In Spencer’s glosses to Qur’anic passages in The Critical Qur’an, he fills every vein with ore. A single footnote may contain some or all of the following: passages from elsewhere in the Qur’an, for the purposes of comparison and contrast; hadith, taken mainly from the “reliable” compilations of Bukhari and Muslim; excerpts from the commentaries found in a dozen tafsirs dating from the 8th to the 21st centuries; quotations from historians of early Islam; material taken from the philological studies of the Qur’an by Christoph Luxenberg. Luxenberg receives a good deal of respectful attention from Spencer. He is a native speaker of Arabic, who uses a German pseudonym for obvious reasons. Luxenberg believes that many of the obscurities in the Qur’an can be cleared up if we recognize that the Qur’an originates in a Christian lectionary (a book of readings), and that the underlying Ur-text of the Qur’an was written not in Arabic but in Syro-Aramaic. Spencer is the first translator of the Qur’an to make use of Luxenberg’s work in his own commentary to the text.
One example of Spencer’s capacious commentaries is the veritable essay he provides in his footnote to 9:29, chronologically the last and the most important verse in the Qur’an, dealing with how Muslims are to treat non-Muslims.
Sura 9:29 reads: “Fight against those do not believe in Allah or the last day, and do not forbid what Allah and his messenger have forbidden, and do not follow the religion of truth, even if they are among the people of the book, until they pay the jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.”
Then Spencer offers an essay disguised as a footnote, where his vast learning is brought to bear:
Here is the one place where Muslims are explicitly directed to make war against and subjugate Jews and Christians, the ‘People of the Book,’ who once subjugated enter the dhimma, the protection of the Muslims, and become dhimmis, protected (or guilty) people. The Tafsir al-Sadi explains: “This verse contains instructions to fight the disbelievers among the Jews and Christians.”
Islamic tradition places this command within the contest of Muhammad’s attempt to take on the army of the Christian Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, Empire. Ibn Kathir says “Allah commanded His Messenger to fight the People of the Scriptures, Jews and Christians, on the ninth year of Hijrah, and he prepared his army to fight the Romans and called the people to Jihad announcing his intent and destination.”
Ibn Juzayy says that this verse is “a command to fight the People of the Book” because of their claims that Allah has a son (9:30). Muslims must also fight them “because they consider as lawful carrion, blood, pork, etc.” and because “they do not enter Islam.” He says that “scholars agree about accepting jizya [a religious -based poll tax] from the Jews and Christians,” and adds that “the Magians/Zoroastrians have been added to them, going by the words of the Prophet, “Treat them as People of the Book,” although “there is disagreement about accepting it from idolaters and Sabians.” He specifies that “it is not collected from women, children, or the insane,” and that it signifies “submission and obedience.”
The Tafsir al-Sadi adds that the “aim of the fighting” is so that non-Muslims turn over “wealth that is given in return for the Muslims not fighting them and allowing them to stay among the Muslims, granting them safety for their lives and their property.” A hadith depicts Muhammad saying “I have been commanded to fight against people so long as they do not declare that there is no god but Allah, and that he who professed it was guaranteed the protection of his property and life on my behalf.” That is, his property and life are not protected if he does not make this declaration.
The Tafsir al-Jalalyn says that this verse specifies that Muslims must fight against those who do not follow Islam, which “confirms and abrogates” other religions. The people of the book are mentioned in the verse and traditionally have been understood as the only ones who are offered the option of paying the jizya, while other non-Muslims who do not have a written scripture that is recognized in the Qur’an must convert or die. However, the Tafsir as-Sadi explains that ‘the jizya may be taken from all the disbelievers, People of the Book and others, because this verse was revealed after the Muslims had finished fighting with the polytheist Arabs and had begun to fight the People of the Book and their ilk, so their condition is describing the real situation and is not meant to impose a restriction on accepting jizya from the People of the Book only.
“Ibn Kathir says that dhimmis “must be disgraced, humiliated, and belittled. Therefore, Muslims are not allowed to honor the people of dhimmah or to elevate them above Muslim, for they are miserable, disgraced, and humiliated.” The seventh-century jurist Sa’id ibn al-Musayyab is said to have declared” “I prefer that the people of the dhimma become tired of paying the jizya with their own hands in complete abasement “ As-Suyuti elaborates that this verse ‘is used as a proof by those who say that it [the jizya] is taken in a humiliating way, and so the taker sits and the dhimmi stands with his head bowed and his back bent. The jizya is placed in the balance and the taker seizes his beard and hits his chin.’ Al-Zamakhshari agreed that the jizya should be collected with ‘belittlement and humiliation.’
“In explaining how the Jews and Christians must ‘feel themselves subdued,’ Ibn Kathir quotes a saying of Muhammad: “Do not initiate the Salam [greeting of peace] to the Jews and Christians, and if you meet any of them in the road, force them to its narrowest alley.
So far in this note – which goes on for many more fascinating paragraphs – Spencer has brought to bear in his scholarly discussion the tafsirs of Ibn Kathir, the Al-Jalalyn, As-Suyuti, Al-Sadi, and Al-Zamakhshari, Ibn Juzayy, and remarks by Sa’id ibn al-Musayyab and Allamah as-Sawi. He has enlarged our understanding of verses by offering quotes from the varied commentaries of these celebrated exegetes. He also refers to historical events that help explain some verses as, for example, Muhammad’s unsuccessful attempt to take on the Byzantine Empire. His knowledge is both wide and deep. In his discussion of the effect of the jizya on dhimmis he brings to bear both the remarks of the 19th century anti-Wahhabi Islamic scholar Allamah as-Sawi, and an account, dating from the 640s, of the Muslim conquest of the city of Nikou, in Egypt, and the lamentable effect of the imposition of the jizya on its Christian inhabitants “who came to the point of offering their children in exchange for the enormous sums that they had to pay each month.”
So far in this note – which goes on for many more fascinating paragraphs– Spencer has brought to bear in his scholarly discussion the tafsirs of Ibn Kathir, the Al-Jalalyn, As-Suyuti, Al-Sadi, and Al-Zamakhshari, Ibn Juzayy, and remarks by Sa’id ibn al-Musayyab and Allamah as-Sawi. He has enlarged our understanding of verses by offering quotes from the varied commentaries of these celebrated exegetes. He also refers to istorical events that help explain some verses as, for example, Muhammad’s unsuccessful attempt to take on the Byzantine Empire. His knowledge is both wide and deep. In his discussion of the effect of the jizya on dhimmis he brings to bear both the remarks of the 19th century anti-Wahhabi Islamic scholar Allamah as-Sawi, and an account, dating from the 640s, of the Muslim conquest of the city of Nikou, in Egypt, and the lamentable effect of the imposition of the Jizya on its Christian inhabitants “who came to the point of offering their children in exchange for the enormous sums that they had to pay each month.”
What does paying the jizya “with willing submission” mean?
Here Spencer provides several paragraphs of discussion about the meaning of giving the jizya “with willing submission,” taken from two tafsirs as well as from the 20th century scholar of Islam Franz Rosenthal:
“With willing submission” (an yadin) meanwhile, has been understood in different ways. It could also mean “out of hand,” in the sense not just of submission but of direct, in-person payment, as the thirteenth-century Qur’anic commentator al-Baydawi explains: “Out of hand, indicating the condition of those who pay the tribute. Out of a hand that gives willingly, in this way indicating that they submit obediently, or out of their hand, meaning that they pay the tribute with their own hands, instead of sending it through others; no one is allowed to use a proxy in this case. There are many other possible understandings of this text. The great scholar Franz Rosenthal observes that an yadin has “completely defied interpretation. All post -Qur’anic occurrences of it are based upon the Qur’an.”
“In explaining how the Jews and Christians must ‘feel themselves subdued,’ Ibn Kathir quotes a saying of Muhammad: “Do not initiate the Salam [greeting of peace] to the Jews and Christians, and if you meet any of them in the road, force them to its narrowest alley.” He then goes on to outline the notorious Pact of Umar, an agreement that was, according to Islamic tradition, made between the caliph Umar, who ruled the Muslims from 634 to 644, and a Christian community.
Spencer then brings us up to the present, with a 20th century century tafsir that bewails the Muslim failure to continue to exact the jizya payment:
The twentieth-century Tafsir Anwarul Bayan laments that “in today’s times, the system of Atonement (Jizya) is not practiced at all by the Muslims. It is indeed unfortunate that not only are the Muslim States afraid to impose Atonement (Jizya) on the disbelievers (kuffar) living in their countries, but thy grant them more rights than they grant the Muslims and respect them more. They fail to understand that Allah desires that the Muslims show no respect to any disbeliever (kafir) and that they should not accord any special rights to them.”
I have left out half of Spencer’s note to 9:29, but what I have quoted should be enough to convey an idea of how wide Spencer casts his scholarly net, how many Qur’anic exegetes, from the 8th to the 2lst centuries, he brings into his discussion, how many references are provided to historical and contemporary events that can be linked to 9:29 and its commands.
This is a mighty work of elucidation and scholarship that has few equals in Qur’anic studies today. Robert Spencer has provided, after an enormous and scarcely believable effort, what is a sure guide for those who are perplexed by Islam’s holy book and are eager to discover “what the Qur’an really means.” At the same time, he has built an exegetical monument – Horace’s “exegi monumentum” comes to mind — that will be impossible to ignore, one which will from now on be a constant source of embarrassment and dismay for Believers, who cannot deny its immense scholarship, but at the same time, cannot allow themselves to accept its truth.