The Best Books I Read in the 2010s

Here are my favorite books from the last decade. They are mostly academic scholarly works. I didn’t read as much fiction as I would have liked.

1. The History of Jihad, Robert Spencer, 2018. This book is the first of its kind and easily wins the top slot. Plenty of such comprehensive treatments have been written for the Christian crusades, but none that cover the Islamic jihad. Spencer starts with Muhammad, the warlord exemplar, and proceeds through every century since the seventh, in every theater of the globe, showing that holy war has always been an essential element of Islam. He relies on primary sources and the words of contemporary witnesses, so the reader gets a good impression of how it was to experience Islamic holy war throughout history. He even covers the jihads against in India against the Hindus, which is hard information to come by. Jihadists have always been candid about their religious motives — it is now, and has always been, a Muslim’s holy duty to subjugate infidels under the rule of Islamic law, regardless of how many Muslims actually take up that imperative — but people in the 21st century have denied this and grasped at every wrong explanation. Studies have proven that there is no correlation between Islamic terrorism and poverty, and the history presented in the book speaks for itself. Jihad isn’t “just” terrorism in any case. It is legitimized terrorism backed by core Islamic teachings. It’s to Islam as the Passover is to Judaism, and as the Eucharist is to Christianity, and as meditation is to Buddhism. The History of Jihad is a first-rate guide to a massively misunderstood phenomenon that would be quite easy to understand if the implications weren’t so unpleasant.

2. Constructing Jesus, Dale Allison, 2010. The culmination of Allison’s trilogy (begun in Millenarian Prophet, 1998, and continued in Resurrecting Jesus, 2005) keeps Jesus grounded in delusions of grandeur, millennial dreams, and heavenly alter-egos. Same as before, we see that Jesus’ apocalyptic language, about which he was wrong, was intended literally, and that he was naturally inconsistent about the things he preached. Even the best theologians and most charismatic leaders contradict themselves, and Jesus would have been no different. As egocentric as it seems to us, Jesus had exalted thoughts about himself and he embraced martyrdom. But by far the most intriguing contribution of Constructing Jesus comes in the author’s solution to the Son of Man enigma. Allison argues that Jesus believed the Son of Man to be an angelic figure: his own heavenly twin or Doppelganger, with whom he was one, or would soon become one. Not only is there precedent for celestial doubles and heavenly alter-egos, this would resolve long standing puzzles. For example, if Jesus and the Son of Man were two yet one, it would explain both the earthly human sayings and the heavenly angelic ones; and if Jesus believed he had a heavenly counterpart, then there is no mystery in the fact that he imagined himself coming on the clouds of heaven while having nothing to say about being removed from earth, and raised to heaven, before that could possibly occur; he was already up there; and much more. This book was a good start to the new decade, pounding the final nail in the coffin of Jesus-Seminar minimalism, so that Jesus studies could move forward.

3. Recarving Rushmore, Ivan Eland, 2014. This book inspired me to write my own presidential series. Most rankings of the U.S. presidents are superficial, praising executives who have effective management styles and strong charisma, regardless of how good or bad their actual policies were. Eland ignores those elements and slaughters sacred cows: FDR was one of the worst presidents, not the best; Warren Harding was one of the best, not the worst. Eland’s criteria are simple. He bases his rankings on the way a president’s policies promoted three things: peace, prosperity and liberty. When you get down to it, those are what most Americans want. Eland is a hard-core libertarian, however, and so I don’t always agree with what he sees as best serving those three causes. He correctly ranks Woodrow Wilson as the worst president of all time, but then astonishingly places Harry Truman as the second worst, as if Truman were a fulfillment of the Wilsonian dream. He rightly elevates John Tyler and Rutherford Hayes to Mount Rushmore, but also includes Martin Van Buren and Grover Cleveland in that honor, where I think those latter two were very poor executives. He skewers George W. Bush and Barack Obama for being basically the same president, and I certainly agree with that. Eland is no respecter of persons or parties. If you want a book that values presidents who were actually good for the American people, then get Recarving Rushmore. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized, or who had mesmerizing charisma and effective management styles, then get any of the mainstream rankings that waste space on the shelves of libraries and bookstores.

marginal4. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier, 2016. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed voice of Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four, only four, with confidence: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in human activity, and however small that seemed now, it would bear fruit on a huge scale in the end), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing God’s demands contained in his gifts), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. As for the most popular and cherished Good Samaritan, Meier shows it to be almost certainly a creation of Luke. The dominant scholarly view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place in the teachings of Jesus. That’s an ironical conclusion in a work that relies on the classic criteria to get at what Jesus really said and did: this fifth volume of A Marginal Jew is all about uncertainty. Full review here.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final5. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera, 2016. It’s a milestone in putting to bed the biggest academic myth of our time, and comes from a Harvard scholar, the last place you’d expect on this subject. We’ve been taught that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony in medieval Spain, where the reality is the opposite. Christians and Jews were treated horribly under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. Medieval Spain was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. None of this should be controversial, but university presses are a bit paralyzed; they want to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia” and so present Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as relatively benign. The idea of Christian dhimmis being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks happy as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest, and Visigoth Spain was left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner.

6. Sex, Wives, and Warriors, Philip Esler, 2011. More than any book I know, Sex, Wives, and Warriors probes the disturbing world of the Old Testament while making us feel connected to it whether we’re religious or not. In this sense Esler shatters the myth of the alien Other. For some people these stories will be repulsive, but you’ll certainly feel alive as Esler funnels them through the culture of the Mediterranean. The barrenness of Hannah, whose vicious co-wife shamed her at the shrine of Shiloh. The lies of Judith, which resounded to her honor as she decapitated a general with his own sword. The duality of David, whose insults, on the one hand, were as honorable as Judith’s flatteries, and whose vorpal sword like hers saved Israel against impossible odds; but whose ruthless banditry and mafia-like protection rackets cast an ugly shadow. The madness of Saul, who seems to have suffered panic attacks. His feelings of helplessness, not being in control, delusions of persecution, homicidal impulses, and spirit-possessed behaviors all describe an anxiety disorder to a tee, and make perfect sense of his repeated cycles of eyeballing David with envy, doing his damnest to kill him, then bewilderingly making amends and “becoming friends” again for brief periods before returning to murderous intent. Yet he ended in the bosom of the Lord. The rape of Tamar by her sadistic half-brother (Amnon), which made her spoiled goods. Forced to beg her rapist to marry her, she is refused and discarded. As part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, these stories force hard questions about our common humanity, and Esler’s analysis cuts like a laser as always.

7. Thomas and the Gospels, Mark Goodacre, 2012. A sort-of sequel to the author’s Case Against Q, putting to bed scholarly mirages, in this case showing that the gospel of Thomas is not independent but reinterprets synoptic sayings. Thomas’s rearrangement of those sayings is no more surprising than Luke’s rearrangment of Matthew which befuddles Q-advocates. Against scholars who demand unreasonable amounts of verbatim agreement to prove dependency, Goodacre invokes the “plagiarist’s charter”, pointing out that this burden of proof would excuse a lot of unethical behavior. In my view, Goodacre establishes Thomas’ dependence beyond a reasonable doubt. That Thomas knew both Matthew and Luke is fairly easy to see, when you see it outlined for you. Goodacre has cheekily called himself the spoilsport of New Testament studies, and of course we need more spoilsports and killjoys to keep us honest. It would be admittedly nice if Q existed and Thomas carried more “original authority” than the canonical gospels, but history is often more boring than that. I think there’s a tendency to expect too much out of historical criticism, that our biblical experts can somehow unlock arsenals that will arm us against the orthodox and open progressive paradigms. Goodacre’s book is a model analysis of the relationship between Thomas and the snyoptics, indeed the best there is on the subject.

Chasing-the-Scream8. Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari, 2015. This is a wake-up call to legalize drugs and reconsider what causes drug addiction. For years, opponents of the drug war have been making a case similar to Hari’s: that we ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users (especially nonwhites in poverty) by imprisoning them, and make room for them in prison by paroling dangerous offenders like murderers and rapists; that we make crime worse by empowering gangs and drug monopolies; that the solution to addiction isn’t incarceration but education and rehabilitative support networks. Hari appeals to the example of Portugal, whose population of addicts went down by half after ending its own drug war through legalization. As for the cause of addiction, the right-wing theory says it is caused by moral failure (hedonism and partying too hard), while the left-wing insists that the brain is hijacked by drug chemicals. Research shows that both theories are flawed. It’s neither our morality nor our brain, but our “cage” — a life full of isolation, stress, and/or misery — that makes drugs attractive to addicts. Which is why, for instance, people who take diamorphine (heroin) for long periods of time for medical reasons, like pain relief after a hip replacement, don’t become addicts. And why addicts isolated from society in prisons or rehab facilities usually continue using. I have no illusions this book will result in headway against the American drug war, but I can keep hoping.

9. Free Speech on Campus, Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, 2017. There is a certain adage this book seems built around: “Prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” It sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — an embarrassing repudiation of what academia has always stood for. Students are supposed to be stung, disturbed, upset, and thus provoked to reassess their current beliefs — and change the ones they cannot defend. And as the authors of this book make clear, those offensive ideas must include even hate speech. It’s illegal for public universities to ban hate speech, and private colleges should follow suit on this. The problem with “hate speech” is that it’s a catch-all label for shutting down unpopular views that aren’t hateful at all, like the toxic nature of Islam, theories of psychobiology, etc. Academic inquiry doesn’t care about student feelings, nor should it. Free Speech on Campus is the book to help make great thinkers again, indeed to help prepare students for the road, rather than the road for them. I wish it were required reading of every college freshman.

disciples prayer10. The Disciples’ Prayer, Jeffrey Gibson, 2015. Those who like the “Lord’s Prayer” should make this book required reading. The “Disciples’ Prayer”, properly called, had little to do with what Christians today pray on their knees. As Gibson argues, Jesus’ disciples operated out of an austere remnant theology, and the prayer was taught to them to secure them as the faithful elect, and to keep them from apostasy. It doesn’t pray future blessings down into the now, but rather wards against evil by keeping people constrained under hard demands — loving enemies; shunning families; rejecting violence; inviting martyrdom. Gibson refutes apocalyptic readings of the prayer, but if you believe Jesus was an apocalyptic (as I do), his thesis still holds. For if Jesus believed the world was about to end, then he would have insisted on intense commitment and unconditioned loyalty in preparation, just as Gibson argues that the prayer does. For modern Christians, the book perhaps functions as a dare: To consider what Jesus demands, instead of (or as much as) what God will bring — and how the first disciples feared God’s wrath if they couldn’t meet those demands. Jesus demanded a rigorous pacifism, for example, and not all religious martyrs are pacifist; the path of non-violence is a hard one. For Jesus, “to profess God as Father entails taking a stance, and to pledge oneself to demonstrating and proclaiming this certain way of being in the world”. Biblical scholars are at their best when they force relevant questions in view of original intentions, and that’s what Gibson does in The Disciples’ Prayer.

11. Babatha’s Orchard, Philip Esler, 2017. If I could write a book like Babatha’s Orchard, I’d be immensely proud. Rarely can scholars piece together missing and obscured information so compellingly, and in a way that allows us to read it as a story. Esler writes that story in the final chapter — how a Jew living in Nabatea bought a date-palm orchard from a woman after a high-ranking official failed to do so — bringing to life a complex web of events, personal motives, and social relations. It’s a story one could easily get a novel from. The book is also impressive as a study for its own sake and not as a means to an end. “I am not concerned,” says Esler, “to interpret New Testament texts against a social context known from the Nabatean legal papyri. Rather, I am seeking to understand better that context itself.” That’s fresh air, and the kind of thing I’d love to see more from New Testament scholars. It offers a window onto everyday life in antiquity, unencumbered by sensationalism. That window is provided by the Babatha documents dated between 94 and 132 AD, which consist of various contracts for purchase of property, loans, weddings, and the registration of land. It’s feels like a true archaeological adventure to read this book, but without any of the sensationalism of Indiana Jones movies or Herschel Shanks’ yellow journalism in Biblical Archaeology Review.

12. Recovering Communion in a Violent World, Christopher Grundy, 2019. This book is an attempt to reform the eucharist of its violent theology. Christians would be better off, says Grundy, to accept that Jesus’ death was unnecessary, and to focus on the meal practices of the New Testament that don’t rely on his body and blood (however real or symbolic) or reenact his execution. Alternative examples include the manna-and-water traditions (I Cor 10), drawing from the Exodus and Number stories, tied to a theme of abundance and the messianic age; the bread-and-fish miracles (in all four gospels), in which there is food for everyone; the Johannine beach breakfast, focused on sharing and abundance; and the bread-only Emmaus story in Luke, urging hospitality even to strangers. Grundy suggests that Holy Communion can be just as sacramental (and more positively so) in the meeting of strangers across boundaries, sharing one’s food, and feeding hungry bodies. In this sense, the eucharist can become primarily about what Jesus did instead of what was done to him. Grundy sees a disturbing connection between the “objectification” of Jesus’ body in the traditional eucharist, and the way people objectify others, whether sexually, violently, or both. That sounds a bit far-fetched, but Grundy is careful in how he explains this: “It’s not that the eucharist carries an explicit message that objectifying people is okay,” he writes, “but rather that without really noticing, Christian believers create opportunities for our instincts to be structured by objectifying practices that we don’t understand all that clearly.” Likewise, he doesn’t say that the eucharist promotes violence per se, but rather that Christians engage themselves in ritualized acts of collective violence without asking if what was done to Jesus was really necessary. Ritualized violence can shape the believer, whether consciously or not. It’s a fascinating book, and makes for an excellent supplement to Stephen Finlan’s Problems with Atonement (though there is no mention of Finlan in the bibliography). See also my review of Finlan’s analysis of the different and conflicting death metaphors in Paul’s letters.

moh_and_cha_revisited13. Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, Emmet Scott, 2012. The premise of this book is that without Muhammad, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. Meaning that if not for the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, the medieval world as we know it wouldn’t have appeared. There would have been no “Holy” Roman Empire, and Western Europe would have remained fairly Roman under the continued influence and communication from Constantinople. The Viking raids wouldn’t have occurred, nor would there have been crusades or inquisitions. Without the Islamic example of slavery, contact with Indians in the new world may have unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. That was Henri Pirenne’s thesis 80 years ago, and Scott improves on it with special attention to the archaeological record. It’s clear that the barbarian invaders weren’t mindless destroyers or ineffectual hold-outs, but rather they adopted Roman civilization to the extent that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, with the jihad invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. The lights went out with the arrival of Islam, and from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. Full review here.

14. The Wife of Jesus, Anthony Le Donne, 2013. No, this isn’t crankville. Anthony Le Donne isn’t Simcha Jacobovici or Michael Baigent. The Wife of Jesus doesn’t even really argue that Jesus had a wife, though it allows for the strong possibility that he had one in his 20s, prior to his prophetic ministry. The only thing the book shares in common with sensationalist cousins is its accessibility: it’s written for everyone, not just academics, and well about time on this subject from a reliable scholar. Le Donne’s argument is essentially that many Christians have been right for the wrong reasons. While the gospels don’t say that Jesus had a wife, neither do they say he didn’t, and silence means nothing. Wives were a given in Jesus’s day, and weren’t mentioned unless context warranted it. (Peter’s wife, for instance, is never mentioned, but his mother-in-law is healed.) Jesus could have been married prior to becoming a prophet, and it’s more plausible that he was married, say, in his 20s and that his wife died in childbirth (as was extremely common), than that he would have shamefully dishonored his family by rejecting the Abrahamic blessing of progeny. Only by the time of his itinerant career was Jesus single and celibate and engaged in the flagrant dishonor of severing blood ties and advocating prophetic celibacy. But while The Wife of Jesus is devoid of sensationalism, never fear: sensationalist claims are addressed by Le Donne, which makes the book fun (and amusing at times) to read. He covers the recent hoax of the Jesus’ Wife fragment, noting that whoever forged it had internet access to a source with a typographical error which the forger copied. He even discusses the Secret Mark hoax, which of course depicted a gay Jesus. It’s a concise and enjoyable book that deserves a wide audience.

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15. Waking Up, Sam Harris, 2014. It’s curious that an atheist of Harris’s reputation would co-opt the term “spirituality”, but you quickly see why. I doubt there is a better word for the experiences he covers in this book, which are attained by the meditation techniques of Buddhism (the safest way) though also the more risky highways of psychedelic drugs (like MDMA and LSD). These mind experiences are caused by changes in consciousness that are so severe they break the illusion of the self, and this, according to Harris, is the key to spirituality: the cessation of all thought. When we completely stop thinking — believe me, it’s much more difficult than it sounds — we can be happy without needing to become happy in the transitory way of fulfilling our various desires. Successful meditation dissolves the illusion of the “I” self and causes thoughts to appear as discrete objects while emotions are accentuated, like love — boundless love even for strangers. You no longer feel like there is an “I” perched in your head behind your eyes, looking out of a body you control. This isn’t new-age quackery, but secular spiritualism grounded in neuroscience. If meditation can produce egoless communion, good will, and improved mental health, that’s a skill worth honing. I’m still lousy at it, but I can say that I’ve benefited at least some from trying.

16. Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, David Watson, 2010. The secret is out now: there never was a messianic secret, whether from Jesus’ life or pre-Markan traditions. “Secrecy is nothing more than our own bewilderment projected into the Markan text,” once wrote a scholar, and Watson finally puts the idea to rest. David Watson shows that the “secrecy” passages in Mark wouldn’t have been understood as such by the ancients. In silencing those he healed, Jesus wasn’t trying to keep his identity or healing ability secret (as if that would be possible in a world of rampant gossip networks), but rather to resist achieved honor. In patron-client cultures, recipients of benefaction are expected to repay their benefactor through public praise, and it’s this kind of honor which Jesus resists. In silencing demons, likewise, Jesus is resisting ascribed honor, since a demon calling him “the Holy One of God” would be issuing a positive challenge and staking a claim on him; Jesus refuses to become indebted to demons and drawn into the laws of reciprocation. While the Markan Jesus doesn’t do away with the honor-shame system altogether (no one in antiquity could do that an survive), he does offer a new vision in its place, by claiming that the persecuted and suffering will be honored, and the great and powerful will be shamed. Basically, Mark portrays Jesus as authoritative and deserving of honor even as he reshapes the way that honor was conventionally assigned. This is a terrific book filled with insights that seem too obvious once pointed out.

17. The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Spencer, 2019. Many will find this book dispiriting, but reality is often just that, especially in the Middle-East. Spencer chronicles the failure of every peace attempt that has been made for the last 40 years, showing quite clearly that the attempts failed for one reason only: the Muslims of Palestine and surrounding Arab countries were never going to accept a Jewish state in any form. The Islamic imperative, “Drive out those who drove you out” allows for no mitigation — not even when the land of Palestine wasn’t theirs to claim. He starts with Jimmy Carter and the Camp David Accords, and the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was never interested in genuine peace. He then proceeds to the time of Bill Clinton, explaining how Yasser Arafat went from denouncing terrorism and promising to recognize the State of Israel (in ’93), to the same Arafat who said that he recognized only holy war, and that the PLO would sacrifice every last boy to see the Palestinian flag fly over the walls of Jerusalem (in ’96). Arafat simply followed the example of Muhammad, for whom deception was honorable. And so on. Spencer shows that the solution to the Middle-East lies not in peace processes which are guaranteed to fail, but containment or management of the problem, and for western countries to openly admit that a Palestinian state will by necessity be an inveterate enemy of Israel no matter what. This book is a serious wake-up call to pull western policy makers out of dreamland.

night-comes18. Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things, Dale Allison, 2016. I make a point of reading everything by Dale Allison, even when it goes outside my comfort zone. He’s a solid historical critic and well-rounded thinker that makes him equipped to tackle big theological questions. This book is about death and how we cope with the idea of it. The first chapter is a meditation on the fear of death, how we push for longevity, and how our increased longevity has effected our perception. In the days of Jesus, for example, life would have looked different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. (Imagine, says Allison, how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far.) The second chapter deals with the resurrection, suggesting that no matter how physical (like the gospels) or spiritual (like Paul) we favor the idea, there’s no neat answer to the objections against both, though Allison leans more in favor of Pauline discontinuity between the old and new bodies. Modern cremation and organ donation, not to mention our increased detachment to the physical remains of loved ones, means that corpse-like resurrection becomes less important to modern Christians. The next chapter is about judgment, with a fascinating discussion of near death experiences and “life reviews”, which according to survivors forced them to watch the replay of their entire lives in an instant, and to grasp the consequences of everything they’ve done. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Allison’s books, Night Comes unnerves you no matter what you believe.

19. God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers, Philip Esler, 2017. Esler is always a great read, and his most recent effort feels downright epic, especially if you love the Enoch myths as I do. The focus is on the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1-36), for which the dominant stream interprets heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple, and for which Esler finds no basis at all. When Israelite authors around this time wished to present heaven as a temple, they did exactly that. In the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Testament of Levi, heaven is the temple, God is in the holy of holies, and the angels are priests who sing God’s praises and offer fragrant sacrifices. One looks in vain to find any of these elements in I Enoch 1-36 — even if everyone sees them anyway. God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers is, then, a shot across the bow of a considerable body of scholarship. Its thesis is that heaven is understood in terms of a royal court, in which the king (God) is surrounded by his courtiers (the angels). While some scholars make occasional references to the Enochic heaven as a court, the idea is never taken that seriously, and it’s way eclipsed by the supposed idea that heaven is a temple in which the angels are understood to be priests instead of courtiers. Esler refutes that by first examining the angels (their duties, access rights, and mediation techniques), then the Watchers (their “defilement”, “great sin”, and their justice), and then finally the architecture of God’s abode. What becomes clear is that the temple metaphor is non-existent, and the court metaphor so obvious that how did it take this long for us to see? Full review here.

Short_Stories_Jesus_Levine20. Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, 2014. This book will be welcomed by liberal religious thinkers who think the sun shines on everyone with minimal judgment. Amy-Jill Levine claims that Jesus’ parables show people torn apart and then reconciled, benefiting from each other for all their differences; a divided world made whole through responsible human effort. If you embrace that kind of wisdom as I do, then this book just might be the next-best thing to the bible itself. The question is whether or not this wisdom can really be derived from the historical Jesus. The reversal of values theme which permeates the gospels receives no support in Levine’s readings. She claims that “the last coming first and the first last” is always an editorial intrusion. And despite what scholars tell us about the fierce boundaries drawn by fictive kinship networks like the Jesus movement, she won’t abide any “Us-vs.Them” mentality that reinforces judgments and divisions. The problem is that she has an axe to grind against those see everything Jesus said as being aimed against an oppressive Jewish context. If Jesus critiqued purity laws, then Judaism was legalistic; if Jesus was open to Gentiles, then Judaism was racist; if Jesus stood up for widows and women, then Judaism was misogynistic; if Jesus went to bat for the sick and poor, then Judaism was heartless. It’s true that Judaism has become a punching bag — for pastors and scholars alike — and Levine wants to rectify this problem by showing that Jesus’ hostilities are all mirages. Unfortunately, this means Jesus isn’t left with much to criticize at all, because Levine sees anti-Jewish foils under every rock. I think she makes Jesus out to be too ideal; indeed she aligns him with modern Unitarian Universalism. But then (from my UU perspective) that’s precisely why these parable readings are such good theology, even if they’re bad history. Maybe that’s a backhanded compliment, but if used the right way, Short Stories by Jesus is an important contribution.

* Stranger Things: The College Years and Beyond, Loren Rosson, 2018. As a bonus, I’m shamelessly promoting my own work, and fiction to boot, which I had said wasn’t included. But I’m happy with what I did here, and gratified by the positive reception to it. This is a trilogy of generational stories that follow the kids we love from the TV series — Mike, Eleven, Lucas, Dustin, and Will — into their adult lives. There’s pain and heartache, perhaps more than some readers will find bearable, but hopefully inspiring in the ways tragedy should be. The first novella is The College Years, set in 1990, with an estranged Mike Wheeler able only to harm those he loves. The second is The New Generation, set in 2009, involving an Upside-Down creature nesting in the internet, and attacking a kid through his computer screensaver. Finally it all comes together in World’s End, in the future of 2037, after Donald Trump has gotten America nuked, and salvation (if that’s what it can be called) lies in a particular twelve-year old who can time travel. That’s the best spoiler-free synopsis I can offer, and if you really like the trilogy, I wrote three prequel novellas as well.

The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process

Many will find Robert Spencer’s latest book dispiriting, but reality is often just that. It doesn’t care about our feelings, political optimism, or need for palatable solutions. And nowhere is this more true than in the incendiary sandbox of the Middle-East.

The Left will have no use for it, but speaking as something of a Lefty myself, I give the book full marks, and hope that at least some of my tribe will read and learn from it. It’s called The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process, and it chronicles the failure of every peace attempt that has been made for the last 40 years. Spencer argues that the attempts failed for one reason only: the Muslims of Palestine and surrounding Arab countries were never going to accept a Jewish state in any form. The Islamic imperative, “Drive out those who drove you out” allows for no mitigation — not even when the land of Palestine wasn’t theirs to claim.

An Invented Nationality

Many believe that the Palestinians are a genuine nationality — that they are the indigenous people of the land occupied by Israel. Spencer refutes the myth:

“It is no accident that neither Mark Twain, nor any of the series of English travelers who visited the area, nor anyone else who traveled through desolate Palestine over the centuries ever mentioned the ‘Palestinian’ people. They spoke of encountering Muslim Arabs, as well as Jews, Christian Arabs, and others, but no one, among multitudes of people who wrote about Palestine, ever refers to Palestinians. Nor do the many British white papers and other documents the British government produced during the Mandate period ever mention the Palestinians. The opposing factions in those documents are the Jews and Arabs.” (p 87-88)

That flies in the face of the narrative that today’s Palestinians are analogous to Native American Indians: indigenous to the area and thus have a primary claim on the land. But there was never anything to distinguish the Palestinians culturally, linguistically, or otherwise from the other Arabs of the region. During the Mandate Period (1918-48) the Arabs of Palestine usually considered themselves Syrians, and Palestine was called Southern Syria. Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi told the Peel Commission in 1937, “There is no such country as Palestine. ‘Palestine’ is a term the Zionists invented.”

That outlook changed in the ’60s with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO’s constitution refers to “Palestinians” as if they were a distinct ethnic people, though it confusingly alternates between using the terms as a geographical region vs. a nationality. The “Palestinian people” became the PLO’s propaganda used to counter the image of a small Jewish state in a sea of Arab nations. Now it was “the Palestinians” who were an even smaller nation, oppressed by a Big-Bad. And as Spencer says, a nation and a people need an identity; that was provided by the appropriated flag of the (short-lived) Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan. A founding father was also needed; Yasser Arafat filled that role.

The propaganda was called out. Syrian President Hafez Assad, for example, told Arafat: “You do not represent Palestine as much as we do. Never forget this: there is no such thing as a Palestinian people, there is no Palestinian entity, there is only Syria. It is we, the Syrian authorities, who are the true representatives of the Palestinian people.” There were even those in the PLO who candidly acknowledged the truth, such as executive member Zahir Muhsein, who said in an interview: “The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people.”

Obviously, alternative facts predated the 21st century.

Double standards

I was glad to see Spencer taking on the question of standards, because Israel has always been held to a different one. Especially on the subject of territorial acquisition. After the Six-Day War, the UN had produced Resolution 242 about the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”, stating that a nation doesn’t have a right to hold territory just because it conquered the territory. Really? Since when? As Spencer says, the right of conquest has been the way of things since humanity was born:

“The United Nations never questioned the Soviet Union’s postwar territorial expansion, or any other territorial gain at the expense of a defeated aggressor. The United States acquired California and the vast territories of the American Southwest after defeating Mexico in war. Germany had started an aggressive war. No one questioned the fact that after the war, it should suffer a substantial loss of territory. Nations that lost wars, particularly when the wars were the result of their own aggression, had lost territories through history.” (pp 109-110)

And yet when Egypt, Syria, and Jordan wage an aggressive war against Israel, hell-bent on genocide, the UN suddenly advocates for a principle of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” — but only against Israel.

This reminds me of Donald Trump’s executive order two years ago. He decided to uphold the law passed by Congress in 1995, which required Jerusalem to be recognized as Israel’s capital by no later than May 31, 1999. (Spencer discusses this too, later in the book, on pp 194-95.) Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama had invoked waivers to this law every six months, postponing the move on grounds of “national security”, and so the law had never taken effect. Trump had also signed a waiver in June 2017, but six months later, on December 6, decided to end the stalling.

Everyone went crazy that day, but this was a rare occasion I applauded Trump, for the same reasons Spencer objects to the UN resolution 242. Every other country has their capital of choice recognized, and Israel should be treated no differently. Israel has controlled the city of Jerusalem since ’67, and if they want to make that their capital (which they did in 1980), no one can properly gainsay them. Trump was simply eliminating two decades of pointless executive stalling. As Spencer’s book demonstrates from cover to back, as long as the state of Israel exists at all, the Arab world will never be satisfied or agree to work towards a peaceful goal — regardless of how boundaries are partitioned or what the Israeli capital is.

It’s to the critical issue we now turn: the peace process between Israelis and Arabs, and why these attempts always fail. Starting with Round 1.

Round 1: The Case of Anwar Sadat

The story of Camp David (1978) is the centerpiece of Spencer’s book, and it’s the story of Anwar Sadat making a fool (and tool) of Jimmy Carter. Sadat was quite a colorful character, having written love letters to Adolf Hitler, praising the German Fuhrer for his campaign against the “sons of Satan”. After World War II he was in bed with the Soviets, who protected and helped Egypt against Israel, until the Soviets got so fed up bailing Egypt out of every jam. In 1973 Brezhnev wanted Sadat to start negotiating with Israel. He was warned by his aide that Sadat and the Arabs would be mighty pissed at being told this.

Brezhnev retorted that the Arabs could “go to hell”, as they had been given everything under the sun — technology, tanks, aircraft, and artillery — and yet they kept getting beaten. “Once again they scrammed,” blasted Brezhnev. “Once again they screamed for us to come save them. Sadat woke me up in the middle of the night twice over the phone, ‘Save me!’ No! We are not going to fight for them.” Egypt would have to start negotiating with Israel peacefully.

So that’s what Sadat did: he became a “peacemaker”, as Spencer explains, by trying to get the United States to fight his battles for him, since the Soviets would no longer do so; America would fight for him at the negotiations table. It was a brilliant strategy that fooled people on all sides. The Israelis were delighted that an Arab leader was making peaceful overtures; Arabs were furious and denounced him. But Sadat had no intention of betraying his fellow Muslims. For all his deceptive talk about welcome and pluralistic abstractions in his speech to the Knesset in November 1977, he budged not an inch on concrete matters, insisting that the Israelis withdraw completely from everywhere he said to withdraw from, including Jerusalem.

What’s astonishing is that Sadat’s repeated insults (and lack of desire for any genuine reconciliation) went more or less unnoticed at this meeting. A state dinner was held in his honor. And the following year, the United States would push for Sadat’s claims.

Enter Jimmy Carter

Spencer, to put it mildly, isn’t a fan of Jimmy Carter. Readers will know from my ongoing series on the presidents that I think Carter was on whole a good president, indeed the last good president to date. However, even I acknowledge that Camp David was not Carter’s greatest moment. It was his worst.

Sadat made Carter his tool, it must be said, and laughed about it privately to his aides, referring to the American president as “poor naive Carter”. Carter, oblivious, showered good will on Sadat, while treating the Israeli Prime Minister (Begin) icily, and Sadat grew so accustomed to Carter’s obsequiousness that he rudely “corrected” Carter anytime the U.S. president sought to put Sadat and Begin on equal footing.

At one point Carter and the Prime Minister argued over UN Resolution 242. Begin (rightly) objected to the clause about “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” (which is the way of things everywhere in the world), to which Carter retorted that Begin was just greedy for land. Carter was being unfair. Israel was surrounded by Muslim nations that were committed as ever to jihad, and to wiping out the Jewish state. For security purposes if nothing else, it was perfectly reasonable for Israel to want to keep the Sinai lands it had taken in the Six-Day War.

Sadat was eventually assassinated (in 1981) by jihadists, for daring to make peace with the enemy. But as Spencer notes, Sadat had obtained that peace shrewdly enough, without making any significant concessions to Israel, while Israel gave a up a great deal:

“The Camp David summit wasn’t Adolf Hitler browbeating Czechoslovakia’s Emil Hacha into submission, but neither was it a summit of three people who respected one another as equals. Neither Carter nor Sadat had any respect for Begin. Sadat had scant respect for Carter, either, but cultivated his friendship as useful. Carter had boundless admiration and regard for Sadat, bordering on hero worship.” (p 131)

That’s the definition of being made a tool. “Poor naive Carter” indeed. Camp David unfortunately became the paradigm of the “peace process” in which American presidents pressed Israelis for concessions while asking virtually nothing of the Arabs. While I think it’s unfair in the extreme to accuse Jimmy Carter of anti-Semitism (as Spencer seems to imply, p 134), it’s true that he didn’t play fair with Israel at Camp David.

Round 2: The Nobel Peaceful Arafat

Here’s a question: How does one go from the Yasser Arafat who denounced terrorism and promised to recognize the State of Israel (in 1993), to the same Arafat who said that he recognized only holy war, and that the PLO would sacrifice every last boy to see the Palestinian flag fly over the walls of Jerusalem (1996)? Simple: by following the example of Muhammad.

Spencer shows how the Oslo Accords (1993) were always a ruse on Arafat’s part. He had received instruction from the Romanian spy service operative Ion Mihai Pacepa back in ’78. Pacepa had brought Arafat to Bucharest and told him how to behave in Washington — to pretend to break with terrorism, and to recognize Israel, and to keep saying it over and over until he was blue in the face. That’s what Arafat did, and the end result was the famous handshake between him and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn, with a misty-eyed Bill Clinton presiding over them. Arafat even got a Nobel Peace Prize the following year. (It was jointly bestowed on him, Rabin, and Shimon Peres. Rabin and Peres deserved it; Arafat certainly didn’t.)

Arafat was blasted by the Muslim world for his promises of peace, in a classic repeat of Anwar Sadat. But unlike Sadat, Arafat wasn’t assassinated for his efforts, because he explained what he was doing. He assured angry Muslims that he was doing exactly what jihad groups like Hamas advocated: following the example of Muhammad’s treaty with the Quraysh. Spencer explains:

“By invoking Hudaybiyya to justify Oslo, Araft was saying that despite appearances, he had actually conceded nothing. Muhammad had undertaken the Treaty of Hudaybiyya so that he could make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and so that Muslims could recover their strength after a series of costly battles with the Quraysh. When the Muslims were strong enough to fight again and defeat the Quraysh, he broke the treaty. Arafat was telling his Muslim audiences, who would have been familiar with the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, that he had entered into the treaty with Israel not as a retreat from the Palestinian jihad against the Jewish state but as a tactical move to further the aims of that jihad. And when the Palestinians were strong enough not to need the treaty anymore, he would, like Muhammad, break it.” (p 152)

The tradition of Hudaybiyya is a strong one in Islam: treaties are made to be broken, and lies and deceptions are perfectly acceptable.

No one should have been surprised when only a year after getting his Peace Prize, Arafat was thundering about his commitment to the destruction of Israel, and that “the jihad would continue until all of Palestine is liberated”. But then no one really understands Islamic principles.

Round 3: The Road Map to Nowhere

Presidents of the 21st century have spun wheels in the same muck. “Peace processes” continued under the assumption that if the Israeli settlements obtained in 2000 and 2001 were dismantled, peace would dawn. No one, incredibly, had wizened up to the fact that even if all the Israeli settlements were dismantled, there would be no peace, but only more demands, until Israel was destroyed.

The famous Road Map to Peace was first outlined by Bush in a speech in June 2002. It called for an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace, and the plan was to achieve this by 2005. The plan unraveled almost as soon as it began to be implemented. On June 3, 2003 Bush met with President of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas, as well as the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain; they all “agreed” to the Road Map to Peace. Shortly after, Palestinians murdered two Israelis (June 5), Hamas killed four Israeli soldiers (June 11), and a suicide bomber killed 17 people on an Israeli bus (June 17). As Spencer says, an essential premise of the Road Map — that Palestinians would end terrorism — was impossible to fulfill from the start. None of the agreeing authorities (assuming their sincerity) had the power to end the principle of Islamic jihad. That would take a massive religious reform.

Withdrawal from Gaza: The Greenhouse Parable

In June 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the Disengagement Plan: Israel would withdraw completely from Gaza, and from certain parts of the West Bank. Sharon was convinced that such a disengagement would strengthen Israel’s hold over the territory central to its existence, and he extended the hand of peace to the Palestinians, enjoining them to preserve peace and move forward on the basis of “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all institutions”.

The withdrawal from Gaza was hailed (even by skeptics of the Israelis) as a solid show of good will, which it obviously was. But the Palestinians had never reciprocated such gestures in the past, and they certainly were not about to do so now. They responded by looting and destroying hundreds of greenhouses left behind by the Israelis, causing two million dollars in damage.

It wasn’t surprising, for as Spencer points out, the greenhouse event was a dramatic snapshot of the “peace process” that had gone on for years: “The greenhouse incident serves as a parable of the ‘peace process’ itself. Throughout the process, Israelis would make gestures of goodwill that would not be reciprocated, or the Palestinian Arabs would say everything they were expected to say and then act as if they had meant none of it. Instead of calling the Muslims to account, however, the world powers — Britain first and then the United States, would put more pressure on Israel to make more concessions, as if some new manifestation of generosity would finally have the desired effect. The obvious lesson was never learned.” (pp 181-82)

“Peace Partner” Abbas

When I wrote my presidential piece on Barack Obama, I referred to him as George W. the Second, gave a laundry list of reasons why, and with Spencer’s book one can add plenty more. Like Bush, Obama peddled the myth that Islam is a religion of peace (while he himself stepped up America’s war-mongering efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen) and played the victim card on Palestinian behalf with absurd rhetoric. In his 2009 Cairo speech, for example, Obama actually compared the Palestinian situation to the plight of African Americans during the slavery and Jim Crow eras. Equating Israeli self-defense measures with slavery and racism is ludicrous, however one feels about armament issues.

Also like Bush before him, Obama reaffirmed U.S. support for a two-state solution, calling on both Israelis and the Palestinians to abide by the provisions of the thoroughly useless Road Map. In his 2013 Jerusalem speech, he guaranteed that Abbas would be a true peace partner to the Israelis: “While I know you have had differences with the Palestinian Authority, I genuinely believe that you do have a true partner in President Abbas.” Two years later, Abbas was cheering jihad groups (the Mourabitoun and the Mourabitat) who rioted violently on the Temple Mount. Abbas said:

“We bless you; we bless the Mourabitoun and the Mourabitat. We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way to Allah. The Jews have no right to desecrate these places with their filthy feet and we won’t allow them to.”

Obama’s promised “peace partner” indeed. Entirely predictable.

The Deal of the Century

Despite getting a couple of things right (see pp 194-201, like allowing the Israelis to choose their capital), Donald Trump has copied the failures of his predecessors. Six months ago (in June 2019), he unveiled his “Deal of the Century” plan, which just involves throwing more money at the Palestinians — as if that could possibly motivate them to lay down arms and renounce jihad. It was a whopping $50 billion package. Abbas treated it with scorn.

Reflections

After four decades one would think some sanity would break through. Why is everyone still confused over an issue that is fairly straightforward? Mostly because people believe that Palestinian terrorism against Israel is justified, and that the Israeli government is a racist demonic regime. Israel can certainly be criticized (and I do criticize Israel, probably more than Spencer does), but the false equivalence between Israeli wrongs and Arab jihad has to stop. There’s no comparison. Democracies like Israel and western powers do bad things, but in autocratic nations under Islamic law, bad things are the life blood and raison d’etre.

And as Spencer says, the United Nations fuels the false narrative by over-heaping condemnation on Israel while turning a blind eye to massive human rights abuses committed by others. In 2018 alone, the UN condemned Israel 21 times, while not condemning Hamas even once. That’s being hostage to false narratives, and then some.

When we ask, then, what should be done to achieve peace in the Middle-East, the question itself is a problem, because it presumes something can be done. The reality is that peaceful negotiated settlements will never be achieved, as long as the doctrine of jihad — along with the anti-Semitic passages of the Qur’an and Sunnah — remain unreformed in the Muslim world. If Spencer’s book doesn’t convince you on this point, there’s probably no amount of persuasive power that can. Every single attempt at peaceful strategies — from Camp David under Carter, to Oslo under Clinton, to the Peaceful Road Map promoted by Bush and Obama — have failed because each was predicted on Muslim acceptance of a Jewish state, which is anathema in Islam. It doesn’t matter how small, truncated, or diminished that Jewish state is. From the Islamic point of view, it has to go.

The “solution”, in other words, says Spencer, is that there really is none:

“That is not something that people today, particularly Americans, want to hear. There is a prevailing assumption that if we just sit down and talk with one another, we will ultimately be able to find common ground and work out all our differences. Well, the Israelis and the Muslim Arabs have done this again and again and again for more than four decades now, and the conflict still rages. Borders have been adjusted, troops have been withdrawn, settlements have been dismantled, and yet the Palestinian media still daily seethes with rage and hate against Israel, and calls for its destruction. For talks to succeed, both sides have to be willing to make compromises and abide by agreements; the Palestinians have repeatedly shown that they are willing to do neither. They clearly see negotiations with Israel as means to gain concessions that are steps on the way to the ultimate collapse of the Jewish state. Future participants in the ‘peace process’ will be foolish, and will be played for fools, if they continue to negotiate with the Palestinians.” (pp 217-18)

What Spencer suggests in place of “peace process” is containment or management of the problem through strength, and for western countries to openly admit that a Palestinian state will by necessity be an inveterate enemy of Israel, and to then plan accordingly. Enlightened societies should speak honestly about Islam, and about the way Palestinian leaders have refined lying and deception into a form of high art. Above all, I would add, the religion of Islam is need of a massive reform if anything like peaceful co-existence is to be achieved. Of course, this will be unacceptable to most thinkers in the Western world. It requires too much common sense, and to fly in the face of entrenched wishful thinking.

I’ll close this review with my own wishful thinking: I wish with all my heart that the State of Israel had not been created. It was one of the worst political snafus of the 20th century. The Allies’ hearts were in the right place, and the Jewish people certainly deserve a homeland of their own, but it was a godawful idea to make Palestine that home. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been right when he warned (in 1944) that putting Jews in the Holy Land would ignite a relentless jihad. (FDR was wrong about most things, but not this.) What the Allies should have done instead is carve out a section of Germany, the nation responsible for the Holocaust, and give that to the Jewish people. There would have been a lot less blood and tears in 70 years to come.

But that’s my fantasy. What’s done is done. The state of Israel was created. Generations have come and gone, and Israel is the Jewish homeland now — like it or not, for better or worse. The Israeli-Palestinian problem needs to managed, if not “solved”, with a minimum of bloodshed. But to engage in peace accords and negotiations as if Muslims will give up the doctrine of jihad is an irresponsible policy grounded in historical ignorance. Spencer’s book is the wake-up call to pull western policy makers out of dreamland.

The Dark Ages: Speaking the Unspeakable

Richard Carrier has a post explaining why he thinks The Dark Ages Really Were a Thing, and he also links to Scott Alexander’s Were There Dark Ages?, both of which I recommend as remedies to the ongoing fad. That fad urges us to avoid the term Dark Ages — if not erase the term altogether from our vernacular — owing to a fear of labels that judge or over-malign the past. It’s true there were western accomplishments during the Dark-Age period, but those accomplishments have been exaggerated to create a counter-myth that there was no serious setback to civilization after the Roman Empire. There certainly was.

Admittedly I was once hooked on the fad. Until about a decade ago, I made a point of calling the Dark Ages the “Anglo-Saxon Period”, which is an accurate enough label for the 5th-10th centuries but also a bit constraining. I eventually got tired of subjecting truth and facts to people’s sensibilities. It’s indeed appropriate, as Carrier and Alexander argue, to speak of a Dark Age Period — that is, a period in the west when there was a dramatic societal devolution. However, I don’t believe the start of this devolution happened at the point usually assumed. The Dark Ages are usually taken as the 5th-10th centuries (as Carrier believes), whereas I believe the term rightly applies to the 7th-10th centuries. The first proponent of this view, of course, was Henri Pirenne in the 1920s and 30s.

Pirenne’s revival

Pirenne’s major work, Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937), argued that classical civilization was destroyed not by the Goths, Vandals, or Huns, nor the Christian Church, but rather the Arab invaders of the seventh century. The Islamic invasions in turn ended up changing the face of Christianity. The detachment of the west from the east — politically, culturally, and religiously — was a direct consequence of Islam’s arrival on the worldly stage. Pirenne concluded famously that “Without Muhammad, Charlemagne would be inconceivable,” meaning that without Islam, the Holy Roman Empire would have (in all probability) never come to be.

There has been renewed interest in Pirenne, for good reasons and bad, and in a post-9/11 age the bad reasons usually get more attention. European nationalists and American neocons have latched on to Pirenne’s work in order to justify foreign policies of intervention in the Muslim world (especially getting involved in regime-change wars), which is an abuse of historical scholarship. One of the better defenses of the Pirenne thesis is that of Emmet Scott. In Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited (2012) he affirmed Pirenne with an eye on archaeological data, arguing that there was no gradual decline in classical society from the fifth to seventh centuries, as commonly supposed. There was certainly a decline from the third to fifth centuries, but that was followed by a revival in the sixth and early seventh, which was then dramatically terminated sometime between 620 and 650. The lights went out, quite literally, with the Islamic conquests. The Arabs brought the Romans to their knees, conquered the richest parts of the Mediterranean, and turned the sea into a military frontier. People fled the coastline and began building hilltop castles to avoid slaughter and enslavement. The Mediterranean was no longer a highway but a frontier of piracy and plunder. The sea became a blockade, choking off trade and communication with Byzantium. Papyrus became a thing of the past, and literacy plummeted almost overnight to levels equivalent to those in pre-Roman times. By the mid-seventh century a “medieval” or “dark” outlook had emerged in western Europe, thanks mostly to Islam. It’s at this point that one may legitimately speak of the inception of the Dark Ages.

A paper available online by Bonnie Effros, “The Enduring Attraction of the Pirenne Hypothesis”, examines the current renewal of Pirenne’s ideas, though it’s not particularly helpful. Not least because she relies on the supposed debunking of Pirenne in the ’80s by Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse (see p 196 of the article). Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe: The Pirenne Thesis in the Light of Archaeology (1983) tried proving that western Europe was in an economic and cultural death-spiral before the appearance of Islam. But the authors relied mostly on evidence from central Italy, the one place we would expect to find societal deterioration, since the whole balance of power in the Roman Empire had shifted to the east: Constantinople was founded in 324, and by the beginning of the 400s Ravenna supplanted Rome as the capital of the western empire. Rome was then sacked twice, in 410 and then 455, with the western empire dissolving in 476. With all of that — a huge drop in the Roman aristocracy, population, and general fortune — we would obviously expect a dramatic drop in the wealth of the settlements around central Italy.

That’s not what happened elsewhere. Under the Visigoths in Spain, the Franks in Gaul, and the Vandals in Africa, society was reviving and flourishing, especially in the sixth and early seventh centuries. The archaeological record shows expanding populations engaged in vigorous trade within Europe and with the eastern Mediterranean; new territories being brought into cultivation; growth of cities both old and new; clear proof of dramatic technical and scientific innovation; advanced learning and scholarship. This was a revival, not a deterioration, and it was abruptly terminated in the early seventh century with the Muslim invasions. Hodges and Whitehouse’s debunking of Pirenne is discredited on a basic level. They used the exception (of central Italy) to argue a non-existent rule. For whatever reasons, people continue having difficulty believing the Germanic invaders were capable of civilization.

In the East, Hodges and Whitehouse again blamed the wrong people, this time the Persians. It’s true that the Persian War in 614 started the eastern fall, but it was the subsequent Arab Wars that brought the lasting devastation. There had been wars between Persians and Romans before; it was the way of Roman life for seven centuries. How is it that this particular Persian war (supposedly) led to the end of classical civilization in the east? No matter how destructive, wars are normally followed by treaties of peace, and then the recovery of economic prosperity. It always happened between the Romans and Persians, but it didn’t happen this time, and Hodges and Whitehouse have no answer as to why.

Pirenne had supplied the answer, of course, which I take to be self-evident: it was the Arabs, in the wake of the Persians, who laid the permanent waste. The religious concept of jihad was one of permanent religious war that made any kind of peace or genuine coexistence impossible. The annual obligation of jihad ensured ongoing war on Islam’s borders, while the provisions of sharia law meant that in lands taken over by Muslims, natives were provided no protection against bandits and herders who let flocks graze on and destroy the irrigated lands. Fertile areas became semi-desert, and cities became ghost towns.

The term “Dark Ages” is appropriate, but the period starts in the seventh century, not the fifth. Islamic jihad is what brought the darkness, not the Christian church or the Germanic rulers. That’s an unwelcome view in today’s age, where to even question the myth of Islam’s Golden Age is deemed “Islamophobic”, but there you have it.

And yet…

If the Christian church was not the cause of the Dark Ages, it would eventually become a major impediment to pulling out of that blackness.

Carrier, in his post, rightly notes that while Christianity did not cause the massive stalling of society, it did “guarantee by its take-over of the Western mind that nothing that needed doing to reverse that downfall would be done for at least a thousand years”, which is true. But at what point did Christianity become this kind of impediment? It started (per Pirenne and Scott) with Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.

Those who resist the term Dark Ages are often the same folks who romanticize or overvalue the Carolingians. Carrier’s swipe at the dynasty is a breath of fresh air:

“Even the so-called Carolingian Renaissance was a mere blip in this record, a brief, isolated, relatively unimpressive attempt at a recovery—that failed. Society wouldn’t really start pulling out of this hole until around 1000 A.D. The very pit of the decline was reached in the 7th century, but it took over two more centuries to get back to the rim of that hole, and over four more to get back to where Western civilization had once attained. And even that march up the wall of the pit was relatively inglorious. Compared to the High Roman Empire, the Carolingian era was barbaric, below even the level of societal wealth, sophistication and achievement of Classical Greece, which the Romans at their height had long since surpassed, and which no civilization on earth would obtain again until the Renaissance.”

Quite correct. The western empire under Charlemagne (r. 800-814) developed into a blooming theocracy that would come to mirror some of Islam’s worst elements. It would be the “Holy” Roman Empire whose authority no longer derived solely from its own military and economic strength (as in the time of the Caesars and Germanic kings) but increased dependence on church approval. For the first time ever, by the eleventh century, Christians began thinking in terms of holy war. The crusades were in defense against Islamic aggression to be sure (and in some ways a necessary evil), but nevertheless in contradiction to the church’s one thousand year stand of religious pacifism. The culmination of “Charlemagne’s seed” came with Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216), who established the inquisitions to enforce absolute doctrinal conformity. This copied Islam’s inquisition 50 years before, to root out and torture its own apostates in Spain and North Africa. Against such a legacy, Charlemagne’s half-successful efforts to revive literacy didn’t amount to much. The west fragmented into a besieged backwater as Vikings dominated the northern channels and Muslims strangle-held the South.

In Muslim lands, of course, religious dissent and apostasy had always been a capital offense, while for Christians the use of force to enforce orthodoxy was condemned by the early church fathers. Christians could be fierce in denouncing heretics, but only extremely rarely would a fanatic get violent about the matter, and when that happened the church spoke out against the violence. By the twelfth-thirteenth centuries, this had flipped 180 degrees: Catholicism now mirrored Islam in killing its own heretics, and the seeds of that mirroring go back to the ascendance of the Holy Roman Empire under the Carolingians.

So when Carrier concludes:

“Yes, the Dark Ages happened. They occupied the period from the 5th to the 10th century. And they took five hundred more years to fully recover from, bringing Western civilization back by the 15th century to all the peak markers of accomplishment that it had achieved by the 2nd century. That’s a thousand years we were set back. And yes, those ages were sufficiently dark in every measure to warrant the appellation. They dropped the Western world (and even, if less catastrophically, the Near Eastern world) to its lowest levels of decline by every measure not seen since before the rise of the Ancient Greeks who built up Western civilization on a foundation of democracy, technology, and science. The Dark Ages were an era we as human beings should look upon in shame, disappointment, and concern never to repeat what caused them or sustained them. They deserve the name.”

I agree with his summary statement but would put the start of the Dark Ages in the seventh century, not the fifth. Again: there was no decline in classical society down to the seventh century, but rather a decline from the third to fifth, followed by a revival in the sixth and early seventh, which was then dramatically terminated in the early to mid seventh. The result was much as people like Carrier and Alexander describe: dark times that went on longer than they should have, and that we should be comfortable “judging” with adequate labels.

Dissing Muhammad, Historicizing Jesus

In the space of two days, two ridiculous decisions were made.

The first was a European court’s ruling that you cannot blaspheme Muhammad. A woman called Muhammad a pedophile because of his marriage to the six-year old Aisha. In 2011, an Austrian court convicted her of “disparaging” Islam and slapped her with a fine. She fought the conviction on several grounds. For one, her statements about Muhammad were absolutely factual. For another, she wasn’t defaming the prophet but rather debating him as a historical figure. Finally — and most importantly — even if she were defaming him, so what? Sacrilege and blasphemy should be perfectly legal.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld the Austrian court’s ruling, writing:

“Presenting objects of religious worship in a provocative way capable of hurting the feelings of the followers of that religion could be conceived as a malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance.”

Christ on a crutch. I realize the First Amendment doesn’t exist in Europe, but even so, this is a horrible dissent. Western societies outside America at least pretend to uphold some standards of free expression. Co-existing in a world with offense is something every mature person should expect. Here the court has made free expression a farce by effectively enforcing sharia (Islamic) law.

The second case was Youtube’s removal of an informational video on the historical Jesus uploaded by Anthony Le Donne. On his Facebook page Le Donne wryly notes that “it seems that historical Jesus research is now illegal”. Just last week one of my videos was blocked by Youtube, also for objectionable content; it was an All in the Family clip in which Archie Bunker explained why Native American Indians don’t vote (“they sell all their horses for booze and can’t ride into town”). Youtube has a history of being capricious, but when it starts banning mainstream historical research and a classic sitcom that won numerous Emmy awards, it shows the degree to which the collective mentality doesn’t care a whit about free expression.

Of course, in the case of Youtube, free expression has not to do with its First Amendment sense, which is about governmental censorship, and it goes without saying that Youtube is a private company and can legally ban whomever it wants (as is proper: their house, their rules). But that doesn’t mean it should. Private colleges can likewise silence students in ways that public universities cannot — but again, that doesn’t mean they should. Social media platforms like Youtube, Twitter, and Amazon are omnipresent and have a a virtual monopoly today over the means of online communication, and when they ban people like this, they set a precedent that is inimical to free expression in other contexts. If I were the CEO of Youtube, I’d fire the twits who censored those videos.

Shame on both the ECHR and Youtube.

The History of Jihad: A Review

This is the release week for Robert Spencer’s History of Jihad, for which I wrote an advance review back in May. I’ll repeat that preface here and then follow it with more details. The book is a chronicle of Islam’s holy wars that cuts through all the myths, and it represents the crown and summit of Spencer’s work, which he describes as follows:

“I’ve written a guide to the Qur’an and a biography of Muhammad, and with this book, the case is complete — that is, the case that there are elements within Islam that pose a challenge to free societies, and that free people need to pay attention to this fact before it is, quite literally, too late. It is necessary for me to repeat yet again that this does not mean that every individual Muslim, or any given Muslim, embodies that challenge and is posing it individually, but as this book makes clear, the Islamic jihad imperative remains regardless of whether or not any Muslim individual decides to take it up.”

History of Jihad’s value lies not only in its scope — it covers every single jihad theater, from Arabia to Persia, North Africa to Europe, Spain to India, Tel Aviv to New York City — but also its explanatory power. Spencer relies heavily on primary sources and the words of contemporary witnesses, so the reader gets a good impression of how it was to experience the jihad. Repeating without fail are cycles of brutality and piety, and the clear religious motives of the Muslims. Jihadists have always been candid about their reason for waging war — to subjugate infidels under the rule of Islam — but people in the 21st century have a hard time accepting this, and have grasped at every possible explanation except the obvious one. Studies have proven that there is no correlation between Islamic terrorism and poverty; there are as many middle-class and well-to-do jihadists as poor ones. Unlike most of human warfare, holy war is waged primarily for spiritual reward, and it operates irrespective of rational purpose. It takes the guardrails off civilization, and you can’t reason with it. This makes Spencer’s book a horror drama as much as an historical one, and it’s hard to put down.

It’s rare to see myths about Islam debunked so thoroughly, though we got another one recently from Dario Fernandez-Morera in The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016). The reality of Islamic Spain is that there was no fruitful cooperation between faiths. The Muslims were less friendly to Jews and Christians than American Southern whites were to blacks before civil rights. In Spencer’s book, the same conclusion is drawn in all times and places:

“There is no period since the beginning of Islam that was characterized by large-scale peaceful coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims. There was no time when mainstream and dominant Islamic authorities taught the equality of non-Muslims with Muslims, or the obsolescence of jihad warfare. There was no Era of Good Feeling, no Golden Age of Tolerance, no Paradise of Proto-Multiculturalism. There has always been, with virtually no interruption, jihad.”

That may not be a controversial point to competent historians, but it’s not what most people believe or are willing to say. Pointing out that Islam is toxic wins you no friends in an age that is less concerned with truth and more with peoples’ wishes and feelings. There is also the problem of funding. Universities with departments of Islamic Studies often receive their support from places like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Muslim nations, and when you factor in the politically correct climate on campuses, scholars are almost guaranteed to promote the usual myths. Spencer’s book, like Fernandez-Morera’s, is free of those pressures. It’s the best available book now on the Islamic jihad. The only other top-notch treatment I know of is Alfred Morabia’s Le Gihad dans L’Islam Medieval (1993), but an English translation is hard to come by.

For all the attempts to isolate jihad as an inner spiritual struggle, it has always carried the unconditional requirement for sacred warfare against unbelievers. Warriors of jihad are promised the property and women of the vanquished enemy if they live, and virgins in paradise if they die. This is true in all schools of Islamic jurisprudence, as cited by Spencer in the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali sources, which in turn rely on the Qur’an and Hadith. There was never a time when the “greater” (spiritual) jihad was divorced from the “lesser” (military) one. They’re inseparable.

I’ll go through each of the book’s ten chapters and cover the highlights. That makes for a long review, but keep in mind I’m only scratching the surface of the grand opera that is The History of Jihad. Read the whole book and learn from it.

Chapter 1: The Battles of Muhammad (622-632)

There were twenty-seven Muslim battles during the time of Muhammad, but Spencer focuses on the biggies in which the Prophet was directly involved. It should be stressed that the historicity of these battles is irrelevant. They are reported in the Qur’an, the Hadith, and/or the Life of Muhammad, and to whatever degree they have been embellished (or invented, as Spencer himself believes), the fact is that most Muslims believe they happened, and all schools of Islam maintain that Muhammad is the warrior exemplar as he is portrayed in the accounts.

The prophet’s most famous jihad is the Battle of Badr (March, 624). It was the turning-point for the Muslim community, fought against Muhammad’s tribe of the Quraysh. Many Qur’an passages draw crucial lessons from it: piety is what brought the military victory (Qur’an 3:13); the angels would always help the Muslims in battle and strike terror into the hearts of their enemies (Qur’an 8:9, 12–13); the Muslims were Allah’s passive instruments at Badr (even the pebbles Muhammad threw toward the Quraysh were not thrown by him, but by Allah) (Qur’an 8:17); and future victories were guaranteed to pious Muslims even if they faced odds more prohibitive than the ones encountered at Badr (Qur’an 8:65–66). “Thus were first enunciated,” says Spencer, “what would become recurring themes of jihad literature throughout the centuries to today.”

The Muslims were then crushed in the Battle of Uhud (December, 624), but again this was spiritually instructive: it wasn’t Allah’s fault. Allah takes ownership of victories like Badr. Failures like Uhud are the result of the Muslims’ lack of courage and their lust for the things of this world (Qur’an 3:152). Allah reminded the Muslims of his help given to the them in the past when they were outnumbered, and that their piety is essential for winning battles (Qur’an 3:123–127). “The lesson was clear,” says Spencer: “the only path to success was Islam, and the cause of all failure was the abandonment of Islam. Allah promised that the Muslims would soon be victorious again, provided that they depended solely on him and rejected all accord with non-Muslims.“ (Qur’an 3:149–151)

Other jihads are covered in similar detail. The Battle of al-Khandaq (January-February 627) became known as “The Battle of the Trench”, and the Battle of Qurayza (February-March, 627) was Muhammad’s massacre of the Jews for allying with the Quraysh in the previous battle. At this point Muhammad controlled Medina, but he continued to be challenged, not least by the tribe of al-Mustaliq (Arabs related to the Quraysh), and so he led the Muslims out to crush them in the Battle of al-Mustaliq (December 627). He was victorious, and Allah granted him the wives, children and property of the slain men as booty.

Next year came the Battle of Khaybar (May-June 628), in which Muhammad subjugated the Jews near Medina. As Spencer notes, “to this day, Muslims warn Jews of impending massacres by chanting, ‘Khaybar, Khaybar. O Jews, the army of Muhammad will return’.” Muhammad finally returned to his stomping grounds in the Occupation of Mecca (January, 630), where the Quraysh people finally embraced Islam, willingly or not. He proceeded to the Kaaba and smashed the pagan idols of the city, heralding, “the Truth has come and falsehood gone” (Qur’an 17:81). The occupation was followed by two more battles which gave Muhammad complete control of Arabia.

With Arabia dominated, Muhammad planned to take jihad to the world — against the Byzantines and Persians. He wrote to Heraclius in Constantinople, threatening that if the emperor wanted to remain safe, then he should convert to Islam. Heraclius declined and the Byzantines would reap the jihad onslaught. Muhammad sent a similar letter to the Persian emperor Khosrau, who tore it to pieces. When Muhammad learned this, he called upon Allah to do the very same — to tear Khosrau and his followers to pieces. He promised Muslims that they would enjoy the fruits of jihad victories over the Byzantines and Persians: “When Khosrau perishes, there will be no more Khosrau after him, and when Caesar perishes, there will be no more Caesar after him. By Him in Whose hands Muhammad’s life is, you will spend the treasures of both of them in Allah’s cause.” (Sahih al-Bukhari  vol. 4, bk. 61, no. 3618). In 631 he sent the first raids into the Byzantine Empire, at Tabuk, and it was at this point that Allah gave Muhammad revelations scolding the Muslims who declined to go on these raids, reminding believers that those who refused to wage jihad would face terrible punishment (Qur’an 9:38-39).

Spencer then explains the jizya, or the poll tax, which is important in Islam. From this point on, Jews and Christians (the People of the Book) could be spared slaughter if they accepted Islamic rule by paying the special tax and submitting to regulations that would ensure their subordinate position: they must “pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (Qur’an 9:29). The jizya evolved as a matter of practicality, giving the Muslims’ their chief source of income as they waged jihad on the world, but it was also a way to keep the People of the Book “subdued” throughout the centuries, along with other humiliations. Jews and Christians could not hold authority over Muslims; they could have only menial jobs; they could not build new churches/synagogues or repair old ones (which could never be higher than the Islamic mosques in any case); they would have to make way if a Muslim approached on the street, and in some cases even wear an insignia like the Jews in Nazi Germany. While nominally protected, Jews and Christians would in practice often be abused by Muslims with impunity. Jizya was by no means a benign practice, as some myth-making histories insist. It was a mafia racketeer form of “protection”.

Chapter 2: The Great Conquests (632-711)

The era of the four “Rightly-Guided Caliphs” — Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali — is considered the first Islamic Golden Age (632-661), and a model of what an Islamic state ought to be. But as Spencer demonstrates, this age was anything but peaceful, and if these caliphs were “rightly guided”, then that’s a pretty damning indictment.

When Abu Bakr (632-634) became the first caliph he told the Muslims, “Abandon not jihad; when the people hold back from jihad, they are put to disgrace.” (Akbar Shah Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, Vol. 1; Darussalam, 2000, 276). When members of the Arabian tribes abandoned Islam after Muhammad’s death, Abu Bakr declared, per Muhammad’s instructions, that “whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him” (Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 9, bk. 88, no. 6922; cf. vol. 4, bk. 56, no. 3017). He sent his best warrior, Khalid ibn al-Walid, to subdue the apostates and bring them back to the Islamic religion, and to kill those who refused. Then the caliph sent Khalid to conquer Iraq (at the time part of Sassanid Persia), and in May 633 Khalid told the Sassaniad governor to accept Islam, or pay the jizya, or “we will bring against you a people who love death more than you love drinking wine” (Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 11, The Challenge to the Empires; State University of New York Press, 1993, 6). As Spencer says, this triple choice — conversion to Islam, subjugation under the rule of Islam, or war — is still the way of Islamic law today. Khalid defeated the Persians in many jihads, and praised Allah for granting him the victories.

Then came Umar (634-644), who made the Arabs into a global jihad force. By his death in 644, the Muslims had demolished the Sassaniad Empire and weakened the Byzantine. The jihad began in Syria in 636, with Muslims reciting the eighth chapter of the Qur’an known as “The Spoils of War”. Then they expelled Christians in Yemen from Arabia, fulfilling Muhammad’s dying words, “If Allah wills, I will expel the Jews and the Christians from the Arabian peninsula.” They attacked the Persians, with Umar justifying it on grounds of making Islam triumph over all other religions (Qur’an 9:33, 48:28, 61:9) (Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 11, 173). When the Persians asked why the Muslims had come to attack them, one warrior said, “If you kill us, we shall enter Paradise; if we kill you, you shall enter the Fire, or hand over the poll tax.” (Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 12, The Battle of al-Qadisiyyah and the Conquest of Syria and Palestine; State University of New York Press, 1992, 32). They finally took the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, and replaced the emperor’s throne with a pulpit, declaring there was no god but Allah. The Arabs also took Jerusalem in 636, and Umar made a pact with the Jerusalem patriarch, in which the Christians were not allowed to build new churches, carry arms, or ride on horses, and had to pay the jizya in order to receive “protection” (in the mafia sense, of course) to practice their religion. The jihad then continued in Egypt in 639, leaving calamities in its wake. Then Armenia in 642. By 644, the Arabs controlled much of Syria and the Levant, and most of Persia and Egypt. In all cases, as Spencer shows, “the ability to gain and retain political power was directly tied to one’s obedience to Allah and Islam.” It was holy war all the way.

Uthman (644-656) took the jihad to the high seas. One of his commanders Muawiya invaded Cyprus in 649, defeated the Byzantines on the island, and imposed the jizya; then they invaded and subjugated Rhodes as well. Muawiya was then appointed governor of Syria by Uthman, and he wrote to the Byzantine emperor Constantine “the Bearded” in 651, calling on him to renounce Christianity “or else”. Revolts in Africa were crushed, and it was during this time that Uthman compiled the Qur’an as we know it today. He began the process in the early 650s after a Muslim named Hudhaifa bin al-Yaman warned him that Muslims were in danger of becoming like the Jews and Christians (Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 6, bk. 65, no. 4784). Uthman was assassinated in 656 by some Muslims who rebelled against his rule, accusing him of the sin of bid’a (innovation), in other words changing some of the Muslim practices.

The last “Rightly Guided” Caliph was Ali (656-661), who came under attack from an internal jihad, launched by Muhammad’s favorite wife Aisha. She hated Ali, because when Muhammad was alive she had been accused of adultery, and Ali had advised Muhammad to have her stoned to death. Aisha now organized an armed revolt against the caliph, enlisting the help of Muawiya, the jihad exemplar under Uthman. She demanded of others who were also enraged by Uthman’s assassination: “Seek revenge for the blood of Uthman, and you will strengthen Islam!” (Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 16, The Community Divided; State University of New York Press, 1997, 39). She was defeated at the Battle of the Camel in Basra (656), leading her jihad from the back of a camel.

Muawiya (661-680) founded the Umayyad dynasty, and as caliph he basically continued where he left off under Uthman’s rule, ordering the construction of a fleet to sail against Constantinople in 670. The Arabs had demolished the Persian Empire, and they were hell-bent on doing the same to the Byzantines. Muhammad had promised that “the first army amongst my followers who will invade Caesar’s city [Constantinople] will be forgiven their sins.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 4, bk. 56, no. 2924). As Spencer says, this statement was obviously put into Muhammad’s mouth long after the siege of Constantinople, but there is no doubt it reflected a sacred aspiration that those early jihadis shared. And the jihad proceeded elsewhere — in Crete, North Africa, central Asia, and into Afghanistan.

By making the caliphate into a family dynasty (the Umayyads), Muawiya set off a civil war which came to a head when his son Yazid (680-683) became the caliph. The second son of Ali, Husayn, refused to accept Yazid’s authority, and led a revolt against Yazid’s forces. Both sides justified their fighting by declaring the other not Muslims, which remains the tactic to this day for Muslims who wage jihad on their own kin. Husayn was killed, but his followers still refused to accept Yazid’s authority, and the split in the Muslim community became permanent: the Sunnis (under Yazid) and the Shi’ites (who had revolted under Husayn) went their separate ways forever, and would wage jihad on each other with the same zeal they dished out on non-Muslims.

Jihad efforts continued over the next 30 years, primarily in North Africa. Then came two momentous campaigns which took the jihad to Spain and India, in the same fateful year of 711.

Chapter 3: The Jihad Comes to Spain and India (711-900)

Islamic history has been especially distorted in Spain (Al-Andalus), and Spencer’s corrective is a gale of fresh air. The complete corrective, as I mentioned at the start, is found in The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise. That book was written (shockingly) by a Harvard scholar, Dario Fernandez-Morera, who utterly demolished the idea that al-Andalus was some kind of multicultural paradise where Jews and Christians lived in fruitful harmony with their Muslim overlords. Jews and Christians were pariah, like blacks in the American South before civil rights. Al-Andalus was a violent society for everyone; Muslims killed each other for power and treated Jews and Christians like dirt.

We’re often told there is little difference between the Muslim invasion of Spain in the eighth century and the Visigoth takeover of Spain in the fifth — or for that matter, between any of the Muslim conquests and “typical” military invasions that happened anywhere. But there’s a big difference. The Visigoths hadn’t been driven by their religious faith to conquer Spain; they didn’t force people to convert or submit and pay a tax designed to humiliate them as second-class citizens; they didn’t spread their Arian Christian religion at all. Like the other Germanic tribes in Europe, the Visigoths did everything in their power to preserve Roman civilization, where the Arabs destroyed it (as they had in places like Alexandria) in religious fervor.

Spencer describes that fervor, and the brutal treatment of the conquered people. Christians retained small dominions in the north, and the ongoing battles between them and the jihad invaders would become legendary. In 732 the jihad pressed into France led by the al-Andalus governor, and confronted Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours. Some historians judge this to be the most important battle in world history, because Martel’s victory probably stopped the complete Islamization of Europe. Spencer points out the one European who was disappointed by this outcome: Adolf Hitler. The Fuhrer declared:

“Had Charles Martel not been victorious — already, you see, the world had fallen into the hands of the Jews, so gutless a thing was Christianity! — then we should in all probability have been converted to Mohammedanism, that cult which glorifies heroism and which opens the seventh heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world. Christianity alone prevented them from doing so.” (Hitler’s Table Talk 1941–1944, translated by Norman Cameron and R. H. Stevens; Enigma Books, 2000, 667)

(For Hitler, Islam was a “religion of men”, and much more suited to the Germanic spirit than the “Jewish filth and priestly twaddle of Christianity”.)

But if things went badly for the jihad in France, they escalated back home in Spain when the Umayyad dynasty at Baghdad fell to the Abbassids in 750. The Umayyad prince Abd al-Rahman fled for his life and came to al-Andalus, founded the Emirate of Cordoba, and continued jihad warfare against the Christians in northern Spain.

Spencer also covers India, which is nice since the Hindus tend to get ignored in holy-war histories. The Hindus (and Jains and Buddhists) suffered tremendously under Muslim rule. The jihad commander Muhammad ibn Qasim brought slaughter and forced conversions and the destruction of Hindu temples over a four year period, until he was killed by the Abbasid caliph in 715.

The reason Ibn Qasim was killed is rather hilarious, though there are two different accounts: one in the Chachnama (a history of India written in the 7th-8th centuries), the other from Al-Baladhuri (a 9th century historian). The former has him killed by Caliph al-Walid for daring to send al-Walid sex slaves that he had already raped himself; the latter has him killed by al-Walid’s successor Sulayman for daring to dispute Sulayman’s right of succession. Spencer follows the earlier account, which is probably the more reliable: After decimating regions in the Sindh (today’s eastern Pakistan) and massacring Hindus, Ibn Qasim sent treasure and booty from the temples back to the caliph, along with two choice sex slaves (the daughters of the Sindhi king Dahir). As al-Walid was about to rape one of the girls, she panicked and told him that she had already been raped by Ibn Qasim. Al-Walid was enraged that his own general had dared to send him sloppy seconds, and immediately ordered that Ibn Qasim — despite his massive victories in India for the glory of Allah — be sewn up into a rawhide sack and shipped back to his court. By the time the sack arrived, the general was suffocated, which was probably just as well for him, given the caliph’s fury.

The upshot of this is that the jihad was put on hold in India because its general had the audacity to rape the slaves he sent as a gift to the caliph. But the respite wouldn’t last. The jihad in India later resumed, and would carry on for over 1100 years.

There’s plenty more in this chapter — there were jihads galore throughout the 8th and 9th centuries — not least the second siege of Constantinople, launched in 717 (the first was Muawiya’s in 670). Later under the Abbasids, Caliph Harun al-Rashid waged no less than eight jihads against the Byzantine empire, though as Spencer notes, we never hear of these because this caliph has been hyper-romanticized for patronizing the arts and medicine: “History does not record how many Christians and other non-Muslims this most enlightened of caliphs subjected to lives of slavery and degradation, or to immediate death. No one at his opulent court looked askance at this: It was the will of Allah.”

Chapter 4: Consolidation (900-1095)

The jihad was relatively quiet during the 900s, but as Spencer emphasizes, this wasn’t because there was any Islamic reform or reconsideration of Muhammad’s commands. It was simply because the Muslims were preoccupied with fighting among themselves and lacked the resources for lengthy campaigns abroad. Noteworthy is the Shi’ite Fatmid dynasty that came to power at this time, taking over Algeria and other places in the early 900s until they established the seat of the Shi’ite caliphate at Cairo in 969. The Sunni Abbasids at Baghdad weren’t pleased.

But there was one place in the 10th century where the jihad didn’t stop: Spain. That wonderful “multicultural paradise” (so we’ve been told) saw a revving up of jihad, when the Umayyad rulers (who had come in 750, fleeing the Abbasids) decided to upgrade their emirate into a caliphate of their own. The Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba would last until 1031, and the first caliph, Abd al-Rahman III (929-961), wasted no time launching a jihad against Christians in the north.

Spencer describes Abd al-Rahman III as a “scrupulous doctrinaire Muslim ruler”, and cites a contemporary historian, who indeed paints a ruthless portrait. The caliph punished the slightest innovation in Islamic doctrine, and filled the mosques with his spies in order to “penetrate the most intimate secrets of the people, so that he could know every action, every thought, of good and bad people”. He carried out an inquisition (long before the Christian inquisitions started in the 1180s) to terrify and punish wayward Muslims. He tortured and killed Christian prisoners for dramatic effect, in one case lining up 100 captives in the orchard of the Cordoba castle, where they were decapitated one by one, so that the Muslims in attendance felt empowered by Allah. In another instance, he crucified 300 of his own officers for their failure in a jihad against the Christians. As Spencer reminds us, the Qur’an prescribes crucifixion as a punishment for those who “make war on Allah” (5:33), and Abd al-Rahman III thought his officers had “made war on Allah” by incompetently mismanaging the jihad and giving the Christians an easy victory.

And yet Abd al-Rahman III wasn’t the worst ruler of this period. Almanzor (981-1002) showed him up by waging almost 60 jihads, and was known for commanding that the dust on his clothes be collected after each battle against the Christians so that he could be buried under the glorious dust when he died. Spencer describes his activities at length, and they make for some ghastly reading.

Then he discusses the Jews of al-Andalus, who often had it even worse than Christians. The myth of Jewish privilege in Islamic Spain has become entrenched in academia. It’s true that there were “favored” Jews who were appointed as court physicians and viziers, because Muslim rulers found them easy to control as dhimmis (second-class citizens). This sort of thing happens in many other times and places. Hernando Cortes exploited the Tlaxcalan Indians in his struggle against the Aztecs, and yet no one ever dreams of trying to pass off Cortes’ policy as a Christian Spaniard “tolerance” for the Tlaxcalan way of life or their religious beliefs or even relative good will. Nor should we resort to fantasies about a supposed Islamic tolerance for the Jews of al-Andalus. The caliphs never called their Jewish physicians and viziers “allies” in any case, but rather “servants”, since the Qur’an demonized Jews even worse than Christians. The Muslim masses demonized them too, which is why pogroms and assassinations broke out in al-Andalus — in 1013 (when the Jews were expelled from Cordoba), 1039 (when the Jewish vizier of Zaragoza was assassinated by a Muslim mob), and in 1066 (when the Jews of Granada were killed).

That last slaughter was brought on because of the favors shown to Samuel ibn Naghrila, a Jew who had become an extremely powerful vizier of Granada. He was allowed to command Muslim armies — the direst of blasphemies. Samuel Ibn Naghrila is the classic case held up by liberals to promote the multiculturalist theory of the Andalusian paradise, which is absurd since he was the exception proving the rule. As Spencer says, the Muslims in Granada knew Islamic law perfectly well, and their resentment eventually built to the point that they took to the streets and killed 4000 Jews, crucifying Samuel’s son Joseph Ibn Naghrila.

Spencer then turns to the final chapter of 11th century Spain: the invasion of the Almoravids. When the caliphate fell in 1031, al-Andalus broke up into small taifa kingdoms, and the elite courts of the kings into a decadent lifestyle decried by the Muslim clerics. When King Alfonso VI of Castile and Leon captured Toledo in 1085, the taifas desperately called for help from the Almoravid Muslims in North Africa, which was a rather stupid move. The Almoravids were a fundamentalist Berber dynasty, and they hated the taifas as much as they hated the Christians they were being called on to crush. No matter: they would bring jihad to al-Andalus and dominate the taifas so that pure Islam would reign supreme. And while they succeeded in doing this, and stopping the Christian momentum — taking control of the southern half of Spain in a series of battles between 1086-1094 — the Christians also took back more territory in the north that they hadn’t controlled since prior to the jihad invasion of 711. Spencer is right that this whole situation was unprecedented:

“The forces of jihad had never had this much trouble holding a territory they had conquered for Islam, and seldom, if ever, would again. Even as the Almoravids united the taifas under their rule and continued to wage jihad against the Christians, the Muslims were still on the defensive. The Christians were determined not to let Spain be Islamized, and they kept pushing against the Muslim domains.” (p 129)

The figure of El Cid became a particular thorn in the Almoravid side, and the Spanish reconquest foreshadowed the crusades which were a breath away.

Spencer doesn’t have much to say about the Almoravid hatred for the taifas, and he omits one of my favorite accounts, that of Al-Mu’tamid, the taifa king of Seville. When warned by his courtiers that the Almoravids were the greater of two evils — that they would treat the taifa kings far worse than the reconquering Christians would — Al-Mu’tamid retorted that he would “rather be a camel driver in Morocco than a swineherd in Castile”. And for his loyalty to Islam he was “rewarded” by being made captive by the Almoravids and tortured. No camel driving career for him.

The chapter also gives heavy attention to India, starting with Mahmud of Ghazni, who transformed the city of Ghazna into the capital of an empire that covered most of today’s Afghanistan, eastern Iran, and Pakistan. He did this by waging relentless jihad against the Indian subcontinent and plundering its wealth over a 30-year period. When the Abbasid Caliphate recognized him in 999 and granted him the title of sultan, he had pledged to wage a jihad against India every year; it ended up being seventeen lengthy and brutal jihads. Contemporary historians paint a grim picture of the way he terrorized non-Muslims, and Spencer cites one who wrote that Mahmud converted thousands of Hindu temples into mosques to demonstrate the superiority of Islam, and paraded captive Indian rulers through the streets of vanquished cities so that “the fear of Islam might fly abroad through the country of the infidels”. According to another, Mahmud and his jihadis were completely merciless, such that blood filled the rivers so no one could drink from them, and this was a sign of Allah’s favor on the Muslims: “Victory was gained by God’s grace, who has established Islam forever as the best of religions.”

When Mahmud died in 1030, he had made huge gains for Islam in the Punjab and Sindh, and also some in Kashmir and Gujarat. His son Masud picked up where he left off, but in 1037 his jihads were interrupted when the Seljuk Turks came to power and attacked Masud’s western domains. Naturally, the setback would only be temporary.

Speaking of those Seljuks, there were two critical events occurring in 1054 and 1055. In the first year, the Latin and Greek churches excommunicated each other, and as Spencer says, their disunity would make things much easier on the jihad warriors in centuries to come. In the second year, the Seljuks took Baghdad and made virtual puppets of the Abbasids, who granted the Seljuk leaders the title of sultan, just as they had granted Mahmud of Ghazni the title back in 999. And when the Seljuks pressed into modern day Turkey, defeating the Byzantines at the disastrous battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Greeks appealed in desperation to the Latins… who made a shocking and unprecedented response.

Chapter 5: Opposing the Jihad: The Crusades (1095-1291)

Spencer’s treatment of the crusades is better than most, and his views align more closely with scholars who write about the crusades than most people (especially politicians) who speak about them. His picture isn’t complete, but it’s certainly not wrong.

We often hear that the crusades were the starting point of the world’s Christian-Muslim conflict (thus Bill Clinton), and that they were as morally reprehensible as the jihad (thus Barack Obama). Neither is true. Muhammad was the starting point of the world’s Christian-Muslim conflict, when he looked beyond Arabia and set his sights on subjecting the world; his “Rightly Guided” Caliphs made good on that vision, bringing jihad to the Christian empire. As for the crusades being equivalent to the jihad, the comparison fails. Jihad has always been mandatory in Islam (in all four Sunni schools, and Shi’ite too); the crusades were voluntary and never essential to Christian faith. Jihad is a core tenet; the crusades were a radical development and transitory, and the pacifism in Christ’s teachings made them hard to justify theologically. Like the jihad, the crusades were holy wars — divinely approved wars that earned spiritual reward — but that says nothing as to the reasons they were waged.

Spencer is no blind apologist for the crusades. He doesn’t soft-peddle crusader atrocities, especially when it comes to the Jewish pogroms. (Which were a perversion of crusading in any case: the church never proclaimed or endorsed crusades against Jews.) He notes that warfare never allows any side to claim a moral high ground, even a side with better intentions. But there were in fact better intentions on the Christian side. As Spencer’s chronicle makes clear, the crusades were defensive counters to to the jihad threat, and resulted in a great achievement: from the time Pope Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095 to the fall of the Crusader states in 1291, there were no jihad forays into Europe; the Reconquest in Spain continued to reduce the size of Islamic al-Andalus, on the strength of the crusading ideal. Spencer’s point has made by secular historians:

“If the Crusades had never been attempted at all, it is quite possible that the warriors of jihad would have overrun all of Europe, and the subsequent history of the world would have taken a drastically different course. Instead, Europe experienced the High Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, and the foundations of modern society were laid.”

There is however an important dimension to the crusades lacking in Spencer’s treatment, and one that would have strengthened his case. Yes, the crusades were defensive wars, and in that sense reactive; but they were also the outcome of frustrated reformist agendas, and in that sense proactive. After all, the Latins could have easily responded to the Byzantine plea with the standard military aid. Why the crusades? Why holy war? Why the radical step — so radical it contradicted everything fundamental about Jesus’ teachings and Christian theology — of making warfare sacred, and not simply to fend off invasion but take back Palestine?

The crusades only make sense in the context of the medieval papal reforms. The 10th century had been the most tumultuous in French history, with nobles warring on each other, sometimes right next door. The church addressed this problem by proclaiming the Peace of God in the late 980s, and then reinforcing it with the Truce of God in the 1020s. The Peace required knights to protect the weak and the poor and the defenseless, while the Truce prohibited them from any fighting period on Thursdays and Fridays, and special feasts and holy seasons. Violations of either the Peace or Truce carried the threat of excommunication. These were very commendable pacifist strategies, but telling a warrior not to fight was like telling a monk not to pray — an epic fail. The Peace and Truce movements saw revivals throughout the eleventh century, especially in the 1080s, always to failure though not for lack of trying. The church fought violence tooth and nail, in view of its savior’s pacifism, but the profession of a medieval knight couldn’t accommodate it.

Urban II’s call for holy war in 1095 thus came as a godsend to Christian knights. It accomplished what the Peace and Truce movements tried in vain. It was the antidote to Augustine’s theory of a just war (which was “justified but evil”) which only exacerbated knightly guilt. By reversing the morality of violence — by making bloodshed sacred under the right conditions — knights could freely be themselves. As warriors they could “kill for Christ” and have their sins remitted, enabling them to bypass suffering in purgatory. “If you must have blood,” said Urban, “bathe in the blood of the infidels. You who have been the terror of your fellow men, go and fight against the Muslims.” Urban exported knightly violence abroad, in a defensive service, and in the words of a medieval preacher, “By this kind of warfare, people make their way to heaven who perhaps would never reach it by another road.” Perverse theology, but perhaps a necessary evil in a period of encroaching jihadis and undisciplined Christian knights.

I often say the crusades wouldn’t have happened if not for these intersecting factors — centuries of Islamic invasions, decades of knightly guilt, and a particularly ambitious pope who saw a way to exploit the former to solve the latter. Remove any of the three legs, and no crusades. They cut entirely against the grain of Christian thought, and it’s a wonder they were born at all. I’m not saying that Spencer would object to what I’m saying here, only that the full picture doesn’t quite emerge in his treatment of the crusades.

But nothing he says is wrong. His assessment of Saladin is bang on: “Saladin is to individual Muslims what al-Andalus is to Muslim polities”, a figure who has become whitewashed for modern consumption. He cites contemporary views of the Assassins, and how the Old Man of the Mountain got his recruits high on hashish to make them experience paradise. And he covers other exciting stuff up to Latin Kingdom’s final days in 1291.

Then he brings us back to Spain, where we find the Almohads ousting the Almoravids in 1147 — just as the Almoravids had done to the taifa kings in the late 11th century. Like the Almoravids, the Almohads were fundamentalist Berbers, but they were even more hard-core. Not only did they wage jihad, they established inquisitions to smoke out apostates, kidnap Jewish children and raise them as Muslims. It’s no accident that the Catholic inquisitions (starting in the 1180s) were launched in the wake of trials and tortures committed by the Islamic Almohads. That doesn’t excuse the church (unlike the crusades, the inquisitions are a complete stain on Catholic reputation), but it does suggest a causal connection: Muslims had the first inquisitions, and the church might not have otherwise gotten the idea for their own. By a century later, however, in 1249, the Reconquest had expelled the Almohads from everywhere except Granada.

Over in India, meanwhile, we see the jihad revived between 1191-1202 under Sultan Muhammad Ghori, who massacred the Rajputs and other Hindus out of fervor against Hindu idolatry. A contemporary describes Ghori’s reign thus: “He purged by his sword the land of the Hind from the filth of infidelity and vice, and freed the whole of that country from the thorn of God-plurality and the impurity of idol worship.” The jihad went on to the end of the 13th century, and Spencer’s documentation makes clear, as always, the driving motivation for the slaughter and destruction being religious zeal.

Chapter 6: The Jihad Advances into Europe (1291-1492)

This chapter focuses on the decline and fall of the Byzantines. They were by now essentially vassals of the Muslims who pressed the jihad and seized more territory — Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Crotatia, etc. — and of course, finally, Constantinople in 1453.

The highlight of the chapter comes in watching the Latins and Greeks, rather incredibly, making themselves so helpful to the encroaching Muslims. In 1339, the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III sent a monk to meet Pope Benedict XII and appeal for an ecumenical council to heal the schism between the churches, and for a new crusade against the invading Ottomans. It was an elegant and moving appeal, but the pope sent back an insulting refusal, evidently unfazed by the prospect of the Byzantines getting their asses kicked and jihadis advancing deeper into Europe. Spencer opines that “not until the days of Pope Francis would the See of Rome have an occupant more useful to the jihad force than Benedict XII.”

Exactly a century later (1439) it was the Greek’s turn for stupidity. A council convened in Florence for another attempt to reunite the Latins and Greeks. The Byzantine delegation was so desperate for help against the Muslim assaults, that it caved in on every single theological issue that had divided the churches since 1054, and agreed to accept the authority of the pope. But one of the Byzantine bishops rebelled, and since he spoke for most of the Byzantines back east, the resolution at Florence essentially went nowhere. It was the Byzantine megadux (commander in chief of the navy), Lukas Notaras, who summed up the popular opinion: “Better the turban of the Sultan than the tiara of the Pope.” He would regret that idiotic statement in more ways than one. Not only did the Muslims sack and conquer Constantinople 14 years later, Lukas Notaras himself was cruelly victimized by the jihadis: as the city was smoking, the Sultan Mehmet demanded Notaras’ 14-year old son for sexual favors; Notaras refused, enraging the sultan so much that he beheaded Notaras’ son, and also his brother in law and father, and had all three heads placed on his banquet table. One could safely assume that Notaras would have given anything at that moment for the “tiara of the Pope”.

In hindsight it seems baffling that the Christians could be this suicidal, but inter-familial fighting often blindsides people to the greater threats from outsiders. We see this today, for example, when western people denounce each other for daring to use the wrong pronoun in referring to a transgendered person, or for expressing mild degrees of homophobia, but then fall completely silent when it comes to the Islamic killing of gays (for fear of sounding “Islamophobic”) and even go so far as to call people racist when they speak out against such hard-core homophobia.

The chapter has a good section on the Janissaries, the sultan’s elite troops formed in 1359, consisting of young men who had been seized as boys from their Christian families, enslaved, and forcibly converted to Islam. As much as twenty percent of the Christian children in areas of the Ottoman Empire filled this crack fighting force. The boys who chose Islam (if they didn’t, they were slain) got rigorous military training, and became invaluable to the jihad effort. All of this, as Spencer notes, was in full accordance with Islamic law.

Spencer also relates the account of Vlad Dracula (as how can a horror-history be complete without him?), the infamous ruler of Wallachia who in 1461 had commendably refused to pay the jizya and rejected Ottoman rule. Not so commendably, he invaded Bulgaria and impaled 23,000 Turks on stakes. The Sultan Mehmet marched to the Wallachian capital — and found 20,000 more of his impaled Turks waiting for him. Enraged, he eventually drove Vlad into exile. It remains a colorful chapter in history of the jihadis getting a dose of their own bloodthirsty medicine.

The chapter proceeds to the relentless jihad assaults in India, as the few remaining Hindu temples were demolished in various regions; ruthless oppression was the norm throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. And it ends appropriately in Spain, in the year 1492, when the last Muslims were expelled from Granada; after 781 years, the most successful large-scale resistance to jihad had succeeded. And Christopher Columbus sailed west, commissioned to search for a new westward sea route to Asia. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 had made the trade routes to the East too dangerous (European merchants were being enslaved and killed by the Muslims), and Columbus’ voyage was an attempt to find a western sea route to India and China.

Chapter 7: The Ottomans and Mughals in Ascendance (1492-1707)

Inter-Christian fighting often aided the jihad cause, and one of the lead offenders was the lead reformer. Martin Luther hated the Catholic church so much that he said the papacy was worse than the Ottoman caliphate, and that “to fight against the Turk is the same thing as resisting God” (On war against the Turk, 1528). Spencer cites Luther at length:

“The Pope, with his followers, commits a greater sin than the Turk and all the Heathen. The Turk forces no one to deny Christ and to adhere to his faith. Though he rages most intensely by murdering Christians in the body, he after all does nothing by this but fill heaven with saints. The Pope does not want to be either enemy or Turk. He fills hell with nothing but ‘Christians’. This is committing real spiritual murder and is every bit as bad as the teaching and blasphemy of Mohammed and the Turks. But whenever men do not allow him to practice this infernal diabolical seduction, he adopts the way of the Turk, and commits bodily murder too. The Turk is an avowed enemy of Christ. But the Pope is not. He is a secret enemy and persecutor, a false friend. For this reason, he is all the worse!” (Works, Weimar ed.)

As Spencer notes, “Luther’s broadside was one of the earliest examples of what was to become a near-universal tendency in the West: the downplaying of jihad atrocities and their use in arguments between Westerners to make one side look worse.” Indeed, modern liberals take a page out of Luther’s playbook when they downplay elements of Islam (jihad, sharia, female genital mutilation, etc.) to make western arrogance and imperialism the so-called “greater evil”.

Rude reality, however, makes at least some people come to their senses, and to his credit, Luther eventually approved the crusades against the Ottomans. The jihadists went on their usual offensives, seizing the island of Rhodes (1522), and then moving against Hungary (1526) with clear designs on Austria (Vienna) which they failed to take. Spencer covers all the jihads throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the crusades which countered them, like the famous Battle of Lepanto in 1571 which saw a rare victory for Christian Europeans. More jihads came against Cyprus, Shi’ite Persia, Hungary again, Crete, and Poland. Finally, in 1683, Mehmet IV set the jihad against Vienna, but thanks to the intervention of the Polish King Jan Sobieski, the jihadis were defeated. After this, the jihad wouldn’t return to the heart of Europe for a long time.

Meanwhile in India, the Mughul Empire brought the Delhi sultanate to its knees in 1526, and would stay for three centuries. The Hindus had it just as bad as before, and Spencer details the horrors throughout the 1500s and 1600s. The most colorful and revealing part of this section is the reign of Akbar the Great (1556-1605), who became apostate. He started by abolishing the jizya (a radical departure from Islam), which the Hindus loved him for, and then in 1580 started banning the mention of Muhammad in public prayers. He still favored the expression Allahu Akbar, but only because “Akbar” was his own name; from that point on, the phrase took on a double meaning: “God is greater”, and “Akbar is Allah” — people were to prostrate themselves to Akbar himself. He then proclaimed his new Divine Religion (Din Ilahi), introducing practiced derived from Hinduism, Jainism, and Christianity. The jihads stopped, and the Hindus could breathe. Other Muslims howled in fury and declared Akbar an apostate who should be killed, but his military might kept him safe. When he died in 1605, his new (and obviously much more benign) religion died with him, and the jihad returned.

What makes the case of Akbar so striking, as Spencer says, is that it took a sultan’s departure from Islam to give the Hindus any respite from jihad attacks and ruthless oppression. That speaks volumes.

Chapter 8: Deterioration (1707-1900)

As the Ottomans in Europe and the Mughuls in India both weakened, jihad declined. But they still did what they could for “the glory of Allah” throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. As late as 1894, the Ottomans led a particularly nasty jihad against the Armenians, massacring the population, killing even the children, and burning the Armenian villages.

Spencer explains the key date of 1856, when events dovetailed to result in the best case scenario for Jews and Christians living in Muslim lands. The weakened Ottoman Empire needed help in its conflict with Russia over Crimea, and the British and French governments agreed to help them, but only if the sultan agreed to abolish the dhimma — the “contract of protection”, or mafia-racketeer practice, for Jews and Christians living under Islamic rule, which had been the way of Islam since the seventh century. In return for the privilege of practicing their religion, Jews and Christians accepted the discriminatory and humiliating regulations: they had to pay the jizya, they could not hold authority over Muslims, they could have only menial jobs, they could not build new churches/synagogues or repair old ones, they had to step off a sidewalk if a Muslim approached, and in some cases even wear distinctive dress. If they did all this and they were lucky, they wouldn’t be harmed or abused.

The Ottomans agreed to abolish the dhimma in 1856, which was a momentous step. Jews and Christians were still not equal citizens (this remains true to this day: there is no Muslim-majority country in which Jews and Christians have equal rights with Muslims.) But after 1856, Christians in Turkey did attain a measure of improved living conditions. This soon led to the abolition of the dhimma in Egypt, and then later in the 20th century to the secular Arab nationalist regimes that followed the collapse of the Ottoman empire after World War I; these were also better in general for Jews and Christians. But Islam was never reformed, and whenever the secular Arab nationalist regimes were later toppled (like in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt), Islamic law became enforced, and the same dhimma provisions came into play again. Christians found themselves suddenly persecuted, required to pay the jizya and live in a state of subordination; and if they resisted or rebelled, then they were infidels at war with Islam and should be legally killed.

That’s what’s deceptive. Getting rid of the dhimma in 1856 didn’t equate to any reform. The Ottomans were forced to get rid of it by western powers, but it remained mandatory in all schools of Islamic law. And it’s much easier to reassert what’s still in force than to reform the odious practice when it is reasserted.

Over in India, the Hindus were attacked sporadically throughout these centuries, until in 1857 (one year after the abolition the dhimma in Ottoman lands), the British captured Delhi and ended the Mughul Empire, and Islamic rule in India, for good. Though even now there were dying gasps of the jihad, as Muslim clerics issued fatwas against the British colonials, which went on until 1883.

But as the Ottomans and Mughuls deteriorated, the jihad broke out in two other theaters. First was the Wahhabi revolt in Arabia in the 1740s, a fundamentalist reform movement like the earlier Almohads in North Africa and Spain. Spencer describes the jihads led against local authorities in Arabia, and the Wahhabi advances made throughout the two centuries, until, like the Ottomans and Mughuls, their fate intersected with the British — but in their case, to their advantage. The British saw the Wahhabis as a means to destroy the Ottomans, and so in 1865 put the Saud family on the imperial payroll. This would spell consequences in the future, and as Spencer says, “once again, the short-sighted calculations of non-Muslim politicians practicing realpolitik ended up aiding the global jihad”.

Second were the Barbary Wars, of which the newly formed United States got an unpleasant taste. American trade ships sailing into the Mediterranean were suddenly assaulted by Muslim pirates, and those taken hostage were tortured and wrote letters home begging the U.S. government and family members to pay the ransoms. Thomas Jefferson (at that time a delegate to Europe, before his presidency) was stunned at the unprovoked attacks, and demanded to know why the Barbary States were doing this. Tripoli’s (Libya’s) response came from Sidi Haji Abdrahaman Adja (the administrator of Tripoli’s ambassador) in 1786, when he met in London with Jefferson and John Adams. Spencer cites Abdrahaman’s response:

“Tripoli was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, and written in their Qur’an, that all nations who should not have answered [Islamic] authority were sinners, that it was the Muslim right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Muslim who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

In other words, they were just doing as Muhammad commanded: Muslims are obligated to wage war on all nations who don’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of their prisoners; and Muslims who die in battle for this cause are guaranteed the rewards of paradise. All those reasons sound exactly like modern ISIS or Al-Qaeda manifestos, and they may as well be. But this was in the days when America didn’t even have a foreign policy yet, never mind a foreign policy that could piss off Islamic nations enough to “bring jihad down on itself”. The frequent claim that jihad is born of political grievances is refuted by examples like this. Jihadists may well have political grievances in some cases (whether real or imagined), but they never need them to follow the Islamic imperative.

So in this era, the British crippled the Ottomans and ended the Mughuls, and exploited the (even more dangerous) Wahhabis to what they thought was their advantage. And the U.S. got its first taste of Islam.

Chapter 9: Resurgence (1900-2001)

“The twentieth century,” says Spencer, “was the age of the defensive jihad.” With no more caliphate after 1924 (when the Ottomans finally gave up the ghost), the jihad was now carried out by individuals and small groups on a scale never seen before. (Though before the Ottomans went away, they carried out the Armenian genocide of 1915, killing over a million Armenians in a way that would inspire Hitler’s extermination of the Poles in 1939.) Many of the states that had been created by the British and French in the late 1800s began to adopt Arab nationalist secular governments, so that by around the middle of the 20th century, most Muslims didn’t live under sharia. And as Spencer says, for true believers this was an affront to Allah that couldn’t be allowed to stand.

Hasan al-Banna was one who made sure it wouldn’t stand. He founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, with the intention of restoring the caliphate. Al-Banna called everyone to Islam, and cited the Qur’an like any proper Muslim: “fight the unbelievers until there is no sedition, and worship is for Allah” (2:193). He summoned Muslims around the globe to make Islam into a great caliphate again, urging the reconquest of Spain, Sicily, and former Ottoman territories in the Balkans. The Brotherhood expanded far beyond Egypt, and by 1944 it had over 1500 chapters in many countries. Everyone was hearing the call to “prepare for jihad and be lovers of death”. Such was the Brotherhood’s message — that “Islam is faith and worship, a Qur’an and a sword” — and in accordance with Islamic law.

The Brotherhood didn’t waste time trying to unmake Israel in 1948. The section on the Jewish state takes up a third of the chapter, and is obviously a topic that arouses passion. The Brotherhood and their Arab allies were certainly passionate. Al-Banna said, “All Arabs shall arise and annihilate the Jews. We shall fill the sea with their corpses.” The mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin al-Husseini cried, “I declare a holy war, my Muslim brothers! Murder the Jews! Murder them all!” These sentiments weren’t the ravings of fringe fanatics, but of Muslims who were following the example of Muhammad and Islamic law. There was obviously no way the Arab leaders could have accepted the United Nations’ partition. They readied for jihad.

The question Spencer doesn’t ask is whether the state of Israel should have been established, given this inevitable result. Spencer has made a career of showing strong support for Israel and so he would presumably answer yes. My view is that the creation of Israel was one of the worst foreign policy blunders of the 20th century. The Jewish people deserve a homeland, but what the Allies should have done was carve out a section of Germany (the nation responsible for the Holocaust), instead of uprooting and inciting Arabs for sake of a religiously inspired “Promised Land” — an idea that has no more place in the 20th century than the Islamic jihad. Many Jews hadn’t lived in Palestine for two millennia, and they certainly didn’t have a rightful claim on the land after all this time. (Over the 50 years prior to 1948, Jews had purchased about 7% of Palestine, mostly from absentee Arab landlords.)

What’s curious is that Spencer implicitly faults Franklin Delano Roosevelt for refusing to support the Zionist project, based on the president’s response to rabbis who were trying to persuade him. Roosevelt said, “Do you want to be responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives? Do you want to start a holy jihad?” Says Spencer: “FDR demonstrated far greater awareness of history and Islam than many of his successors, but about their same level of resolve to confront it.” But how should Roosevelt have confronted the Islamic threat? By settling in hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives right next to the jihad beast? That’s hardly wise. It seems to me that Roosevelt’s awareness of history and Islam steered him well on this point. Truman’s decision was the disastrous one, not FDR’s. (And for the record, I’m no fan of FDR.)

Spencer is largely correct about the reason peace negotiations have always failed between Israel and Palestine. “The answer,” he says, “lies in the Islamic doctrine of jihad. ‘Drive them out from where they drove you out’ is a command that contains no mitigation and accepts none.” But Zionism can be just as unyielding. The idea of a divinely ordained Promised Land doesn’t leave much room for a meeting of the minds — another reason the creation of the Jewish state, I believe, was misguided. When Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) emerged in 1988, as a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, it became clear beyond doubt that the existence of Israel would never be accepted by the Muslims in any form. Spencer accurately describes Hamas’ activities as “a jihad of the pen and the tongue combined with that of the sword, wielded as much in the court of public opinion as in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and other areas of Israel”. And he’s right that it’s a travesty so many liberals sympathize with an organization like Hamas.

Before leaving Israel, I should make clear that though I wish it had never been established, I’m not saying the Israeli Jews are the moral equivalent of surrounding Muslims who are upfront about genocidal and jihad intentions. I find far more to criticize in the Jewish state than Spencer does, but I admit that the condemnation heaped on it by leftists is often out of proportion to the crimes. The political charter of Hamas invokes the Qur’an in praying for the day when the earth will cry out for Jewish blood, and the trees and the stones will say, “Oh Muslim, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” Palestinian factions have made clear what they would do if the balance of power were reversed. Yet people today are strangely unable to believe the worst about groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, even when those groups declare the worst of themselves. In this sense Spencer is right. A theocracy of intolerance in line with the caliphates of old is not the moral equivalent of the state of Israel.

Spencer covers post World-War II India, which was partitioned into the Hindu majority area (India), and the two Muslim majority areas (Pakistan). Pakistan and India have been in a state of war since the partition, thanks to the Pakistani jihad — with 9,471 outbreaks of violence since 1947.

In the section on Iran, we see the Shah making the mistake of dismissing Khomeini and other ayatollahs and their followers as “a stupid and reactionary bunch whose brains have not moved and who don’t want to see Iran developed.” But as Spencer says, that “stupid and reactionary bunch” didn’t give up, and they eventually won. Since 1979, Iran has been a sharia backwater and it became a major financier of global terrorism. “Stupid reactionaries” who go against nationalist Arab regimes aren’t stupid at all, nor are they trying to revive archaic ways of thinking. They are reviving the official doctrine of Islam. And that doctrine, declared Khomeini, has no use for human rights, which is “a Judeo-Christian invention” and “inadmissible in Islam”. Khomeini said that fighting is an eternal Islamic duty, and those who claim that Islam is a religion of peace are “witless.” Witless, yes — and ignorant of history and the Muslim sources.

Last is the section on Al-Qaeda, where Osama Bin Laden steps on to the stage fighting the Soviets in the ’80s, and bombing American embassies in the ’90s. And it was at the tail end of this period, on the eve of 9/11, that people in the west started losing their minds.

Chapter 10: The West Goes Crazy (2001-present)

The final chapter is actually titled “The West Loses the Will to Live,” but I think Spencer is being too polite. The 21st century has been a crazy age of alternative facts (long before Trump ascended) and manufactured bigotry. It’s the book’s longest chapter, though it covers the least amount of time (17 years); there’s certainly no shortage of insanity to fill the pages.

That insanity is all the more extraordinary when it trails the previous nine chapters, because the reader is struck by the sudden disconnect with reality. 9/11 triggered something unprecedented, as people started blaming the victims of jihad more than the jihadis, and saying that terrorists were “hijacking” Islam rather than doing as Islam had always taught. Spencer cites numerous politicians and religious spokespeople, and I’ll cover just a few:

First is George W. Bush, right after 9/11:

“These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that. The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”

Bush continually dissembled about Al-Qaeda’s motivating ideology, and Spencer finds the explanation in the Saudi influence in Washington, including the Bush administration itself. That was surely a factor, but I think there is also the more simple reason. To be fair to Bush (much as I loathe the man), it was reasonable at the time to worry about anti-Muslim backlash in the wake of a monstrous event like 9/11. This was all new to everyone, and even I was applauding Bush for saying what he did. Though what he should have said is that most Muslims are peaceful, rather than misrepresent the religion Islam as peaceful.

But that was then. Worries about anti-Muslim backlash have proven to be unfounded. The backlash almost never occurs. Since 9/11 to this day, there have been over 30,000 jihad attacks worldwide. In all that time there has been only one instance of Muslims killed in retaliation by bigoted “Islamophobes” (the Finsbury Mosque attack in June 2017). 30,000+ jihad attacks vs. a single hate-crime attack is a sad excuse to keep misplacing our priorities. In the wake of jihad attacks, the proper response of Muslim leaders is to work against jihadis and Islamists in their own community rather than constantly playing the victim card; and the proper response of western leaders is to work proactively against the jihad threat, instead of piling on platitudes about peaceful Muslims.

Next is Barack Obama, during his visit to Cairo in 2009:

“I know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President, John Adams, wrote, ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.'”

Well, John Adams was as bad as Obama on the subject of jihadists. As we saw in chapter 8, Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been told point blank by the ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman that Tripoli was founded on the Laws of Muhammad and the Qur’an, that all nations who didn’t acknowledge Muslim superiority were sinners, and that it was the right and duty of Muslims to wage war on such sinners (like the Americans) wherever they could be found — exactly as Tripoli had just done, by making unprovoked attacks on peaceful U.S. trade ships. Unlike Jefferson, Adams didn’t take the proper lesson from this. At any rate, Obama continued:

“I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

First of all, it is not the chief executive’s Constitutional duty to defend Islam or any religion. And if it were — if Obama truly wanted to base a partnership with America on the basis of “what Islam is, not what it isn’t” — he’d have to endorse a sharia-based state.

John Brennan, assistant to the president on national security, said the following in 2010:

“There is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women and children. Indeed, characterizing our adversaries this way would actually be counterproductive. It would play into the false perception that they are religious leaders defending a holy cause when in fact, they are nothing more than murderers, including the murder of thousands upon thousands of Muslims.”

As Spencer says, all the jihad warriors throughout history would have obviously disagreed with Brennan. So for that matter would all the Muslim clerics who have enforced, and continue to enforce, what Islamic law actually teaches.

I’ll end with Pope Francis in 2013. This one’s a whopper:

“Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Qur’an are opposed to every form of violence.”

“This statement,” says Spencer, “is remarkable for the dogmatic confidence with which its false claim was made.” Indeed, the pope’s declaration is as false as the statement that the sun sets in the east. Authentic Islam and the Qur’an enshrine violence. Personally I like Francis, but on this issue he’s clueless. He should stick to making pronouncements on authentic Catholicism.

The chapter covers much more, including details on how the Obama administration purged all mention of Islam from counter-terror training, and refused to allow high-ranking law enforcement and intelligence officials to study the religious ideology of the terrorists, which is obviously necessary to understand and counter them. Amidst all the craziness, jihad efforts have only strengthened in the twenty-first century. Muslims have attacked Orlando, San Diego, London, Manchester, Paris, Toulouse, Nice, Amsterdam, Madrid, Brussels, Berlin, Munich, Copenhagen, Malmö, Stockholm, Turku (in Finland), Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Beslan, among other places. They have strengthened, in no small part, because western authorities have been urging people to respect Islam rather than understand it and call for its reform.

That’s our state of affairs. We admire a fantasy Islam and smear as bigots people who point out the real thing — people like Robert Spencer, David Horowitz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Sam Harris. We wage counter-productive wars to bring down Arab dictators, when we should know by now that jihad and sharia groups are waiting in the wings to fill their place. We stay married to Saudi Arabia, despite its clear ties to terrorism and its unabashed exporting of Islamism to every corner of the world. And when cartoonists of Muhammad are attacked or killed, we blame those cartoonists more than their Muslim attackers. Our moral confusion is staggering, and sadly, we deserve Spencer’s indictment:

“As the fourteen-hundred-year Islamic jihad against the free world continues to advance, the best allies the warriors of jihad have are the very people they have in their sights.”

 

Verdict

The History of Jihad is a ride you won’t forget and long overdue. I can’t stress enough that it’s not just a history of warfare of a particular group of people (though it is that too), but a particular kind of warfare, holy war, that has remained entrenched in one particular religion, and pursued relentlessly down the centuries. The ride is certainly not an indictment of all or most Muslims. It is a guarantee nonetheless, that without a religious reform, significant numbers of Muslims will continue on the twisted path of jihad.

The reason is simple. Jihad isn’t just terrorism. It’s legitimized terrorism backed by core Islamic teachings. Jihad is to Islam as passover is to Judaism, and as the eucharist is to Christianity, and as meditation is to Buddhism. That may be hard as nails to swallow, but it’s a fact as clear as day.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Coming Soon: The History of Jihad

At last comes the book I’ve been hoping someone would write: a complete chronicle of Islam’s holy wars. That’s 1400 years of jihad, told without apology in razor-sharp prose. It represents the crown and summit of Robert Spencer’s work, and he should be proud of what he’s done here.

I had the honor of proof-reading The History of Jihad and can testify to its excellence. The book’s value lies not only in its scope — it covers every single jihad theater, from Arabia to Persia, North Africa to Europe, Spain to India, Tel Aviv to New York City — but also its explanatory power. Spencer relies heavily on primary sources and the words of contemporary witnesses, so the reader gets a good impression of how it was to experience the jihad. Repeating without fail are cycles of brutality and piety, and the clear religious motives of the Muslims. Jihadists have always been candid about their reason for waging war — to subjugate infidels under the rule of Islam — but people in the 21st century have a hard time accepting this, and have grasped at every possible explanation except the obvious one. Studies have proven that there is no correlation between Islamic terrorism and poverty; there are as many middle-class and well-to-do jihadists as poor ones. Unlike most of human warfare, holy war is waged primarily for spiritual reward, and it operates irrespective of rational purpose. It takes the guardrails off civilization, and you can’t reason with it. Spencer’s book is a horror drama as much as an historical one, and I couldn’t put it down.

It’s rare to see myths about Islam debunked so thoroughly, though we got another one recently from Dario Fernandez-Morera in The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016). The reality of Islamic Spain is that there was no fruitful cooperation between faiths. The Muslims were less friendly to Jews and Christians than American Southern whites were to blacks before civil rights. In Spencer’s book, the same conclusion is drawn in all times and places:

“There is no period since the beginning of Islam that was characterized by large-scale peaceful coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims. There was no time when mainstream and dominant Islamic authorities taught the equality of non-Muslims with Muslims, or the obsolescence of jihad warfare. There was no Era of Good Feeling, no Golden Age of Tolerance, no Paradise of Proto-Multiculturalism. There has always been, with virtually no interruption, jihad.”

This isn’t a controversial point to competent historians, but it’s not what most people believe or are willing to say. Pointing out that Islam is toxic wins you no friends in an age that is less concerned with truth and more with peoples’ wishes and feelings. There is also the problem of funding. Universities with departments of Islamic Studies often receive their support from places like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Muslim nations, and when you factor in the politically correct climate on campuses, scholars are almost guaranteed to promote the usual myths. Spencer’s book, like Fernandez-Morera’s, is free of those pressures. It’s the best available book now on the Islamic jihad. The only other top-notch treatment I know of is Alfred Morabia’s Le Gihad dans L’Islam Medieval (1993), but an English translation is hard to come by.

For all the attempts to isolate jihad as an inner spiritual struggle, it has always carried the unconditional requirement for sacred warfare against unbelievers. Warriors of jihad are promised the property and women of the vanquished enemy if they live, and virgins in paradise if they die. This is true in all schools of Islamic jurisprudence, as cited by Spencer in the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali sources, which in turn rely on the Qur’an and Hadith. There was never a time when the “greater” (spiritual) jihad was divorced from the “lesser” (military) one. They’re inseparable.

The History of Jihad is a ride you won’t forget, and as I said, it’s the book we’ve needed for some time. Look for it on August 7. On that day I’ll post a more detailed review.

Female Circumcision: A Religious Practice in Islam?

Yes, it is. Or at least in three of the four branches of Sunni Islam. In the Shafi’i school it’s obligatory, and in the Maliki and Hanbali schools it’s recommended. Only in the Hanafi school is there considerable ambiguity, where some jurists hold that female circumcision is preferred, and others resist a religious prescription and even say that it’s undesirable.

The Reliance of the Traveler is the Shafi’i manual of Islamic law, from al-Azhar University in Cairo. Al-Azhar is a prestigious institution of Sunni Islam, and basically Islam’s closest equivalent to the Vatican. The Reliance says:

“Circumcision is obligatory (for every male and female) by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr ‘clitoris’ (this is called khufaaddh, ‘female circumcision’).” (e4.3)

It’s worth noting that Nuh Hah Mim Keller’s popular translation of The Reliance “corrects” the above understanding, implying that female circumcision is simply removing the skin around the clitoris (the prepuce) instead of the clitoris itself. Keller’s translation is an apologetic for Western consumption. He treats the Arabic word “bazr” as referring to the clitoral hood or prepuce, and doesn’t indicate what other term might refer to the clitoris if “bazr” does not. In contrast, the vast majority of scholars believe that “bazr” means clitoris, not the skin around it (see Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics in Islam, p 138). In Shafi’i Islam, circumcision of girls as traditionally understood — by removing the clitoris — is mandatory. Regions where the Shafi’i school dominates (dark blue, below) also happen to be the places where clit-cutting is heavily frequent: Egypt, southern Arabia, Bahrain, Kurdistan, Somalia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

The practice, moreover, was introduced into Southeast Asia at the same time Shafi’i Islam was introduced; this was a part of the world where female circumcision hadn’t been practiced. Obviously the Shafi’is haven’t been interpreting Islamic law in Keller’s “corrective” manner.

Similar apologetics have been tried by other Muslim leaders. For example, Imam Afroz Ali, president of the Al-Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences and Human Development in Australia, has claimed that female circumcision is not the same thing as female genital mutilation. Circumcision, he says, is simply removing the uppermost extra skin (the prepuce) at the top of the clitoral glans. But as with Keller’s misleading translation, this is a distinction without a difference, since most who perform the procedure go well beyond removing some “extra skin”. The World Health Organization reports that this “benign” version of female circumcision happens only in rare cases. Far more frequent is the removal of the clitoris itself, whether partial or total.

Female circumcision — that is, female genital mutilation — is indeed sanctioned in Islamic Law. It’s a religious practice as much as a cultural one in regions dominated by Shafi’i Islam (which requires it) and Maliki and Hanbali Islam (which both encourage it).

We often hear that female circumcision isn’t a religious requirement in Islam because it’s not mentioned in the Qur’an. But that’s like saying anti-abortion isn’t religiously grounded in Christianity because the Bible has nothing to say about abortion. The Qur’an is one of Islam’s many authoritative religious writings, along with the Hadith, the Sira, the Fiqh, and the texts of Sharia law. All of these are understood to convey the will of Allah — regardless of what the “historical Muhammad” would say on the matter if we could somehow ask him.

This is well put by Dario Fernandez-Morera, whose specialty is the Maliki school of Islam. In his landmark book on medieval Spain (where the Maliki school dominated throughout the 8th-12th centuries), he refutes myths of Islamic tolerance, and in the section on female circumcision, he writes:

“Today’s discussions on whether or not the practice of female circumcision is actually prescribed ‘by Islam’, or whether it was a pre-Islamic practice that Islam kept, or whether it was a practice that Muhammad did not condone but that later clerics implemented, are irrelevant to the fact of its approval in Maliki law and therefore to the logic of its practice in lands ruled by Maliki law right down to the twenty-first century.” (The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, p 143)

It may be “Islamophobic” to point this out, but it’s factual, however much facts are out of fashion. Few liberals and media outlets like to admit that female circumcision has anything to do with Islam.

Which makes last year’s events in Detroit a very interesting post-script. Two Muslim doctors were charged in April 2017 for mutilating the genitals of two seven-year old girls. Attorney Mary Chartier said of the defendants: “They have a religious belief to practice their religion. And they are Muslims and they’re being under attack for it. I believe that they are being persecuted because of their religious beliefs.” Now, obviously the doctors were under attack for mutilating girl’s genitals, not for “being Muslims”. But Chartier did get one thing right — the thing no one cares to admit: female genital mutilation is prescribed in Islam, as I explained in this post. Chartier has to concede the truth in order to make a case for religious freedom for her clients. They will doubtfully win, but you gotta love the irony: the only liberal multi-culturalist who will speak truth on this matter is a lawyer, who will say anything to defend the indefensible.