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.
* * * * *
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, 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!”  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.”  Members would “henceforth and forever stand on the side of the victim of injustice,” instead of simply siding based on tribal loyalty.  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.”  (“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.” 
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…
 Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Hayat Muhammad, p.62
 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.”
 Haykal, p.62
 Ibn Kathir, Al-Sira Al-Nabawiyya, p.188
 A.H. Qasmi, International Encyclopaedia of Islam, p.113