The underlying thesis of this book, as well as his works over all, is that Islam is an imperialistic religion that is rooted in warfare and is fundamentally incompatible with Western civilization. Before critiquing this thesis, I would like to first critique the work itself. The book, like most of Spencer’s works contains several major flaws: (1) improper comparisons between different people, places, or events, (2) use of weak sources, and (3) leaving out crucial information.
One of the glaring flaws that Robert Spencer tends to make in his works is engaging in improper comparisons. For example, previously I showed how the conquest of Constantinople to the Nakba was an improper comparison and a stronger comparison could be made to the conquest of the city during the Fourth Crusade. Concerning improper comparisons, the most prominent example in the book is his constant comparison between Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them). The analogy that Jesus was all about peace and Muhammad was all about war is flawed since Jesus was never the head of state. While the doctrine of turning the other cheek may have applied to individuals being wronged, it is difficult to conceive such a doctrine to become official state policy, especially when subsequent Christian states have never used Jesus’ teaching of non-violence as a prohibition on warfare in its totality – in fact we see the opposite. Several hundred years of the Crusades and writings by Christian theologians, such as St. Augustine’s writing on the Just War theory, are an indication that Christianity as a whole ascribes to the theory that warfare, at the bare minimum is a necessity at the level of states in an international context. Christianity, at its bare minimum, allows for defensive warfare. History, on the other hand, shows that Christianity was utilized by heads of state and the various Churches to justify not only offensive warfare, but also slavery, forced conversion, and colonialism. Spencer attempts to distinguish such actions from orthodox Christian doctrine by attempting to argue that oppressive actions by Christians shouldn’t be used to denigrate Christianity because those actors acted independently of the Catholic Church. However, this argument isn’t persuasive since several horrific actions occurred at the behest of the Church, such as the Crusades (which Spencer argues as defensive, which will be rebutted in future paragraphs), the Inquisition (which had direct links with the Catholic church), colonialism (the division of the world between Portuguese and Spanish domination was authorized by Papal bulls), or slavery in the New World.
Moreover, his argument can be equally applied to Muslim states. For example, the Ottoman state in many ways violated the Shar’iah, such as by forcibly conscripting Christian youth into their elite fighting force (the Janissaries), by taking on huge loans from European states, and by purportedly engaging in offensive jihad (Spencer argues that the Ottoman-Byzantine wars were not defensive from the perspective of the Ottomans, but offensive. Assuming that the warfare offensive jihad, then they clearly violated the Shari’ah, because even as Spencer himself recognizes, such a jihad requires the establishment of a Caliphate, and the Ottomans were not recognized as a Caliphate until much later in history; either Spencer must concede that the Ottomans engaged in defensive jihad, which is recognized even under Christianity and current international law, or that the Ottoman state violated the Shari’ah by engaging in offensive jihad, in which case the Shar’iah is not to blame). Additionally, Spencer contradicts his own argument that Christianity is a peaceful religion by arguing in his book that the bible sanctions warring against particular people and not an entire class of people such as the Hittite, Girgashite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, or Jebusite (p 29 of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades” by Robert Spencer) All of this shows that throughout his works, Spencer constantly compares apples to oranges by solely focusing on the life of Jesus and Muhammad who was not only a prophet, but a head of state, a diplomat, and a military commander. After all, even in America, the head of state is commander in chief of the military forces, so dividing political and military leadership is superfluous.
Another example of how Spencer makes improper analogies is by making erroneous comparisons between the rise of European civilization through “science and technology” and an alleged Islamic rejection of such knowledge resulting in a purported decline. The thesis that science and technology lead to the rise of Europe has come under attack from many historians, philosophers, social and economic theorists such as Janet Abu-Lughod, Kenneth Pomeranz, Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin, et al. Furthermore, such a thesis reveals the blatant hegemonic nature of the discourse on Islam since they these essentialist theories do not account for the domination of non-Muslim societies such as the Americas, Africa, or East Asia. The argument fails to account for the rise of Islam in the first place which was based on the same technological and scientific innovations that Spencer claims were suppressed. How can Islam account for the creation of scientific knowledge and the university system but also be the source of its decline? In terms of the theory that orthodoxy stifled heretical thought, no empirical evidence supports such an assertion. Why did it take the Orthodox leadership something close to 800 years to stifle “the scientific impulse” within the Muslim world? This theory is not only shallow, it is incoherent. This theory also doesn’t account for why only certain areas of Europe, specifically Western Europe, were able to become hegemonic powers. What scientific technological innovations did medieval Poland, Norway, Portugal, Russia, or Spain, make that was significant in the rise of Western civilization in the modern era? Also, Western hegemony didn’t arise over night and there was a plethora of Islamic hegemons formed even after the European renaissance such as the Ottoman, Mughal, and Safavid Empires, the Sokoto Caliphate, and the Aceh Sultanate, all of whom resisted Western penetration up until the industrial revolution. It can be argued that the peoples of the Asia and Africa were more “primitive” than the Muslim world, yet it isn’t until the industrial revolution that we see widespread European penetration of their respective heartlands. A decent argument can be made that the industrial revolution in Europe would not have happened but for the convergence of several events that had nothing to do with a supposed scientific or technological edge such as (1) the seizure of the Spice Trade by Portugal which had a devastating effect on Mameluke and Ottoman revenues, causing them to increase taxes, which produced internal revolts and undermined their territorial integrity, (2) diversion of the north African gold trade away from the Mediterranean and Indian system of trade that was Muslim dominated to the Atlantic and South Indian ocean trade system which was European dominated, providing Europeans sufficient capital to create a world system of global trade, (3) the decision of the Chinese to establish a bimetallic currency of gold and silver which made European monies from non-European areas useful for trade with East Asia, further separating the Muslim world from global trade, (4) the seizure and settlement of land in the Americas and elsewhere that enabled Europeans to grow land-intensive crops that would have authorized consumed energy and resources, the absence of which would have forced Europeans to devote more labor and persons to agriculture and less to industrial development, (5) the use of slave labor and capital that assisted in industrial development by creating a division of labor that freed up European labor to pursue non-agricultural projects, and so on and so forth. Spencer and other Eurocentrists don’t want to look at the history of colonialism, in spite of strong theoretical and empirical evidence that it contributed to the global domination of the world by Europeans and people of European descent because it shows the immoral roots of such domination. They don’t want to look at empirical research that indicates that areas in Africa that were subjected to colonialism and slavery are, unsurprisingly, some of the most underdeveloped regions in the world. It is easier to blame the cultural differences between the colonizer and the colonized than to look at historical evidence since it absolves the colonizer of any wrongdoing. Of course, there are limitations to the bigotry espoused by such thinkers. Instead of letting the historical record speak for itself, Spencer seeks to make improper analogies about Islam and the West in order to denigrate Islam and promote the West. These are two prime examples of Spencer’s practice of making improper comparisons in his works.
In addition to making weak analogies, Spencer uses weak sources to substantiate his claim, the most prominent of which is Ibn Ishaq’s “Sirat Rasul Allah” which contains narrations of various degrees and does not provide the reader with any analysis of whether the narration he cites to is an authentic narration or a fabricated narration. Another example is Joseph Schacht’s “An Introduction to Islamic Law” which has been utterly rebutted by subsequent scholars such as Mustafa al-Azami. Al-Azami identifies Schacht’s main theses are (1) that the Prophet did not legislate and the law fell outside of the sphere of religion, (2) that the early schools of law did not base their decisions on hadeeth, (3) the opponents of the schools of law fabricated hadeeth in order to create its own source of authority, (4) the schools of law attempted to resist such factions but when they could not, participated in the wholesale fabrication of hadeeth as well, (5) during the second and third centuries, the fuqaha interpolated their legal verdicts into the words of the Prophet, (6) therefore, all of the traditions from the Prophet are suspect, and (7) the system of isnad carries no probative value. (p 1-2 of “On Schacht’s Origins of Muhammad Jurisprudence” by M. Mustafa al-Azami”) al-Azami systematically refutes each and ever single argument raised by Schacht by citing historical references and using rational arguments. In response to the notion that the Prophet didn’t legislate, al-Azami points out various actions that indicate his role as legislator, such as pronouncing decrees, adjudicating in criminal and civil cases, appointing judges and arbitrators, and the many pronouncements in the Qur’an that concern purely legal matters. In refuting his assertion that the early schools didn’t utilize hadeeth, al-Azami points out the obvious: that many of the founders of the schools of law wrote compilations of hadeeth and used those as a basis for deducing rulings, from scholars such as Imam Malik’s “al-Muwatta” to Imam Bukhari “Jami al-Sahih” which are both hadeeth compilations, but also the basis of their rulings. In refuting his contention that hadeeth were wholesale fabricated by traditionalists and anti-traditionalist, al-Azami points out that many of the narrations that Schacht claimed were fabricated actually existed in early hadeeth literature. Of course, the purpose of this post isn’t to regurgitate the entire book, but sufficed to say, al-Azami’s critique of Schacht is devastating. Spencer could have chosen a better source to understand Islamic jurisprudence that weren’t based on weak assumptions, misinformation, and omissions, but he chose one that deliberately maligned the Islamic legal tradition as a reference in order to invalidate it. He does the same thing by citing books for the Crusades that tend to rely solely on European accounts and he ignores Arab views of the Crusades such as “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes” by Amin Malouf and others. When Spencer does utilize traditional Islamic sources, he does so in order to malign it as well by citing “classical” as opposed to “modern” scholarship on important legal issues. The use of biased sources or the use of unbiased sources but used in a biased manner reveals the overall bias inherent in Spencer’s writing.
However, by far, the biggest problem with Spencer’s work is that he systematically leaves out important information in order to substantiate his two main theses: (1) that Christianity is a passive, non-violent religion that only engages in defensive warfare and (2) Islam is an aggressive, violent religion that is imperialistic and seeks world domination. Spencer’s frequent omissions have already been shown earlier in the article on the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israel, and they exist in abundance in his book as well. He portrays Muhammad as a militant early on in his life who became a charlatan that preached peacefully until he was rejected by his tribe and reacted by resorting to violence. While it is true that Muhammad had engaged in two local wars prior to prophethood, Spencer fails to mention that his role in these wars was minimal. He did not fight against anyone or kill anyone, but simply collected arrows. In fact, throughout his life, Muhammad only killed one man in the many battles he fought in – and even he was merely scratched by a weapon carried by Muhammad and died several days after the battle. If Spencer can find a single example of Muhammad killing anyone in a battle, perhaps his argument might have more credence. Similarly, Spencer completely omits the fierce persecution that the early Muslims were subjected to. Spencer portrays Chapter of al-Lahab as a violent reaction to Abu Lahab for rejecting the message of Islam. Firstly, the revelation in question doesn’t incite anyone to kill Abu Lahab, it merely states that him and his wife will go to hellfire for eternity and be punished by God. Secondly, Spencer fails to mention that Abu Lahab was chief persecutor of the nascent Muslim community, and not merely someone who rejected Islam. He would fling stones at Muhammad constantly, ridicule him in public, and throw goat entrails on him while he was praying, and torture the other early Muslims as well. His wife would tie bundles of thorns with ropes of twisted palm-leaf fiber and throw them in the paths were Muhammad would walk. In addition to failing to omit Abu Lahab’s actions, Spencer also completely omits to mention that the Muslims were humiliated, beaten, tortured, and boycotted by the Pagans as well without doing anything to instigate such treatment other than practicing their faith or calling people to it. The uncle of Uthman would wrap him up in a mat and then set fire under him. Umm Mus’ab bin ‘Umar starved her son. Bilal would be beaten by his master when he converted. A rope would be wrapped around his neck and street boys would drag him by it. He would also be tortured by being crushed by heavy stones. Ammar and his parents would be forced to lie in the burning sand and beaten or thrown onto burning embers. His father died as a result and his mother was bayoneted by Abu Jahl. Abu Fakeeh would be dragged by his feet throughout the street. Khabbab bin al-Aratt would have his hair pulled and choked by it and also be forced to lie on a burning coal and crushed with a big rock in order to prevent him from escaping. The early Muslims were subjected to a boycott, had their property seized, and were evicted from their own homes.
Clearly, the early Muslims were persecuted while they resided in Makkah and such persecution continued even after they migrated to Madinah. However, the difference between the community in Makkah and Madinah was that the latter comprised a political community, a state. Obviously, states must engage in warfare, at the very least to defend themselves from foreign engage. Spencer’s treatment of Islam is also biased in this manner, by leaving out actions that gave Muslims a justifiable reason to engage in warfare against aggressors. Its hard to see how the early Muslim wars were “imperialist” when the wars themselves were against political communities that had engaged in the persecution of Muslims. Furthermore, many of the battles between the “imperialistic” Muslims and the “non-violent” non-Muslims involved families fighting against families: fathers against sons, brothers against brothers, husbands against their in-laws, masters against slaves, etc. Spencer mentions how Muhammad initiated raiding before the Battle of Badr and argues that he was the aggressor, but fails to mention that the “wealth” of the caravans that were “attacked” were actually those belonging to the Muslims which they were forced to leave behind when they immigrated. After all, Muhammad didn’t target any of the other many caravans that were constantly moving throughout Arabia, but only those that were either hauling the property of Muslims or were from tribes that had persecuted Muslims in the first place.
In terms of the non-Arabian wars, a decent argument can be made that they were also defensive as well. The cause of war between the Muslim state and the Ghassanians and their Byzantine protectors was the fact that the former had murdered a Muslim diplomat who invited them to Islam (and no, they were not offered Islam, jizyah, or warfare, they were invited to Islam and that’s it).
Muhammad had sent al-Harith bin ‘Umair al-Azdi to the ruler of Basra with a letter and was intercepted by Sharhabeel bin ‘Amr al-Ghassani, the governor of al-Balqa and a vassal of the Byzantine Empire, and beheaded. Such an action was obviously an act of war. The Muslims responded by sending an small army, only 3,000, against roughly 200,000 soldiers as such. The Byzantine Empire supported its protectorate by sending its own forces and by doing so, entered into a de facto state of war with Muslims. Once the Byzantine Empire entered into warfare against Muslims, then it follows that they would engage in warfare with all of the Byzantine Empire and not just particular regions. Spencer deceitfully attempts to divide the Byzantine Empire into different sections and argues that the Muslims systematically attacked them but Syria, Egypt, and North Africa (along with Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) were not separate territories, but all either directly or indirectly allied with the Byzantine Empire. Once the Byzantine Empire engaged in war with Madinah, the entire Empire was open to being attacked. The Muslims wars, then, were not wars of aggression, but wars of defense – and they won. The Crusades, then, can’t be claimed to be “defensive” attempts to recapture “Christian” territory when the Christian states were themselves aggressors against Muslims. The Muslim invasion of other territories was also generally linked to legitimate acts of warfare: Persia was invaded due under similar abuse of diplomats, India was invaded after Muslim women were enslaved and abused, Spain was invaded after the rape of Arab women, etc. While it is undoubtedly true that Muslim states initiated warfare aggressively, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Islam itself supports aggressive warfare, but more on this later.
The other main thesis that Spencer attempts to make is that Christian states were generally more tolerant and passive than Muslim states, and only engaged in warfare when necessary. While it is true that the Catholic Church treated Jews fairly well, the same can’t be said of the Greek Orthodox Church or the Protestant movement (see Martin Luther’s “On the Jews and their Lies” and the fact that he actively worked towards expelling Jews.) Nonetheless, the theory and practice of Christian states diverged. The Third Council of Toledo in 589 required Jews to convert. Jews were expelled from France in 1254, in England in 1290, in Spain in 1481, in Portugal in 1496, and were massacred in South India by the Portuguese in the 1500s as well. There was also the various Inquisitions that were either directly under the control of the Catholic Church or authorized by it and employed Bishops and Arch-Bishops to target heretics, Jews, and Muslims.
Spencer completely omits the connections between military orders, such as the Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller, and the Catholic Church. Spencer argues that these military orders were part of the Crusades and are justifiable since the Crusades were defensive. The argument that the Crusades were defensive has been deconstructed above, but assuming for the sake of the argument that the Crusades were defensive, it still doesn’t account for the the Wendish crusades which were authorized by papal bull by Pope Eugenius III against pagan slavs. It also doesn’t account for how Portuguese and Spanish slavery were authorized by papal bulls: the Dum Diversas by Pope Nicholas V (authorized slavery of Muslims and pagans, 1452 [note: this is one year before the conquest of Constantinople]), reaffirmed by Pope Calixtus III in the Etsti Cuncti (1456), renewed by Pope Sixtus in 1481 and Pope Leo X in 1514 in the Precelse Denotionis, extended to the Americas by Pope Alexander VI in the Inter Cetera (1493) and wasn’t banned until the Sublimus Dei of Pope Paul III in 1537, but that didn’t stop Europeans from doing it until much later. The notion that Christians only engaged in “defensive” warfare doesn’t account for the papal bulls that granted Europeans dominions over non-Europeans such as the Romanus Pontifex by Pope Nicholas V (granted Catholic countries of Europe dominion over all lands “discovered” by them and authorized their seizure and enslavement of non-Christians, 1455), the Aeterni Regis by Pope Sixtus IV (confirmed the Treaty of Alcavocas which divided the whole world into Spanish and Portuguese spheres and specifically granted all land south of the Canary Islands in Africa to Portugal, 1481), the Dudum Siquidem (granted all mainlands and islands that belonged to India to Spain, 1493), etc. Military Orders played a pivotal role in early Iberian expansion. Prince Henry the Navigator, Manuel I, and Vasco Da Gama were all members of the Order of Christ. His argument collapses when one scrutinizes that there are plenty of wars against European expansion where no European sovereignty (territorial or religious) existed such as the wars that were launched to recapture territory seized by Spain and Portugal following the conquest of Granada, the war against the Spanish and later against the Americans starting with Lapu-Lapu in the Philippines, the war against the Russians in Central Asia, the war against the British in India and Afghanistan, the war against France in North Africa, the war against Europeans in Western and Eastern Africa, the war against the Dutch in Southeast Asia, etc. If Christian states only engaged in warfare against Muslims to seize land they allegedly stole from them and Muslim states were imperialist states, then why has so much of the warfare in the past 500 years been between European states seizing land, people, and resources in non-European areas? Is it entirely possible that many of these “jihads” were not aggressive at all, but mere conflagrations involving people defending their homelands? Spencer is forced to concede that, at the very least, some wars were legitimate defensive wars and some European wars were aggressive, imperialist ventures that were either openly or nominally authorized by Christian clergy.
Furthermore, the theory of Islamic imperialism and coerced conversion doesn’t explain how large non-Muslim minorities still existed in Muslim lands up until today, such as the Jews, Parsees, Hindus, Buddhists, and various Christian groups (Coptic, Greek, Syriac, etc). It also doesn’t explain how Islam spread in the absence of warfare. The theory of Islamic imperialism also doesn’t explain the spread of Islam in the absence of an “Islamic state” such as in Central Asia (who forced the Golden Hord and the Turks to convert?), Eastern China, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia (which Muslim state invaded Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country today, and forced everyone to become Muslim?). Also, what about today, which “Islamic states” are forcing people to convert in the Americas, in Western countries or in Africa, such as in Rwanda where thousands have converted to Islam?
Spencer leaves out all of this important information regarding the cause of wars between Muslim and non-Muslim states or how Islam spread beyond the realm of Islamic states and instead focuses on quoting classical Muslim jurists. He himself recognizes that there was a distinction between defensive and offensive jihad. Defensive jihad, as highlighted above, is entirely justifiable and recognized not only in Christianity, but presently under international law. Offensive jihad has been portrayed by classical scholars as a war of aggression in order to convey to the non-Muslims the might of Islam. However, Spencer fails to mention several important tidbits of information: (1) offensive jihad could only be conduced by the Caliph, (2) not all classical jurists recognized the legitimacy of offensive jihad, such as the entirety of the Hanbali school which has staunchly rejected it. This is important because even if it is assumed that those “aggressive” Muslim states were engaging in offensive jihad, it doesn’t follow that they were doing so according to Islamic law. For example, Sultan Mehmet wasn’t recognized as the Caliph at the time of the conquest of Constantinople and the Ottomans didn’t claim this title until much later in their history. Thus, if the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople was a manifestation of offensive jihad, and not part of the broader Christian-Muslim wars that was waged for centuries, then his actions were in violation of the Shari’ah. The same can obviously be said of today’s radical Islamic militant groups, such as al-Qaeda (who claim their jihad is defensive) who are not recognized as Caliphs nor have they even claimed it. In fact, their entire goal in engaging in terrorism is to restore the Caliphate.
Moreover, if any Muslim states or groups engaged in the killing of civilians, they are also in violation of the Shari’ah. Spencer’s quoting of Islamic scholarship is selective. While he quotes Bin Laden’s fatwas justifying the killing of civilians, he ignores the fatwas of scholars throughout antiquity and today that reject it (See “Defending the Civilians”). While he quotes from classical scholarship in offensive jihad, he fails to quote contemporary scholars who reject offensive jihad, on the grounds that it was only to ensure the creation of an international system of order and it is now obsolete due to the present of organizations that now fulfill this function such as the United Nations.
Conclusion: Is Robert Spencer an Islamophobe?
In his book “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam”, Robert Spencer argues that the use of the term “Islamophobe” is merely a tactic from radical Islamists to stifle legitimate critique of terrorism and the alleged imperialistic tendencies of Islam and Muslims. However, it has been shown that Spencer systematically engages in important omissions, weak comparisons, and misrepresentations in virtually all of his speeches, posts, and books. These tactics reveal that his underlying objective is to malign Islam and it exposes the inherent bias and bigotry he has to Islam and Muslims. Thus, it is entirely justifiable for him to be condemned as an Islamophobe.