(Stranger Genius of Literature Lesley Hazleton reads tonight at Town Hall at 7:30 pm. The reading is $5.)

As certain Danish cartoonists can attest, drawings or other visual representations of Muhammad are considered to be an offense punishable by death among the more violent fringe strains of Islam. Why isn't writing about Muhammad likewise considered to be offensive? Writing began as illustration, after all, and as Lesley Hazleton proves on the first page of The First Muslim , the right author can make a written description just as evocative as an editorial cartoon:

He had round, rosy cheeks and a ruddy complexion. He was stockily built, almost barrel-chested, which may partly account for his distinctive gait, always "leaning forward slightly as though he were hurrying toward something." And he must have had a stiff neck, because people would remember that when he turned to look at you, he turned his whole body instead of just his head. The only sense in which he was conventionally handsome was his profile: the swooping hawk nose long considered a sign of nobility in the Middle East.

Unless you're terrible at reading, you've now got a pretty clear image of Muhammad in your head—probably a much more detailed image than those cartoons published by the Jyllands-Posten. Even more interesting, you have, maybe for the first time, visualized Muhammad as a human being, with flaws and strengths and his own individual quirks. Soon after, Hazleton complains about the "often magnificent" legends about Muhammad that "obscure more than they reveal" about the man...

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