Karen Armstrong’s second hagiographical and highly selective (i.e., quasi-fictional) biography of the Islamic prophet Muhammad appeared around the same time as my book The Truth About Muhammad. Armstrong, however, declined all invitations to debate me, turning down, among others, an O’Reilly Factor segment. (The truth-challenged Edina Lekovic of MPAC ultimately appeared with me, using her time to get in as many lies about me as she could.)
However, Armstrong has let loose in the Financial Times (thanks to Katherine), in a review almost as concocted and fantastic as her own book.
…The criminal activities of terrorists have given the old western prejudice a new lease of life. People often seem eager to believe the worst about Muhammad, are reluctant to put his life in its historical perspective and assume the Jewish and Christian traditions lack the flaws they attribute to Islam. This entrenched hostility informs Robert Spencer’s misnamed biography The Truth about Muhammad, subtitled Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion.
Spencer has studied Islam for 20 years, largely, it seems, to prove that it is an evil, inherently violent religion.
Silliness. I am not out to prove anything except what Islam is. If it teaches warfare against unbelievers, as all its orthodox sects and schools of jurisprudence do, then it does no good for anyone except the jihadists to ignore or deny or minimize that fact.
He is a hero of the American right…
Uh-oh, “the American right.” That’s mainstream media code for “a bad guy who should not be accorded respect or taken seriously.”
…and author of the US bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam. Like any book written in hatred, his new work is a depressing read.
This is, of course, a familiar tactic of Leftists, jihadists, and those who sympathize with them: characterize any accurate report of their activities as “hatred.” Never mind that my book works strictly from the earliest extant Islamic sources, and only reports what they say. If there is any “hatred” in it, it comes from those sources, not from me.
Spencer makes no attempt to explain the historical, political, economic and spiritual circumstances of 7th-century Arabia, without which it is impossible to understand the complexities of Muhammad’s life.
Reading this, I doubt Armstrong actually read the book. Or maybe she just wants to make sure no one else reads it. In fact, anyway, the beginning of chapter three, and many other passages throughout the book, are devoted to explaining “the historical, political, economic and spiritual circumstances of 7th-century Arabia.”
Consequently he makes basic and bad mistakes of fact. Even more damaging, he deliberately manipulates the evidence.
The traditions of any religion are multifarious. It is easy, therefore, to quote so selectively that the main thrust of the faith is distorted. But Spencer is not interested in balance. He picks out only those aspects of Islamic tradition that support his thesis. For example, he cites only passages from the Koran that are hostile to Jews and Christians and does not mention the numerous verses that insist on the continuity of Islam with the People of the Book: “Say to them: We believe what you believe; your God and our God is one.”
Oh, Karen. Do you really think no one will check your work? Not only do I mention the verse you claim I don’t mention (Qur’an 29:46), but I do so twice, on page 17 and again on page 51.
Islam has a far better record than either Christianity or Judaism of appreciating other faiths. In Muslim Spain, relations between the three religions of Abraham were uniquely harmonious in medieval Europe. The Christian Byzantines had forbidden Jews from residing in Jerusalem, but when Caliph Umar conquered the city in AD638, he invited them to return and was hailed as the precursor of the Messiah. Spencer doesn’t refer to this.
Of course I don’t. And why not? Because my book is a biography of Muhammad. Muhammad died in 632. Thus events of 638, and of hundreds of years later in Spain, are beyond its purview. But in fact I discuss Muslim Spain at some length in my book Onward Muslim Soldiers, and Islamic and Christian anti-Semitism, also at length, in my forthcoming book Religion of Peace?.
Jewish-Muslim relations certainly have declined as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but this departs from centuries of peaceful and often positive co-existence.
As long as the Jews knew their place. There is a superabundance of evidence that Jews never enjoyed equality of rights with Muslims in Islamic societies.
When discussing Muhammad’s war with Mecca, Spencer never cites the Koran’s condemnation of all warfare as an “awesome evil”, its prohibition of aggression or its insistence that only self-defence justifies armed conflict. He ignores the Koranic emphasis on the primacy of forgiveness and peaceful negotiation: the second the enemy asks for peace, Muslims must lay down their arms and accept any terms offered, however disadvantageous. There is no mention of Muhammad’s non-violent campaign that ended the conflict.
I don’t know to which Qur’an verse Armstrong is referring. Perhaps someone can help me out here. I’ve read the Qur’an innumerable times, but don’t recall any verse saying that all warfare is an “awesome evil.” I looked around in it just now, and searched through the helpful Index of Qur’anic Topics by Ashfaque Ullah Syed, but came up empty. Search here for “warfare and evil” and “war and evil,” and you don’t come up with anything like that. There is this, but it is hardly the same thing: “Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not” (2:216).
Having exposed in The Truth About Muhammad Armstrong’s misrepresentation of Tabari’s evidence about Aisha’s age when she married Muhammad (see page 170), and seeing her false statement above about my not quoting Qur’an 29:46, I am not inclined to take her word for the existence of this verse. Anyone who has an idea of what she’s referring to, please let me know. And “Muhammad’s non-violent campaign that ended the conflict” is not a specific reference to anything — which conflict? But if she means his conquest of Mecca, when there was little resistance, I discuss it on pages 145-147.
But in any case, the existence of this verse, if it exists, doesn’t negate the fact that Armstrong’s assertion that “only self-defence justifies armed conflict” and that the Qur’an directs Muslims to “lay down their arms and accept any terms offered, however disadvantageous” is wholly false. In fact, as I outline in the book (pages 76-78), Muhammad’s earliest biographer, Ibn Ishaq, traces three stages of development in the Qur’anic doctrine of warfare, culminating in offensive warfare to establish the hegemony of Islamic law by force of arms. That has been understood throughout history by mainstream Islamic teachers (Ibn Kathir, Ibn Juzayy, As-Suyuti, Ibn Qayyim) as the Qur’an’s last word on jihad. Contemporary jihad theorists have picked up on that and used it to revive jihadist sentiments among peaceful Muslims today.
People would be offended by an account of Judaism that dwelled exclusively on Joshua’s massacres and never mentioned Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule, or a description of Christianity based on the bellicose Book of Revelation that failed to cite the Sermon on the Mount. But the widespread ignorance about Islam in the west makes many vulnerable to Spencer’s polemic; he is telling them what they are predisposed to hear. His book is a gift to extremists who can use it to “prove” to those Muslims who have been alienated by events in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq that the west is incurably hostile to their faith.
Ignorance? I’d be happy to debate Karen Armstrong anytime. But I will not allow her false statements to go unchallenged. And that is why such a debate will probably never happen.
UPDATE: In the comments field below, Jihad Watch reader “Great Comet of 1577” has found the Qur’an verse to which Armstrong was referring. It’s Qur’an 2:217:
“They question thee (O Muhammad) with regard to warfare in the sacred month. Say: Warfare therein is a great (transgression) [or an “awesome evil”], but to turn (men) from the way of Allah, and to disbelieve in Him and in the Inviolable Place of Worship, and to expel His people thence, is a greater with Allah; for persecution is worse than killing. And they will not cease from fighting against you till they have made you renegades from your religion, if they can. And whoso becometh a renegade and dieth in his disbelief: such are they whose works have fallen both in the world and the Hereafter. Such are rightful owners of the Fire: they will abide therein.”
Thus, contrary to Armstrong’s statement that this verse refers to “all warfare” as “an ‘awesome evil,’ in fact the verse refers only to warfare during the sacred month as evil at all, and then goes on to say that “persecution is worse than killing.”
In context, this verse was revealed to justify a Muslim raid on a Quraysh caravan: the raid took place during a sacred month, during which war was forbidden. But the Quraysh were allegedly persecuting the Muslims, so this verse absolves the Muslims of guilt for the raid — since “persecution is worse than killing.”
So in fact, the verse that Armstrong is using to argue that the Qur’an teaches that war is an “awesome evil” actually teaches that moral precepts, such as the prohibition on fighting during the sacred month, may be set aside to benefit the Muslims.