Spencer's Truth

Monday, October 16, 2006

There is a review at FrontPage Magazine by Andrew G. Bostom of Robert Spencer's recently-released book, The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion. I would say that overall, the book looks worthwhile, although I was unpleasantly surprised by one of Spencer's policy recommendations for Western governments.

Bostom praises the book for its serious approach to its subject matter and reliance upon primary sources.

Mr. Spencer's stated purpose in writing the book was to elucidate, in particular, those aspects of Muhammad's life used by Muslims today to rationalize violence, or other behaviors incompatible with Western constructs of human rights and dignity. And Mr. Spencer, whom I have come to know through my own independent research on Islamic doctrine and history, fulfills admirably his pledge not to "deride," "lampoon" or "mock" Muhammad, but instead compose "a scrupulously accurate account of what he [Muhammad] said and did" regarding these critical matters.

A salient feature of "The Truth About Muhammad" is its exclusive reliance on pious Muslim sources: the earliest (and most respected) Muslim biographers of Muhammad, Ibn Ishaq (died 773), Ibn Sa'd (845), and the great historian al-Tabari (923); the "gold-standard" canonical hadith collections of Bukhari (870), and Muslim (875); and the Koran itself.

As Mr. Spencer notes, these are the same sources contemporary Muslim biographers have relied upon, both respected scholars (such as the late Martin Lings, aka Abu Bakr Siray Ad-Din), and popularizers (Javeed Akhter, Yahiya Emerick).
Spencer does this while at the same time doing what Ayaan Hirsi Ali cautions must be done by "most politicians, journalists, intellectuals, and other commentators" in the West: Break the multiculturalist taboo against critically appraising the behavior of Mohammed against the standards of civilized conduct. Among Spencer's concluding admonitions:
It is difficult if not impossible to maintain that Islam is a religion of peace when warfare and booty were among the chief preoccupations of the prophet of Islam. Sincere Islamic reformers should confront these facts, instead of ignoring or glossing over them, and work to devise ways in which Muslims can retreat from the proposition that Muhammad's example is in all ways normative. If they do not do so, one outcome is certain: bloodshed perpetrated in the name of Islam and in imitation of its prophet will continue....
So far so good. And Spencer offers some more specific advice to the governments of the West with respect to dealing with the Islamic world. Unfortunately, among these is that the West should (in Bostom's words), "initiate a full-scale Manhattan Project to find new energy sources".

Considering this idea recently, I countered that:
[O]ther countries, like China and India, will happily purchase Middle Eastern oil instead. This means that funding for terrorism will, at the very best, be slightly reduced without the demand of the United States to support high crude oil prices -- and that's only if OPEC fails to ensure prices it finds satisfactory.

In other words, we are being called upon to re-live the Carter Era with a twist: In addition to imposing government controls on the economy and wasting tax money on projects already declared profitless by the private sector, we would impose an "Arab Oil Embargo" on ourselves.
This fashionable tomfoolery seems the worst error of the book. Another error which it seems to have, based on Bostom's evaluation of the picture of Mohammed as the founder of a religion as "disagreeable" is more fundamental, but probably largely innocuous, given the purpose of the book.

By what standard is Mohammed's behavior to be judged "disagreeable"? If religion is to be taken seriously, and if Islam is true, then any objection to what Mohammed did is mere prattling. In two senses, this failure -- to challenge religion as such (specifically, the notion that man can gain knowledge by revelation) -- is a minor shortcoming. First, it is doubtful that anything anyone says will sway a Moslem who has seen the conflict between his religion and his humanity and chosen his religion. Second, the audience for the book will mostly be Westerners who do not adhere to Islam and simply want to learn more about the religion whose adherents want to kill him. In these senses, such a question lies beyond the scope of the book, which seems to implicitly assume that rationality is the ultimate basis for civilized behavior.

However, in the longer view, it will not be until the notion that faith is a valid means of gaining knowledge is seriously challenged at all levels in Western culture that Islam will definitely be on the road to diminution as a threat to the West. In that respect, Spencer's book probably will prove less helpful than one would like.

This is a book I may decide to read at some point, but I do not find myself in a hurry to get it.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Spencer is a devout Catholic. During an interview he stated that all his study on Islam has shown him that it is Christianity which is truly "inspired". He is a very bright and articulate man. But also very compartmentalized. He does not dare question faith as such. He is like so many conservatives; they ultimately see this as a conflict b/w Christianity and Islam not b/w reason and faith.

Spencer's work is important. He lives under death threats b/c he has the audacity to challange the lovefest for Islam which is endemic to the Left. But you are right that his work will not have the impact it could have if he challenged faith as such. But if he did that he would have to be an Objectivist b/c very few if any non Objectivist athiests would dare challenge Islam.

B. Visconti

Gus Van Horn said...


Thank you very much for the clarification. I have always guessed that Spencer was religious, but I never checked into that.