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The doubt essential to faith: Lesley Hazleton at TEDGlobal 2013

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

A few years ago, Lesley Hazleton, self-described “accidental theologist,” found herself waking each morning with the same question: What happened to Muhammad the night he received the revelation of the Koran? An agnostic Jew, Hazleton was writing a biography of the man who stood in the desert outside of Mecca in the year 610 at the moment that founded Islam as we know it today. It was the core mystical moment of Islam, and as such, it defied empirical analysis. Fashioning herself a rationalist, Hazleton set out to find the truth by studying existing accounts of that night.

Lesley Hazleton: On reading the Koran Lesley Hazleton: On reading the Koran

But as Hazleton says — in a gravelly, mythic voice made for fireside storytelling — what struck her in her research was not what happened so much as what didn’t. Mohammed didn’t come floating off the mountain as though walking on air; he didn’t radiate light and joy; he didn’t embrace a sense of an “absolute, foreordained, unquestionable role as the messenger of God.” In fact, says Hazleton, Mohammed himself didn’t believe what he saw was real.

He feared he’d been seized by an evil jinn, a spirit out to deceive him, that he was a majnun, possessed. Mohammed’s first reaction was to leap off a cliff to “escape the terror of what he’d experienced — by putting an end to all experience.”

Mohammed, says Hazleton, did not feel filled with the divine but with doubt, a paralyzing awe. But Mohammed’s fearful response was rejected by conservative Muslim theologians, who had the account of his suicidal thoughts struck from the record, despite the fact that it could be found in the earliest accounts of the night. For Hazleton, however, it was this doubt that made Mohammed seem real to her. After all, she says, “Doubt is essential to faith.”


Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Which is why Hazleton is outraged at the arrogance of fundamentalism, which leaves no room for doubt and indeed undermines the struggle of faith. Why does the extremist minority have so much clout? She says with quiet rage, “We’ve allowed Judaism to be claimed by violently messianic West Bank settlers, Christianity by homophobic hypocrites and misogynistic bigots, Islam by suicide bombers. … This isn’t faith. This is fanaticism.”

Hazleton believes that faith is a necessary struggle, which is why, despite her agnosticism she insists on faith — including the faith that peace in the Middle East is possible. “Because,” she says, “Despair is self-fulfilling. If we call something impossible, we act in such a way that we make it so. And I, for one, refuse to live that way.” And she is sure Mohammed would agree.

Lesley Hazleton’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it here »