Being on the Internet as long as I have, I am always a little skeptical when someone reveals "truths" about a religion that is not theirs. Enough people have taken Judaism and Jewish teachings out of context and I try to resist doing the same to other belief systems.
On the other hand, I admire Robert Spencer immensely, and his Jihad Watch website is invaluable. I have not yet seen him blow anything out of proportion, and if anything he seems to understate the dangers of Islam.
Nevertheless, I approached his latest book, The Truth About Muhammad, with some reservations. Spencer is clearly a scholar of Islam but he appears to be relying on Islamic translations of primary sources, not the original Arabic. And there is no way for an outsider to know whether he is quoting anything out of context, or if he is cherry-picking the worst possible stories to prove his point, either consciously or subconsciously.
To his credit, he relies almost exclusively on (translations of) Islamic primary sources, notably two early Muslim biographies by Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Sa'd, that are considered reliable by most Muslims. It is important to realize that Spencer is not attempting a biography of the historical Mohammed as much as he is trying to reconstruct his life and legend as Muslims understand him, without the apologetics that usually make their way into the Islamic teachings meant for Western ears.
His point is, that since Mohammed is considered a model to be emulated by all Muslims, it is critical to look at how he is said to have lived his life.
And it isn't pretty.
Many episodes that may be excused in the context of 7th century Arabia cannot be ignored if Mohammed is indeed meant to be a model for human behavior for all time. His many marriages, including to his beautiful daughter-in-law; his start of his military career as a thief; and the consistent "prophecies" that ended up benefitting Islam and himself personally all point to a very problematic model of human behavior. (One such prophecy said not to bother Mohammed or his wives without permission - a very strange thing for Allah to care about.)
A major distinction can be seen between the Jewish prophets and Mohammed: when Jewish prophets sinned, it was recorded as an object lesson for future generations; when Mohammed did something immoral, the very definition of morality was changed to accomodate his whims.
One theme that comes from the book is that in Mohammed's mind (or the angel Gabriel's, if you prefer,) whatever is best for Islam is the correct path. Murdering a parent who is against Islam is good. Agreeing to temporary treaties that give Muslims breathing room is good, even if they have to compromise their principles - and then breaking the same treaty is also good if it comes at a time and place that is advantegeous to the religion.
One of the parts that resonated with me most was an agreement (later superceded) between Mohammed and the Jews of Medina, sharply distinguishing between "believers" and "unbelievers." (p. 91.) It affirmed the unity of all Muslims as a single united community, and it described the responsibilities they have for one another. To my mind, it goes a long way towards describing the "us vs. them" mentality that permeates Islam, and why the most moderate Muslims are so reluctant to act against the radicals and terrorists. When push comes to shove, almost all Muslims would support a bin Laden over any non-Muslim nation, and very possibly this mentality can be traced to this document and similar messages in the Quran and hadiths.
I like to look at groups of people from a psychological perspective, to understand how they think from their own points of view. This book is invaluable in understanding current Muslim thinking and, to an extent, why Islam has not evolved the way the other Abrahamic religions have.
Even if the stories are taken out of context, and even if Spencer is not reporting a large amount of progressive and peaceful statements of the "prophet," this book needs to be taken seriously by Muslims worldwide. I would love to see a critique of this book from a Muslim that relies on the same sources or can meaningfully describe why Spencer's sources are not to be believed, but as Spencer himself shows, many prominent Muslims quote the same sources liberally.
Spencer's hope is that the Muslims who read the truth about Mohammed would use it as a springboard to adapt the religion to modern times. This hardly seems likely, as introspection is not a very Islamic trait - and it is one that can get one killed.
It is also somewhat depressing to realize that Spencer is not describing the interpretations of "Islamists," but of mainstream Islam. The distinction that the media (and this blog) makes between the two seems to be artificial, and this is a difficult lesson to learn.
All in all, this is a very important book, and one worth reading.