Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Robert Spencer, a scholar of Islamic history, theology, and law and the director of Jihad Watch. He is the author of six books, seven monographs, and hundreds of articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism, including Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World’s Fastest Growing Faith and the New York Times Bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). He is the author of the new book, The Truth About Muhammad.
FP: Robert Spencer, it is a pleasure to have you back at Frontpage Interview.
Spencer: Thank you for inviting me.
FP: So tell us what inspired you to write The Truth About Muhammad. In your book, you discuss why you didn’t want to write it at first. How come?
Spencer: I was inspired to write this book by a phenomenon I have observed many times over the years: moderate Muslims would invoke Muhammad’s example in arguing that Muslims should become more peaceful, and jihadists would invoke his example also, but to justify their acts of violence. I give some examples of this in the book’s first chapter.
This is a very important question, for since Muslims traditionally have looked to Muhammad as the supreme example for human behavior (cf. Qur’an 33:21), what he was really like according to the sources Muslims themselves consider reliable will reveal a great deal about what non-Muslims can realistically expect in the long term from the Islamic world and the American Muslim community.
Meanwhile, the prevailing assumption among policymakers and the mainstream media is that Islam is fundamentally peaceful. Since a range of American policies are based on this assumption, I thought it useful to examine the origins of Islam and the character of its founder — again, strictly according to the texts Muslims consider most reliable — in order to determine how Muslims themselves who take such texts seriously regard their obligations as believers. This will illuminate a great deal about the readiness of Islamic nations and groups to make common cause and form lasting alliances with America and the West.
FP: Before we continue, it is crucial to emphasize that there are obviously many sincere, knowledgeable Muslims, such as Irshad Manji, Thomas Haidon, Kamal Nawash, Sheikh Palazzi, etc., who do not fall into the categories of some of the things we will be talking about. There are many moderate Muslim reformers who represent the best hope for the future of Islam; they are our allies and we have a huge stake in supporting them.
As you yourself have also pointed out, the problem we face in the Islamic world today is not necessarily Muslims per se, but what Islam teaches. Crystallizing the ingredients of Islam that may gave rise to Islamic terrorism is the best weapon with which we can arm Muslim moderates and reformers who are fighting to democratize and modernize their religion.
Now having said that, I would like to move to an issue that has been of great interest to me. Your book is based on Islamic sources — sources, in other words, that many Muslims believe to be reliable and legitimate. So kindly explain the following phenomeon:
I have had an infinite amount of conversations with various Muslims in which many of the ingredients of Muhammad’s life are denied. For instance, numerous Muslims have told me, emphatically, that Muhammad was not a military man and never touched the hair on one person’s head. They emphasize that he only preached and practised peace. They look completely mystified and alarmed when I tell them about, for instance, the massacre of the Jewish tribe, Banu Qurayzah, and they tell me that this either never happened or that I am mistaken in one way or another. And they do this with tremendous anger.
Yet these are all facts. Facts, which you demonstrate, that are in the Qur’an and a hadith.
So what am I missing here? Do many Muslims themselves know nothing about their own Prophet? Or are they pretending they don’t know?
Spencer: Yes, I relied on Muhammad’s earliest Muslim biographers, Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Sa’d, as well as the great muhaddithin Bukhari and Muslim. I also give numerous examples in the book of Muslims themselves referring to the accounts of Muhammad that I detail in the book — showing that they themselves take for granted that these things happened.
In doing this, I have tried to perform a service for sincere Muslim reformers. After all, there can be no reform without a thorough and searching acknowledgment of what within Islam actually needs reforming. I have focused on a few of those elements of Islam in this book.
Nevertheless, I have many times encountered the phenomenon to which you refer. Just a few days ago I received an acrimonious email from a prominent moderate Muslim spokesman whose writings have been featured in FrontPage. He accused me of “shameless lies” for reporting that Muhammad married his daughter-in-law. Of course, this incident is referred to obliquely in the Qur’an (33:37), as well as in the hadith collection of Bukhari, the writings of the historian Tabari, the Qur’an commentary Tafsir al-Jalalayn, and other Islamic sources.
When I noted this, the spokesman called me an idiotic liar and heaped scorn on my invoking Tabari, whom he claimed was unreliable. He didn’t say anything about Bukhari or Tafsir al-Jalalayn. Nor did he address the fact that apologists such as Karen Armstrong and Muhammad Husayn Haykal, as well as Maxime Rodinson and the Muslim convert Martin Lings and others also, use Tabari in their books about Muhammad. Haykal takes for granted that the daughter-in-law incident took place, and comes up with various apologetic explanations for it.
Meanwhile, this Muslim moderate has informed me that he is working on a piece attacking me and my work, which I expect to be as hostile, confused and disingenuous as his emails. But I mention this curious incident now because it is indicative of a tendency: the denial, the indignation, and the charges of ignorance and ill will have become the dispiritingly common ways in which all too many Muslim spokesmen respond to those who merely point out various aspects of Islamic tradition that make them uncomfortable.
Instead of working in constructive ways for reform, they prefer to demonize and vilify those who bring such material to light — as if I really did make up the incident in which Muhammad married his daughter-in-law and somehow, through my black Zionist arts, made millions of Muslims believe it.
FP: So why is it that the reaction to your book from the Islamic world is primarily filled with insults at best and death threats at worst? Where is the tradition to actually counter with scholarship and argumentation for an honest and meticulous diagnosis of Muhammad’s life? Why do so many Muslims not embrace a close scrutiny of their Prophet’s life to get to the truth of who he actually was?
Even more curious is how many Muslims insist that their religion is about peace and yet, upon others” disagreement, they become violent. What just happened with the Pope is a perfect example. Muslims get outraged that an implication has been made that their religion is one of violence, but then they react to this supposed defamation of their religion, and of their Prophet, by threatening and perpetrating violence.
What is the logic here?
I have myself received several death threats over the years from certain Muslims. Paradoxically, these death threats were preceded, in almost every case, with the perpetrator of the threat trying to insist to me that Islam is a religion of peace. This is how it would go: I get an email from a Muslim reprimanding me for some kind of comment or argument I made about Islam having a tenet of violence. The writer insists to me that Islam is a religion of peace. I respond by asking about and referring to the verses in the Qur’an that promote violence (i.e. 9:5). Then, within two or three exchanges, I start getting threatening emails — from the same individual who started out telling me that Islam is a religion of peace.
It is somewhat of a bizarre and tragic comedy, no?
Spencer: Yes it is, Jamie. In fact, the same bizarre and tragicomedy recently played out for me. I recently received several death threats from a Muslim who claimed that somehow I had insulted Islam by writing this biography of Muhammad. In one of them, he insisted that Islam was a religion of peace:
“I am coming to America to hunt down spencer. Very soon he will be delivered!
I will be violent against anyone who hurts muslim feelings about Prophet.
It is a religion of peace for everyone until some duckhead sprews out his damn saliva on a senstive topic as this. Spencer will be deliveredÅ .
He will be killed for sure. Tell you FBI and CIA. You dont know muslims. They will rip apart US you know why? because America has insulted their religion.”
I have come to expect this kind of furious reaction even from Muslims who don’t threaten my life, but I have to say that it has been somewhat disappointing. When I first began to do this work publicly and published my first book, Islam Unveiled, I assumed that some thoughtful Muslim would deal with the questions I raised in it in the spirit in which they were offered, and map out a path by which the violent elements of Islamic teaching could be mitigated. Today I am no longer so naive.
FP: So let’s explore a bit of the psychology of many Muslim believers and their attitude toward Mohammed and supposed blasphemy etc. I am a bit puzzled by certain aspects of it.
For instance, I am a person of the Christian faith. I must say that if someone in my presence started making fun of Jesus or ridiculed him in some way — and started desecrating a Bible in front of me, I might be a bit taken aback or maybe slightly bruised in one way or another, but overall I wouldn’t really be too interested. Yes, it would be a shame that the Bible was desecrated. But in the end I didn’t do it. The desecrator did. Yes, I would most likely try to protect the Bible, and I would also say what I consider to be the truth about Jesus. But overall, whatever the turnout, I wouldn’t be severely traumatized and enraged, let alone out for blood, after such an episode.
All in all, in this portrait I paint, it is that person’s business what he is doing and thinking. If anything, I would probably just think he is a loser. And this person will deal with what he has done, said and thought in his own journey and in his own hour of judgment when it comes. His soul is not my soul. His business is his business and my business is my own. I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over it, aside from maybe if I cared for him and was concerned for him.
I obviously do not speak for all Christians in my disposition toward these things, but overall there appears to be a substantial amount of tolerance and comfort in the Christian world in relation to non-Christian thought and anti-Christian ridicule — and also a certain awareness of private business. In Christianity there are boundaries between what people think, in the sense that there are notions of individuality, privacy and personal conscience, which appear to be almost non-existent in the Muslim religion and culture. This is in terms of the picture that many Muslims themselves present to us (i.e. the demonstrations and threats over the cartoons, the Pope’s statements, etc.)
Overall, I guess my point is that if someone engages in blasphemy in regards to my own religion, my mindset is that, if there is some kind of price to be paid for it, he will pay it. Why I am supposed to fly into a furious rage and start threatening or trying to kill someone and/or screaming with rage at some kind of demonstration is completely beyond me.
Can you enlighten me on the psychology here?
Spencer: Jamie, you’re articulating one of the fundamental differences between the Christian and Islamic traditions. In Christianity, vengeance belongs to God only: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord; I will repay” (Romans 12:19). But in Islam, the faithful are commanded to take revenge, for Allah will repay the offenders by means of the Muslim warriors: “Will ye not fight people who violated their oaths, plotted to expel the Messenger, and took the aggressive by being the first (to assault) you? Fight them, and Allah will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame” (Qur’an 9:13-14). So in the first place, it is much more acceptable within an Islamic context than within a Christian one to avenge a wrong, and in Islam blaspheming or insulting the Prophet is a very serious wrongdoing.
Muhammad himself also sets an example for Muslims in this. He ordered the assassinations of several people who had dared to mock him and his prophetic pretensions – notably, two poets, Abu ‘Afak and ‘Asma bint Marwan. Abu ‘Afak was reputed to be over one hundred years old, and had dared to criticize in verse Muhammad’s killing of another of his opponents. Muhammad asked his men, “Who will deal with this rascal for me?” He found a ready volunteer in a young Muslim named Salim bin ‘Umayr, who dispatched the old poet as he lay sleeping. ‘Asma bint Marwan, a poetess, was incensed when she heard of the murder of Abu ‘Afak. She wrote verses denigrating the men of Medina for obeying “a stranger who is none of yours,” and asked, “Is there no man of pride who would attack him by surprise and cut off the hopes of those who expect aught from him?”
When Muhammad heard of this, he looked to strike first, asking for a volunteer to kill her: “Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?” A Muslim named ‘Umayr bin ‘Adiy al-Khatmi took the job, and killed her along with her unborn child that very night. But after he had done the deed, ‘Umayr began to worry that perhaps he had committed a grave sin. Muhammad reassured him: “You have helped God and His apostle, O ‘Umayr!” But would he incur punishment?
“Two goats,” replied the Prophet of Islam, “won’t butt their heads about her.”
The men of ‘Asma bint Marwan’s tribe, the Banu Khatma, “saw the power of Islam” in her killing – so says Muhammad’s first biographer, Ibn Ishaq. They duly acknowledged Muhammad as the Prophet of Allah (Ibn Ishaq, 675-676).
Muslims who claim that the killing of ‘Asma bint Marwan was justified by her attempting to rally the men of Medina against Muhammad cannot make the same claim about the killing of Abu ‘Afak. In any case, in these incidents, Muhammad, the “excellent example of conduct” (Qur’an 33:21), sets a precedent for his followers which we see working out in our own day with the international riots and killings over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad and the Pope’s remarks: perceived insults are to be punished with death. No quarter given.
FP: Ok, fair enough, this is the ideological foundation perhaps, the teaching and example on the issue of punishment for dissent or criticism or whatever. But I am also prying more into the psychology.
There appears to be a general rage, and a general incapacity to hear other voices, in this mindset we are talking about. Aside from what the radicalized Muslim believes is the right thing to do, he is often himself seething with anger and ready to inflict violence at every moment’s turn.
Is this lust for violence and incapacity to hear other voices other than one’s own, perhaps connected to the non-existence of freedom and joy within the culture that much of Islam has engendered? So much is forbidden, and so many of the cultures are so devoid of entertainment and fun, that the only freedom becomes to punish others with violence?
Spencer: I don’t think there’s any doubt that there are significant forces in the Islamic world that are doing all they can to stoke rage and then channel it for their purposes. Some notorious recent examples include the fact that three more inflammatory cartoons of Muhammad were added to the ones that actually appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten in a dossier that was circulated in the Islamic world by Muslim leaders. Evidently they thought that the genuine cartoons weren’t sufficient to induce the rage they wanted. Likewise the airing of a TV show depicting the Passover blood libel – Jews murdering a Christian child in order to use his blood in making Passover matzo – in Syria and Jordan does nothing but fan the flames of Islamic rage. And there is a veritable blizzard of such examples.
But aside from Islamic rage being stoked by leaders who plan to exploit it for a particular agenda (which primarily involves jihad recruitment), there is a deeper principle involved here. The Ayatollah Khomeini articulated it most vividly when he said: “Allah did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer. An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious.” In this he recalls something Lenin once said – that he enjoyed music but couldn’t listen to it, as it made him want to embrace everyone and thus ran counter to the revolutionary spirit. Khomeini interpreted the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s prohibition of music in much the same way: as a drug that diverted people away from their true purpose. “Music,” he thundered, “corrupts the minds of our youth. There is no difference between music and opium. Both create lethargy in different ways. If you want your country to be independent, then ban music. Music is treason to our nation and to our youth.”
I think the insight was sound: that music and other arts and forms of relaxation (Lenin gave up chess too, for much the same reason that he gave up music) soften the strength of the rage that is necessary for any revolutionary movement. And the Islamic jihad is just that – a revolutionary movement. Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi, a leading 20th century Pakistani Islamic thinker and activist, author of several influential books including Jihad in Islam and the massive Towards Understanding the Qur’an, and founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami (Islamic Party), which is still an influential political party in Pakistan, stated this clearly: “The truth is that Islam is not the name of a ‘Religion,’ nor is ‘Muslim’ the title of a ‘Nation.’ In reality Islam is a revolutionary ideology and programme which seeks to alter the social order of the whole world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideals. ‘Muslim’ is the title of that International Revolutionary Party organized by Islam to carry into effect its revolutionary programme. And ‘Jihad’ refers to that revolutionary struggle and utmost exertion which the Islamic Party brings into play to achieve this objective.”
Such a revolutionary struggle, of course, advances through violence. And that violence is provoked by rage. Rage thus becomes a cornerstone of a society that holds that revolutionary advance as one of its core principles.
FP: Some profound wisdom here, thank you sir. Again, I am trying to delve into the psychology of the mindset that rejects the notion that someone else’s thoughts are none of your business and that these thoughts are also disconnected from your own reality and happiness. I am interested in the phenomenon of why an individual would put such a high stake into what someone else is thinking, believing and saying. But you have helped to put this into context for us, thank you.
In any case, let’s move on.
I would like to touch on the Satanic Verses. This is a bit mystifying. According to Islamic teachings and sources themselves, the devil once spoke through Muhammad’s mouth. This is a bit odd, no? What exactly was this about and what exactly do Muslims think about this?
Spencer: The Islamic sources tell us that Muhammad’s failure to convince his own tribesmen, the Quraysh, that he was a prophet grieved him. According to his earliest biographer, Ibn Ishaq, “the apostle was anxious for the welfare of his people, wishing to attract them as far as he could.” However, ultimately it was the leaders of the Quraysh who came to him with an offer to make him their king, with one condition: “desist from reviling our gods and do not speak evilly of them.” And they made an alternate offer: If you will not do so, we offer you one means which will be to your advantage and to ours.”
“What is it?” asked the Prophet of Islam.
“You will worship our gods, al-Lat and al-Uzza, for a year, and we shall worship your god for a year.”
Muhammad responded: “Let me see what revelation comes to me from my Lord.” And initially, the answer the Prophet of Islam received was sharply negative: “Say: O disbelievers! I worship not that which ye worship; nor worship ye that which I worship. And I shall not worship that which ye worship, nor will ye worship that which I worship. Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (Qur’an 109:1-6).
But still Muhammad longed for a way out of the impasse. He said: “I wish Allah had not revealed to me anything distasteful to them.” And finally he hit on a solution. A new revelation came to him, part of which is today found in sura 53 of the Qur’an. Ibn Ishaq states that when Muhammad declared that the goddesses of the Quraysh were “the exalted Gharaniq whose intercession is approved.”
The Gharaniq were high-flying cranes. Muhammad meant that they were near Allah’s throne, and that it was legitimate for Muslims to pray to al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat, the three goddesses favored by the pagan Quraysh, as intercessors before Allah. The Quraysh were elated, and prostrated themselves with Muhammad. Word traveled quickly: “the Quraysh have accepted Islam.” Since peace seemed to be at hand, some of the Muslims who had earlier fled to Abyssinia for their safety began to return. But one principal player in the drama was not at all pleased: the angel Gabriel, the one whose appearing to Muhammad had given birth to Islam. He came to Muhammad and said: “What have you done, Muhammad? You have read to these people something I did not bring you from God and you have said what He did not say to you.”
Muhammad began to realize just how severely he had compromised his entire enterprise. “I have fabricated things against God and have imputed to Him words which He has not spoken.” He “was bitterly grieved and was greatly in fear” of Allah for having allowed his message to be adulterated by Satan. The Qur’an asserts that this happens to all prophets: “Never did We send a messenger or a prophet before thee, but, when he framed a desire, Satan threw some (vanity) into his desire: but Allah will cancel anything (vain) that Satan throws in, and Allah will confirm (and establish) His Signs: for Allah is full of Knowledge and Wisdom” (22:52). Indeed, it was all a test of the unbelievers: “That He may make the suggestions thrown in by Satan, but a trial for those in whose hearts is a disease and who are hardened of heart: verily the wrong-doers are in a schism far (from the Truth)” (22:53).
Allah sent down a new revelation to replace Satan’s words about al-Lat, al-“Uzza, and Manat; the corrected verses are found in sura 53 of the Qur’an.
Muhammad had returned to his original uncompromising monotheism; but unsurprisingly, his about-face only enflamed tensions with the Quraysh all the more. Ibn Ishaq recalls that the polytheists began to use this episode against him: “When the annulment of what Satan had put upon the prophet’s tongue came from God, Quraysh said: “˜Muhammad has repented of what he said about the position of your gods with Allah, altered it and brought something else.” Now those two words which Satan had put upon the apostle’s tongue were in the mouth of every polytheist and they became more violently hostile to the Muslims and the apostle’s followers.”
The Satanic verses incident, of course, has caused Muslims acute embarrassment for centuries. Indeed, it casts a shadow over the veracity of Muhammad’s entire claim to be a prophet. After all, if Satan could put words into Muhammad’s and make him think they were revelations from Allah once, he could again. Thus Islamic scholars, apologists, and historians have attacked it with particular ferocity and claimed it was a fabrication by Islam’s enemies.
Nevertheless, there remains the question of how and why such a story would have been fabricated and accepted as authentic by such pious Muslims in the eighth- and ninth-century: the historians Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa”d and Tabari, as well as by the later Qur’anic commentator Zamakhshari (1074-1143), who is unlikely to have recounted it if he had not thought it based on reliable sources, and others. Here, as in many other areas, the witness of the early Islamic sources is compelling. While events may be explained in other ways, those who would wish away the Satanic verses cannot get around the fact that these elements of Muhammad’s life were not the inventions of his enemies, but were passed along by men who believed he was indeed the prophet of Allah.
FP: As I mentioned earlier, we have many friends and allies in the Islamic world. There are many courageous Muslims, like Hassan Shahid and Tarek Fatah, who have tried to bring out the humane side of their religion and have been threatened because of their valiant efforts. What can non-Muslims do most effectively to help true Muslim moderates and reformers such as these to weaken the hold that fanatics have on Islam?
Spencer: Jamie, I consider this book, The Truth About Muhammad, to be an attempt to help sincere Muslim reformers fight the jihadist hardliners. After all, no reform can be accomplished without there first being an acknowledgment that some things need reforming. Muslim reformers today are confronted daily by jihadists who invoke Muhammad’s example to justify what they are doing. As I show in the book, several years ago Zarqawi pointed to beheadings ordered by Muhammad to justify the beheadings he was carrying out in Iraq. Nor was this by any means an isolated example. A British Muslim called for a new massacre of the Jews, in imitation of Muhammad’s massacre of the Jewish Qurayzah tribe, when Israeli troops entered Lebanon earlier this year. And there are many other similar examples quoted in the book.
In the face of this, what are Muslim reformers to do? They can deny that the Hadith ever says that Muhammad really did these things — a tactic to which many pseudo-reformers have resorted in order to capitalize upon the ignorance of Western non-Muslims. Or they can acknowledge that he did do these things, and re-evaluate his status as the supreme example for human behavior for Muslims, formulating new ways to live out his example in a non-literal fashion in the 21st century. I believe that the latter is the only path to formulating a way for Muslims to live in peace with non-Muslims as equals on an indefinite basis, with no imperative to impose Sharia at any point in the future. But no steps can be taken toward this at all unless the aspects of his example that are being used to justify violence are confronted forthrightly.
FP: Thank you for joining us today Mr. Spencer:
Spencer: Thank you. At a time when most conservative and liberal media outlets cower in fear before jihadist intimidation and refuse even to discuss these important issues, FP’s courage, and the ability it offers to be candid and politically incorrect, are immensely refreshing.