Robert Spencer provides a biography of Muhammad in chapter 1 of his book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), a chapter he entitles “Muhammad: Prophet of War.” I have been writing a rebuttal of this chapter, but as I do so, I realize that perhaps I should contemporaneously provide a “counter-biography.” This will be an attempt at doing that, while at the same time tying in Spencer’s work.
Because the United States is involved in many wars in the Muslim world, many Americans want to know what Islam is all about. Unfortunately, they often either knowingly or unknowingly get that information from extremely anti-Muslim sources. This is especially the case when they hear about Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Most Americans are woefully ignorant about Muhammad, and what little they do know is nothing more than talking points against him made by Islamophobes.
There are certainly events in Muhammad’s life that are open to scrutiny (events that we will analyze in this “counter-biography”), but it is extremely ignorant to limit one’s knowledge to these. It would be like studying the history of America’s Founding Fathers, and only focusing on their extramarital affairs, their racism and slave-holding, and their genocidal wars against the American Indians. That’s not history. That’s nothing short of ideologue-driven propaganda.
Indeed, there is a side of Muhammad that Americans desperately need to know in order to have a more balanced and accurate view of him. In fact, there is much about Muhammad that the liberal, secular West has to like. We don’t need to look at Muslim apologia to find this. Rather, it’s found in the books of America’s most respected historians.
On that note, I should probably say something about my use of the term “counter-biography,” which wrongly implies revisionism. In reality, my biography of Muhammad will be in line with mainstream Western scholarship, and it is the narrative taught in America’s universities (and has been for many decades). Meanwhile, it is Robert Spencer’s biography of Muhammad that engages in revisionism born out of nativist populism and a clear anti-Muslim animus. It is exactly the reason that mainstream historians and scholars have nothing but disdain for people like Spencer, and why Spencer in turn accuses them of “dhimmitude.”
With that clarification, our “counter-biography” begins circa 570 A.D., in the city of Mecca, Muhammad’s birthplace. Not much is known about Muhammad’s childhood, but we do know that it was marked by tragedy: his father died when he was only six months of age, and his mother passed away when he was six years old. The newly orphaned boy was taken in by his grandfather, who also died just two years later. His uncle, Abu Talib, then took guardianship of Muhammad.
Family, clan, and tribe meant everything in sixth and seventh-century Arabia. Muhammad’s family and clan were going through difficult times, which must have been especially trying for Muhammad the orphan. It is likely that Muhammad’s childhood experience, as a weak and vulnerable member of an impoverished clan, shaped the man he would become and the views he would hold, particularly his desire to protect the poor and weak from the rich and powerful.
Very little is known about Muhammad’s teenage years. He would accompany his uncle, Abu Talib, on trade caravans to Syria. We also know that Muhammad accompanied him during the Sacrilegious War (Harb al-Fijar), a four-year war that broke out between Muhammad’s tribe and another. The extent of Muhammad’s participation in the war is disputed, but it is generally agreed that it was mostly in a non-combat support role, picking up enemy arrows from the ground.
The very first three lines of Robert Spencer’s biography are extremely misleading as he uses this event to portray Muhammad as having been “experience[d] as a warrior before he assumed the role of prophet.” I have already refuted this argument in my previous article, where I pointed out that Muhammad not only played a very limited role (a far cry from the “fierce warrior” image that Spencer has portrayed), but he would later express regret over it.
After the war came to a close, Muhammad participated in the League of the Virtuous (an event that is omitted entirely from Spencer’s biography), a body designed to bring peace on earth and to end bloodshed, violence, and war; the League also aimed “to protect the weak and the defenseless.” I have discussed the League of the Virtuous in more detail here. Under the heading of Hilf al-Fudul (the League of the Virtuous), Thomas Patrick Hughes’ A Dictionary of Islam says:
A confederacy formed…for the suppression of violence and injustice at the restoration of peace after the Sacrilegious war. Muhammad was then a youth, and Sir William Muir says this confederacy “aroused an enthusiasm in the mind of Mahomet [Muhammad], which the exploits of the Sacrilegious war failed to kindle.”
Muhammad liked the idea of “protect[ing] the weak and the defenseless,” this being yet another event in his early life that would inspire him. He also seemed to approve of “international”–or in his context, “super-tribal”–efforts to bring peace to Arabia and thereby avoid bloodshed. Some time later in his life (still before he became a prophet), Muhammad is said to have arbitrated a peaceful settlement between various tribes with regard to the rebuilding of a shrine, a matter that almost came to swords.
It was a few years later that Muhammad declared his prophethood. Robert Spencer writes on p.3 of his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades):
But [Muhammad’s] unique role as prophet-warrior would come later. After receiving revelations from Allah through the angel Gabriel in 610, he began by just preaching to his tribe the worship of One God and his own position as a prophet. But he was not well received by his Quraysh brethren in Mecca, who reacted disdainfully to his prophetic call and refused to give up their gods.
(Note: “Allah” is simply the Arabic term for “God”; Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians, for example, refer to God as “Allah”, as does the Arabic Bible itself.)
Spencer specifically inserts the word “just” into the following sentence: “[Muhammad] began by just preaching to his tribe the worship of One God and his own position as a prophet.” While it is certainly true that Muhammad placed a great emphasis on monotheism, it is not true that he just preached this (or just “his own position as a prophet”).
Neither could these two reasons alone explain why the leaders of the Quraysh (the dominant tribe of Mecca) reacted so disdainfully to Muhammad’s message. Indeed, a strong component of this opposition came from Muhammad’s call to sweeping social reform; Prof. Caesar E. Farah writes:
Muhammad’s preaching of monotheism and social reform went hand in hand. Indeed, no other message is so thoroughly underscored in the revelations received from Allah than the stress on equal treatment and social justice. To Muhammad these constituted a vital concomitant of worship. The revelations of the one and only God enjoin consistently the exercise of mercy and benevolence as the necessary adjuncts of belief in Him.
This dual role of Muhammad as preacher and reformer is largely evident in his life and career. 
Muhammad was a strong proponent of social justice, arguing for greater rights and protections for the poor and the weak. He criticized Meccan society as decadent, especially for the way the rich and the powerful (the 1%) treated the most vulnerable members of society (the 99%).
He preached the importance of charity to the poor, a topic that the Quran stresses over and over. The list of Quranic verses and hadiths that mandate or encourage charity is very extensive and too long to reproduce here, but suffice to say, Muhammad would eventually obligate charity upon all Muslims who could afford it. He linked charity to salvation itself, declaring: “Charity extinguishes sin as water extinguishes fire.” 
But, Muhammad’s message was more radical than this: in a statement that would make a Republican’s head explode, Muhammad said:
God has made the payment of charity from [your] wealth obligatory on [you], to be taken from the wealthy among [you] and given to the poor. 
And further, he said:
God has enjoined upon wealthy Muslims a due to be taken from their wealth corresponding to the needs of the poor among them. The poor will never suffer from starvation or lack of clothes unless the wealthy neglect their due. If they do, God will surely hold them accountable and punish them severely. 
The wealthy should not just willingly give their wealth to the poor, but it is the right (haq) of the poor to be granted something from this wealth. The Quran argues that it is from God’s Sustenance from which the prosperous are given their wealth, and that God Himself mandates that a portion of it should be given to the poor:
In their wealth is the right (haq) of the beggar and destitute. (Quran, 51:19)
Not only do the poor have a right to a portion of this wealth, but those who give charity “must wish no reward or thanks” from the one who accepts it (76:9), seeking their reward from God alone. Muhammad obligated a reasonable percentage of one’s wealth to be given to charity (zakat), but recommended giving swaths of it away (sadaqa). He linked charity to salvation, and miserliness in this regard to damnation.
He preached that all humans would be held to account by God for how they spent their money, and that God did not look kindly to those men who “squandered” their wealth on worldly pursuits. This message was not just a kindly suggestion but a stinging rebuke of those who “devour the wealth of mankind wantonly” (Quran, 4:29); it condemned the extremely rich (the 1%) who “squandered [their] wealth in extravagance” and who “hoard[ed] up gold and silver”; the Quran commanded:
Give relatives their due, and the needy, and the wayfarer. Do not squander your wealth in extravagance! Squanderers are the brethren of Satan. (Quran 17:26-27)
That Muhammad supported “the 99%” over “the 1%” can be ascertained by his prayer:
O God, grant me life as a poor man, cause me to die as a poor man, and resurrect me in their company.
When he was asked why that was, he replied:
Because the poor will enter Paradise before the rich. Do not turn away a poor man even if all you can give is half a date. If you love the poor and bring them near you, God will bring you near Him on Judgment Day. 
Wealth in Mecca was concentrated among the city’s nobles; Muhammad questioned the concept of nobility altogether, preaching equality before the law and, more importantly, before God. The Quran declared that ”the most noble of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you” (Quran, 49:13). Muhammad condemned the inequality of society, whereby the poor would be punished for a crime but a rich person would be let off scott-free. He would later admonish his fellow believers:
The people before you were destroyed [by God] because they inflicted legal punishments on the poor and forgave the rich. 
Muhammad spoke out strongly against the practice of usury, the charging of exorbitantly high interest rates. This was a practice that caused many of the poorer people to become completely bankrupt. Meanwhile, Muhammad preached mercy towards debtors. The Quran urged lenders:
If the debtor is in difficulty, grant him time till it is easy for him to repay. But if you forgive the debt by way of charity, that is best for you, if you only knew. (Quran, 2:280)
In summary, Muhammad’s message stressed that “wealth should not just circulate between the rich among you” (Quran, 59:7). Prof. Eugene F. Gorski writes:
It should be noted that from the beginning, the religion Muhammad preached was much more than an acceptance of monotheism. The Qur’an required the Meccans to change their immoral ways. The emphasis of the earliest chapters of the Qur’an was overwhelmingly on social-economic justice: it is good to feed the poor and take care of the needy; it is evil to accumulate wealth solely for one’s own behalf. Muhammad condemned the powerful rich for the oppression of the enfeebled poor and insisted that charitable service for one’s fellow human beings was the identifying characteristic of all faithful Muslims. 
It is no wonder then that the majority of Muhammad’s early members were from the depressed classes of society, as Prof. Charles Lindholm notes:
In Mecca, Muhammad’s revelations at first had relatively little influence. His original converts were his wife and some of his closest relatives, but most of the early believers were those who were poor, disenfranchised and humble. They were drawn to the Quran’s condemnation of excessive riches, to its advocacy of generous donations to care for the disadvantaged, and to its repudiation of the arrogance and selfishness of the wealthy. 
Islam’s early enemies spoke disdainfully of the “rabble” that followed Muhammad. Interestingly, Ali Sina, an ardent Islamophobe (one spoken highly of by Robert Spencer), writes off Muhammad’s early followers, saying:
Compare that to the early followers of Muhammad in Mecca. They were mostly the poor, the disenfranchised slaves, the rebellious youths, and a few disaffected women. He preached to the slaves that they should escape the yoke of their masters and emigrate; he told the youths to disobey their parents and follow him; he spoke of social equality and the brotherhood of all the believers… 
Is Sina describing Muhammad’s early followers or “the 99 percent movement”? Like the 99 percent movement of today, it was the rich and powerful that stood in staunch opposition: “Muhammad’s message angered the rich and powerful people of Mecca.”  The opposition to Muhammad was led by the nobles of Mecca, who opposed Muhammad’s egalitarian principles and calls to social reform. This was one of their major motivations behind opposing Muhammad (in addition to Muhammad’s call to monotheism). Yet, Robert Spencer’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) completely omits this all-important fact, leaving the reader with a skewed impression of Islam’s prophet.
Muhammad also called to reform the condition of slaves and women, which is why he attracted so many slave and women followers. Prof. Stephen P. Heyneman writes:
A major principle of the Qur’an is that of establishing a just society, one concerned with socioeconomic equality among its component parts. The treatment of women and children, as well as reformation of the institution of slavery, were important elements in this concern with establishing an ethical and viable social order. Muhammad criticized Meccan society for its disregard for the welfare of its weaker members; as an orphan, he had personal acquaintance with the treatment meted out to anyone without powerful support.
Many of the reforms of pre-Islamic customs stipulated in the Qur’an concerned the well-being of women and children, particularly girls. Female infanticide (wa’d)–whether for reasons of honor or poverty–was abolished. Reforms were made to ameliorate some injustices committed by men [against women]…Many of the underprivileged referred to in the Qur’an were women…General injunctions include the right of the indigent to share of the abundance of the wealth…
Specific injunctions recommend express measures to better care for the poor and orphaned. 
But because the hate propaganda against Islam is so fierce in regard to these two topics (i.e. Islam and slavery, Islam and women), it would require pages and pages of in-depth analysis that I neither have space or time to delve into at the present; therefore, I will postpone this discussion for a later time. Suffice to say, however, it is quite incorrect to claim that Muhammad “just preached” monotheism and “his own position as a prophet.” He preached quite a lot more than that. As William Montgomery Watt wrote:
In his day and generation Muhammad was a social reformer, indeed a reformer even in the sphere of morals. He created a new system of social security and a new family structure, both of which were a vast improvement on what went before. 
When it comes to Muhammad, there is a tendency to scrutinize and even malign him to a far greater extent than any other figure in history. There are all sorts of arguments raised to justify this special standard, which I will analyze in the future. For now, however, it is important for the neutral reader to understand that for all that the Islam-haters criticize in this very important historical figure, there is much to like.
 Ceasar E. Farah, Islam (7th Ed.), p.38
 Sunan al-Tirmidhi : 2541
 Sayyid Saabiq, Fiqh-us-Sunnah, Section 3.1
 Sunan al-Tirmidhi : 1376
 Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Hadith 778
 Eugene F. Gorski, Theology of Religions, p.222
 Charles Lindholm, The Islamic Middle East, pp.66-68
 Ali Sina, Understanding Muhammad, p.209; Sina goes on to argue, quite unconvincingly, that Muhammad’s early followers must then not have been sincere in their belief of him, an argument he raises with little proof.
 Richard Wormser, American Islam, p.17
 Stephen P. Heyneman, Islam and Social Policy, p.53
 William Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Medina, p.332