More dissection of Robert Spencer’s “scholarship”

Ali Eteraz

Posted May 8, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

More dissection of Robert Spencer’s “scholarship”

by Ali Eteraz


Robert Spencer has made a career out of attacking Islam. The author of books with titles such as The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion, Spencer claims his writings are geared toward “calling attention to the roots and goals of jihad violence”. His main outlet is his blog, (to which his sidekick Hugh Fitzgerald also contributes). Spencer’s “scholarship” generally follows a pattern:

• Cite a recent incident of extremist violence or rhetoric in the Muslim World

• Quote the centuries-old writings of well-respected scholars (often selectively) or make blanket statements about Islamic law in an attempt to draw a causal connection between mainstream Islamic doctrines and modern extremism

• Bridge the gap in relevance between ceturies-old doctrines and modern-day problems by claiming that the “gates of ijtihad are closed”, that Muslims are thus completely bound by the rulings of long-dead jurists, and that reform is therefore impossible

• Dismiss (or simply neglect to discuss) the significance of archaic international norms of warfare and diplomacy in the formulation of centuries-old doctrines relating to jihad

• Dismiss (or simply neglect to discuss) Muslim scholars and leaders who criticize jihadist ideology and extremism

• Dismiss (or simply neglect to discuss) the role of socioeconomic realities or postcolonial dynamics in fostering terrorism and extremism

• Dismiss (or simply neglect to discuss) the role of American foreign policies in fostering terrorism and extremism

Needless to say, his work would not be taken seriously if he applied a similar approach to any other field of study. However, given the current political climate, a third-rate “expert” such as Spencer can find a large audience for his pseudo-scholarship, thereby lending him an aura of legitimacy. His posts on JihadWatch garner dozens of comments from back-patting cheerleaders who post under names like “DownWithIslam” and call for “sand niggers” to be shot. Spencer has appeared on numerous mainstream television and radio talk shows and been invited to lead a seminar on Islam before the Department of Homeland Security’s Joint Terrorism Taskforce.

Because of the simplistic nature of Spencer’s analysis, many Muslim leaders may not wish to dignify his work with a response or may find it distasteful to engage with him. But due to his unfortunate influence within mainstream circles, Muslim leaders active in the public relations sector must deal with his views whether they want to or not. Fortunately, JihadWatch is replete with examples of the flawed logic endemic in Spencer’s writings, and demonstrates that refuting him is a rather easy task.

For instance, in a recent post, Spencer linked to a news report about a spate of bombings in Peshawar, Pakistan targeting music and video shops. The attacks were apparently the work of hardliners who believe music, television, and movies are un-Islamic. In his commentary on the incident, Spencer writes:

Islamic law forbids music (cf. ‘Umdat al-Salik r40.1), although this law has of course often been ignored… But the law remains — it has never been reformed or rejected by any significant Islamic authority. Consequently it can always be reasserted, as here.”
The assertion that the view of music as Islamically forbidden “has never been reformed or rejected by any significant Islamic authority” is patently false, and should make anyone even mildly familiar with the intellectual history of Islam do a double-take. In fact, the annals of Islamic scholarship are replete with lively, nuanced debate on the subject of music. Though many scholars were indeed of the opinion that music and singing are impermissible, there is no shortage of dissenters from that view. Al-Ghazali, a renowned 11th century Islamic theologian and jurist, wrote an extensive treatise on the subject and concluded that music is permissible except if temptation is feared. Imam ibn Hazm and Qadi Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi, two of the leading scholars of Muslim Spain, wer of the opinion that the use of musical instruments and singing are permissible. Contemporary scholars who have approved of music and singing include Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Muzammil Siddiqi. These Islamic authorities can hardly be described as insignificant.

Spencer also fails to mention another prominent issue addressed by Islamic law relevant to the Peshawar incidents: vigilantism. Even if Spencer’s claim about the impermissibility of music is correct, he provides no clue as to what principle of Islamic law allows ordinary citizens to take it upon themselves to punish offenders. Spencer sidesteps this gap in his analysis by using the passive voice; according to Spencer, the prohibition against music “has… often been ignored”, but “can always be reasserted.” But by who? Even the most conservative jurists vehemently disapproved of civilians taking the law into their own hands, and maintenance of law and order is a prominent theme in classical Islamic political theory. Early Islamic jurist Imam Malik (founder one of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence) wrote, “60 years of tyranny are better than one hour of civil strife.” Acts of vigilantism generally fit into a category of crimes termed hiraba, a subject that Islamic scholars both classical and contemporary have discussed extensively.

In short, the same body of traditional scholarship on Islamic law that Spencer claims justifies such attacks also includes ample evidence to the contrary–evidence that he obscures through blanket statements and rhetorical slights of hand. It’s unclear whether Spencer is simply unaware of this information or has consciously ignored it. But it matters little as far as his competency as an authority is concerned; if the former is the case, he’s incompetent, if the latter is the case, he’s disingenious and intellectually dishonest. In any event, continuously exposing and refuting Spencer’s amateur attempts at scholarship would do much to discredit Islamophobia in the long run.


See also: