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Phantom Guilt Syndrome

The Other Side of Islam's Prophet

The Truth About Muhammad:
Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion
Robert Spencer
Regnery, 256 pp, £14.99

In his book, Islam and the West, the historian Bernard Lewis argued: “We live in a time when… governments and religious movements are busy rewriting history as they would wish it to have been, as they would like their followers to believe that it was.” This urge to sanitise unflattering facts is nowhere more obvious than in biographies of Muhammad, of which, Karen Armstrong’s ubiquitous contributions are perhaps the least reliable.


In The Truth About Muhammad, Robert Spencer provides a detailed and timely riposte to common misconceptions, outlining the mismatch between belief and historical reality, and documenting the ways in which Muhammad’s own deeds and purported revelations are used verbatim to mandate intolerance, xenophobia and homicidal ‘martyrdom.' As the subtitle of this ‘sceptical biography’ makes clear, Spencer has written a provocative book likely to arouse passions. But the arguments he presents are rigorous and the evidence - taken exclusively from respected Islamic sources – is compelling, if disquieting.

Spencer explains why Muhammad, as described in the Qur’an and Sunnah and other Islamic texts, is of enormous political importance and central to the phenomenon of 21st century jihad: “If Muhammad was indeed a man of peace, one may reasonably hope that his example would become the linchpin of reform efforts in the Islamic world that would eventually roll back the influence of jihad terrorists… But if the terrorists are correct in invoking his example to justify their deeds, then Islamic reformers will need to initiate a respectful but searching re-evaluation of the place Muhammad occupies within Islam – a vastly more difficult undertaking.”

Indeed, Spencer argues that, at present, it is the terrorists, not moderates and reformers, who have the stronger theological argument: “If peaceful Muslims can mount no comeback when jihadists point to Muhammad’s example to justify violence, their ranks will always remain vulnerable to recruitment from jihadists who present themselves as the exponents of ‘pure Islam’, faithfully following Muhammad’s example.”

Above all, Spencer identifies the problem upon which current tensions hinge. A tradition of hagiography and censorship within the Islamic world has created a woefully inadequate picture of this most problematic of religious figures. (The intolerance of unflattering, if factual, commentary is underlined by the fact this book has already been banned in Pakistan on grounds that it contains “objectionable material.” In fact, Spencer scrupulously refers to authoritative Muslim sources that are freely available in Pakistan and throughout the Islamic world.)

In parallel with this, non-Muslim commentators have routinely shied away from key aspects of Muhammad’s life and teachings for fear of causing offence or inviting threats of violence. Consequently, as recent events have shown, anything that deviates from a bizarrely sanitised depiction of Muhammad can arouse extraordinary indignation. But, as Spencer ably documents, the evidence for Muhammad’s all-too-human shortcomings is not some malicious fabrication on the part of infidels. The evidence is found in the writings of Islamic scholars of the period and in the very texts millions of Muslims regard as the embodiment of Allah. Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt.

© David Thompson 2007

Published in the Observer, February 4, 2007