I have pointed out for quite some time now that critics of my work restrict themselves to broad generalizations about my alleged inaccuracy, without troubling to provide any examples. Or alternatively they resort to outright fabrications, as in Khaleel Mohammed’s utterly mendacious claim that “Spencer…misquotes verses of the Qur’an, takes things out of context, and shamelessly lies.” When I asked Dr. Mohammed to provide evidence of any instance in which I miquoted the Qur’an, he did not comply — and of course he cannot produce any such evidence.
But now Jihad Watch reader JVC has sent me some critiques of my work that appear to have some substance — and that I therefore think are worth answering here. But I’m afraid there is less here than meets the eye, as JVC also writes: “Hey Spencer! I was talking with someone about your books, and he sent these to me from some online discussion he read. It is especailly ironic when it is only through you I even know what Tafsir is.”
Tafsir is Islamic commentary on the Qur’an. JVC refers to it because the first critic says this (I don’t know whom is being addressed):
I don’t want to insult you, so I’ll say only that you are quite ignorant of the facts. Some parts of the world do face threats from so-called ‘jihadis’, that much is true, but Islam and the Quran are not the basis for this. Like any theological text, there are 100 ways to interpret the Quran. The Prophet Muhammed himself said, “Difference of opinion in matters of religion in a blessing.” For instance, I was born and raised a Muslim. I have read the Quran cover
to cover and studied all six sunni collections of hadith, and I still
have yet to come to Spencer’s conclusion that Islam teaches its adherents to kill and/or subjugate all non-Muslims.
This is a common claim. Mahdi Bray pulled it on me during a talk I once gave up in Boston. With unctuous solemnity and folksy charm, he claimed that the Islam I described was like no Islam he had ever come across. Likewise now also this writer. But the problem is that if this person really studied Qur’an and Hadith, how exactly did he fail to spot Qur’an 9:29, Sahih Muslim 4294, and hundreds of other passages that tell Muslims to convert, subjugate, or make war against non-Muslims? Or am I supposed to have made all that up? There may be some way to understand these passages in a non-literal sense, and I’d welcome that, but just to claim they don’t exist strains credulity beyond the breaking point.
I doubt that Spencer has ever picked up a book of tafsir.
“Zaynab bint Jahsh was apparently remarkably beautiful. According to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, an ancient Islamic commentary on the Qur’an, after her marriage to Zayd, ‘Muhammad’s eye fell on her, and love for Zaynab budded in his heart.'” — Spencer, The Truth About Muhammad, p. 59.
“All this ground has been covered long ago, such that today Muslims can consult various venerable books of tafsir that carry enormous weight in the Islamic world. A useful starting point is the work of Ibn Kathir….Ibn Kathir elaborates on this in his commentary on Sura 9:29. That verse says that the People of the Book should ‘feel themselves subdued’; he glosses ‘subdued’ as ‘disgraced, humiliated and belittled. Therefore, Muslims are not allowed to honor the people of Dhimmah or elevate them above Muslims, for they are miserable, disgraced and humiliated.'” — Spencer, Onward Muslim Soldiers, pp. 127, 139.
He really has much more in common with his salafi/jihadist nemesi than he would like to admit. Both of them can’t stand dissension or opposition.
It’s ironic that I am always the one asking Muslim spokesmen to debate, and many have declined (Omid Safi, Ahmed Afzaal, etc. etc.) and now I’m the one who can’t stand dissension or opposition.
Meanwhile, it has become increasingly common lately for people to claim that I am empowering the Salafis by reporting on their words and deeds. Evidently if we all close our eyes and pretend with all our might that they aren’t using the Qur’an and Sunnah to recruit more jihadists, they will stop doing so. Well, sorry, but I don’t buy it. If Islamic reformers are sincere, they will confront jihadist exegesis of Islamic texts, not ignore it — as most continue to do.
Both of them are on a religious crusade against each other. And most importantly, both of them think they can pick up the Quran and hadith and interpret them without the aid of any scholars. Perhaps, as a Catholic, Spencer calls this the miracle of immaculate scholarship. It’s funny, he’s such a great Islamic scholar, and yet he doesn’t seem to have ever heard of the concept of sha’n al-nuzul, instead claiming that all the violent surahs and ayah of the Quran are eternal, immutable commandments for the Faithful.
As I have said many times, I don’t have any interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith. I report on their interpretation by Muslims. And I don’t see any large-scale effort by Muslims to refute the jihadist interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith. A few courageous individuals are doing so, but that doth not a movement make.
Likewise, the idea that the violent passages of the Qur’an take precedence over the peaceful ones is not my invention. In his sira, Ibn Ishaq explains the contexts of various verses of the Qur’an by saying that Muhammad received revelations about warfare in three stages: first, tolerance; then, defensive warfare; and finally, offensive warfare in order to convert the unbelievers to Islam or make them pay the jizya. Tafasir by Ibn Kathir, Ibn Juzayy, As-Suyuti and others also emphasize that Surat At-Tawba, the ninth and most violent chapter of the Qur’an, abrogates every peace treaty in the Qur’an.
In the modern age, this idea of stages of development in the Qur’an’s teaching on jihad, culminating in offensive warfare to establish the hegemony of Islamic law, has been affirmed by Qutb, Maududi, the Pakistani Brigadier S. K. Malik (author of “The Qur’anic Concept of War”), Saudi Chief Justice Sheikh Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid (in his “Jihad in the Qur’an and Sunnah”), and others. It is, of course, an assertion of no little concern to non-Muslims, since it encapsulates a doctrine of warfare against non-Muslims and their ultimate subjugation under Sharia rules, with all that implies.
Anyway, the sha’n al-nuzul involves the circumstances in which a particular passage of the Qur’an was revealed. It is more commonly referred to as the asbab al-nuzul. I’ve never heard of it, have I? Well, read on:
“Perhaps reacting to the fragmentary quality of the Qur’anic narrative, early Muslims elaborated two principal sources to provide context for the Qur’an: tafsir (commentary on the Qur’an) and hadith, traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. And a significant amount (although by no means all) of the hadith is itself tafsir. It gives the asbab an-nazool, or circumstances of revelation (as we have just seen for Sura 66:1-5), for various Qur’anic verses””which can have important implications for how the verse is to be applied in the modern age.” — Spencer, The Truth About Muhammad, p. 24.
It would be nice if these pseudo-scholarly critics actually read what I wrote before dismissing it. But I have given up such hopes.
Now of course, it isn’t as if I have never made mistakes. At the same time JVC (and another reader also) sent me someone taking me to task for asserting in a recent interview that Qur’an 3:28 told Muslims not to take Jews and Christians as their friends and protectors (awliyaa) when actually it says “unbelievers,” not Jews and Christians. That is true. My mistake. It is actually Qur’an 5:51 that tells Muslims not to take Jews and Christians as their friends and protectors (awliyaa). And since 3:28 goes on to say — in the opinion of the tafsir of Ibn Kathir and others — that it is permissible under certain circumstances to deceive unbelievers, it is useful to point out here that Qur’an 5:17 refers to orthodox Christians who believe in the divinity of Christ as unbelievers (kafara), the same word used in 3:28.