Yesterday, I interviewed Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch about his new book, “The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion.” What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Now, Muhammad was around for quite a long time before he claimed to see visions and became a religious leader, wasn't he?
Muhammad was about 40 when he first claimed to have been visited by the angel Gabriel. According to the earliest Islamic traditions he did not actually start preaching immediately. He only told his wife and a few people who were very close to him for the first couple of years after that. But, then he got the command to begin to preach. It was at that point he began to develop a...following.
Now, I've heard that Muhammad borrowed heavily from the pagan religion many Arabs worshipped at the time, as well as Judaism and Christianity. Is that true?
Yes, there are clear signs in the Koran of influences from not only the Jewish and Christian scriptures, but also Jewish and Christian oral traditions and from the teachings in particular of Christian heretical groups, most notably the Gnostics, who denied the crucifixion of Christ and said that Judas had been made to look like Jesus and was crucified in his place. (That) notion appears in the Koran, in Chapter 4, where it says that they did not kill or crucify him, but it appeared so unto them. In Islamic tradition it is identified also here with Judas, that it is he who is on the cross, not Jesus.
Now, by today's standards, would Muhammad be considered a pedophile?
By today's standards, he probably would because you're talking about a man who did, according to the earliest Islamic traditions about the incident, consummate a marriage with a nine year old when he was in his early fifties.
Now, that being the case, however, it is also true that he is the supreme example for human behavior within Islam; he is imitated in this. That means that you have child marriage being very common all over the Islamic world where it is also not regarded as pedophilia today.
Now in his time, was it regarded as pedophilia or unusual for a man his age to marry a nine year old?
No. In his time, it was taken for granted. No one criticized him (for) it. No one felt like he was doing anything wrong by doing this. Only the fact that he is imitated makes it problematic.
Actually, I said that poorly. There is a lot more problematic about it than just that.
Would it be fair to call Muhammad a warlord or bandit leader, similar to the sort of bad actors we have in Afghanistan today?
Well, certainly there are quite a few similarities and that's not an accident either because these are people who are pious Muslims and who believe that he gave them an example for human behavior -- and he did lead battles, he ordered his followers to fight on his behalf and to offer his enemies conversion, subjugation as 2nd class citizens, or war. So, there's considerable precedent within Muhammad's life, in his words and deeds, to support that kind of a life.
Along similar lines, would it be fair to say that Muhammad lied, pillaged, murdered, and condoned rape and the murder of infidels?
He said, "War is deceit." He ordered his followers to pillage and the Koran contains very detailed instructions, both in a chapter called the Spoils of War and elsewhere in the book, for dealing with the results of that plunder. ... Murder is certainly in the aspects of the invitation to infidels that I mentioned just now. He said to his followers that they should offer non-believers conversion or subjugation as inferiors under the rule of Islamic law or death. So obviously, murder is condoned in that context. Also, he ordered the assassinations of some of his enemies—including several poets who had made fun of him in their verses and rewarded the killers, including the killers of a ... pregnant woman and a man who was according to the Islamic traditions, over 100 years old.
Muhammad ... took for granted that his followers would be having sex with the women that they captured in these battles—the wives of the pagan warriors that they had killed and the wives of the Jewish tribes that they had killed. ... In the Koran actually, it says that a Muslim may marry up to four wives and have sex with the captives that his right hand possesses, which refers to slave girls captured in battle.
Now, images of Muhammad—we've got them on the Supreme Court, for example. There are plenty of them out there. When did that get to be such a big deal?
Well, it's really a big deal when a non-Muslim makes them. Images of Muhammad are rather common in Shiite Islam. Sunni Islam tends to reject that kind of image making. But really, the main offense in the Danish cartoon controversy and also an earlier controversy that CAIR tried to stir up about that (frieze) at the Supreme Court is that non-Muslims are transgressing the limits proscribed for them within Islamic law and are not to depict Muhammad or insult Allah or Muhammad in any way. So, you have a situation where these kinds of protests, the cartoon protests in particular, the murders of innocent people and riots worldwide, were ... an element of a larger effort to impose Islamic standards of behavior onto the non-Muslim world.
So, a big part of the issue was not necessarily the images, but that infidels had made them, right?
The Shiia and Sunni (branches of Islam) came about in a dispute over succession to Muhammad. Is that correct?
Can you explain to people how that came about?
The prophet Muhammad died rather suddenly and he did not leave clear instructions as to his successors, as to who would succeed him as leaders of the community. The Party of Ali it was called or the Shi'at Ali believed that only a relative of Muhammad could legitimately take over his role as the leader of the Muslim community that he created. The other party believed that it was not necessary that somebody be a member of the Prophet's family, but only that the best man be chosen.
So Ali was not chosen, was passed over for the first three times in the choice for the succession to the leadership, and finally was chosen but was rather shortly thereafter murdered and his sons also were murdered. ... These became the cardinal incidents for Shiite Islam and are celebrated today, yearly, in extravagant displays of mourning of which you've seen pictures. ...
... People cutting themselves with swords ...
... Yes, people cutting their heads with swords in mourning for Hussein, the son of Ali. Really, there's not much difference between Sunni and Shiite practice of Islam although the Shiites do tend to be more spiritually minded—have more of a mystical tradition—and are certainly more emotional and extravagant in their piety and have a little bit more of an emphasis on, let's say, the cult of the Saint. But otherwise, certainly in terms of jihad warfare against infidels, there's not any significant difference between the Sunnis and Shiites.
One last question: Tell us a little bit about the 12th Imam that (Ahmadinejad) seems to be so enamored with.
The 12th Imam is, in Shiite Islam, the 12th successor of Muhammad. In Shiite Islam, the Imams, beginning with Ali, have some of Muhammad's prophetic powers and some of his luminous spirit, such that they are infallible in matters of faith and are to be regarded with this quasi-mystical devotion. However, the 12th Imam, the 12th successor to Muhammad, is supposed to have disappeared as a child, is said to be still alive, and will return at a moment of great persecution and hardship for the Muslims. There's great excitement in Shiite Islam today and it seems to be held by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran that these are the times when the persecution of the Muslims is coming to the breaking point that will hasten the return of the 12th Imam who will come back to destroy the enemies of Islam and institute the rule of Islamic law over the world.