“Who will take care of my children?” asked an unlucky Arab, captured by the self-proclaimed prophet of Islam. “Hell,” Muhammad shot back, ordering his execution.
Robert Spencer displays a particular knack for weaving together multiple disparate threads into a cohesive narrative with his latest work, “The History of Jihad: From Muhammad to ISIS.” Spencer has compiled the first complete historical account of jihadi wars in a single volume.
Ranging from Arabia to Europe and India, Spencer recounts the innumerable battles, massacres, victories, and defeats of the jihadi wars that have been waged from Muhammad’s century to the present day, all in the words of the contemporaries who either waged those wars or suffered the consequences thereof.
Heroes and villains, like Saladin and Tamerlane, other lesser-known figures such as the Mughal emperor Jahangir, march across the ages and into history by Spencer’s unique hand. The volume of sources Spencer includes is staggering, and Spencer’s footnotes alone provide enough reading material for a lifetime.
Spencer’s handling of this subject isn’t tainted by bias. In the era of fake news, it’s a standard to be admired. How difficult to read of the gratuitous humiliation of the conquered, as in India where jihadi warriors were wont to tear down Hindu idols and build staircases of them, and not be moved!
Yet Spencer rarely pauses for judgment, passing instead to the next account as crime upon crime is piled up, from Muhammad’s Dark Age executions en masse of the Jews to medieval muezzins announcing the Islamic call to prayer standing atop mountains of skulls to the Armenian genocide and rise of terrorist groups in the 20th century.
Spencer’s “History” is rich in example, allowing great and small figures to speak in their own words. Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Muslim conqueror of Spain, promised his followers lavish wealth and “beautiful Greek maidens,” while the Barbary ambassador of Tripoli threatened the Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams that it was Muslims’ “right and duty” to “plunder and enslave.”
Spencer relies whenever possible on contemporary sources, giving a priceless insight into the mindset of people separated by dozens of cultures and hundreds of years and thousands of miles but united by one principle: jihad.
The heroes of this enormous account present an inspiration, from the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI’s glorious last stand at the gates of Constantinople to the mountaineer Pelayo’s stubborn refusal to surrender as jihadis subjugated Spain.
Villains sadly are in far greater supply, including not only the bloodthirsty warriors of the jihad but the collaborators, traitors, and renegades who hoped to profit from the slaughter. It is easy to find parallels between the cowardly Bishop Oppa or the scheming, pragmatic British Empire and certain public figures and institutions in our present day.
Also striking is the magnitude of events that were once well-known, but are unknown or forgotten in the Western world. The unmitigated slaughter of the Muslim conquest of India may be familiar to Indian readers, but certainly must come as a surprise to Westerners.
Intriguingly it was not always so, as Spencer relates that knowledge of the wars of Islam was once common enough that even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, surely no intellectual, incredulously asked a visiting group of Jews hoping to secure American assistance for the founding of Israel, “Do you want to start a holy jihad?”
Roosevelt’s fear was no doubt rooted in some dim cultural memory of centuries of jihadi terror, but today that memory has faded completely, some say as part of an agenda, not simply the passage of time. Spencer reminds the world, inspires the collective memory, so that modern readers may also have some inkling of jihad and its legacy.
Nowhere before has every jihad in history been combined into a single volume. Spencer’s work is an astounding achievement of staggering ambition, involving 1,400 years of jihadi war across half a dozen continents and providing a cohesive lens through which to view and understand it. Such a history has never before been attempted, but Spencer has succeeded in what many must have thought an impossible task.
Arm yourselves with the knowledge Spencer presents and take advantage of a priceless opportunity to understand the history of Islam in practice, not only in theory. If history is to inform, then this is great history.
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