At least since Georgi Plekhanov’s influential essay “The Role of the Individual in History” (1898), the proponents of the Great Man model—initiated in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and famously elaborated by Carlyle—have been on the defensive. For some decades now, the Western academe has been dominated by the upholders of the primacy of the relationships and conflicts between social forces in determining the course of history. Most chairs that count are held by Emeriti who see history as a linear struggle between social classes and their key fractions. Over the past generation the “proletarian” has been replaced by “RaceGenderSexuality” and the “capitalist” by the non-self-hating straight white male, but the dogma that history is determined by social forces has survived the fall of the Wall.
Robert Spencer’s “The Truth About Muhammad” (Regnery, a HUMAN EVENTS sister company) was not written in order to disprove the gnostic notion that history has a comprehensible pattern, a determinate logic and a finite number of possible resolutions or outcomes. But that is, indirectly, what the book achieves. This brief and readable summary of the life and times of the prophet of Islam, derived from eminently orthodox Muslim sources, reveals the centrality of Muhammad not only to Islam-as-religion but also to Islam as a totalitarian ideology, Islam as a geopolitical project, and Islam as a normative moral and legal system devoid of any “natural” foundation.
If we look at the ancient world in the half-millennium after Rome passed her zenith under Trajan and Hadrian, we can discern no “objective” reason why the Arabs should have been more successful than any number of other nomadic warriors—the Cimmerians, or Scythians, or Huns, or Parthians—in making not only spectacular but also enduring conquests, conquests that were not ephemeral but capable of producing imperial edifices and breeding imperial ambitions of breathtaking audacity. They were all crude nomads in search of water and pasture and plunder. They all shared the low labor requirements of pastoralism, leaving most men instantly available for war. Various attempts at a socio-economic explanation of the Arab phenomenon have been made, notably by the late Geoffrey de Ste Croix, but they were but ex post facto rationalizations that undoubtedly would have been applied with equal force to the Thousand-Year Hun Empire had it happened.
It did not, but the Arab one did, and Muhammad— “victorious through terror” —made all the difference. His kinsmen and tribesmen were prone to war by custom and nature, accustomed to living by pillage and the exploitation of settled populations. Theirs was an “expansionism denuded of any concrete objective, brutal, and born of a necessity in its past” (Ibn Warraq), but Muhammad provided a powerful ideological justification for those wars—a justification that was religious in form, global in scope and totalitarian in nature. In the space of a decade, the “warner in the face of a terrific punishment” morphed into a vengeful warlord, slayer of prisoners, murderer of political opponents and exterminator of Jews (chapters 6-9), his every move duly condoned by “revelations” from on high. From Muhammad’s second year in Medina on, Islam combined the dualism of a universal religion and a universal state, and jihad became its instrument for carrying out the faith’s ultimate objective by turning all people into believers. As Spencer explains, Muhammad postulated the fundamental illegitimacy of the existence of non-Islam, and mandates permanent “rejection of the Other” —to use a fashionable term—by every bona fide Muslim as a divine obligation. To a Muslim, Jihad does not necessarily mean permanent fighting, but it does mean a permanent state of war.
Even the cornerstone statement, “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet,” goes beyond a declaration of monotheism and implies the radical division of the world into two camps. Antagonism toward non-Muslim religions, societies and cultures is certainly not the trait shared by all Muslims, but it is an attitude mandated by Muhammad to all true Muslims and prevalent among most to this day. Thanks to its founder, Islam has emerged as a quasi-religious ideology of cultural and political imperialism that absolutizes the conflict with other than itself, and knows no natural limits to itself.
Muhammad’s actions and words presented by Spencer are frankly shocking by the standards of our time, and punishable by its laws that range from genocide, crimes against humanity and murder to enslavement, rape and child molestation. But even in the context of 7th-Century Arabia, Muhammad’s deeds were often considered repugnant. He had to resort to “revelations” as a means of justifying his actions and suppressing the prevalent moral code of his own society. Attacking caravans in the holy month, taking up arms against one’s kinsmen, slaughtering prisoners, reserving a lion’s share of the booty, murdering people without provocation, violating treaties and indulging one’s sensual passions were also at odds with the moral standards of his Arab contemporaries. Only the ultimate authority could sanction it, and Allah duly obliged him. As an Edwardian author put it in the blunt language allowed in his time, the problem with Muhammad is not that he was a Bedouin, but that he was a morally degenerate Bedouin.
Evidence of His Followers
The title of Spencer’s book is inevitably a misnomer: Its author is well aware that “the truth” about Muhammad is more than we really know about the historical man, and “traditions” are not history. The “truth” that matters to us all, however, and the reason this book is important, is not what verifiably came to pass between 570 and 632 AD in Western Arabia, but what one-fifth of humanity believes to have happened. Ernest Renan’s famous assertion that Islam was “born in the full light of history” (p. 20) is incorrect: “The full light” is but the reflected glimmer of medieval Muslim scholars, men who were believers and, therefore, of necessity, apologists. But the construct completed some two centuries after Muhammad’s death is held by all true Muslims to be not only true but universally and eternally valid as a perfect model of virtue for all time.
As Spencer points out, on its own admission, Islam stands or falls with the person of Muhammad, a deeply flawed man by the standards of his own society, as well as those of the Old and New Testaments, both of which he acknowledged as divine revelation, and even by the new law, of which he claimed to be the divinely appointed medium and custodian. Fourteen centuries later, the problem of Islam, and the problem of the rest of the world with Islam, is not the remarkable career of Muhammad per se, undoubtedly a “great man” in terms of his impact on human history. It is the religion’s claim that the words and acts of its prophet provide the universally valid standard of morality as such, for all time and all men.
Our judgment on Muhammad rests on evidence of his followers and faithful admirers, and those who go into paroxysms of rage over Pope Benedict’s lectures or Danish cartoons can scarcely complain if, even on such evidence, the verdict of the civilized world goes against their prophet. That verdict, once it is passed—and thanks to the courageous people such as Robert Spencer it will be passed—will make the gentle mockery of Muhammad in those cartoons appear as inappropriate tomorrow as it would be inappropriate today to lampoon Hitler for his out-of-wedlock liaison with Fräulein Braun or for his inability to control flatulence.