Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lesley Hazleton's "After the Prophet"

Lesley Hazleton is a psychologist and veteran journalist whose work has focused on the way religion and politics, past and present, are inextricably intertwined in the Middle East. The author of several books on Middle East politics, religion, and history, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Esquire, Vanity Fair, The Nation, The New Republic, and many other publications. Her books include the award-winning Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother and Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, After the Prophet: the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam, and reported the following:
Is the ghost of Ford Madox Ford hovering over After the Prophet? I turned to page 99 and found one of my favorite paragraphs in the book, and I didn't even write it. It was written by a ninth-century Islamic historian, quoting an eyewitness who describes the grisly relics of assassination with such careful, deadpan detail that I knew the moment I read it that I'd use it verbatim.

The book narrates the foundation story of the Shia-Sunni split, a powerfully emotive saga whose themes and images play a major role in today's Middle East, from the Islamic revolution in Iran to the civil war in Iraq and the conflict in Afghanistan -- yet is all but unknown in the West. Beginning at the moment of Muhammad's death, it's an epic drama of murder and treachery; fatal rivalries and long-standing resentments; loyalty, nobility, and intense faith; dynastic power struggles and desperate battles -- and all with a cast of characters that would have made Gabriel Garcia Marquez green with envy.

The specific background to page 99: Muhammad's been dead just twenty-five years when Othman, the third caliph (khalifa, or successor, to Muhammad), is assassinated in Medina -- stabbed to death by rebels who have accused him of corruption and nepotism. The assassins are closely allied with Ali, Muhammad's cousin, son-in-law, and closest male relative, whose followers (the Shiat Ali, or Shia for short) instantly acclaim him as the fourth caliph.

Othman's assassination was particularly bloody -- even the blood spatter is described in detail by those who were there -- and not just his blood. When Naila, his favorite wife, tried to stop the rebels, part of her right hand was slashed off. The dead man's torn and blood-soaked shirt and Naila's severed fingers were smuggled out of Medina and taken to Damascus, where the powerful governor of Syria -- a wily politician with his own eye on the caliphate -- ordered them displayed in the main mosque for a full year as a prelude to war against Ali.

Here is the eyewitness account of the scene that year in the main mosque of Damascus:

"The shirt was placed every day on the pulpit. Sometimes it was draped over the pulpit, sometimes it covered it, and Naila's fingers were attached to its cuffs -- two fingers with the knuckles and part of the palm, two cut off at the base, and half a thumb. The people kept coming and crying at the sight, and the Syrian soldiers swore an oath that they would not have relations with women or sleep on beds until they had killed the killers of Othman and anyone who might try to stop them."
Read an excerpt from After the Prophet, and learn more about the book and author at the official After the Prophet website.

--Marshal Zeringue