Monday, June 13, 2016
Islam Unveiled by Robert Spencer (Book Review #26 of 2016)
Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions about the World's Fastest-Growing Faith - Robert Spencer
I read this book along with several others by modern authors looking at the origins and future of Islam, including works by Reza Aslan, Maajid and Sam Harris, Tamim Ansary, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Ziauddin Sardar, and others (see list at bottom). This is easily the most Western-oriented and most critical of Islam. The context in which Spencer wrote this book is 2002-2003 when the US was invading and occupying Iraq, ostensibly in part due to a belief that Al-Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein were linked and somehow complicit for 9/11.
Spencer examines modern thoughts from Islamic scholars and clerics and rather selectively quotes from throughout the centuries on subjects ranging from slavery, to women's rights, to warfare. He is pushing back on the criticisms of himself and others of "Islamophobia," rejecting the same caution about political correctness found on the Left that Nawaz and Harris address in their dialogue on Islam. He is also criticizing the Leftish push toward "multiculturalism" and "plurality" in that it discourages the assimilation needed for everyone living within a border to live under the same laws and have the same rights and opportunities. The "melting pot" of America has had less of a problem assimilating Muslim immigrants than Europe, where you see places like France have essentially a class system that systematically discriminates against foreigners and limits their opportunities. He rightly addresses the tensions that Hirsi Ali and Mona Eltahawy raise in their books-- is a woman forced to wear a burqa being deprived of her human rights or is it an untouchable topic of culture and religion? A major weakness of the book, however, is that he mostly lumps "Islam" into one category, not recognizing different strains, such as Sufism, that have a diversity of views and practices. He pulls quotes from Islamic scholars throughout history without explaining the context of the quote itself, or what school of thought the cleric came from. This is not a scholarly work, but rather a political reaction.
Early on, Spencer recognizes the need to deal with the text-- do we approach the Quran as Tom Holland does, as a function of the cultural context it was written in or as an eternal non-created document in an eternal language (Arabic) that therefore predates the earth and all other religions (as is orthodox Islamic doctrine since the 800s, before which proponents of this view such as Ibn Hanbal were imprisoned as heretical.) He also brings up the thousands of hadiths and the varying degree to which they are considered reliable records of Muhammad's thoughts and deeds. Spencer could have done well to explain the process by which "western" Greek ideas such as reason and rhetoric were initially embraced by Islamic scholars from the 700-800s and later rejected as the views of conservative clerics tending to more of a Salafist view that the Quran could not be read and interpreted contextually eventually held sway. Spencer recognizes that most Muslims do not deal contextually-hermeneutically with the Quran and therefore picking and choosing verses to back a point is a fair game (there's no such thing as "out of context.") But Spencer seems largely ignorant of historical scholarship and that is not his aim in this book.
In regards to women, Spencer notes that Muhammad had access to many more women than just his wife, bringing up the controversy over Muhammad marrying his adopted son's former wife, which some claim from various hadiths that Muhammad brought about-- he was impressed by her and made it happen. He deals with the history of female circumcision, how rape is only provable if there are four male witnesses attesting to it, and shows various interpretations of the Quranic verse about beating women-- none of which are as light a translation/interpretation as Reza Aslan puts forth in his book No god but God. There is a theme running through many hadiths and writings that hell is filled with more women than men.
Ultimately, Quranic verses dealing with women (such as allowing men to have four wives)and the patriarchal and tribal customs that existed in the time of Muhammad are what drive later legal and and cultural understandings about the rights of women. Among other books I read along with this one were several written by women who were raised in the Middle East and Africa, they do a better job painting the complex realities of women in Islam.
Spencer also raises concerns about the relationship between Islam and democracy. Islam cannot be separated from governance, the Quran is the basis for theocracy, there is no other legitimate government. Hence, Spencer would predict secular democratic countries like Turkey where conservative, Islamic-practicing ministers have been elected, would gradually erode the remnants of the secular democracy and impose more Islamic-based laws that may run contrary to Western definitions of rights and liberties. Many would argue this is what has happened in Turkey since this book was published. Spencer, like many authors, notes that historically the Islamic reaction to stagnation has been a move toward more conservativism (such as at the end of the Abbasid caliphate).
Lastly, the author addresses the idea of "jihad," since he is the founder of a group called "Jihad Watch." Islam's first century was rapid expansion from Africa to India by military conquest, it spread under "the shadow of the sword." Tamim Ansary and Robert Hoyland have pointed out that the concept of "jihad" was used in the seventh and eighth centuries for offensive purposes, while John Esposito would argue that it was misused at that time-- jihad is a defensive concept with Quranic restrictions on its appropriateness. The later "House of War" and "House of Islam" dichotomy has also led to justification of further spreading Islam by force by Salafis and groups like ISIS today. Spencer does not seem to acknowledge that this phrase came about after Muhammad. Spencer writes that all generally agree that Muhammad gave license to kill apostate Muslim converts, but he may not agree that much of the assimilation of cultures in that first century after Muhammad was done non-violently. The largely Arab armies were outnumbered by the locals, therefore concessions had to be made, they did not have a "convert or die" ultimatum as is so often assumed. Where Jews and others claim massacres occured, there is disputed evidence and other counter-examples; every area's conquest was different. In short, there is a battle about the definitions and origins of the word and concept "jihad."
To Spencer's point about how multiculturalism discourages assimilation, "demographics may make jihad unnecessary." His comments here border on xenophobia as he notes how largely-unassimilated Muslims are growing in number in Europe and will soon have influence over various laws and interpretations of laws there; the same in the US where as I write this in 2016 the US Census is reporting that Arabic is the fastest-growing language. There is not an overt proposed solution here, but it would seems Western societies absorbing these populations need to have a good apologetic for why the laws and values for having adopted the constitutions and laws that are currently on the books.
In all, I give this book 1.5 stars. It raises good questions to ask but does so in an unhelpful manner. It is too easy for someone to read this book and draw conclusions without further investigating the history of Islam and engaging with the diaspora of Islamic beliefs.
Other books read concurrently that I recommend above this one:
A Very Short Introduction to the Koran - Michael Cook (4.5)
A Very Short Introduction to Islam - Malise Ruthven (3 stars)
In the The Shadow of the Sword - Tom Holland (4 stars)
In God's Path - The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire - Hoyland (4 stars)
Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses)- John Esposito (3 stars)
Reza Aslan - No god but God - The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars)
Dialogue with Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz - Islam and the Future of Tolerance (1.5 stars)
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes - Tamim Ansary (4.5 stars)
Heretic - Ayan Hirsi Ali (4 stars)
Headscarves and Hymens - Mona Eltahawy (3.5 stars)
The Land of Invisible Women - Qanta Ahmed (4.5 stars)
The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 by Salim Yuqub (Great Courses)
Brief History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield (3.5 stars)
History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (4.5 stars)
Desparately Seeking Paradise - Ziauddin Sardar (4.5 stars)
What Do Muslims Believe? - Ziauddin Sardar