Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions
About The World's Fastest-Growing Faith

by Robert Spencer.
San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. Pp. xiii + 214. $24.95

reviewed by Rev. Bassam M. Madany


Learning About Islam

Books on Islam have been appearing quite frequently during the last twenty-five years. Most of these works dealt with specific topics, such as "Islam and War," "Islam and the West," Race and Slavery in the Middle East," "Faith & Power: The Politics of Islam," "The Political Language of Islam," and "In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power." What distinguishes Robert Spencer's new book, "Islam Unveiled" is the fact that he treats a wide range of current issues in a thorough and objective manner against the background of the sacred Islamic texts, the Qur'an and Hadith.

The publication of "Islam Unveiled" occurred between two important, but troubling media events. In May 2001, and in January 2002, PBS broadcast a two-hour documentary, "Islam: Empire of Faith." A video of the documentary is being shown in some public schools as part of social studies. One can hardly believe the shocking revisionism, distortions, and omissions that are replete in this account of the history of Islam.

Not content with launching the above-mentioned documentary as a means to "enlighten" the American public about the true nature of Islam, one week before Christmas 2002, PBS broadcast a similar documentary on the Legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. Referring to this television event, Robert Spencer wrote an article for the National Review Online with the title, "Islam Soft and Hard: PBS's Whitewashed Commercial for Islam." (December 19, 2002) Commenting on the manner in which the slaughter of the Jews in Arabia was described, he referred to the main narrator, Karen Armstrong, a British former Roman Catholic nun. He quoted this "indefatigable apologist for all things Islamic," as commenting on this mini genocide, "All that can be said is that this cannot be seen as anti-Semitism, per se. Muhammad had nothing against the Jewish people per se, or the Jewish religion."

In the Foreword to Islam Unveiled, a British expert on the Arab world, David Pryce-Jones states,

"Most people in the West know virtually nothing about Islam. A few may visit one or another Muslim country as tourists or perhaps on business, and find that the inhabitants, hospitable and vivacious, seem to be getting on with their lives like everybody else. The events of September 11 therefore appeared to come from nowhere. What was this holy war against the United Sates and the West, this jihad, declared by Osama bin Laden, and how was it possible that to the Arab and wider Muslim world he became an instant popular hero because he had organized the murder of several thousand innocent people in New York and Washington? Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, had little or no idea that there were Muslims out there who so hated them, and little or no idea either of the causes of that hate." ix

Robert Spencer endeavors to give us his explanation for this hatred in ten chapters, nine of which are framed as questions. As already mentioned, his answers are solidly based on the authoritative Islamic texts, the Qur'an, which is regarded by Muslims as the eternal and uncreated Word of Allah, and the Hadith, i.e., the Traditions relating the sayings and example of the Prophet Muhammad.

Here are the titles of the ten chapters of "Islam Unveiled."

  1. Is Islam a Religion of Peace?
  2. Does Islam Promote and Safeguard Sound Moral Values?
  3. Does Islam Respect Human Rights?
  4. Does Islam Respect Women?
  5. Is Islam Compatible with Liberal Democracy?
  6. Can Islam Be Secularized and Made Compatible with the Western Pluralistic Framework?
  7. Can Science and Culture Flourish under Islam?
  8. The Crusades: Christian and Muslim
  9. Is Islam Tolerant of Non-Muslims?
  10. Does the West Really Have Nothing to Fear from Islam?

At the outset, Spencer disagrees with those who claim that the word "Islam" means peace. Etymologically, the word means "surrender" i.e., to the will of Allah as revealed in the Sacred Text. Historically, the claim that Islam means peace is disproved by the fact that it spread primarily by conquests. Growing up in Syria, I read in my teens many Arabic historical novels that glorified the conquests of the Middle East, North Africa and Andalusia, the Arabic name for Spain. The presupposition of the authors was that those conquests were necessary, and sanctioned by the will of God. In fact, in Arabic, they are called, "Futuhat," i.e., "openings." Modern Arab Muslims writers call them euphemistically, "liberations." However, unlike the later European empires that came and went away, Islamic conquests, with few exceptions, altered permanently the demography and the faith of the conquered lands.

Thus, Robert Spencer is right in disagreeing with both President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton, who kept on telling the nation that Islam, is a religion of peace. Most likely, they were motivated by political factors, partly internal, and mostly by the necessity to keep the good favor of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, our "allies." Unfortunately, neither man seems to possess an adequate and objective knowledge of the history of Islam, relying mostly on the "experts" from the State Department.

The treatment of Christians in the conquered lands is discussed on pages 30 to 32. In response to the claim that both Christians and Muslims have indulged throughout their history in persecuting others, Robert Spencer responds by referring to the present-day persecution of Christians in the Sudan and Pakistan, and adds: "When confronted with this kind of evidence, many Western commentators practice a theological version of "moral equivalence," analogous to the geopolitical form which held that the Soviet Union and the United States were essentially equally free and equally oppressive. 'Christians,' these commentators say, 'have behaved the same way, and have used the Bible to justify violence. Islam is no different: people can use it to wage war or to wage peace.'" P. 33

But what these Western liberals seem to forget is that violence, conquest, and religious apartheid, are sanctioned by the texts of Islam. The Bible does not sanction violence. And, during this New Testament age, the Bible does not endorse any theocracy. When Christians resort to violence, with the exception of participating in a just war, they are acting against their sacred Text.

The timeliness of "Islam Unveiled," can be noticed in several chapters. I would like to refer here to the discussion in Chapter Six of the subject, "Can Islam Be Secularized and Made Compatible with the Western Pluralistic Framework?" Robert Spencer refers to the latest book of Bernard Lewis, "What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response." The British scholar and expert on Islam and the Middle East "proposes that Muslim states follow the Western secular model in order to solve some of [their] difficulties."

"This advice is not acceptable to Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi. 'There is nothing new about this remedy, which is one that the West has tried before to impose on Islamic countries, albeit without major success." For him and other Muslims of like mind, the Sharia is not negotiable. "Muslims will not abandon their belief that state affairs should be supervised by the just teachings of the holy law.'" P. 103

Chapter Seven deals with the question, "Can Science and Culture Flourish under Islam?" Our author details the great achievements of Islamic civilization in several pages and states that "Muslims built their great medieval civilization with an attitude of openness to what they could learn from non-Muslims." P. 118

However, due to the influence of the great Sufi theologian, Al-Ghazali (1050-1128), the author of "The Incoherence of the Philosophers", a "closing to the Outside World" took place. Spencer quotes from Philip Hitti's book, The Arabs, with these comments on the consequences of the closing of the Arab-Muslim mind: "In no branch of pure or physical science was any appreciable advance made after Abbasid days. In fact the whole Arab world had by the beginning of the thirteenth century lost the intellectual hegemony it had maintained since the eighth." P. 124

Continuing his discussion of this subject, Spencer quotes from V. S. Naipaul in his book, "Among the Believers." In Islam, says Naipaul, "The West, or the universal civilization it leads, is emotionally rejected. It undermines; it threatens. But at the same time it is needed, for its machines, goods, medicines, warplanes, the remittances from the emigrants, the hospitals that might have a cure for calcium deficiency, the universities that will provide master's degrees in mass media. All the rejection of the West is contained within the assumption that there will always exist out there a living, creative civilization, oddly neutral, open to all to appeal to. Rejection, therefore, is not absolute rejection. It is also for the community as a whole, a way of ceasing to strive intellectually. It is to be parasitic; parasitism is one of the unacknowledged fruits of fundamentalism." P. 129

There is no question mark at the end of Chapter Eight. It deals with the Crusades: Christian and Muslim. The juxtaposition of Christian and Muslim in the title of the chapter is of great importance here. Muslims never cease to reproach the West for the crusader wars (1099-1291). Their assumption is that, while the Arab-Muslim armies of the seventh century had a "divine" right to conquer Christian lands, Western Christians were not to engage in re-conquest. Spencer quotes from "The Arab in History" of Bernard Lewis, where the British historian comments:

"At the present time, the Crusades are often depicted as an early experiment in expansionist imperialism --- a prefigurement of the modern European empires. To the people of the time, both Muslim and Christian, they were no such thing. When the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem, barely four hundred years had passed since that city, along with the rest of the Levant and North Africa, had been wrested by the armies of Islam from their Christian rulers, and their Christian populations forcibly incorporated in a new Muslim empire. The Crusade was a delayed response to the jihad, the holy war of Islam, and its purpose was to recover by war what had been lost by war --- to free the holy places of Christendom and open them once again, without impediment, to Christian pilgrimage." P. 139

Chapter Nine deals with the vaunted "tolerance" of Islam. According to the Islamic Law, followers of Judaism and Christianity were allowed to remain in their faith. They were granted the status of "dhimmi," an Arabic world that etymologically means "protection." However, "dhimmitude" was not equivalent with real freedom. Dhimmis were not supposed to propagate their faith, their houses of worship could not be repaired without governmental approval, and no new churches could be built. And once a dhimmi Islamized, no return to his or her formal religion was allowed. And yet, Muslims love to talk about their tolerant treatment of non-Muslims.

One little-known Ottoman Muslim practice, the Devshirme, exhibited one of the most inhuman and barbaric treatment of Eastern European Christians. Let Robert Spencer enlighten us about this subject.

"Another source of the fear in which dhimmis lived in the Ottoman Empire was the notorious devshirme. Begun in the fourteenth century by Sultan Orkhan and continued until late in the seventeenth century, this was the seizure and enslavement of 20 percent of the Christian children in various predominantly Christian areas of the empire. These boys were given the choice of Islam or death, and, after rigorous training, were enrolled in the janissary corps, the emperor's elite fighters. At first these unfortunate boys were torn from their homes and families only at irregular intervals --- sometimes every seven years and sometimes every four --- but after a time the devshirme became an annual event. By the time it ended, around 200,000 boys had been enslaved in this manner." Pp. 152,153

At this point in my review, I remember how horrified I was when viewing for the first time the documentary, "Islam: Empire of Faith." The narrator dealing with devshirme, looked almost angelic in her account, and referred to that evil institution with a smile on her face, and by claiming that those Christian boys "were recruited." That statement went unchallenged; and yet since that narrator was a Turkish "expert," I should not have been surprised. More than seventy-five years have passed since the Armenian genocide of World War I, and Turkey, to this day, does not acknowledge that it has ever happened!

Chapter Ten deals with the question, "Does the West Really Have Nothing to Fear from Islam?" and ends on a very sobering note:

"Whether or not Islam ever becomes dominant in Western Europe or elsewhere in the former lands of Christendom, the wars will not end. Militant Islam will not go away with the death of bin Laden, or Arafat, or Saddam Hussein, or anyone else. It will clash increasingly with the weary secular powers that it blames for all the ills of the umma. No one can predict the features of the world that will emerge from these conflicts, except that it will be new, and that it will be difficult --- unless there is some wondrous intervention from the Merciful One." P. 176

This book is heartily recommended to all those who want to understand the global challenge of Islam. While its forecast for the future of Islam's relation to the rest of the world may sound very alarming, yet it does not differ from the prediction of Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations," that appeared in the mid-nineties.

In a future edition of Islam Unveiled, a correction should be made on page 103, in the subtitle of Bernard Lewis' book, "What Went Wrong?" Spencer's version of it reads as follows: "Approaches to the Modern History of the Middle East." However, the subtitle on the book itself (published by the Oxford University Press,) reads: "Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response."


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