Is Robert Spencer a Scholar? On Spencer’s Credentials and Methodology
Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) ranked Robert Spencer as the second leading Islamophobe in the country, losing out the number one position to his boss and financier David Horowitz. Former Nixon advisor Robert Crane calls out Spencer as “the principal leader…in the new academic field of Islam-bashing.” Even though Horowitz can be credited with funding the modern day online Crusade against Islam, it is Robert Spencer who fights on the online battlefield, attacking his Muslim foes and their liberal dhimmi allies. In order to bolster his credibility, Spencer and his allies not only claim that he is a scholar, but his own website touts him as “the acclaimed scholar of Islam”. Because these words are boldly emblazoned on his own site, we can only assume that he takes such claims seriously. It is thus fair game to call him to task for this.
His claims notwithstanding, Robert Spencer simply does not possess any scholarly credentials. To be seriously considered a scholar in the academic world in this day and age, one must at minimum possess some rudimentary academic education in the field in which one is claiming scholarship. In order to be considered a scholar, one must have published numerous peer-reviewed articles in reputable journals, the articles being subjected to rigorous critique by established authorities before being accepted. First year students in Ph.D. programs have published far more of such articles than Robert Spencer ever has. There is good reason for that: Spencer has published no such articles, contenting himself with reproducing work in non-academic and populist publications. Spencer does not even possess a Master’s Degree in anything related to Islam, let alone a Ph.D. and post-doctoral fellowship. Spencer does have in M.A. in the field of early Christian studies; does that make him a scholar of Christianity? If not, then why is he considered a scholar of Islam without even an M.A. in Islamic studies?
It seems that Spencer wishes to bypass the minimum of eight years of studies needed to even be considered a serious student (let alone a scholar) and wishes simply to anoint himself the title of “scholar.” It is difficult to take any of his supporters seriously when they claim someone is “the acclaimed scholar of Islam” when he does not even have a Master’s Degree in the subject. Spencer’s followers, fans, and sister sites refer to him as a “scholar” and that’s enough of a credential for him. Ahmed Rehab wrote an excellent article on the Huffington Post that succinctly sums up Robert Spencer’s (lack of) “qualifications” as a scholar:
Spencer postures himself as an “Islamic Scholar.” But unlike most people we tend to call “scholars,” Spencer did not burden himself with the traditional scholarly route that puts an emphasis on objectivity and academic rigor.
There is a good reason for this: his “scholarly” methodologies would not jive in any of our nation’s accredited PhD programs let alone a path for tenure where he would have to get his papers peer-reviewed and have his methodology checked by notable scholars for objectivity and a lack of bias (unless, of course, David Horowitz decides to build the David Horowitz Freedom University).
Spencer dismisses such criticism as follows: he is right, and all of the tenured professors of Islamic studies, with their inconvenient knack for unbiased scholarship, are wrong. After all, universities are the establishment of the left-wing liberal conspiracy.
Besides who needs peer-reviewed papers, Spencer seems content to receive rave reviews from Weasel Zippers, Nice Doggie, Atlas Shrugs, Muslims are Terrorists, and of course, frontpagemag.com, that other gem of a creation, and bastion of objectivity, by the guy who cuts his checks.
Now, I will be the first to admit that there are plenty of problems in the Muslim world. I welcome an honest and responsible critique any day. But honest and responsible Spencer’s agenda-driven hatemongering is not. I am not not the only one to take issue with Spencer’s technique. Most objective scholars and professors of Islamic studies dismiss the guy as laughably fraudulent and amateur.
The fact that Robert Spencer posits himself as a “scholar” calls to question his credibility, and one cannot escape the conclusion that he is nothing but an intellectual huckster. Just as we would view a person as a quack for claiming to be a physician without having gone to medical school, likewise we must declare Spencer a fraud. Quite frankly, he is a boldfaced liar, for claiming to be something that he is not. His claims to scholarship ought not be taken seriously, and his title of “the acclaimed scholar of Islam” ought to be considered the epitome of hilarity.
Neither is Robert Spencer’s methodology scholarly. Because he is not accustomed to nor subjected to scholarly peer review, Spencer can use populist arguments that appeal to the layperson but not to the serious student or scholar. Ahmed Rehab explains Spencer’s basic methodology:
So let us take a quick look at the crux of Spencer’s methodology which is as disingenuous as his conclusions are sensational. In fact, it can be analogized to the three acts of a magic trick as described in the movie The Prestige.
The Set Up: Spencer and his associates scour the web for the most sensational and extreme expressions within the Muslim world. They may be related to a certain extremist interpretation of Islam, or may not even have anything to do with Islam altogether, but that won’t matter, so long as the perpetrator is a Muslim, it will do.
The Performance: Spencer then supplants his own commentary on the story which he meticulously crafts with the ultimate goal of convincing his readers that the bizarre incident in question is representative of the faith of Islam and Muslims at large. This subtle leap of faith that he hopes no one notices is the key to his magic act.
The Prestige: He can then rightly claim, with the innocence of a schoolboy, that he does not make up the material he produces, that he is merely quoting things as is, hoping no one notices that he uses the aberrant to define the normative.
Rehab’s analysis is good, but it seems necessary to add the missing element. Yes, it is true that Spencer points to the most extremist interpretations of Islam and then claims they represent the faith. But he also points to ultraconservative interpretations of Islam (which ought not be considered exactly synonymous with “the most extremist interpretations of Islam”) and then reinforces the authority of these interpretations by quoting texts from the classical Islamic texts. It does not matter to Spencer or his audience that these medieval texts were written hundreds of years ago; these views become the “normative” understanding of the religion. He ignores the fact that, like Judaism and Christianity, Islamic thought is not static and has developed over the last century. It is thus that a contemporary Muslim can read an ancient legal text without taking it as the Gospel truth, perhaps agreeing with it in general but disagreeing on certain points. But to Spencer, a Muslim who picks up any such book must automatically agree with it 100%, without question.
Spencer’s work involves labeling the extremist or ultraconservative views of Islam as “the real (and only) Islam” 70% of the time, and wholesale fabrication 30% of the time. This 70/30 strategy works well for him, because he can claim that he didn’t make up the 70% by quoting REAL Muslims who say such. And the remaining 30% is slipped in between the 70%, requiring an astute and informed mind to catch it. Let’s see this article of Spencer’s to see the 70/30 strategy in action. He makes two arguments on that page, as follows:
The two recent cases in which I was involved had to do with the closure of the gates of ijtihad and the arrangement of Qur’anic suras…
1. The gates of ijtihad are closed…
2. The Qur’an is arranged from the longest to the shortest chapters…
Point #1 is the 70%, and point #2 is the 30%. In point #1, Spencer claims that the “gates of ijtihad” are closed. The Arabic word ijtihad refers to the independent analysis of the Quran and Prophetic traditions. If the gate is closed, this means that Muslims are “stuck with” the traditional opinions expressed hundreds of years ago during a very intolerant time in world history. In other words, Muslims cannot reform their religion because the gates of ijtihad are closed.
To “prove” his claim, Spencer says: “Here is some material from Muslims” and then quotes a few random Muslims who said as much, linking to an Islamic website. This is how Spencer cites sources, using as authoritative even no-name random websites. For example, on p.76 of his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), Spencer makes the following incredible claim:
…As many as 75 percent of the imprisoned women in Pakistan are, in fact, behind bars for the crime of being a victim of rape. 
When one flips to the back of his book, one reads that the source, footnote , reads:
 See Sisters in Islam, “Rape, Zina, and Incest,” April 6, 2000, http://www.muslimtents.com/sistersinislam/resources/sdefini.htm
The link is broken, but the site he sourced has been archived here. It’s just random website that says:
In Pakistan, it is reported that three out of four women in prison under its Hudud laws, are rape victims.
“It is reported…”? By whom? What authority? Who reported it? There is no footnote, reference, or citation given. But Spencer uses it anyways, assuming that his opponents are simply supposed to accept it because it is “your side” saying it. No academic publication would ever accept such a spurious reference. A real scholar, whose work would regularly be subjected to scholarly critique (i.e. peer-reviewed), would never even cite like such. The number 75% is truly astronomical and beyond belief. Likewise, Spencer “backs up” his claim about the gates of ijtihad by citing REAL LIFE Muslims, as if somehow quoting from “your side” will prove his statement. For example, he says:
Then there’s this from Muslim-Canada.org:
“Thus the schools of the four Imams remain intact after a thousand years have passed, and so the ‘Ulama’ recognize since the time of these Imams no Mujtahid of the first degree. Ibn Hanbal was the last….Since their Imam Qazi Khan died (A.H. 592), no one has been recognized by the Sunnis as a Mujtahid even of the third class.”
A mujtahid is someone qualified to perform ijtihad. Ahmed ibn Hanbal died in 855 AD. Qazi Khan died in 1196.
The truth is that his claim that the gates of ijtihad are closed is bogus, because there is no real such thing as “gates of ijtihad.” It’s just a phrase used, and is not a real physical thing. Some conservative elements in the Islamic world believe that the gates of ijtihad are closed, and Spencer quotes these Muslims as “proof.” But there is no dearth of Muslims who think otherwise. The gates of ijtihad are open for whoever wants them to be open, and closed for whoever wants them to be closed. Indeed, this has always been the case, with jurists who lived hundreds of years ago engaging in ijtihad. Even the conservative Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyya firmly believed that the gates of ijtihad were open, engaged in ijtihad, and was (and is) considered a mujtahid (one who is capable of engaging in ijtihad) of the highest order by many Muslims. And he died in 1328 A.D., more than 130 years after the passing of Qazi Khan (the imam Spencer claims was the last mujtahid “even of the third class”). Even those Islamic jurists (past and present) who say they believe that the “gates of ijtihad” are closed would (and do) often engage in ijtihad but simply call it something else; others would (and do) believe that it is closed in general (i.e. on most topics) but open for other issues.
Professor H. Patrick Glenn, in his book Legal Traditions of the World (pp.203-204), wrote of the so-called “gates of ijtihad” (or “door of endeavor” as he translates it):
Of course, there never was a door, and there never was a closing (that anyone could see, or hear) but everyone can instantly seize what a closed door means. It is a silent but effective barrier, and you can never know what will be on the other side if you open it and go through. So the proponents of the closed door argue not only that God’s will has been fulfilled in existing teaching, but that the re-opening of the door would raise fundamental questions about the future direction and even identity of Islam. Yet the controversy within Islamic legal thought on this subject in the last century has been described as ‘violent.’ Some say the door should be re-opened, at least for the least precise of the Koranic injunctions; others say it is already open, or even never closed…Nobody today can say whether the shari’a, in the totality of its primary sources, is immutable.
Professor M.B. Hooker writes in his book entitled Indonesian Islam: Social Change through Contemporary Fatawa (p.232):
The gate to ijtihad was opened long ago.
Perhaps a more precise statement would be that the gate of ijtihad was opened for whoever wants to view it as opened. Conservative Muslims will view it as closed, whereas less conservative Muslims will see it as opened. Conservative Muslims who repeatedly make the claim–that “the gates of ijtihad are closed and have always been closed”–must be understood to be chastising their less conservative brethren for engaging in what they view as unacceptable modernization via ijtihad. In other words, their claim is not stating that no Muslim is engaging in ijtihad, but only that no Muslim ought to engage in it or is properly authorized to do so (according to them).
Robert Spencer’s claim that the gates of ijtihad are closed is incredibly misleading and uninformed as it is completely misses out on the entire theme of the nineteenth century of Islamic thought, which was rampant with “modernist Islamic thinkers” who demanded an unfettered “opening” of the gates of ijtihad. They not only successfully opened it, they smashed it, much to the chagrin of conservative Muslims. Professor F.E. Peters mused in his book The Monotheists (V.1, p.118):
Today the gate of ijtihad seems agape rather than merely ajar.
But a Muslim said otherwise! “Your own side” said so! Such silliness cannot be tolerated in academia, and it is no surprise that Spencer could not tolerate a scholarly peer-review of his work. This, then, is Spencer’s 70%, wherein he cites extremist or ultraconservative/conservative opinions and cites them as not only the most authoritative views in Islamic thought, but the only ones. Less conservative views (especially reformist interpretations) are viewed as not being “real Islam.” Once Spencer has discounted these reformist understandings of Islam, he then disingenuously laments about why Islam is not being reformed.
Moving on to the 30%, we see Spencer’s second argument, as follows:
2. The Qur’an is arranged from the longest to the shortest chapters…
Spencer claims that aside from the very first chapter (sura), “the Qur’an is indeed arranged longest chapter to shortest.” This seems like an innocuous mistake, so why should we dwell on it? Certainly it would not be worthy of a second thought, except that he is specifically berating Dinesh D’Souza for saying otherwise. Wouldn’t Spencer have simply opened up the Quran to see if it is true or not before he responded? Instead of doing this very simple task, he looks around for “Muslim sources” that “say the same thing”. He cites www.islamset.com and an article published on an oil company’s magazine (written by a random anthropologist named Geert Mommersteeg). Well, if Geert Mommersteeg the anthropologist says it, then it must be true!
The last chapter of the Quran is al-Nas, and it is 6 verses long. It is not the shortest chapter in the Quran as Spencer claims. Rather, the shortest chapter in the Quran is al-Kawthar, which is only 3 verses long. The fact that “your side” said that the last chapter is the shortest doesn’t change the fact that it isn’t. There can only be one of two possibilities: Spencer did not even open the Quran to check, in which case his “scholarship” is extremely shoddy. Or alternatively, he is guilty of academic deceit, using the “your side said it” argument to “disprove” reality. Spencer’s audience congratulates him on the fact that “he never says something of his own, but always quotes from Muslim sources.”
An even clearer proof of the 30% (and this time not an innocuous lie at all) can be seen here, where Spencer claims that the word “dhimmi” means “guilty person.” His entire chapter on “dhimmitude” used the 70/30 approach. The 70% came by quoting ultraconservative interpretations of how to treat non-Muslims, and reinforcing it by citing the views of “classical” scholars (i.e. those that died hundreds of years ago). The 30% came by slipping in the “guilty person” fib, which Spencer hoped nobody would be astute enough to notice.
Robert Spencer is no scholar, nor is his methodology scholarly. He is a fraud, an intellectual huckster, and a sham artist. And he’s about to be exposed.