zam-Zam, the only source of sweet water in Mecca, a priced property in the desert, and controlled access to it, for all the visitors and inhabitants. It wasn't surprising that his lone ownership was challenged by other Quraysh tribes and was answered with a vow by Abd al-Muttalib to sacrifice one of his ten sons. 

The sacrifice after much dithering and debate, fell on Abdullah, who was to sire Muhammad. Mecca at that time was polytheist state, Al-lah being the Higher God and His three daughters, being principle deities of the Quraysh. As Abdullah grew up and the time of sacrifice arrived, Abd al-Muttalib was advised to spare his son's life in return of blood money (sacrifice of 100 camels). Abdullah was married quickly and Muhammad was conceived. However, as fate would have it, Abdullah would soon die in Medina, and Muhammad would be doomed to a life of an orphan. Amina, his mother, hires Halima, a Beduin (vagabond) as his wet-nurse. This makes Muhammad, much open in his outlook, almost a Beduin in a highly fractured, orthodox society. It was only apt that he was troubled by the inequality among people in his society. 

Muhammad grew up. In the meantime, Ka`aba formed the center and backbone of the economy of desert state. Traders would the make pilgrims once back from trading expeditions, chanting labbayka allah-umma labbayka (here I am, O God of all people, here I am). The success of any religious cult, or faith lies in its accommodation of the conventional past. It needs to fit in, even with all the revolution it promises to bring in. The key position on which popular faith hinges must be maintained. This we see even today in many cult-gurus today. They may declare themselves as Gods, but they never negate the traditional Gods. That would be counter-productive. Not initially at least. Thus, while Muhammad brings in a new way of spirituality, he still worships the Ka`aba and draws his legitimacy from the hold. In fact, the initial revolution begins softly, calmly, in all humility as a reform of the sort. 

Raised by his uncle, Abu Talib, he, twenty-five year young man, seeks to marry his cousin, Fakhita- Abu Talib's daughter. Promptly refused, Muhammad goes on to marry, Khadija, his first wife and longest partner, who was around forty at the time of marriage. As fate would have it, in 605, Kaa`ba was destroyed in flash floods. It was rebuilt and a major crisis came up on who would do the honor of placing the Onyx back in its place of worship. Muhammad, coincidentally was the first man to enter the precinct and became the arbiter. He suggested that the stone be carried on a cloak and carried from each corner by each of the Quraysh family. They brought it to the place and eventually, Muhammad, picks the Onyx and places it for worship. Families did not mind it much, since Muhammad then was neutral and largely, inconsequential in political scheme of things. 

The first revelation came in lucid poetic format to Muhammad. He says it came from Gabriel. (I follow Thomas Paine in this matter. A revelation is revelation to the man to whom it is revealed, to any other person it is hearsay). Muhammad spent following days fearful and reeling in self-doubt. But Khadija believed in him, and said, "I hope that you may be the prophet of this people." Muhammad however, kept on claiming that he was- just a messenger, - just one of the people. He comes out with new, fresh, unconventional ideas, but he is totally non-confrontational. He is one of the people, he doesn't argue with those who do not agree with him. He invites his Hashim kinsmen to dinner, to share his verses (Aya) of revelations, including uncle, Abu-Talib and his cousin, Abu-Lahab. And then he recites his revelations, and Abu-Lahab walked out in fury. He asks them who all will join him, in his new journey. All held back except, Ali, the adolescent son of Abu-Talib. It makes Abu-Talib a subject of ridicule as the orphan, Muhammad, turns him into his own son, Ali's disciple. Still Muhammad remain non-confrontational. He does not propose a new God, he does not propose himself as a God. He continues asserting his allegiance to Al-lah, and maintains himself to be one of the other people. 

He takes only a thin diversion, a differentiation for his new religion. He declares the daughters of Al-lah, who were earlier worshiped as Goddesses, Uzza, Lat and Manat, as no longer divine, not worthy of worship. He brings in mono-theism, but to an older God. Abu-Talib refuses to denounce them stating that he cannot refute the way of his fathers. There the fault-lines appear. Denouncing the daughters of Al-lah as tribal gods, is denouncing the way of fathers,  continuing allegiance to Al-lah ( derived from Mesopotamian God El). It has no confrontation with any one, even Christianity.  Says Quran,"We believe in God and in that which has been revealed to us; in what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaa , Jacob and the tribes of Israel; to Moses and Jesus and other prophets." There is no confrontation, no slaves, no free men, no men, no women in front of One God. Islam is the path to equality to a class-stricken Meccan society. And since there is no confrontation, easier to join in. It is the revelations from this period which is cited by liberal scholars of the world as the peaceful face of Islam. It comes from a period when it was weaker and still struggling to find its roots, in the face of opposition. 

Muhammad was still a small trouble to the Meccans of the time- a nobody followed by nobodies, like mushrooming cult ashrams in India. But then Abu Bakr, a Nobleman converts to Islam. Head of Makhzum clan reaches Abu Talib, asking Muhammad to be exiled. On his refusal, entire Hashim clan is boycotted. Hardships increased on those subscribing to Muhammad's ideas, Abu Bakr nearly saved an Ethiopian slave, Bilal who becomes the first Muezzin. Still his advise was of non-confrontation. "Turn away from them and wait. Ignore them; you are not to blame. Be tolerant and command what is right; pay no attention to the foolish." -is Mohammad's advise to his follower. He even accepts the three daughters of Al-lah, when he says- these are three great exalted birds, and their intercession is desired indeed. But then he has second revelation. He disowns the first one as having come through Satan, (thus Satanic Verses), and goes back to his initial position. We cannot know how muc of it was Gabriel and how much was the politics of keeping the now growing disciples happy. Eventually he is exiled and takes sanctuary in Medina. Positions are hardened though still non-confrontational- I will never server what you serve and you will never serve, what I serve. To you your religion, and to me mine. 

Things change in Medina. Medina (City of Prophet) at that time known as Yathrib in 621 AD was a place of incessant internal strife. When Muhammad was called into the city as a neutral arbiter between the tribes of Aws and Khazraj, he negotiates settlement for 200 of his exiled supporters. This is a marked change, he does not seek protection of a tribe, but is designating his tribe as independent. He gets his own tribe settled their, with allegiance to Islam, not to their forefathers. It is a new cult and new faith. Muhammad is no longer just a messenger, he is the head of a tribe- religio-political head. 

From here, the poetic and spiritual journey of romanticism turns to shrewd politics. This is the part after which extremists take over and the liberals Muslims cede the ground. It begins with Nakhla raids. It happened during the three holy months when fighting is prohibited (by laws of the forefather, which Muhammad, never fully negated). A raid by the follower of his newly established cult/tribe/faith ended up in the killing of Meccans. Murmurs of the discontent rose regarding the inconsistency between newly-found faith which said - "Fight in the way of God those who fight you, but do not begin hostilities, for God does not like the aggressors." and which sent out the followers to attack the caravans of the Meccan Merchants. Then came Muhammad's possibly first political revelation- "permission is granted to those who fight because they have been wronged...those who have been driven out from their houses because they said our God is our god." The author brilliantly puts it here when she writes- Offense was now sanctioned in the name of ex post factor defense. This was to be the narrative of extremists in the times to come. 

Battle of Badr was another such raid on Meccan caravan. This was serious, it was led by Muhammad, now as a Military commander, in addition to a spiritual and political one. He himself led an army of 300 followers to attack the caravan for two days. They successfully raided the caravan, defeated the Meccan contingent led by Abu-Jahl, Muhammad's most bitter critic and as Lesley would write, "The natural order of their world had been upended."

With strengthening of his military and political position, his relation to Jewish tribes was set to change. From his initial position where he advised his followers not to argue with Jews, except fairly and politely he kept on believing the two religions to have come from one source of monotheistic belief- Ibrahim. He was confounded with Jewish not joining Islam, while Jews clearly were happy with Jesus as the last prophet. The affair of Quaynuqa gave him an opportunity to demonstrate that he was losing patience. As the story goes, an Islamic follower quarreled with Jewish man of Quaynuqa tribe on the pretext of protecting the modesty of a Beduin woman. Jewish were original inhabitants of Mecca, and were close to the biggest tribe of Khazraj, and their leader, Abdullah ibn-Ubayy. Muhammad accused Qunuqua of disloyalty and ordered his followers to surround their villages. He was no longer a mere messenger, just one of the common man; he was a man not to be wronged. The seize ended up with the exile of the Jewish tribe. This was the first exile of non-believers, another would come soon. 

Muhammad second fight with Meccans, this time led by Aby Sufyan of Umayyad clan ended in loss for the Muslims. ibn-Ubayy and his force had abandoned Muhammad right before the battle. Muhammad called them munafigun or hypocrites- those he held beck. Absolutism was in the play. You are either with me or not. Their was no room for doubt or disagreement. Islam dug deeper than geographical loyalties. One of the Medinan confederate was asked to deliver the message of exile to Nadir, the second Jewish tribe to be exiled by Muhammad, and when questioned why, his response was- "Hearts have changed, and Islam has wiped out the old alliances.

Of all the claims of feminist equality, they ended up quickly becoming tools of polity, assets to be acquired and traded. Within three years of losing Khadija, Muhammad had three wives, and six more to come.  Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr, first follower, was the youngest. As per her own account, she was betrothed at the age of 6 and marriage consummated at the age of 9. He was quite enamored  by her. And one of the oft-quoted infamous revelation, ironically was aimed to protect her. Once left behind in an expedition, she came back to Medina, rescued by a Medinan soldier, Safwan. Her necklace, the one given by Muhammad as wedding gift was lost and aspersions were cast. A revelation came at rescue, which meant a woman's crime of adultery cannot be established, unless four witnesses were to be produced. While this vindicated Aisha, it was later cited as necessary condition to prove grave crimes on the women. 

His marriages became a maze and it was a landmine to walk through them without the fear of offending someone or other. Lesley covers them sensitively and it also shows how, by this time, Muhammad was getting revelations, not in a broader sense directed at humanity, but to alleviate the complications in his own life. For instance, when Zayd, Muhammad's adopted son found him affected by his wife, Zaynab's beauty, he divorced her so Muhammad could marry her. Muhammad married and justified with revelation where he said the ban of father-in-law marrying daughter-in-law only applied to birth sons (the wives of your sons who sprang from your loins). Polygamy was initially granted to leaders only. It was also with means of discouragement stating, "you will never be able to deal equitably between many wives, so if you fear you cannot treat them equally, marry only the one."

We thus find that the spiritual messages that began, towards the end of Muhammad's life became getting twisted, political and self-serving. This best explains the contradictions that we hear when we listen to people talking about Islam. The same Gabriel who was passing on a message of co-existence when they were mocked and harassed in Mecca, now gave instruction to Muhammad with newly gained power, "To strike terror in the hearts of Qureyz." Suddenly the revelation was not spiritual, not even poetic. It was blunt, it was military, it was violent. I would suggest referring Thomas Paine again here. However, as the massacre approached, Aws (local tribe of Medina) approached Muhammad. He asked militant Saad Ibn-Muaad to decide in his stead, who was on his death bed. Under the pretext of honoring the dying words, massacre was ordered. Qureyz, the last Jewish tribe of Medina was massacred, with number varying between 400 to 900. It was not a battle. It was beheading. The rule of Islam was absolute in Medina where it had entered as migrant under exile. 629, Muhammad with his 2000 followers went on Pilgrimage to Mecca, and on January 11, 630 AD, Muhammad ruled Mecca. As Leskey writes, "for all the Quran's insistence that he was just a man, obedience to him was sworn in the same breath as obedience to God."  A new religion had breathed on the planet, which began with challenging the dogmas, supporting free thought, will end up opposing all that it represented at the birth.

It is a great book and is seriously recommended reading. Being late in coming than other religious figures and prophets, Muhammad had his life well documented. His life is an example of how a message that begins with political correctness quickly converts into a dangerously dogma driven life. This is also an example of how absolute power corrupts absolutely and how quickly the one who began with challenging orthodoxy and conventions, ended up founding the most orthodox and conventional religion we have, where a mere shred of doubt, a question, a deviant idea, is responded to most violently.  It also explains the concept of global Islam which at times supersedes regional/political/national identities (refer response by the Islamic messenger to Nadir above, their earlier compatriot and confederate). Pity that there are so many criticizing the religion, without knowing about it, and so many defending it, again, without knowing about it. No truth is beyond evaluation, not fact above scrutiny, nothing unchallenged. Please also remember, people are beyond religion. Humanity is the larger set we belong to, religion is but a sub-set. Read with rational minds, and without misgivings.  

Amazon Link for The First Muslim

(Lesley draws heavily from Ibn-Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah and Al-Tabari's Tarikh al-Rusul wa-al-Muluk)

My verdict: It is tiring and intimidating to review a book like that, but in search of knowledge, nothing should be out of bounds. Be brave and read the book.