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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Book Review: The Truth about Muhammad: Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion

When discussing Islam, one invariably hears from certain quarters that it is a religion of peace and that the Qu'ranic writings about jihad are to be understood symbolically or metaphorically; that encouragement to jihad is really encouragement to struggle against sin. The claim is made that Muslims engaging in terrorism are misinterpreting or misrepresenting the religion. Indeed, this is so common that Jihad Watch, which basically just feeds you headlines from around the world about Islamofascism in action (and it is constant--they never run out of headlines, seems to me, I never have time to read all of it; the volume is too great), often titles its posts something like "Misunderstanders of Islam Blow Up Church." That is, the idea that violent jihadis misunderstand their religion is something of a running joke.

I have also read claims that Christianity has nothing to brag about in this respect, that it has no more, and possibly less, room to boast of its peaceful nature than does Islam.

As I've considered these claims, I've often thought that one key to understanding the true nature of each of these faiths is the way their founders lived. It seems reasonable to think that the way Jesus lived His earthly life would surely be the best indicator of whether Christianity should be properly understood as a violent religion or whether Christians who perpetrate violent attacks, or persecute and subjugate others for their beliefs, or attempt to spread Christianity by force can be understood as being consistent with the teachings of their faith. Likewise, it seems reasonable to think that the way Muhammad lived his life and conducted jihad would be a good indicator as to how jihad and Islam should be properly understood.

The Truth about Muhammad: Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion proves to be a surprisingly simple boook to review. The author, Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades, The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims, and Islam Unveiled, lays out the book's objective early on:
...if peaceful Muslims can mount no comeback when jihadists point to Muhammad's example to justify violence, their ranks will always remain vulnerable to recruitment from jihadists who present themselves as the exponents of "pure Islam," faithfully following Muhammad's example.

The Qur'an and Islamic tradition are clear that the Prophet is the supreme example of behavior Muslims are to follow. His importance to hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide is rooted in the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book. In brief, he is "an excellent model of conduct" (Qur'an 33:21). He demonstrates "an exalted standard of character" (68:4), and indeed, "he who obeys the Messenger [Muhammad], obeys Allah" (4:80). The Qur'an frequently tells Muslims to obey Allah and Muhammad: while the Muslim holy book takes for granted that Muhammad is fallible (cf. 48:2; 80:1-2), it also instructs Muslims repeatedly to obey Muhammad (3:32; 3:132; 4:13; 4:59; 4:69; 5:92; 8:1; 8:20; 8:46; 9:71; 24:47; 24:51; 24:52; 24:54; 24:56; 33:33; 47:33;49:14; 58:13; 64:12). both reform-minded Muslims and bloodthirsty jihadists invoke his example to justify their actions, the question of which group is likely to prevail in the future, and which will guide an Islamic world that is in the grip of a religious revival and increasingly hostile toward America and the West, will largely be determined by Muhammad--by what he was really like according to Islamic texts. an examination of some aspects of his life that non-Muslims find problematic, and that are used by Muslims today to justify violent actions or other behavior not in accord with Western notions of human rights and the dignity of the human person. Western readers will learn why moderate Muslims--on whom Western governments and law enforcement officals are placing so much hope--appear so weak and marginalized compared to jihadist movements in the Islamic world. And they will learn why Muslims find Muhammad's example so compelling, and why that example can be used to justify such widely divergent actions.
For the most part, the remainder of the book consists of Mr. Spencer making his case from the Qu'ran and Islamic tradition (Mr. Spencer spends some little time explaining just exactly what that is--the hadith and the sira, the first being various collections of traditions about Muhammad, and the second being the biography of Muhammad. There is more than one collection of hadith and more than one biography; together, if I understood correctly, the Qur'an, the hadith, and the sira make up the sunnah, or model of Muhammad, that is held up in such high esteem) that Muhammad's life was such that were one to judge from it how to interpret the Qu'ran's teachings on jihad, he would undoubtedly conclude that jihad was supposed to be violent struggle against the unbeliever in order to establish Islam as the world's sole religion.

There were several things that especially attracted my attention. The first was the material surrounding Aisha, Muhammad's favorite wife. I am sure that more than a few people have heard of Jerry Vines' characterization of Muhammad as a "demon-possessed pedophile." For those who don't know, this is a reference to Muhammad's marriage to Aisha; apparently he took her as a bride when she was only six and consummated the marriage when she was only nine. Two things interested me about this: first, that Mr. Spencer took some pains to point out that this sort of thing was pretty common at the time Muhammad lived, so that it may not be altogether fair to charge Muhammad with pedophilia over the incident, unless you are prepared to condemn the whole culture as given over to pedophilia:
So was Muhammad a pedophile? The concept of pedophilia as a manifestation of deviant sexuality did not exist in the seventh century. In marrying Aisha, Muhammad was doing no more and no less than what was done by many men of his time, and no one thought twice about the matter until much later.
And second, that the way Muslims deal with the episode today gives us a very good insight into how they are likely to treat other episodes and examples in Muhammad's life. light of Muhammad's status for Muslims as the supreme example of human behavior, his marriage to Aisha becomes more important. Problems arise when an action like this is forcibly removed from its historical context and proposed as a paradigm for human beings of all times and places. Yet this is exactly what has happened in the umma. Imitating the Prophet of Islam, many Muslims even in modern times have taken child brides. In some places this even has the blessing of the law; article 1041 of the Civil Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran states that girls can be engaged before the age of nine, and married at nine: "Marriage before puberty (nine full lunar years for girls) is prohibited. Marriage contracted before reaching puberty with the permission of the guardian is valid provided that the interests of the ward are duly observed."

The Ayatollah Khomeini himself married a ten-year-old girl when he was twenty-eight. Khomeini called marriage to a prepubescent girl "a divine blessing," and advised the faithful: "Do your best to ensure that your daughters do not see their first blood in your house."

Time magazine reported in 2001:
In Iran the legal age for marriage is nine for girls, fourteen for boys. The law has occasonally been exploited by pedophiles, who marry poor young girls from the provinces, use and then abandon them. In 2000 the Iranian Parliament voted to raise the minimum age for girls to fourteen, but this year, a legislative oversight body dominated by traditional clerics vetoed the move. An attempt by conservatives to abolish Yemen's legal minimum age of fifteen for girls failed, but local experts say it is rarely enforced anyway. (The onset of puberty is considered an appropriate time for a marriage to be consummated.)
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reports that over half of the girls in Afghanistan and Bangladesh are married before they reach the age of eighteen. In early 2002, researchers in refugee camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan found half the girls married by age thirteen. In an Afghan refugee camp, more than two out of three second-grade girls were either married or engaged, and virtually all the girls who were beyond second grade were already married. One ten-year-old was engaged to a man of sixty.

This is the price that women have paid throughout Islamic history, and continue to pay, for Muhammad's status as "an excellent example of conduct" (Qur'an 33:21).
To sum up: there is no doubt today that a marriage like Muhammad's and Aisha's would be considered a stunning example of pedophilia and child abuse in many, perhaps most, places around the world. However, that is not necessarily the case in the Muslim world. The example of Muhammad as regards the matter has led to Muslims continuing the practice of child marriage. Not all Muslims everywhere, of course, but of those who do approve of child marriage, there seems little question but that they justify it by appealing to Muhammad's example. It is hard not to see from the way Muhammad is invoked to justify child marriage how his example might be invoked to justify violent jihad.

The second thing that arrested my attention is that although there is apparently a considerable amount of material in the hadith that Mr. Spencer has not quoted from, he appears not to be even the slightest bit concerned that he might be accused of cherry-picking material to prove his point. I can see why. Were the whole of the rest of the Qur'an, the hadith, and the sira to be composed of wonderful tales of Muhammad's kindness and generosity, Mr. Spencer still tells of so much material concerning Muhammad's violent expansion of the domain of Islam that there is not really any room for doubt that his fundamental point is amply demonstrated: "radical" Muslims will never have any trouble demonstrating from the sunnah that Muhammad's version of jihad was the violent one, and that those Muslims who see jihad as a personal struggle against sin and self are, at the least, not interpreting it in a manner consistent with Muhammad's example. It would be the work of hours upon hours to quote even a little bit from each of Mr. Spencer's examples. One begins to lose count of the examples of Muhammad's requests for, or encouragements of, or rejoicing over, the assassinations of his enemies, some of whom were apparently guilty of nothing more substantial than publicly ridiculing the "Prophet." Especially troubling was one instance wherein a people who refused Muhammad's invitation to Islam was characterized as having chosen war by so doing. We are therefore very well advised to remember that Muslims throughout the world may, upon seriously considering the sunnah, be quite easy to radicalize. It may not be rational government policy to approach Islam as a fundamentally peaceful religion that has, as the saying goes, been "hijacked" by radicals. The radicals certainly appear to have it right.

A couple of other observations: first, one might legitimately wonder why so many Muslims do (and I have no doubt that they do) see jihad as a peaceful struggle when Islam's own authoritative material clearly indicates otherwise. No doubt part of it is the natural human tendency to allegorize and spiritualize uncomfortable teachings in order to arrive at a religion that doesn't threaten normal, day to day existence. But there are two other things that Mr. Spencer notes: the fact that many Muslims may very well not know the Qur'an as well as we might think:
One cannot be sure from anyone's self-identification as a Muslim how much he knows about the Qur'an and the life of Muhammad. This is true particularly because Islam is an essentially Arabic religion; Muslims must learn the daily prayers, and the Qur'an in Arabic, which is the language of Allah. To pray to him in another tongue is unacceptable. Since most Muslims today are not native Arabic speakers, and the Qur'an is in difficult, classical, seventh-century Arabic (and most English translations are in equally difficult ersatz King James Bible-like language), many Muslims, even those who are quite serious about their faith, have only a dim awareness of what these texts actually say.
and the fact that the Qur'an itself can be quite difficult to understand
...reading the Qur'an is in many places like walking in on a conversation between two people with whom one is only slightly acquainted. When Islamic apologists say terrorists quote the Qur'an on jihad "out of context," they neglect to mention that the Qur'an itself often offers little context. Frequently it makes reference to people and events without bothering to explain what's going on.
without also being familiar with the hadith.
Perhaps reacting to the fragmentary quality of the Qur'anic marrative, 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 now means all) of the hadith is itself tafsir. It gives the asbab an-nazool, or circumstances of revelation...for various Qur'anic verses--which can have important implications for how the verse is to be applied in the modern age.
Also, that in Mr. Spencer's "What is to be done" section near the end of the book, the available answers are scarily few, some of them essentially amounting to "insist that Muslims stop being Muslims." I did find his suggestions to "stop insisting that Islam is a religion of peace" and "initiate a full-scale Manhattan Project to find new energy sources" to be good ones (to the extent that there is any hope whatever of convincing a Democrat-controlled Congress to allow new drilling, new refineries, etc.), as well as his suggestion that our immigration policies be amended to exclude, basically, people who do not want to assimilate into Western society, but rather to transform it to match a Qur'anic vision.

One minor complaint: this book has pretty much cemented what was a growing conviction on my part that Regnery Publishing's editing staff is simply not doing a very good job. Too many of the Regnery titles I've read over the last few years have had small but glaring typographical errors, and even occasional instances of poor--unintentionally poor--grammar. My understanding is that part of the job of the editor is to safeguard the author from looking the fool in print. Regnery's staff doesn't seem to be doing that part.

In all, though, I don't hesitate to recommend The Truth about Muhammad. In addition to the material I've touched on here, there is much more to entertain and inform the reader. Anyone wanting to understand the true nature of our enemy as we engage in the defining struggle of our time will be well served by reading it.

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