An Academic Tries to Rebut ‘The History of Jihad,' Fails Miserably
Inaccuracies, false claims, tendentious propaganda – that’s academia today.
A Jihad Watch reader has alerted me to an academic review of my book The History of Jihad: From Muhammad to ISIS by one Ahmed Achrati, who says that he “graduated from Law School in Algeria and received an LL.M from the School of Law at NYU, and a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania.” Achrati adds: “I Taught [sic; “taught” should not be capitalized in this instance, kids] Law, Anthropology, Islamic Studies, and Language at different universities and colleges. Semi-retired, I am currently teaching two courses, Anthropology and Qur’an & Modern Society as part of the Osher Program at Johns Hopkin [sic] University, and American University. I am also a research volunteer at the Smithsonian NMAFA.”
His review serves as an illuminating example of how intellectually lazy and biased the academic environment has become in America today. Achrati attempts to give the appearance of rational analysis, but the more one examines his points, the less there is to see, and the more he comes off as something akin to an anonymous ranter on Twitter screaming his illogic, sloganeering and propaganda as if it were Socratic wisdom. Nonetheless, he is almost certain to gain the applause of his academic peers for his paper, and that also is an indication of how much American academia has degenerated.
Robert Spencer’s The History of Jihad: from Muhammad to ISIS, [sic; there shouldn’t be a comma there] is aimed at re-enforcing [sic; the word he wants here is reinforcing] the misconception that jihad is an obligation imposed by the Qur’an to engage in military warfare for the purpose of conquest and the imposition of worldwide Islam. Spencer also denies the antiquity and authenticity of the Qur’an and the origin of Islam.
Like so many others, Achrati does not explain how and why so very many Muslims throughout Islamic history have gotten the idea that “jihad is an obligation imposed by the Qur’an to engage in military warfare for the purpose of conquest and the imposition of worldwide Islam,” and why so many have this idea today. Why does this “misconception” so stubbornly persist?
Spencer asserts that the Qur’an did not exist until the time of the Abbasids, close to two hundred years after Muhammad (d. 632).
Actually, the Abbasid caliphate began in 750, which is 118 years, not “close to two hundred years,” after the traditional date of Muhammad’s death. And in The History of Jihad, I refer to “the paucity of contemporary evidence of Muhammad’s life, or of the existence of the Qur’an before the early eighth century.” (p. 53) That’s the early 700’s. So what I actually say is that the Qur’an is roughly 100 years older than Achrati claims I say it is. This is a minor point, but since Achrati is purporting to offer a refutation of my work, it reflects poorly on him that he doesn’t even get right what I say in the book.
“There is considerable reason to believe,” he says, “that the origins of Islam and the lives of its founding figures are quite different from how they are reported in Islamic sacred history” (Spencer 2018,15). This assertion is contrary to historical, and archaeological evidence. For example, Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) dating of one of the oldest known parchments of the Qur’an shows that it belonged to the period between AD 614 to AD 656 (Sadeghi 2010, 348; Hilali 2017, 13-14). A recent discovery near Najran, Saudi Arabia, of an ancient Arabic inscription bears the name Umar Ibn al-Khattab (Iambert 2014).
This is so poorly reasoned that it’s embarrassing. In case Achrati’s poor reasoning isn’t clear, I’ll spell it out: he attempts to refute my statement that there is “considerable reason to believe that the origins of Islam and the lives of its founding figures are quite different from how they are reported in Islamic sacred history” by invoking an old copy of the Qur’an and a mention of Umar ibn al-Khattab. In reality, he may be absolutely correct that there is a seventh-century copy of the Qur’an that still exists, and an Arabic inscription naming the caliph Umar, and it could still be true that “the origins of Islam and the lives of its founding figures are quite different from how they are reported in Islamic sacred history.” The Qur’an actually contains very little information about Islam’s “founding figures,” or about the origins of Islam. The fact that Umar is named somewhere is still a very long way from establishing that he actually did everything that he is recorded as doing in Islamic accounts written a century or more after his death.
Confirmation of the antiquity of the Qur’an and the origins of Islam also comes from non-Muslim records. Early events surrounding the crisis of succession, including the murder of the third caliph ‘Uthman (d.656), are mentioned in Chinese annals, such as the T’ang History(Hoyland 1997, 251-252, and n. 43). References to Islam are also found in the Doctrina Jacobi(c. 634 AD) (Ibid. 526-527); the writings of the Syriac John Bar Penkaye (Ibid., 532-533); and the chronicles of the Armenian Sebeos (645 AD) (Ibid. 534-535).
The T’ang History dates from 1060, and so has little or no value in establishing what happened several hundred years before in faraway Arabia. It doesn’t mention any events after the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid (786-809), and so could be a document that was originally compiled at that time, but even Hoyland notes that “later editorial activity is almost certain to have taken place” (Hoyland, 250). Achrati points to a Hoyland footnote that actually disproves what he is trying to use it to establish: in it, Hoyland states that the “second king” referred to in the T’ang History is probably Uthman, but he adds that while Uthman was indeed the “second king,” that is, the second caliph, Abu Bakr, who was the first caliph, “had a different function.” Yet in canonical Islamic history, they’re both caliphs with exactly the same function. So Hoyland is confirming my statement that “the origins of Islam and the lives of its founding figures are quite different from how they are reported in Islamic sacred history,” and doing so in a passage that Achrati is invoking to claim my statement is false.
The Doctrina Jacobi, which was probably written by a Christian in Palestine between 634 and 640—that is, at the time of the earliest Arabian conquests. But the Doctrina Jacobi describes an unnamed prophet who is still alive, traveling with his armies, whereas Muhammad is supposed to have died in 632. What’s more, this Saracen prophet, rather than proclaiming that he was Allah’s last prophet (cf. Qur’an 33:40), was according to the Doctrina Jacobi “proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ who was to come.” No early Islamic sources say that Muhammad was still alive and traveling with his armies in the mid-630s, and none say that he was preaching that anyone else was to come; on the contrary, he claimed to be “the seal of the prophets” (Qur’an 33:40). Thus the Doctrina Jacobi also confirms my statement that there is “considerable reason to believe that the origins of Islam and the lives of its founding figures are quite different from how they are reported in Islamic sacred history.”
John bar Penkaye wrote about 690, that is, just under sixty years after Muhammad is supposed to have died, and he does mention him. But he offers none of the proliferation of detail about Muhammad’s words and deeds that we get in eighth and ninth century sources, and shows no awareness that such material even exists. All he says is that the invaders “were so attached to the traditions of Muhammad who was their teacher, that they inflicted the pain of death upon any one who seemed to contradict his tradition.” So here again, his mention of Muhammad, which is scarcely more than a name-drop, is hardly a refutation of the observation that that there is “considerable reason to believe that the origins of Islam and the lives of its founding figures are quite different from how they are reported in Islamic sacred history.”
As Fred Donner has noted, “these efforts to reconstruct Islam’s origins and to explain the historical context of the Qur’an in a manner that rejects completely the framework provided by Muslim tradition” are simply unconvincing (Donner 2011, 28).
Here’s something else Donner says: “The problem is that this detailed picture of Muhammad’s career is drawn not from documents or even stories dating from Muhammad’s time, but from literary sources that were compiled many years–sometimes centuries–later. The fact that these stories are so much later, and shaped with very specific objectives in mind, means that they often do not tell us many things about which we would like to know more…There is also reason to suspect that some–perhaps many – of the incidents related in these sources are not reliable accounts of things that actually happened but rather are legends created by later generations of Muslims to affirm Muhammad’s status as prophet, to help establish precedents shaping the later Muslim community’s ritual, social, or legal practices, or simply to fill out poorly known chapters in the life of their founder, about whom, understandably, later Muslims increasingly wished to know everything.” (Fred M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 50-51.)
Through selective reading of historical evidence and circular reasoning, Spencer tries to validate his denial of the authenticity of the Qur’an using evidence derived from the very history he is denying. As a proof that the Qur’an did not exist at the time of Muhammad, Spencer says that Sophronius, the patriarch of Jerusalem who turned the city to the Muslims, “made no mention of the conquerors’ coming with a new prophet, religion, or holy book” (p. 61). He then asserts that the Qur’an came to be only after the fall of the Umayyad dynasty itself –a fall which he attributes to the fact that Islam itself was at this time in an inchoate state, and the Qur’an “not set in [its] final form until the Umayyads had ruled for four or five decades” (p. 90).
Once again, embarrassing. This is neither selective reading of evidence nor circular reasoning. Achrati attributes to me something I do not say: to point out that the Qur’an was not set in its final form until a certain time is not at all to say that the Qur’an only came to be at that time. The process of editing it was not instantaneous. And if Sophronius in the 630s betrays no awareness of the conquerors coming with a new religion or holy book, and the Qur’an actually came into being later (beginning in the 690s), there is no selectivity or circular reasoning in that at all.
Another example of the circularity of Spencer’s logic, he makes Khalid Ibn al-Walid the originator of the “triple choice” (conversion, jizya, or war), which, he wrongly says “became codified in the Qur’an” (p. 53), when this rule exists only as a hadith.
Saying that something is in the Qur’an when it is really just a hadith is not circular logic. Does Achrati even know what “circular logic” actually is? And anyway, the triple choice is actually in the Qur’an, contrary to Achrati’s claim: “Fight them, till there is no persecution and religion is all for Allah” (8:39) -- there’s the conversion part. “Fight those who believe not in Allah and the Last Day and do not forbid what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden, and do not practice the religion of truth, even if they are of the People of the Book — until they pay the jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.” (9:29) There’s war (“fight them”) and jizya.
Lacking a sound definition of jihad, Spencer resorts to using the neologism “jihadi,” a term not found in the Qur’an (the terms juhd, jihad, jahada, and mujahidun are). “Jihadi” has no substantive definition, leaving the term useless in identifying exactly who or what a jihadi is. Presumably a jihadi is someone waging war in the cause of Islam, but this fails to address the problem posed by intra-Muslim fighting: Is the jihadi ISIS or the rest of the Muslims? What about Christian renegades who fight on the side of Muslims (pp. 106 and 251-2)?
“Jihad” means “struggle”; I discuss the meaning of the term in Islamic theology and law on pages 11-13 of the book. A jihadi is, obviously, a mujahid, one who wages jihad. “Is the jihadi ISIS or the rest of the Muslims?,” both, if they are both fighting to establish or defend their vision of the Islamic state. If one side or the other is fighting for another purpose, then they’re not jihadis. “What about Christian renegades who fight on the side of Muslims?” We call those “useful idiots.”
What the term jihadi does signify is both Spencer’s distorted reading of the Qur’an and his lack of knowledge of Arabic. Unlike qātala (“to battle,” “to fight”), a transitive verb requiring an object to convey its meaning (e.g., “to fight” someone or something), the verb jāhada is normally used in the intransitive form. Only exceptionally did the Qur’an use jāhada in the transitive form; four times out of twenty-eight occurrences, to be exact. It is precisely this exceptional use of the transitive form of jāhada that gives this term its definite meaning and establishes a clear distinction between jihad (“exertion”) and qital (“fight,” “battle”). In other words, jihad as used in the Qur’an has no inherent connotation of violence.
Indeed, in one instance where the Qur’an uses jāhada in the transitive form, the action, jihad, applies to what unbelieving parents are doing to their Muslim sons and daughters: “We have enjoined upon man goodness towards his parents; but should they strive to make you associate other beings with Me [wa in jāhadāka li-tushrika bī], obey them not” (29:8 and 31:15). The word “jihad” does not refer to any specific action, much less to fighting or warring. Jihad simply means “exertion,” regardless of who the agent might be or what specifically the action might involve. From a Qur’anic perspective, then, jihad is the essence of an Islamic ethos. It is an orientation toward God that defines a Muslim’s sensibilities and characterizes his or her daily comportment. It is the realization of: “Verily, I have surrendered my whole being unto God” (3:20).
Odd, then, that so many Muslims over 1,400 years somehow got the idea that jihad did have something to do with violence. Did they get that idea from me? Achrati is glossing over the fact that the Qur’an teaches warfare against unbelievers, and Islamic law codifies that imperative, and that this warfare has gone on throughout history under the rubric of “jihad.” The renowned medieval Islamic scholar and jurist Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) directed that “since lawful warfare is essentially jihad and since its aim is that the religion is God’s entirely and God’s word is uppermost, therefore according to all Muslims, those who stand in the way of this aim must be fought.” This is also taught by modern-day scholars of Islam. In his 1955 book War and Peace in the Law of Islam, the Iraqi scholar Majid Khadduri says this about jihad: “The state which is regarded as the instrument for universalizing a certain religion must perforce be an ever expanding state. The Islamic state, whose principal function was to put God’s law into practice, sought to establish Islam as the dominant reigning ideology over the entire world….The jihad was therefore employed as an instrument for both the universalization of religion and the establishment of an imperial world state.” (P. 51)
I guess Ibn Taymiyya and Khadduri and a host of others are ignorant “Islamophobes”?
Underscoring the ethical nature of jihad is also the fact that when Muslims were facing exile and persecution in Mecca and Medina, the Qur’an specifically imposed on them a duty “to fight,” but not the obligation to undertake jihad: “Fighting is ordained for you [kutiba ‘laykum al-qital], though you dislike it” (2:216, 246; 4:77). The Qur’an further asked Muhammed to “urge the believers to fight” [hariḍal-mu’minina ‘ala al-qital] (8:65), yet it did not mention jihad or prescribe it as a duty.
The clear Qur’anic distinction between jihad and qital seems to anticipate Spencer’s confusion when facing intra-Muslim fighting. In describing Muslim-against-Muslim fighting, the Qur’an uses iqtatala, the reciprocal structure in Arabic which does not apply to intransitive verbs.
This is a distinction without a difference. Yes, there are jihads that do not involve fighting. They do not negate the fact that throughout Islamic history, Muslims have referred to fighting against unbelievers, as well as against other Muslims they consider to be heretics, as jihad.
In a section titled “Jihad against the Christians,” Spencer makes the claim that “Allah gave Muhammad a revelation commanding Muslims to fight against Jews and Christians until they accepted Islamic hegemony symbolized by payment of a poll tax (jizya) and discriminatory regulations that would ensure that they would be constantly reminded of their subordinate position” (p. 40). He then focuses on 9:29, the only verse in the Qur’an relating to jizya, a move designed to identify jihad with the collection of tax –implying that jihad is a revenue-driven enterprise. To give a semblance of soundness to these assertions and to keep his reader in the dark, he deliberately omits the controlling passages of this verse (9:1-9:17). These verses name the enemies of Muhammad as the “idolaters,” and they Arabs who violated a treaty –and not the Christians or Jews, who fall under the category of “People of the Book.”
Achrati is apparently counting on his readers not actually opening the Qur’an, since if they did, they would find that Qur’an 9:29 tells Muslims explicitly to wage war against “the People of the Book,” that is, the very people he claims here that the verse is not talking about. This is either inexcusable carelessness or plain dishonesty.
Spencer’s use of the term “polytheists” in place of “idolaters” is designed to give the impression that war and killing in the Qur’an are lawless undertakings that depend on human whims(see, Abd al-Haleem; also, Wills 2017, 136-140; Kaltner 2011, 198-199).
How does Achrati know what I meant to imply? But his mind-reading is the last of it: here again, he seems to be counting on people not checking the references. He is objecting to my quoting a hadith in which Muhammad says “When you meet your enemies who are polytheists” (Sahih Muslim 4294, quoted on p. 40 of The History of Jihad), and suggests that I substituted the word “polytheists” for “idolaters” with nefarious intent. In reality, however, the translation using the word “polytheists” was written by Muslims and for Muslims. I have it in a four-volume set of Sahih Muslim translated by Abdul Hamid Siddiqui (clearly an “Islamophobe”) and published in New Delhi; it can also be found online here. Sunnah.com is a Muslim site; if it is so terrible to use the word “polytheists” here, why does Sunnah.com use this translation?
To the contrary, this and other texts establish rules for fighting: “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors.... kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you... And if they cease, then indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful” (2:190-192; also, 5:33-37; 22: 39-40; 8:56-58).
Spencer’s loathing of Islam is so visceral that he invokes Hitler to maximize his vilification of Muslims. At first, we encounter Hitler bemoaning Charles Martel’s success in stopping the advances of Islam into Europe and crushing Christianity: “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 Muhammadanism, 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” (p. 95; see also, p. 292).
It’s a strange academic world when quoting someone accurately becomes an offense. Achrati offers no evidence that Hitler didn’t actually say these words. He can’t, because Hitler did say it. And if he did, why can his words not be reported?
Finally, Spencer tops all of this off with the assertion that the Holocaust is the doing of a Muslim, the Palestinian Grand Mufti al-Husein of Jerusalem. Dieter Wisliczeny, he says, “testified at the Nuremburg Trials that the mufti had been a central figure in the planning of the genocide of the Jews” (p. 303).
Here again: did Wisliczeny say that, or did he not? He did, and Achrati makes no attempt to establish otherwise. So why can he not be quoted? And once again he misrepresents what I said: I don’t say that “the Holocaust is the doing of a Muslim,” and Wisliczeny’s quote doesn’t say that. He says the Mufti was central in the planning of the genocide. And that’s what I said he said.
The mention of the word “Palestinian” sends Spencer on a tangent defacing the history of Palestine. Ignoring the historical record –”Palestine” is attested in a Twelfth Dynasty hieroglyph as Peleset, in the Assyrian inscriptions as Palashtu, Palastu, and Pilistu; and in Herodotus’ s Histories as Palaistiné –Spencer says “Palestine” is only a bureaucratic name that the Romans plucked from the Bible and attached to one of their districts in 134 AD (p.309).
Yes, that’s why the name was in the Bible for the Romans to pluck it out and apply it to Judea: it originally referred to the ancient Philistines, who are mentioned in other, non-Biblical sources. But once again in keeping with Achrati’s carelessness with the facts, I never say “Palestine” was a “bureaucratic name.” It was the name of the Israelites’ ancient enemies, which is why the Romans, having exiled the Jewish people from the area, thought it appropriate to use.
A good portion of Spencer’s book is aimed at stoking anti-Muslim sentiment among Europeans.
A sentence like that doesn’t belong in what purports to be an academic paper. Achrati should show where he thinks the book is inaccurate, not pretend to know my motives, or anyone’s.
He traces the word “Slav,” a term applied to many Eastern Europeans, but one that has a negative connotation, to the Arabs. The “ethnic designation ‘Slav’ is derived from the Arabic ‘saqlab’, or ‘slave’,” he says (p. 83). “Slav”, however, comes from the Byzantine Greek Σκλάβος (Sklábos), which is rendered Sclavus in Medieval Latin, from which comes the Middle English “slave.” Σκλαβηνοί was affixed to groups of the trans-Danubian Barbaricum by Procopius of Caesarea (d. 554 AD) and Flavius Jordanes.
My source for the saqlab derivation, duly footnoted on p. 83, was Jan Hogendorn, “The Hideous Trade: Economic Aspects of the ‘Manufacture’ and Sale of Eunuchs,” Paideuma 45 (1999): 139. Achrati, however, represents this as coming from me, as if I made it up, and gives no hint that there is more to the scholarly discussion of the derivation of this word than he represents in his paper.
Spencer goes on to invoke humiliating Ottoman victories in Europe, which he “attributed in large part to the valor of the Bosnian Muslims” (p. 253). He also praises the Crusades and later European colonialist enterprises. Commenting on Radulph of Caen’s report that “In al-Ma’rra, our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled” (p. 148), Spencer says that a famine struck the Crusaders army in Ma’arra, and “increasingly desperate, they fell to cannibalism” (Ibid.). Spencer then takes offenses at the fact that a Muslim historian, Ibn al-Munqith, described these child-eating Crusaders “as beasts” (p. 149). It is just “difficult for the Crusaders to make a better impression,” Spencer says (Ibid.).
Achrati wrenches my statement out of context here to suggest that I think the Crusaders made an excellent impression by resorting to cannibalism. Once again, this is either shockingly careless from an academic, or consciously dishonest. As is quite clear from the passage in the book, I didn’t write this in praise of the Crusaders, but in reference to the fact that the Qur’an says that those who reject Allah are the “worst of beasts,” so that even if the Crusaders had behaved in an exemplary manner, they still wouldn’t have won respect from their foes.
Spencer’s personal bitterness extends to world history: “Had the Crusaders traversed Europe inviting help from the Jews rather than killing them, the Crusaders might have arrived in the Middle East far stronger, and the history of the world would have been different in incalculable ways” (p. 148).
What? It wouldn’t?
Hélas, the Europeans lost more than one chance; “alliance with the Mongols was a lost opportunity for the Christian Europeans” (p. 168).
There was talk about the Christians and the Mongols joining forces to fight the jihadis. This did not happen. That’s what a lost opportunity is. There is no value judgment in that.
Spencer acknowledges that “throughout history in the various Islamic domains: periods of relaxation of the dhimmi laws would be followed by periods of their reassertion, often in the context of revivalist movements that blamed the troubles of Muslims on the prosperity of the dhimmi, and on Allah’s anger that they had not been put in their place” (p. 205). Yet even the very restrictive decrees which he cites reveal a different reality from what he tries to generalize. When the North African historian Ibn Naqash visited Egypt in the fourteenth century, he described Jews and Christians “attired in the most elegant clothes,” who “rode on mules, mares and expensive horses” (p. 202).
That’s what “relaxation of the dhimmi laws” looks like. Ibn Naqash was offended because the Jews and Christians were not poor or subservient as Islamic law commands. He made sure they returned to that state.
For Spencer and some in Western media, the terms jihadi is the modern-day version of the Romans’, “Hannibal ante portas” (“Hannibal is at the gates!”). Spencer’s misuse of the concept of jihad is a rallying cry for his Islamophobic followers.
Who is misusing the concept of jihad? Me, or the Muslims who have been responsible for over 30,000 jihad attacks worldwide since 9/11?
For the hundreds of millions of Muslims who want to escape the influence of reactionary influences, this denigration of jihadis dangerous.
Ah, here we come to the heart of the matter: what I write is “dangerous,” you see, and so I must be silenced. Has Achrati ever called actual jihad terrorists “dangerous”?
One only need turn to the work of Islamic feminists to find jihad in its true meaning: Amina Wadud’s Inside the Gender Jihad (2006); Katajun Amirpur’s New thinking in Islam: the jihad for democracy, freedom and women’s rights (2015); Hibba Abugideiri’s “Hagar. A Historical Model for ‘Gender Jihad’” (2001); and Muna Tatani’s “Gender Justice and Gender Jihad: Possibilities and limits of Qur’anic Interpretations for Women’s Liberation,” (2013). Discussions of this kind of jihad are entirely absent from Spencer’s polemic, the sole purpose of which is to exert its own bitter Islamophobic influence in the world.
Right. My book is about jihad warfare. I make no apologies for that; in fact, there is no other complete history of jihad warfare in the English language. That Achrati here uses the word “Islamophobic” is the icing on the cake; “Islamophobia” is a propaganda neologism designed to intimidate people into thinking it wrong to oppose jihad violence and Sharia oppression of women. It has no actual content as a concept; it is solely designed to smear and defame so as to induce people of good will to turn away from whatever is thus labeled. It is therefore the absolute opposite of genuine academic inquiry. But our nation's colleges and universities long ago abandoned genuine academic inquiry.
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is author of 21 books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is Rating America’s Presidents: An America-First Look at Who Is Best, Who Is Overrated, and Who Was An Absolute Disaster. Follow him on Twitter here. Like him on Facebook here.