Robert Spencer’s The History of Jihad tells, in magnificent measure, the story of how, over 1400 years, the votaries of Islam have observed the religious duty of holy war, or Jihad, warfare against the Unbelievers. Reviewers sometimes insist that “if you can only read one book on the subject, read this one.” Here such insistence is not hyperbole. Spencer tells in lively fashion a deadly story, of how what started with a few dozen followers in a dusty town in western Arabia became today’s ideological empire of 1.6 billion members of the Islamic community or umma, mostly to be found in 57 Muslim-majority countries, but now also including hundreds of millions of Muslims in Europe, North America, and India.
How did this happen? How did Muhammad manage to survive early setbacks in Mecca to become the ruler of Arabia? Spencer offers overwhelming evidence that along with brute force, deceit and terror were Muhammad’s chief weapons. “War is deceit,” he insisted. He told his followers that “I have been made victorious through terror.” These -- brute force, deceit, and terror -- have remained the chief weapons of Jihad throughout history.
Spencer takes us through the campaigns that allowed Muhammad to go from near-fatal weakness to strength. Muhammad’s victory over a much larger enemy at the Battle of Badr in 624 signaled a change in his fortunes; he never looked back. Muhammad relied until 628 only on force to defeat his enemies. But in that year, he agreed to the Treaty of Al Hudaibiyya, which would become the first example of victory through guile. Muhammad had signed a truce treaty (hudna), with the Quraysh tribe of Mecca. It was to last ten years. One of its provisions required Muhammad to return to the Quraysh any member of the tribe who came to him. When a woman of the Quraysh came over to the Muslims, Muhammad broke the treaty (after 18 months) by refusing to send her back, claiming -- wrongly -- that the treaty only required him to send back men, not women. Muhammad was willing to break the treaty because his forces had grown stronger; he was now prepared to take on the Quraysh. The violation of this treaty by Muhammad has been the model for Muslim treaty-making with Unbelievers ever since; it was even mentioned by Yasser Arafat, to signal to his Muslim followers that they need not worry; he had no intention of meeting his commitments under any agreement signed with Israel. It would be salutary if those who today pressure Israel to sign this or that treaty with the “Palestinians” were to learn about the Treaty of Al-Hudaibiyya and, for many Muslims, its enduring significance.
Muhammad was above all a warrior, who took part in nine battles (according to Muslim legend, Spencer tells us, he took part in 27). Once the enemy was conquered, Spencer explains, only three options were available for the Unbelievers: death, conversion to Islam, or permanent status as dhimmis, who were required to pay a special tax called the Jizyah, as well as to submit to many other onerous conditions. This Jizyah became the main source of revenue for the Islamic state. Those three options have not changed in 1400 years.
Spencer relies, for the first three centuries of his history, on Arab sources almost exclusively, from the biography of Muhammad Ibn Ishaq, to the historian of early Islam Al-Tabari, to Bukhari and Muslim, who are considered the most reliable of hadith scholars. He continues to quote often from Arab and Muslim historians and jurists (including Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Khaldun), which makes it difficult for those Islamic apologists who deplore his work to find a way to undermine his argument or challenge his facts. They have found their answer to this quandary in maintaining a studied silence: not a single Muslim has apparently yet dared to review this book.
Muhammad’s death in 632 did not halt the Muslim armies in their seemingly unstoppable Jihad, or rather, series of Jihads against the Infidels: first they took Syria, then Iraq and part of Sassanid Persia, then the rest of Persia, and Egypt. They carried Islam’s conquests forward in the West, across North Africa, and entered Spain, under the command of a freed Berber slave, Tariq ibn Ziyad. Ziyad was ultimately aided by a Christian, Julian of Ceuta, who wanted to take his own revenge against the last Visigothic ruler of Spain, Roderic, for taking sexual advantage of one of Julian’s daughters. This would not be the last time that Muslims were helped in their conquests by divisions among their enemies. There have been many such instances since, including the catastrophic effect of the deep divisions between the Catholics and the Orthodox, that prevented an alliance against the rampaging Turks.
Muhammad’s followers continued to fulfill their duty of Jihad in the West, carrying Islam’s conquests forward and up into France, where the Muslim army was halted by Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours in 732. Some apologists for Islam like to claim that Jihad is “defensive” in nature. But it was the rampaging Muslims who first attacked the inoffensive, and often largely defenseless, peoples of North Africa and Spain and France. Charles Martel was only fighting to stop the invaders.
Charles Martel depicted in 'Batailles de Poitiers en Octobre 732' by Charles de Steuben
The history of Jihad is bloody, and the pages of this study are replete with atrocities, but the onward current of Spencer’s vivid narrative pulls us forward. He draws whenever possible, especially in the early centuries, on such Muslim jurists and historians as Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Khaldun. He keeps reminding us, too, of the passages in the Qur’an and Hadith that explain why Muslims did what they did; every Muslim atrocity is justified by the Qur’anic commands and the example of Muhammad himself.Spencer gives special attention to Spain, quite understandably, for Islamic Spain has been the object in the West of much dreamy misinformation that never dies, but needs constantly to be refuted. A well-versed and deadly debunker, Spencer shows that Islamic Spain, Andalusia, was never the paradise of “convivencia” that many in the West, beginning with Washington Irving and continuing into the present, with Karen Armstrong and Maria Rosa Menocal, have so fondly believed. He details the Muslim attacks on Jews in Spain, including the killing of 4000 in Granada in 1066, and the attacks on Christians, too. After the battle of Sagrajas in 1086, the victorious Muslims prayed on top of heaped-up piles of Christian heads. That “happy coexistence” was, Spencer shows, a fable later constructed in the West. Their wretched condition under Islamic rule explains why the Christians fought so determinedly for nearly 800 years of the Reconquista to take back their country. There was, Spencer says, as every reviewer of the book has noted, no Muslim Age of Tolerance, no Muslim Era of Good Feelings, not in Spain, and not anywhere else.
In the early eighth century the Jihad in India began, and as the Hindus and Buddhist were not People of the Book, they did not have the possibility of becoming dhimmis and paying the Jizyah; they had either to convert or be killed. Spencer describes the endless series of mass killings, by the tens of thousands, of Hindus, and the destruction, by the thousands, of their temples. When Tamerlane arrived centuries later, in 1398, he killed many thousands of Hindus, but was still left with 100,000 prisoners. He couldn’t take them with him, and he couldn’t let them free, so he ordered every Muslim under him to kill all the Hindu prisoners each of them held, and in a single day, those 100,000 Hindus were dutifully killed. These killings presage the period of Mughal rule, centuries later, when as many as 70-80 million Hindus, according to the historian K. S. Lal, may have been killed.
There are telling anecdotes throughout this history; they are not superfluous, but make a deep impression. They add to the narrative. One is about the daughters of the conquered Sindhi king Dahir, who were sent to the caliph Walid as part of his booty. When he took one of them to bed, she told him that she had already been raped by the Muslim general Muhammad ibn Qasim. Despite Muhammad’s success in waging Jihad, this was not enough to save him in the eyes of the Caliph. He ordered “that the victorious general, victories or no, be sewn up into a rawhide sack and shipped to his court. By the time the sack containing Muhammad ibn Qasim arrived, he was already dead.” With the loss of that general, the Jihad in India halted. And the reader remains riveted by such details.
Spencer ends his account of the Battle of Tours in 732, when the Muslim defeat halted their conquest of Europe, with a telling remark looking forward to the present Jihad, and our failure to adequately confront it: “The warriors of jihad would appear again in France, but they would not come close again to gaining control of the whole country until many centuries later, by vastly different means, when there was no longer a Charles Martel to stop them.” He then quotes two Europeans on what Europe might have looked like had the Muslims not been defeated. First, the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon, who imagined the Qur’an would have been taught in the schools of Oxford, “and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.” He shuddered at the thought. The second European, who regretted that Islam had not conquered Europe, for “Mohammedanism [is] that cult which glorifies heroism and which opens the seventh heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world. Christianity alone prevented them from doing so” was, Spencer informs us, Adolf Hitler.
Spencer has fun debunking the legend of Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid caliph, always depicted in Western texts solely as an enlightened patron of the arts. That he may have been, but Spencer tells us that he had another side, putting to death defeated Christians and other non-Muslims, while condemning some to remain alive in conditions of “slavery and degradation.” In his repeated raids on Byzantium, this patron of the arts destroyed hundreds of ancient churches, with their icons, mosaics, and other artifacts, in southeastern Anatolia.
How many of us are aware that Muslim forces attacked Rome itself in 846, but could not penetrate its walls? Those forces retreated nearby, plundering and besieging smaller towns. Meanwhile, the Romans were shoring up their defenses, enough so that Rome remained impervious to Muslim attack. And since Rome is his subject, Spencer allows himself a monitory dose of fast-forward-to-Pope-Francis unreality: “The jihad forces were still in Italy, and the threat was urgent; it had not yet become customary for the Roman Pontiff to proclaim the peacefulness of Islam and benign character of the Qur’an, and decry the building of walls.”
Spencer moves back and forth geographically, as dictated by the chronology of different theaters of Jihad, at different stages of conquest, the main ones being in India, Byzantium, and Spain. Not a single jihad, no matter how larger or small, is overlooked -- both those that succeeded, as the quick conquest of Georgia, and those that failed, such as the ill-fated attempt of Muslim forces to enter China, which was defeated, like Napoleon in Moscow, by General Winter.
Spencer has telling anecdotes, not always involving rivers of blood and piles of Infidel heads, that convey the bottomless cruelty of many of the Muslim leaders. Consider the casual savagery on display against Unbelievers in these stories about Abd al-Rahman, who ruled most of Islamic Spain in the ninth century: “he [Abd al-Rahman] threw himself upon her [one of his 6,300 sex slaves] face to kiss and bite her, and she got disgusted by this and turned her face away, raining on his parade; this so provoked his anger that he ordered the eunuchs to seize her and put a candle to her face, burning and destroying her beauty, until they destroyed her face, burning her badly, and finishing with her.” He [Abd al-Rahman] also came across “a thirteen-year-old Christian boy who had been taken hostage. Entranced by the boy’s beauty, the caliph made amorous advances upon him, only to be rejected; enraged, he had the boy tortured and then beheaded.” He was also cruel to his own men. After a defeat, he ordered the execution, by means of crucifixion, of 300 of his top officers.
In the 11th century, the two main sources of slaves for Muslims had dried up. Slavs had converted to Christianity and no longer sold their own people as slaves, and the Turks had converted to Islam, and thus were no longer to be enslaved by other Muslims. The slave market in Andalusia became the main source of slaves for Muslims elsewhere. One more nail in the coffin of “convivencia.”
In India, at the end of the 10th century, the long dormant Jihad was revived by Mahmud of Ghazni, who terrorized the Infidels in what is present-day northeast Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northwest India. He led 17 major Jihad campaigns into the subcontinent. Everywhere he destroyed many thousands of Hindu temples, smashing tens of thousands of their idols. His men killed Hindus everywhere and pulled down the “idol temples.” At Thanessar, according to the Muslim historian Al-Utbi, “The blood of the infidels flowed so copiously that the stream was discolored, notwithstanding its purity, and people were unable to drink it.” At Shrawa, “the Muslims paid no regard to the booty till they had satiated themselves with the slaughter of the infidels and worshippers of sun and fire.” Vast amounts of gold and silver, rubies and pearls, were taken; wherever Mahmud of Ghazni went, he took treasure and slaves. There were so many slaves that their cost in the slave markets plummeted. Mahmud of Ghazni was also, like Harun al-Rashid, a patron of the arts, and it is this, rather than his bloodcurdling conquests, his cruelty and his greed that, Spender notes mildly but tellingly, “tends to be remembered in the contemporary West.”
The Jihad kept on, in the East and in the West. Always there were atrocities. In Armenia, the Seljuk Turks rampaged in the city of Ardzen. A Christian chronicler lamented “the sons taken into slavery, the infants smashed without mercy against the rocks, the venerable old men abased in public squares, the gentle-born virgins dishonored and carried off.”
We come then to the Crusades, where more debunking, and setting the historical record straight, is necessary. As Spencer shows, the Crusades were not an offensive war, as so often depicted, but a response to Jihad, including the takeover of the Holy Land by Muslims, who destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and prevented Christians from making pilgrimages. He does not hold back in describing the barbarism of the Christians, their attacks on Jews as they marched through Europe, and notes the cannibalism of the starving Christians who along the way ate “dead Turks and Saracens.” In Jerusalem the Crusaders behaved no better, burning Jews alive inside their synagogue and slaughtering tens of thousands of Muslims. That number has kept going up, from 20,000 in a 12th century history by a bishop, to 70,000 by a Muslim chronicler in the same century, to 100,000 claimed by a 15th century Muslim historian, to Bill Clinton, that eminent historian, who without any evidence claimed the Crusaders killed every Muslim man, woman, and child on the Temple Mount.
The reader has already been taken by Spencer through the 450 years of uninterrupted Jihad that occurred before the Crusades (which began in 1095), so is well-armed mentally with that history, which undermines the claim of such well-known apologists for Islam as John Esposito, who has written that there had been “five centuries of peaceful coexistence” before “an imperial-papal power play led to centuries-long series of so-called holy wars that pitted Christendom against Islam and left an enduring legacy of misunderstanding and distrust.” But as Spencer shows in such striking and disturbing detail, there never was “peaceful coexistence” between Muslims and Unbelievers, and the Crusades were not “an imperial-papal power play,” but rather, a reaction by Christians to centuries of Jihad, including the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 1009.
Statue of Saladin in Damascus
Spencer’s next exercise in myth-busting concerns Saladin, whom he describes as being “to individual Muslims what al-Andalus is to Muslim polities.” He became the exemplar of the “tolerant, magnanimous Muslim warrior,” embodying the nobility of the faith. Not quite. Having defeated the Crusaders at Hattin, he ordered that all the prisoners were to be beheaded. He allowed a motley crew of Muslims -- scholars and Sufis and ascetics and other devout men -- to each kill one Christian prisoner. Saladin is reported to have watched the spectacle, “his face joyful...while the unbelievers showed black despair.” Yet when he reconquered Jerusalem, Spencer tells us, he treated the Christians with magnanimity. Which side of Saladin should we acknowledge? How about both sides?
While the Holy Land was still being contested in the East, in 1258 the Mongols under Hulagu Khan conquered Baghdad and destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate. Hulagu, whose mother was a Nestorian Christian, was well-disposed toward Christianity. In 1260, a Christian Mongol leader, Kitbuka, took Aleppo and Damascus. Still another Mongol, Arghun, a Buddhist, who ruled in Persia, became interested in making common cause with Christians to drive the Muslims from the Holy Land “once and for all.” Arghun is one of many people in this capacious history who pique one’s curiosity. His closest friend was the chief prelate of the Nestorian Church, his vizier was a Jew. Talk about Convivencia! And Arghun wrote to Pope Honorius IV to suggest this alliance. But nothing came of it, because the Christians were too distracted at home, and possibly, Spencer suggests, too distrustful of the Mongols who, they feared, might eventually try to invade Europe. This Mongol-Christian alliance never came into being -- an opportunity lost, which would not come again, as the Mongol ruler in Iraq converted to Islam, and eventually, so did the rest of the Mongols. One cannot help wondering what the world would now look like had Arghun’s proposed alliance come into being.
Meanwhile, in Spain, the Christian Reconquista continued, and the Muslims in Spain had all they could do to hold onto the territories they had. They were in no position to wage offensive Jihad. In 1492, with the Christian conquest of Granada, the Reconquista was complete. This was the most significant retaking of territory from Muslims until the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948.
In the East, the Jihad resumed in India in the late 12th century, under Muhammad Ghori. There was the same gruesome display as under Mahmud of Ghazni two centuries before: at Aligarh, the Muslims put down a Hindu uprising and raised “three bastions as high as heaven with their heads.” There was mass plundering of all the Hindu riches -- gold, silver, gems -- and mass destruction of the Hindu temples, pulled down by the thousands. In some places, every Hindu male over the age of eight was killed, the women all enslaved. Muslim warriors smashed Hindu idols everywhere they went, placing the broken pieces at the entrance of mosques, to be trodden upon by the faithful.
The Islamic State in India was triumphant. The Hindus were not People of the Book, so could not be dhimmis paying the Jizyah, but they became instead “payers of tribute” who were forced to tender whatever, at any time, was asked of them, and more. If asked for silver, they should offer gold to their Muslim masters. Even Hindus who converted to Islam were to be “treated with continued contempt.” This was “Happy Hindustan,” as a Muslim scholar called it without the slightest irony -- where Islam triumphed, and the Hindus who were not killed lived lives of despair.
Spencer shifts the scene, as his Jihad timeline dictates, back to Europe, and the renewed Jihad against the Byzantine Empire. This was conducted by the Turks, first the Seljuks and then the Osmanlis, who had converted to Islam. Disunity among Christians helped the Jihadis. The attempt to heal the schism between the Catholics and the Orthodox came to nothing, with Pope Benedict insultingly addressing the Byzantine Emperor and the Eastern patriarchs. Spencer tellingly looks forward to today’s Pope, as he does several times in his history, and bitingly notes that “not until the days of Pope Francis would the See of Rome have an occupant more useful to the jihad force than Benedict XII.”
As he brings the story of Jihad up to the present, the history will be more familiar to readers. But we are not used to thinking of these attacks by Muslims on Infidels as Jihads, prompted by the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad; Spencer corrects this misunderstanding. The Armenian genocide was a classic Jihad: a war of Muslim Turks against Christian Armenians, 1.5 million entirely inoffensive victims of Islamic hate. Western textbooks describe these Armenian massacres as the result of “ethnic conflict.” Perhaps one salutary effect of Spencer’s history will be the more accurate identification of those massacres as what they were: “jihad for the sake of Allah.”
The war of Muslim Arabs against the Jews of Palestine, which began in the early years of the 20th century, decades before the Jewish state was declared, is another example of a classic Jihad, a holy war that was particularly important for several reasons. First, Palestine had once been under Muslim rule, and therefore it was higher on the To-Do List of Jihadis than territory that had never been under Muslim control. Spain, Greece, Sicily, the Balkans are also on this list, but Israel has pride of place. Second, Jews were not only hated, but were also despised, and the notion that the despised Jews could now be controlling what had been part of Dar al-Islam was especially maddening.
Spencer quite rightly dwells on this Jihad, because it is still going strong with no end in sight and has become the center of worldwide attention. The U.N. devotes more than half of its time to discussions of Israel and “Palestine”; the U.N. Commission on Human Rights spends much of its time passing resolutions denouncing the giant empire of malevolent Israel. Yet even Israel’s dedicated supporters almost never use the word “jihad” to describe the unending war of Arabs and other Muslims against the Jewish state. Perhaps, after reading this book, they will reconsider, and unapologetically use that word to describe the war against Israel, in a spirit of salutary candor.
Haj Amin al-Husseini and Heinrich Himmler in 1943
In his discussion of the Jihad against Israel, Spencer offers facts likely to be unfamiliar to many. Among them, the most startling is surely the role of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, and leader of the Arabs of Palestine. Al-Husseini consulted with Hitler, urging him not to let any Jews escape to Palestine, but to “burn” them. He raised an S.S. battalion among the Bosnian Muslims, a unit that took part in the Final Solution. From 1941 to 1945, al-Husseini lived in Berlin, where he “became close friends with Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler.” Spencer adds that Eichmann’s assistant, Dieter Wisliczeny, testified at the Nuremberg Trials “that the Grand Mufti” had repeatedly suggested to Hitler, von Ribbentrop, and Himmler “the extermination of European Jewry....The Mufti was one of Eichmann’s best friends and had constantly incited him to accelerate the extermination measures. I heard him say that, accompanied by Eichmann, he had visited incognito the gas chambers of Auschwitz.” Those morally obtuse people who now, grotesquely, dare to compare the Israelis to Nazis should be reminded, whenever possible, of Haj Amin al-Husseini and his epigones in Hamas and Hezbollah.
The war against Israel was never, Spencer explains, a mere dispute over borders, but a Jihad that will continue forever, using whatever means prove most effective at a particular time. Israeli territorial concessions will only whet, not sate, Arab Muslim appetites. Fighting in the path of Allah, the “Palestinians” may even sign a “treaty of peace,” but for them all such peace treaties with Infidels are truce treaties, hudnas, intended to be broken whenever the Muslim side feels strong enough to restart hostilities, just as Muhammad did in 628 with the Quraysh tribe, despite the Treaty of Al-Hudaibiyya. The nature of this conflict needs to be thoroughly understood, for the Jihad against Israel is not different in kind from all the Jihads whose horrific history Spencer lays out in this, his most important book.
For 1400 years, Jihad has been conducted, virtually without interruption, somewhere on the globe. Its methods have varied. The Jihad of violent warfare, successful against the Byzantines, the Sassanid Persians, and the Hindus of India, has today been replaced in Europe by what Spencer was the first to call the “stealth Jihad.” This includes a steady chipping away at the institutions and values of the Unbelievers, including the establishment of No-Go areas where the writ of the Unbelievers does not run, the demand for accommodation to Muslim ways, from dress (opposing limits on hijabs, burqas, and niqabs), to the setting aside of both rooms and of times for daily Muslim prayers in schools and at work, to the rewriting of textbooks and curricula to depict Islam in a favorable light, to continuous efforts at Da’wa, the Call to Islam, especially among prisoners, leading in Europe to a steady inexorable rise in the percentage of Muslims in the population, and much, much more.
The last chapter of this surpassing study is devoted to Jihad in the 21st century. It bears a somber title: “The West Loses the Will to Live.” The title is deserved. For Spencer reminds us of the fantastical statements about Islam, beginning with the remarks made by President Bush on September 17, 2001 at the Islamic Center of Washington, where he said that “these acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith...The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.” Similar remarks about Islam continued -- and continue -- to be made by Bush, by Obama, by John Brennan (former head of the C.I.A.), by Tony Blair, by Theresa May, by Angela Merkel, by -- most harmfully -- Pope Francis, and by a cast of unthinking collaborators, found among the political and media elites all over the Western world. They never give signs of having read the Qur’an or Hadith, as if these texts, that Muslims read, and recite, and endlessly study, and memorize, were unnecessary for them to know before they self-assuredly pronounce on such matters as what constitutes “authentic Islam.” Along comes Robert Spencer with his many books, and now with this history, and what shall the True Believers and Apologists do? Certainly they have learned not to enter the lists with Spencer. Better to simply deny him a platform by, for example, making it hard for him to be invited to, or to speak freely at, college campuses, without disruption. And why not persuade Google and Twitter and Facebook that he is a hate-monger -- can the Southern Poverty Law Center possibly be wrong? -- and therefore deserves to become harder to find on the Internet. It’s useful, too, to keep accusing him, endlessly, of “racism” (a preposterous charge, for the obvious reason) and of “Islamophobia,” a word intended only to shut down all criticism of Islam.
Before I end, let me mention the main criticism I have: the Index leaves much to be desired. Arghun, Saladin, John Esposito, Karen Armstrong are a few of those who should be, but are not, to be found in that index; Mahmud and Mahmud of Ghazni, the same person, receives two entries. As for our presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are to be found under the “B’s”; George Bush is found in the “G’s.” This book deserves better.
But to balance the deficiencies in the Index, let me also mention how much I enjoyed learning new words -- logothete, iconodule -- that were Greek to me, but that the author was unafraid to use. When he knows the exact word, he uses it. No dumbing down of the lexicon here.
If the West manages to avoid what Spencer gloomily foresees on his last page (371) as “almost certain doom” from the forces of Jihad, it will be in large part due to books like this. Or rather, since there really are no other books quite like this, it will be due in large part to this very book, which needs to find its readers, in the right places, capable of learning, and acting upon what they have learned, about the history of jihad.