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.'”

John Adams was being political in saying that, and he’s rolling in his grave over Obama’s insinuation that he actually respected or admired the religion of Islam. 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. Unmindful of the facts, 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.”



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.

Confessions of an Islamophobe

“No one has upset the Islamophobia cabal more than Robert Spencer. First, he knows more about Islamic doctrine than they do. Next, he has outed all the tricks they use in their taqiyyah bag to disinform the public. Finally, and most importantly, Robert will not be cowed. Please read this important book and make sure you share it with as many people as possible.” (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, human rights activist)

Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I have liberal politics, but it’s rare to find liberals like us who commend the work of Robert Spencer. He’s a political conservative who runs the Jihad Watch blog, has written numerous publications, and is viewed by some as an Islamophobe. The problem with that word is that it conflates bigotry with any examination of how jihadis use the texts and teachings of Islam to justify violence, recruit among peaceful Muslims, and advocate for oppression by sharia law. Spencer is no bigot; and so it is somewhat surprising that in his latest book, Confessions of an Islamophobe, he has decided to wear the label his critics have foisted on him.

“Good” Islamophobia?

Spencer wants to make a distinction between good and bad Islamophobia. He says the bad version certainly exists, is never justified, and people have no reason to be afraid of all Muslims. Yet there is plenty of reason to be concerned about the disproportionate number of Muslims who embrace a commitment to reestablishing the caliphate, on the basis of normative Islam. He writes:

“I am not an Islamophobe within the meaning of those who have affixed this label on me. In other words, I am not the ‘bad’ kind of Islamophobe who wants any innocent people, Muslim or otherwise, to be victimized. Instead I am what I would call the ‘good’ kind of Islamophobe, someone who is honest enough to call a problem a problem, even when the whole world wishes to ignore or deny its existence.”

But that’s redefining phobia itself. Phobia is commonly understood as an irrational fear of something, and Spencer’s concerns about Islam (as he would obviously agree) are not irrational — any more than Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s or Sam Harris’s are. I’m not sure why he wants to co-opt the idea of phobia in a positive way like this. It will doubtfully catch on.

I believe that Islamophobia is a propagandist term, as people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris have always said, and as Spencer used to say. It’s propagandist because what people really mean when they call people “Islamophobes” is that they are bigots. But any religion is fair game for the razor, and harsh critics of Islam are not necessarily intolerant of Muslims as people; certainly Robert Spencer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz, and Sam Harris aren’t. There are genuine bigots — like Terry Jones — and for them, the proper term to use is exactly that: anti-Muslim bigotry. We don’t call people who are prejudiced against Jews “Jewaphobes”; we call them anti-Semites. Someone who is “honest enough to call a problem a problem”, as Spencer says, is not phobic, and to redefine it this way is really a form of double-speak.

Aside from his willingness to wear a label that doesn’t apply to him, Spencer is in fine form in his latest book, and I’ll review some of the issues he brings up. Starting with pussy-grabbing.

Pussy-Grabbing and Linda Sarsour

The rise of Linda Sarsour as a national feminist leader shows how far feminists have fallen. Sarsour’s offenses are legion, but perhaps she’s most infamous for painting sharia law as benign for its provision of interest-free loans. Seriously. At her most vicious, if you can believe the irony, she outdid President Trump’s “pussy-grabbing” remark. That a boor like Trump would broadcast his impulses to grab women’s genitalia is no surprise, but who would have guessed that he would be trumped (sorry) by his own arch-enemy. Linda Sarsour — that wonderful feminist hero — declared that human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali deserved to have her pussy removed, and on top of that to be violently attacked. Back in March 2011, she said that she wished she could remove Hirsi Ali’s vagina, as she (Hirsi Ali) “does not deserve to be a woman”. Hirsi Ali also needed an “ass-whipping”, according to Sarsour.

It’s hard to imagine a more Orwellian ass-backwards view of feminism than Sarsour’s. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a victim of female genital mutilation, and Sarsour was obviously implying that she “deserved what she got”. Incredibly, Hirsi Ali is hated by many leftists like Sarsour, and has been banned from speaking at college universities. And why? Because she has called for a reform within Islam. Because she is honest about Islam. Because she cares about the millions of Muslims, not least women, who suffer under sharia law. For all of this she has been branded a hateful “Islamophobe”, while mean-spirited liars like Linda Sarsour are considered feminist heroes.

It gets worse. As Spencer points out, Sarsour doesn’t just endorse sharia, but also a rhetorical form of jihad. Last summer she denounced the Trump administration saying, “A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad,” and, “I hope that when we stand up to those [like Trump] who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts that from us as a form of jihad.” Her statements were controversial, since jihad means (and has always meant) violent warfare in all schools of Sunni and Shia Islam. Sarsour quickly protested that she meant a non-violent standing up — a metaphorical jihad — and she was probably being honest on that point. But as Spencer says, Linda Sarsour isn’t stupid. Even though she herself may mean a non-violent standing up, she obviously knows that when other Muslims who know the real meaning of jihad in Islam hear that, they will hear it as a call to violence. Speaking “words of truth to a tyrant” isn’t mutually exclusive with violent uprisings; they’ve gone hand in hand throughout history. And as much as I despise Trump, if any Muslims were to try assassinating him on the inspiration of Sarsour’s rhetoric, she could (and should) be held legally accountable for incitement to violence, exactly as Spencer says.

Is Female Circumcision a Religious Practice in Islam?

Yes, it is. The Reliance of the Traveler is a manual of Islamic law (the Shafi’i school) from al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious institution of Sunni Islam. (Al-Azhar is 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, though Spencer does not, that Nuh Hah Mim Keller’s Translation of The Reliance “corrects” the above understanding, implying that female circumcision is simply removing the skin around the clitoris instead of the clitoris itself. Keller’s translation is an apologetic for Western consumption. In Shafi’i jurisprudence, circumcision of girls as traditionally understood — by removing the clitoris — is mandatory. There is a close correlation between the Shafi’i school of Islam and the pervasiveness of female genital mutilation. Regions where the Shafi’i school dominates also just happen to be the places where clit-cutting is more frequent: Egypt, southern Arabia, Bahrain, Kurdistan, Somalia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The practice, moreover, was introduced into Southeast Asia at the same time with Shafi’i Islam, and this was a part of the world where female circumcision had previously been unknown. Obviously the Shafi’is have not been interpreting Islamic law in Keller’s “corrective” manner.

Spencer does note the other apologetic tactics used by Muslim leaders who deny that clit-cutting has religious sanction. For example, Imam Afroz Ali, president of the Al-Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences and Human Development in Australia, insists that female circumcision is not the same thing as female genital mutilation. The former, he says, is simply removing the uppermost extra skin at the top of the clitoral glans. As Spencer notes, 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 is recommended on religious grounds by the Maliki and Hanbali law schools and is considered obligatory by the Shafi’i school. It is a religious practice as much as a cultural one in these three schools. (Only in Hanafi regions is it “purely” a cultural issue; the Hanafis allow female genital mutilation but do not consider it a religious virtue.) But it is “Islamophobic” to point this out. Unless, that is, you happen to be a lawyer defending clients who are being prosecuted for clit-cutting. Spencer notes the case of two Muslim doctors from Detroit who were charged this year (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.” In reality, says Spencer, the doctors were under attack for mutilating girl’s genitals, not for “being Muslims”. But Chartier did get one thing right: female genital mutilation is prescribed in Islam, as I just explained. No western liberal or media outlet likes to admit that, but Chartier has to concede the truth in order to make a case for religious freedom for her clients.

If the court rules in Chartier’s favor, that would set a disastrous precedent for creeping sharia. I don’t see it happening (most legal experts think the defendants will lose), but the fact that the argument is being taken seriously is too much.

The plight of gays, near and far

What is morally repugnant ( “racist”, “Islamophobic”) to many people is calling attention to the plight of women under Islamic law, not the actual mistreatment of women under Islamic law. The same is true for the plight of gays. Islam has a death penalty for gays based on its religious writings, and that penalty is enforced in many Muslim countries. But calling attention to this is considered by many LGBT activists more offensive than the Islamic killing of gays itself.

So for example, the transgendered Theresa Sparks, Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, objected to bus ads that were run in 2013. The ads highlighted the mistreatment of gays in Islamic law. “Posting those ads,” she claimed, “suggested that all Muslims hate gays.” Spencer (who is vice-president of the organization that ran the bus ads) rightly notes that the ads neither stated nor suggested that all Muslims hate gays. Sparks had nothing to say at all about the practice of killing gays where Islam is the rule of law. You can bet her reaction would have been different had the bus ads cited Leviticus and Romans in order to call attention to homophobic elements in Christianity. I guarantee you she wouldn’t have objected that such ads “tar Christians with too big a brush”; and I’m sure she would have had plenty to say about the influence of the apostle Paul on those who regard LGBTs as deviant.

Then there is Chris Stedman, Executive Director of the Yale Humanist Community, who is gay, and who writes for He too objected to the bus ads, and wrote an article called “Stop Trying to Split Gays and Muslims”, which is conceptually absurd. Stedman is surely aware that gays like him in other parts of the world suffer far worse for their orientation — especially gay Muslims. How can he be so clueless to think the bus ads were trying to “split gays and Muslims”?

Sparks and Stedman aren’t alone. Many LGBTs — the same folks who cry foul when you use the wrong pronoun to refer to a transgendered person — fall utterly silent when it comes to Islamic crimes against gays, which are by far the worst. While this is baffling, Spencer suggests two reasons:

“It is likely attributable at least in part to the common human tendency to find the near enemy more urgently to be fought than the far enemy, even if the far enemy is, in the long run, more lethal. Sparks, Stedman, and others like them have experienced opposition from conservatives for the choices they have made in life about aspects of their core identity. It is unlikely, however, that they have encountered Islamic jihadis or even sharia supremacists who are willing to confront them openly. The Islamic disapproval of gays and the sharia death penalty remain abstractions for them. Conservative Christians, by contrast, are all too real.”

The second reason:

“There is a deeper reason, however, that is related to that one. Gay and transgender activists may be aware of the sharia mistreatment of gays, but they don’t say anything about it, and disapprove of those who do, because of ‘Islamophobia’. Opposition to jihad terror and to sharia oppression of gays and others is identified in the United States and Europe of the 21st century as a conservative ‘right-wing’ issue. And there is that near enemy again. Should gays in the west today join conservatives, including Christian conservatives, in standing against Islamic oppression of gays and its call for violence against them? To do so would not only mean uniting with the enemy they hate the most, but it would also mean ostracism and villification from the members of their community who refused to go along with them.”

I think he’s right on both counts. I’m a left-leaning liberal and member of the LGBT community, but I can say I’ve never had these problems. Part of it is that I have no use for identity politics, and I avoid the “guilt by association” trap. I care about what someone is saying more than who is saying it. Robert Spencer may be worlds apart from me politically, but I’m happy to join his hands when I agree with him on a critical issue like Islam.

Covering up Orlando

The code of silence helps make sense of the FBI cover up of the jihad attack on the gay club in Orlando. On June 12 2016, Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people in the club, and injured 53 more. I remember the days that followed. My Facebook feed was full of screeds written by liberal friends who blasted conservatives for saying this was a jihad attack or had anything to do with Islam. I went on record saying the opposite: that Omar Mateen was more than likely inspired for religious reasons, and I put those odds at about 85%. Sure enough, it came out that he was inspired by the Boston Marathon bomber, and had pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State over phone calls that he made right before walking into the club and opening fire.

But as Spencer says, in this case the LGBT activists can be partially excused, because Omar Mateen’s jihad attack was covered up at the highest levels. A day after the attacks, in a sanctimonious speech, Barack Obama dismissed the evidence of Mateen’s phone calls to 911, saying that fears of jihad were groundless. A week after the attacks, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that the FBI would release transcripts of Mateen’s phone calls, but that the transcripts would omit Mateen’s pledges of allegiance to terrorist groups. “We are not going to further his propaganda,” she said, then adding — wait for it — that they were still trying to “get as much information as possible” about why Mateen did what he did.

That’s right. She dismissed the explanation right under her nose — that Mateen killed gays in line with his holy duty as an adherent of the Islamic State — and called that explanation “propaganda”. Lynch and the Justice Department were pounced on for this blatant cover up, and they did backpedal a bit, and later released the full transcripts. But as Spencer says, the damage had been done.

Bacon Patrol

All of the craziness described above — Linda Sarsour being hailed as a national feminist, an American lawyer willing to defend clit-cutting on grounds of religious freedom, social activists speaking loudly against sexism and homophobia unless it’s the Islamic kind, law officials covering up jihad attacks — derives, in part, from worries about “anti-Muslim backlash”. It’s a backlash that almost never occurs. As Spencer points out, since 9/11 (2001) there have been over 30,000 jihad attacks worldwide. Until the Finsbury Mosque attack in June of this year (2017), by contrast, there have been no Muslims killed by bigoted “Islamophobes”. 30,000+ jihad attacks vs. a single hate-crime attack is a sad excuse for moral equivalence, but there you have it.

Spencer describes events occurring in the wake of the jihad attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester England (May 22, 2017). The Muslim attackers killed 29 people and injured many more, and there came a later attack at the London Bridge (June 3) killing 7 people and injuring more. For a long while after the attacks, England was on high alert, but the police were as much worried about backlash. They increased their patrols at mosques in Cambridge when strips of bacon were left on car windshields to insult Muslims. This is how the British police were allocating their resources in the wake of jihad massacres: bacon patrols. Says Spencer:

“Not that any such hate crimes, whenever they actually occur, are ever justified. But the proportions were off. Twenty-two people were dead in Manchester and seven in London at the hands of Islamic jihadists. One would have thought that in light of that, the Cambridge police would have laughed off a few strips of bacon in front of a mosque, and told the mosque leaders to direct their attention to more important matters, such as working to root out jihad terror sympathizers and plotters from their communities.”

To be fair, backlash concerns are more legitimate in a United States where Donald Trump is president. But not nearly to the extent we grant it. In the wake of jihad attacks, the proper response of Muslim leaders is to work against jihadis and Islamists in their own community instead of constantly playing the victim card. It’s not just conservatives like Spencer who say this. The liberal Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz is equally fed up with the lack of perspective, and has held up the example of the American civil rights movement, where people like Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders took responsibility for their communities and acted in positively empowering ways, rather than playing the victim card and/or rioting in the streets.


Confessions of an Islamophobe is vintage Robert Spencer. The man has been hated on for bad reasons. He has been accused of cherry-picking violent verses out of the Qur’an and ignoring peaceful ones, but in reality the verses of warfare have been interpreted by Islamic authorities throughout history as being normative for all time, while the peaceful passages are not only fewer in number, they are conditional, and superseded (in the Qur’an itself) by the warfare passages on the basis of their status as later revelations.

He has right-wing politics, but he does not believe that most Muslims are terrorists or bad people. He has never stated that the United States is in danger of being taken over by Muslims and transformed into a sharia-based caliphate. (I don’t think that’s a danger in America either; Europe may be another story.) It’s true that Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have articulated goals to take over the U.S., and it’s true that spokespeople for the Council on American-Islamic Relations have let it slip that sharia rule in the U.S. is their objective. But their chances of success are almost zero, and Spencer acknowledges that. He is no more an irrational alarmist than he is a bigot.

What could happen, however, and probably will, according to Spencer, is that organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood will continue to undermine counter-terror efforts. There will be increasing challenges to our way of life — the kind we see in Europe all the time. There will be more jihad massacres, more assaults on women and gays, and other threats. For these reasons, Spencer calls himself a “good Islamophobe”, someone concerned about the harm and devastation Islam brings into everyone’s lives. I don’t think co-opting that problematic term is particularly helpful here, but he’s substantively right. There is much to ponder in his new book, and I’ve only scratched a few chapters in this review. Read it all, and reflect on what it really means to be a humanitarian.

“No Separation of Church and State” in Medieval Europe: What it means and what it doesn’t

We’re often told there was no separation of church and state in medieval Christianity, and to an extent that’s true. Christian thought influenced political decision making. The church legitimated monarchs; secular kings granted lordships to bishops; popes claimed the right to depose monarchs, and there was an ongoing contest between the religious authority of the pope and the secular authority of the Holy Roman Emperor.

But — and this is a big but — there was a very clear divide between church law and civil law, which reflected a distinction between an individual’s spiritual well being on the one hand, and the person’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law on the other. In some Christian lands that distinction became so sharp you’d hardly guess this was the time before or during the crusades. In England, for example, common law derived from local judges, and no priest or church figures were involved in it. Or in Castile (the Christian part of Spain), where local tradition-based law was written down in the fueros (town’s rights), confirmed by the crown in royal charters, and administered by popularly elected local mayors — with again, no priestly or church involvement in the law’s creation or application.

Everywhere in Catholic Europe, civil law was administered by the laity. Priests stuck to their own law: canon law. That wasn’t true in the Islamic world, where sharia law was both religious and civil without distinction. Religion was the law (and still is today in many Islamic countries), which meant that Islam was the law. Sharia pervaded every aspect of life, from a the private to the public, and Muslim clerics ruled over the daily life of the Muslim population. The public spaces (in this so-called “golden age” of Islam) were regularly patrolled by religious functionaries who had the powers of a judge over the people’s personal, social, and commercial behavior. One looks in vain to find an equivalent judge in medieval Catholic Europe — that is, a dispenser of the law who was also an expert in the New Testament and could officiate, lead prayers, and deliver homilies. Such priest-judges did not exist. And because common law evolved independent of royal or priestly power, it could have a politically liberating effect (long before the Magna Carta), not least in the ideas of people’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law. Freedom, in this sense, was wholly antithetical to sharia law in the Muslim world.

Something to bear in mind, the next time you hear that “church and state were inseparable” in medieval Europe. As far as the statement goes, it’s true, but few people understand what that means and what it doesn’t.