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Why You Shouldn’t Trust Robert Spencer’s Biography of the Prophet Muhammad (I)

This article is a part of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series.

I recently agreed to debate the following thesis with Robert Spencer of JihadWatch:

Islam is more violent than other religions, specifically Judaism and Christianity.

This is the main theme in Spencer’s book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades).  It is even the title of one of his books: Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t.  More than this, it reflects the fundamental difference between he and I: whereas I accept the violent and intolerant aspect inherent in all religious traditions, Spencer specifically targets Islam.

Under this heading, I was willing to debate the following sub-thesis:

The Islamic prophet was more violent and warlike than Jewish and Christian prophets.

This was the argument Spencer brought forth in chapter 1 of his book, entitled “Muhammad: Prophet of War.” On p.3, Spencer writes:

[F]or the religious man or woman on the streets of Chicago, Rome, Jerusalem, Damascus, Calcutta, and Bangkok, the words of Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Krishna, and Buddha mean something far greater than any individual’s reading of them.  And even to the less-than-devout reader, the words of these great religious teachers are clearly not equal in their meaning.

On p.4, Spencer promises to compare Muhammad to prophets and founders of other religious traditions in order “to emphasize the fallacy of those who claim that Islam and Christianity–and all other religious traditions, for that matter–are basically equal in their ability to inspire good or evil.”  In other words: Muhammad was the most violent of them all, and thus inspires greater evil.

But, is it true?

I’ve already written multiple articles related to this topic, but now I will directly refute chapter 1 of Robert Spencer’s book (“Muhammad: Prophet of War”), which is Spencer’s biography of Muhammad.  I will present a balanced, neutral, and academic picture of Muhammad–in between the Islamophobic narrative of Spencer on the one hand and the understandably biased Muslim apologist view on the other.

Once Muhammad’s life is understood thus, I will compare it to the lives of other prophets–MosesJoshuaSamsonSaulDavid, Jesus, etc.–to see if Muhammad was truly the most violent of them all.

*  *  *  *  *

Robert Spencer’s biography of Muhammad is extremely misleading.  This becomes apparent from the get-go. The very first section of Spencer’s biography of Muhammad begins on p.5, entitled “Muhammad the raider.”  Spencer’s opening words are:

Muhammad the raider

Muhammad already had experience as a warrior before he assumed the role of prophet.  He had participated in two local wars between his Quraysh tribe and their neighboring rivals Banu Hawazin.

What Spencer leaves out from this talking point–“Muhammad already had experience as  warrior before he assumed the role of prophet”!–is quite telling.

He is referring to what is known in Islamic history as Harb al-Fijar (the Sacrilegious War), a series of conflicts that took place when Muhammad was a teenager.  The spark that ignited the war was the unsettled murder of a member of one tribe, which lead to a blood feud.  Due to “entangling alliances,” many different tribes in the area found themselves at war with each other.

Like most of Muhammad’s life, the details of this event are contested.  This dispute is not simply one between modern-day Muslim apologists and Islamophobes, but rather one that traces its way back to the earliest biographers of the Prophet.

In specific, Muhammad’s level of participation in these wars is disputed.  On the one hand, some Shia biographers reject the idea that Muhammad partook in them at all.  Meanwhile, Sunni biographers write that Muhammad simply accompanied his uncle but did not directly fight in these wars.  He only took on a very limited support role: picking up enemy arrows from the battlefield.  At the most, he fired off a few arrows, but did not kill anyone.

Not only was Muhammad’s role severely limited, but even this he would later express regret over.  Muhammad later recounted: “I had witnessed that war with my uncle and shot a few arrows therein. How I wish I had never done so!” [1] Spencer conveniently omits this very important fact, one that mitigates Muhammad’s participation in the war, especially in regards to his views about war and peace.

Like World War I, the Sacrilegious War was sparked over a murder and resulted in great turmoil due to “entangling alliances.”  Once hostilities ceased, many of the tribes decided to convene a sort of “League of Nations” to prevent future wars.  The Arabian tribes assembled at the house of a man named Abdullah bin Judan and “forged the League of the Virtuous [Hilf al-Fudul].  The major aims of the League were to prevent wars from breaking out and to protect the weak and the defenseless from their enemies.” [2] Members would “henceforth and forever stand on the side of the victim of injustice,” instead of simply siding based on tribal loyalty. [3] It was hoped that such an arrangement would prevent the blood feuds that were common in that time.

Muhammad took part in the signing of the League of the Virtuous, and it left its indelible mark on him.  He would later say: “I witnessed in the house of Abdullah bin Judan a pact made that I wouldn’t have exchanged for the choicest of herds; and if it had been suggested after Islam, I would have responded positively to it.” [4] (“The choicest herd” is the ancient equivalent of saying: “I wouldn’t trade it in even for a Ferrari.”) Muhammad said further: “If further such pacts be made for the cause of the oppressed and I be called, I would certainly respond.” [5]

The ideals of the League of the Virtuous–of standing for justice regardless of family or tribal loyalty–finds its way into the Quran:

O you who believe, stand firmly for justice, witnesses before God, even if it be against your own selves, your parents or relatives, or whether it be against rich or poor. (4:135)

Throughout his career, Muhammad opposed tribal warfare and blood feuds.  Meanwhile, the Quran instructed the believers to defend the oppressed by fighting the oppressors:

What reason could you have for not fighting in God’s cause–for those men, women and children who are oppressed and cry out, “Our Lord, rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors!  By Your Grace, give us a protector and a savior!” (4:75)

The Sacrilegious War and the League of the Virtuous played a pivotal role in Muhammad’s views on matters of war and peace–but not in the way that Spencer implies it to (i.e. “he was born a warrior!”).  Instead, Muhammad became a “veteran against the war” and greatly supported the idea of a League of the Virtuous, a body intended to bring peace on earth–one that would end violence, bloodshed, and war.

By omitting key details, Spencer willfully misleads the reader.  This is just within the first three lines of his biography of Muhammad.  As we shall see, the deception just gets worse.

To be continued…

Danios was the Brass Crescent Award Honorary Mention for Best Writer in 2010 and the Brass Crescent Award Winner for Best Writer in 2011.

[1] Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Hayat Muhammad, p.62
[2] S. Ali Asgher Razwy, A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims, p.24.
Prof. Joseph Morrison Skelly writes on p.39 of Political Islam: “Hilf al-Fudul was an agreement among several pre-Islamic Arab tribes in the seventh century to prevent injustice and to aid those who had been wronged.”
[3] Haykal, p.62
[4] Ibn Kathir, Al-Sira Al-Nabawiyya, p.188
[5] A.H. Qasmi, International Encyclopaedia of Islam, p.113

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  • Sam Seed writes: Is this from the Quran (‘God created all in his image’)? I think it might be from the Bible. God doesn’t have an image in Islam, maybe metaphorically speaking.

    We are His reflection in the mirror of creation. It’s how we are b>seen, not a “likeness” or an “image,” but in His image. Nothing made is like Him.

    Too many forget too often, too much. That’s why He sent Reminders.

  • Mohammed k Islam

    Pamela Gellar is advocating the genocide of all Muslims and wants to destroy Islam. Remember she advocated the nuking of Mecca and Medina.

    This devil should be ridiculed because she disqualifies from any respect!! I will have respect for all human beings but not the ones who’s advocating genocide against another community.

    Thank you brothers n sisters

  • Sam Seed

    Is this from the Quran (‘God created all in his image’)? I think it might be from the Bible. God doesn’t have an image in Islam, maybe metaphorically speaking.

    it doesn’t mean that that God has an image, it means he created Adam in his likeness, so yes you’re right, it’s an allegory not a physical attribute. When you say the Bible (do you mean Tanach or Old/New Testament? they differ) Christians and Jews differ in their interpretations, the Tanach one is usually closer to ours, since Jews do not attribute any physical likeness or image to God, where as the Christians do,

    Al-Bukhaari (6227) and Muslim (2841) narrated from Abu Hurayrah that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “Allaah created Adam in His image, and he was sixty cubits tall. When he created him he said, ‘Go and greet that group of angels who are sitting and listen to how they greet you, for that will be your greeting and the greeting of your descendents.’ So he said, ‘Al-salaamu ‘alaykum (peace be upon you),’ and they said, ‘Al-salaamu ‘alayka wa rahmat-Allaah (Peace be upon you and the mercy of Allaah.’ So they added (the words) ‘wa rahmat-Allaah.’ Everyone who enters Paradise will be in the form of Adam, but mankind continued to grow shorter until now.”

    Muslim (2612) narrated that Abu Hurayrah said: The Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “When any one of fights his brother, let him avoid the face, for Allaah created Adam in His image.”

    Naqd al-Ta’sees, 3/202

    Ibn Qutaybah (may Allaah have mercy on him) said: “That Allaah should have an image is no stranger than His having two hands, fingers or eyes. Rather those are readily accepted because they are mentioned in the Qur’aan, but this idea (image or form) is regarded as strange because it is not mentioned in the Qur’aan. But we believe in them all, but we do not discuss how any of them are.”

    Ta’weel Mukhtalif al-Hadeeth, p. 221

    Shaykh al-Ghunaymaan said: “Thus it is clear that the form or image is like all the other divine attributes. Any attribute which Allaah has affirmed in the Revelation, we must affirm it and believe in it.”

    Sharh Kitaab al-Tawheed min Saheeh al-Bukhaari, 2/41

    you can read more references here

  • Sam Seed

    @Inspired By Mohammad

    “If Pamela were beautiful it wouldn’t mean her Islamophobia would be any the more acceptable. Let’s not attack people for things they cannot help. God created all in his image.” Is this from the Quran (‘God created all in his image’)? I think it might be from the Bible. God doesn’t have an image in Islam, maybe metaphorically speaking.

  • Mohammed k Islam

    Since you ask…my two cents are as follows:

    If Pamela were beautiful it wouldn’t mean her Islamophobia would be any the more acceptable. Let’s not attack people for things they cannot help. God created all in his image.

    Attack her for that she is responsible for, and for which she made a choice, her hate mongering and Islamophobia. Those are things that she chose to do, and for which she should be attacked for.

    Attacking her for her looks lessens our own credibility, and it also means that Islamophobia coming from a handsome man or a beautiful woman is acceptable. It is not.

  • Mohammed k Islam

    Does everyone agree Pamela Gellar looks like Reagan McNeil from the Exocist??

    Maybe she is possessed by a powerful demon coz she is getting uglier day by day.

    Any thoughts???

  • Mohammed k Islam


    The Muslim community cannot thank you enough!!

    Excellent work!!

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  • @Danios,

    I agree, Spencer is a pathetic scholar.

  • Omar

    Right on Danios.
    i can’t wait till you debate that deceiving charlatan..

  • Sid

    JT, I agree. Spencer is an absolute disaster zone of a scholar. On the incident of the Satanic verses, literally, his only defence of his position against the critique of the Muslim scholars on the issue is that because it’s in Islamic books, it must have happened. See “The truth about Muhammed” for his view on the issue. Even the references he uses are wrong- he ends up four volumes short of the correct reference for his argument. Shoddy at best.

  • Danios
  • JT


    You’re right! I did read Garo’s translation of what Ibn Saad said but forgot to mention it in my above comment. JihadBob was claiming on Jihadwatch that no one had responded to Spencer.

    If Spencer’s entire “response” rests on that one statement, then he isn’t exactly in a good position. He will of course argue that his translation is fine, but he’s missing the point of Danios’ article and trying to sell his book instead. Knowing just how shoddy Spencer’s scholarship is, not to mention the fact that he does not know Arabic, it is possible he misread the quote. Quite funny now that I think about it.

    By the way, thanks Garo for your input.

  • Nadir

    @geji: Sorry I missed your post. In that case, I owe you an apology.

    و عليكم السلام و رحمة الله و بركاته

  • JT, I agree it is not a constructive use of my time, however I was a) suffering from insomnia and b) waiting for that pretty asteroid to pass earth so I could take a look with my telescope.

    That said I go on Jihadwatch from time to time because, as I said in my comments there, reading the same old crap coming from them and seeing their ‘version of Islam’ displayed as truth does wonders to my faith! These days I can pretty much predict what they will say and what things they will pull out, I have written a book about it… they are that predictable.

    Plus I got a death threat so I didn’t go away empty handed 😉


  • Sid

    JT, seemingly even his “rebuttal” is inaccurate- the source he cites, namely Ibn Saad, agree’s about the regret of Muhammed following the war, if what Garo says is correct. Spencer says Ibn Saad said Muhammed did not repent regarding the war.

  • JT

    Robert Spencer says:

    “Unfortunately for you and your crowd, the idea that I have some “fear” of mentioning your cowardly leader is a fiction of your own making, like so much of what you claim about me and my work.”

    Comments like these make me wonder whether Bob has had filters installed in his eyes that make him unable to see the obvious. If this fear was fictional, then why was Danios not named. Spencer wants and desires an argument, debate or all-out war with anyone he thinks he can defeat. Reza Aslan, for example, was attacked and ridiculed in an article Spencer still proudly displays in the front page of his site. No oppurtunity to mention Ahmed Rehab or publish his pictures goes wasted.

    Why is Danios different? Why did you not mention him in this response or your other “responses” on the topics of Dimmmitude? Why do your readers also follow this silly game — JihadBob for example kept referring to us as “that other website”. It’s because you know that if you lose or make a mistake, you can still back out and then pretend like nothing ever happened. It’s also why you are not informing your readers about what’s really happening regarding the debate.

    Also, Danios isn’t our “leader”. I’m pretty sure he would object to the term and bring up the fact that Loonwatch is a collective effort by numerous bloggers. And because they are all anonymous, to us this is a leaderless movement and no weight is given to their personal lives — only their writings.

    On the other hand, you are definitely seen as a “leader” by your followers, perhaps one worthy of a “Nobel Peace Prize”.

  • JT

    Jack Cope, going on Jihadwatch is not a productive use of your time. They’re not interested in the truth or a calm, rational discussion. Seeing a Muslim say anything but “durka, durka Muhammad Jihad” is beyond their comprehension.

    JihadBob seems to have somehow declared victory and made the laughable claim that Danios’ refutation has been refuted. What interested me is that JihadBob, like Spencer, is unable to mention Loonwatch or Danios by name when responding to them. If you read Spencer’s “response” and it soon becomes clear that he has magically transformed a discussion about Spencer’s misrepresentation of the Sacrilegious Wars into an advertisement for his shitty book. Just when you thought that Spencer had robbed his readers of enough money by selling the same crap numerous times, he comes out with another book.

    No attempt was made to justify Spencer’s conclusion that the Prophet must be a warmonger because of his experience in the battle. Neither did anyone discuss the Hilf-al-Fudul (truly the most important point touched upon by Danios in the above article). Muhammad’s participation in the Sacrilegious war did not make him a warmonger as Spencer implies, but the concept of unity, justice and fairness that he learned when the war ended made him a better person. Spencer completely ignores this and tries to shamelessly plug his own book to suplement his hefty income of $130,000 by talking about inconsistencies in the historical accounts. What the clown fails to see is that Danios accepted that there were disagreements about Muhammad’s role in the war but this was in no way the main point of his article.

    All of the Jihadwatch readers were discussing things completely unrelated, oblivious to the fact that their dear leader had just pussied out of responding to Danios by name. Any other person who challenges Robert Spencer’s interpretation of Islam, is immediately attacked and ridiculed non-stop but Danios is he-who-must-not-be-named.

    How pathetic that JihadBob should try to claim some sort of victory when he can’t even bring himself to utter Loonwatch’s name (lest the young ‘uns head over here and discover the truth). That you cannot mention Loonwatch’s name without requiring a prompt change of underwear says much about what lies beneath.

    To quote Robert Spencer, “Nothing has been refuted at all”.

  • Sid

    Thank you very much for your information. I have a very basic understanding of Arabic, hence my confusion- I’m not particularly good at reading and comprehension. I knew Spencer had it wrong on this as soon as I looked at the reference he gave- the very same quote is given by a Shia scholar to state that the prophet DID regret the firing of arrows in the Fujar wars. Personally I feel Danios could use this example of Spencers pseudo-scholarship to his advantage.
    Once again, thank you very much. I understood it to mean he fired the arrow as he hated, at the time, to not involve himself in the war. Given what you’ve just typed, I cannot even see how I made the error now!

  • Awesome

    @ Susanna

    Your above statements are incorrect.

    – On the contrary, what I have said very much is correct. The emphasis on etymological word games is inconsequential and unjustified.

    1. The God of the Old Testament is known as YHWH and translates as “The Self Existent One”. Yahweh never appears as the name of any deity outside the Bible. There is no record anywhere of any other tribe or religion which worshiped Yahweh and was not borrowed from some other culture or religion.

    – “The Self Existent One” is a description/attribute as much as it is a name, and it is also a name/attribute of Allah mentioned in the Qur’an (2:255, 3:2, 20:111) as “Al-Qayyum”, which means “The Self-Existing by Whom all subsist”.

    Virtually every meaning derived from “Yahweh” exists as as a name or attribute of “Alllaah”

    2. The word “alah” does exist in Hebrew but it is not a proper name and it never refers to God. It has three principle meanings (a) to curse, swear, and adjure (b)to lament and (c) to arise, ascend, climb, go away or leap. There is no “alah” or “allah” in the Greek New Testment at all. It was unknown in the BibLe world. Allah is NOT mentioned in the Old or New Testaments.

    – Except the name “Alllaah” is not a Hebrew word to begin with, it is an Arabic word, and it is a word that has always referred to “God” in Arabic before, during and after the advent of Islam.

    Why exactly would you find an Arabic word in Greek or Hebrew translations to begin with? Certainly the name “Alllaah” does exist in the Arabic translations of the Old and New Testements, just like the term “God” exists in the English translations.

    3. “Eloah” in Hebrew is not a proper name but simply translates as “God”.The words “El” and “Elohim” also translates the same way and maybe used to designate the true God, pagan deities, idols and even human judges. The word “God” can be applied then to the god of any religion.
    3.The word “Allah” comes from the compound Arabic word, al-ilah- the god. It is not a proper name but a generic name and is similar to the Hebrew El, which refers to any deity. “Allah” was not a foreign word but purely Arabic one. Therefore, it would be wrong to compare “Allah” with the Hebrew or Greek for God.

    – There is no wrong in comparing words from different languages that have the same meaning. In fact, it is necessary for a proper translation.

    Furthermore, as Mrislamanswersback has already said, “Alllaah” is not a contraction of “al-ilah”. It is in fact a single word.

    “ilah” = “deity/god”

    “al-ilah” = “the-deity/god”

    “Alllaah” = “God”

    4.All religions do not worship the same God only under different names. There proper names that reference the true existent one from any other entity. To say that, just because Christian Arabs and Jewish Arabs use “Allah” for God they worship the same God is ludicrous.

    – That Jewish and Christian Arabs refer to God as “Alllaah” in Arabic, only further proves that using the term “Alllaah” in Arabic is no different than using the term “God” in English.

    Also, if those who refer to their own deities by the same name are not necessarily referring to the same deity, then it logically follows that those who refer to their own deities with different names aren’t necessarily referring to different deities either.

    5.Yahweh does not appear in the Quran and Allah is never seen in the Old or New Testament.

    – God/Alllaah has many names. Every translation of the name “Yahweh” appears as an attribute of “Alllaah” in the Qur’an and in the Arabic translations of the Old and New Testements, “Alllaah” is constantly seen.

  • @ Susanna – Congratulations on a good try; but your points are nevertheless filled with errors and unclear thinking. Let me go through your points individually to show this.

    1. I have never read anyone who contends that “Allah” is the Arabic equivalent of YHWH (so far as the name itself is concerned – we certainly contend that Allah is the same God as YHWH, just as Elohim and Adonai refer to the same God known as YHWH). Among the 99 names of God, though, there are names which correspond to the meaning of YHWH. For instance the beloved verse from the Qur’an (2:255 – Muhammad Asad’s English version): “GOD – there is no deity save Him, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent Fount of All Being.
    Neither slumber overtakes Him, nor sleep. His is all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth. Who is there that could intercede with Him, unless it be by His leave? He knows all that lies open before men and all that is hidden from them, whereas they cannot attain to aught of His knowledge save that which He wills [them to attain]. His eternal power overspreads the heavens and the earth, and their upholding wearies Him not. And He alone is truly exalted, tremendous.” Tell me, is the God you worship any one other than “the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent Fount of All Being” described in this verse? Does your God grow weary and take naps?

    2. I don’t believe anyone has contended that “alah” is a HEBREW word meaning “god”. As I recall, “alah” is said to be either an Aramaic or a Syriac word meaning “god” – neither Hebrew nor Arabic. Nevertheless, “alah”, “ilah” and “eloah/elohim” are all cognates in their various languages; just as “Dios”, “Deus”, and “Dieu” are all cognates of each other, though in various languages.

    “There is no “alah” or “allah” in the Greek New Testment at all. It was unknown in the BibLe world. Allah is NOT mentioned in the Old or New Testaments.” Neither is there any YHWH or El Shaddai or Adonai in the Greek New Testament. So what does that prove? “God”, “Dios”, “Deus” and “Dieu” are unknown in the “Bible world”. So what? Does that mean those names belong to “false gods”? Do Spanish, French, and English speaking people need to start using either Hebrew or Greek names in order to be “correct”? And while “Allah” is certainly not in either the Hebrew or Greek Scriptures, it is most certainly in the Arabic translations of both the Old and New Testament.

    (3) You have 2 points listed as number “3”. There is nothing – that I can see – wrong with the first one. The second point “3” though badly misses the point. While it is certainly true that “Allah” combines the two words “al” (“the”) and “ilah” (“god”), it is completely untrue that the combined form “Allah” is a generic form which can be applied to any “god” (whether the One True God or the false “gods” of paganism). This combined form “Allah” is always a “personal” name for the One and Only Creator and Sustainer of the worlds. No Arabic speaking Muslim, Christian, or Jew would ever use “Allah” to refer to a pagan deity such as “Zeus”. The word “ilah” is used for pagan deities, but never “Allah”. While I’m not an Arabic speaker and so don’t know for absolute sure, I’m fairly confident that if an Arabic speaker wished to say “the god called Zeus”, he would say “‘al ilah’ called Zeus”, not “Allah called Zeus”. For me to even write that phrase borders on blasphemy.

    Notice in the verse I quoted above, it begins with “Allahu” (God) – the name for the One and Only. It is then said that there is no “ilaha” (god) but He. This is the clear distinction the Qur’an always makes: “ilah” is used to refer to those beings pagans falsely refer to as “gods” – although the Qur’an denies the reality of their existence – but “Allah” is the One and Only. There is no “ilah” but “Allah”.

    Certainly “Allah” is a purely Arabic word, just like “Dios” is a purely Spanish word. Does that mean that it is wrong to compare “Dios” to the Hebrew or Greek for “God”? “Allah” is a purely Arabic term, but it is etymologically derived from the same root as the Hebrew “Eloah” or “Elohim”, just as “Dios” and “Deus” are etymologically derived from the same source.

    4. It may be true that not all religions worship the same “God”; but all monotheistic religions who acknowledge The God as the Creator and Sustainer of all things, the Self Existent and Eternal One, the Beneficent and Merciful, most certainly DO worship the same God. The fact that different names are used in various languages does not mean that different ‘gods’ are being worshiped. And the fact that Arabic Christians and Jews call God “Allah” most certainly shows that they recognize that “Allah” is the same God as the Hebrew YHWH/Elohim/Adonai and the Greek Theos.

    5. YHWH does not appear in the Greek New Testament any more than it appears in the Arabic Qur’an. And Allah is never seen in the HEBREW Old Testament or the GREEK New Testament; but it is seen in the Arabic translations of those Scriptures.

    I hope that clears up YOUR misunderstanding. And may Peace and Guidance be with you also.

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